Extreme Reach with the Olympus E-3

Combine the Four-Thirds camera's 2x lens factor and the EC-20 2x teleconverter with the Zuiko 300mm f/2.8 for a hand-holdable, ultra-portable, Image stabilized 1200mm f/5.6 equivalent lens!



Among many a photographer the sensor factor is considered a bad thing. Usually these complaints focus on the wide end of things, where the smaller sensors make wide angle lenses less wide (see related story). But at the telephoto end, it's a different story. A smaller sensor means more effective reach. And among DSLRs, nowhere is this gain more realized than on the 2x factor Four Thirds system.

So, when the Olympus Zuiko 300mm f/2.8 Super Telephoto lens ($5895, street) is mounted on the Olympus E-3, it becomes, in effect, a 600mm f/2.8. Add in the Olympus Zuiko EC-20 2x teleconverter ($479, street), and you've got an effective 1200mm f/5.6 (EXIF data indicates an actual f/5.7 aperture, but this is a negligible difference) sensor-shift stabilized supertelephoto lens that weights just over eight pounds! Add in the E-3 and an HLD-4 vertical grip, and this whole kit weighs in at less than 11 pounds.


One way to get nearly this reach and aperture with a Canon or Nikon APS-C camera such as the Canon EOS 40D or Nikon D300 is to combine a 1.4x tele extender with each company's 600mm f/4 lens, and you're close to 1200mm f/5.6 when the sensor and converters are factored in. Go the Canon route, and you've got Image Stabilization. Not so with the Nikon set-up. In either case, you're looking at well over 11 pounds and 17 inches for the lens and tx alone (without the lens hoods).

There is another way to get this sort of reach with Nikon or Canon APS-C cameras without an extender -- the "Sigmonster," Sigma's 300-800 f/5.6 EX APO HSM AF DG behemoth. This nearly 13 pound supertelephoto zoom is also over two feet in length with the lens hood extended -- more than the E-3 plus the 300mm plus the 2x extender combined!


Sure, you've got the reach with any of these combos mentioned above, but add in a semi-pro or pro camera, and it's a big, heavy set-up that's not nearly as easy to haul as the E-3 plus the Zuiko 300mm f/2.8 plus 2x extender. It's both a matter of overall weight and size where the Olympus 1200mm set-up really shines.

The entire Olympus 1200mm set-up (lens, tx, E-3), along with a couple more lenses and accessories, will easily fit into any number of carry-on sized day bags such as the Lowepro Slingshot AW300, the Tamrac Adventure 9, or the Think Tank Rotation 360. Each of these bags is configured differently, but we were able to comfortably fit the 300mm lens, 2x extender, and the E-3, along with the Olympus Zuiko 7-14mm f/4.0 ultrawide, and some additional accessories and gadgets into each one.

And of course, with any of these bags, there's the option to add more storage with add-on modular accessory pouches. What's all this mean? It means you can pack a camera bag that doesn't have to be checked during flights, that gives you reach from 14mm to 1200mm (35mm equivalent), that can be carried all day long without killing you!


We were even able to fit the E-3 and the Zuiko 300mm f/2.8 and 2x extender into the Think Tank Urban Disguise 50 for some low-profile gear-hauling through the New York Subways and while hiking the urban jungle in Central Park and the surrounding blocks. To have this much reach and speed in so small a pack is amazing.

But size is one thing. Performance is another. And we were amazed! One afternoon, as the light was dying, we consistently nailed sharp shots of ducks at 1/250 using this setup, and even a couple at 1/125, halfway across a pond -- hand-held! It requires a steady hand, and not every shot will be perfect, but this reach, combined with sensor-shift stabilization, can be a real benefit to wildlife photographers for sedentary subjects at a distance. Remember, no matter how great any stabilization system is it cannot stop subject movement during exposure.

For action-freezing shutter speeds with an f/5.6 aperture and a low to medium ISO, you'll need good daylight conditions. That true with any f/5.6 set-up. And the 300mm plus 2x will handle these challenges well. Autofocusing with the 2x feels just a touch slower than with just the 300mm alone in good lighting, but not to a significant degree. In very low light, there might be some searching, particularly with low-contrast subjects.

We just wish we had a trip to Yellowstone or the Masai Mara coming up to really let this combo shine! Come on, ducks and seagulls are everywhere, but this kit just screams "go to the ends of the earth!" You can fill the frame with penguins or polar bears, buffalo or springboks! Take out a home equity loan and go on that once-in-a-lifetime tour of the South Pacific!

All in all, Olympus has a pretty amazing thing going with this combination of the E-3, 300mm f/2.8 and the 2x EC-20. To have this much reach in so small a package is impressive. That it fits into a carry-on bag, with more than ample room to add in several other lenses -- let's say the Olympus Zuiko 7-14mm f/4, 12-60 f/2.8-4, 35-100 f/2 and the 150mm f/2 -- an FL-50R strobe, and perhaps an Olympus E-410 as a back-up body, and you've got about a 30-pound pack of amazing versatility that can easily be hauled to the ends of the earth, without ever having to check a bag or hire a sherpa.

Yes, the Sigma 300-800 f/5.6 EX APO HSM AF DG is huge and bulky, but we love it. And it is available for the Four Thirds mount. And when the Sigmonster is mounted on the E-3 (or any Four Thirds camera) it is an effective 600-1600 f/5.6 zoom lens! It won't fit into a carry-on bag, but wow, what reach! And on the E-3 or E-510, it's a stabilized 600-1600 f/.5.6!


There are times when a tripod, even a monopod, isn't practical, or even possible. But with some practice, many photographers will find that it isn't all that tough to balance a 10-12 pound camera and lens.

Don't "chicken wing" the lens with your left hand. Keep your elbow tight and anchored against your ribs, with your thumb facing out and your palm towards you. This is the easiest way to hold a big lens comfortably for extended periods of time. Many supertelephotos feature lens barrel buttons for focus-stop or other customized functions, depending on the manufacturer. It'll probably be positioned perfectly for a quick thumb-tap, should you need it.

Whenever possible, keep shutter speeds fast to minimize camera or subject movement, which is amplified in the field of view during supertelephoto shooting. Holding your breath as you squeeze a blast of shots can also help nail a winner.

We've shared a number of photos that we shot at ridiculously slow shutter speeds for such a long lens to prove it's possible. What we didn't share are the "outs." Long-reach, low-light, handheld photography is a gamble, and you'll want heaps of memory cards for all the shots that are just a touch too soft, or simply framed wrong, because the tiniest little twitch can be the difference between a tight shot of a bird in flight with wings spread wide and a shot of a blue sky with nothing but a lonely partial wing poking out of a corner.