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Compared to Leica's 400mm Telyt - on the Olympus E-M1 Mk II.

(Tested with Firmware v.1.3 on the E-M1 Mk II & v.1.2 on the Leica Vario-Elmar.)


For  the last twenty years, I have shot wildlilfe on a semi-professional basis and my go-to lens over all those years has been Leica's  400/6.8 Telyt.

Why, you might ask, would anyone use a nearly 50 year old, manual focus lens, when so many newer, brighter alternatives are available?  Well, it's incredibly light (a 2-element achromat means a lot of air inside the tube), quick to focus (the "trombone focus" works almost as quickly as auto-focus, once you're used to it) and it's incredibly sharp. (It is, after all, a Leica lens!) Sharp enough, in fact, to be produced from the late 1960s, right up to 1994.  It also doesn't hurt that the Tely's are available used, at quite reasonable (for Leica) prices.  This last bit means you don't panic quite as much when you take it boonie-bashing in the woods, looking for birds and beasts.

For those who want to know more about the Telyt, a pdf of my review written, years ago, for Viewfinder magazine, can be downloaded by clicking here.

Now, I've been behind a camera for almost 60 years, taking photographs in some 29 countries. I've taught photography from New York to San Francisco and been a guest speaker or presenter at photographer's conventions in Germany, the US and my native Canada. (A short bio, if you're interested, is here.)

In other words, the "side benefit" of all of this is that I'm getting older.  I've traded my Leicas for Olympus OM-Ds and most of my Leica glass has slowly morphed into smaller, lighter Olympus glass. But, I've held on to the Telyt, because it simply can't be beat.  Or can it?

For the last 10 years, the Olympus 50~200 f2.8-3.5 SWD has been my go-to lens for almost everything other than wildlife. That, and the matching 1.4x teleconverter. And as time went on, it gradually replaced the Telyt for wildlife, simply because it has autofocus - even if it lacked the "reach" at just 280mm (with the 1.4x).

Recently I've found myself wanting something that would replace both my 50~200+1.4x AND my Telyt, making my bag both smaller and lighter.  Yet, regaining the "reach" of the 400mm Telyt.  Having auto-focus would be nice, too.

Panasonic's Leica-branded 100~400 zoom looked like the answer.  The early reviews have said many good things, but several problems seemed to crop up when this Panasonic beast is used with the Olympus OM-D EM-1 camera bodies - especially on the Mk II version.  So, let's take a look.

How does it stack up?

Fit and finish are up to Leica standards ... The lens is impeccably finshed and it simply feels good, in the hand.  

Despite being a mostly metal or metal clad lens (the lens extension tube is a high-grade plastic, as it is with my Olympus 50~200), the lens is light (just 1027 grams, or 36 ounces, including the very nice - if plastic - accessory lens hood.) For 20 elements, in 13 groups, that's amazing!

Compare that with 1380 grams, or 48 oz, (with mFT adapter - apples to apples), for 2 elements in 1 group and you can see the difference!

The major thing in an auto-focus lens is AF speed. (Accuracy depends 
more on the camera body.)  For years the gold standard has

been the "sonic ring motors".  Canon call them USM, Nikon use SWM, Sigma's are HSM and Olympus call them SWD, etc. They are fast, silent and expensive.  Micro-motors were relegated to the cheaper models with slower AF.  

But, with newer, faster micromotors and internal focusing, those days are gone. In good light, the Pana-Leica 100~400 is lightning fast. In poor light (say, just a couple of 60 watt lamps in a decent sized living room), I can't describe the AF as "lightning fast" (mostly because of the f4 to f6.3 maximum aperture) but with the E-M1 Mk II,  it is still respectably quick and very accurate, without any hunting.

In fact, the ONLY time I've been able to make the lens "hunt" is when I've tried to focus on something close, but had the focus limiter set to 5 meters & beyond.  And that's not a problem with the lens, that's a problem with me!

For those not familiar with internal focusing, it means that only a few, smaller, lighter elements are moved - and not very far. The lens does not change in size, nor do the front elements rotate as it focuses. Internal focusing also makes it easier to effectively weather seal the lens.  

There is a small, built-in, collapsible, metal hood, but it's not very deep. While better than nothing, it's no great joy.  The included, larger hood fits over the built-in hood & is secured by a thumb screw, which is OK. It can be reversed, for storage and should be used at all times.

Many reviewers have decried the lack of a reversible, bayonet mount for the hood, but it's hard to see how that would have been possible for the designers.  As it is, the situation is adequate, if not perfect.  Though I would have preferred that the hood be made of metal, not plastic.


On the other hand, the ability to easily swing the camera from horizontal to vertical on a tripod or monopod is a delight!  You can do it easily;  and if you're using a bottom mounted battery pack that gets in the way, Panasonic have thoughtfully provided a small extension for added clearance.  Very nice.  This is something that the Telyt does, but which is usually only seen if an (often) optional tripod collar is used.  Panasonic have built-it in, seamlessly.

Both the zoom and manual focus rings are metal and nicely ribbed, as is the locking ring.  The lock-ring is meant to lock the lens so that the lens does not extend downwards, by gravity, when carrying your camera with the lens aimed down.  Unlike many such rings, which only work at infinity, the Leica's ring will lock at any focal length... useful when doing repetitive work  (say shooting horses coming over a jump) and you don't want things to change between shots.

Video Concerns:
  
B
Zooming is a wee bit stiff ... not silky smooth like the Olympus 40~150 PRO.  Stiff enough that, in my experience, the lens does not "drift" downwards, even when carried lens down, without the lock being set.  On the other hand, it is not as stiff as the Olympus 50~200-SWD, that I've used for the last decade. And, if it does loosen up, the lock-ring may well be needed.

Don't get me wrong ... the zoom is easy to use and more than smooth enough for a stills photographer, such as myself.  But, if you wish to shoot video with it, it will give you a jerky movement as you zoom.  Some folks have said that after a year, it smooths out... others say not.  For me, it matters not, as I never shoot videos and for adjusting the zoom between shots, it's plenty smooth enough. But, it's worth noting, if you plan to shoot videos.  (Update: After 7 months and many thousands of shots, it is slowly improving - but I still would not recommend it for video use.)

However, on my sample, at least, I can hear the micromotor as it focuses the lens.  It's faint, but it's audible. It won't bother a stills photographer, but, again, it's worth noting as the that sound may well turn up on your sound-track if you shoot videos. (My advice for video shooters? Buy from your local dealer and try before you buy.)


On the plus side, the zoom ring is precisely calibrated, with the focal length markings (every 50 mm) corresponding exactly to the EXIF information provided.

Controls, from top down, consist of a focus limiter switch, the AF-MF switch and the Power OIS switch.

In reverse order... various early reviews suggest, and my own experience confirms that the POWER OIS does a better job of stabilizing this lens than the Olympus' IBIS system - at least at the longer focal lengths. Thus, it's best to set "Lens IS Priority" to ON.  This means that when the lens has IS built-in, the IBIS system is turned off and the lens IS is used. When you mount an Olympus lens, without IS built in, the IBIS system turns back on, automatically.

Sadly, the IBIS and OIS systems will not work together, for even better
image stabilization. That only works with Panasonic lenses on Panasonic cameras or Olympus lenses on Olympus bodies.

Panasonic recommend turning the OIS off, when the lens is on a tripod. However, I have found that even on my quite sturdy Manfrotto tripod, there is sufficient movement (vibration) at the 400mm position, if only from wind, that the OIS is still beneficial.

The Auto/Manual focus switch is nice in that it is electrical, so if you turn the Manual focus ring while AF is engaged, or when the camera is off, nothing happens.  On some lenses, the AF-MF switch locks a gear - and if you turn the manual focus ring, while AF is turned on, you can damage the lens.  Not so with the Pana-Leica.  Actually focusing manually is a focus-by-wire system. It is very accurate, with no noticeable backlash or overshoot... hard to do in a focus-by-wire system. And, because Depth of Field is so limited at 400mm, the fine, manual focus adjustment is highly desireable. However, the AF is so accurate, I doubt you'll ever use it!

THE NON-ISSUE:  Last, but by no means least, is the focus limiter.  This was the source of a major bugaboo, early in the game.  Several reviews 
that are still available on the web, state that if the lens is used with the Olympus OM-D EM-1 MK II, and if the limiter is  set to 5m-Infinity, the lens locks up and the IS makes some very strange noises and/or vibrations. The 100~400 could only be used if the focus limiter was set to "Full". And it was true.

The solution, they said, was to keep the lens set at "full", and use the focus limiter found in the Mk II's menus, instead.  That worked, but the menus are slow to change and thus awkward in real life photography.

However, Panasonic's
firmware update 1.2 for the lens has solved this issue. My lens came with 1.2 already installed and has worked perfectly with the Olympus from the start.  If you have an ealier firmware version on your lens, do the update!

In the photos above and to the right, you can see the knurled knob that allows the camera to be rotated to vertical or horizontal, while on a tripod or monopod.

Performance:

The biggest problem I have with the lens, has nothing to do with the lens, or the camera.  It has to do with the weather.  


Simply put, I live in Canada's frozen north.  Climate change has meant that this winter has not been cold enough and my favourite test of any lens or camera, at this time of year, is the ice racing.  The crazies who race their motorcycles across frozen lakes, at up to 50 miles per hour, and at temperatures of -20C or colder.   In theory, the Ice racing season is on now, but the first two weekends were cancelled due to a lack of ice. It's been too warm and the ice is insufficient to hold 100+ pickup trucks, a few cars and 40 to 50 motorcycles.  (If you want to see what these crazies do, see my earlier review of the EM-1 Mk II & the Olympus 50~200 SWD, found here.)

So, for this review we're going to have to settle for some hand-held images I took at -30C (-22F, if you prefer) on Christmas Day, 2017. (This is our daughter-in-law, preparing to feed her cows.)



and below is a 100% crop from the shot above.



Remember, this is hand-held, at -30C and my hands shake at those temperatures.  
Photo: 267mm @ f 5.5 (wide open) - 1/2500th of a second. ISO 500

NO SHARPENING WAS APPLIED TO THESE IMAGES.

UPDATE : We may have missed the Ice Racers this year, but after this review was written we had a couple of "Free-style"  snowmobilers come through our little town, to put on a show for our annual "Polar Carnival".



These two snowmobiles were about 40 feet (roughly 12 meters) in the air!

Taken on Feb. 10th, 2018, hand held, with the DG Vario-Elmar 100~400 @100mm.
Both at f4.5 & ISO 640.  Top: 1/5000th.  Below: 1/8000th.  Electronic Shutter.
Temp: -21C (-6F)


All photos (c) 2018 David Young - all rights reserved.      www.furnfeather.ca.



COMPARISONS WITH LEICA'S 400mm f6.8 TELYT...

Finally, lets take a look at some comparison shots between the Pana-Leica and my "gold standard"... Leica's 400/6.8 Telyt.

Ugly as they are, both shots were nade from just inside my  front door (open, despite the -6C temperature!) and look at the mess that is my neighbour's car port, across the road.  So, roughly 150 to 165 feet (45 to 50 meters) away. The shot at the left is the full veiw at 400mm.  

The crop, below, is from a duplicate shot, made with the Telyt, but without moving the tripod, while the Pana-Leica crop (further below) is a crop from the shot at the left.  A small amount of USM sharpening (6% at 0.5 pixel radius) has been applied to each of the crops.  Othewise, both were developed without "tweaking" of any kind.

I think you'll agree, that the Telyt does amazingly well, for a 50 year old design.






But, I think you'll also agree that the Panasonic-Leica zoom is slightly sharper and with a bit better contrast. (Try to read the small print, at the bottom of each box!)

Remember, both of these images were taken wide-open, because neither lens can be described as a "fast" or "bright", with their maximum apertures at f6.3 and f6.8 at 400mm. So, in the woods, that's how they'll most often be used.  On a bright summer day, you can stop down a bit and sharpness on both should improve.

However, when you consider what portion of the shot is the box; that we're shooting a logo that is about 6" (15cm) high & not even square to the camera; at a distance of 150 to 165 feet, you can see that both lenses offer outstanding, professional-grade performance.

Conclusion:

The Panasonic/Leica 100~400, f 4-6.3 zoom is not an inexpensive piece of kit.  Will it outperform it's major competition in wildlife work, the 300mm f4 Olympus PRO?  I've not tested the 300/4, but I doubt it.  But then again, the 300mm f4 PRO is a full $1000 more than I paid for my Pana-Leica! And, it's a prime lens of the most modern design.

With the sole exception of Leica's APO-Vario-Elmarit-R 70~180/2.8 - which is no longer available new, but which will presently set you back roughly $8000 for a used one - Zooms just aren't as good as top-notch, prime lenses. Period. But, the best of them are getting much closer.
 
Don't forget, that these tests were performed at the long end of the Pana-Leica's range, where all zooms do their worst.  At shorter focal lengths, the lens gets nothing but better!

Even so, the Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100~400 outperforms the Leitz 400/6.8 Telyt - if only by a small amount - and offers the conveniences of Autofocus, lighter weight and smaller size; as well as the ability to replace two, or more, lenses in your bag. It also offers an insignificant 1/3 stop brighter image, at the 400mm settting. (Be still, my beating heart!)

While the Telyt delivers pro-quality optics, even today, it is a nearly 50 year old, manual focus design.  But, it becomes an image stabilized lens, when it's used on an mFT body with In-Body Image Stabilization!  While I have managed it, it is physically long enough that it is not readily hand-holdable, even with in-body stabilization.  Leverage makes it almost impossible. And, because it is a simple, cemented pair achromat, it also suffers from some curvature of field, though that only shows on a Full Frame camera.  On a mFT body, you'll never see it, as you're using only the "sweet spot", in the middle!  

The Panasonic/Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100~400 zoom does slightly better in both sharpness and contrast, though the Telyt's somewhat lower contrast can be cured in post processing and the sharpness difference is not huge.  Truth be told, with a subject that fills most of your frame, you'll have a hard time telling one from the other!

So, if you have the need, or just the desire, for a 400mm lens and your budget is tight ... look long and hard at a used Telyt 400/6.8 ($400 to $600 on eBay, these days) with a Leica-R to mFT adapter (under $15 on eBay).  If you're willing to focus manualy and use it on a monopod, its performance can't be beat for the price.

However, if you want the flexibility of a zoom, with auto-focus and all the "mod-cons"; slightly better performance, and a smaller, hand-holdable size & weight ....  and your budget will stand the price, the LEICA's 100~400 DG Vario-Elmar,
f4-6.3 zoom will prove very, very difficult to beat!

In the 5 months that I've had the Vario-Elmar, I have used it extensively, on everything from Rodeo's to wild-fires.  It has proven to be an excellent lens, that can be easily and reliably hand held, with excellent results - something just not possible with the Telyt, yet with the "reach" of the Telyt.  It has the convenience of the 50~200 Zuiko, without needing to fuss with the 1.4 converter.  

If there is a problem, it is the gap between my 12~40/2.8 Zuiko PRO and the 100mm minimum FL of the Vario-Elmar. Fortunately, I already own the superb 75/1.8 m.Zuiko, which is getting more use these days, and which fills that gap, admirably.

(My review of the 75/1.8 m.Zuiko is here, if you're interested.)

Panasonic's LEICA DG 100~400 Vario-Elmar is so good, that after just 10 weeks with the Vario-Elmar, I sold my Telyt AND my 50~200 f2.8-3.5 SWD Zuiko!

I think that says more than anything else.


Thanks for reading.

Originally written: Jan. 2018.  Last updated: 26 July, 2018

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