Review – Panasonic Leica 100-300mm

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Pansonic’s 100-300mm telephoto was one of the first lenses I bought for my m4:3 system. It was the replacement to my venerable Canon 300L f/4 IS, which was a spectacular lens itself, albeit a very large, heavy lens to lug around. I had high hopes for the 100-300, as I’d seen a number of really nice images taken with them. And I’ll admit that I was extra excited by the 2x crop factor of the m4:3 sensors, where this lens would become an effective 200-600mm.

When shooting wildlife in general, and for me, birds in particular, you can never have enough lens reach. If you have 300mm, you want 500mm; 500mm and you want 800mm. I don’t think the quest for additional reach ever ends. Problem is, with the Canon/Nikon systems, getting above 300mm means dishing out some serious cash – and ending up with a lens that may need to be vehicle mounted. Okay, so I exaggerate. But only a little.

Given all this, the concept of an effective 200-600mm lens, smaller even than the Canon 75-300mm IS USM, easily hand holdable, was too much to pass up. It was going to be a dream lens, a lens that I could hike with, could cart up mountains and through swamps without feeling like I was dragging an anchor. I could ditch the huge photo backpack and travel with just a small sling bag. All this in a lens at under $600.

Juvenile male Pine Warbler in the scrub at the Eales Preserve at sunrise on 13 July 2012.

Like most things that seem too good to be true, this one was. I have been nothing but disappointed with this lens since buying it. It easily fulfills its promises of small size and light weight – from a purely physical standpoint, it’s a joy to use in the field. I can carry it all day and not get tired. But it’s optical performance just doesn’t make the cut, and for a lens that’s the kiss of death.  Despite my early optimism about this lens, several months of use have brought me down the path through frustration to the point where I’m done with it.

This has been a spectacular birding season for me. I’ve added about a dozen new species to my life list, most of them local songbirds. I’ve seen really amazing creatures and had some near-perfect opportunities to work with them, but I haven’t come away with any images where the quality was higher than about a C+. There simply isn’t the sharpness or resolution that I demand from my glass.

Female Eastern Towhee along the Blueberry trail at the Eales Preserve on the morning of 09 July 2012.

You may be able to see it in the images posted here. These have been sharpened in ACR the same as I always do, and online they don’t look too bad. But I assure that once you start viewing them nearer to 100%, they fall apart.

Here’s the rub – this is not something I can blame on the camera, or my technique, or anything else except the lens. I went down the self-doubt road at the start of the summer and paid extra attention to my technique. I worked on proper hand-holding, I made sure that my shutter speeds were at at least 1/(effective focal length) when shooting. Even at f/8 and 1/1000, I couldn’t get any shots that were as sharp as they should have been.

Somewhere around mid-June, after a trip to Sapsucker Woods that resulted in no quality images, I boxed the lens up and shipped it off to Panasonic’s repair center in Texas for evaluation. Once there, I insisted that it be escalated from the technicians all the way up to the engineering department. Everyone there supposedly evaluated it, and the word came back that the lens was 100% within specifications & in perfect working order.

That being the case, I can only come to one conclusion – perfect working order produces only average results. I did some digging around online, in both Google and the m4:3 user forum I belong to, and came across a trend that matched my own experiences. It isn’t widely discussed, but it seems that I’m not the only photographer who feels this way.

Male Eastern Towhee along the Blueberry trail at the Eales Preserve on the morning of 09 July 2012.

What I found was that there was, at the very least, some very wide sample variation among this lens. Some copies are exceptional and produce the images I originally saw online, sharp punchy captures that made me want the lens. Others are just average.  I’ve also found a subset of users who have abandoned the Panasonic for its rival, the Olympus 75-300mm. The Olympus is ⅓ stop slower at the long end and is somewhat overpriced, but from what I hear that increased sticker shock actually has some performance to back it up.

My final evaluation? Buying the Panasonic 100-300mm lens is a crap shoot. You might get an exceptional copy, or you might only get an average copy, one that’s “within specifications” but is no stellar performer.

Simply put, I do not recommend that anyone buy this lens.  I don’t give a lot of negative reviews on here, only due to the fact that I’m usually happy with the gear I purchase.  But when I’m not, I’m just as open about it.  And this time, I’m most definitely not happy.

I plan on selling my copy very soon and rolling whatever I get out of it into an Olympus 75-300, in the sincere hope that it’s worth the cost. Right now is the time to do it; the birding is at a lull prior to the autumn migration, which gives me some time to make the switch. I tend to shoot less during this migration anyway, so my main concern is to have a dependable lens in time for eagle season this winter.

What I really, really, really want to see is a native m4:3 300mm or 400mm f/4 prime lens. I think there’s enough demand from users who enjoy shooting wildlife and are disappointed with the mediocre specs of the current telephoto zooms. And I think that we’d be willing to pay around $1k for a truly good, fast f/4 lens. But until that lens (hopefully!) materializes, I’ll cast my lot with the Olympus and hope for the best.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. If you get the Olympus, you may want to get the old 4/3 version rather than micro 4/3. The old version is a bit faster and quite a bit less costly. With an adapter, the OM-D focuses it quickly. Or, you can manually focus it quite easily.

    • Brent Pennington

      I hadn’t considered this option, but thanks for suggesting it. I’m a bit wary of using adapted lenses, mostly because I can’t afford to lose any focus performance. On the other hand, the lens + adapter is still cheaper than the m4:3 version (which is overpriced), and it’s also a 1/3 stop faster. I’ll look into this more!

  2. Steve Derdiarian

    I just posted a very similar thread to your last paragraph, then saw your review. Spot on, there’s a real need for a quality mFT long zoom or 300mm f4 prime for around $1000. Love my E-M5 and it cries out for such a wildlife/birding lens.

    Have you gotten around to trying the Olympus 75-300? The new version with price reduced to $550 may fit the bill for now, I’d be curious on your take on it.

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