Many photographers, especially sports and wildlife shooters, have been anxiously anticipating the arrival of the Sony 400mm F2.8 GM OSS lens. This super-tele lens length is vital to capturing tack-sharp, smooth background images, and the lack of a lens this long is one of the last sticking points for many photographers looking to switch.
Sony will be delivering this lens in September, and it is likely to shake up the camera world, thanks to it’s one-two punch of light weight and super-fast focusing speeds. I took the lens out for several hours of shooting at a New York Red Bulls soccer match, and Sony has delivered on their promises for this piece of glass.
This 400mm lens is just a bit over two pounds lighter than Canon’s 400mm lens, and when you combine the weight savings of the Sony a9 vs. the 1DX Mark II and the lens, there’s around a four pound savings in weight. That alone would make it the go-to choice for many photographers, but Sony’s also packed some state-of-the-art technology into their focusing as well.
To back up a bit and explain why the focusing on this lens is so fast, it’s important to know a bit about the difference between the way SLRs and mirrorless cameras focus their lenses. A typical DSLR lens uses a rotary motor, a gear that turns the optics to achieve focus. These motors are designed to speed up very quickly and then stop very quickly, and they do that extremely well.
Because an on-chip focusing system in a mirrorless camera is more of a hybrid between a phase detection system (on where stopping and starting quickly is helpful) and a contrast system, a motor that continually moves in small increments is a better choice for fast focus. Sony’s 400mm F2.8 GM OSS uses a Sony-designed linear motor to move the optical elements incredibly quickly. The lens is up to five times faster than the company’s A-mount glass at the same focal length.
The design of the lens also allows for the focusing elements to be at the rear of the chassis, instead of at the front, allowing the lens to have the heavier motor portion toward the rear of the lens, which I felt gave it a nicer balance than some other 400mm lenses I’ve shot.
So with the new XD motors in the lens, and the 60fps AF rate of the Sony a9, we get with this lens a piece of optics designed specifically to take advantage of the focusing speed of the a9 body.
Read More – We Review The Sony a9 Accuracy With The 100-400mm lens.
Sony 400mm F2.8 GM OSS Use and Images
Soccer is a good event for testing this lens, thanks to the continual motion of the players, their unpredictable motion, the way that players cut across each other to receive passes or to defend, and the fact that there are often long runs directly toward the camera.
The Sony 400mm handled admirably, easily the best performance I’ve seen in a 400mm lens. Users would be well served to spend some time understanding tweaking the settings—there are multiple image stabilization modes on the lens, one of the dials on the body can be programmed, and the focus tracking speed menu setting needs to be adjusted for fast sports. Reading the manual would be a good idea for this lens.
The lens was able to do face detection with no problem, finding and tracking players even in the middle of a fiercely defended play. I use a setting with the Sony cameras that allows me to toggle between two different focal points at the push of a custom button, allowing me to set the camera to Wide AF in order to capture any breaking action, but then toggle to a smaller flex point when I needed to lock onto a particular player’s face. I also have a button programmed to switch between AF and MF for times when I want to lock the focus on an area, but don’t want to reach for the controls on the lens.
In one set of images, the camera tracked the face of a player not only has he moved rapidly to try and score, but followed his face even when obstructed by the net of the goal. Many camera systems would have lost focus at this point, but the a9 and 400mm stayed locked on.
The camera and lens was able to lock and track remarkably well. As is often the case when I test sports lenses, the biggest misses come not from the AF system but from user error. A few times something would happen unexpectedly and I’d rush to get the lens on the target and lock onto a spectator or the referee and not the right player.
Aside from my mistakes, shots are sharp and in focus for the overwhelming majority of the hours-long shoot.
Because I tend to walk quite a bit while shooting sports and wildlife, I took the camera around the stadium as I looked for vantage points that were different from the field-access shots I had already done. I had a second camera and lens around my neck, and cradled the camera on a monopod by hooking it over my shoulder. I walked around the entire stadium and then climbed up and down the bleachers, and the weight savings were noticeable.
This lens is going to be a game changer in the sports and wildlife worlds. It’s faster than what’s out there and it’s lighter than what’s out there. It’s not cheaper than what’s out there, however. At $12,000 this is not a cheap lens, though I’d argue it’s a good price for what you get. The Canon EF 400mm F/2.8 is retailing for around $10,000, though it has been out for a number of years. There’s no telling if the Sony lens will come down in price at any point, but if you’re a photographer on the sidelines of a big game or a wildlife shooter trying to pick out a gazelle in a herd on assignment, the price probably isn’t your first concern.
While I didn’t get to test them, Sony’s 1.4 and 2.0 tele work with the 400mm F2.8 GM OSS without slowing the lens down. I’m a frequent shooter at airshows, and have already found the a9 a great camera for that type of venue. The 400mm lens and a 1.4x converter would be an ideal solution for capturing aerial acrobatics, especially considering the weight savings. Thanks to the in-camera and in-lens stabilization, handholding a 400mm this light would be practical, and would give me a great amount of reach.
More Airshow Reading – Our review of the Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS
If you’re a Sony-based sports or wildlife shooter, this is the lens you’ve been waiting for. If you’re using a competing system and were waiting for this lens to see if it would live up to its promises, you can wait no more. The 400mm F2.8 GM OSS is a game-changing piece of glass, and destined to be one of the legendary lenses in the pantheon of photography.
For the photographer on a more modest budget, the Sony 100-400mm remains a great choice, with excellent performance and a range of focal lengths, albeit with variable f/stop.
The lens will ship in September, and more information is available at Sony.com