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What is the best Sony telephoto lens? The saying “You get what you pay for” doesn’t apply to all camera gear. There is an incredible amount of good work produced with cheap – even “crappy” – gear. However, this saying holds a lot more validity for telephoto lenses – particularly for wildlife and sports shooting.
Telephoto lenses are generally just more expensive than their “normal” range counterparts. The reason, in summary, is that they simply require more materials to make, particularly more glass components which need to be coated to help with dispersion, clarity, and reflectivity when zooming.
To illustrate this point, I’ll be highlighting 3 Sony telephoto lenses. I’ve picked Sony because lately they’ve been really pushing the technology envelope. You can find pretty much the same lenses from both Nikon and Canon. These Sony lenses come in similar lengths but are built quite differently from one another and, consequently, are priced quite differently. I am hoping that by describing what’s different about their builds, you’ll be better equipped to choose the lens you really need – whether it’s for a major photo safari trip or just covering local league games. This will help you understand what the benefits are of different specs you might see on products so that you know what you’re paying for (or not paying for) and why.
Note, too, that lens performance varies depending on the camera it is mounted to. But these are fairly subtle differences and not super consequential for more casual shooters. But knowing that will help you understand why sometimes a lens will be beloved by some and despised by others – how they are using the lens and what they are pairing the lens with can certainly be influencing their opinion.
This lens is Sony’s base model telephoto and is a great option for those on a budget (it’s still spendy, but affordable compared to other models). It gives you a 70-300mm zoom range with a varying aperture throughout that range. The varying aperture allows for a physically smaller lens because as you zoom it, the internal diameter of light reaching the sensor changes and, thus, the aperture changes. At 70mm you have a max aperture of f/4.5 and at 300mm that drops to f/5.6. In the film days, pro photographers hated dealing with lenses that had varying aperture because they had to always adjust their camera settings accordingly. Today, people still are not stoked on variable-aperture lenses unless they are already used to consistently shooting with larger depths of field of, say, f/8. So this lens is suitable for outdoors but can be tough to use in lower light. The major benefit of tolerating a variable aperture like this is that it allows the lens to be incredibly portable for the focal range you get.
Internally the lens contains 2 extra-low dispersion glass elements that help to reduce chromatic aberrations and color fringing and according to tests, it does a pretty good job doing just that. This is important when photographing birds on a branch against a stark sky. There are 4 aspherical glass elements that reduce astigmatism, field curvature, coma, and other monochromatic aberrations – handy features for shooting astro work, though most folks use wider lenses for their astro landscapes. This lens also has a rounded 9-blade diaphragm to help with out-of-focus bokeh. Generally speaking, the rounder the bokeh, the more pleasing. One last important detail about this lens: it is not designed for use with Sony’s FE teleconverters. So you cannot make this lens even longer with the use of the Sony FE 1.4x or the Sony FE 2x unfortunately.
On the plus side, this lens does come with Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, which assists in low light situations and helps counter the smaller maximum aperture on the long end by allowing you to use slower shutter speeds in low light instead of relying on a wider aperture. The OSS system on this lens is pretty quiet, which is a good feature for wildlife. Likewise, the focus is nearly silent and uses an advanced linear actuator for quick focusing. Note, however, that this won’t be as quick as the following ones in my list. Like many Sony FE lenses, this lens is equipped with a large and comfortable AF hold botton, which allows you to lock focus during continuous focus mode so that you can recompose without losing your target.
As for build, this lens has basically an aluminum, glass and plastic chassis. This keeps it lightweight (under 2 lbs) but might not feel as robust in your hands as higher-end lenses will. It is small enough around to accommodate a 72mm filter and doesn’t need a tripod foot ring – but be warned that it is still long enough and heavy enough to put some extra pressure on your camera’s mount system if you’re not careful. A tripod is still advised with this lens. Overall, if you’re using any Sony E mount camera – full frame or crop frame – and really like shooting at the longer end for, say, birding or athletics but can’t afford (or can’t carry) something bigger, then this lens is for you. A more expensive alternative to this lens, with a slightly shorter focal range but a consistent and wide maximum aperture, is the extremely versatile and popular Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens.
The GM designation on this lens means that it is part of Sony’s Master Series – which is akin to Canon’s L series, for those who are familiar with that. GM lenses are designed for exceptional sharpness and high resolution captures. This is achieved through 2 extra-low dispersion glass elements and 1 super extra-low element, which help to control chromatic aberrations and reduce color fringing. This lens in particular also has a Nano AR coating to reduce surface reflections, flare, and ghosting for better contrast and color rendering. The front element is also coated with fluorine to help with smudges and dust collection on it.
All GM lenses sport sophisticated actuators for fast, precise AF. They also have a more robust build over non-GM lenses, including better moisture resistance. What sets them apart from Sony’s prior G series is that GM lenses are “future proof” – that is, they are built with large megapixel sensors in mind and should, in theory, last you for many iterations of advancing cameras bodies to come.
With all these added benefits comes an added price. This lens is around a whopping $1,000 more than the 70-300mm above. You lose some of the wide in favor of the long with this lens. You gain even more length if pairing with a teleconverter, which this lens is compatible with. The downside to using a teleconverter with the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens is that you will lose some of the lens’ sharpness and up to 2 stops of light. That puts you at f/11 and 800mm when using a 2.0x teleconverter. While not a deal breaker in today’s market of great performing low-light cameras, you will probably notice the drop in clarity when using this with the teleconverters.
The zoom range of this lens makes it harder to just “walk around” with. You’re getting pretty specialized with something at this range and you’re probably shooting primarily wildlife or sports. The autofocus motor is a “Direct Drive Super Sonic wave motor AF system”. Translation = WAY FAST. It’s relatively heavy at over 3 lbs, but its elements are set to the back of the lens body for better balance when hand-holding – though I would opt to put this lens on a tripod almost exclusively. It is equipped with a rotating tripod collar/removable foot. Like the 70-300mm, it sports a 9-blade diaphragm for pretty bokeh. It is compatible with Sony E mount cameras in both full frame and crop frame sensors.
This, along with the ultra-elite 600mm f/4 GM OSS (the lightest 600mm ever made), is the pinnacle of Sony’s telephoto lens line. When you get into prime telephotos with large maximum apertures like this, you mean business. Like with the 100-400, this lens positions its elements to the back of the lens body for better balance and hand-holding, though almost nobody would hand-hold this baby if they can help it. This is meant to be paired with a swinging gimbal head, like the Wimberley Gimbal II. That said, Sony has been a major leader in “lightweight” lens tech and this lens is “only” 6.37 lbs – pretty good for what it is. Somehow, it maintains this weight while being constructed from magnesium and very little plastic. It is as close to bombproof that you can get in the photography world.
The autofocus motor is a magnetic XD Linear Motor System which means it is super fast. Imagine a lens that autofocuses like a nitro dragster! It includes Sony’s highest-end image stabilization system, which yields 5-axis stabilization when combined with in-camera stabilization of Sony’s Alpha line of mirrorless cameras. This includes an innovative new Optical Image Stabilization mode that features an advanced algorithm for optimum stabilization during dynamic sports action. An extreme dynamic Linear Motor system delivers high amounts of thrust and provides exceptional tracking performance that pairs well with Sony’s latest high-FPS mirrorless cameras, such as the Sony Alpha a9 II Mirrorless Digital Camera. Also notable is its curved 11-blade diaphragm for the best possible bokeh.
Like the 100-400mm, this lens is compatible with teleconverters. Where it differs is that this lens has an awesomely-wide starting aperture, which provides aperture latitude when pairing with teleconverters. Get up to 800mm at an impressive f/5.6 aperture opening. Mic drop.
The obvious downside of a lens like the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS is the price. Can you afford the astronomical price tag for the benefits that this lens possesses over something like the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens? That really depends on your mission and the realistic budget that you have available. Will the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS really produce better photos than the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS? In low-light scenarios, absolutely. For the money? That’s a call you have to make. If you have really critical gigs or projects, but don’t expect them to be a regular thing, then this lens is the quintessential “rent it, don’t buy it” item.
What’s the Point of Ultra-Expensive Prime Super Telephoto Lenses?
I was recently told by a camera rep that lenses like these do not bring a company like Sony tremendous profit. In fact, the price tag is pretty close to the cost of building the thing. So why does Sony make a lens like this? It is a one-word answer: marketing. Have you ever watched the Olympics or similar sporting event where all of the photographers are in a corral? How many fancy white lenses do you see? How many smaller black lenses do you see? Historically you have seen more ultra-elite super-tele L series Canon lenses than any other lens. Who sells the most cameras? Canon (currently, though Sony is coming up fast).
Also realize that those photographers are shooting high-speed action in fairly low-light conditions. So to obtain the best shots, larger glass like the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens is almost mandatory if you want to shoot at lower ISOs with a teleconverter attached. Lastly, a lot of these pros do actually still rent their gear.
Getting What You Pay For
In an unrealistic, disposable-income sort of way, you do get what you pay for when buying up in the realm of telephoto lenses. Manufacturers like Sony add more features to higher-priced lenses. With these higher price points come better lens coatings, better manufacturing materials, faster and more accurate focus motors, and even smoother bokeh, which gives the photographer fewer creative limitations. The higher-end price tags of these telephoto lenses represent crowning achievements for each manufacturer. Sony has just recently entered this realm, with Canon and Nikon having paved the way for years, decades even.
If you want the best, you pay for it. If you are willing to be in the middle, you may just find a perfect balance of price, function and features. Being in the middle may just mean you have to get better at your craft, since you are able to rely less on convenient features. This is not a bad thing – becoming a better user is certainly cheaper than upgrading your gear. The more specialized you get, the more your hand might be forced into upgrading. In the meantime, there is always renting!