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Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS Gordon Laing, Aug 2014
 
 

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS review

The Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS is a high quality telephoto zoom lens that's designed for Sony's mirrorless Alpha cameras. As an FE lens, it's fully-corrected for use on full-frame Sony mirrorless bodies, but also compatible with their APSC models, where it becomes equivalent to 105-300mm.

The FE 70-200mm f4G OSS was announced in October 2013 alongside four other new FE lenses and the first two full-frame Sony mirrorless bodies, but it was the last of the five to go on sale in mid-2014.

Like all 70-200mm zooms, it's designed for portraits, close range sports and tighter views of urban or natural landscapes. The f4 aperture keeps the cost and weight down compared to f2.8 models, and there's optical stabilization to iron-out the wobbles. In my following review, I tested the FE 70-200mm f4G OSS on both APSC and full-frame Alpha bodies to illustrate the performance!

   
 
Sony FE 70-200mm review
 
   


Sony FE 70-200mm design and build quality

The FE 70-200mm f4G OSS is a reassuringly solid zoom constructed of metal and plastic. With its white body and black control rings, it shares a close family resemblance to the earlier 70-200mm f2.8G SSM II for Sony's A-mount cameras, and of course if you prefer the brighter f2.8 aperture you can mount this on mirrorless bodies via an adapter.

The 70-200mm f4G OSS measures 80x175mm and weighs 840g. Compare that to the 87x197mm and 1300g of the f2.8 A-mount version, and it's clear that the new f4 mirrorless version is thinner, shorter and much lighter. But don't kid yourself this has anything to do with it being a mirrorless lens as Canon's EF 70-200mm f4L IS USM is designed for DSLR use and is a little smaller still at 76x172mm and lighter too at 760g. Nikon's AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR is also a lens designed for DSLRs and it's also a bit smaller than the Sony at 78x179mm, albeit roughly the same weight at 850g.

 
 

So when it comes to full-frame telephoto lenses, there's little or no size or weight benefit to mirrorless mounts. But of course the body is still smaller and lighter than a DSLR, so the overall combination is more portable. I mostly shot the FE 70-200mm mounted on an A6000, a combination which looks ridiculous with the tiny body perched on the end of a relatively large barrel, but it actually felt fine in use and also surprisingly light - certainly much more so than a similar lens mounted on a DSLR, and everyone I passed it to was equally surprised how much lighter it felt in person. I used them to shoot the Tour de France over five stages, including a Time Trial where I handheld the combination across four hours with constant use and no complaints over weight or ergonomics. You just support all the weight of the lens in your left hand and just use the right to adjust controls on the body and fire the shutter.

When shooting with the FE 70-200mm on an A6000 though, you're well aware the lens is a big step over it in build quality. The A6000 is a plastic-shelled mid-range body while the lens approaches professional standards, feeling much more substantial in comparison. It's very well-constructed and feels confident in your hands. Like the other four FE lenses, the 70-200mm is also sealed against dust and moisture, although note none of the APS-C bodies are to date.

A quick side-note about Sony's E 55-210mm f4.5-6.3, a budget telephoto zoom designed for its APSC mirrorless bodies. This is a much smaller, lighter and cheaper lens, measuring 64x108mm, weighing 345g and costing over four times less than the FE 70-200mm f4G OSS. The 55-210mm range is broader, especially at the shorter end, but the aperture is much slower, especially at the long end, there's fewer aperture blades, no weather sealing and again the imaging circle is only corrected for APSC. But it remains an interesting alternative to those with APSC bodies, and physically a better match. I'll try and make an optical comparison in the future and update the review.

 
 

Moving on, like other lenses of this class, the FE 70-200mm is supplied with a pouch and a lens hood. The hood adds considerably to the length of the barrel (not to mention the attention you'll get), although can be reversed over it for transportation. Unlike Canon and Nikon though, the FE 70-200mm is also supplied as standard with a metal tripod collar. When fitted the collar can be loosened to allow the barrel to rotate, or you can remove it entirely if preferred; I actually like to leave the collar mounted and carry the lens by the tripod foot. Similar tripod collars are also available for the Canon and Nikon models, but they're optional accessories costing around $150 USD.

Moving onto the external design, the lens is of uniform diameter for most of its length. At the front is a 72mm filter thread, smaller than the 77mm thread of the Sony f2.8 version, but larger than the 67mm of both the Canon and Nikon 70-200mm f4 lenses.

Like the Sony 70-200mm f2.8, the focusing ring is positioned at the very end of the barrel with a black-ribbed rubber grip about 1in wide. Like most electronic systems, the focusing ring on the FE 70-200mm f4G OSS can keep turning with no beginning or end, and there's no focus distance marks for guidance. It turns smoothly, although on my sample it gave some resistance and certainly couldn't be nudged by accident.

Immediately behind the manual focusing ring are three focus-lock buttons placed at 90 degree intervals at 6-o-clock, 9-o-clock and 12-o-clock. Behind this is the zoom ring, again adorned in black-ribbed rubber, although a little deeper than the focusing ring. The zoom range is marked on the barrel and unlike the focusing ring has a definite beginning and end; the arc between 70 and 200mm is just shy of 90 degrees, and the rotating motion smooth, but a little more stiff than the focusing ring due to the fact it is actually linked to physical elements and not motorized assistance. Like other lenses of its class, the zooming - and focusing - takes place entirely inside the barrel, so it doesn't extend during adjustment.

In the gap between the zoom ring and the recessed channel for the tripod collar lies a panel with four switches. The first switches between AF and MF, and the second lets you set a focus limit of 3m to infinity, or the complete range. The third switch enables or disables the optical stabilization, and the fourth sets the stabilizing mode between both axes or just vertical for when panning horizontally.

Finally a couple of inches behind this is the lens mount, labeled E-mount, for compatibility with Sony's full-frame and APS-C mirrorless bodies.

 

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS optics and focusing

The FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sports a classic telephoto range that's ideal for portraits, close-range sports, and tighter views of urban or natural landscapes. Here's two shots illustrating the coverage.

     
Sony FE 70-200mm coverage at 70mm on APSC body
Sony FE 70-200mm coverage at 200mm on APSC body
70mm (105mm equivalent)
  200mm (300mm equivalent)
     

Inside, the FE 70-200mm f4G OSS employs 21 elements in 15 groups with two advanced aspheric, one aspheric, one super ED and two ED elements. The minimum focusing distance is 1m, and again as noted above you can limit the AF range to between infinity and 3m or for the full range down to 1m. The lens has a constant focal ratio of f4 and nine aperture blades with a minimum aperture of f22. This appears to be a different optical construction to any of the older Konica Minolta 'beer cans'

Compared to more modern options, the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 has 19 elements in 16 groups, a closest focusing distance of 1.2m, nine aperture blades, and a minimum aperture of f32. The Canon 70-200mm f4L has 20 elements in 15 groups, a closest focusing distance of 1.2m, eight aperture blades and a minimum aperture of f32. Meanwhile the Nikon 70-200mm f4 has 20 elements in 14 groups, a minimum focusing distance of 1m, nine aperture blades and a minimum aperture of f32.

There's nothing stopping you adapting any of these lenses to a mirrorless Alpha body, but the focusing capabilities will vary considerably. Adapting a Nikon lens will render it to manual focus only. Adapting a Canon EF lens via a Metabones smart adapter III or newer will give you AF, but it'll be very slow and certainly unsuitable for continuous AF.

Adapting Sony's A-mount lenses is more interesting as if you go for one of the more expensive adapters with a translucent mirror inside, you'll enjoy decent AF performance, including support for continuous AF. I've used several A-mount lenses with the top-end Sony adapters on their mirrorless bodies and while they can be impressive, the performance still falls below using a native E-mount lens.

Having tried all of the combinations above, I can happily confirm the FE 70-200mm f4G OSS delivers the best AF experience of all. I haven't tried it side by side with the E 55-210mm f4.5-6.3, but considering that lens is designed for APSC mirrorless bodies only, it's fair to say anyone with a full-frame mirrorless Sony who wants a telephoto zoom with decent AF should have this at the top of their list.

For my initial report I tested the FE 70-200mm f4G OSS on the Alpha A6000, which at the time of writing was Sony's best-performing mirrorless camera for autofocus, regardless of sensor size. I'll update this review when I've had a chance to test the lens on several of Sony's full-frame bodies.

Mounted on the A6000, the AF was swift and extremely quiet. In good light, the lens could lock onto its target very quickly, and when set to continuous AF, could also track it very effectively. I shot with the FE 70-200mm and A6000 over five stages in the 2014 Tour de France and you can find out more in my Mirrorless Sports Photography article, but the essence is that the combination worked very well indeed. In very low light, the AF slowed right down, but this is a limitation of the A6000 more than the lens.

Finally, the lens is equipped with Optical Steadyshot Stabilisation, or OSS for short. To put it to the test I shot a scene with the lens at 200mm using the A6000 for a 300mm equivalent field of view with and without stabilization enabled. Remember the general rule is to require a shutter speed of 1 / the effective focal length (ie 1/300 here) to avoid camera shake without stabilization. So I started at 1/320 and shot at progressively slower shutter speeds, one stop at a time to see how slow I could handhold a sharp image with and without stabilisation.

     
Sony FE 70-200mm Optical Stabilisation at 200mm on APSC body at 1/40: off / on
OSS disabled. 200mm (300mm equivalent)   OSS enabled. 200mm (300mm equivalent)
     

Normally you'd expect around three stops of compensation from an optically-stabilised system, so above I've presented crops from my 1/40 exposure, three stops slower than the 1/320 you'd traditionally need to handhold a lens at 300mm or thereabouts. As you can see the image without stabilisation is very wobbly as expected, and as you'd also hope, the image with stabilisation is much better. But that said, the image with stabilisation is far from 100% sharp. Indeed on the conditions of the day I could only handhold a perfectly sharp result at 1/160 using stabilisation, and 1/320 without. This in turn represents only one stop of compensation.

My results at even slower shutter speeds showed the stabilisation could deliver a fair result even down to 1/10, which is pretty amazing for a 300mm equivalent focal length, but again none of them were 100% shake-free until the 1/160 sample. To be fair, this was using the A6000 which packs 24 Megapixels into an APSC frame, which in turn represents a very high pixel density - so even the slightest wobble becomes painfully visible at 100%. Shooting full-frame, even at 36 Megapixels, will be more forgiving even if you factor in the lack of sensor crop, so I'll revisit this when I test the lens on an A7 series.

But my results here back-up my experiences in the field: I found when composing shots with the FE 70-200mm f4G OSS that the stabilisation didn't deliver a wobble-free view to the A6000. At times when I had to hold the composition steady as I waited for sports people to enter the frame, I found the image moved about more than I'd have liked. Certainly this also seems in-line with my tests of other Sony products: that their optical stabilisation is certainly useful, but not in the same league as, say, Panasonic.

 

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS Image quality

For the rest of this page I'd like to pick out a selection of images I shot with the lens on both full-frame and APSC bodies to illustrate its flexibility and also pick-up on other aspects of its performance. All shots are JPEGs straight out of the cameras with no modification - you can download any of via Flickr by clicking the desired image. On the results page you'll see processed RAW files.

I'll start with a selection from the Sony Alpha A7r full-frame body with 36 Megapixels.

 
 

With Alpha A7r: 10 secs, f/11, 100 ISO, 70-200mm at 70mm (full frame here)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A7r at 70mm f11
Click image to access original at Flickr. Also available at f4
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

This first image above was taken with the FE 70-200mm mounted on an Alpha A7r (thanks to Chris Chabot for lending me his camera), and the lens set to 70mm f11. I took a sequence of shots from f4 to f22 and found the f11 just had the edge over the f8 version for the ultimate crispness across the frame, although beware of closing the aperture any further as it quickly suffers from softening due to diffraction. The entire image is packed with detail of a similar level to the crop I've pictured at 100%.


 
 

With Alpha A7r: 1/400, f/8, 100 ISO, 70-200mm at 200mm (full frame here)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A7r at 200mm f8
Click image to access original at Flickr.
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

My second full-frame image above was taken at the long end of the range, 200mm, this time at f8. As with the first sample, there's loads of crisp details across the frame and it's a joy to scan over it at 100% in Photoshop.


 
 

With Alpha A7r: 13 secs, f/11, 200 ISO, 70-200mm at 146mm (full frame here)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A7r at 146mm f11
Click image to access original at Flickr. Also available at f5.6
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

My third full-frame image above was taken at a mid focal length of 146mm, again at night, and again at f11 where the lens proved to be crispest. I would however also suggest you download and take a look at the version at f4 as it too is surprisingly good, but suffers from vignetting (darkening in the corners). This time I've taken a crop from the lower right corner of the image, and as you can see it looks great.


 
 

With Alpha A7r: 8 secs, f/11, 200 ISO, 70-200mm at 200mm (full frame here)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A7r at 200mm f11
Click image to access original at Flickr. Also available at f4
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

My fourth full-frame image is again from the London skyline at night, but I find this kind of subject is a great test for the quality of a lens. Once again I took this at every aperture and while the results were very respectable even in the corners at f4 - and indeed I've provided a sample at f4 for examination - I found the ultimate crispness peaked between f8 and f11, and at f11 bright lights were rendered with fairly nice star spikes as sene in the second crop above. Overall I was very impressed by the quality of the FE 70-200mm on the A7r - it's capable of delivering crisp details across the entire frame even at wider apertures, and the pixel-pitch of 36 Megapixels on full-frame is more forgiving than 24 packed into APSC. Speaking of which, all my images from this point on were taken with the 24 Megapixel APSC Alpha A6000, so read-on to see how it gets on.



Image analysis using APS 'cropped-frame' body

The 70-200mm focal length may not seem a natural choice for landscape or urban shots, especially when factoring-in the crop from an APSC sensor, but it can be great for picking out distant detail. I also find urban scenes are ideal for evaluating the sharpness of a lens, so here's two shots taken at 70mm and then 200mm with the A6000.

 
 

With Alpha A6000, 1/200, f8, 100 ISO, 70-200mm at 70mm (105mm equivalent)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Click image to access original at Flickr. Also available at f4 and f5.6
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

The image above is jam-packed with detail, all captured very nicely with the A6000 and the FE 70-200mm. There's minor corner softness and vignetting at f4, but stop it down to f5.6, or ideally f8 as seen here, and all aberrations are gone and the details spring to life. The crop, taken from near to the corner and presented here at 100%, has plenty going on in it.

 
 

With Alpha A6000, 1/320, f8, 100 ISO, 70-200mm at 200mm (300mm equivalent)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 200mm f8
Click image to access original at Flickr. Also available at f4 and f5.6
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

At 200mm the image is a tad softer, but again responds well to closing down a couple of stops. Here at f8 above, there is again loads of detail in the scene, although greater softness in the corners than at 70mm. But still, as is clear from the crop taken from near the middle, there's still a great deal of detail being captured.

 
 

With Alpha A6000, 1/800, f/4.0, 200 ISO, 70-200mm at 200.0 mm (300mm equivalent)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000
Click image to access original at Flickr
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

Portrait photography is one of the most popular uses for a 70-200mm lens, allowing you to capture people from a comfortable distance, or even unnoticed. To maximize the shallow depth of field effect above I opened the aperture to f4 and zoomed the lens to 200mm, which on the A6000 resulted in a 300mm equivalent field of view. To capture this portrait from waist-up meant I was stood some distance away! The subject by the way is Guy from UK rental firm Hireacamera, and it was actually taken with one of his copies of the lens during a brief trip to Brighton.

Looking at the full image first I think the most obvious thing is how the background is still reasonably well-defined even at 300mm. Sure it wasn't miles behind Guy, but still this lens is quite different from a 70-200mm f2.8. For a shallower depth of field effect, you'd need to get closer and go for a head and shoulders composition.

Meanwhile the 100% crop is sharp and detailed, but not exactly razor-like. The lens isn't delivering the crispness of the best primes or even the best 70-200mm f2.8 models, but the result is still quite satisfying.

 
 

With Alpha A6000, 1/200, f4, 100 ISO, 70-200mm at 147mm (220mm equivalent)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000
Click image to access original at Flickr
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

Above is another example, this time a full-length body shot taken at sunset on a beach at 147mm for a 220mm equivalent field of view. The focal length allowed me to shoot from a distance without being noticed as I wandered along the beach for a Sun shot you'll see in a moment, but again even at the maximum aperture of f4, there's not a great deal of blurring in the background.

Looking at the crop, it's a little soft. I think I didn't quite nail the focus, as if you download the original and check his top, you'll see the details are crisper there. I've included it here though more as a demonstration of the depth of field. I'll add some head and shoulder portraits soon.

 
 

With Alpha A6000, 1/320, f11, 100 ISO, 70-200mm at 200mm (300mm equivalent)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000
Click image to access original at Flickr
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

And so to the picture I took moments after the previous one - it's shot straight into the setting Sun at 200mm (300mm equivalent) and f11 to ensure the boat, the land and the Sun would all be in focus. I also used the lens hood and no filter - as with all my shots here.

In this challenging environment, the details have come out fairly nicely, both on the landscape and the boat, but obviously the big problem is the lens flare. If I positioned the Sun in the middle of the frame, I could obscure the flare, but place it to one side and there it was, a big greenish blob. Now this might have been accentuated by the smallish aperture and I'll try again at a larger setting to see if the situation improves, but it's still a potential aberration worth noting.

 
 

With Alpha A6000, 20 secs, f11, 100 ISO, 70-200mm at 70mm (105mm equivalent)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000
Click image to access original at Flickr
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop, aperture set to f8
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop, aperture set to f11
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop, aperture set to f13
 

After sunset follows night, and here's one I took of Porto in Portugal at 70mm for a 105mm equivalent field of view. I closed the aperture down to f11 here, partly for a longer exposure to blur the water's surface, but also to see how the starburst effect would look on bright light sources.

First, like the 70mm urban landscape shot earlier, the image is packed with sharp details. Secondly, if you're after starbursts, forget about shooting at f4 or f5.6, as they only really start to any significant degree at f8 and smaller. I've included crops from the same area of the image above, shot at f8, f11 and f13; I'm afraid I couldn't deploy smaller apertures that evening due to high winds. At f8, I'd say the star burst is still a little small, but at f11 it's looking quite nice even with some diffraction artefacts in there. At f13 though, despite even longer and thinner spikes, I'd say the quality of their appearance is suffering. As always it's all down to personal preferences, but if I were shooting a night landscape with the lens, I'd start at f11 and work from there.

 
 

With Alpha A6000, 1/2000, f/4.0, 200 ISO, 70-200mm at 200mm (300mm equivalent)

Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000
Click image to access original at Flickr
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 
Sony FE 70-200mm f4G OSS sample image with A6000 at 70mm f8
Above, 100% crop from original image
 

Finally, another popular use for 70-200mm lenses is for close range sports action. To test this I used the FE 70-200mm and A6000 extensively over five stages of the 2014 Tour de France, and you can read about the full experience in my mirrorless sports photography article.

In short it went rather well! The A6000 kept the 70-200mm focused on fast moving action and delivered many sharp images of the cycling action. Here's one of my favourites from the final Time Trial that year, taken at 200mm f4, with the rider nicely focused.

As you can see from the crops above, the rider looks great, but for me it's the background that's the problem again. The depth of field isn't particularly shallow and the rendering of out-of-focus elements doesn't look fantastic. The bokeh is busy and the specular highlights exhibit onion rings and other artefacts.

Now this of course may not bother you, but if you want greater separation between subject and background (and can't change your distance to either), you'll simply need a brighter lens and that means lugging around a heavier and more expensive f2.8 zoom, or a faster prime that's even heavier and pricier still. Both would almost certainly deliver nicer looking bokeh too, but of course wouldn't have the size, weight or price advantage of a 70-200mm f4. There's always a compromise, and for this lens, like other 70-200mm f4 models, I'd say it's in the blurring. But of course there's no alternative in the native FE mount, so if you want the best AF experience - and believe me, even an A-mount lens via the LA-EA4 is not as good - then the FE 70-200mm f4G OSS is your only choice.

Now you can check out a more detailed look at the sharpness at different apertures in my Sony 70-200mm quality section, browse these and more samples in my Sony 70-200mm sample images page, or skip straight to my verdict!

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