Are Canon's Rumored Super-Telephoto Lenses a Serious Threat to Olympus?

Are Canon's Rumored Super-Telephoto Lenses a Serious Threat to Olympus?

The rumored Canon lenses coming out have got a lot of us talking and pricked up a number of ears. One set of ears it ought to have pricked up, however, is Olympus' — and here's why.

Some of you may know that earlier this year, Olympus was kind enough to send me to Costa Rica with their new OM-D E-M1 Mark III to review it with the help of some of South America's staggeringly diverse wildlife. From the first pre-trip presentation, it was clear the direction Olympus had been going for some time was the one there were intent on staying on: wildlife and sports. Their micro four thirds sensor puts a lot of people off — not least because of its age now — but it comes with at least one perk, and it's a big one: effective focal length. With the 300mm f/4 IS PRO lens on the aforementioned body, I was shooting at the full frame equivalent of 600mm. Then, when I added the 2x teleconverter, I'm shooting at the equivalent of 1,200mm on a full frame body, something that is not easily or cheaply done!

Taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens, and a 2x teleconverter, which means it is roughly equivalent to a 1200mm focal length on a full frame sensor.

The message from Olympus in their presentations and marketing was simple: they offer a small and light, cost-effective way to get fantastic reach for photographing birds, other wildlife, sports, and anything else where you have to be a distance away from your subject. Compared to DSLRs, everything Olympus claims is true. However, as I mentioned in my review, compared to full frame mirrorless bodies (albeit not necessarily all lenses), there really wasn't much in the size or weight between them and what Olympus offers. But if you're looking at the maximum reach for the best price, they truly cannot be matched. The sacrifice, of course, is that you are using a micro four thirds sensor, which limits cropping and performance. Though the Olympus bodies come with the best in-camera tech I've ever seen, which almost entirely offset the sensor for me.

So, what has this got to do with the Canon rumors? Earlier this week, we reported on Canon Rumor's mirrorless full frame lens roadmap for 2020. Coming off the back of a period of lackluster innovation, toothless launches, and disappointing adoption speeds of mirrorless, this news (alongside the Canon R5 with a spec which floored most of us in the industry) had us all looking at Canon in a different light. Our own Alex Cooke wrote a brilliant piece on this just a few days ago. For the roadmap, I'll quote Andy Day's news piece covering Canon Rumors' good work:

As spotted by Canon Rumors, industry insider Nokishita recently posted the list, which also includes two extenders. Here’s the lineup in full:

  • Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM
  • Canon RF 85mm f/2 Macro IS STM
  • Canon RF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM
  • Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM
  • Canon RF 600mm f/11 DO IS STM
  • Canon RF 800mm f/11 DO IS STM
  • Canon RF 1.4x
  • Canon RF 2.0x

This list is chock-full of talking points, but my interest (and what I believe ought to be Olympus's concern) is the second half of the list. Canon is offering super-telephoto lenses as well as 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. What does this mean? A full frame Canon mirrorless body will be able to shoot at 600mm and 800mm, heavily encroaching on where Olympus does its best work, but with a significantly better sensor. Now admittedly, the widest aperture of an f/11 lens and whether the 100-500mm, 600mm, and 800mm are compatible with the teleconverters is up for debate, but it's probably unlikely. I would say 1,600mm at f/22 and the autofocus still working is borderline impossible, but I'm not sure on that matter.

Taken with the OM-D E-M1 Mark III, Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO lens, and 1.4x teleconverter. These macaws were too far away for me to capture with my full frame mirrorless setup and any combo of my lenses and teleconverters. That said, I'd like to have cropped more than I could.

Without the Olympus 2x crop factor, you're looking to take images at fantastic reach, great resolution (which means the ability to crop), and all on a far newer sensor. So, even without the compatibility of the teleconverters, Canon is putting photographers who need long focal lengths in a position they've not been in for a long time. This all, of course, hinges on one key element and an element I think Canon is infamous for failing at: price.

There's a lot of talk about compactness and affordability of what Canon is producing in the mirrorless sector, and the latter is of the most interest to me here. Some outlets are claiming the f/11 super-telephoto lenses will be around $2,000, which if true, would knock me for six. I can't imagine how that would be the case, but if it is, wildlife and sports photographers have a decision to make, and I'm concerned it hugely favors Canon. I say I'm "concerned," because I really like Olympus both as a company and what they produce. Yes, they've grafted themselves to micro four thirds sensors even if they have to die with it, it seems, but they're a great company, and as I've said, their in-camera innovation is unparalleled. If you take away the chief perk of the micro four thirds sensor, however, I'm just not sure it's enough. Olympus prices aren't quite low enough on their flagship body and their best telephoto lenses to offset the clear gains of a far newer and full frame Canon sensor.

Will Canon dominate wildlife and sports photography from amateurs through to professionals? Their grip on the latter has been pretty resolute, but amateur and enthusiast photographers aren't likely to drop $20,000 on equipment just to use a far larger and heavier setup. What do you think?

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35 Comments

Rayann Elzein's picture

Who cares about the price when we're comparing a f/4 and a f/11 lens. Are you serious? If anything, those lenses (Olympus vs. Canon) will be comparable in weight and size. That's about it. Unless the R5/R6 have exceptional 6400 ISO image quality, those lenses will be useless.

Last night I was shooting some birds in the midnight sun, with my 600mm + TC 1.4: f/5.6, 1/1000s, and ISO 2000. Now I let you calculate the ISO if I had to go to f/11 or worse with a teleconverter.

Up to you of course to go shoot at noon on a cloudless day, but that's not my jam to produce pleasing images.

Jakub Balut's picture

Big fan of Twilight books, aren't you?

Rayann Elzein's picture

I can't decide if you're serious or joking...

Jakub Balut's picture

It got me confused, so I googled it. And unless you know something I and Google don't, then it was a funny mistake, so yes it was a joke.

Tony Northrup's picture

if you're comparing the 300 f4 Olympus with a 1.4X TC, that becomes a FF equivalent (for background blur and approximate total image noise) of 840mm f/11... So the Canon 800mm f/11 should produce basically indistinguishable results. However Canon has higher megapixel bodies and newer sensors that will likely produce better image quality with an equivalent lens.

Thijs Van der Feltz's picture

Interesting idea, but it remains to be seen how well and how fast autofocus works at F11 or F16 (with 1.4x tc). Still, the Olympus 300mm F4 has a one stop advantage (assuming 600mm F8 equivalence). I've heard that there are some optical compromises with DO design; can you confirm that Tony?

David Yoon's picture

Right, but at least with a M43 lens, you can expose the image as if it's still an f/4 or f5.6 lens with the TC. Requiring lower ISO for the same shutter speed.

Rayann Elzein's picture

What are you talking about? If I calculate my exposure with f/5.6 and 1/1000s while using the olympus 300 + TC1.4, it gives me (much) lower ISO than the Canon at f/11 or f/16. Unless suddenly the F number of an olympus camera means something else than on Canon.

Jon The Baptist's picture

Accounting for equivalencies, Tony’s right. IQ and general look will be the same. Between an OMD at 5.6 and ISO 200 vs FF at F/11 and ISO 800. Between my D4 and M1X the visual difference is nearly 2 stops in this metric.

But the AF Speed and accuracy at f/11 vs 5.6 will be suspect for sure. We can test this, today:
How well does an EOS R do C-AF on a 600mm and 3 stops if ND in it? In anything but high-noon sunlight, it’s probably not great. Throw it on a 5D and you’ll barely be able to see out the viewfinder!

That being said, I’d still take an OMD+300/4 and a 1.4TC over an F/11 lens any day of the week.

These will go down in history as 2020’s versions of mirror lenses, remember those? Bokeh that looks like rolled up condoms!

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

A full frame sensor is (at same tech level) 4x better with noise. That means you'll have a comparable noise level with :
-the olympus 300mm + MC14 (giving f/5.6) at 800 iso,
-or with the 800mm f/11 on a canon full frame, at 3200 iso.

I'm using a EM1II and I love it. But people have to understand the pros and cons of any system without getting overly defensive.

Rayann Elzein's picture

I know this, that's why I said that we have to hope the R5 has superb high ISO performance. Personally I am often considering going the Olympus way. I'm getting really tired hiking and crawling on the ground while trying to stay camouflaged with the huge Canon 600/4 :)

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

Am I the only one that thinks this is entirely doable?

I find that newer full frames can get very usable results in the 12800 ISO range, the newer R5 or R6? Hard to know, but if they bump it up even one stop to 25600...

Then you could take a picture at f11 25600 and that would be about the same amount of light as f4 ISO 3200. Which is a LOT of light.

Or even with 2x teleconverter f22 25600 is about f4 800, which is still very very fast.

M43 would need to be about f8 8000 ISO to match noise / DoF. Which is incredibly difficult to do and get a good image.

Morris Trichon's picture

Olympus glass is fantastic and their PRO lens line up is unreal. Kudos to Olympus and I hope that they come out with a new sensor camera to fully appreciate the resolution of their lenses. I don' think that Canon will produce anything that will compete with the Olympus lineup. I think Fuji can offer some competition if they want to go in that direction. Canon needs to keep an eye on Nikon who may make a big comeback and Sony who keeps eating away at their market. FF Panasonic has yet to establish it self with the L lens mount. So until the economy comes back from the COVID pandemic the real problem will be putting enough people back to work so they can buy cameras. The uber rich cannot support the camera market alone.

Jon The Baptist's picture

I’m *deep* into the Olympus system, shot with an XT3 all day today, and have also used an EOS R on occasion. Olympus lenses are great in the center, but in the peripheral not super great. Serviceable, but the heavy distortion corrections mean few m43 lenses have perfect sides and corners. They’re nowhere remotely close to as good as what the EOS R system lenses bring to the table.

Fuji’s straight-up-jenky-as-f*** X-trans sensor is really their biggest problem. They got the retro market on lockdown, but that chip, no matter how good of lenses you use, is just not that sharp. The X-Trans array really makes it difficult for the camera to resolve low contrast details with minor color separations.

If Olympus o summer imaging gets kudos for anything, it’s staying in business.

Robert McCaslan's picture

"If Olympus o summer imaging gets kudos for anything, it’s staying in business."

And now, you can't even concede that point.

Jon The Baptist's picture

Right? F me and my dead system.

Michael L's picture

For the cost of the Olympus 300/4 you can buy a Canon 90D or M6ii and the 300/4 and put more pixels on that bird.

Tim Sheehan's picture

Apsc is not the same crop factor as m43, you'd be at roughly the same megapixels and have worse stabilisation

Michael L's picture

Yeah I'm aware that 4/3 is smaller than APS-C, but thanks for assuming I'm an idiot. Fact remains that a bird that ends up with a 10mm image height is going to be 2991 lines high on the 20 mpix 4/3 sensor and 3135 lines high on the new Canon sensor.

GH6 and a new sensor can't get here fast enough.

Robert Titchmarsh's picture

You neglected to mention the upcoming Olympus ED 150-400mm f/4.5 Pro Lens, with its built in 1.25x it will achieve the FF equiv of 1000mm @ f5.6, if you put on the 2x you'll have 2000mm @ f11

Deleted Account's picture

And they've managed to shoot mount Fuji handheld from te roof of Olympus HQ. Good luck doing that with the Canon combination.
Olympus will also come this summer with the consumer 100-400. Canon won't beat Olympus at the tele department.

Terry Poe's picture

Olympus market position is already so precarious for a magnitude of reasons that addition of a few new lenses from a competitor hardly makes Olympus's position any worse.
https://marketanalysis.com/digital-camera-market-is-going-through-intere...

Paolo Bugnone's picture

Still don't get all the fuss about the 300mm f/4 Olympus.
A 150-600 f/6.3 or similar on fullframe will cost less actually give you BETTER low light performance since the Oly is a 600mm f/8 equivalent, and the price is actually higer than 300mm f/4 for fullframe bodies which is crazy since they need to properly cover a way bigger image circle.

SPEE DING's picture

A FF 150-600 would give you more total light yes but bigger, heavier and more difficult to focus as light gets low. The (now oldish) 300/4's for FF don't provide the same FOV as the 300/4 does on Olympus. Yes they're cheaper in the old EF mount but I shutter to think what Canon will charge for an updated RF version.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I'm pretty sure as far as light gathering, an f4 is still an f4. So, even if the whatever the equivalent is, eg; 300 f4 equiv to 600 f8, it's still gathering light as an f4.

Paolo Bugnone's picture

Nope, it's not.
It's f/4 but on a sensor that's 1/4 the size of a fullframe.
The 600mm f/8 gathers 1/4 the amount of light per unit of area, but does so on an area that is 4 times larger, so the amount of light gathered in a given time from a subject is THE SAME.

Just divide the focal lenght by the f number, 300/4 = 600/8, the aperture is the exact same, 75mm.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

It doesn't matter if a sensor can gather more light, if it's not getting more light. f8 is 2 stops less light than f4. Probably best to leave sensors out of this since we're talking about light through the lens.

Morris on the below post explains simply well.

If you are adamant about your theory, then, put it to the test. Compare using the same settings.

1. m43 300/ f4
2. Fullframe 600 f4
3. Fullframe 600 f8

You'll find #1 and #2 will be similar exposure wise. While #3 will be much darker.

Paolo Bugnone's picture

Sorry for late answer, I've seen the notification only now...
The 300 f/4 on M43 will have the same exposure of a 600mm f/4 on fullframe, but they won't have the same SNR (how clean the image is) because the fullframe is capturing 4x times more light than the M43, which will result in a much better image.
You literally can't exclude sensore size from the equation while talking about light since the total light gathered depends on a combination of both lens f stop and sensor size.
Exposure and total light gathered aren't the same thing, SNR depends on the tota light gathered, not on the exposure.

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