1600mm Beast! Olympus M.Zuiko 100-400mm F5-6.3 + MC-20 2X Teleconverter

This blog entry is a follow up to the previous review article on recently released Olympus M.Zuiko 100-400mm F5-6.3 IS lens (click here). Please read the original article if you have not already done so. I shall be exploring the use of 2x teleconverter MC-20 being attached on the 100-400mm lens in this particular post. I intentionally separate the use of teleconverter out from the original review, because I wanted the focus to be solely on the lens, and to be quite frank, 400mm (800mm equivalent in 35mm format) is plenty of reach already. 

Here is the video version of this article (click)Special thanks to Van Ligutom for behind the scenes footage. 

To test the teleconverters on Olympus 100-400mm lens, I went to Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. No, I will not be crazy to venture into the dangerous rainforest and get myself eaten by snakes or dinosaurs. I am a city boy and will not survive in the wild. I shall stay safe, and I intend to live to see what happens after the transfer of Olympus imaging to JIP is complete, whatever that may happen. The Bird Park was a safe solution to effectively test what the combination of lens and teleconverter can do. 

I initially wanted to test both the MC-14 1.4x and MC-20 2x teleconverters and give my comments on how they each perform with the use on 100-400mm lens, but I realized that may not be practical, and it was no easy task taking in and out, swapping the teleconverters when I was handling such a huge lens, the 100-400mm lens. I decided to stay with the MC-20 2x Teleconverter, but you do see some shots taken with the MC-14 from time to time. The observations made in this article is based solely on the use of MC-20 on 100-400mm lens only. 

I have also reviewed the Olympus MC-20 teleconverter before, please do read that up if you want to find out more about the teleconverter. I will not be discussing the performance of the MC-20 or 100-400mm lens separately here, let's just get straight to the point. 

Credit: Sim Piin Hor

ƒ/131/250650mmISO640  MC-20

ƒ/101/640560mmISO640  MC-14

ƒ/131/800800mmISO2500, MC-20

ƒ/131/100800mmISO1600  MC-20

Crop from previous image


I have never hand-held such a long lens before, not at 1600mm equivalent in focal length. I don't even use the Olympus 300mm PRO often, I don't own one. The longest lens I have is the M.Zuiko 40-150mm PRO, and even so that is not a lens I use often, and whenever I do use the 40-150mm PRO I don't even shoot at full 150mm. Therefore, handling a 800mm (1600mm in 35mm format) at full zoom after the MC-20 is attached was quite mind-boggling to be honest. 

Every single shake, even tiny jitters were amplified. You will need more skills and very sound hand-holding technique to use such a long lens. Be prepared to have a lot of failures while spending time getting used to the massive focal length. I had about 50% of failures from this outing, not because of the lens being a bad lens, or the teleconverter, no, far from it. It was simply me never having to use such a long lens before, and it was not easy for me to handle the combination. 

The problems get worse with reduction of image stabilization effectiveness. These are official Olympus numbers for the Lens IS effectiveness based on CIPA rating:
Without teleconverters used: 3 EV Steps compensation
With MC-14 teleconveter: 2 EV Steps compensation
With MC-20 teleconverter: 1.5 EV Steps compensation

The numbers don't look very inspiring, but do not let that get you down, Olympus has always been overly conservative in their claims, and I did find myself being able to hand-hold at much lower shutter speeds than claimed. I was using MC-20 on 100-400mm lens, shooting at 800mm full end, and I could confidently hand-hold about 1/200 sec confidently, sometimes even down to 1/160 sec, no issue. This was quite a difference from the claimed 1.5EV steps compensation, which effectively means you have to shoot at about 1/500 sec shutter speed or faster. 

You see, the problem is magnified multiple fold with reduction of image stabilization effectiveness. The longer the lens is, the more susceptible it is to shake, yet the IS at the longer end after using MC-20 is reduced by HALF. At the end of the day, the numbers do not really matter, what matters is the keepers that you get from your shooting. Just remember that whenever you attach a teleconverter, the IS is less effective. 

It is a known problem that lenses will lose the aperture brightness with use of any teleconverters. 
Without teleconverter used: 100-400mm F5-6.3
With MC-14 teleconverter: 140-560mm F7.1-F9.0
With MC-20 teleconverter: 200-800mm F10-13

Imagine, shooting at full 800mm zoom with MC-20 attached, hand-holding with drastically reduced image stabilization effectiveness, and at the same time you have to deal with a narrow aperture of F13, you must really manage your expectations when you attach any teleconverters on the 100-400mm lens. Even shooting with MC-14, at 560mm full zoom, you are shooting at widest F9. Under bright sunny conditions, you can get away with ISO200-400, no issue, but when the light drops, even just a little, the ISO numbers may need to be cranked up to 1600 or beyond, which introduces a whole lot of other set of problems to the image. 

ƒ/131/40800mmISO1600  MC-20

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ƒ/131/200800mmISO1600  MC-20

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ƒ/101/200560mmISO400  MC-14

ƒ/131/125800mmISO1000  MC-20

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ƒ/131/100800mmISO1600  MC-20

ƒ/131/100710mmISO1600  MC-20

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I am not saying it is impossibly difficult to use the Olympus 100-400mm lens with teleconverters. I am warning you that for average shooters, it can be a huge challenge, and many will be disappointed with the results and may not even realize what went wrong, and be too quick to blame either the lens, or the teleconverter being sub-standard. That has been the case for many people using MC-20 with existing 300mm PRO and 40-150mm PRO lenses, not able to fully utilize the lens and get sharp results. 

Knowing the challenges and limitations, as I have laid out, it is crucial to work around the issues and get better results when using the 100-400mm lens with teleconverters. 

I did mention I get about 50% hit rate. The 50% failures were mostly due to the following reasons:
1) Me being over-confident with my own hand-holding capabilities, stretching the shutter speeds to ungodly realms below 1/100 sec at full 800mm (with MC-20). Yes, foolish me thinking I could hand-hold 1600mm equivalent at 1/25 sec or 1/40 sec. Of course all these shots came out bad
2) The birds were alive. They move. They won't stay still, even if they did, it was for a very short time. Even the tiniest movement can cause softness and ruin the image. 
3) Extremely thin shallow depth of field - at 1600mm, we are dealing with razor thin depth of field, even slight miss-focus, tiny shift of lens movement, or the bird deciding to move the head away by 2cm, I get out of focus image. 

Putting aside the 50% rubbish shots, the 50% keepers were nothing short of a miracle. I was actually amazed I could get home with so many usable shots, as shown here. 

The images that were in critically accurate focus, shake-free, and technically fault free came out looking very good. When using a teleconverter, of course some compromise of image quality is expected. There is noticable drop of sharpness overall, the contrast and fine-details resolving power were reduced, but looking at the overall results, the images that I managed to shoot with MC-20 on the 100-400mm, even at the longest end, were quite impressive. You don't get that biting sharpness, but the lens is still able to render perfectly usable images. 

People tend to ask the wrong question - how good or bad is the teleconverter? The teleconverter has very simplistic design, and is used to magnify the center portion of the lens it is attached to. Therefore, the correct question to ask is - how good is the lens that the teleconverter is attached to? It is no secret, even Olympus has repeatedly managed my expectations from the start that the 100-400mm lens is not a PRO lens. The sharpness, while is still very good, does not reach PRO level quality found in 300mm PRO or 40-150mm PRO. It is not difficult to translate this to images that may not be super sharp when MC-20 or MC-14 is being attached to the 100-400mm lens. 

My biggest problem while using the 100-400mm lens + MC-20 was the constant worry and over-exerting energy and effort in making sure I have shake-free, sharp images. This somewhat is detrimental to a photographer's mind, I have to compromise my composition, moment capturing and other artistic considerations. I am not entirely happy with the images captured from this testing session, because I know I could do better and capture better composed and timed images. Nonetheless, the priority of this article is to test the capabilities of MC-20 teleconverter on the 100-400mm lens, and for that, I have stayed on mission. 

ƒ/131/50800mmISO1600  MC-20

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ƒ/131/200615mmISO1000  MC-20

ƒ/111/80800mmISO1600  MC-20

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f/131/200615mmISO1600  MC-20

ƒ/131/100800mmISO1250  MC-20

ƒ/121/80415mmISO1600  MC-20

For those of you who are thinking of getting the Olympus 100-400mm F5-6.3 IS lens, use the lens first, it is a wonderful lens, and 400mm is already quite a long reach and the zoom provides you versatile shooting range, covering a wide variety of composition possibilities. In the case where you really need the longer reach beyond the native 400mm, then you may consider adding on the MC-14 or MC-20, but please be aware of all the limitations and challenges that you will face when using the teleconverters. You can still get beautiful results, just make sure there is plenty of light, and be prepared to use tripod if necessary. 

If you already have the MC-14 or MC-20 teleconverters, of course you will want to use them on the 100-400mm lens should you decide to get it. You can still get good results, just bear in mind it will take a bit of time getting used to such massive focal length. 

For those of you who are wondering how much reach you can get with the MC-14 and MC-20 teleconverters, and what differences they make, I have a comparison of a moon shot taken at 400mm (without teleconverter), 560mm (with MC-14) and 800mm (with MC-20). The reach with MC-20 is double than the original lens without the use of teleconverter, and can open up different shooting possibilities, if you intend to use this super long telephoto reach in your photography. 

ƒ/6.31/200400mmISO200  No Teleconverter

ƒ/91/100560mmISO200  MC-14

ƒ/131/125800mmISO400  MC-20

Credit: Sim Piin Hor

How many of you intend to get that incredible 1600mm reach for your Micro Four Thirds system? I can't wait for the coming 150-400mm F4.5 PRO, with the built in teleconverter 1.25x and adding on MC-20, you can get an effective of 1000mm (2000mm equivalent) reach! That is beyond insane!

I hope you have enjoyed the blog article! I have observed quite a bit of confusion and miunderstandings on how the lens IS inside the Olympus 100-400mm lens works, I think I may do an article soon to address that. 

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  1. Wow, considering that you haven't had much practice with such a long lens, you did remarkably well. The shots that came out were amazing. You're right. It's our skills and experience that will make the difference with any gear, especially long lenses. Thanks, Robin.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I did have quite a high failure rate, so nothing to show off about honestly. And the challenges I faced were real!

  2. Thanks Robin. Great advice & examples of the possibilities with this lens & TC's.
    BTW, the mask is inside out. It goes the other way. ;)

  3. Outstanding images Robin, Do you have any advice on the proper technique for hand holding this long lens to help minimize camera shake?