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