Bird photography adventure with the Panasonic Leica 100-400 mm lens

Little stint (Calidris minuta), Amrum, Germany

This blog post is long overdue; it has its origin back in April, when I have (again) obtained a piece of equipment for testing and using from Panasonic Switzerland (I cannot stress how friendly and helpful their employees, most notably Ms. Alfaro, are).
As mentioned, it was April, the new Panasonic Leica 100-400 mm lens was not yet available (at least in Switzerland), and we were about to go to the island of Amrum - a birders paradise at that time of year. Would't it have been great to try out the 100-400 mm lens for bird photography? So I asked Panasonic if they already had that lens and if I could try it out for two weeks. Shortly after, a package with an early version of the lens arrived.

Two greylag geese (Anser anser) hiding in the reed, Amrum, Germany

Bird photography is a kind of childhood dream of mine, but in reality I have never seriously delved into this discipline and therefore I am not really used to follow quickly moving birds, let alone capture flying birds. Nevertheless, we carried the lens along on all our outings and photographed whatever birds we encountered (and that did not immediately fly away). Most of the time, a tripod was used, a few shots were taken handheld (mostly of the birds in flight), and sometimes even the children tried their luck pursuing the tiny and incredibly swift little stints on the beach.

Common shelduck (Tadorna tadorna), Amrum, Germany

The first impression of the lens was very positive; it is solidly built and compact; even a little like a real, old Leica lens (of which I own only one). I would never ever buy or carry around an 800 mm lens (in full-frame terms), just because of the size, weight and price. The Panasonic Leica 100-400 mm (200-800mm in full-frame terms) is more in the size of a 70-200 mm f4 full-frame lens; so easily portable even on extended hikes. However, the lens is clearly bigger and heavier than the Panasonic 100-300 mm lens, which is, in my opinion, miraculously good considering its age, dimension and price (and if used properly - with a tripod collar and on a tripod). Where the 100-400 mm lens excels, again in my opinion, is the range (we used it mostly at 400 mm), and the overall operability: everything is smoother, autofocus is faster (I doubt that we could have captured terns in flight with the 100-300 mm lens), and manual focus is much more accurate (main complaint about the 100-300 mm lens).

Ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), Amrum, Germany

I am not doing any kind of scientific testing of lens quality, but was interested enough to do some test shots for myself. As far as I can tell, there is not much difference in image quality across the zoom range, I would not close the aperture further than f8 (if maximal detail is the goal; as for any lens that I have "tested" so far). At least for my eye, it is difficult to discern a clear difference between the 100-400 mm and the 100-300 mm lenses in real world photographs; particularly at 100 mm. After having compared the two lenses, I know that both lenses are good enough for my need and it is possible to create perfectly nice, sharp, and contrasty photographs under the right conditions. However, it is easier to obtain technically great results with the Panasonic Leica 100-400 mm lens. The 100-300 mm lens is particularly tempting for somebody like me who only photographs birds and animals occasionally and usually carries along food, drinks, and clothes for myself and children when hiking. On the other hand, the 100-400 mm lens is really a bird photographers dream and in comparison to all other options it shines especially with respect to its versatility, size and weight. It is very likely that I will buy the 100-400 mm at some point, but not right away; simply because I would not use it enough to justify the expense.
I am glad that I had the opportunity to test this great lens and hope these personal experiences are helpful to some. More "Amrum photographs" taken with the Panasonic Leica 100-400 mm lens are found in the animal gallery.

Black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), Amrum, Germany

2016/07/22 by Florian Freimoser
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