Compact, competent & steady. You want this lens.
At time of writing, the Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS for full frame Sony E-mount (i.e. the A7, A7r, A7s) cameras is a bit of a white buffalo. Few have seen one in the wild. Fortunately, I got my hands on one to purchase, thanks to a very kind local Sony rep and Unique Photo.
Of course this lens also works with the E-mount APS-C bodies, but I’m using mine with the 36MP A7r. Yes, a white 70-200mm lens on a camera with contrast autofocus. Here are a few initial impressions and images to help you understand this lens a bit and what it’s all about.
I’ll apologize right up-front for all the flower and bug photos. They get the job done and there were no brick walls handy.
If you’re looking for test charts, pixel peeping or photos of barns taken on a tripod – look elsewhere. This is just a meat and potatoes look at this solid, stabilized 70-200mm f/4 lens.
Is it huge? And does it fit the A7 cameras?
Online, it’s hard to judge the size of the A7 system and its lenses. Currently, this certainly is the biggest E-mount lens. But it’s really not that big in the scheme of things. Next to my cellphone and a writing pen, you can see the whole rig below. It’s really not imposing. Certainly not pocketable – but not imposing. Using a Blackrapid sling strap, the whole setup is comfortable.
It’s pretty obvious that Sony is using an SLR design with this lens – the rear of the lens is basically a longish extension tube in matte black to dampen stray light, with the rear lens element quite a distance from the mount. This does make for a longish-lens, but not unbalanced in any way. For perspective, below, it fits easily into the hand and doesn’t overpower the body (even when used without a grip). WITH the optional grip, the rig feels reassuringly stable and vertical shooting is a breeze.
In contrast, using the LA-E4 adapter and an A-mount 70-200mm or tele lens often feels like the camera is simply a growth or in-the-way appendage hanging off of a huge lens. It feels stupid, to be honest, and all of the weight bears on the hand holding the lens. With this lens, it’s reasonably comfortable and balanced. The mount on my camera does have a little bit of rotational play – which can be concerning. Sony reassures me that this is within spec.
The tripod collar stays out of the way when moved to the top of the lens – and I have fat bear-claw hands and sausage fingers. In limited circumstances, I might use a monopod, so this is a nice add-on. Below, you can see the overall size of this rig vs. a Sony A77 with a Sigma 180mm f/2.8 lens… a typical tele-size lens. From the back of the camera to the front of the lens, the FE 70-200 and A7r is about 30% shorter than its SLR-like friend. The whole A7r setup feels much lighter and comfortable. I personally like the ergonomics.
OVERALL: The FE 70-200mm maintains the system’s advantage for being smaller/lighter and feels nicely balanced. In social or public situations, you feel much less conspicuous with this setup than a SLR and great-white-lens.
Focusing – Not too shabby.
I think focus by wire is stupid, lame, feels mushy, and sucks hard. You can’t prefocus based on a distance scale, there’s no real tactile feedback and Sony does this goofy focus acceleration or throttling thing that makes the lens focus faster or slower based on how fast you turn the ring. The problem is, it feels completely out of touch with what your hand is doing when you manipulate the focus ring. I like manual focus, so this sucks.
That aside, the AF is a little deliberate on the A7r, but was fast enough for me to power through some sports (softball) and even some birds in flight (wasn’t pretty, but got the job done). It’s accurate, especially in AF-S and a single focus point.
First, a 70-200mm isn’t really a birding lens – but this application is the most brutal test of a focusing system. These Purple Martins are small, fast, agile, fly high and are tricky to photograph. I’d say about 4/10 images were in focus. With a Canon 7D and 70-200mm f/4L IS, maybe 6/10 would be in focus.
For fashion, portraits, general nature, team sports, kids running around, street stuff, and most applications – you’ll have no problems. It’s steady and reliable. Only armchair engineers and hardcore sports/wildlife types would have reason to complain.
OVERALL: Don’t expect miracles, but the AF with this combo is accurate and capable with a little practice. Use the distance limiter, and focus modes to your advantage. The A7 and A6000 are likely much faster. Setting up your camera CF buttons right is critical.
So, is it sharp?
No really, is the lens sharp? I have extreme expectations of sharpness and only buy sharp lenses. DxO says it’s sharp, so is it really sharp?
Yes. Really. Here’s the rundown – this lens is easily the peer of any f/4 70-200mm out there. Given the excellent noise profile of the A7 cameras – I’d go so far as to say you probably won’t miss having an f/2.8 lens – unless you do a lot of indoor sports. I’d feel comfortable using this for a wedding. The most obvious comparison? Ok… Perhaps the non-IS Canon 70-200mm f/4 has a little more pop and sizzle, but that’s a very special lens (without IS). My notes on the FE 70-200mm resolution profile:
- At 70mm, it is noticeably better than the Zeiss FE 24-70mm in therms of contrast and resolution. Easily.
- It gives you prime-quality resolution and contrast from 70-135mm – It’s very, very good here.
- 100-135mm feels like the sweet spot, which is not surprising. The surprise is how sweet the spot really is. I’m impressed.
- You’re going to see a little penalty at the minimum focus distance (more on that later) – but it’s not the biggest deal
- At f/4, especially from 150mm-200mmm, the DoF is generally so shallow, it’s easy to say “crap, the lens is soft!” It’s not so – the lens is actually quite strong even at 200mm f/4
- SURE, the corners are a tad low-contrast at f/4 180-200mm, and there’s even a little tiny bit of that smearing look in the corners… but the vast field is very solid at the long end. (Some lenses are so bad at the long end, it’s practically worthless – as you can crop a shorter focal length and get the same resolution as when zoomed in – not so with this lens).
OVERALL: The lens has the three big ones. 1. It’s sharp throughout the zoom range with few weak spots. 2. You don’t have to worry what aperture you’re using to get crisp images (but stopping down will improve thing a bit, esp on the long end) 3. It’s got a great contrast profile, not too much & not too flat.
Close Focusing – Funky Minimum Focus Distance
It wouldn’t be a Sony product if there wasn’t some crazy, singular, proprietary and annoying feature. For this lens, it’s the minimum focus distance. Here’s the basic deal (I’m sure someone else will quantify the following more precisely):
- If you are in autofocus mode – the MFD is more distant than if you are focusing manually
- If you are at 200mm, the MFD is also more distant than if you are shooting at approx 185mm or wider – regardless of how you are focusing
So, if you are focusing close, and zoom in to 200mm, you can suddenly lose the ability to maintain focus. If you’re focusing close and manually focusing, then switch to AF, you may also have to physically move back. Likewise, if you’re too close to focus at 200mm, and slowly zoom out (rocking the manual focus ring to bring up the digital distance scale), you’ll see at some point, the ability to focus closer appears.
It’s awkward and sloppy – shame on Sony for this design compromise. Camera gear should inspire confidence, and be intuitive to use.
Still, The lens is still very strong close-up. At f/4, you may detect a little contrast loss very close up vs. mid-distances, but this is typical. (P.S. Those lens chart websites often test tele lenses close to their MFD – which can really compromise the data you’re seeing.) Here’s a photo taken at near the minimum focus distance with manual focus:
And another 100% crop at the 200mm end, where you are forced to take a step back:
OVERALL: You’ll find yourself going “What the hell is going on?!? – the camera won’t lock focus!” Then you’ll realize this is NOT a closeup lens and Sony wants you to be confused about how close you can actually get to the subject and get it in focus. At some point, you’ll get a feel for the quirks.
BOKEH!!! (Yes, this lens can Bokeh)
Below is a bit of an aperture series – in general, flower stems and leaves like this often get very busy and nervous. The rounded aperture blades on this lens really does a very solid job keeping transitions from sharp to unsharp areas smooth, buttery, and calm.
And here’s some front & back blur at 115mm…
Other Comments – Errata
1. Longitudinal chromatic aberration is actually pretty well controlled – I tried to force it with a pretty devilish subject (below) – you can see it if you peek:
2. Backlight isn’t really a problem for the lens. There’s plenty of contrast to go around
3. I know this sounds odd, and I’ll be challenged on it – but to me, certain lenses are better with high ISO shooting than others with a given camera. Below is a shot at ISO 1250. I’m ok with this.
4. The optical stabilization is a little “jumpy” in the finder – not the best I ever used but not the worst. I shoot my 70-200mm handheld 99.999% of the time, so the IS helps a lot. My hit rate for nicely sharp images at 200mm and 1/13sec (stationary subject) is about 50%.
5. Distortion. YES – there is some distortion, and it’s a little more than I’m used to with a lens like this. The ACR/Lightroom lens profile is very good if you need it, but you’ll be pushing some pixels around (which may be a problem if you’re a purist – but you’re not, because that’s lame).
6. APS-C mode on the A7r is still AWESOME. It’s great to be able to compose your image with the “already cropped” image in the finder and have a nice, light, AA-free, 16MP image. This lens is a great APS-C lens in that regard.
Look. You only need to shoot a lens like this for 10 minutes to know it’s good. This is a good lens. There’s some oddball things about it, and maybe the far corners, wide open at 200mm aren’t tack sharp. If that’s the worst I can say… we have a winner on our hands. This is an easy lens to carry around, pop in the bag, and shoot handheld… the way 70-200mm lenses with image stabilization were meant to be used. The tactile feel and quality is very good, it’s a convenient size and once you learn how to focus with an A7/r/s, it’ll be your new best friend.