It’s taken six months, but I’ve finally been able to take the Olympus m.Zuiko 75-300mm into the field for some solid birding work. It’s the first good evaluation I’ve been able to make of it under these conditions; birding was the main reason I bought it, but my timing was off, with it arriving at the end of the last season.
I’ve has some interesting conversations since then with other photogs regarding this lens and especially how it compares to the alternative, the Lumix 100-300mm, which I had previously tried and discarded. Short version: the Oly meets my expectations, and that’s a good thing.
Before this point, the only real time I’d spent with this lens was on my three winter eagling expeditions. I came home from two of the three with some great images, but also with some frustrations. Eagling is quite different from regular birding; the conditions and distances involved are usually subject to a lot of variation.
What I was able to take away from those eagleing trips were a few key points that I am sure have helped me in my regular birding so far this year. These are my “golden rules” for using the 75-300mm in the field:
- shutter speed at least 1/800, with 1/1000+ preferred
- f/8 whenever possible
- ISO to compensate, up to ISO 1600
- shoot under the best lighting conditions possible
- get close, because cropping ability is limited
The results speak for themselves. With good light on a several sunny Saturday mornings, I was able to shoot within my preferred settings (at ISO 400, which is usually the lowest possible). I had the FL-50 speedlight mounted as well, with my Better Beamer, set to FP mode so it’ll shoot at the higher shutter speeds.
In the field, I only have two complaints. First, that the focus flakes out sometimes and grabs the background. Getting it to re-lock on the subject can be both difficult and time-consuming, which can result in lost opportunities. I’ve found that the best way to get the focus to re-lock is to find a closer object to focus on – any other object that it will focus on that’s closer to the distance of your intended subject. Alternately, you can use the manual focus ring to get rough focus on your subject, then try the AF again. But I find the MF ring to be pretty bad overall.
Second, the minimum aperture is just too slow. In anything other than good, strong light, it makes shooting very difficult. I tried to get out on a couple of overcast mornings and the fact is that without the ability to shoot at f/4, it’s just not possible to keep the shutter speed up without cranking the ISO to the ceiling.
Reviewing the images after the fact, I’m very pleased. They are sharp, there’s no doubt about that. The colors and rendering look good to my eye and altogether I have to say I’m pleased. I originally railed against this lens a little, at least on the basis of price; for a slow, variable-aperture 75-300, it seems very overpriced at $900. But it’s one of only two options for m4:3 right now, and after seeing first-hand what it can do, I’m happy with it. It was a good investment.
It’s also much more comfortable to use the 75-300mm with the E-M5 than my Canon rig ever was. The smaller size and weight are ideal for hiking around in the field. I’m able to fit everything I need into a canvas messenger bag, as opposed to the dedicated backpack I used to use. I am thinking of adding a grip to the E-M5, probably the RSS tripod mount/grip combo, just so I can get a somewhat better grip on the camera. It is a little unwieldy with the speedlight mounted, but not unbearably so.
So for anyone who is wondering, my experience is that the Olympus 75-300mm is easily superior to the Lumix 100-300mm in every aspect. I don’t know if this will hold true for the new Mk II version of the Oly, but hopefully it will, as the reduced price makes it all the more attractive to those of us who need a lot of reach.