Hands-On Review: the Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS Super Zoom Lens
Sometimes, the most annoying thing about having an interchangeable-lens camera is the interchangeable-lens part. Prime lenses and short-range zoom lenses for full-frame cameras aren’t that big by themselves. But at some point, you realize that the five-lens kit you have is a bit of a drag to carry around with you everywhere, and you wish you could just take one lens with you that could replace them all, which is where superzoom lenses like the new Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS Lens come in handy.
The Sony 24-240mm (Center) is only a little larger than the Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 (Left) and a lot shorter than the Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 (Right)
This new 24-240mm is a full-frame-compatible lens that offers an impressive 10x zoom range, giving full-frame a7-series camera users the ability to forgo changing lenses in situations where they may not have time to or just don’t feel like it. While 10x zooms are relatively common in the small-sensor world, they are somewhat rare in the full-frame world, and for a reason. Designing a superzoom lens for a full-frame camera isn't easy, and requires a number of tradeoffs, such as weight and a small maximum aperture. There is a reason most zoom lenses for full-frame cameras rarely go beyond a 3 or 4x zoom range. However, to a number of users, the extreme versatility of an all-in-one lens is a huge plus, so the tradeoffs are worth it.
Frozen Ships Wide/Medium/Tele Overlay: The flexible focal-length range allows for creative reframing of the same scene. These wide, medium, and tele images of boats, frozen in the Hudson River, were all shot from the same spot.
The lens has a telescoping design, and with dimensions of 3.2 x 4.7", is only a little bit larger than the Zeiss FE 24-70mm f/4 when fully retracted at 24mm, making it a rather compact lens for what it is. However, at 1.7 lb, it is noticeably heavier than the Zeiss 24-70mm, as one might expect. When fully extended, it gets a lot longer, but it is slightly shorter than the 70-210mm Canon FD lens I usually use. It is also worth noting that when the lens extends and focuses, the front of the lens does not rotate—polarizer-filter users will appreciate this.
Balance-wise, it doesn't feel completely out of place on the a7S, and is a lot better balanced than the 70-210 because most of the weight of the Sony is at the base of the lens, even when using it at telephoto lengths. Its mass does make me miss lightweight prime lenses, but if you want 10x zoom in a full-frame lens, then that is the price you have to pay. The lens zoom ring is a bit stiff, most likely to prevent lens creep, since this is a telescoping lens with some heft.
Sony was nice enough to lend me a pre-production model of the Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5–6.3 OSS during a balmy winter week here in New York, and I tested it out on the a7S, to see if I could feel satisfied having only one lens with me. The massive telephoto reach of the lens ended up helping me capture pictures that I otherwise would not have been able to capture, as I typically do not have a telephoto lens attached when I am just walking around. I was able to catch a seagull eating a fresh fish on a floating ice floe, as well as get a view of a commuter ferry carrying eager New Jerseymen and Jerseywomen across an icy Hudson River. The lens is advertised as being weather resistant, and I can attest that it had no trouble working in 2°F temperatures (which is more than I can say for my hands). The lens's minimum focusing distance of 2.6' at the telephoto end is also relatively close and allows for some pseudo macro shooting, which is a nice plus.
The Optical SteadyShot image stabilization (OSS) does a good job counteracting the slow aperture, which combined with the better high ISO ability of the full-frame cameras, makes the low-light performance of this lens not as bad as some might fear. I was able to get some good night shots at the wide end. The OSS also helps frame the shot, as it is much easier to see what is going on through the EVF than with my 70-210 FD lens. I found autofocus to be very fast at the wide end, though not so fast at the telephoto end. Whether that is due more to the a7S's contrast detect AF or the lens, I'm not sure, as I haven't used many telephoto lenses with AF on the a7S.
I shot all photos in JPEG+RAW so I could compare any in-camera JPEG corrections to the RAW files. Upon reviewing the photos on the camera I was quite impressed; they had good color, contrast, were sharp, and showed no noticeable vignetting, distortion, or chromatic aberration. This is quite impressive, perhaps a little too impressive for a full-frame superzoom lens. Once I loaded the RAW images into the computer, I did notice that the camera was doing a fair amount of lens correction on the JPEG images. Still, distortion is easy to correct, a soft image isn't, and I'm happy to say the lens's sharpness and contrast are quite impressive, though it definitely exhibits a fair amount of distortion across the zoom range, and exhibits a bit of vignetting at the wide end.
Video users might be attracted to this lens for its large zoom range, as it’s impossible to switch out lenses in between a shot, and the lens's image stabilization is a huge plus for shooting handheld. The lack of a constant aperture throughout the zoom range is a bit of a drag for video, as the exposure changes as you zoom, but thankfully it's a smooth transition, unlike other SLR zoom lenses I've used. Sony does not claim the FE 24-240mm is parafocal, the way the company does with the FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 G OSS, but in my rudimentary testing I can say that when I focused on something at the telephoto end and zoomed out, the focus did not shift noticeably, which is a big plus. The main drawbacks for video are the stiff zoom barrel, as well as the distortion, which is not as easily corrected for video users. Still, if you have to have a large zoom range and don't want to splurge for the Sony FE PZ 28-135 lens, then this is certainly a viable option.
The 24-240mm offers an extremely versatile range from wide to telephoto while still being relatively compact at the wide end. It's not going to be the sharpest or most light-sensitive lens but, in my testing, I think it does well enough to use in place of other FE lenses—in most circumstances. The question is whether the tradeoffs are worth the extra convenience a lens like this offers: if you can only take one lens, would you rather have a 3x zoom that performs great, a prime lens that is near perfect, or a 10x zoom lens that gets the job done? If you are looking into a superzoom, you probably already know the answer to that question.