Sony 70-200mm f/4 OSS Lens Review

bythom sony 70-200mm-f4

What is it?
The 70-200mm f/4 G OSS was one of the earlier lenses Sony brought to the FE mount, and part of a relatively compact f/4 trio of lenses that formed the early A7 kit. We now have f/2.8 GM versions of the same lenses, so you have a clear choice between saving some money, size, and weight, or going all out for maximum lens performance.

Don't discount this lens against the f/2.8 GM version, though. As with most of the 70-200mm variations by manufacturers, you don't lose a lot of optical quality by opting for the f/4 version of a lens. In the case of the Sony, you also don't opt for any real differences in features, either, other than the loss of f/2.8.

With 21 elements in 15 groups, two advanced aspherical elements, one aspherical element, two ED elements, and one super ED element, there's a lot of complexity in the optical design. A bit more so than you'd normally find in a 70-200mm f/4 zoom. We've also got Nano AR coating to impact contrast and prevent bounce-back flare.

Close focus distance is variable on this lens. At 70mm it's 3.3 feet (1m) while at 200mm it's almost 5 feet (1.35m), though if you switch to manual focus you can focus a bit closer at 200mm. The maximum magnification is a disappointing 1:7.7, and there's a bit of focal length breathing involved as well. Focus is maintained by dual linear motors, something that's become a common trait with the higher end Sony lenses and results in fast focus performance. A 9-blade aperture diaphragm attempts to maintain circular out-of-focus control.

Up front we have a 72mm non-rotating filter ring and the supplied ALC-SH133 bayonet hood. 

Along the lens body we have three lens function buttons (top, side, bottom) and four switches that control focus and OSS settings.

The zoom ring is marked at 70, 100, 135, and 200mm and is the ring closest to the camera.

A removable, rotating tripod collar is included with the lens, as is a soft case. The lens features weather-sealed construction and white lens body to reflect heat. Overall, the lens measures in at 6.9 x 3.2" (175 x 80mm) and is a significantly heavy 1.85 pounds (840g). Still, the f/2.8 version is .9" (25mm) longer and 1.4 pounds (640g) heavier.

Note that this lens had a firmware update in June 2017 (version 03) that should be installed.

Source of reviewed lens: purchased from dealer stock

Lens cost is US$1500 and made in Japan.

Sony's Web page for the lens

How's it Handle?
One nice thing about the key Sony telephoto zooms is that picking up one is like picking up any other (the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G OSS is the exception). Zoom ring position and rotation is the same, buttons are positioned the same, pretty much everything falls into the same place in your hands, something that I particularly appreciate. That's not exactly the norm in the Nikon world, and even the Canon world has some variability in this. So far, however, Sony has stuck to a formula for the top lenses, and it mostly works.

As I noted with the 100-400mm, I'm not so sure about that bottom lens function button. It's in a position that you can accidentally trigger it because you're supporting the lens with your left hand very near that button.

The rings on my sample are smooth. I wish Sony made a difference in ring texture between the two rings, but that's not a big issue, as I'm rarely doing fly-by-wire manual focus and keeping my hands mostly on the zoom ring.

Overall, nothing really to complain about.

How's it Perform?
IS: Sony doesn't seem to make a specific CIPA claim for the lens on their Web site. In my testing, I'd guess that it's somewhere around 4 stops. However, I do note that this lens often produces quite busy bokeh at mid-distances when the IS is on. This is common among many of the telephoto zooms, but the Sony seems particularly busy, much like the older Nikkor 70-300mm was. 

Sharpness: Center of the frame is excellent, particularly at 70mm, the best focal length for the central area. Like many zooms, the lens is weaker at its long end, though I'd still rate the central area as excellent, even wide open. 

The corners are where the real story is. At 70mm wide open, the extreme corner is just good, and you have to drop down to f/8 to really bring in the corner in a way I'd call very good. Curiously, the mid-range apertures have better corners from wide open to diffraction-limited apertures. Indeed, at 100-135mm and f/8, there's very little to distinguish the center (excellent) from the extreme corners (also excellent). 

At 200mm wide open, the extreme corners are disappointing. Not even what I'd call fair. Stop down a stop and they snap up to a very good level of performance. But overall, the edges and corners at 200mm are weaker than 70mm, and far weaker than in the middle of the focal length range. 

bythom US CA Monterey A7rIII 20560

For sports and event shooting, this lens is a darned good performer, as long as you've got the light. For centered subjects, I'm willing to shoot with it at any aperture or focal length, though if I care about the edges, I'll generally stop down to f/5.6. 

Linear Distortion: modest barrel distortion at 70mm (1%) that changes to modest pincushion distortion at 200mm (1.5%). 100mm seems to be close to the crossover point.

Vignetting: wide open you'll lose about a stop in the corners at 70mm, and another half stop by 200mm. Not great but not terrible results. The better news is that the Sony cameras correct most of the visible vignetting. Moreover, all you really have to do is stop down one stop and the vignetting is half stop or less until you get to 200mm, where it's about two-thirds of a stop. For a quality telephoto zoom, this performance is about where I expect it to be.

Chromatic Aberration: Lateral aberrations are well controlled for the most part. Even on the A7rII I'm seeing a fairly consistent level that is about 1 pixel worth at 70mm and 200mm, half that at the mid-range focal lengths. Beyond that, the camera can correct this, too, so I'd say lateral aberrations are ignorable. Longitudinal aberrations are barely present, too, and also ignorable.

Final Words
Those that think that mirrorless camera designs result in smaller gear need only look at the pro full frame lenses like this one to discover that they're wrong. The Sony 70-200mm f/4 for the FE mount is about the same size and weight as the Canon EF and Nikon F-mount f/4 versions. Once you get into the faster and more telephoto lenses, the short flange of the mirrorless mounts doesn't gain optical designers anything useful.

So right off: if you think you're buying this lens to create a small mirrorless package, think again. While the DSLR bodies will be more bulky, in the pro zoom lens category most of the telephoto lenses are going to be about the same size and weight between DSLRs and mirrorless.

That out of the way, an A7rII kit with the three f/4 zooms (16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm) is certainly a far more travel-friendly option than the DSLRs with the same lens options. But that's mostly because of the body svelteness and a bit of size that gets nibbled off the wide angle side of things (with some optical compromise). That's exactly what I use with my A7rII when I want to travel "lighter than DSLR." Not a huge savings of size and weight, but enough to make a difference. Without really compromising the overall image quality if you know the performance factors of each lens.

And that's where we get back to the 70-200mm f/4. With telephoto lenses it's almost always about centered subjects rendered well. And this Sony OSS does exactly that. It's certainly not a landscape telephoto lens at 200mm where you want the corners resolved perfectly, but for most event and sports shooting you're going to be pleased with it, just as you'd be pleased with the similar Canon and Nikon offerings.

Sony's done an excellent job of compromising a bit where you generally won't be bothered by it, while keeping the aspects of the lens that you want top notch, well, top notch. Even on the 42mp sensor cameras this lens shines in the center. On the 24mp Sony bodies, you just don't have enough pixels to see how good this lens really is. 

Build quality is excellent, as is the handling. This is the way we want our top lenses: excellent, excellent, excellent. 

Just be aware that the corners aren't stellar (and vignette significantly wide open), plus the IS tends to produce a busy bokeh on out-of-focus elements behind your subject, and you'll be fine. I've written similar things about other top end telephoto zooms, too, so Sony isn't alone in these small shortcomings. 

The question, of course, is whether you get this US$1500 f/4 lens or the US$2600 f/2.8 version. Much of what I've written about the f/4 version is echoed in the f/2.8 review, but the f/2.8 lens checks in substantially bigger and heavier. The optical difference will be this: you gain a stop for when you need it, and if you stop down one stop (to f/4) you'll have a somewhat better lens than the f/4 version. But you pay significant money and a size/weight penalty to get that optical difference.

That's sort of the way it's worked with other f/2.8 and f/4 telephoto zoom pairs from Canon and Nikon, and from the little time I've had with the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 I'm pretty sure that's how it plays out in the Sony camp, too. 

At this level of lens design you pay a lot for small gains. So, buy the f/4 version if you're price sensitive and can live with the light limitation. If you're a deep dark shooter boosting ISO all the time, well, you probably need to open the pocketbook for a much higher priced f/2.8 version, and get used to carrying a heavier system.

Recommended (2017 to present)

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