Earlier today I went out to a lighting and studio gear importer to inquire about some studio lights for a job I am working on getting. I was there for a few minutes and on my way home I decided to head back down to the beach and see what the water was looking like. Well, compared to last week it was damn near perfect conditions for surf today and my eyes certainly lit up. A decent size swell of about 6’ with a gentle off-shore breeze made for some awesome waves. Judging by the number of surfers out there today compared to last week, I reckon Durban’s productivity was on an ebb for sure. It was pretty crowded.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the big 50-200mm 2.8-3.5 lens with me today, but I did have the Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II in my smaller ThinkTank Retro5, and this was the perfect opportunity to give that little lens a go on the E-M1 and see how it handles fast moving subjects. This is by no means a full, in depth review, rather some observations I have made while using it in the field doing actual, purpose oriented photography.
Okay, to begin with the Oly 75-300mm is now in its second incarnation for m43. I like the build quality of this lens quite a lot. It feels pretty well made and while it’s a lot bigger than the previous small telephoto I had for my mirrorless system (the Panasonic 45-175mm) it offers a much longer zoom range, the 135 system equivalent of a 150-600mm field of view. That’s a lot of zoom for a pretty small lens. For your average photo enthusiast it's about all the long lens they’ll ever need.
The one thing I don’t like compared to the Panasonic 45-175mm I had is that it’s a lens that extends quite a bit when zoomed out. I hate that, but I can live with it if the image quality is worthwhile. I certainly found the image quality of my extending and much bigger 50-200mm to be quite spectacular, so this one could be forgiven if the IQ is anywhere near what I’ve seen from the big lad.
click to enlarge
Surfing photography is hard. I’ve done this over the years with a variety of different cameras and lenses. You always end up with a lot of missed frames because keeping your focus point on the surfer while they do somewhat unpredictable manoeuvres on the wave is very tricky. Because I understand surfing a bit better than the average guy, I tend to know when a certain type of move is about to happen, so I keep my finger off the trigger until a split second before a big carving move or a floater is about to happen. You’ve got to have good reflexes and your camera’s auto focus system has to be up to the task, otherwise you’re just going to frustrate yourself. I’d say getting about a 10% hit rate is a good round of shooting. Fortunately the E-M1 is no slouch with autofocus and even using a slow lens like the 75-300mm I’m seeing decent enough focus acquisition in good daylight. It’s not in the league of some of the super telephotos I have used for DSLR’s, but then it’s not expected to be either. If I remember the AF of my old Nikon 70-300mm VR I’d say it’s probably in the same class as when I used that lens on a D700. There’s no hunting, but there’s definitely a slight delay between activation and acquisition.
click to enlarge
For these shots I was on my usual pier and most of the action was happening about 30-50m away from my position. Sometimes I shot further away, sometimes closer, but the best shots are these ones you’re seeing here which were about 50m away if the EXIF is to be trusted.
As with the previous surfing excursion I had the E-M1 set up to use AF-Tracking mode, which is different to AF-C mode. With this mode you need to first use one of your AF points to acquire focus, then the E-M1 takes over and tracks a discernible subject pretty much all over the frame using a big “top gun” like target. If the target is illuminated in green your subject is in focus, but if it loses focus it changes colour to orange and seems to drift off the screen. I had the cetral AF point selected. Unlike when I was using the 50-200mm 4/3rds lens, this is a native m43 lens, so the E-M1 uses CDAF all the time when tracking. This is supposed to be inferior to PDAF, but in all honesty, I wasn’t seeing a difference. It was certainly a lot better on the E-M1 than when I have tried AF-Tracking on the E-M5.
click to enlarge
With regard sharpness, this lens is obviously not in the same class as the 50-200mm lens, but it is acceptably sharp. I found that it’s definitely sharper at 200mm than it is at 300mm, but that could be a camera shake issue. I had the camera set up to switch off the IBIS while it was taking high FPS bursts so I could get more frames per second. I had also set the camera to not review the images just shot and that makes a huge difference with shooting action. The EVF refreshes really quickly and I could follow the surfers very easily. I have a 3 second series of 25 shots of the surfer above starting his ride, entering the barrel and emerging from it, with all of them in focus. I think that test is more than enough evidence that you can shoot fast action with the E-M1 and not lose track of what you’re shooting.
At the end of the day, I’m going to say that this particular lens is probably more suited to casual photography, especially for someone who is looking for an affordable long range zoom without breaking the bank or over burdening themselves with a huge lens. I’ve certainly seem some excellent work shown online with it, but for the advanced shooter who’s looking for something with a bit more bite you’re probably going to want to use the the 55-200mm f/2.8-3.5 or if you can afford it the 90-250mm f/2.8. I’d love to try out the latter lens on the E-M1 and see how it fares with surfing photography.
It’s nice to have this kind of zoom range though. Something I like a lot is that it focuses on very close subjects, under a metre when at 75mm. It’s light and weirdly the zoom and focus ring are not typically rubber clad - they appear to be milled into the polycarbonate material the lens is made from, so the lens won’t get that grubby look as it gets older. The zoom ring is very smooth, as is the focus ring, but I can’t see any sane person wanting to focus this lens manually. It’s a handsome match for the E-M1 in the looks department, even if it does extend when zooming. I don’t have the hood for it yet, so I am not sure how it will fit into my Retro5 with it on, but for now it fits perfectly into one of my customised small compartments. If I’m out on a photo walk somewhere I will definitely appreciate having this kind of reach in my bag. Of course if Olympus bring out a 2x teleconverter that works with the upcoming 40-150mm f/2.8 that would be preferable, but for now this will do.
click to enlarge
If you're planning on buying this lens, please consider getting it from Amazon.com using this link. It won't cost you anything but it will help me keep this site funded with a small commission I get from them.