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About six months ago, I made a heart-wrenching, painful, and difficult decision: I switched from Canon to Olympus.
Now, I’m not some crazy, brand-loyal photographer. I think the Canon versus Nikon argument is ridiculous. But I had invested thousands of dollars, tens of thousands really, in my Canon gear.
However, my photographic priorities have been changing. I’ve established something of a niche in Alaska wilderness photography and the size and weight of my Canon kit was becoming a hindrance.
Access to many of the places I work on assignment or lead photo workshops and tours is via small plane or on foot. In other words, the weight of my gear is a major consideration.
More and more often, I was forced to pass over my beloved Canon 500mm f4L, because it was just too darn heavy and bulky. Rather, I’d pack something more compact, even if it wasn’t as good. Leaving that big lens behind was painful, but necessary, and I constantly wished for something comparable that wasn’t so darn big.
As a result of leaving the big glass behind, my wildlife work suffered. So I started experimenting with a variety of alternative lenses for the Canon system: Tamron’s and Sigma’s 150-600mm lenses, and Canon’s 100-400mm and the 70-200mm f/2.8 with a 2x teleconverter.
All were decent, but none matched the quality and dreamy bokeh of the 500mm f4.
Unrelated to this search, I purchased a little Lumix GX85 as a backup camera for wilderness trips. Surprised by the quality of the micro 4/3rds system, I rented a couple of long lenses for it. First the Lumix/Leica 100-400, (which I’ve previously reviewed here on DPS), and then the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO.
While the Lumix/Leica 100-400mm combo gave me a staggering reach (200-800mm equivalent on the 4/3rds system), the sharpness at the long end was imperfect, and the bokeh was lacking. It’s a great lens, but just doesn’t quite compare to the 500mm f/4.
The Olympus 300mm F4 on the other hand… that one took me completely by surprise.
Six months after first renting the Olympus, I sold all of my Canon gear and purchased a Lumix G9 body, a variety of Lumix/Leica lenses and the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO lens.
Here is what I think of it.
A new Canon 600mm F4L currently sells for $11,500. The Olympus 300mm F4 PRO is about $2,500.
Yeah, no contest there. You could buy the Olympus and still have enough left over for a trip to Alaska to photograph brown bears AND a trip to Africa to see lions and elephants (travel is always money well spent).
Thanks to the smaller sensor of the 4/3rds system, you can fit equivalent or greater magnification into a lens while retaining the same maximum aperture in a MUCH smaller package. Canon’s 600mm F4 lens weighs in at a whopping 8.6lbs (3.9kg) while the Olympus with the same equivalent magnification and maximum aperture is a comparably dainty 3.25 (1.47kg).
Physically, it is also much more compact. At about 9 inches (22.9 cm) long it is roughly half the length of the Canon lens. When it comes to size, the Olympus is a clear winner for a wilderness photographer like myself.
But how is the quality?
When I first considered replacing my Canon gear with Olympus I took both systems out in the field for a week-long photo workshop I was leading. On the trip, I was able to shoot both under similar conditions. Later, when I examined the images at 100%, I felt the sharpness was more or less equivalent even when they were shot wide open at F4.
With a sigh of relief, I moved on to . . .
The bokeh of a lens is one of the most important aspects of image quality. In wildlife photography, the ability to separate your subject from the background is a huge asset, meaning you need a shallow depth of field. The big Canon can achieve this with aplomb. Its bokeh is smooth and creamy and creates a perfect background for your subject. This, I knew, would be the greatest challenge for the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO.
And it is the one place the Olympus fell short… but only just (and I mean by the narrowest of margins). Since a 4/3rds sensor crops rather than physically magnifies an image, the depth of field is the same as you would achieve with 300mm f4 on the full-frame Canon camera if you cropped the image by 50%.
Which is to say, it still has a great, shallow depth of field, but the bokeh retains more form than it does with the 500mm or 600mm.
When it comes to bokeh, the Canon had the edge, but not by much.
The Canon 500mm F4 has lightning-fast autofocus. That is not up for debate and is one of the reasons that so many pro wildlife and sports photographers select that lens.
So how does the Olympus compare?
This was a harder comparison to make because autofocus ability is a combination of camera body and lens and how the two communicate. When I use the Olympus, my choice of a camera body is the Lumix G9. At first, I expected that this mixing of manufacturers would hinder the performance, but I’ve been relieved to find that is not the case. Lumix bodies are fully compatible with all features of Olympus lenses with no apparent loss in performance.
I’ve found the autofocus of the Lumix/Olympus combination to be precise and extremely fast, attaining focus as quickly as the Canon.
Another nifty feature of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO is you can switch between auto and manual focus simply by giving a little tug on the focus ring. It snaps down, and suddenly you are in manual focus, click it back, and autofocus returns. There is no fumbling around for switches.
Canon’s image stabilization is extremely good, but they’ve stubbornly refused to integrate stabilization into their camera bodies. Lumix, however, has stabilization built into the body which communicates with simultaneous stabilization in the lens!
Here, the Lumix/Olympus combo is a clear winner. I’ve found I can hand hold the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO on the Lumix G9 as low as 1/15th of a second and still get acceptably sharp images. The small, easily handled size certainly helps with this, but I would NEVER be able to hand hold the Canon 500mm at 1/15th.
The overall performance winner? The Olympus 300mm f4 PRO.
I’ll be honest here, from time to time I miss the big Canon 500mm f4L. But not for reasons of image quality or field performance. Rather, I miss the snob appeal of that big glass. It’s the stupidest of stupid reasons, but it’s a real one.
As a pro photographer, the big lens was a badge of honor. Fortunately, I’ve (mostly) outgrown the need to be seen as a pro when I’m in the field shooting. Now, I try to concentrate on making images good enough that they speak for themselves, and leave the lens size contests to others.
When I put aside the size and snob appeal, I’m not at all sorry to have moved away from Canon. Now, my big lens is small enough that I carry it everywhere (even on my evening dog-walks). It’s light and unobtrusive and I can even carry it backpacking. The quality is so close to that of the bigger glass, that the differences are almost unimportant.
So yeah, I like the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO. A lot.