Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm 1:4.8-6.7 II

Introduction

Olympus currently have only one super-telephoto zoom in their lineup: the M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm 1:4.8-6.7 II (75-300 II). Following on from the original M. Zuiko 75-300, the Mark II features Olympus’ ZERO optical coating (which was absent on the original), as well as a redesigned housing to fit in with the latest lenses in the M. Zuiko lineup.

My Olmypus M. Zuiko ED 75-300 II, fitted with a JJC lens hood.
My Olmypus M. Zuiko ED 75-300 II, fitted with a JJC lens hood.

I bought my 75-300 II a year ago to get back into super-telephoto work, which I hadn’t been able to do since parting ways with my Pentax K-7 and Sigma 150-500 mm f/5-6.3. During the time I’ve owned the 75-300 II, it’s seen a fair amount of use in all conditions, especially for photos of birds and the moon. This post will explore my opinions on the 75-300 II in terms of its design, utility and image quality. It won’t be technically exhaustive, nor will it be excruciatingly detailed; there are better sources of that information if you’re interested. Before wrapping up the post, I will share my thoughts on how the 75-300 II compares to my erstwhile Sigma 150-500. I will also discuss my thoughts on the super-telephoto lens options for Micro Four Thirds users.

Design

The 75-300 II covers a 35 mm equivalent focal length range of 150-600 mm, planting it comfortably in the super-telephoto category. Considering the focal length range, and the fact that it is a 4x zoom, the lens is quite compact: with a lens hood and rear cap, I measured it to be 184 mm long at the wide end, and 231 mm long at the tele end; without the hood, I measured it to be 129 mm long at the wide end, and 177 mm long at the tele end; making it very easy to pack into most camera bags. The lens is also relatively narrow, being threaded for 58 mm filters. Since the front element doesn’t rotate, graduated filters and polarisers should be as easy to use as solid filters; I can’t comment on this specifically in terms of utility, as I am yet to use filters with the lens.

A mallard drake navigates a channel at the Hawksbury Lagoon Wildlife Refuge, Waikouaiti, Dunedin.  Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/2000 s, f/8, ISO 1600, sighted with Olympus EE-1 Red Dot Sight.
A mallard drake navigates a channel at the Hawksbury Lagoon Wildlife Refuge, Waikouaiti, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/2000 s, f/8, ISO 1600, sighted with Olympus EE-1 Red Dot Sight.

Save for the markings and a decorative ring around the front of the barrel, the lens is finished entirely in black. The barrel itself is dominated by the zoom ring, with a slender grip area at the back for fixing and removing the lens from a camera body, and a finger-width manual focus ring at the front of the lens. The zoom and focus rings have different patterns for differentiation by feel, and are separated by a thin ring which is adorned with the bulk of the technical specifications of the lens. Although the entire construction (except for the optical system) is made of plastic and lacks weather sealing, it feels well assembled and doesn’t scream cheapness. This is corroborated by the lack of any significant zoom creep, which tends to suggest that it has been built to a decent standard.

A stack at Allans Beach, Otago Peninsula, Dunedin.  Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/800 s, f/8, ISO 200.
A stack at Allans Beach, Otago Peninsula, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/800 s, f/8, ISO 200.

Like every lens below the M. Zuiko PRO line, the 75-300 II doesn’t include a lens hood. I bought a JJC replacement lens hood, which to all intents and purposes is identical to the Olympus item, save for the word “Olympus” being written on it. The hood is deep, and provides excellent shading of the front element throughout the zoom range. The bayonet mount for the hood seems very secure; it’s one of the few lens hoods I haven’t dislodged in use.

Utility

On the larger Micro Four Thirds bodies, especially those fitted with an accessory grip, the lens handles very nicely; I haven’t seen any point in trying it on a smaller body. It never feels front heavy, and all the controls are easily reached by the left hand, even with the palm bracing the camera body. The zoom ring and focus ring are easily distinguished by feel when in use, and have a nicely damped feel to them. However, I think that the zoom ring extends back too far; I always zoom the lens out by accident when mounting it on a camera or manipulating the lens hood, no matter how careful I am.

A Stewart Island shag flying over the sea off the coast of Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/1000 s, f/8, ISO 320, sighted with Olympus EE-1 Red Dot Sight.
A Stewart Island shag flying over the sea off the coast of Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/1000 s, f/8, ISO 320, sighted with Olympus EE-1 Red Dot Sight.

In use, the lens focuses quietly and reasonably quickly, although it can hunt a lot at the long end of the zoom range, especially in low light. This could have been resolved by the addition of a focus limiter (either in the lens of the camera body), but at the price, there were bound to be compromises in the feature set. Manual focusing, as with most long lenses, seems to take quite a while, especially when going from one end of the range to the other. This isn’t helped by the lack of a manual focus scale; I feel like this lens would really benefit from the snap-focus mechanism which Olympus are putting into a number of their other lenses. The zoom range is good, and I find it works well for birds, although I sometimes wish I had a little more reach at the long end of the range.

The two things which I feel really let the lens down are the relatively slow maximum aperture range of f/4.8-6.7 and its lack of weather sealing.

A white faced heron flying over Hooper's Inlet on the Otago Peninsula, Dunedin.  Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/1000 s, f/8, ISO 1000, sighted with Olympus EE-1 Red Dot Sight.
A white faced heron flying over Hooper’s Inlet on the Otago Peninsula, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/1000 s, f/8, ISO 1000, sighted with Olympus EE-1 Red Dot Sight.

I find the maximum aperture can be restrictive in terms of the maximum shutter speeds available to freeze action, and the lowest ISO available when the light starts to fade. I’ve been working around this by trying to shoot on bright days (to lift the shutter speed), using higher ISOs than I’d usually choose, and being more careful about the way I’m bracing the camera. That being said, I’m still incurring some penalties in terms of image quality (especially noise) when I do shoot, and I’m missing some opportunities simply because it wouldn’t be possible to get a satisfactory image off the lens.

Weather sealing is something I have traditionally favoured, as I tend to like shooting in the rain, or around bodies of water and or mud that have the potential to be splashed over the lens. Although the 75-300 II lacks any weather sealing, I have had it out in light rain before without any ill effects. That being said, I bit the bullet and invested in a rain cover. While this keeps the lens and body absolutely free of dirt and water, it does restrict my access to the controls on the lens, and limit what I can add to the top of the camera in terms of accessory viewfinders. The lens would be much more usable in adverse conditions if it were weather sealed, rather than reliant upon a restrictive accessory that compromises the ease with which the lens is able to be used.

Image Quality

I can’t say much here, other than considering that it’s a relatively cheap lens for the coverage it provides, the image quality is more than adequate. Flare is well controlled, and contrast is generally good, although it suffers from a loss of contrast in poor lighting (like most tele lenses I’ve experienced).

Boats in the Steamer Basin, Otago Harbour, Dunedin, during a sleet shower. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 640, camera and lens protected with Ruggard RC-P18 rain cover.
Boats in the Steamer Basin, Otago Harbour, Dunedin, during a sleet shower. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 75-300 II. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 640, camera and lens protected with Ruggard RC-P18 rain cover.

The lens is reasonably sharp throughout the range, although it does soften a little at 300 mm. This may be due to vibration of the extending part of the lens affecting optical alignment a little; if I get the time, I might try and do a reasonable test of this. I tend to try and keep the aperture around f/8, which seems to provide the best balance at all focal lengths, although it’s quite happy at f/11, too. It gets softer as you stop down, although it is surprisingly resilient at f/16-f/20 if you aren’t intending on making any prints above A4 size. Speaking of prints, I have had a few 12 x 18″ prints made of photos I took with this lens, and they all turned out very well. One of the prints was an enlargement of a 9 x 9″ crop, which was nice when viewed at a comfortable distance, although up close, it appeared to be right on the limit of what the lens is capable of on a 16 MP sensor.

Compared to the Sigma 150-500 mm APO DG HSM for Pentax

About This Comparison

This may seem like a weird comparison to be making: the 150-500 covers full frame, whereas the 75-300 doesn’t. However, they cover a roughly similar range, and I use the 75-300 II for the same kinds of photos as I took with the 150-500. Since I never used the 150-500 on a full frame camera, I’m limiting my comments on it to what I experienced on APS-C, mostly in terms of usability. I could comment on image quality, but, since my skills have improved in the time since I sold the 150-500, I won’t, as I don’t believe it would be fair. It’s highly likely that if I were to use the 150-500 now, I would be getting better photos with it than I did when I sold it three years ago. I would also like to stress that this comparison covers my situation, and may not accurately reflect the needs of others.

Sigma 150-500 Versus Olympus 75-300 II

  • The 75-300 II covers a wider field of view (35 mm equivalent: 150-600 mm) than the 150-500 did (35 mm equivalent: 225-750 mm). Because of this, the 150-500 was a bit bitter for birds, especially smaller or more timid ones. However, it wasn’t quite so usable for landscapes, or larger animals at close range.
  • By official specs, the 150-500 was considerably heavier and larger than the 75-300 II: ~1780 g versus ~423 g for the Sigma and the Olympus, respectively; ~94 x 251.5 mm versus ~69 x 116.5 mm for the Sigma and the Olympus, respectively. Due to the size and heft, I didn’t take the Sigma out as often, or for as long, as I take the Olympus out. In practice, the Olympus is the better lens, because it actually gets used.
  • Neither lens has weather sealing. Refer to the last paragraph of the Utility” section of this post for my thoughts on this.
  • Both lenses have a relatively slow maximum aperture range: f/5-6.3 for the Sigma and f/4.8-6.7 for the Olympus. Refer to the second last paragraph of the “Utility” section of this post for my thoughts on this.
  • The 150-500 was slower to focus, because it had more (and heavier) glass to move. The Olympus is nicer to use in this respect, especially if trying to lock onto a subject before it moves, or scroll from one extreme of the focus range to the other.
  • The 75-300 II focuses down to 0.9 m, whereas the 150-500 focused down to 2.2 m; the Olympus lens is more flexible, and less restrictive if a subject starts moving closer.

Summary and Notes

Although I miss the longer reach the Sigma gave me, I find myself using the Olympus more often than I used the Sigma, simply because it’s that much easier to take out with me. The Olympus is also quicker to acquire focus and able to focus closer than the Sigma, though both are tempered by dim maximum apertures and a lack of weather sealing. I should also mention that the focus speed of the Sigma could be due to the auto focus characteristics of the K-7 and K10D it was used on; it might have been quicker on another manufacturer’s platform.

Sigma now make a weather sealed 150-600 mm lens, in addition to a non-sealed 150-600 mm lens. They are still large and cumbersome, although I suspect they are both very good lenses. They may be worth exploring for people who want a super-telephoto lens for a DSLR.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Conclusion

 The Olympus 75-300 II is a competent super-telephoto zoom for the Micro Four Thirds system. Considering its price, the image quality is good, although certain aspects of its design, such as its relatively small maximum apertures, can be confounding in low light. The lens could also benefit from weather sealing and a redesign of the zoom ring. However, in its current form, it is by no means unusable.

I’ve been quite satisfied over the past year with the lens, it’s one that I’m reaching for on a regular basis, and one which feels like it’ll stick around even as I acquire “higher quality” glass. That’s about as high a recommendation as I can give a lens without sprinkling in a smattering of superlatives.

Recommendations

Panasonic users (and those who don’t mind losing a bit on the wide end) would likely be better served by the Lumix G Vario 100-300 f/4-5.6. It’s reportedly sharper at 300 mm than the Olympus, has in-lens stabilisation (essential on Panasonic bodies), and is over 1/3 of a stop brighter through the range, which makes it more usable in lower light. I didn’t buy the Panasonic for two reasons: firstly, I wanted more flexibility at the wide end of the zoom range; and secondly, I wasn’t able to purchase it at Musselburgh Pharmacy, whom have been nothing short of excellent in the nine years I’ve been buying gear from them.

For those with a bit of patience, there is some higher end Micro Four Thirds glass coming which addresses the super-telephoto end of the spectrum. First is the Olympus 300 mm f/4 PRO (due in November 2015, apparently), which is able to be paired with a 1.4x teleconverter, giving a 35 mm equivalent field of view of 600 mm or 840 mm with the teleconverter. This would pair well with the Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 PRO (35 mm equivalent field of view of 80-300 mm, or 112-420 mm with the teleconverter) that is already on the market and has received rave reviews. The second upcoming lens is the recently announced Leica DG 100-400 f/4-6.3 zoom from Panasonic. With a 35 mm equivalent field of view of 200-800 mm, weather sealing, and (according to the released pictures) a focus limiter, this could prove to be a decent all-rounder, if a little slower aperture-wise than the shorter offerings from Olympus.

Legacy lenses are a viable option for those who can live with manual focus. Some of the older glass was quite good, and appears to work well on digital. What’s more, in a lot of cases legacy lenses offer options which are currently unavailable on native lenses, and are in some cases relatively affordable. I’ve personally had good experiences with the Nikkors, Super-Multi-Coated Takumars and large aperture OM Zuiko lenses, finding that they deliver excellent quality, and are also fairly straightforward to use.

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