Which Telephoto Lens For Safari 2016?


DDFZ

Regular readers will know that I have been a mirrorless convert since late 2013, which is when I got my Olympus E-M1. That camera has now been on 6 safaris with me in the past couple of years, including a foot slog through the iMfolozi game reserve last year. Apart from an issue with the rear command dial not making proper contact (apparently caused by dust) it has been 100% reliable. In a few weeks time it will come with me back to Sabi Sabi for yet another safari. 

 

The Mk II version is expected sometime this year but to be honest, it will take something truly extra-ordinary to come out for me to consider upgrading. I’m not that keen on more mega-pixels and I have found the auto focus system to be quite suitable for my needs. Improvements in the menu interface would be welcome though. I suppose the EVF technology is also improved quite a bit these days, although while what’s in the E-M1 now is perfectly fine for me, I do recall that the jump from the original E-M5 to the E-M1 in terms of EVF was significant. 

 

So, camera sorted, what lenses have been the best performers for me on safari? 

 

Over the past couple of years I have used a variety of different telephoto lenses on safari. When I was first getting into the m43 system I had the Panasonic 45-175mm X series lens (90-350mm F35 angle equiv) which did well in good light. It’s probably the one m43 lens I most regret selling, especially since the lens I gave it up for, the Olympus 75-300mm really failed to impress me. The Panasonic is very small, has a motorised zoom and while it’s got decent sharpness in its focal range, it’s best feature for me is the fact that it doesn’t change length when zooming. For a lens that is less than 10cm long, it makes a very worthy travel option. However, on safari you might find yourself wanting more range on the long side.

 

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Image taken with Panasonic 45-175mm and Olympus E-M5

 

The Olympus 75-300mm that I mentioned certainly does give you the extra zoom range (150-600mm F35 eq) and could be considered good enough in terms of sharpness, but that slow aperture of f/6.7 at the long end just proved to be too slow, especially when light levels drop. Also, one has to understand that with such a narrow angle of view (4.1˚) you really do need good stability to get sharp photos. Even with the IBIS I often battled to hold this lens steady enough when used at 300mm. I don’t have a single photo shot with this lens that I am totally happy with. At the time I got it though it was the only game in town for m43, unless you were fortunate enough to have some legacy 4/3 telephoto glass in your back pocket, like Olympus’ 90-250/2.8 and their 300/2.8. 

 

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Image with Olympus 75-300mm on Olympus E-M1

 

In 2014 I did manage to obtain an Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD lens which I used on both the Wild Waterways and Ultimate Big 5 safaris that year. I was very happy with the reach and the image quality from that lens. The equivalent Nikon/Canon option is the 80-400/100-400mm lenses, but those are slower by 1.5 stops when compared to the humble Olympus (which I should add is still obtainable new for around $1200). In my old Canon days I had the original 100-400mm lens and hated it immensely. I believe the new one is much, much better, as is the new Nikon 80-400mm. Those lenses are much more expensive than the Olympus. 

 

The Olympus 50-200mm didn’t come with me on safari in 2015. Instead I opted to use the Olympus 40-150/2.8 PRO with the 1.4x TC. This was a mistake. The 40-150 is very good for subjects that are close to you (like within 30m or so), but as soon as those subjects get a bit further away I found that the lens performance dropped off. The images just seemed to lose their pop for me and subjects weren’t well defined at all. Also, the bokeh of this lens is a bit nervous in my opinion whereas the 50-200mm has beautiful bokeh and is also quite good on distant subjects. This will be my main lens for safari again this year. 

 

Here are some images with that old Olympus. 

 

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Not hard to see why I like it so much. 

 

New lenses I would like to try on safari include the new Olympus 300/4.0 PRO and the Panasonic 100-400mm. The Olympus continues to get rave reviews from users, but I fear that it will be simply too long to use at a place like Sabi Sabi where we get very close to our subjects. If I was interested in birds then that would be a different story. The Panasonic remains an unknown entity for safaris so hopefully soon I might be able to get one for evaluation. It certainly does have a good range for that use.

 

Bag wise I am considering taking only my little ThinkTank Retrospective 7 this year. I have the much bigger Retro 50 which can take my laptop, but once I am there I don't want to carry such a big bag around on the vehicle so I will probably take the Retro 7 with the 2 E-M1 bodies, the 50-200/2.8-3.5 on one body with a grip and my other body with the 12-40/2.8 PRO for general purpose snapshots. If I get a demo lens from either Panasonic or Olympus to try out then I will have to take the bigger bag. 

 

One thing is for sure, I am really looking forward to being on safari again! 

 

Edited by DDFZ




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A friend of mine just came to visit and he has the Panasonic 100-400mm on loan from another friend. I tried it out on the E-M1 and it is very nice! Excellent compact size, great construction and when using the built in stabilizer together with the IBIS the stability at 400mm is amazing. Really would have wanted one of these to use on safari this year. It has an amazing zoom range. 

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1 hour ago, DDFZ said:

A friend of mine just came to visit and he has the Panasonic 100-400mm on loan from another friend. I tried it out on the E-M1 and it is very nice! Excellent compact size, great construction and when using the built in stabilizer together with the IBIS the stability at 400mm is amazing. Really would have wanted one of these to use on safari this year. It has an amazing zoom range. 

 

I received my Panasonic 100-400mm in the late spring and agree, it is a very good lens.  Note that on Olympus bodies you can use either the lens stabilisation or IBIS, depending on the stabilisation priority setting (on the EM1: gear/c/Lens I.S. Priority), but not both together. On some Panasonic bodies, e.g., GX8, they can work together.  I have an EM1 also and find that I get better stability with this lens using the lens stabilisation.

 

Peter

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I am very happy with my 50-200mm on an E-M1 body.  I purchased it from a young lad who had to have the latest and greatest and paid about half of new price.  It was only 3 months old and it still had the rest of the manufacturers warranty on it, so I could hardly lose. Have added a permanently attached Arca Swiss dovetail to the very rigid tripod bracket.  Am impressed with its build and the use of that old fashioned material from yester year that I have heard is known as metal! :crazy:

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1 hour ago, PFrank said:

 

I received my Panasonic 100-400mm in the late spring and agree, it is a very good lens.  Note that on Olympus bodies you can use either the lens stabilisation or IBIS, depending on the stabilisation priority setting (on the EM1: gear/c/Lens I.S. Priority), but not both together. On some Panasonic bodies, e.g., GX8, they can work together.  I have an EM1 also and find that I get better stability with this lens using the lens stabilisation.

 

Peter

 

I didn't really fiddle much, so I can't say definitively what was going on, but the lens stabiliser was off when I put it on the E-M1. Results were OK. When I switched on the lens stabiliser I didn't turn off anything on the camera but the stabilisation improved dramatically. I'll post a shot a bit later on. Does it over-ride the IBIS when turned on? 

 

22 minutes ago, Hugh_3170 said:

I am very happy with my 50-200mm on an E-M1 body.  I purchased it from a young lad who had to have the latest and greatest and paid about half of new price.  It was only 3 months old and it still had the rest of the manufacturers warranty on it, so I could hardly lose. Have added a permanently attached Arca Swiss dovetail to the very rigid tripod bracket.  Am impressed with its build and the use of that old fashioned material from yester year that I have heard is known as metal! :crazy:

 

I've actually taken the tripod ring off mine and I also leave the lens hood at home when I take this lens to weddings. It becomes just as compact as the 40-150/2.8 PRO, but has the extra range on the long end. And the bokeh is way, way better than the newer lens. 

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5 hours ago, vivionm said:

I have been dithering about the Fuji 100-400.

Have resisted so far.

 

Resistance is futile.

 

You should know that by now... :D

 

I pondered whether I'd get by with just the 50-140 and the TC1.4 - after all I never really used a lens longer than 200mm much in 45 years of photography.

 

Then I bought it anyway, and the bloody thing seems to be stuck on the camera. I managed to pry it off for a half hour to do some income-type work with the Zeiss Touit macro, but the 100-400 attached itself to the camera as soon as I'd finished and stayed there until tonight, when the macro got another quick go at the camera.

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3 hours ago, DDFZ said:

 

I didn't really fiddle much, so I can't say definitively what was going on, but the lens stabiliser was off when I put it on the E-M1. Results were OK. When I switched on the lens stabiliser I didn't turn off anything on the camera but the stabilisation improved dramatically. I'll post a shot a bit later on. Does it over-ride the IBIS when turned on? 

 

 

Check your settings; you may have the priority set on for the lens IS.  I don't know what the process is but I suspect that it is something like the body sensing a supported lens (not Olympus) with IS and, if the IS is turned on, the camera turns off IBIS.  With an Olympus lens like the new 300mm Pro both the lens IS and IBIS work together.  Unfortunately, Olympus and Panasonic use different methods so mixing brands between body and lens means choosing either lens IS or IBIS but not both.

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This was my first safari and I used the Olympus 40-150 F2.8 on my E-M5II and the Olympus 300mm f4.0 on my E-M1, sometimes adding the 1.4x tc for bird shots.  I also had an Olympus Air with me with either the Olympus 12mm f2.0 or the Olympus 8mm f1.8 on it.  The Air really delivered, especially the low light shots I took with it.  The Air and the 12mm made the best combination for the wide end.  What I found out was that I really, really needed something in the 150 to 300mm gap, as I missed some shots that I now regret.  With hindsight being 20/20, the Panasonic 100-400mm would have worked better than my Olympus 300mm most of the time.  I really hope Olympus makes a new Pro lens to fill the gap that includes their new found ability to combine lens and body stabilization!

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Panasonic announced (the development) of a 50-200mm f2.8-4 Panasonic/Leica lens at Photokina. That could be a very interesting (safari) lens, also Panasonic might be tempted to offer a 1.4x converter for it. 

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I have found that the Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD is miles ahead of the 40-150/2.8 PRO in terms of IQ, and of course the extra 50mm helps a lot without resorting to the TC. The difference in quality between my shots from last year and this year is quite profound as I go about editing them. I have very few out of focus shots with the 50-200mm whereas the 40-150/2.8 I used last year I had a lot of them. I think that this is because the older lens is locked into the PDAF sensors and the newer lens is CDAF only (or so I am told). I picked up that old lens for less than $200! 

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Dallas,

based on an email chain I had with olympus tech support(this was back in 2014, so not sure what has changed with the most recent versions of the AF because of the firmware updates):

 

My Question:

I just wanted to clarify a question about the focusing system on the OMD EM1.
How does the hybrid AF system work?  I see a lot of information out on photo forums that the PDAF system only works when a legacy 4/3 lens is attached.  My understanding is that the PDAF system works with micro 4/3 lenses as well, but the camera will determine which focusing system is best to incorporate at the time the shot is taken.

Does that sound accurate?
 

Olympus response:

Yes, the Dual FAST AF system can use both the contrast and phase detection elements when a micro 4/3 lens is used, the camera decides when to take advantage of both systems. If a 4/3 lens is used, only the phase detection portion is used. For more information regarding this, please refer to the following web page: 

http://asia.olympus-imaging.com/products/dslr/em1/feature/05/

If you require additional assistance please reply to this email leaving the complete history intact.

 

My follow up question:

Are there any guidelines regarding when the camera might choose one over the other?   
Like, when shooting in bright light, would the S-AF use PDAF, and then shift to CDAF when the light was too dim for PDAF to be effective? 
I'm also surmising that the PDAF would be preferred when using the C-AF Tracking.  Would the same be said for standard C-AF? 

Thanks again!! 

 

Olympus Response:

You are quite welcome. No, we don't have any published guidelines for this available to the public. This is all done automatically in the background by the camera, and there is no way to adjust or control this by the end user. I personally don't think that the camera is using one AF system over the other with these lenses, but both systems at the same time when possible. Please remember that this is proprietary system developed first by Olympus, and this is one of the main reason that a lot of these very specific technical details are kept confidential, to deter copying or "borrowing" of this technology by others. 

 

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Dallas, we talked about the Olympus 40-150 f2.8 versus the Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD at Sabi Sabi.  My experience with the 40-150 f2.8 differs from yours, as I find it incredibly quick to focus and only a hair less sharp than my Olympus 75mm f1.8.  I am thinking maybe the demo lens you had was not quite up to par?  I did use your Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD briefly, and while the extra reach to 200mm was nice, I greatly prefer the form and quickness of my 40-150 f2.8.  I have also pre-ordered the new Olympus 12-100mm f4, so it will be an interesting comparison with my 40-150 f2.8.

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It's possible I had a bad sample, but I recall really struggling with that 40-150mm lens the entire safari last year, especially in Botswana. 

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5 hours ago, DDFZ said:

It's possible I had a bad sample, but I recall really struggling with that 40-150mm lens the entire safari last year, especially in Botswana. 

 

Perhaps its worth a second round of testing! :D

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I'd have to buy a new one, but given my recent disaster in studio where I somehow managed to let an 8kg brass chest set fall onto my E-M1 + 12-40/2.8 PRO, replacing the short lens is a much higher priority. The E-M1 didn't have even a nick on it anywhere, but the 12-40 sheared off at the mount, leaving me in a state of high distress! 😭

 

The agents will be collecting it on Monday to assess whether it is possible to be repaired. 

WhatsApp Image 2016-10-06 at 13.50.16.jpeg

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Fingers crossed for Dallas that it is repairable.  While not a glamorous piece of glass, the 12-40 is a real work horse lens that never fails to deliver for me.

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I use this lens for everything from head shots to events to product photography and more. I haven't ever had a better zoom lens. It is astonishingly good at so many things. 

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On my recent trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana I brought my Nikon D800 with three lenses: the 24-120 F4.5 kit lens, 70-200 F2.8 VR II, and a new 200-500 F5.6. For wildlife I almost exclusively used the 200-500 and with the fantastic VR of this lens I was able to take all photos hand held and still get tack sharp photos. For street photography the 24-120 was best and I hardly ever used the 70-200.

 

Anker 

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Ouch Dallas.  I certainly hope that it is repairable and I suspect that it just might be.

 

The 12-40mm (and the Nikon 24-70mm Mk I) both have this "fusable link" design approach for their lens mounts where significant shocks to the lens and camera cause the links (in this case the mounts and/or their fasteners to let go rather than have the shock affect the rest of the camera or the main part of the lens.  Not quite like a lizard shedding its tail, but never the less, as with the lizard, still designed to protect the lens and camera as a whole. 

 

(Some jet aircraft have their engines also attached in this way to protect the airrframe if an engine seizes - something thank God that has not as yet happened in aviation to date and some of the newer aircraft designs have as a consequence done away with this practice.)

 

 

On 08/10/2016 at 16:39, DDFZ said:

I'd have to buy a new one, but given my recent disaster in studio where I somehow managed to let an 8kg brass chest set fall onto my E-M1 + 12-40/2.8 PRO, replacing the short lens is a much higher priority. The E-M1 didn't have even a nick on it anywhere, but the 12-40 sheared off at the mount, leaving me in a state of high distress! 😭

 

The agents will be collecting it on Monday to assess whether it is possible to be repaired.

 

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Based on shooting in Kenya last November and in Alaska this summer I recommend for an Oly m43 body:  4-150 pro, 300 pro, and the 1.4TC (used with either lens).   If you have a Lumix body that the Leica 100-400 should be excellent.    To get the max stabilization between the body and lens, don't mix brands.  

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Update received yesterday: my lens is beyond economic repair. Going to be a very glum Christmas. :( 

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Any consolation - that lens is on sale right now at B&H for $300 off....a steal at $699....except for shipping to SA and import charges.

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