Review of the Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm Lens

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In this review, I’ll discuss my experience testing out the Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 IS lens. It is compatible with mirrorless four thirds camera systems.

Downsizing

Last winter, I adopted my first new camera system since I started shooting seriously two decades ago. I’ve used Canon cameras for my entire professional career, though I’m hardly a devout follower of the brand. I’ve shot Canon for the simple reason that I own Canon gear, am content with the quality, and switching to something new was just too much trouble.

However, in my work as a wilderness photographer and guide, weight and size of my equipment are a big deal. Often, I’ve found myself leaving gear at home that I’d otherwise like to have, for the simple reason that there wasn’t space or the gear weighed too much. So, I started looking for a compact system that would provide the quality and flexibility I needed.

I ended up with a Panasonic Lumix GX85 mirrorless body, as an experiment into the micro 4/3rds system. Without mincing words, I’ve been extremely impressed with this very compact, very light, and very capable little camera. In the months I’ve been using it, it has easily out-stripped my Canon DSLRs as my most-used camera.

Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

A flash of sunlight on the tundra of the Brooks Range. Panasonic-Leica 100-400, 187mm, f5.0, 1/250th.

Looking for lenses

With weight and size as a major consideration, I’ve started shopping for additional lenses, to see if there is anything available that would allow me to part with at least some of my Canon kit. Rather than spend a bunch of bucks, I’m trying things out via rental lenses. The first big telephoto I’ve tried is the Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens.

When mounted on a micro 4/3rds camera like the Lumix GX85, the 100-400mm lens has a full-frame equivalent of 200-800mm, which definitely appealed to my inner wildlife photographer.

I recently spent about 10 days with this lens on a wilderness trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This review is about how it functioned and the resulting image quality. I’ll leave the technical assessment of chromatic aberration, color fidelity, and variable sharpness in other, more capable, hands.

First Impressions of the Panasonic 100-400mm lens

Out of the box, the all metal construction of this lens struck me as sturdy, compact, sleek, and well-made. The rotating focus and zoom rings were smooth and precise and there was no grinding or slippage. The simple lock-out ring was easily adjusted to keep the zoom from slipping forward or back. No complaints.Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

I promptly took it out of for a quick walk around my home here in Fairbanks, Alaska and made a few images of flowers, testing the focus and bokeh.

Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

This was the only image I made with the lens where it had a hard time auto-focusing. I suspect it was due to the relatively dark background and low-contrast subject. 400mm, f/6.3, 1/160th.

Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

The background bokeh retains some detail in this image at 400m, f/7.1, 1/2000th.

Sharpness is surprisingly good even at 400mm (800mm equivalent) though I did find the autofocus in low-contrast situations to be a bit slow and imprecise. The image of the Delphinium (purple flower, above) took multiple attempts to grab focus, presumably due to the dark background.

Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

Cottongrass. Even at 400mm, the center piece of cotton is tack sharp. 400mm, f8, 1/2500th.

The combination of the micro 4/3rds sensor (which as a 2x crop factor) and the f6.3 aperture (at 400mm) did extend the depth of field and reduced the clean bokeh I’m used to with my faster Canon 500mm f4. However, when the subject is set suitably away from the background this improves markedly.

Into the Field

Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

Looking north from the mountain front toward the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 100mm, f4.7, 1/2500th.

The following morning, I boarded a small bush plane and flew from Fairbanks, over the arctic circle to the northern Brooks Range and coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

I was impressed with the color and contrast detail using the lens. 137mm, f/8.0, 1/1600th.

The long and short of that trip is that the weather sucked. Usual, y the Arctic Refuge is a dry place (it’s actually an Arctic desert) but not on this trip. My clients and I spent long hours holed up drinking hot chocolate, rather than hiking across the dramatic landscape. This was a bit of a drag, but it did make us appreciate the rare moments when the weather cleared enough to allow rays of sun to fall on the tundra.

During those moments, I would scurry out, camera in hand, and make images. Usually, when photographing the landscape, I rely on wide angles, and short telephotos. However, the specks of interesting light that found their way to the ground through the low clouds were small, and I found the reach of the 100-400mm lens a near-perfect match for the conditions.

Bird photography

I also had the chance to make a few images of the Semipalmated Plovers that shared our riverside camp.

Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

Semipalmated Plover on the a gravel bar on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The feather detail is extremely good, even when viewed at 100%. 250mm, f/11, 1/500th.

Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

Semipalmated Plover. 400mm, f/9.0, 1/200th (Handheld at 800mm equivalent! That’s some solid image stabilization there.)

I’m accustomed to making wildlife photos with a monstrous 500mm f/4, which while huge, also has amazing image quality and a lovely, clean background bokeh. I expected this lens to be second-rate at best.

And yet, I was pleasantly surprised. Image sharpness was more than acceptable throughout the lens’ range. And the bokeh issue was resolved (at least somewhat) by laying down on the ground and shooting at the bird’s eye level. This provided a good separation from the bird to the background.

Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens

Sun patch detail. 400mm f/6.3, 1/250th.

In situations where this kind of separation is impossible to create (say a forest, or shrubby area), then the extended depth of field of this slower, faster lens will unquestionably be an issue.

The image stabilization in the lens and camera worked seamlessly together, making handheld shooting a breeze. Even at an 800mm equivalent, and surprisingly long shutter speeds, it performed well.

Final Thoughts

I just couldn’t help comparing this lens to my Canon 500mm f/4. I know it isn’t a fair comparison. The 500mm weighs nearly 8lbs, while the 100-400mm comes in just over two. The street price of the 500mm is a college-fund draining $9,000 USD, while the Panasonic 100-400mm slips in at a comparatively cheap $1,800 USD.

Lens Review: Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm

Rotten weather meant that snow fell on the mountains just above our camp…in July! Ahhh, Alaska. 180mm, f/9.0, 1/500th.

But the very fact that I AM comparing these two wildly different sized and priced lenses says something very good about the Panasonic-Leica 100-400mm, I think. For what it is and what you get, this lens is extraordinary.

Is it as good as a 500mm f/4 prime Canon L-series lens? No way. Is it still really, really good? Yes, it is, and for the price and size, I’m not sure it can be beaten.

I’m not ready to trade in my big glass for this little, solid lens, but when it comes to light backcountry journeys, I could sure as heck see the Panasonic Lumix 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens as a great addition to my kit.

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm Lens
Author Rating
4.5

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David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and workshop leader based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. He is currently accepting sign ups for affordable photo workshops in Alaska, Africa, and South America. Find out more HERE .

  • Glad to hear you tried this on the GX85. Naturally this must have been an odd combination of large glass to a small body, but exactly how was the weight/handling with this setup? Had you also considered the newer Panasonic 100-300 f/4-5.6 mark ii, or looked at that before deciding to rent the PL100-400?

  • David W. Shaw

    Hi Dustin, thanks for the comment and your thoughts. As far as handling, I only had the usual (minor) complaints about the GX85 (buttons too small and fiddly), but the balance worked well and I didn’t have any trouble with the grip and handling. I haven’t looked into the 100-300, I’ll do so and maybe give it a shot. I did just rent the Olympus 300mm f4 for a recent photo workshop I led to the Alaska Range and was exceedingly pleased with that piece of glass. That one may convince me to dump the Canon 500mm f4. Not sure I’ll review it here, but I will probably post a review on my personal site if you are interested. It is a bit pricier than this one ($2500).

  • stephen65132

    It any one want to be a good photographer such will be best guideline for them. I hope every one are like this suggestion in here. I also enjoy this device so more.

  • Doc

    Beautifully written. I’m having thoughts of changing my camera system after 10 years of Nikon. I travel on short trips with lots of food photography and carrying a Nikon (though with just the 35mm 1.8) and flash has turned sour. Like you I found myself leaving the camera at home when I hop over for a day trip and wished I had the camera when I find some interesting food and end up shooting with my phone. Did you have a chance to try out the Sony alpha 6500? I am debating between the GX85 and alpha 6500 – the GX85 seems to have the Leica series of fabulous lenses, while the Sony seems to have a better body. Any thought? Thanks in advance.

  • David W. Shaw

    Hi Doc, thanks for the comment and glad you liked the review. In answer to your question, I have handled the a6500 in shops and briefly played with one a student on one of my workshops had. The image quality is great, the size and handling is good as well, but I don’t know it as well as I know the Lumix system. The GX85 is great, and I really have few complaints other than the buttons are a bit small. The other drawback, and where I think the Sony has an advantage, is low-light quality. Above about 800 ISO on the Lumix, the quality starts to decline, while the Sony, for what I know of it, has exceptional quality well above that. If you plant to shoot at night very often, you might want to take that into consideration. I’d suggest doing what I do and renting them both, and seeing which works better.

  • CJ

    An interesting article, although technically flawed and unwittingly misleading. I cannot understand why so many people here have accepted all this as “gospel”.
    A full-frame “equivalent” (same light captured by the sensor to give a similar picture) on an MFT system for a 300mm f4 will be 600mm f8 (600mm f4 is incorrect). You cannot bend the laws of physics my friend.
    The f-stop = focal length / diameter of the iris. So in the case of your example Canon 500mm f4, the iris diameter would be 125mm (that’s why it is a big heavy glass). However the 300mm f4 MFT lens will have an iris diameter 75mm (which is why it is smaller and lightweight) .
    The “full-frame equivalent” for MFT is indeed x2 crop factor; giving your MFT 300mm a 600mm focal length. But the irisdiameter remains at 75mm, so the f-stop equivalent must be 600 / 75 = f8. As an aside you also need to apply an ISO squared factor, so, if say the Canon full-frame was shot at ISO400, the MFT equivalent would be ISO 100 (a factor of 2 squared = 4) to achieve a similar like for like picture noise output. Obviously shutter speed also needs consideration too but will leave it out here.
    The MFT manufacturers are peddling snake-oil with their specs. There is nothing inherently inferior with MFT (or any other size of sensor for that matter. Also an aside; “smaller sensors are noisier” is a myth, they just need more light, eg. lower the ISO).
    It’s simply a case of selecting the right tool for the job, and you pretty much get what you pay for. in terms of flexibility to adapt to a broad range of environmental challenges and conditions.

  • wondrouslightdotcom

    Hi, like Microsoft, technically correct and practically useless. This issue of equivalency is muddling people’s brains. The Oly 300mm f/4 is a 300mm f/4 lens. This is physics. Mounted on an M43 camera it generates the smaller image circle required by the smaller M43 sensor. Due to the smaller image circle, its angle of view is comparable to the one of a 600mm on a FF sensor. 300mm and f/4 are built-in qualities of the lens, the 600mm equivalent angle of view is due to the smaller sensor. Just check the exposure time required for the same subject, f/stop and ISO setting on a FF and M43 camera (I did with my Nikon D3s and Oly EM5II and it is the same). The true difference is in the IQ of the cameras due to the diverse real estates of the sensors. In practice, the CAPTURES of the smaller M43 sensors are noisier because, everything else being equal, their weaker sensor signal needs more analog amplification or, even worse, digital amplification. My 12Mp D3s has a 2 to 3 f/stops noise and detail advantage over the 16Mp EM5II for the same print size. If you make only small prints (such as 12×16″ tops) the difference is irrelevant.

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