Some disclaimers first – I am an Olympus Visionary, an ambassador to the brand, hence this is not a product review. I am merely sharing my opinion and feedback after using the Olympus MC-20 over the weekend. The MC-20 was on loan from Olympus Malaysia, it was not mine, and I have returned it after my testing. I used Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, my own camera, with the latest Firmware 3.0 updated. All images were shot in RAW and post-processed with Capture One Pro, with only minor adjustments applied. Bear in mind my findings in this article may be subjective, I encourage everyone to read multiple sources of review before drawing a conclusion.
Here is a video that I did, highlighting key features of the Olympus MC-20, and my quick thoughts using it shooting some birds in Kuala Lumpur.
Olympus M.Zuiko MC-20 2X teleconver lens was designed specifically to double the focal lengths when in use with Olympus M.Zuiko PRO lenses 300mm F4 IS PRO and 40-150mm F2.8 PRO. Currently, the MC-20 is only compatible with these two aforementioned lenses, and it will also be compatible with the announced 150-400mm F4.5 PRO lens, which has not been released yet at the time of writing. Using the MC-20, you get twice the reach of the original lens, eg MC-20 with 300mm PRO gives you a total of 600mm reach. However, there is a compromise when it comes to lens brightness, we lose 2 stops of light, that means instead of F4 wide open, we get F8.
Here are some key features of the Olympus M.Zuiko MC-20 2X Teleconverter lens
1) 9 elements in 4 groups lens construction, with one HR (high refractive) element to help suppress aberrations.
2) Full weather sealing when attached to Olympus OM-D weather sealed cameras and PRO grade M.Zuiko lenses.
3) Doubles the original focal length of lenses used, but losing 2 stops of aperture. 40-150mm F2.8 becomes 80-300mm F5.6 when MC-20 is attached, similarly 300mm F4 becomes 600mm F8.
4) Weight 150g
5) Features Olympus’ own Nano coating (called ZERO lens coating) for flare and ghosting resistance
For full specification list, you may visit Olympus’ official product page here (click).
BUILD QUALITY & HANDLING
The Olympus MC-20 by itself is very small in size, and feels very light on hand (only about 150g). Therefore, this is a great solution to gain more reach without sacrificing much size, as you can attach it to existing lenses. It is so small, it does not add any bulk and can be easily stored at a corner of a bag. The MC-20 is made of metal construction, and is weather sealed.
After the MC-20 is securely attached to a camera and lens, it feels extremely solid. The build quality is excellent, using the combination shows no creaking or moving parts, everything felt together and holds tightly as if it was one piece of equipment. I expect no less from Olympus when it comes to lens build, and honestly, it did not feel like there was anything added onto the lens, unless of course you see it visually. The mounting is firm and feels reassuringly secure.
AF is a main concern for many, especially attaching an additional lens onto a lens on the camera, this usually degrades the optimal AF speed and accuracy. I am pleased to say that the AF performance of Olympus MC-20 in use with 300mm PRO or 40-150mm PRO is still superb, much better than what I was initially expecting. In most cases, there was completely no hesitation, the AF works almost as good as the native lens without the use of teleconverter, acquiring focus almost instantaneously, even from near focus to a subject that is in quite a distance away. Accuracy is also good, and the AF is so reliable, I never used manual focus for any of my shots, which I originally thought I may have to resort to just in case.
In fact, I personally felt that the Olympus MC-20 performs noticeably faster than MC-14, based on my experience. I did not have the chance to do side by side comparison, but my past experience using MC-14, I remember some minor hunting, which happened more frequently than the MC-20, and I distinctively felt that the MC-20 focuses more confidently and just overall quicker. I am not sure how much this could be due to the new AF algorithm of Firmware 3.0 in E-M1 Mark II, as the previous time I used the MC-14, I was not using the latest Firmware 3.0. I don’t have an MC-14 to verify this at the moment, and an important note – I did not test the MC-14 on E-M1 Mark II with the new Firmware 3.0. You should not have to worry about AF using MC-20, it is surely more than sufficient.
Before we start talking about image quality, let’s have a look at some sample images! I went to the KL Bird Park, and spent a few hours in there, attacking the birds and anything else that I could point my lens to.
Perhaps the biggest worry for most people is the sacrifice in sharpness when any teleconverter is used, the longer the teleconversion, the worse the compromise is when it comes to overall image quality. This is true, especially with so many iterations of teleconverter lenses from many other manufacturers, degrading what the original lenses were capable of to something that some may even categorize as completely unusable.
Before I started using the lens, I was managing my expectations that I may not be going home being impressed by the Olympus MC-20. I was prepared to accept poor results, and started to form words in my head on how to approach this article if the image quality output is below my expectations. The original MC-14 was superb, but we never know about a two times conversion lens, that is just so much more to compromise.
When I first started shooting with the MC-20, I did struggle using it. It was my first time using an equivalent 1200mm (in 35mm format) lens, I have not dealt with anything this long before! The shooting condition was not ideal, it was raining half of the time I was in the park, and the rest of the time it remained heavily overcast, the environment was not well lit. Working with widest aperture of F5.6 (with 40-150mm PRO) and F8 (with 300mm PRO) made things worse, as there was already not enough light to work with. I constantly needed to bump up my ISO to achieve sufficient shutter speed, which in turn further degrade the image quality. It took me a while to get used to such long focal lengths and get used to the somewhat unanticipated challenging shooting circumstances.
When I managed to figure things out, when everything started to fall into place nicely, my goodness, the image quality was nothing short of impressive. There were times I almost forgot I used a teleocnverter when I inspected the images, the sharpness, the amount of details captured, was a lot better than what I expected in the first place. The amount of contrast captured, despite the horrible lighting situation, was really good. Olympus did it guys, I do not know how they did it, but they somehow managed to create a 2X teleconverter lens that does not suck. In fact, that MC-20 is an impressive little conversion lens that birders and wildlife shooters MUST have.
Other notes on the image quality, I did not notice any pincushion distortion, but this could be also due to aggressive software correction applied to the images (at RAW file level). I also notice very little trace of chromatic aberration. The corners are noticeably softer than center sharpness, so if you do shoot with the MC-20, it is best to center your subjects for best possible output. Basically, there is very minimal compromise when it comes to image quality, and I was genuinely surprised by what the little MC-20 can do.
If we compare directly (which I did not, there is no point seriously) against image quality of the original lenses without the use of MC-20, of course these original lenses would do better. There is no question in this. The real question is how much is the drop of sharpness of overall image quality going to be after the use of 2x teleconverter, and are the results still within the acceptable margin?
The original M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 PRO and 300mm F4 PRO were extremely sharp lenses, perhaps “over-engineered” by Olympus, and I remember they were particularly proud of the creation of 300mm lens, that was the pinnacle of Olympus’ lens making technology, and a great display of their optical design prowess. Thus, even if there was a drop of sharpness when using the teleconverters, after the conversion these lenses are still performing well and can deliver beautiful results.
CHALLENGES USING OLYMPUS MC-20
I have to admit, this was possibly the most difficult test of a lens I have done, ever in my life. As I mentioned earlier, it took me a while to get used to the supertelephoto range and all the challenges that came along with it. I want to further discuss about these points.
Firstly, hand-holding such a long lens was a world of difficulty on its own. Hand/camera shake is amplified multiple fold, and it was simply a challenge to hand-hold and to keep everything steady. While Olympus claims superior image stabilization, be mindful that the longer the lens is, the more critical your hand-holding technique will have to do. I am not a bird shooter, I don’t do wildlife photography, hence I don’t handle very long lenses often. Mix my inexperience using supertelephoto lenses with the unfavorable lighting condition, it was a nightmare to work with. I constantly struggled to get sufficiently fast shutter speeds, and I knew if I bumped up the ISO more I will get bad results.
Secondly, the compromise of lens brightness. We know that instead of getting F2.8 and F4 brightest aperture, which were really great to work with even in low light, now that with the MC-20, the widest aperture becomes two stops darker – F5.6 and F8. The reason I have more 40-150mm and MC-20 shots instead of 300mm, is because of the F5.6 wider opening. At F8, under heavy shade or in locations with not enough light, hand-holding the lens can be quite a pain. There was no way I could shoot a constantly moving bird at 1/20 second, even if I could steady my shot, the bird will still come out blurry. I was already at ISO1600, and sometimes ISO3200!
Thirdly, Olympus mentioned this in their official page – there is a loss of one stop image stabilization effectiveness when MC-14 or MC-20 is attached. Yes, you heard that right, the 5-Axis IS loses some of its effectiveness when the teleconverters are used. Here is the problem, at longer focal length. higher shutter speed is needed, yet we lose one precious stop of image stabilization, this results in even more difficulty hand-holding such a long focal length.
Having said that, I did manage to get some sharp results from ridiculously slow shutter speeds, as I was very adamant in shooting with lower ISO numbers to get cleaner results. I would not recommend going crazy with slower shutter speeds though.
The Olympus M.Zuiko MC-20 2X Teleconverter lens retails at RM2099 in Malaysia, it is not really budget-friendly, but I can totally see how the price is being justified.
Optically, the lens design is excellent, providing superb image quality with use on M.Zuiko 300mm F4 PRO and 40-150mm PRO lenses. While there is a minor drop in sharpness when the teleconverter is attached, the overall image quality is still fantastic, and can be amazingly sharp, detailed and rich in contrast. The compromise of losing 2 stops lens brightness is something that we have to live with using the MC-20, but under good light, I can see how the MC-20 can really shine, giving you phenomenal reach of 1200mm equivalent when used with 300mm lens. That shows the true potential of what Micro Four Thirds, specifically Olympus OM-D system is capable of.
If you are a wildlife and bird shooter, you need that extra reach, get the MC-20, it does not weigh much, and it adds that much more versatility to your already incredible lenses.
Olympus M,Zuiko MC-20 2X Teleconverter Lens is available from B&H.