Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 100-400 mm f/5.0-6.3 IS – first impressions

4 August 2020
Maciej Latałło

4. Summary

The launch of the Micro 4/3 system I met with a joy and I admit my expectations were high. I can say I have been its regular user and a big fan of that solution. The shapely and handy Olympus OM-D E-M10 with an equally shapely and handy M.Zuiko Digital 9-18 mm have constituted one of my favourite travel sets and I took them everywhere.

Rooting for the development of the whole system I waited for such decisions as the ones Olympus made in the 4/3 reflex camera sector. The smaller sensor has its flaws but also many advantages, mainly connected to the fact that the smaller detector allows you to offer optics that is smaller or faster aperture-wise than its full frame equivalents. If the constructors are up to their task they might even create lenses that are physically smaller and faster at the same time. It's a serious asset.

In the 4/3 reflex cameras system Olympus drew abundantly from that fact, offering such well-put-together, unique optical instruments as the Olympus Zuiko Digital 14-54 mm f/2.8-3.5 II, the Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 14-35 mm f/2.0 SWD, the Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 12-60 mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD, the Olympus Zuiko Digital 35-100 mm f/2.0, or the Olympus Zuiko Digital 150 mm f/2.

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Meanwhile the Micro 4/3 system followed a different path, a strange path in my humble opinion, where excellent decisions (like the launch of the OM-D line with new sensors that were able to improve the Micro 4/3 image quality and elevate it to a new level) interweave with incomprehensible or downward wrong decisions. Lack of fast lenses undoubtedly was one of them. It is really peculiar that the system which should have featured many 'primes' as fast as f/0.95 or f/1.2 was beaten in that area by independent producers. Over seven years after the launch of the first Micro 4/3 body the fastest Olympus lens featured an aperture of just ...f/1.8. When finally something faster was added, it was the M.Zuiko Digital ED 25 mm f/1.2 PRO, not as sharp as it should be. Additionally, with its 19 elements, it became optically the most complex standard lens in history. Even the heavy, big Nikkor Z 58 mm f/0.95 S Noct, designed for full frame and very expensive because also faster, featured two elements less...

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 100-400 mm f/5.0-6.3 IS ED MSC seems to be the epitome of these bad decisions; I suppose they led to the fact that the imaging division of Olympus generated losses by so many years that, finally, not long time ago, it had to be sold. I hope that the new owner will draw the right conclusions from that fact because I still think this system has a great potential; anyway I remain its big fan and I still root for it.

However, I can't understand why the cheaper Olypus 100-400 mm, aimed at less advanced users, has to be produced in Japan and the expensive Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 300 mm f/4.0 ED IS PRO belonging to, as its name indicates, the PRO series, is produced in China. I also can't understand why the Olympus 100-400 mm, being slower aperture-wise than its full frame equivalents, has to be bigger and weighs as much as them. I also don't understand who came with an idea of this launch and why it was executed when there is the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400 mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH. POWER O.I.S. available on the market, a lens a bit more expensive but also faster, smaller, ligher and of higher build quality.

Of course I know all these arguments that, after all, the new Olympus 100-400 mm is an equivalent of a 200-800 mm device, something unavailable in full frame systems especially for less than $1500, the current price of the lens. The problem is that such 200-800 mm is possible to obtain for almost every owner of Canon or Nikon reflex cameras and it's easily done.

Let's take the Canon system as an example. Users of EOS 90D can pick and choose among three 100-400 mm devices. For about $800 they can buy the faster Tamron as well as the Sigma, and for about $2200 the L-series EF 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM II which is significantly faster, optically brilliant, and of better build quality. Attaching each of these lenses to their APS-C sensor camera, and in the case of the EOS 90D its resolution amounts to 32 million pixels, they can cut out of the middle of the frame an area that is the same size as the area covered by the Micro 4/3 sensor. By doing so they will get the same angle of view as that of any full frame 200-800 mm lens and the resolution of their photographs will decrease to 21.9 Mpix – still better than 20.2 Mpix, offered by the newest flagship mirrorless OM-D series devices. What's more, cutting out the area the size of the Micro 4/3 sensor from an image produced by a lens designed for full frame detectors they get the best part of the frame. The chances are that their images will be better than images the Olympus 100-400 mm can offer, especially on edges of the frame.

A similar situation will take place when our hypotetical user has older Canon or Nikon reflex cameras with APS-C 24 Mpix sensors at his or her disposal. After cutting out an area being the equivalent of the Micro 4/3 sensor from the middle of the frame they will get an image with a resolution of about 16 Mpix, exactly the same as offered by the older generation of Olympus bodies.

To sum up, when you compare benefits the Olympus 100-400 mm can offer and those offered by other 100-400 mm lenses, available on the market, you find out there's simply nothing special for you in that deal. Neither aperture fastness, nor weight, nor physical dimensions, nor the angle of view range, nor build quality – nothing is in the Olympus's favour. I also doubt you can gain anything when it comes to image quality.

If the Olympus 100-400 mm, described here, was as fast as f/3.5-4.5, or at least f/4.0-5.0, I would sing the praises of it, and I wouldn't even complain about its price. I think I would accept even something close to $2000-2400. As it is, I have to say I can't work up any enthusiasm for the idea.