A Weekend with the Sony 200-600mm and 600mm Lenses

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Big lenses are a big deal for Sony mirrorless, and the latest are its biggest and best yet. The just-launched FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens and FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS Lens are impressive by their specs with both reaching the new maximum focal length of Sony's entire lineup.

The Biggest and Best Sony Lens: the 600mm Prime

With the 2020 games around the corner—and in Tokyo, of all places—it is no surprise that we received the announcement of Sony's largest telephoto lens so far. The a9 and 400mm were certainly a step in the right direction, and the 600mm only bolsters Sony's standing in sports and wildlife circles. From our limited time with the lens, we can easily report that it lives up to the expectations and demands of professionals.

Being an f/4 super telephoto means that it is a monster of a lens, but with modern lens design, Sony's 600mm is now the lightest full-frame 600mm f/4 lens on the market. It also balances very well. By moving most of the optics to the rear of the lens, the weight sits more comfortably in the hand—very impressive for a lens of this size.

Optics on the 600mm are extremely good. This should be no surprise since flagship super telephotos are some of the best lenses money can buy. The real benefit of these serious lenses is all the other technology crammed inside. It has some of the best autofocus and image stabilization technology currently available and should provide impressive speed and image quality in some of the most demanding shooting conditions.

Jake Estes was a great subject for the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS and you can see just how sharp the lens can be in ideal conditions. Shot on a Sony a7 III at f/4; 1/3200 second; and ISO 320

In use, shooting some birds near my house, the 600mm certainly kept up. I attached the lens to my a7 III and the autofocus was fast and accurate. The f/4 aperture also helped on the cloudy days I was shooting, since every little bit of extra light helps performance. It also meant I could use a teleconverter. Using the 2x Teleconverter is the most strenuous test for any lens, both because it reduces light and magnifies any potential imperfections in the optics.

When using the teleconverters on a gray day, the loss of light did mean higher ISO settings, which led to increased noise. However, you can still see that the 600mm is quite sharp, even in these conditions.

Not too surprisingly, the 600mm holds up well to the use of a teleconverter. Now a fast focusing, native 1200mm f/8 lens is available to Sony mirrorless shooters. It is very sharp and contrasty, which allows it to work well with teleconverters. Looking at the images, there wasn't much to pick apart during editing. Being a super tele means it has very minimal distortion, at least not the kind that most viewers would be able to easily identify. Flare is minimal, thanks to good coatings and a massive lens hood.

I used the lens mostly handheld and it was lightweight enough that it wasn't too much of a struggle. Now, I'd still recommend a monopod or support for extended shoots, say an entire sporting event, but if you wanted to pull it out for a couple shots here or there or just have it slung for a hike it shouldn't weigh you down too much. With a camera it'll weigh less than 10 lb. A battery grip does help, too.

Outstanding bokeh can be used to great effect. Shot with Sony a7 III at f/4.

Finally, the lens is large, allowing it to have a lot of well thought out controls on the barrel. The focus ring is extremely large and easy to operate. Fortunately, the AF system is good enough that I didn't need to rely on it too much except for a couple specific shots. There are also plenty of switches for faster operation, including a programmable focus hold button and a focus range limiter. A function ring provides even more control and can help hit preset focus points or be programmed for rapid access to specific settings. For filters, there is a nice 40.5mm drop-in slot. Additionally, it is weather sealed, an essential part of any super telephoto prime.

All things considered, the 600mm is an impressive release for Sony and once again puts the company in serious competition in a space previously reserved for the other big camera manufacturers.

When used for a pick-up tennis game, the 600mm was easily able to keep up. The autofocus and image stabilization were outstanding on this sunny day.

Lightweight and with Excellent Reach: the 200-600mm

For us more common folk, the FE 200-600mm is right up our alley. Classified as a G lens, the optics are going to be good while still keeping the overall cost of the lens more affordable. Performance won't suffer though, because the lens is equipped with some of Sony's latest technology. The lens will even support both of Sony's teleconverters with ease.

Obviously, this lens is targeting users who don't need or can't afford the flagship 600mm, but still want the stellar reach. It is smaller and slower. This is most certainly a lens for good lighting. Shooting in bright sunlight in the middle of the day is where it thrives. The variable f/ 5.6-6.3 aperture demands it and, unfortunately, does not possess as good an optical quality as some of Sony's other tele optics. The 600mm, in particular, is a tough comparison, though the 100-400mm also appears to best it in many matching focal lengths. It is hard to beat the extra reach, though.

Speaking of reach, the 600mm maximum is an impressive figure for a relatively affordable zoom. Sony managed to fit in all the great tech it has in its other telephotos here, such as an awesome Optical SteadyShot image stabilization and a Direct Drive Super Sony wave Motor. It operates very well and has a feel that matches many other highly regarded lenses, the closest comparison being the 70-200mm f/4. One other design feature that I personally love? The internal zoom. As much as I understand that extended zoom lens designs allow for lenses to be more compact when not in use, I dislike them. I feel that dust and other gunk can more easily infiltrate the lens, and it never looks clean.

In good light, the slower aperture did mean pushing the ISO upward, but there is still plenty of detail to be found in these shots, taken with the lens at 335mm at f/9.0, left, and 565mm at f/6.3, right.

Used the 600mm prime and 200-600mm lens at the same time has, unfortunately, led to some unfair comparisons. The 200-600mm is not as fast when it comes to autofocus, nor is it as sharp when working wide open. This isn't to denigrate it—it's perfectly acceptable, considering its price and standard G branding. I would recommend stopping down a hair when you can and, though teleconverters are a lot of fun, the 1.4x will serve you better than the more demanding 2x that I used.

Everything else about the lens is solid. The lens is weather sealed and feels like it can hold up to enduring some adventures. Optical SteadyShot is very good and works very well with cameras that offer in-body stabilization. Focusing is fast with the DDSSM AF system, and worked very well when tracking subjects. The front element has a fluorine coating that should help keep it clean.

The wide zoom range made it much easier to achieve different compositions on the small tennis court. The focus speed was impressive and, when stopped down a little, sharpness was very high.

The 200-600mm and 600mm f/4 lenses are worthy additions to Sony's full-frame lens lineup. They are also very important in making the Alpha-series cameras more enticing for photographers who spend a lot of time shooting sports or wildlife. It is also very considerate of Sony to give pros and the everyday shooter options, so everyone can get that super-telephoto reach if they want it.

Any sports photographers out there thinking Sony might be able to be a professional pick now that they have serious telephoto lenses on the market? Be sure to leave your thoughts or questions in the Comments section, below!

2 Comments

How does the quality and performance of the 200-600 compare to the 150-600 offerings of Sigma and Tamron?

The 200-600 Sony G OSS is a fantastic lens and a bargain of a lifetime. However, it is anything but a light weight. I purchased a Manfrotto  ball head for 33 lbs. to handle it on a 7336 tripod. I recommend remote release. You will not be disappointed! For you younger folk, the weight might not be an obstacle.

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