In the movie “Highlander” super-human swordsmen fight to be the last one standing. There can be only one!
When it comes to super telephoto lenses, the battle is over and the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25x IS PRO is the clear winner.
I was fortunate enough to be asked by Olympus to test the new lens when it was still in the final stages of development. The images you see here are from one of three hand-built, pre-production copies sent to the USA. While I was testing the lens, it still didn’t have the final firmware installed so keep in mind that when judging these images, the results can only be better once the lens is shipping with the final firmware updated.
It was quite an experience and very difficult to keep secret. I couldn’t really be anywhere other photographers would be because the lens stands out and in short order, someone would have realized what I had in my hands. It’s hard keeping this kind of secret and especially because – Well my goodness, this lens is the kind of thing I dreamed of having my whole life. If you’re a bird/wildlife/sports photographer or just need lots of reach, this is your lens.
But it’s not just any super telephoto zoom. It’s a fully dialed-in, zoom with a fast, fixed, f/4.5 aperture, tons of image stabilization, and oh yeah, it has a BUILT-IN 1.25 teleconverter that you can activate with the flip of a switch giving you a reach of 1000mm equivalent focal length (EFL) at f/5.6. Let that sink in for a minute. 1000mm at f/5.6.
In the old days, I used lots of super telephoto lenses on my DSLRs. What did I get for my trouble? Lots of great images, but at a price. Not only were some of these lenses super expensive ($12,000 and up), but they were super big and super heavy. My career was coming to an early and abrupt end due to medical issues caused by decades of carrying heavy gear on my shoulder. These days, I simply could not carry the old 800mm f/5.6 lens that I used before switching to Olympus. Not only did that beast cost $13,000, it’s close focusing distance was right at 20 feet (compared to just over four feet with the M.150-400), and it was slower (at f/5.6) than the new M.150-400 f/4.5. The old DSLR telephoto was heavier at nearly 10 pounds (without the lens hood and foot), and it was twice the size. Like I said, I’m no longer physically able to carry such a lens. And even if I could, who wants to lug all that stuff around?
The reason I switched to Olympus (four years ago) was that I needed to break free of all that big, heavy, expensive gear and find a way to lighten my load.
When I made the decision to switch, the longest lens in the Olympus lineup was the brilliant 300mm f/4 IS Pro lens (600mm EFL.) Now, thanks to the creation of the M.150-400, I can get to 1000mm with the built-in TC and to 2000mm with the MC-20 external, add-on teleconverter. Yes, you read that correctly. 2000mm. I’ll just wait here for you to catch your breath. I get it. I really do.
This new lens is groundbreaking in so many ways.
It’s the only lens which realizes 1000mm (EFL) at f/5.6 in the world. It’s as solid as a tank, using both magnesium alloy lens construction and a carbon fiber lens hood. It’s heat resistant, weather resistant and if you get it wet, it doesn’t seem to matter. It just keeps working.
The 5-axis Sync IS works with the in-body image stabilization on the pro Olympus bodies to give you actual hand-holdable performance at 800mm (EFL). A full 8-stops of IS is possible when the lens is attached to an OM-D E-M1 X. There are 4.5 stops of IS in the lens so it would have at least that much stabilization even when working with other brands of cameras such as those made by other M43 companies like Panasonic or Blackmagic.
The optics are top-quality, professional grade, and use the best materials Olympus could find. And they manage to pack all that into a lens with super responsive, accurate, high-speed autofocus.
If you would have told me 20 or even 10 years ago that this was even possible, I would have doubted it.
As I said, I had the honor of testing the new M.150-400 f/4.5 for three weeks in late August through mid-September. I carried it into the field and treated it as I would any other lens that I’d bring on assignment. I used it both fully extended and at its widest setting. I used it with both the internal teleconverter and both Olympus, external teleconverters. I used it at distance and also close to my subject.
The great news is this: The lens is sharp, edge-to-edge, whether it’s at 150mm or 400mm. It’s sharp wide open. It’s even sharp when you add the teleconverters. It renders fantastic image quality, and it offers no-compromise results.
My first impressions were that while this is indeed a very large lens, it’s much smaller than I expected it to be. Thinking back to other super-telephoto lenses I used to carry, I marveled at the fact that this one fit in my regular camera bag! That’s new.
I was made aware of this lens more than a year ago and at meetings Olympus held with North American Visionaries, I was asked to give my thoughts on what the lens needed to succeed. I’m thrilled to see that many of my suggestions were implemented. Mind you, I am not saying that these features were added because I asked for them, but they are there in any event.
First on my list was a lens that was constant aperture throughout the zoom range. In my experience, there’s simply no substitute for a fixed aperture lens. The results are always better than if you use a variable aperture. Olympus could have made this lens smaller and lighter and for less money by using a variable aperture, and I’m glad they resisted temptation to do that. To satisfy the needs of photographers who want a smaller, lighter, less expensive lens, Olympus came up with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 100-400mm f5.0-6.3 IS Lens.
For pros, the M.150-400 is the answer. The constant aperture allows for a brighter viewfinder and sharper images, since the lens’ sweet spot is closer to wide open than with variable aperture lenses.
The next thing I wanted (and got) was a zoom that rotated as opposed to a push-pull zoom. Push-pull zooms tend to be less stable, harder to zoom, and ingest more dust into the camera body than zoom lenses that rotate.
Next up, an Arca-Swiss compatible lens foot. YAY! Olympus did this on the M. Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F/4.0 IS Pro Lens, and I was hoping they’d use that same approach with the M.150-400. Not having to affix a separate lens plate onto the lens foot is huge. On other super telephoto lenses, I’ve had the lens foot slip, which can mean anything from a shaky image to a damaged or destroyed lens. When using the M.150-400 on a monopod, tripod, or gimbal mount, you’ll have a much stronger, safer, worry-free connection to the head since there is no plate to come off. I tested the M.150-400 lens foot with several brands of ball heads, monopod heads, and gimbals and it fit snugly every time. So in that regard, mission accomplished.
What I didn’t have the foresight to ask for was a lens that contained a built-in teleconverter! At first, when I heard about it, I worried that it might either be gimmicky or negatively impact image quality. Fortunately, I had no need to worry. The switch that turns the 400 f/4.5 (800mm EFL) into a 500 f/5.6 (1000mm EFL) is ingenious. It’s very easy to find and operate, even when you have your eye to the viewfinder. It also has a lock switch that will keep it from being moved accidentally if you want that extra layer of protection.
Before I forget to mention it, there’s a reason this lens is white. It’s designed to help manage heat. I also want to mention that the front element does not extend as you zoom out. It has a very comfortable feel. It fits well in the hand. You can also remove the lens foot if you prefer. I also want to give a nod to the focus hold buttons that you can set via a switch on the right side of the lens. By engaging the focus hold button, you can set up one point for the AF to return to such as a busy perch. You can quickly move away from that point, focus on something else, and at a press of the focus hold button, you’re right back at the focus you previously set. This can be a life saver if you work with birds on multiple perches or if you’re using Pro-Capture.
There are lots of nice little touches on the lens that prove it was lovingly designed and created. There is a focus limiter switch that gives you three options: 1.3 to 6m, 1.3 meters to infinity and 6 meters to infinity. This does make it faster for the lens to achieve focus over its very long focal range. There are also four indents on the lens collar, so as you rotate the lens in the collar it automatically stops every 90 degrees. Of course, you can stop the lens anywhere along that path, but the built-in indentations really do make it easy to get the lens going in the direction you want it to.
There are many rubber-coated surfaces that help both protect the lens and make it easier to carry. There are also eyelets if you want to use a dedicated strap for the lens that doesn’t stress the lens mount.
As I wrap up, I would be remiss if I didn’t stress how much more flexibility you have when you use a zoom at these long focal lengths. Most people with little experience using a telephoto lens would have trouble finding the subject in the viewfinder, especially if the lens is racked all the way out to its maximum focal length. Being able to rotate the zoom ring to pull back your view is a very valuable thing. You can acquire the bird at 150mm and then quickly zoom in (all the way to 400mm) for a more effective workflow.
At $7500 (US) this lens is a bargain. Some will say that is too expensive, but they have almost certainly never priced the full-frame super zooms that can cost almost twice as much.
The lens will be shipping sometime in January 2021 and initial supplies will be constrained. WAY more people will want this lens initially than can buy it because it will be hard to find. Be patient. It will be worth the wait.
As I expected would be the case, the M.150-400 f/4.5 lens is a real champ. It focuses quickly, silently, and accurately. It’s rugged, offers great image quality across the spectrum, offers more reach than almost any lens on the market, works well with both the internal and external teleconverters, has best-in-class image stabilization that works with the IBIS in the top-tier Olympus cameras, and it’s relatively light weight and small in stature. You get weather resistance thrown in and super sharp images as well, making the M.Zuiko 150-400 f/4.5 zoom lens the most powerful lens in its class.
Olympus has also announced the latest firmware upgrade for the Olympus OM-D E-M1X mirrorless camera, Version 2.0. Scheduled for release on December 2, 2020, this new version of firmware adds Bird Detection to Intelligent Subject Detection Autofocus, an AI-based deep learning technology. With this new function, the camera automatically prioritizes detection of a bird’s eye, for focusing and tracking, so the photographer can concentrate on composing images and capturing the moment. I have not tested this new function but am obviously excited about it. There are other things to note in the new firmware which I will discuss in a separate post tomorrow.
The 150-400 zoom lens is going to be hard to find. There is a very small initial allocation. Picture Methods has partnered with Hunt’s Photo & Video to bring you the best gear at a competitive price and backed by personal service. To get your name on the list early, call right now: 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: firstname.lastname@example.org or Alan at email@example.com or Gary at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Hunt’s has been around a long time and you can trust them. Make sure to mention that Scott Bourne sent you.
Hunt’s always takes great care of my readers.
P.S. For anyone who is new here, I would like to disclose that I am an Olympus Visionary and am paid to be an ambassador for Olympus. My opinions are my own and the company doesn’t censor what I say. But I wanted to disclose my relationship with Olympus just in case.