Review: SONY 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS


Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 518mm, f6.3, ISO640, 1/3200s

One of the nice things of being a brand ambassador is that you get to test gear before it is released. A couple weeks back Sony provided me with one of their upcoming super-telelenses. The Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 G OSS. A lot of wildlife and sport photographers have been waiting for Sony to come with a lens with this focal length and in the lower price segment. Now that they have done so and this is their first production of this type of lens, the big question is "How will it perform?". To put this lens to the test, I took it with me on a photo trip to the Nemunas Delta in Lithuania. Here I used it intensively for photographing birds from floating hides and from a boat. I tried to cover all the important aspects and here are my findings. To illustrate the performance of this lens, this blog includes a slight overkill of images...

Specs Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 G OSS

  • E-Mount Lens / Full-Frame Format

  • Aperture Range: f5.6 - f36

  • 200-600mm internal zoom

  • Weight: 2115 gram

  • Dimensions (diameter x length): 111.5x318mm

  • Filter size: 95mm

  • Direct Drive Super Sonic Wave AF Motor

  • Rounded 11-blade diaphragm

  • Optical SteadyShot Image Stabilization

  • Dust and moisture-resistant construction

  • Removable, rotating Tripod Collar

  • Price: 2100,- Euro, 21.495,- NOK, 1.998,- USD

Handling

The first thing which jumps out to me is that the zoom is internal. The lens doesn't extend or change in size when zooming in and out. The zoom-ring only needs to be turned 70 degrees in order to get from 200 to 600mm. This makes it very easy to zoom in and out without having to re-position your fingers or hand in order to change to the wanted focal length.

Zoom range Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 G OSS

Sigma and Tamron have a 150-600mm version of this lens. But both these lenses extend and contract when zooming. This shifts the point of gravity, making them a nightmare to work with on a tripod. With the internal zoom the lens keeps it point of gravity and makes it suitable to use with a tripod. Another large advantage of internal zoom is that the weatherproofing of such a lens is much better. It protects the lens against water and dust coming in, which should result in a longer life expectancy.

Due to the internal zoom, the Sony lens is slightly larger than the Sigma and Tamron versions (when contracted). The Sony lens measures 318mm, the Sigma 290mm and the Tamron 258mm. Yet, Sony managed to keep the weight down to only 2.1kg, compared to the 2.8kg of the Sigma. Tamron has the lightest version with only 1.99kg. When the Sigma and Tamron lenses are fully extended, the Sony lens is about 7cm shorter.

To give you an impression of the size of the lens, I have put the Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM OSS, the Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 G OSS and the Sony 400mm f2.8 GM OSS lenses next to each other.

Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM OSS, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 G OSS and the Sony 400mm f2.8 GM OSS

As you can see, the 200-600mm is slightly shorter than the 400mm f2.8. The packing size of the 100-400mm is quite a bit shorter with 205mm versus 318mm of the 200-600mm. But when zoomed out to 400mm, the lenses are almost the same length.

Most of the weight of the Sony 200-600mm lens is at the front. When you use it on a tripod, you need a long tripod plate in order to get the set up perfectly balanced. I had the 200-600mm in combination with the a9 on a fluid gimbal head. While zooming back and forth between 200mm and 600mm, the set up staid balanced and didn't tip forward or backwards. Because a fluid gimbal head offers some resistance and doesn't tip over as easily as a non-fluid one, I tried to feel if there was a change in resistance when zoomed at 200mm and when at 600mm. I had the impression there was a slight difference. It seems like that the weight shifted slightly to the back when zoomed in at 600mm compared to 200mm. I could have this wrong. If there was a change in balance, the change was so tiny, that it didn't influence my photography at all.

Regarding the lens being front heavy, I also did several hours of hand hold photography without any problems. The low weight in combination with the good optical stabilization makes it a good lens for handhold photography.

Sharpness

This being a "G" lens, you can expect the images to be razor sharp. And they are! The detail and contrast in the images are beautiful. No need to doubt that. Below a image of one of the locals in town, taken on 600mm f6.3. The image on the left is the uncropped image and on the right is about 100% crop.

Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO800, 1/400s shot handhold

Autofocus performance

A lens with this focal length will most likely be used for wildlife and sport photography. In both cases you will need a fast and accurate autofocus. Now Sony is already known for the extreme fast autofocus system of the a9. The big question is if this lens will be able to keep up with the focus speed of the a9. To test this, I spend several mornings and afternoons photographing birds in flight. The Nemunas Delta is absolutely full with birdlife. One species which is overwhelmingly present, is the Black tern. You can hear and see them just about anywhere. Also the Common tern and Whiskered tern frequently show themselves. For those who have photographed terns before, you know how fast these birds fly and how sudden they can change direction. The can be a real challenge to get in the viewfinder and nail the focus. ...so a perfect subject to test the autofocus performance of this lens on.

The first test I did handheld from a boat. Just before we got to the area with the terns, this Great white egrit flew up. It happened too fast for me to zoom out and got lucky with a few shots where the bird exactly fitted in the frame. The autofocus nailed the head of the bird and tracked it perfectly.

Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO1000, 1/3200s

Shortly after that we reached the area with the Black terns. We floated through the area where they were feeding. The focus of the lens is very fast. It quickly gets the focus on the passing birds and has no problem tracking them.

Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO2000, 1/2000s

Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO1000, 1/3200s

The real test would be to see if the autofocus would be able to keep up with a tern flying straight towards us. The autofocus system of the a9 has no problem with picking the flying birds up. The real challenge is for me to keep the birds withing the frame, since they change direction so fast and sudden. But once I got the hang of it, the autofocus did the rest. The Sony 200-600mm had no problem with keeping up with the birds. I could show you some single images, but I prefer to show you the whole bursts so that you can see how well the autofocus manages to keep up with the birds. Find below three separate bursts. On the first two I should have used an higher ISO in order to achieve an higher shutterspeed. Some of the images show slight motion blur as result of the not fast enough shutter speed.

First burst: Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO1250, 1/1250s

Second burst: Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO1250, 1/1250s

Third burst: Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO2000, 1/2000s

As you can see, the lens has no problem with keeping up with these fast birds.

After having tested the lens on the boat, I switched to the floating hides. We used the high quality floating hides of MrJan Gear. We got to use both types of hides and have to say that it was an absolute joy to photograph from these hides! I will write a second blog soon about the trip and about the floating hides. You can buy these hides on the MrJan Gear website. The first sessions I kept my focus on testing the autofocus performance of the lens. I positioned myself on a spot where I had seen the terns bath, dive, hunt and chase each other. Here I managed to shoot an extremely high diversity of action in just two photo sessions. Find below a selection of the results.

(Single burst of images) Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO1000, 1/3200s

(Single burst of images) Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO1000, 1/2500s

Collection of images with the Sony a9 and Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 at various settings

Light sensitivity and bokeh

The lens is rated as a f5.6-6.3 lens. The f5.6 only applies for the the 200-300mm range. As soon as you are above 300mm, the aperture will be on a minimum of f6.3. I would have expected the tipping point to be around 400mm, but I guess that this is the cost of having the internal zoom. Just like any other lens with this high minimum aperture, the lens doesn't let through a lot of light. If you want to get an high shutter speed, you end up pushing your ISO. Most of my action shots are taken on ISO 1000 and higher. In some rare situations I got it down to ISO 800. If you are not out for actions shots you will be able to drop the ISO and work with lower shutter speeds. The stabilization will do its job well. Of course you will run out of light earlier on the evening, compared to having a f2.8 lens on your camera. ...but those lenses come with a much higher price tag.

I personally love lenses with a lower aperture because of the bokeh. A 600mm f6.3 lens is not going to get as smooth bokeh as a 600mm f4 or 400mm f2.8. That is a given fact. But if you play it right, make sure there is enough distance between your foreground and background to your subject, you will end up with a nice separation of the subject and surroundings. A floating hide with a low perspective offers great possibilities for that. I did my best to get as low as possible, find a close by foreground and a clear background. Find below a selection of the images I managed to get.

Collection of images with the Sony a9 and Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 at various settings

I really wanted to get some shots with a nice bokeh balls. ...at some point my traveling companionship was laughing every single time I mentioned "bokeh balls". But I went for it and I got in several occasions very nice results. F6.3 on 600mm works very well! There is a nice separation between the different bokeh balls. With a 600mm f4 lens on f4, the bokeh balls would have been much larger and overlapping each other more. I most likely would have stopped down to around f6.3 anyway in order to get the bokeh balls I like.

Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO80, 1/8000s

Backlight

The lens had no problems with backlight. In several occasions I photographed straight against the light and never had any trouble. Of course it is up to the camera to find the subject, but if the lens easily hunts or has a slow autofocus, you will notice this very well when shooting against strong light.

Sony a9, Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 @ 600mm, f6.3, ISO50, 1/16000s

Pricing

The lens is priced at 2100,- Euro, 21.495,- NOK or 1.998,- USD. This is lower than what I had expected. The price of the Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM OSS is 2.899,- Euro, 26.995,- NOK or 2498,- USD, which is a considerable amount more. The 100-400mm is a G Master lens and the 200-600mm is "only" a G lens. But still I wouldn't expect such a price difference, because this is a beast of a lens. It seems like that Sony has looked at the prices of the competition and came with a competing price tag.

Conclusion

The Sony Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 G OSS is a solid lens. Due to the internal zoom and weather sealing, the lens is well protected against water and dust. The point of gravity doesn't change while zooming in and out, which makes it much easier to use the lens on a tripod. Most of the weight of the lens sits at the front, so you need a long tripod plate in order to balance the lens on a tripod. Because of the low weigh and good optical stabilization, it is no problem to shoot handhold with this lens. The sharpness is outstanding and captures every detail in the image. The autofocus performance is very high. It acquires focus fast and is capable of tracking extremely fast moving subjects. Because f6.3 is the lowest aperture, you will need to shoot in the higher ISO range to get high shutter speeds. This minimum aperture also influences the depth of field. As one can expect, the bokeh is not as nice as on a 600mm f4 or a 400mm f2.8 (which are 12.000,- and 10.000,- Euro more expensive). With direct backlight the lens never struggled and nailed the focus in the crucial moments. This lens is priced at 2100,- Euro. Yes, this is a lot of money. But in return you get an absolute beast of a lens! And most important, it is still possible to get awesome bokeh balls!!!

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