Handling and Features
The range of the Micro-Four-Thirds system is extended even further by this new Leica DG lens from Panasonic. With a 35mm-equivalent range of 200-800mm in a very compact design, there is huge potential for sport, bird and other wildlife photography. It will be interesting to find out if such a powerful lens is actually easy to manage and if the image quality matches up to the exciting potential.
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH Handling and Features
Considering the size an 800mm lens would be for a 35mm-format camera, this 100-400mm is positively diminutive. It balances very well with the Panasonic Lumix GX8 body provided for this review, which makes the combination very simple to wield and use. There is a potential danger in this as there is no reduction in the care needed to bring the best out of such a long lens and we need to remember that camera shake is the ever present issue. Fortunately, the Power I.O.S. (optical image stabilisation) seems highly effective. This opens up areas previously the purview of huge, expensive professional lenses.
The other lens controls consist of the usual AF/MF switch and a focus limiter that restricts the AF range to between 5m and infinity. This will help speed up the AF for more distant subjects, as does the silent 240fps AF drive. This silent AF operation optimises the lens for 4K video shooting. AF certainly does lock on swiftly and seems highly accurate. Focusing is down to a very close 1.3m, which gives a magnification of 0.25x (1:4), or 0.5x (1:2) in 35mm terms.
The lens takes 72mm filters, has internal focusing, nine diaphragm blades and weighs a fairly modest 985g. It is labelled as being Weather Resistant, which is almost becoming a requirement for lenses that will be used extensively in the field.
There are a few operational details that show the degree of thought that has gone into the design. There is a rotating lock for the zoom action, to either prevent creep or to lock the lens onto a particular focal length. There is a knurled knob on the lens that allows the camera and lens to rotate between landscape and portrait orientations, whilst the lens controls remain in the same place and fully accessible. What a great idea. There is also an extension foot for the tripod mount on the lens, making more hand space for the zoom ring when the lens is mounted on a tripod. Finally, a small but effective slide out lens hood helps to reduce any flare.
Lens construction is 20 elements in 13 groups, including two ED (extra low dispersion), one UED (ultra-extra low dispersion) and one Aspherical ED element. The lens body is reassuringly solid and needs to be to keep this complex array of glass in alignment.
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH Performance
Theory tells us that a “perfect lens” would be at its sharpest wide open, with diffraction limiting performance as we stop down. This may not be a perfect lens in the literal sense, but its behaviour is rather like that when we look at sharpness. At all focal lengths, wide open is the sharpest aperture and this becomes limited by diffraction as we stop down.
At 100mm, the centre starts off at excellent levels that approach outstanding, maintaining this at one stop down and with the edges almost matching. Excellent at f/8, still very good at f/11 and dropping to fair levels at f/22.
At 200mm, wide open results are outstanding at the centre and almost matched one stop down. This excellent performance extends to f/8, after which sharpness slowly drops until f/22 is just fairly good. The edges follow the same pattern, albeit at a slightly lower level.
At 300mm, wide open the lens shows excellent sharpness at the centre, which is maintained down to f/8. F/11 and f/16 are still very good, but f/22 results are only fair. At the edges, excellent sharpness is seen at f/5.6 and f/8, dropping to very good at f/11, good at f/16 and fair at f/22. The pattern of wide open excellence is the same as at the shorter focal lengths.
At 400mm sharpness is not quite so high, but overall remains very good, slowly reducing as we move from full aperture, showing a similar pattern to the shorter focal lengths. In summary, the lens has an excellent level of sharpness that is best at open aperture and one stop down. This is actually very useful, as images of distant subjects will often benefit from out of focus backgrounds (limited depth of field) and the fastest shutter speeds will help avoid subject movement.
How to read our charts
The blue column represents readings from the centre of the picture frame at the various apertures and the green is from the edges.
The scale on the left side is an indication of actual image resolution as LW/PH and is described in detail above. The taller the column, the better the lens performance.
For this review, the lens was tested on a Panasonic Lumix GX8
CA (Chromatic Aberration) is also well under control. The edges are slightly less well controlled than the centre, but still very good indeed. At 100mm centre CA is hovering below one third of a pixel, with the edges up to one pixel. A similar picture is seen at 200mm and 300mm and slightly less so at 400mm. In use, CA was not evident in the images.
How to read our charts
Chromatic aberration is the lens' inability to focus on the sensor or film all colours of visible light at the same point. Severe chromatic aberration gives a noticeable fringing or a halo effect around sharp edges within the picture. It can be cured in software.
Apochromatic lenses have special lens elements (aspheric, extra-low dispersion etc) to minimize the problem, hence they usually cost more.
For this review, the lens was tested on a Panasonic Lumix GX8
Bokeh is almost always going to be subdued and pleasant in very long lenses and in this case the nine bladed diaphragm assists the optical design to deliver beautiful out of focus areas.
All of this would be in vain if camera shake takes the edge off sharpness, as it is normally bound to do. Even on a tripod, the image wavers about at 400mm and for the best results the self timer, set to 10 seconds, gives enough time for vibrations to settle. Without a tripod and switching on the OIS system, amazingly slow shutter speeds can be used. The image stabilises in the viewfinder very smartly and we can get away with perhaps 4 stops or more, depending on the individual photographer. At 400mm (800mm at 35mm-equivalent) normally at least 1/800 sec would be needed, but using IOS, 1/60 sec is possible. Of course, this does not help with subject movement.
I anticipated that a very compact design might mean a higher level of distortion, but actually the lens has as near to zero distortion as it's possible to get. Imatest measures very, very small amounts of barrel distortion, -0.00544% at 100mm, -0.0141% at 200mm, -0.00652% at 300mm, and -0.0174% at 400mm. A superb result.
Finally, resistance to flare is also excellent. It is almost impossible to introduce image artifacts from internal reflections. The worst we see is a drop in contrast if the sun is just out of frame. Flare is not a problem in most situations.
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH Sample Photos
Value For Money
The Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 Aspherical lens is priced at £1349, certainly not an insignificant amount. However, it now offers the longest focal length for MFT format along with a really excellent overall performance. The nearest MFT competitors are actually 300mm lenses, such as the Olympus 300mm f/4 recently reviewed, but that lens is actually more expensive at £2199.
The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR AF-S is a possible close match for Nikon users at £1179. For Canon there is the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM at £8598. Pentax users would look to the HD Pentax-D FA 150-450mm f/4.5-5.6 as the nearest match at £1599.
Against this backdrop, it would seem the Panasonic lens is pretty unique in its class and reasonably priced for MFT users. It is still a large investment though, and a lens with fairly clear cut specialist applications.
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH Verdict
Sometimes there are few choices in certain niches. This Panasonic Leica DG 100-400mm lens fits its purpose very well indeed, at a price which, although high, is reasonable in its class. If we want a high quality optic for sports, birding, wildlife, photo-journalism and other long range applications then this is it. The close focusing that brings closer subjects into range is a bonus.
The Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 lens delivers very impressive performance and the longest lens for MFT format.
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH Specifications
- Panasonic Micro Four Thirds
- Olympus Micro Four Thirds
|Focal Length||100mm - 400mm|
|Angle of View||3.1° - 12°|
|Max Aperture||f/4 - f/6.3|
|35mm equivalent||200mm - 800mm|
|Maximum magnification||No Data|
|Box Contents||No Data|
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N.B. Test carried out with a pre-production version of the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH. lens which is representative of final image quality.