Olympus Announces the 100-400mm f/5.0-6.3 IS Lens – Perfect For Bird/Wildlife Photography

Bird photo by Scott Bourne

Olympus Announces the 100-400mm f/5.0-6.3 IS Lens – Perfect For Bird/Wildlife Photography

NOTE: All the images in this post are mine. They are all made with either an Olympus OM-D E-M1 X or OM-D E-M1 MK III camera body and the new 100-400 f/5.0-6.3 Zoom Lens. The lens I used was a pre-production model that is very close to the final version but lacked a firmware update and some other minor corrections. The images you see here are representative of what the lens can do and image quality as well as camera compatibility will only improve with the final shipping product. Also note that I am an Olympus Visionary. While my views are my own and I was not instructed what I could or could not say about the new lens, I want to disclose my relationship with Olympus for those who may not be aware. I tried to be completely honest and do not believe there is any bias in my review other than that which would come from any fan of Olympus products.

Most of the time, in the world of bird and wildlife photography, you want the longest telephoto lens you can find. The new Olympus 100-400mm f/5.0-6.3 IS lens has an effective focal length of 200-800mm in a relatively compact, affordable form factor. If you add the M.Zuiko Digital 1.4X Teleconverter MC-14 to the Olympus 100-400mm f/5.0-6.3 IS lens, you get a lens with an EFL of 1120mm. If you add the M.Zuiko Digital 2X Teleconverter MC-20 you get all the way to 1600mm EFL.

Now THAT will get you lots of pixels on any creature that might come into your viewfinder, even if it is far away.

The promise of a new telephoto zoom from Olympus that can achieve that kind of reach has excited many bird and wildlife photographers, including me. I was fortunate enough to get to test the lens early. I have had a couple of outings with this lens and I have to say, it exceeded my hopes. I put it through its paces, using it in real world, professional bird photography situations. I tested it with both the Olympus OM-D E-M1X camera body and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 MK III camera body. I also tested with both Olympus teleconverters. I tested it with both the OM-D E-M1X and OM-D E-M1 III.

The lengths I had to go to in order to test this lens in the wild. All identifying marks were covered up – even the Olympus name on the lens cap 🙂

If you don’t have time or interest to read my entire article, here’s the executive summary.

The Olympus 100-400mm f/5.0-6.3 IS Lens is deadly sharp. It focuses quickly and accurately. Its construction is top grade. It’s relatively small and light weight for a lens that has such a long reach and the images it delivers are bright, crisp and contrasty. It has an insane close focusing distance of 1.3 meters and it will serve as a spectacular upgrade for those using other lenses in the same focal range on Olympus cameras. The new 100-400 offers features that the other lenses in the category do not, such as weather sealing. It works with both Olympus teleconverters and can get bird and wildlife photographers all the way to 1600mm EFL. It even supports Olympus’ brilliant in-camera focus stacking feature which makes sense because of the close focusing distance and the 0.57 magnification it can deliver.

You want one!

Now on with the rest of my review…

Bird photo by Scott Bourne

I have used lenses in this focal range throughout my career. I have used most of the commercially available tele zooms sold in the USA over the last 25 years. NOTHING in this price range and focal length comes close to the quality of the new Olympus 100-400mm f/5.0-6.3 IS Lens. Nothing.

Let’s start with the basic lens construction and then go on to handling. The 100-400 is built with four ED lenses for suppressing color bleeding, two Super HR lenses, and two HR lenses for bright, clear, image performance all the way to the edges of the image, and across the entire zoom range. It has the famous ZERO (Zuiko Extra-low Reflection Optical) coating which in my tests, is effectively used to reduce ghosting and flaring. It’s very sturdy and hefty and well built, but it doesn’t feel as heavy as a lens capable of delivering an EFL of 800mm should be.

Screen Shot 2020-08-04 at 4.38.44 PM

The rear focus system of the M.Zuiko Digital ED 100-400mm drives the lightweight focusing lenses for fast, high-precision AF performance. This lens is also equipped with a Focus Limiter. It allows switching the AF operating range between three levels according to the focusing distance for quick focusing and comfortable shooting even in the super-telephoto range. Also, the in-lens image stabilization featuring up to three stops of compensation and it actually enables handheld super-telephoto shooting.

This lens has a variable aperture meaning the further you extend the lens, the smaller the maximum aperture will be. Extended to 400mm (800 EFL) your aperture will be f/6.3 wide open. You’ll notice that the M.Zuiko 300 f/4 IS Pro Lens is faster at f/4, but it is also shorter and much more expensive.

Bird photo by Scott Bourne

In the field I found that the lens still delivered a pleasing bokeh because I was able to get close to the subjects. In fact, the close focusing distance on this lens is just four feet and four inches (1.3 meters.) That is simply astounding. To be able to get that close to your subject and still access autofocus is something I consider to be quite remarkable. Similarly situated lenses on DSLRs have minimum close focusing distances of 15 feet and even more.

Since the closer the distance between camera and subject, the shallower the depth-of-field, I was able to work at f/13 and still have a background that was pleasingly out of focus.

Screen Shot 2020-08-04 at 4.39.04 PM

There are a couple of handling things I want to mention. Thankfully, Olympus built the lens collar with an Arca-Swiss compatible lens foot. This means you do not need a separate lens plate to mount this lens to any traditional Arca-Swiss compatible ball head or gimbal. This is the same as on the 300 f/4 IS Pro Lens and I love it. This means one less piece of equipment to buy, carry around and mess with. You can just mount this lens as is to any Arca-Swiss head.

The lens has on-board image stabilization but it is not SYNC IS compatible. That said, the IS in the lens does work with the IBIS in the following way. The lens handles the pitch and yaw, while the IBIS corrects for roll. While this is not full SYNC IS, it is still quite good and better than using just the IBIS alone.

As mentioned, this lens comes with a focus limiter switch. This allows you to speed up autofocus acquisition when photographing subjects that are 1.3 to six meters, or six meters to infinity.

Olympus E-M1MarkIII Olympus M.100-400 f/5.0 – /f6.3 Lens ISO 400 – f/6.3 – 1/1600th – handheld 520mm EFL

When working with subjects that are more distant to the camera, this limit really helps. There are other Olympus lenses with this feature, but on the 100-400 it’s one I strongly recommend that photographers be more inclined to use. The 100-400 does take a little longer to acquire focus of subjects more than six meters away if the focus limiter switch isn’t selected. But it’s there, so why not use it? I found it to be very effective.

Since some people have already asked me, the new 100-400 lens does indeed come with a lens hood. Lens Hood:LH-76D and no it’s nothing like the hood on the 40-150 f/2.8 Lens. The lens hood is a simple screw on affair. Good news it will also fit the 40-150 f/2.8 Pro Lens if you’re looking for a better solution for that lens. It is a little pricey at $39 if you buy it stand-alone.

E-M1X – M.100-400 f/5.6 – 6.3 Lens + MC-14 Teleconverter EFL 950mm Handheld – ISO 320 – f/9 – 1/500th

Lastly, and this is the exciting news, the 100-400 works with both of Olympus’ teleconverters, i.e., the M.Zuiko 1.4 Teleconverter and the M.Zuiko 2.0 Teleconverter. This gives you a maximum effective focal length of 1120mm and 1600mm respectively! I don’t think there are many lenses (for any camera system) capable of this kind of reach. While these distances present new opportunity, they also present new challenges. You will need to be careful about atmospheric distortion when working at 1600mm and your technique has to be very good to coax the best results out of this combo. But those are good problems to have. 1600mm! Come on, man. That is far out! (See what I did there?)

I tested both Olympus teleconverters on the 100-400 and found that both performed beautifully. If you hear someone say that the 100-400 is “soft” when attached to a teleconverter, what that really means is the photographer making that report had poor technique. You can look for yourself. Some of the pictures that accompany this article were shot using the teleconverters. The results are sharp, and the image quality really very good, especially given the price point of this lens.

Screen Shot 2020-08-04 at 4.38.29 PM


The price? A ridiculously low $1499. I was shocked when I saw how inexpensive this lens is compared to its ability to perform. You can see by looking at my test images (made with a pre-release but reasonably stable copy of the lens) that the image quality is superb. Some will worry about having to use smaller apertures but with a super telephoto like this it isn’t a problem. I have an image here made at f/13 and the background just goes away. If you know what you’re doing, it won’t be a problem.

Since I will also be asked about the Panasonic lens and how it compares, I feel it’s just easiest to address this head-on. People want to know how this lens compares to its closest competitor, i.e., the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 ASPH. POWER O.I.S. Lens. First off, the Olympus lens has an MSRP nearly $300 less than the Panasonic. The Panasonic is a little lighter. And the Panasonic has an f/4 to f/6.3 variable f-stop compared to the Olympus f/5 to f/6.3. They both have image stabilization. The Panasonic does not have an Arca Swiss compatible foot. The Panasonic does have a built-in lens hood compared to the screw on lens hood for the Olympus. And lastly, the Panasonic lens is not weather proof while the Olympus is weather proof.

Olympus E-M1MarkIII Olympus M.100-400 f/5.0 – /f6.3 Lens + MC-14 ISO 400 – f/9 – 1/800th – handheld 1120mm EFL (1120mm EFL – HANDHELD at 1/800!)

Now all that is just really a bunch of talk about specs. Here’s what you really want to know. How do images compare from these two lenses and what is their ability in the field to get you the results you want? I haven’t used the Panasonic lens for several years but I did have one and I can tell you it is a good lens. But it is NOT a great leans. There are lots of compromises involved in dealing with the focal lengths of 100-400 (200-800 EFL) and while Panasonic did the best they could with the technology available to them at the time, Olympus has really come through delivering far superior lens handling, autofocus and image quality. Given the fact that it is less expensive by nearly $300, well it’s not even close.

I have been able to get professional results out of almost every Olympus lens I have ever used. But I have never been able to so EASILY get professional results out of “pro-sumer” lens from Olympus or anyone else as I have with the new 100-400. The lens is expected to ship September 8, 2020. I hope that Olympus made enough of them!

Contact Hunt’s Photo (below) to get your name on the pre-order list. These things are gonna sell like hotcakes.

Picture Methods has partnered with Hunt’s Photo & Video to bring you the best gear at a competitive price and backed by personal service. Call Alan Samiljan at 781-462-2383 or Noah Buchanan at 781.462.2356. If you cannot reach either one try Gary Farber at 781-462-2332. You will ALWAYS get the best prices if you call the store v. Using the web site. You can also email Noah at: nbuchanan@huntsphoto.com or Alan at alansamhunts@gmail.com or Gary at: gfarber@huntsphoto.com. Hunt’s has been around a long time and you can trust them. Make sure to mention that Scott Bourne sent you. That will get you the best deal.

11 Responses

  1. The bird portraits look great. How is this lens for birds in flight? How is autofocus with the teleconverter, especially the 2X?

    1. I could only guess Neil. Given the pandemic and my limited opportunity to test this lens in a place and time (summer) where flight shots are just not gonna present themselves, my honest answer would be “I do not know.” However there are some common sense thoughts that might apply. Most people who are not pros would simply not have the skill necessary to get on a bird fast enough at 1600mm. I would think the lens (using the focus limiter switch) would make it pretty easy to acquire AF if you get on a bird. The use of a gimbal head would probably be required… Since I have probably made less than 1% of my birds in flight shots at these focal lengths, I would say there are better choices. 85% of my published birds in flight shots are made with my Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 Pro Lens (80-300mm EFL) and that is the general range where I tend to make flight shots.

  2. Thanks for a balanced review Scott and some great images. What are your thoughts about it in lower light conditions?

    1. You are welcome and thanks. Since this is not a fast lens it wouldn’t be my first choice for lower light conditions but there are certain physics that are always going to work here to a point. If you want to get really long telephoto lenses, you cannot have them working at f/2.8. The size would be more than 50 pounds and the cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I would have no trouble cranking up ISO to 3200 but if there’s not enough light to work at that speed then I would wait for the light. I am probably the wrong person to ask this question since I have spent my entire career chasing good light, I tend not to make images when there isn’t enough of it – no matter what lens I am using :

  3. This lens announcement came as a shock to me (but a good one)! From the reviews and images I’ve seen, the quality of this “non-PRO” level lens is amazing. I’m really torn on whether I should eventually get this or continue putting money towards the upcoming 150-400mm f4.5 PRO. The latter will obviously have the ridiculous image quality of Oly PRO lenses, but the former packs so much punch in a package that can be taken on multi-day hikes!!! Oh man…

  4. The Pana-Leica is “dust and splashproof”. How that compares to the other vague term of “weatherproof” I can’t say. That said, I have never worried about that lens and my G9 in light mist or rain catching me unawares. However, if I know it’s going to be wet out, I use a camera cover. The combination of the two allows me to shoot with a low level of anxiety.

    The second point I’d like to make is that the classic non-compatibility of Olympus and Panasonic bodies with each company’s optical stabilization systems will always be a significant factor in determining a long lens choice. Dual IS is outstanding with a Lumix G9 and the PL 100-400. I would have loved to see that combination on the Oly lens and Oly bodies.

    I’m a little baffled as to why Olympus short changed owners of their bodies by not offering a Dual IS system with the Oly 100-400. If they had, I might have been tempted to get an Olympus body (switched completely to Lumix bodies when they finally figured out IBIS) specifically to use with that lens.

    They had this lens 90% close to perfect and dropped the ball on that last item. Maybe a lens firmware upgrade in the future will address it.

    1. I am always happy to let people express contrary opinions, but since it is my blog I will respond in kind. If you want to know the difference between Panasonic’s dust and splash proof products and the Olympus weatherproofing, I’ll make it simple. Take that Panasonic combo and stand next to me on the bow of a boat moving through three to four foot seas in the Cook Inlet while photographing eagles. This is something I do regularly. When (not if) the waves crash over the bow as we’re photographing eagles, my Olympus kit will not miss a beat and your Panasonic kit will be done for the day. That is a significant difference. I agree that a light mist is no problem. As for covers. Good ones are expensive and I used to use lens/camera covers back in the day when I shot with Canon. It was a pain in the rear and while you’re in the boat cabin affixing your rain cover, I’ll be getting images you will be missing.

      I (think) you are saying you wish that Panasonic and Olympus had fully compatible systems and I agree. I don’t know why they do not. It could be that each company wants some competitive advantage or it could be that it’s just not possible to do given differences in how the systems are constructed. I typically suggest that Panasonic camera owners stick with Panasonic lenses at the long end. But I will say that the information that you offered about IS is very misleading and makes at least two false assumptions.

      1. All IS is NOT created equal. If two camera systems have exactly the same amount of image stabilization that does NOT mean that the photographer will receive exactly the same benefit. I have used, owned and tested the Panasonic gear. It’s image stabilization is very good. The Olympus’ image stabilization goes beyond very good to great. It’s just the way it is. I am a lucky guy. I can shoot with any system I want. If the Panasonic image stabilization were better, I’d be using Panasonic.

      2. You say that the image stabilization in the new Olympus 100-400 is faulty because it is not “dual” IS. First of all, in the Olympus system, the term is SYNC IS. And the 100-400 does not have SYNC IS but it does add (on one-axis) more stabilization. I would bet $1000 I could hand-hold the Oly 100-400 (racked all the way to 400) on an OM-D E-M1 MK III at a slower speed than you could the G9 w/ the Panasonic 100-400 and I would get the sharper shot.

      I’d also note that on either system, the advantages of “dual” or “sync” IS are minor (in still photography.) They are more pronounced when shooting video.

      If you’d like to learn more about the advantages of the Olympus IS – Imaging Resource has a very detailed article that explains it better than I can – https://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2020/07/29/inside-image-stabilization-a-geeks-tour-of-how-it-works-with-olympus

      As to why Olympus didn’t add full SYNC IS? I am only guessing but I believe it has something to do with size, weight and cost. It would make the lens larger and heavier – two things nobody wanted. And Oly wanted their 100-400 to be less expensive than the Panasonic 100-400. In the end, as I said, the Olympus has better IS in any event.

      This is not something firmware can fix. This is a piece of hardware in the lens.

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