Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens Hands-On Preview

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We take Sony’s long-awaited 400mm f/2.8 supertele lens to an MLS game!

400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 1250 – This image has been edited from the raw file.

Alongside the A7R III launch back in October 2017, Sony gave out another tidbit of long-awaited information: the development of a full-frame 400mm f/2.8 G Master supertelephoto lens. We then spotted the lens in-person (but under glass) at this year’s CP+ in Japan. But now, at last, the FE 400mm f/2.8 G Master OSS lens is here!

Sony’s gone gangbusters with the pace of developing their full-frame mirrorless cameras, creating multiple bodies in a very short span of time. Importantly, too, they are also quickly filling out their quiver of native lenses for these cameras. This latest addition of a 400mm f/2.8 is a crucial step in attracting an important segment of professional photographers to the Sony full-frame mirrorless system. Earlier in 2017, Sony debuted the A9, its flagship high-performance camera designed to compete with the likes of the Canon 1DX II and Nikon D5 — in other words, a pro-tier sports- and wildlife-type camera. Now, when it comes to catering to professional wildlife and, in particular, sports photographers, having a 400mm f/2.8 lens in your lineup can almost be a make-or-break decision on whether or not one of these photographers picks your brand of camera. The Sony A9 has proven to be a fantastic camera, with excellent image quality and stunning performance capabilities, and now with a 400mm f/2.8 on the way, the Sony mirrorless system is even more competitive against long-time rival manufacturers.

400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 1250 – This image has been edited from the raw file. 

Ahead of the official announcement of this FE 400mm f/2.8 G Master lens, with full specs, pricing and availability details, a group of press members had an opportunity to test out this new supertelephoto lens in one of the best ways possible: photographing an MLS soccer match. Paired to an A9 (of course) I tried my hand at capturing some fast-paced sports action. Now, I’m not a professional sports photographer, though I have shot sports from time to time (this was, however, only my second time shooting professional soccer). That said, I did manage to get a healthy selection of solid photos that I feel show off the image quality and capabilities of this lens.

Feel free to jump directly to the Gallery Page, where I have both RAWs* and JPEGs available, as well as a handful of Capture One-edited Raw conversions. Otherwise read on below for my Hands-On First Impressions look at the lens’ handling characteristics, build quality, and a closer look at the image quality…

(*Note that due to memory card capacity limitations, I used the A9’s “compressed RAW” format when shooting RAW+JPEG.)

Design & Handling

One of the most significant issues with supertelephoto lenses, perhaps not surprisingly, is the physical dimensions. For full-frame cameras, supertelephoto lenses, especially ones with bright f/2.8 apertures, are often massive, heavy lenses. For example, Canon’s popular EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II weighs-in at a hefty 8.5 lbs. (3.9kg) — itself much lighter than the original 400mm f/2.8L IS that tipped the scales at a whopping 11.5 pounds! And it’s the same story on the Nikon side of the coin as well.

However, Sony managed to make a full-frame 400mm f/2.8 that’s remarkably lightweight, all things considered. Not only does that bode well merely for weight savings in general, but it also helps when it comes to a comfortable balance when mounted to Sony’s inherently smaller, lighter mirrorless camera bodies. In total, the Sony 400mm f/2.8 GM lens weighs only 6.38 lbs (2.89kg), making it the lightest full-frame 400mm f/2.8 lens to date.

It’s not only the weight that Sony’s taken into account, but also how the lens itself balances on the camera. The optical layout of the lens (which incorporates 23 elements in 17 groups) is arranged in such a way that many of the lens elements are towards the rear of the lens barrel. There’s obviously a few large elements towards the front, but there’s a deliberate and fairly large air gap towards the front end of the lens that helps prevent the lens from feeling front-heavy.

So how does it handle in real life? The FE 400mm f/2.8 GM feels amazingly solid and well-built and is indeed incredibly lightweight and well-balanced for such a large, bright telephoto lens. I had the lens paired with an A9 body plus the battery grip, and I didn’t notice much, if any, front-heaviness. It’s very well-balanced on that camera setup. For comparison, there were a couple of Canon 1D X Mark IIs and Nikon D5s with their respective 400/2.8 lenses, and the Sony A9 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM was a breath of fresh air. The Nikon and Canon 400mm lenses are noticeably heavier and are quite front-heavy, even with these larger camera bodies.

In fact, during my time shooting the Sony 400mm lens, I was easily able to hand-hold the lens without issue — which would be straight-up crazy talk had I been using the Canon or Nikon setup. Now, the Sony lens is still around 6 lbs, so it’s not the lightest thing in the world; I would certainly get tired of hand-holding it after a while. But, it’s not impossible. You can easily operate and control this lens handheld should you need to, depending on the subject or situation. In my case, while I was often using a monopod, there was a portion in which extra players and a referee moved in front of me, and it was faster and easier just to get up and move, leaving the monopod behind. Having that freedom is quite nice.

As for other handling or design notes, the Sony 400mm lens feels incredibly well-built, as it should considering its $12,000 price. The Japanese-made lens is all weather-sealed, is compatible with both 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters, and features the standard array of controls (AF/MF toggle, focus limiter, focus memory/preset buttons, image stabilizer mode switch, and a programmable function ring). It also has a rear drop-in filter, a large, reversible lens hood, and a robust tripod collar/foot.

400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 800 – Straight-from-camera JPEG.

Image Quality & Performance

To be a professional-class lens, the image quality has to be very, very good, and thankfully the Sony 400mm f/2.8 doesn’t disappoint in this area. Shooting super-fast-paced, unpredictable sports like soccer with a full-frame 400/2.8 lens at f/2.8 makes for tricky shooting due to the incredibly shallow depth of field. Luckily, the A9 has terrific subject tracking autofocus, and the 400mm lens itself has incredibly fast autofocus, so I wasn’t left with too many dud photos where the focus was entirely off. For the shots I did miss, it’s hard to know for sure if it was the camera/lens or simply user error (given my rather brief experience so far at photographing soccer, I’m going to guess it’s more of the latter than the former).

400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 1250
This is still a nice reaction shot after scoring a goal, I think, but if you look at the crops below, it’s obviously that I missed focus ever-so-slightly on any of the players’ faces. Instead, you can see how the left hand of forward Bradley Wright-Phillips is actually in sharp focus. The shallow depth of field created by a full-frame 400mm f/2.8 can be very tricky!

Ok, now for image quality… Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Sony 400mm f/2.8 GM is very sharp based on my initial real-world experience. We’ve yet to get this lens in-house for our detailed lab testing, but so far, this lens has excellent resolving power even at f/2.8, with lots of sharp, fine detail in the center as well as out into the far corners. Chromatic aberration seems practically nonexistent based on the photos I’ve taken as well. As is the case with other Sony G Master lenses, special attention has been given to bokeh quality, and to my eye, the 400mm f/2.8 GM creates wonderfully smooth, non-distracting out of focus areas.

400mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 500 – This image has been edited from the raw file. 

Performance-wise, the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM focuses extremely quickly. In fact, I barely even thought about autofocus during my time shooting with the lens; it’s not really worth mentioning here. It works, and it works exceptionally well. While shooting, I kept watching the A9 lock onto the subject and continuously track it, rarely faulting. I never noticed or experienced any oddities or issues concerning autofocus performance when using the 400mm f/2.8.

400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 1000 – Straight-from-camera JPEG.

This experience falls in line with how Sony describes the AF performance of the lens. The 400mm f/2.8 was designed specifically for precise, super-fast AF, particularly continuous AF, in order to meet the ultra-fast shooting speeds of the A9. Rather than use ring-drive AF motors, like a DSLR lens, the Sony’s 400mm uses linear actuator motors (dubbed “XD Linear Motors”) which they claim offer five times faster AF tracking than traditional ring-drive or SSM-drive telephoto lenses. In the end, what this all means is that the camera and lens communicate and operate extremely quickly; the lens should focus fast enough to take full advantage of high-performance cameras, such as the 20fps-capable A9.

400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 800 – This image has been edited from the raw file. 

Summary

From what I’ve seen, the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM is one heck of a lens. But for a flagship, professional supertelephoto lens that costs $12,000, I shouldn’t really expect anything less. Optically, Sony’s knocked it out of the park with the other G Master lenses, and the 400mm f/2.8 falls right in line. What is amazing is its unique optical design and construction that allows this often-massive full-frame lens to be nimble, balanced, and easy to hold in your hand, without the use of a monopod. One of the big draws for a mirrorless camera is the lighter and smaller design of the cameras, but for a full-frame model, lenses are still often quite large. To make a full-frame 400mm f/2.8 lens that balances well on a mirrorless camera and that’s easy to operate handheld is nothing short of impressive.

I can’t wait to shoot more with this lens as well as see how it fares in our lab testing, but so far, the Sony 400mm f/2.8 GM looks like a clear winner in my book.

Lens Specifications
Name Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS SEL400F28GM
Image Circle 35mm (Full-frame E-Mount)
Type Telephoto Prime
Focal Length 400mm
APS Equivalent 600mm
Max Aperture f/2.8
Min Aperture f/22
Diaphragm Blades 11 (circular)
Lens Construction 23 elements in 17 groups, including 1 ED and 3 Fluorite elements; Fluorine coating
Diagonal Angle of View(Based on image circle) 6.2 degrees
Focus Details Internal focus via dual XD (eXtreme Dynamic) Linear Motors; AF/MF, Full-time DMF, Focus Limit, Function Preset, OSS On/Off, OSS Mode and Beep switches; Set and 4 Focus Hold buttons
Front Element Rotation No
Zoom System n/a
Closest Focus 2.7m / 8.9 ft.
Magnification Ratio 0.16x / 1:6.3
Filter Size 40.5mm drop-in type
Dimensions(Length x Diameter) 359mm x 158.1mm / 14.13 in. x 6.22 in.
Weight 2895g / 6.38 lbs
Notes Optical SteadyShot Image Stabilization; Dust and moisture resistant; Included Accessories: Front cap, Rear cap, Lens strap, Lens hood (ALC-SH155), Lens case, Strap for case, Key for lens case.
Typical Online Price US$12,000 (Avail. Sept. 2018)

(imaging-resource.com, http://bit.ly/2u0UuTD)

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