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Jun 12

Review: Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3 DG Vario-Elmar OIS

Micro 4/3 has long been a great system for getting quite a bit of reach out of a small package, though pro-grade super-telephoto lenses have been missing from the system until this year.  While Olympus released an excellent 300mm f/4 prime lens, Panasonic chose to enter this space with this lens: the Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3.  This lens is on the larger side for a Micro 4/3 lens, but is extremely small for the reach it provides: a massive 200-800mm full frame equivalent field of view. Panasonic’s Leica-branded lenses have been historically fairly good, so I had high hopes for this lens.  Let’s see if it’s worth the $1,798 asking price.

The Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3 OIS on the Olympus E-M10 Mark II

The Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3 OIS on the Olympus E-M10 Mark II

Construction and Handling

Panasonic’s Leica-branded optics, which now number 5, have come in two distinct build styles: a plastic exterior with rubber grip, used on the 25mm f/1.4 and 45mm f/2.8 Macro, and a matte-finished metal exterior with fine metal ribbing on the zoom and focus rings, used on the 42.5mm f/1.2, the 15mm f/1.7, and now this lens. The 100-400mm has a very nice metal finish for the entirety of the exterior, though it’s a surprisingly lightweight lens given the size and focal length. Panasonic has done a great job in the construction of the lens; there is no flex or wobble anywhere in the lens, and all controls move smoothly and purposefully.  The lens extends dramatically towards the long end of the zoom range, and the single extension tube is made of high-grade plastic. In the picture below, you can see the difference in the length of the lens at 100mm and 400mm. Despite the optical illusion from the bokeh pattern of the bottom image, there is no movement or wobbling of the lens tube at full extension.  It’s very solid.

The 100-400mm at 100mm (top) and 400mm (bottom). The lens does not actually dip down at full extension: it's an optical illusion in this image.

The 100-400mm at 100mm (top) and 400mm (bottom). The lens does not actually dip down at full extension: it’s an optical illusion in this image.

One thing you may also notice about the images above is that the lens is rotated on the tripod collar to the vertical orientation, yet the focus limiter, focus switch and OIS switch all remain at the left side. Panasonic has created a very unique collar assembly here, where the optics of the lens rotate inside the entire front barrel assembly, such that the controls always stay to the left of the tripod foot. It’s a very nice touch. One quirk this creates that can be viewed as either a positive or a negative, is that the tripod collar can only be rotated between 0 degrees and 90 degrees counterclockwise.  It cannot be rotated clockwise from landscape, and it can’t go beyond perfectly vertical.  If you would prefer not to have the tripod foot on the lens, it is removable with the very large thumb screw that can be seen in the images above.

As I mentioned before, in absolute terms, this is a big lens on Micro 4/3, and so you’ll want to use it on a camera that has a fairly substantial grip.  I used the ECG-3 hand grip on my E-M10 II the entire time during testing, and it handled very well.  Cameras like the Panasonic GH or G series,the GX8 and the Olympus OM-D series cameras (perhaps with extra grips on the 5 and 10 series) should all be fine. Using it with smaller bodies will of course work, but may be a bit unwieldy on those smaller cameras.  Despite the big size for Micro 4/3, what I was perhaps most impressed with on this lens was how small it was compared to other 100-400mm lenses I’ve used.  It’s much smaller than Fuji’s 100-400mm lens, and the same goes for the Canon and Nikon camp.  When you consider the 800mm effective field of view, this is one of the most compact super-telephoto lenses one can use with a good-sized sensor, and it adds to the versatility considerably.

The Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3

The Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3

The one thing I do not like about the 100-400mm is the hood situation.  The lens sort of has a dual-hood configuration.  There’s a small hood built into the lens, that can be pulled forward to provide a small amount of shading for the front element.  This is nice to have built in, but it also a shallow hood that doesn’t do a lot considering the very narrow angle of view.  Then there’s a second, removable and reversible hood (visible in the extension comparison photos above), which locks on to the built-in hood, and secures via thumb-screw.  I’m not a huge fan of thumb screw hoods, as they take too much time to take off and put on, and the fact that it attaches the already built-in extending hood is just bizarre.  I really wish Panasonic had either made a single bayonet mount reversing hood, or made the built-in hood deeper.  There were multiple options of how to make a lens hood for this lens, and Panasonic picked the worst two and combined them.

There is also a zoom lock ring that can be twisted to lock the zoom position and prevent zoom creep, though I found it largely unnecessary, as the zoom action was stiff enough to resist any creep in the focal length.

Autofocus and Image Stabilization

The Leica 100-400mm features a very fast and quiet autofocus motor, and in good light, the lens will lock focus almost instantly. Speed is definitely not a problem, and in those bodies with phase detect focus or Panasonic’s DFD, I’d imagine this lens would be great for capturing birds in flight and so on. I even managed to get a few birds in flight photos in perfect focus using the CDAF of my E-M10 Mark II.

Great Blue Heron in Flight - Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II with Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3 @ 400mm, f/6.3

Great Blue Heron in Flight – Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II with Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3 @ 400mm, f/6.3

Unfortunately, the focus isn’t perfect.  I did have a few situation where further distant subjects would be almost in focus, but were just a smidge out, making the subject a bit soft.  Also, take care to use the focus limiter if you’re shooting further subjects, as there were several instances where I didn’t have it engaged, and it would sort of get ‘stuck’ at a closer focus distance, and would think that the big blurry bokeh balls were sharp and in focus.  Switching the limiter on fixed these situations. Overall, though, the autofocus was more than capable.

The 100-400mm, like most long Panasonic lenses, has a built-in optical image stabilizer. While in-body IS is appearing on more Panasonic bodies, and Olympus’ excellent IBIS system has been around for years, there are limitations to in-body stabilization when it comes to very long glass.  The stabilizer on the 100-400mm is very good, and I found it to provide an extra 4 stops or more of handholdability in most situations.  Normally, a lens this long would require 1/800-1/1000s shutter speeds at the long end to achieve blur-free images, but I was able to get fairly consistent results at around 1/50s at 400mm.  The OIS, combined with excellent reach in a fairly compact package makes this lens, despite the slower f/6.3 aperture, completely usable as a handheld lens for birding or other long-reach requirements.

Continue: Image Quality

About the author

Jordan Steele

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Admiring Light; Photographer; Electrical Engineer and Dad

18 comments

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  1. Emerson

    Great review, Jordan. In your opinion, how does it fare against the Oly 75-300mm? Is the Leica an “upgrade” over the Oly?

    1. Jordan Steele

      It is. It’s a better optic, though the question of how much better comes into play. For me, who only occasionally shoots wildlife and only rarely needs this much reach, the 75-300 makes a lot more sense. If you shoot very long a lot, the extra reach and a bit sharper results will make the 100-400 a better choice.

  2. Les

    Great review. I have a question: did you use lens stabization or IBIS.? Which would you recommend? I am sold on the lens but can’t decide between a gx8 or the em 5 mkII you use
    Thanks
    Les

  3. Les

    Sorry. Just reread your review and saw the answer.

  4. Tim L

    Love that image of the cardinal.

  5. thecloudguy

    I think you would get drastically different auto focus results with a Panasonic camera that has DHD together with this lens. Just because it’s the same (MFT) mount doesn’t mean that both Olympus and Panasonic don’t have features when using their equipment. If you were going to spend that much money on a lens it’s worthwhile considering a Panasonic body that is software tuned to take full advantage of the hardware. You should mention in the article that with DHD auto focus results should be better.

    1. Jordan Steele

      I’m not going to mention something I didn’t test first hand. And when one of the main draws for Micro 4/3 is the use of two OEM brands intertwined, testing on an Olympus body is just as valid a result. FWIW, there is no guarantee of better accuracy between bodies. I found, for instance, the Panasonic 25/1.7 to focus more accurate on the OM-D line than on the Panasonic GX8.

      1. jeffharris

        Hi Jordan,

        An excellent review!
        I use the 100-400mm with a Panasonic GX8.

        The focus abilities with (I assume) DFD (Depth from Defocus) are very impressive! It’s extremely fast, snapping into focus instantly. Works very well in low light. I rarely get the dreaded will not fire red box.

        Focus accuracy is also extremely good. Using either the smallest single point focus box or pinpoint, I’m able to focus on birds behind branches and foliage consistently. Often, it’s even able to focus on birds behind leaves! I’m guessing that’s DFD at work, too. Compared to the 100-300mm, which I used for about 4 years, it’s another world entirely! The first few times it did this I was flabbergasted, being so used to giving up with the slow to focus, seemingly endless hunting and extremely finicky 109-300mm.

        One word on the terrible lens hood. I picked up a screw-on B+W 72mm Folding Rubber Lens Hood. It stays on the lens at all times.

  6. Jørgen

    I find your remark senseless and silly, Go test it on an EPL1 then and then say something conclusive about the lens. I expect expertise from a reviewer, not denial as an answer to the very Obvious and well known fact DFD on Panasonic cams does much better with C-AF than any Oly cam bar the EM1.

    1. Jordan Steele

      Your interpretation of my remark is extremely misguided. You find it senseless that I won’t write a statement about focus that I can’t verify? Seriously? Do you know what a disaster it would be if I added things that were suggested by commenters in every review? What exactly in my review do you object to? I never said that C-AF was terrible with this lens. I never said that it couldn’t keep up. I said I had occasional accuracy issues on distant subjects (and this was in S-AF). That’s a factual statement, and nothing I’ve seen between the different manufacturer’s cameras would lead me to believe that the issue would be different on a Panasonic body. If you want me to test all lenses on a newer Panasonic body as well, I’ll gladly accept a donation of a new GX8.

  7. Jørgen

    It is precisely your inconsistency that also filters through in your reply to me and you also sidestep the argument in your reply.

    1) So now you imply you do not mention AF you cannot verify….Right?
    2) My problem was precisely that. In contrast ot your rhethoric queston the fact is you DO mention EM1 AF(only one PDAF body in MFT land isn’t it)) without any verification, so why not DFD??.

    Reason: both are taylored towards much better C-AF and if you read some reviews you know both work well whereas all Oly cams bar EM1 are bad at C-AF…

    I never asked you to just write what people like me tell you to. I just point you to your inconsistent wording here and the fact that you leave out something we can consider common knowledge by now. Whatever you do with that is up to you. But yes: I do expect you to change a review when you think whatever someone tells you about it is mostly valid and not just anything.

    When I point you to common knowledge as it means that you do not have to use a Panasonic body at all. You can again make a statement very similar to the statement on PDAF. So again, I did not ask you to do that and I did not imply it. It is pretty obvious I think a reviewer should at least know about developments on topic in other bodies and at least mention these as a factor in the outcome of a lenstest.

    1. Jordan Steele

      I see. I misunderstood your original point. I had thought you were talking about my accuracy point as it was one of my negatives, and I wasn’t going to say accuracy was better on a camera I hadn’t tested. The oversight on that statement wasn’t intentional, and has been updated. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  8. Jørgen

    On a positive note: I like the review, I like your writing style and I love the pics you took. Just to give you some perspective, it is one remark or the lack thereoff that I disagree with.

  9. Gary Davidson

    Hi Jordan Steele,
    I am a friend of Bobby T., who I believe you know. I have just submitted focusing issues to senior tech support at Olympus to review as it relates to the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the 300mm f/4 + 1.4x TC because of focusing problems. If I use Silent [0] (Electronic shutter), the results at 840mm [full frame equivalent] are tack on sharp. If I use their Anti-shock [0] mode (Mechanical shutter), I get slightly out-of-focus, or as you call it, soft focus. It is totally repeatable hand held or on a tripod. I also own the new Panasonic DMC-GX8 camera and the PL 100-400mm f/4-6.3 lens. Using these Panasonic products together at 800mm [full frame equivalent] the results are again tack on sharp in the E-shutter mode, but like the Olympus gear, the results are slightly out-of-focus or soft focus when using the standard mechanical shutter. I have sent the DMC-GX8 camera back to Panasonic for review and potential repair. With Olympus I used their new Sync IS [IBIS+OIS] and likewise with the Panasonic I used Dual [IBIS + OIS], so we know the problems are unrelated to image stabilization. Frankly, I think that we are dealing with mechanical shutter shock at these extreme focus lengths and I am not sure it can be fixed in firmware. So, I am wondering if you had the same problem when you noted soft focus at 800mm if you were using the Mechanical shutter in your E-M10 II camera?

    1. Jordan Steele

      I used the electronic first curtain throughout (anti shock)

  10. Ted K.

    Thanks, Jordan, excellent review – as always. I received mine back in late April and have used it extensively on a just completed 70-day, 11,413 mile Bucket List road trip. I had some terrific results with this lens mounted on my Pani GX8 capturing distant mountain peaks, mountain goats, hummingbirds, mule deer, bison and seals. However, as you mention (“…and it would sort of get ‘stuck’ at a closer focus distance…”) I also found the GX8 would, occasionally experience this same phenomenon and I agree with Gary D., it likely is shutter shock. BTW, in bright sunlit situations I would occasionally digitally zoom to 2x and have several stunning examples of a strutting seagull and Sedona’s red buttes (a bit too washed out at 4x digital magnification). All in all, I am extremely pleased to own this relatively reasonably priced lens (compared to Canon or Nikon). One last thing, I also own the Oly 75-300mm (latest version) and it is not as tack sharp at full tele as the Leica/Pani lens – great lens for the price, but not as sharp.

  11. Brian WAdie

    I am enjoying using this lens on my EM-1 very much but several of us have found that trying to use the OIS when panning sequential shots leads to moments of extreme image instability.

    I’ve searched Panasonic’s information and they say nothing about this and I wondered if you had any information as to whether or not this is expected behaviour (the work around of using the EM-1 IBIS when panning seems to work)

    (This has been reported with the G8 as well as the EM-1)

  12. fernando

    Dear All
    Have some issues with focus and the 100-400mm panasonic zoom and my GH4. Although my MF peaking shows thats my image is OK or AF don’t show any issues my end video images are blurry. Can anybody help? Tks Fernando

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