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Sony E-mount 70-200 – Review

Day Lily Sony 70-200 @f4; 1/500 Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Day Lily
Sony 70-200 @f4; 1/500
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Since equipment reviews are infrequent here, you may wish to read my description of my equipment reviews. You can get there by clicking on the link under “On This Blog,” halfway down the left-hand column.

When Sony announced the A7 “full-frame” (so-called) bodies last year, some of us converts to the Sony NEX system started to look at whether this body  (and a series of lenses to be designed for it by the Zeiss-Sony partnership) would be a viable alternative to a fully matured, full frame, DSLR system (indeed, some of us were foolish enough – perhaps – to “bet the ranch” on it (see, My Early Impressions of the Sony A7r).

Sony, inexplicably, decided to make this lens White 😦

One of the “announced” lenses was a so-called, “pro” spec, 70-200 f4 lens. This one is not one of the Zeiss-partnered designs.  And perhaps that is unfortunate.  I do not profess to know the intricacies of either patent issues or engineering issues, but who knows? Perhaps Sony has borrowed from what they have learned from the Zeiss partnership.  If so, this lens does not stand in the same place in line as the Zeiss designed lenses.

Sony_70_200_lens_DSC6994

Sony FE4 70-200 f4 Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Gear Aspects

Before talking about images and the utility of the lens, I will make a couple of “gear” observations. As you can see from the illustration, Sony, (inexplicably) decided that this lens would be “white” (it is really more of an off-white), with lots of black accents. I don’t know if it’s a style statement, or an attempt to emulate “those other guys” (you know who I mean) :-), or maybe so we users can look “cool” on the sidelines of sporting events (in reality, that isn’t going to happen – but more on that later).  I am old school, and set in my ways.  To me, an elegant, professional and just good-looking setup is black — not white; not silver :-).  But that’s just me.

A Major Design Flaw, in my View

As you can also see, they provide a removable (note the knurled knob on the ring) tripod bracket/foot. I have learned over the years that this is essential for correct balance of the lens on the tripod and for a lower likelihood of shake and movement.  This is a nice “pro” feature (I still have a removable Kirk foot for a Tokina ATX zoom I used to own – when I sold the lens, purchasers were willing to give me only pennies for a part I paid upward of $100 for and so I kept it – of course it has never fit any other equipment I have owned).  But Sony fell short in their design spec. First, this collar does not fit snugly!  Perhaps their design was to be able to turn the lens for horizontal orientation, even when the knob is turned down.  FAIL, Sony.  It also allows the lens to rock up and down in its mount!  I will be looking into whether I can put some kind of shim in place.  But it is disappointing that you pay this kind of money for a so-called “pro” lens and already, we are making compromises!

How difficult would it be to mill the dovetails into the foot as part of the manufacturing process?

Now, lets add design insult to design injury.  Most people I know use an Arca-Swiss type, dovetail tripod mount.   I have tried other manufacturers mounts ( used the Bogen/Manfrotto QR system for years), and they just aren’t as sure and user friendly as the Arca Swiss design.  Nor are they as elegantly simple in their engineering.  Why don’t manufacturers just make these feet to that spec? How difficult would it be to mill the dovetail grooves into the foot as part of the manufacturing process? On my Nikon, they at least made the small mounting foot on the bottom removable, and then I was able to give Kirk some of my hard earned money to replace it with their after-market Arca-Swiss foot (seriously, I am not “dissing” Kirk here. They and competitor, Really Right Stuff, have made some great accessories where the manufacturers of cameras, lenses and tripod have left gaps).

Sony FE4 70-200 F4 Copyright  2014  Andy Richards

Sony FE4 70-200 F4
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The good news is there is a relatively simple, reasonably elegant, “fix”

In the case of the Sony 70-200, however, the good new is that, if you are reasonably “handy,” there is a relatively simple, reasonably elegant, “fix.” I looked at both of the above sites and of course, it was too early for them to have replacement feet. And because of the integral design of the Sony bracket, it will probably require replacement of the full part. I suspect this will be an expensive item. The two close-up images here show my “fix.” I have several Arca-Swiss compatible mounting plates lying around and found one that was a near perfect match to the bottom of the foot. I carefully drilled (I recommend using a drill press and vice for precision – or getting someone you know to do it for you) an additional hole in the foot (I know; scary to mess up that pretty white metal – but not really very noticeable. You will unfortunately have to drill a “through” hole in order to use a conventional tap.  The metal is cast aluminum alloy of some description and is very soft.  Take it steady and you will have not problem). I then tapped the hole with a ¼-20 thread pitch tap, and found a small cap screw (see second image). Stainless would be best, but I used a galvanized screw. To ensure tightness, I put a small amount of clear silicone in the tapped hole before screwing the Arca-Swiss bracket on. It will be semi-permanently mounted to the foot.  And it won’t twist.  It is not often that you can “DYI” a reasonably elegant solution, but this is one!

Sony FE4 70-200 f4 Copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Sony FE4 70-200 f4
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

But what about the Lens?

Early supposition was that it would be a first class, pro quality lens. In my hands, I am still not sure I would go there. In fairness, though, I have had limited use of the lens and so far, (it reminds me a lot of the very estimable 28-200 f3.5-5.6 Nikkor zoom lens I used on my “APS” Nikon D200 almost 100% of the time. That lens, at a “consumer” price point, was a very good, all around lens. But it did not have quite the cache‘ of the “pro” 24-70 and 70-200 f2.8 series offered by Nikon).

As the complexity of engineering and manufacture increases, so does size

At first blush, I would put the Sony 70-200 f4 in that same “not quite” category. I hope that time will change my view, because the Sony is not really at a “consumer” price point in my view. As the year goes on, I will have more opportunities to use and observe the performance of the lens and the look of the images.

The first thing you notice is that this lens is a departure from the other, diminutive E-mount lenses. As far as technology has come in my lifetime—especially in regard to size—there is still one area they have not yet been able to “miniaturize” as dramatically as all the other items of photographic equipment. With optics, it is still a truism that as the complexity of engineering and manufacture increases, so does size. In relation to virtually every other lens I own for both of my Sony bodies, this lens is massive! Nearly 8 inches long without the lens hood attached, it has a front element diameter of 72mm.

For those of us contemplating replacing our DSLR systems, the combination of a 24-70 and 70-200 “pro” zoom lenses are pretty common. But our DSLR system lenses are generally f2.8 constant aperture lenses. So when Sony announced the f4, it was just one more little potential “negative” in the choices. One of the arguments for justification is that you really don’t need the extra speed  (its 2 full stops), because the Sony sensor is so good you can just bump up the ISO. But that doesn’t help with the gorgeous bokeh that my Nikons produced (or-compare the bokeh in some of the Zeiss f1.8 images). With the added focal length, this lens should produce adequate bokeh, and my samples, so far, demonstrate that. It certainly is pleasing enough, though still not going to stand up to a side-by-side comparison.

I am doing the “do as I say; not as I do” thing here

So why didn’t they make it an f2.8? The primary thing here, comes back to the design limitations. In order to make an f2.8 lens for a full-frame sensor, even with the mirrorless designs, it is going to be essentially the same size as the DSLR lenses. And that defeats a main purpose of the mirrorless designs – to be smaller, lighter and more portable. If it is not, then why not just stay with the excellent, tried and true DSLR systems out there – especially if you are already invested in them? While I am doing a “do as I say; not as I do” thing here, it is essentially the conclusion I came to in the earlier review of the A7r, linked above. I am not saying that I regret my switch. Rather, I am saying that it will take a certain set of circumstances that will justify the switch, and at this point, I believe those circumstances apply to a very small group of DSLR users. For more casual shooters, I cannot more highly recommend the Sony NEX system (Sony no longer manufactures or offers new equipment badged as “NEX.” They have dropped that in favor of simply calling all of their cameras “Alpha.” The former NEX is now Alpha E-mount. The replacement to my NEX-6 is now their a6000). These are small and easy to use and reasonably priced for the higher end enthusiast who is not a “power user.” Power users and current DSLR System owners should think this out very carefully in my view. It may be a great “second” system for travel and casual use. But as a complete replacement system, I don’t think it is “ready for prime time.”

This lens feels very solid and well built

On the bright side, it seems noticeably lighter than any other similar zoom I have ever owned (though one non-scientific review I read suggested that it is heavier than the Nikkor 28-200 referenced above). And it feels very solid and very well built. Fit and finish is excellent. The zoom and focus rings are well-damped and so far, I have not detected any “zoom creep.” The auto-focus is completely silent and in most cases where there is adequate light and contrast; swift. There is an array of nearly mind-boggling, on-lens controls, allowing the user to switch from AF to MF, and from full to limited zoom/focus range. There is also a switch to turn off Sony’s variety of image stabilization: “Optical Steady Shot” (OSS), and to change the mode (for panning vs. still use). Near the front of the lens there is an odd looking ring with push buttons placed in 4 quadrants around the ring. I had to dig into the literature packed into the box to see what it was for. I am not sure that I will ever use this feature, but pressing and holding any one of the buttons on the ring, locks the focus. Hmnn. Uses, anyone?

For those using filters (I usually don’t, with the exception of a polarizer, which is on the lens a fair amount of the time), you must use the thin style filters, or they will vignette. I noticed (too late) some vignetting on my 24-70 from some of my Ireland photos. While it is mostly “fixable” in post-processing, it will be there on the wide end of these zoom lenses. Polarizer users note: on these mirrorless cameras, it is not required that you have a circular polarizer for them to AF properly.  In most cases, lens glass is high quality, expensive stuff and my gestalt is to never put something in front of it that will degrade it unless there is a good reason to do so. So, when purchasing filters, I try to find good quality (I like the German-made, B&W brand and have been able to find some pretty reasonable prices on non-polarized versions on Amazon). One problem with these thin filters is that it is impossible to put a standard lens cap on them, and at least with the B&W brand, the supplied plastic cap is useless (it falls off – you are guaranteed to lose them in the field).  I have found a pretty good solution, I think.  I have begun using the neoprene “Hoodie” lens caps by Lenscoat.  You can purchase them from B&H or Amazon, but I have had best success just buying directly from the manufacturer website.  You can see illustrations of them and sizing information.  I believe OpTech also makes a similar cap.  My only advice is to go smaller than you think, so they will stay on.  At first the may be snug, but they will wear in to a comfortable fit.  They take up very little space and they – if anything – give added protection to the front of the lense.  They have a rigid disc that is inserted into the front so the glass gets impact protection.

Since starting in on these Sony systems, I have been making some comparison shots of yellow day lilies in my yard. So, I did the same with the 70-200. The first thing I immediately noticed was that in close-focusing shots, locking onto a point of focus is a challenge. The design of the lens, of course, is not as a close focusing lens, so this was not a shock to me. As I back away from the subject this problem quickly goes away and it seems to acquire and focus quickly. I will need to make more images to really be able to judge this, so: more later on this – hopefully as the summer winds on.

This lens, in my view, will have a certain limited utility in my personal style of photography. As I mentioned above, in spite of the “cool” white look 😦, this is not a camera and lens combination that is made for a serious sideline sports photographer. It is not that it could not be used. But the burst rate, AF, and the lens specifications just do not lend themselves to serious sports shooting. Nor is either the lens or the body really built for the rugged conditions sports shooters often find themselves in. For the same reasons, in my view it will not work as a serious wildlife shooter’s outfit.

When you look at the day lily image, a couple points come to mind. The bokeh is pleasing enough. I am not sure I am completely impressed with overall sharpness, but there are a number of issues that may have affected that, so it needs more controlled testing. There is a phenomena with the a7R (apparently not an issue with the a7) which may create vibration from “shutter slap,” that has to do with the mechanical vs. electronic shutters in the two cameras (though it is my understanding that this manifests when the lens is tripod mounted on its foot).   This shot was handheld, and it was difficult to hold, and focus on a critical point in the image, like the stamen on the flower.  As you can see, it did find a point of focus (some of the green blades), but there will be some challenge to get it right and it will need a tripod.  And, on the tripod, with my a7R, I have to deal with the shutter slap issue.  I have an a7 on the way and will probably wait until I have it in hand to do any more testing with this lens.

Another point is that–out of the camera–the lens is simply not as contrasty as the Zeiss designs are.  This is fixable in post-processing, when making adjustments to the raw image and by using NIK’s Viveza, or ColorFX add-in software.  But the natural rendition of the lens is not what I expect from a lens of this price point (again, this is a “so far” observation with very little sample).

I think this lens will make a decent landscape lens

So what good is it? The above was really basically true for my Nikon DSLR setup. I have found that a fair majority of my landscape images over the years have been shot in the 135mm plus or minus range. So, I am thinking it will make a very good tool for this and am anxious to get out and try some of that. I rarely use the wide open aperture for landscape shots, so the f4 should not be any hindrance there. What I will be looking for is image quality first, and handling (especially AF and things like depth of field and accuracy of focus). Again: more to come.

This fall I have had some limited opportunity to test this lens.  Unfortunately, there is too much going on between the a7R and the lens itself for me to give totally useful critique.

In the end, I think I will personally like this setup for its portability and versatility. It fits my current shooting and travel style. The jury, for me, is still out whether I truly need the “full frame” camera body (the APS sensor is so darn impressive and so much more portable).  I began writing this blog early in the summer of 2014.  I am completing it in late November and have recently concluded that I do not really need the 36MP sans anti-aliasing filter a7R.  I have the 24mp a7 on the way (sans the shutter slap feature 🙂 ).  In the meantime, Sony is announcing overseas, the a7II (with a7RII and a9 soon to follow, I would guess).  Technology marches on.

If you are newcomer to higher end, interchangeable lens cameras, using them for casual or even semi-serious travel or other general uses (including possibly, portrait, stock shooting, and other commercial uses), this may actually be a better starting point. But if you are a serious sports or wildlife shooter, or already invested in a high quality DSLR system, my current advice will be to think very seriously about making any changes. And most of you will probably conclude that we are just not quite ready for that move yet.  We can only watch and see whether new offerings will change this view.

Most DSLR users will probably conclude we are not ready for the change just yet

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6 Responses

  1. Time really does march on. A7II for sale at B&H. I agree with you about the F4 issue. Too slow. Not great bokeh, especially for how I use long lenses these days — blow out the background, bring up the graphic qualities of the picture. The white lens thing? Canon thought they were making glass for sports shooters. The color was designed to reflect sunlight and keep the lenses cooler, but as you rightly say this is not a sports photographer’s lens. As an old newspaper chief photographer once said to me, “A man really needs a 300 when he is shooting football.” This was way, way back in the good old days… forget that “a man” thing. The rest is right. AT LEAST at 300. Usually longer.

  2. Thanks, Ray. Will make my observations about the a7II in an upcoming blog, but sneak preview………….I am not jumping all over it 🙂

  3. Thanks for this review Andy. While I’ve not seriously considered moving from my Canon system, I’ve thought about it. I’m glad to have someone I trust to review the Sony system. I’ll wait until they compact a telephoto lens into a short one. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a 300mm lens compressed into a 50mm package? Now that might get me to move.

    • Al: Thanks for reading. The primary “pull” of the mirrorless system (like Sony) has been the smaller, lighter footprint. As you know, there are a number of compromises. I think the desirable portability has been accomplished with their APS sensor size system and the fixed length Sony/Zeiss and Zeiss lenses for that system. When you approach equivalence with the mature DSLR systems, that portability becomes less a reality, and probably harder to “justify.” In order make wide aperture long and zoom lenses, physics currently require a big piece of equipment. I wouldn’t hold my breath for your 300mm length (with a fast aperture) in a “50mm” like package in our lifetimes 🙂

  4. Thanks for this write-up, Andy. Just yesterday I did some research on the a6000 and a (relatively) complete lens set, which included the 70-200/4. The entire package weighed less than four pounds, a tiny fraction of what I’m hauling around now…a very intriguing notion as a substitute for long, arduous hikes.

    I won’t be switching (or supplementing) any time soon, if ever, but if I ever reach a point where dropping $4K on something represents an afterthought…

    • Thanks, Kerry, as always, for reading an commenting. I think the “comparison” is going to be difficult and definitely not “apples to apples.” I have been keeping a “chart” of sorts and may blog on this subject in the near future.

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