Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6G SAL-70400G
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March 22, 2009
by Andrew Alexander
When Sony announced its full-frame A900 SLR camera in October 2008, the news that two new lenses were also being announced was slightly overshadowed. One of those two lenses, the 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 telephoto zoom, is the subject of our review today.
The lens is designed to fill the 35mm film frame. On a subframe (1.5x) digital SLR camera, it provides an equivalent field of view of 105-600mm. To economize and create a more efficient design, the lens is equipped with a variable aperture; as the zoom extends the focal length, both the largest and smallest apertures change. The following chart represents the largest and smallest apertures you can expect at a given focal length:
The Sony 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6G comes with a petal-shaped lens hood, lens case and tripod mount, and is available for around $1,500.
The 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6G provides excellent results for sharpness, even when used wide open.
When mounted on the sub-frame A700, sharpness at the widest aperture varied slightly depending on the focal length selected, but showed excellent performance of no greater than 2 blur units. The exception to this is found at 400mm (ƒ/5.6), where we note almost 3 blur units in the lower right corner. The best setting seems to be 135mm, where even at ƒ/4.5 - the widest aperture for this focal length - the image is almost tack sharp at just over 1 blur unit.
Stopping down to ƒ/5.6 provides tack-sharp results under 200mm. It isn't until ƒ/16 at focal lengths below 200mm that image quality is affected by diffraction limiting and shows a reduction in overall sharpness. Image sharpness actually degrades slightly at 400mm as the aperture is stopped down smaller than ƒ/5.6, so there's little reason to use the lens at anything but its widest aperture.
Fully stopped down, the lens still shows good results below 200mm - 3-4 blur units - but above 200mm, we begin to see fairly uniform softness.
With the lens mounted on the full-frame A900, we see excellent results for central sharpness, but the lens shows slightly more corner softness.
Used wide open on the A900, we see a similar story as we found on the A700 - excellent image sharpness, nothing above 2 blur units, with particularly good results at 135mm. However at 400mm there is significant corner softness and only a small sweet spot of central image sharpness.
Stopping down the lens improves image sharpness below 200mm - between ƒ/5.6 and ƒ/11, images are tack-sharp. Stopping down reigns in corner softness above 200mm, but only marginally improves image sharpness - however, we're still looking at results of between 2-3 blur units, which is still very good.
Fully stopped-down performance is similar to the A700 - good under 200mm, and progressively softer as the lens is zoomed into 400mm.
The 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 produces very little in the way of chromatic aberration, no doubt due in part to its use of 2 extra-low dispersion glass elements. On both the A700 and A900 test cameras average CA presence is very low, and only marginally higher in the corners. If you're going to see chromatic aberration, you'll see it at either 70mm or 400mm; in between these extremes, it's almost non-existent.
Corner shading is inconsequential when the 70-400mm is mounted on the A700; even used wide open, the corners of the image are only a quarter-stop darker than the center. At any other aperture, the differential is much less than that.
On the full-frame A900, it's a bit of a different story. When used wide open at 70mm (ƒ/4), the corners are almost a full stop darker than the center. This is the worst example; other wide-open shooting scenarios are a bit more forgiving. By ƒ/8, any focal length produces less than a quarter-stop of light falloff.
The 70-400mm produces very little distortion on the A700; on average, there is a slight presence of barrel distortion (less than +0.1%) and in the corners, -0.1% pincushion distortion. This distortion only appears above 70mm; at 70mm, there is no distortion at all.
With the lens mounted on the full-frame A900, the distortion is slightly more significant. It's the same ratio of pincushion on average / barrel in the corners as was found on the A700, just slightly more pronounced; +0.1% on average, and -0.4% in the corners. Similarly to the A700, the lens produces no distortion at 70mm.
The lens is very quick to focus, and virtually silent. It uses Sony's SSM (supersonic wave motor) focusing system, as well as an internal focusing design to improve autofocus speed. A full rack (from infinity to close-focus and back) took 1.5 seconds, though point-to-point focusing seemed slightly faster.
The lens includes a focus limiter to improve focus speed, with limits between infinity and 3 meters (about ten feet). As the lens' minimum close-focusing distance is regularly 1.5 meters, this does improve focusing speed somewhat.
The lens is also equipped three focus-hold buttons, whose regular use is to temporarily disable autofocus. They can be re-assigned by the camera to act as an image preview button.
With a minimum close-focusing distance of 1.5 meters and a magnification rating of 0.27x, the 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 offers above-average macro performance.
Build Quality and Handling
As part of Sony's professional G-series line, it's no surprise that they've pulled out all the stops regarding fit and finish. The lens is composed of both plastic and metal, with metal sections close to the body. The lens is finished in a smooth silver color, perhaps to differentiate it from Nikon's black and Canon's white. Even though it is a zoom lens with significant lens extension, there is no flexing or rattling to be found. At 1,500 grams in weight - over three pounds - it is quite heavy, and warrants regular use of its metal tripod mount. The lens mount is made of metal, while the 77mm filter threads are plastic.
The lens is equipped with a few controls that are worth describing. It has 3 focus-hold buttons mounted equidistant around the lens, between the focus and zoom rings, which enable at least one of them to be easily used in the camera's vertical or horizontal orientation. The focus-hold buttons can also have their purpose redefined by the A900 camera to act as image preview buttons. The lens has an AF switch which allows the selection of Full AF, infinity to 3 Meters AF and manual focus. The lens has a recessed and windowed distance scale, marked in feet and meters, but no depth of field marks on it.
The tripod collar is quite sturdy and is removable. It has three marks on it at 90 degree intervals for lining up shots vertically or horizontally. The collar has tripod mounts with both quarter-inch and 3/8-inch threads. The zoom ring is near the far end of the lens, and focus is nearer to the camera; both rings are the same soft rubber material with the same small-ribbed texture. However, both rings have the same design and texture, which will take some getting used to if you're fumbling for a certain ring in the dark.
The zoom ring is slightly larger than the focus ring, at 1 1/2 inches wide. The ring is nicely cammed, requiring just a little bit of force to get the ring into a nice, smooth turn. The lens isn't subject to zoom creep, so no zoom lock is provided. As the lens is zoomed out, it becomes impressively longer, going from its length of 7 3/4 inches when set to 70mm, to 11 1/8 inches when zoomed out to 400mm. Add on the lens hood, and the entire lens is 15 1/4 inches long. The zoom ring turns about 100 degrees through its entire range.
The focus ring is about 3/4 of an inch wide, with the same design texture as the zoom ring. It also turns about 100 degrees through its manual focus range, which is fairly good play for this class of lens. It has hard stops on both close-focus and infinity focus, and will focus quite a bit past infinity.
The lens hood is a large petal-shaped hood that reversed onto the lens for easy storage. The lens hood is very deep, and is lined with a black velvety-style flocking to reduce lens flare. It features a sliding door which enables you to manipulate rotating filters such as a polarizer. The lens takes 77mm filters, which do not rotate during focus or zoom operations.
Sony 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G SAL-70300G ~$800
At half the cost of the 70-400mm, this lens is only slightly slower (ƒ/4.5 instead of ƒ/4) and offers a little less maximum zoom range. It's also half the weight (800g instead of 1,500g) but also offers a similar optical formula with ED glass. We haven't yet tested this lens.
Sony 75-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 SAL-75300 ~$200
The 70-400mm is much sharper than this lens, especially when used wide open at its maximum apertures. CA performance is also much improved, and there is slightly less distortion. Light falloff is about the same. Both lenses are full-frame compatible, but the 75-300mm is much less expensive, and much lighter.
Sigma 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 DG Macro APO ~$200
While Sigma's 80-400mm would be a better comparison, it isn't currently available in the Sony mount, making the Sigma 70-300mm the next best thing. It's very reasonably priced, and when used at 200mm or below, it's fairly sharp, especially when stopped down. Performance at 300mm, however, is mediocre.
Tamron 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di LD Macro 1:2 AF ~$150
Tamron's 70-300mm offering isn't as sharp as the Sony 70-400mm, though it's not bad, especially when stopped down slightly. It also offers 1:2 macro mode. With regard to CA performance, distortion and corner shading, the Tamron is similar to the Sigma, which is to say it's not as good as the Sony.
Sony has produced an exceptional lens with the 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6. Sharpness is very good when used wide open, and only improves when stopped down, offering tack-sharp results even at ƒ/5.6. Image quality is little less amazing when used in the 300-400mm range, but considering what Sony's previous telephoto zooms have offered at 300mm, Sony has come a long way. Chromatic aberration is very low, light falloff is minimal (except when used on the A900, wide open) and distortion is very well-controlled. Combined with the excellent build quality and focusing options, the 70-400mm is definitely built to perform, and perhaps make other camera brand owners slightly jealous.
The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6G SAL-70400G User Reviews
10 out of 10 points and recommended by slawrencephoto (3 reviews)IQ, Sharp, Build QualityHeavy
I traded my 70-300G for a 70-200G for the F2.8 which has proven useful but after a while I began to miss the 100mm. I was not going to let go of the 70-200mm so I dug deep and bought this lens.reviewed April 6th, 2012 (purchased for $1,800)
It was a safe purchase and I was not disappointed, it shines in all the right places and the extra 200mm is a real bonus.
The one thing it is not is a walk around lens, it is heavy at 3lbs.
Recommend, yes, yes, yes.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by infocus (8 reviews)This replaces all exspensive tele-lenses combined (including TC), excellent even at close-up, very reasonably priced. Silent supersonic AF (SSM) with direct manual focusing (DMF)Heavy (but that's good for steady hh shooting at 400mm)
This FF lens is quite heavy and extremely well built, but surprisingly compact and has a very useful zoom range; similar lenses are not offered at a reasonable price by anyone else in the business to my knowledge. It is not particularly fast at f4-5.6, but performs very well from wide open and extremely well just one stop down, just a bit softer at the long end. Most top quality fast lenses need more stopping down to match this performance, so the working aperture becomes about the same anyway. Fast lenses were needed before for accurate manual focusing, but were stopped down to f5.6 or f8 for the exposure. Resolution is just as superb, only stopped down one step more, as the Sony 70-200 f2.8 lens, the four times more expensive Sony 300mm f2.8 lens, and the Carl Zeiss Sony 85mm f1.4; each at the aperture where these are at their best. It may come as a surprise that this 70-400 lens is extremely useful for close-up photography as well, delivering a lifelike surface texture of leaves and flowers not often seen in the APS-C format. CA and distortion is very well controlled throughout in practical photography. In fact, it compares quite well with the Micro Nikkor 200mm f4 AF-D IF-ED. I use it with the Sony a580 and the a77 cameras. If image quality and value for money are first priorities, this is it (by a camera or two to go with it from the savings using this one). No one else offers image stabilisation, fast supersonic AF, this long zoom range and high IQ more reasonably priced in a single compact unit. Regards JvEreviewed March 27th, 2012 (purchased for $1,650)
By the way: It was in part due to this lens I wrote off all my quite outdated Nikkor AF lenses when going digital (80-200 f2.8, 60 & 105 f2.8, etc.), they apparently don't compare too well with resent lenses. On the better new ones VR was somewhat scarce and sometimes useless. I wanted to take advantage of the new technology. Now I have Sigma 8-16, Sony 16-50 f2.8, 35 f1.8, 50 f2.8 Macro and the 70-400. All are among the very best available in their category regardless of price and make. JvE
NOTE: The a77 (and all its siblings) has no optical viewfinder like most D-SLRs. The advantages are for most practical purposes overwhelming - and it is an SLR camera by definition: Using the taking lens for the finder image. Whether the redirecting of the image to the viewfinder is accomplished by mirrors or wires is irrelevant!
UPDATE: Sony has released a new version of this lens for 2013 finished in white rather than the much preferable dull silver finish, proving Sony's confidence in this product and willingness to respond to whimsical demands from customers more into looks than function. This makes the original product even more desirable at a lower cost. The new specifications can hardly make much difference, given the performance of this highly rated original product - and if the AF really is better, that's good too!
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Nas79 (3 reviews)Quiet, Quick, Sharp, Focus hold buttons and Fit and FinishSmall Tripod mount foot and the zoom creeps out when held down.
This lens is almost always attached to my A77. I have been very happy with the image quality from it. Some say it is expensive but I find it to be competitive compared to other brands in it's range. I used to own a Sigma 50-500 and gladly sacraficed the 100mm of reach for the sharpness I get with this lens at all focal lengths.reviewed January 2nd, 2012 (purchased for $1,600)
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Beachrider (22 reviews)Quite sharp wide open at all focal lengths. Zoom range is tremendous. Color is better than any other Sony-mount telephoto zoom. Physical color is less obtrusive than white, less hot than black.Heavier than 70-300 zooms, heavier than many up-to-400 zooms.
Lens has been tremendous after hundreds of shots. I don't know of any up-to-400 zoom that is as quiet or as quick. Focus range limit is useful. Zoom movement is tight, but does not lock. Size of lens (and cost) make it a post-year-2 purchase for some photographers. It is 'worth it', when you have enough telephoto work, though.reviewed March 7th, 2011 (purchased for $1,600)
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Airphoto (3 reviews)
THE TEST SCORES SLR.GEAR ARE TRUE!!reviewed March 3rd, 2010
The lens is just as sharp as the Sony 70-200mm between 70-200mm at f/4-f/8, but not sharper. IF you use a TC 1.4x on the 70-200mm f/2.8 the 70-400mm will blow this out of the water!! No question about it Comparing 280 to 300mm the 70-400mm wins and at 400mm the 70-400mm is sharp! with the tc1.4on the 70-400=560mm still sharp!!!
I sold my 70-200mm sony 2.8 which up until then I thought was a great lens. The files are as good and better with this one. ALSO!! I had tried the Canon 100-400mm with tc1.4x and it was always horrible, but this lens keeps working awesome. Not as sharp as a Sigma 500mm f4.5 dg ex but close!
I agree the CZ lens focus fast!!! This one focuses the same speed as my ex Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 faster the a Canon 5dMII and any lens
8 out of 10 points and recommended by cputeq (4 reviews)Great image quality, weight, lens featuresSlower AF, hood tends to crossthread
I use this lens on the A850 camera for birding and wildlife work and so far it's great, but not without some gripes.reviewed February 15th, 2010 (purchased for $1,550)
The image quality is very good, and the silver color of the lens isn't as shiny as some web pics make it out to be - it's almost a matte finish that really doesn't "bling" like I feared it would.
Weight-wise, it's what I expected this type of lens to be - not a full day's easy carry, but not horribly heavy either. The lens tends to be very sharp from 70-300, and sharp from 300-400.
In casual testing, I really haven't noticed much IQ improvement going from f/5.6 to f/8, so I just shoot it wide open unless I'm concerned about DOF.
My only real complaints for the lens - the lens hood almost acts like it wants to crossthread every time I put it on - very different than the sure connection I get from my CZ 24-70.
Also, the lens doesn't AF very quickly. It's not slow, but it's certainly not quick, and can have problems tracking at times, though I've managed to pull some birds in flight just fine.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by calpon (2 reviews)sharp wide open, great color and contrast, useful rangeheavy and expensive
The only other long zoom I have experience with is the Tamron 200-500. The Sony is both faster and sharper at all focal lengths. It was well worth losing the extra 100mm to go with this lens. I would have preferred a 200-500 Sony with the same IQ and aperture range, but this is the best that Sony offers right now.reviewed October 13th, 2009 (purchased for $1,500)
Some don't like the silver color of the lens, but I have found that it greatly improves the comfort of handling the lens in bright sunlight. It stays cool to the touch while the Tamron would become very hot. The finish does not seem to make wildlife take notice of you anymore than a black or white lens. It may even be better than white.