Zuiko Digital 70-300 mm F/4.0-5.6

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

I bought this lens, after some deliberation, in April, 2008. While the core of this article is based of my first two weeks of using it with an E-510 body, in the following year I gave it a good work-out with other Olympus bodies: the E-410, E-3, and E-30. After using it over that time, I may only say I like it even more than I originally did.

Before we get down to business, however, some general remarks and warnings.

Long lenses are not for everyone. Those above 300, or even 200 mm EFL (equivalent focal length), i.e., 100 or 150 mm in the Four Thirds format, need some experience and knowledge how to handle them. Otherwise camera shake and focusing inaccuracy (combined with shallow depth of field) may lead to results far below expected ones.

Still, many users, especially those not very experienced in photography, list one of those lenses among their first investments after acquiring a digital SLR system, only to suffer a bitter disappointment with the results, and to blame the lens (or camera) for that. (I will not even mention people who buy "superzoom" EVF cameras, often unable to get any semi-decent results in the upper half of the zoom range.)

For those who are willing to learn how to use a long zoom, such a lens offers a very rewarding (if occasional) experience. If you are one of that group, keep on reading.

(Image by Olympus)

Specifications and what they mean

These are the lens specifications, with my annotations and comments added.

  • Focal length: 70-300 mm.

    The (diagonal) angle of view of this lens is the same as that of a 140-600 mm lens on a 24×36 mm film camera.

  • Maximum aperture: F/4.0 at the short end, F/5.6 at the long one.

    I've heard some complaints about the maximum long-end aperture being "only" F/5.6. They come from the same people who complain that the lens is too big and heavy and too expensive. Smell the coffee, F/5.6 is fully respectable at 300 mm, and even more so at EFL of 600 mm; getting this to F/4 would require doubling the area of the front element (not to mention the lens weight), and perhaps doubling the price, too.

    According to the EXIF data, the maximum aperture is F/4.1 at 100 mm, F/4.5 at 150 mm, and F/5.0 at 200 mm.

  • Minimum aperture: F/22.

    While the optical performance starts deteriorating at F/11 or so, higher F-numbers will provide more depth of field, making the trade-off worthwhile under some circimstances.

    (Thanks to Jay Turberville for correcting my lapse on absolute apertures in the original posting of this passage.)

  • Minimum focus distance: 120 cm from the image plane at all focal lengths.

    That's in AF; with manual focus you can get down to about 95 cm. Either way, this is a very close focusing distance for this focal length. (The values are measured from the image plane, not from the lens.)

  • Maximum magnification: 0.5× at F=300 mm (Olympus data).

    This corresponds to a field of view about 35 mm wide. The values quoted, however, are valid for the lens in manual focus mode. With AF, the best I could get was a field 50 mm wide, which corresponds to a magnification of 0.35×. Still, good close-up capabilities, equivalent to 0.7× on a 35-mm film camera. At least I can use this lens to shoot butterflies when the time comes.

  • Construction: 14 elements in 10 groups; three low-dispersion elements.

    There are no aspherical elements in this design. I wasn't expecting any, as they are most useful in wide-angle lenses. See also the Sigma section below.

  • Filter size: 58 mm.

    Quite small; the same size as that used on Olympus budget zooms usually sold with their non-pro SLRs.

  • Non-rotating front: no.

    The front element rotates when the lens is focused or zoomed; perhaps the price we have to pay for the lens compactness. I can live with this: using a polarizer on a long tele is not likely.

  • Dimensions: 80 mm diameter, 127.5 mm length (in the shortest position).

    Quite compact for this focal length range. The length is measured from the flange (i.e., it excludes the protruding part of the bayonet), as customary in the industry.

    Zooming the lens to 300 mm adds 53 mm to its length; focusing to the closest distance — 32 mm, to the total of 212 mm. Equipping the lens hood (always a good idea!) adds about 60 mm more — the combined length becomes quite substantial.

  • Weight: 615 g.

    Not really heavy, either. Compare this with 885 g for the (new) 50-200 mm F/2.8-3.5 ZD SWD, or with 1280 g for the 135-400 mm DG APO Sigma.

  • Drip/dust-proofing: no.

    Not in this price range.

Make, feel, and operation

The make and finish remind of other Olympus ZD lenses: nice, clean, and invoking confidence, even in the budget range. The bayonet is made of metal (stainless steel?), which I would expect of any lens weighing more than 250 g or so.

The (electronically coupled) manual focus ring is similar to most pre-2007 Olympus ZD lenses: not as precise as in the "new" kit zooms (14-54 and 40-150 mm ZD), not to mention the mechanically-coupled 12-60 mm ZD, but adequate. The rubberized zooming ring is wide and well-placed, but its action is not as smooth and positive as that on shorter Olympus zooms. (I haven't noticed that when actually using the lens, but only when checking it again for this write-up so it is not really bad.)

There is no manual focus scale — in Olympus lenses it is provided only in the Pro and Top Pro series, and it is not really useful there, so I'm not missing it here.

The inner lens barrel does not exhibit any wobble even when fully extended. I've experienced that effect even in the 12-60 mm ZD ED SWD (possibly the best "standard zoom" out there, certainly in the Olympus line-up), so I was expecting it here. Anyway, in the 12-60 mm ZD this was not affecting image quality, so this is just for the record.

The lens differs from all other Zuiko Digital ones in one aspect: it has a manual/auto focus switch on the barrel; a clear sign of its Sigma inheritance I'm mentioning elsewhere. Manual focusing is activated with this switch or with the camera's controls; for autofocus both have to be set to AF. A bit strange, but not a problem.

The 70-300 mm ZD in two extreme positions: at 70 mm, focused at infinity; then at 300 mm and focused manually at 0.95 m. (The body is an E-510.)

The included plastic lens hood is affixed with use of a bayonet on the lens rim, like in other Olympus ZD lenses. I'm a bit worried with the fact that the torque needed for the operation is quite high, and it changes the focus setting even in AF mode (overriding some kind of a friction coupling). I hope this will not lead to premature wear of the coupling mechanism. Let's hope the designers knew what they were doing.

The included lens cap is of the new, "center-snap", type, so that you can put in on (or take off) with the hood mounted. (It took Olympus only four years to figure out that users may prefer this option.)

In the field

Contrary to my expectations, the lens feels quite well-balanced on my E-510, and I'm not missing the tripod collar.

Some thought is required when choosing a camera bag for it: many compact ones may accommodate it zoomed out to the widest angle, but not in the extreme tele position, especially with the hood on. On my birding hikes, I ended up mostly carrying the camera out of the bag full time, stowing it only for storage. Oh, well, what would you expect?

Autofocusing (outdoors, good light) on the E-510 was accurate and fast; no complaints here. Obviously, if you shoot a subject at 6 feet and then try to focus at something close to infinity, the AF will need some time, but this is normal: the lens has to go through most of the focal length range to get there. A thinking photographer will refocus on a distant object immediately after being done with any close-up shots. Others will just complain.

Remember: this is not a newbie, point-and-shoot lens. (I have seen more botched frames from "super-zoom" cameras than from any other type, and most of them at longest zoom settings.) You have to invest in learning how to use it, develop the right habits, learn how to work around problems and limitations which come with this focal range. The investment will repay itself.

Anyway, the focus in my bird shots was (almost) always on the spot, or acceptably close. In general, with small subjects a single-point AF using the center (cross-type) sensor works best and that's what I've been using all the time, locking the focus with the shutter release and re-framing the picture as needed. This is important, as the depth of field is very shallow at long focal lengths.

Then, the problem of possible camera shake. Another fact of life: long lenses need fast shutter speeds. I've been shooting from hand most of the time (try to follow a busy bird from a tripod!), and my favorite light is that of late afternoon. No wonder I ended up using ISO 400 as my basic setting. To reduce the shake, I also had image stabilization on all the time (with shorter lenses I use it only under low light). It is better, I believe, to face a more limited dynamic range and more noise at ISO 400, than to suffer from camera shake at ISO 100.

While I have yet to perform the proper experiment (see here), I have strong indications that the E-510's image stabilization is more effective at longer focal lengths, a welcome bonus. Still, no such system is guaranteed to work in every frame shot, therefore quite often I was resorting to shooting three-frame sequences to maximize my chances.

With all that, I'm very pleased with the results; the percentage of keepers was higher than I expected. More on that in will follow the samples, presented further down.

Performance: the MTF data

If you want to know what MTF (Modulation Transfer Function) is and why it is useful, see my MTF article.

MTF graphs for the 70-300 mm ZD, as published by Olympus. Blue lines are for 10 LP/mm (roughly: a measure of contrast); red ones — 30 LP/mm (resolution). Solid lines are for sagital, and dotted for tangential patterns.

Image © by Olympus Corporation

Note how level are the red lines between the image center and the corners for the short end (the left graph): while the 55% level does not promise an inspired performance, at least the resolution does not drop down away from the center, at least according to this data.

The 70% level in the center at 300 mm is, I would say, very promising, and while the resolution is dropping off more rapidly towards the corners (especially for tangential patterns), this is common for the long end of the zoom range, even for premium lenses. No worries here.

Interestingly, comparing these graphs to the ones for the 14-42 mm "kit" zoom allows me to expect a similar performance for both lenses at their respective long ends, with the 12-42 ZD having a slight edge at 14 mm over the 70-300 ZD at 70 mm.

(See also my remark about the Sigma APO 70-300 mm MTF graphs in the next section.)

A re-branded Sigma?

While the details are unclear (and the parties involved do not offer any comments on the subject), I have no doubt that this lens is at least designed, and possibly manufactured, by Sigma, an independent lens maker (or by a Sigma subcontractor). Have a look at the construction diagram of the Sigma APO 70-300 mm F/4.0-5.6 DG Macro, next to that of our ZD lens:

Sigma APO 70-300 mm F/4.0-5.6 DG Macro

(Image by Sigma, resized to scale)

Olympus 70-300 mm F/4.0-5.6 ZD ED

(Image by Olympus)

Well, if these two are not identical, then I need stronger glasses. I have no doubts here.

(Low-dispersion glass is marked blue in the Sigma diagram, white in the Olympus one.)

This is not, however, a simple case of re-branding someone else's product. While both lenses seem identical optically (with small refinements always possible), they also show some meaningful differences:

  • The external barrel construction seems to be quite different (not to mention the finish).
  • The minimum focusing distance for the Sigma lens is specified as 150 cm (not 120!); with 95 cm for Macro mode (for which that lens has a separate switch, absent in the Olympus model).
  • The Sigma lens is slightly less heavy (550 versus 585 g, depending on mount); obviously, due to differences in barrel construction and AF mechanism.

There is one more interesting detail: the Sigma lens is of the "DG" type. This is the notation Sigma uses for "legacy" (24×36 mm frame) lenses, adapted for use with digital. (Lenses designed specifically for APS-C or DX coverage carry the "DC" symbol. This means it is not necessarily optimized for central resolution, at the expense of peripheral one (wasted here).

Then, the issue of the AF/MF switch on the lens barrel. This is clearly a Sigma legacy: Olympus lenses do not have such a switch, as they do not need it. Neither does this one: it duplicates the functionality of the adjustment performed with dedicated controls on Olympus bodies (although some may find the Sigma way more convenient in use.) Oh, well.

The last question relates to the price. The Sigma lens retails in the U.S. at $220; the Olympus one — at $400. Any actual reasons (improvements leading to higher cost), or just milking the captive audience? Keep on guessing.

So, is this lens made by Olympus using Sigma design, or by Sigma to Olympus specifications? Has it been optically tweaked from the original? The changes could affect the lens resolution within the utilized image circle; they could also affect the internal baffling (reducing scattered light, and therefore increasing contrast). I'm afraid we will never know that. Not that it really matters. I just hope Olympus sets the production tolerances and quality control, as Sigma has a varying record here.

To close the Sigma chapter, two more pieces of trivia:

  • While doing the research, I noticed that the published MTF numbers for the Sigma (APO) lens (see here) are higher than those for the ZD version, too good to be true for a lens in this price range. The problem seems to be with Sigma technical writers being not sure if the graphs are at 30 lines or 30 line pairs per mm; actually, in their MTF Chart Guide they refer to lp/mm and lines/mm. I bet the latter is true (graphs look better that way). Case closed.
  • There is another Sigma 70-300 mm F/4.0-5.6 DG lens (without the APO designation). While its optical scheme is very similar to that of the APO version, it has only one low-dispersion element, not three. I would expect that to lead to poorer performance, especially in terms of chromatic aberration, but also to much lower price ($140). Note that even the APO version is less expensive than the Olympus version.

Image samples

If the lens delivers pleasing results, then I do not care what the MTF numbers say. This is why I consider this part the moment of truth. This time I'm going to show samples by three different photographers, myself included.

As always, full frames (reduced in size and re-sharpened) are shown on the left, and full pixel size fragments on the right.

The Crofton Lake

This subject, right in front of my door, is convenient and handy when I need to shoot some samples in predictable, if not controlled, light. Here are some example shots at a number of focal lengths and two apertures: maximum and stepped down to F/8.

My E-510 was used here, with a tripod and a wired remote, image stabilization off. All pictures were shot in aperture priority, pattern metering, with a compensation of -0.3 EV, ISO 100; WB at 5300°K (sunny), contrast and sharpness at N-2, noise filtering off.

The autofocus (single sensor) was always set on the fence. To reduce effects of any AF errors and camera shake, each sample (aperture and focal length combination) was shot three times. with the best-focused frame selected for further analysis. (This turned out to be an overkill: in every case all three frames were identical or almost so.)

[1] 70 mm, 1/640 s at F/4.0

At the shortest focal length and full aperture, the sharpness is not impressive, but still adequate for most purposes. Remember that in-camera sharpening is set to N-2 here.

Note that the overall (not just local) contrast is quite low, especially when compared to the next sample.

There is some (moderate) chromatic aberration in the corner sample (purple on the right edge of the tree trunk, green on the left). Although visible, it is not so bad.

[2] 70 mm, 1/160 s at F/8.0

Stepping the lens down to F/8 brings a dramatic improvement in resolution (and I am not talking about depth of field). Note how much sharper the fence is!

You can also see a noticeable increase in overall contrast.

The chromatic aberration in corners is almost all gone. Disregard the sharper background branches: that is just DoF kicking in.

Anyway, this is practically as good as it gets. Now, on to longer focal lengths.

The story repeats itself at F = 100 mm, even if with a lesser magnitude: a so-so performance at F/4.1 (lens fully open) and a quite impressive one at F/8.

[3] 100 mm, 1/500 s at F/4.1
[4] 100 mm, 1/125 s at F/8

And yes, a similar effect is visible at 150 mm (really: 149 mm, as it is not possible to set the zoom exactly without a visible feedback on the monitor).

[5] 149 mm, 1/400 s at F/4.5
[6] 149 mm, 1/125 s at F/8.0

Now, 200 mm — of a special interest, as this is the first marked focal length not available with the popular 40-150 mm "kit" zoom:

[7] 202 mm, 1/320 s at F/5.0
[8] 202 mm, 1/125 s at F/8.0

Again, a bit fuzzy when fully open, and more than respectable (for this focal length) at F/8.

Time for the focal length of 300 mm, the real reason why I bought this lens (and why you are interested in it).

[9] 300 mm, 1/250 s at F/5.6
[10] 300 mm, 1/125 s at F/8.0 [full frame]

A slight surprise: while closing the lens down to F/8 improves the resolution and contrast, F/5.6 is not much worse to start with, at least not in my subjective evaluation. While the F/8 sharpness seems to be below that at 200 mm [8], it is, from where I stand, still good for this focal length.

Another fragment of the F/8 sample, [10], this time in a low-contrast, shadow area. I was joined in my session by a squirrel. Even from across the lake, 120 or so meters afar, there is no doubt that we are dealing with a healthy male.

Anyway, this is a very satisfactory performance at a 600 mm EFL.

Freeform samples

Here are some examples of pictures I took with this lens in the first few days of using it. All were shot with an E-510 handheld, image stabilization on. Unless otherwise noted, I kept sharpness and contrast at N-2, saturation at N±0, noise filtering off, WB at 5300°K (sunny).

[11] 70 mm, aperture priority (-0.3 EV): 1/500 s at F/8, ISO 200 [original]
[12] 300 mm, aperture priority (-0.3 EV): 1/1000 s at F/5.6, ISO 200
[13] 252 mm, aperture priority (-0.3 EV): 1/1600 s at F/6.3, ISO 200
[14] 263 mm, aperture priority (-0.3 EV): 1/125 s at F/11, ISO 400
[15] 300 mm, aperture priority (-0.7 EV): 1/400 s at F/5.6, ISO 100
[16] 300 mm, aperture priority (-0.7 EV): 1/160 s at F/11, ISO 400
[17] 300 mm, aperture priority (-0.7 EV): 1/400 s at F/8, ISO 200
[18] 300 mm, aperture priority (-0.7 EV): 1/400 s at F/5.6, ISO 400
[19] 300 mm, aperture priority (-0.3 EV): 1/250 s at F/11, ISO 400 [original]
[20] 300 mm, aperture priority (-0.3 EV): 1/400 s at F/7.1, ISO 400 [cropped, postprocessed XGA]
[21] 300 mm, aperture priority (-0.3 EV): 1/500 s at F/7.1, ISO 400
[22] 300 mm, manual exposure: 1/250 s at F/8, ISO 200, sharpness and contrast at V-1.

The marina [11] is, as expected at F/8, sharp corner-to-corner. The child at the playground [12] was shot at F/5.6, and the detail is quite good, better than I expected based on the lake samples. The same can be said about the girl playing in the dunes [13] and about the scene on the grass slope [14]. Note that the last sample was shot at 1/125 s with a focal length of 263 mm; that's more than 500 mm EFL!

Even if my trials indicate that F/8 is visibly sharper than F/5.6 at full zoom, don't be afraid to shoot fully open: the picture of my wife, Agnieszka [15] is as sharp as I need it, at the same time providing a nice out-of-focus background. Quite yummy at ISO 100.

Samples [16..18] show that the 300 mm focal length is quite usable and can provide nice results for close-ups, although 100 mm would provide similar results with less risk of camera shake. Still, the lens delivers nice here, thank you.

Then, the wildlife series (if I can use this term for all these critters running around my neighborhood). The mama duck and the squirrel [19] were no-brainers: almost static, well-lit, easy to approach. The robin [20] was a bit tougher: the sun was already setting behind the trees (thus ISO 400) so the subject was entirely in shade. In all cases the lens did a good job.

The moon sample [22] was also shot handheld at 300 mm. Surprisingly, there are no signs of chromatic aberration at the high-contrast edge transition. True, the effect is less pronounced near the center, but still — I've seen that in quite a many similar pictures; this is a good result.

Some of these samples also demonstrate the bokeh (out-of-focus rendering) this lens produces. It is difficult to comment on this effect, as it depends not just on the lens, its aperture and focal length, but also on the background type, brightness, contrast, and distance. All I can say that it can be quite pleasing with the 70-300 ZD, especially at the long end, and especially if the background is chosen right.

Overall, these samples are quite typical for what I'm getting from this lens in daily use; enough to keep me very satisfied with the purchase.

Samples by Hans

The person who convinced me to buy this lens was Hans Dankers from the Netherlands. While I was a bit reluctant to spend $400 for a performance I was not sure of, Hans sent me some images for scrutiny, and these helped me to change my mind. Here are some examples.

All pictures in this section are copyright © 2008 by Hans Dankers. I've selected them not to show Hans off as a photographer, but to illustrate the lens capabilities. All were shot with an E-510.

120 mm, shutter priority (0 EV): 1/500 s at F/13, ISO 400, WB at 5150°K; conversion to RGB in Photoshop CS3.
104 mm, program exposure (0 EV): 1/500 s at F/6.7, ISO 200, Auto WB, manual focus. Sharpness at V-2, contrast and saturation at V±0, noise filtering off. Converted to JPEG with Olympus Studio 2.12, settings "as shot".
300 mm, shutter priority (-0.3 EV): 1/400 s at F/7.1, ISO 200, WB at 5300°K. Everything else as above.
70 mm, aperture priority (0 EV): 30 s at F/8, ISO 100; WB at 5150°K. Converted to RGB in Photoshop CS3.

Definitely, this lens is more than just "usable"; in right hands it is capable of delivering well-resolved images; this is obvious. The night I went through Hans's samples I decided to buy this lens. Thank you, Hans.

Jim's finch

Another fellow photographer very happy with his 70-300 mm ZD is Jim McKenna, whose observations on this lens closely coincide with mine. I can't resist showing you Jim's picture of a Hawaiian finch.

The picture, taken with an E-510, is copyright © 2008 by Jim McKenna. For more, see Jim's blog and gallery. (Most of his recent pictures there were shot with the E-510, and many with the same lens, so definitely have a look).

300 mm, program exposure (no compensation): 1/400 at F/8.0, ISO 400. Auto WB, contrast and sharpness at V-2, noise filtering at Low [cropped, postprocessed XGA]

You may be interested in what Jim had to say on this lens in one of the emails we've exchanged:

I'm glad to read you're enjoying your new 70-300, and was pleased to read that, like for me, it is so much better than you expected. I learned a lot about it on this first vacation, first and foremost that it's an excellent walk-around lens.

The money I spent on it was from the 50-200 fund; I bought the 70-300 mostly out of impatience at my local pro store's inability to get me a price or a ship date on the 50-200 SWD, and I must admit I feared greatly the image quality was going to suffer due to that impatience. But I've tried out the (non-SWD) 50-200 in the store, and while it is, on all counts aside from reach, certainly a somewhat better lens, and while I'm certain there is one in my future, I found myself again and again whilst in Hawaii so thankful I could pack so much reach with so little weight.

[...] there were many hikes I went on Oahu and Maui where I would have left the 50-200 behind. [That] is, in my opinion, an "on location" lens due to its size and weight, whereas the 70-300 goes out with me day after day because it just makes no sense not to bring it along. [...]

The bottom line

While for 95%, perhaps more, of my shooting I'm staying within the 150 mm focal length range (300 mm EFL), for some applications a longer lens comes handy. The 70-300 mm ZD is not only the sole affordable alternative here, but also a surprisingly good one.

When wide open, it is optically good enough for most applications, even (maybe especially?) at the long end; stepped down to F/8, it is as good as I (or you) may ever need. Yes, the 50-200 mm ZD (SWD or not) has somewhat higher resolution, especially at largest apertures, and its F/4 aperture (long end) gathers twice as much light, but that happens at the expense of tripling the price (SWD version) and doubling the weight — not to mention the shorter focal length.

I've heard quite a lot of complaining about images from this lens, and I've seen quite a few bad images from it. I am convinced these come (mostly, at least) from users who are still not quite ready to use focal lengths in this range. This is not a lens with which you can just walk happily around, point at whatever strikes your fancy, and release the shutter. You have to realize the problems you'll be facing when using it: shallow depth of field and camera shake being the foremost. Always use image stabilization (a prayer would help, too), always pay attention where you are focusing (preferably use a single-point AF, which gives you best control), know what aperture and ISO to use (and why) for a given subject. Most importantly, accept the fact that some of your pictures will end up as rejects, so shoot a lot!

As Jim McKenna observed above, one of major advantages of this lens is its size and weight. At just above 600 g, I can carry it in my bag "just in case"; this would be unthinkable just a few years ago with a 600 mm lens for a film camera (unless you settled down on a mirror lens).

Anyway, I'm happy with this lens, and considering the price — very happy. If you are sure you really need the focal length up to 300 mm, and if you know how to handle such a lens (or if you are willing to learn that, not always the easy way), look no further. Even if you already have (or are planning to get) one of the premium lenses of this kind, you may end up using this one quite a lot.

Looks like Olympus (with some help from Sigma this time) has a winner here, providing a very attractive compromise between specs, performance, size/weight, and price. I hope they will sell lots of these.

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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