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Super-Telephoto Killer: Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro Hands-on Review

The Olympus M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro lens with its 1.4x teleconverter has helped me make a bunch of good pictures and allowed me to do a good job for my clients. Over the last few months, I’ve used it to shoot a variety of subjects from wild horses to aerial photos to portraits to college graduation. I’d like to show you how it performed for me, and make an argument for why you will never need to buy a $12,000 lens. Let’s start with the horses.

This Lens Will Tame Wild Horses

40-150mm with tele-extender; 210mm, f/4
40-150mm with tele-extender; 210mm, f/4

The thing about these horses is they are fairly tame (people sometimes illegally bring large bags of carrots to feed them), so we not only got to make pictures of them at a distance, but they also came quite close up to us–almost too close, in fact. With the teleconverter, this lens becomes a 56mm-210mm f/4 zoom. Remember, I’m on a micro four thirds camera, so this is a 112mm-420mm equivalent field of view on a full frame DSLR, so it’s really quite long. I was so glad to have the zoom, though, so that as the horses came closer I could still shoot. Doug was shooting an 800mm prime, and when they got too close he kinda ran out of things to shoot.

I enjoyed the lens–it let me make an attempt at some horse portraits I’ve been dreaming about doing for about a year. I found it fast focussing and bright and perfectly sharp. Colors look very nice, and it was really a pleasure to shoot with. Like Doug, I kept it mounted on a tripod while shooting–it’s relatively light, but the key to having stamina to shoot all day long, and the next day, too, is to use a nice tall tripod high enough that you don’t have to constantly duck down to look into the camera. Here’re some more photographs; click on pictures to see them much larger.

Doug is a professional wildlife photographer, and his work requires super telephoto lenses, like that 800mm lens. While I’m a full time photographer, wildlife shooting is primarily a hobby for me; I can’t justify owning that kind of glass. I could certainly justify renting it, though, and that’s what I do when I need expensive tools for a specific purpose…like aerial photography.

Aerial Photography Needs a 300mm

A few years ago, I read John Shaw’s excellent Nature Photography Field Guide and the last chapter was about shooting from small aircraft, and my mind instantly went into overdrive as I considered combining my two favorite passions. One thing that stands out in my mind is that he said his favorite lens for aerial work is a 300mm. Having shot from small airplanes several times, I agree that a 300mm is pretty perfect. So, when I found out an upcoming job would include aerials, I immediately reserved the 40-150mm f/2.8 with LensRentals.com so that I’d have that 300mm field of view.

Olympus-8
64mm, f/4, 1/2000s, ISO 800.

The thing is, this lens cost $1399, which is a lot of money…but it’s a lot less than most pro DSLR lenses had cost me, so I’m not immediately turned off by the price (a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 is $2400, and a Canon is $2100), and this one is lighter and longer. Still, I wanted to use it in the kinds of situations I normally shoot in, not wildlife, so I rented it. The lens and the teleconverter together are just $100 for five days. That’s incredibly affordable for any kind of trip.

As far as the aerial pictures go, I was disappointed that the airplane didn’t have openable windows in the rear, which means I couldn’t get the angles I was hoping for, but the pilot still lined up some shots for me. It’s a good thing I had the zoom instead of a 300mm prime like other times I’ve flown because I wouldn’t have been able to make these shots of the campus.

62mm, f/4, 1/2500s.
62mm, f/4, 1/2500s, ISO 800.

Even though the flight wasn’t the best for photographs, it was still a blast to be up and shooting. But my time at the airfield wasn’t over–I still had portraits to make.

Portraits Need a Long Lens, a Diffuser and a Polarizer

After our flight, I got to photograph my pilot and another student in the aviation program. I love my job–doing a thing like flying with someone and then getting to make proper portraits just wraps up the whole experience satisfactorily.

150mm, f/2.8, 1/800s.
150mm, f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 200.

One of my favorite ways to make a portrait requires a sunny day–the brighter the better! Simply stand your subject in the sun, and bring a diffusion panel as close to your subject as possible without being in the frame. This diffusion panel is the translucent portion of the ubiquitous 5-in-1 reflector, and I highly recommend you own one. Here’s an article with more on using the diffuser. You can see how close mine is in this portrait.

82mm, f/2.8, 1/1000s, ISO 400.
82mm, f/2.8, 1/1000s, ISO 400.

This is where a long lens really shines. One of the major impacts a telephoto lens has on your portraits is that it makes the background smaller, or it includes less of the background in the picture. Try it: you can make your subject the right size with any lens by moving your camera closer or farther from her. But, the wider the lens you use, the more of the rest of the world will appear in the picture. I used a long lens in this case to crop out the diffuser and make sure that the airplane is nice and prominent, but pleasantly out of focus. A long focal length (82mm (164mm on Full frame)) and f/2.8 was crucial to achieving this look.

82mm, f/2.8, 1/1000s, ISO 400.
82mm, f/2.8, 1/1000s, ISO 400.

There’s one more thing that I need to make these portraits look their best, and that’s a polarizer. I put the most polarized portion of the sky behind my subjects, but the sky was pretty hazy so even with a polarizer the sky wasn’t richly saturated. However, the polarizer also removed the glare from the airplane, which makes it a lot less bright and distracting. The 40-150mm has a front diameter of just 72mm, which is great because my polarizer is 77mm and I used a step ring to match them up. My last 300mm lens was a Nikkor 300mm f/4, and the front diameter was 82mm, which is larger than the usual standard 77mm for DSLR lenses and I never had a polarizer that would fit. The 72mm filter size on the Olympus is much more usable and more affordable to purchase.

97mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 400.
97mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 400.

Five More Shoots…

Leaving the airfield, I had to hurry and set up for five more shoots showing student life. This lens performed really well indoors with flash, outdoors with flash, tracking action, and even closeup.

55mm, f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 200.
55mm, f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 200.

Like I said, I use a lot of fixed primes, so the versatility of this zoom was a pleasant change in this classroom shoot. I couldn’t move around too much in this classroom because of the lighting setup, and we had to do a lot of shots in a little bit of time. Being able to change the picture just by zooming in and out was pretty useful. Also, the look of the out of focus objects is pleasant and not distracting or weird–which seems a little strange to say, but I’ve used some lenses that had distracting bokeh. Have I mentioned that this lens is very sharp?

Next, we shot in the robotics lab. I made dusk-like light casting shadows on the back wall from outside in the hallway using a strobe with a colored gel, and a small octabox lit the guys and the table up front.

Olympus-13
79mm, f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 100.

This is when I noticed one characteristic of this lens which is pretty terrific: it focusses closer than 30 inches. Zoom in tight and step up close, and it’s does some pretty good closeup work. That kind of versatility is valuable when there’s a lot of work to do. Wedding and family shooters should also appreciate this feature.

One other characteristic that makes a difference for me is chromatic aberration (CA). CA looks like a fringe of magenta or green that usually shows up at high contrast edges, like a flag pole against the sky, or a shiny metal highlight, or bright backlit leaves. These pictures all have conditions where I’ve had trouble with CA on some lenses, but the 40-150mm performed flawlessly. I can’t see any CA in these. (Note: Lightroom automatically applies lens corrections for my Lumix cameras, so it’s possible that the CA was removed by Lightroom…which, as far as my work is concerned, is effectively the same as not having any chromatic aberration to begin with. Still, I have looked at these RAW files outside of Lightroom, and they also look flawless for CA.)

One thing that micro four thirds and mirrorless cameras have had a bad reputation for is tracking action, as in sports. Previously, my results with tracking action have been less good than similar situations with my DSLR’s, but I’ve recently started revising my opinion as I’ve learned how to shoot with the GH4. It’s just a little different than shooting with a DSLR, but I think it’s performing just about as well as my Nikons did (not the D4, mind you, but the D800, et al.). This 40-150mm worked great at keeping a subject in focus as it moved closer and farther. This example of the grads walking is hardly a fast action situation, but I think it’ll work well for the sports I shoot. Again, I don’t shoot sports or wildlife for a living, but I think this lens would be more than adequate for my needs most of the time.

125mm, f/2.8, 1/640s, ISO 200.
125mm, f/2.8, 1/640s, ISO 200.
150mm, f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 200.
150mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 200.

How about that Tele-Extender?

There is a 1.4x tele-extender available for the 40-150mm. This is an additional piece of glass that mounts to the camera, then the lens mounts to the front of that (don’t buy this extender alone thinking it’ll work with other lenses; the lenses have to be designed for use with it). It simply magnifies the lens, making it a 56-210mm (112-410mm equivalent on Full Frame), and it also reduces the brightness of the lens from f/2.8 to f/4. I enjoyed using it as I photographed graduation (and remember, the horses were also shot with the tele-extender).

These two pictures show the difference between 150mm and 210mm. They’re from the same vantage, left is without the extender, right has it. Notice how much more the subjects fill the frame.

These two are also similar pictures, but the first is without the extender. The biggest difference is where I shot from. For the first I was standing just a few steps above the subject in the stadium; for the second I was at the back of the stadium shooting over hundreds of people to isolate this one cap. Without the extender I wouldn’t have really been able to read the second cap.

Remember what I said above about the effect long lenses have on the background? those empty seats at the top of the first picture are filled with people when I stepped back and zoomed in. There were the same number of people, but when you zoom in on a subject, you zoom in on the background, too, and the background fills the frame more. I like the tele extender. It doesn’t seem to reduce the lens’s sharpness and it’s a powerful tool in a very small package.

Sounds Really Good…What’s the ‘But’?

With all this good news there’s got to be something that keeps this lens from being incredible…right?

97mm f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 640.
97mm f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 640.

The only thing I think it lacks is image stabilization. It sounds like you’re only holding a 150mm or 210mm lens, which shouldn’t be a problem–1/200th of a second should do it. But the crop factor for magnification must be applied to the rule of thumb for handholding as well. So, instead of using the focal length as the minimum shutter speed (200mm = 1/200th of a second), you’ve got to multiply that by two (150mm needs 1/300of a second). Other modern long lenses usually include powerful stabilization features to help offset the wiggle you induce holding a long lens. The thing is, Olympus cameras include the stabilization in the camera body, which makes production of this lens a lot cheaper and also keeps it weight down. Unfortunately for me, I use Lumix cameras, not Olympus. My GX7 has stabilization in the camera body, but not the GH4 (which is my workhorse camera). So, I’m missing that feature. I have hopes that Lumix’s next GH5 will include stabilization, but that’s at least a year away. In the meantime, I’d be one who would happily pay a few hundred more dollars to get this lens with stabilization built in.

One More Thing…

I think this lens is pretty terrific, and I’m seriously considering buying it. However, I’ve been spoiled with my light and small primes, and I’m kind of dreading having a large lens in my bag again. Until I decide that it’s really going to make back it’s money (or until Olympus makes a stabilized version), I’m going to continue renting it from LensRentals.com.

Lastly, this lens, like most lenses today, comes with a lens hood. It keeps the sun from shining on the front of the glass and causing flare. Like other hoods, it does this job well. Unlike other hoods, it’s got a kitchy feature that the hood slides in and out (huh…just like my 20 year old Nikkor 300mm f/4…), and that is one thing most other reviews seem to rave about. For my part, it’s kinda cool, but it’s a little tough to remove and I think they could have made it normal for half the cost and especially the weight. It does it’s other job well, though, which is making the lens look cool. This lens definitely looks good.

Now that we have this 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro lens, there is nothing keeping most pros back from graduating on to Micro Four Thirds.

150mm, f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 400.
150mm, f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 400.

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