Sony has announced what I would consider their first true bird photography lens, the FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS. Here are my initial thoughts and ramblings based on my hands-on experience.
It’s an exciting time for bird photographers who were early adopters to the Sony mirrorless cameras despite a lens lineup that had yet to be fully fleshed out. I remember back when I still owned a Sony being bummed out new release after new release as the big guns were left ignored. And then the FE 400mm f/2.8 GM happened, which while a disappointment personally that it was still too short, showed that Sony was about to get real serious in the super-telephoto space. When it turned out that Sony couldn’t produce the 400s fast enough for the demand, I knew it could only be a matter of time before they dropped the 600mm.
Well, the FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS is here, and to be honest it doesn’t bring many surprises. That is to say it’s exactly what a $13,000 super-telephoto lens released in 2019 should be: tack sharp, “purified” image quality with no anomalies or aberrations, probably the best autofocus mechanism ever made, and extremely lightweight for its class. Sony goes so far as to proudly claim it is designed to greatly match the 400mm f/2.8 GM operability with the same exact control layouts, the distances between those functions, and even down to specs like the focus ring diameter. No surprises.
Now as a hands-on first impressions article, the only meaningful way I can think to convey any sort of nuance with a “perfect” lens is to bring in comparisons to my regular shooting outfit, a 20-year-old Canon 500mm f/4L IS USM. Using this comparison as needed will help form the details of what actually surprised me about Sony’s 600mm f/4 GM in both positives and negatives. Because hey, if a lens has a hard time differentiating itself from a kit that’s a third of its price from two decades ago, that’s going to be a red flag. And on that note, I will admit that in the couple hours of shooting time I had, in the back of my mind in some instances I wished I had my personal setup; you just can’t beat having familiarity and trust of equipment when it really comes down to wanting to get great photos.
The first thing I had mind to do with the 600mm GM was to just pick it up and embrace the reality of 6.7 pounds. Paired with the un-gripped Sony a9 camera body, the setup weighs a very handholdable of 8.18 pounds. For comparison, I handhold my own Canon setup about half the time I go shooting, and that weighs 13 pounds 6 ounces with the 1.4x teleconverter fitted (which I use 90 percent of the time). One interesting tidbit is that the Sony 600mm f/4 GM weighs only 5.1 ounces more than the 400mm f/2.8 GM; again, they did a great job at making the two very familiar in the hands.
For my couple hours photographing birds with the Sony 600mm, I handheld for the entirety. This is one area that surprised me, because the major weight difference was not as significant in use as I thought it would be. It was noticeable, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t feel completely different in the way the savings translated to being able to get my shots. Thinking on this, I wonder if it has to do with the way the weight distribution is done with these latest generation of super-telephoto lenses. In order to get the weight reduction, part of what Sony (and Canon with the version IIIs) has done is move the elements inside the lens closer to the camera side where they can be made smaller to fit the slimmer barrel. However, in concentrating all the weight into one area rather than balanced over the length of the lens and body, I do question if it makes the gear seems heavier than it should. Marketing spins this as a positive, but I’m really not so sure personally. Even when carrying the body and lens around “briefcase style” holding on to the tripod foot, I took notice and didn’t like how unevenly weighted the setup felt. If I actually owned this gear, I’d surely be using a battery grip on the a9, and that would only lend itself to even more unbalance.
The MTF chart for the Sony FE 600mm is just a flat line. In practical terms, this lens is a killer throughout the aperture range and from center to the far corners. Again, this is not any surprise, but of course credit goes to those engineers that probably worked tirelessly to get it to be that way with a new optical design. The reality check though is that these super-telephotos from the big companies have been extremely sharp for a long time. Without comparing side by side, I’d guess a one-off photo from my ol’ Canon gets just a sharp results from a real-world standpoint. I think the difference is a little more complicated than that though.
The new lens technologies don’t best translate in any bench test. They can shine in the real world though, and that’s where the difference in new coatings and specially-designed lens elements make it worth it. The 600mm GM is not getting one-off sharper photos, rather it gets that sharpness and definition in more complicated lighting situations and when combined with new AF motors that were born to be continually autofocused it means walking away with a greater quantity of sharp photos to pick from. The two hours I spent photographing birds with the lens was at the wrong time of day, a couple hours too late for softer light. However, it did give me a wider variety of lighting conditions, even if unfavorable.
The only time sharpness was a concern on this morning was shooting on the shoreline where heat waves were coming up off the sand. But like I said, it’s not entirely fair for the lens to be compared with one-off photos from other big lenses. The Sony advantage here was that it can keep pace with the Sony a9 making autofocus calculations at 60 fps, all that was needed was to shoot in high-speed continuous in AF-C mode and eventually when the heat wave would “open up” for a split second on my subject, I would have the sharp photo.
There’s another angle to be looked at as well, and that’s how quickly lenses start falling apart with higher resolution sensors. I’m confident my 20-year-old Canon is going to start showing imperfections quicker than a brand new Sony when the megapixels increase, and it will be interesting to see the level of detail once these lenses get into the hands of wildlife photographers using the a7R III, and whatever is to come in the future.
If I had to say where Sony’s primary strength is in the action arena, it would be autofocus. The XD linear motors were designed from ground up to be fast, accurate, and quiet for non-stop continuous autofocus, whereas older autofocus systems were more concerned with making it to a definitive point A to point B. Sony goes as far to claim that the XD motors in the 400mm and 600mm have a specialized fine-tuned algorithm different from their other lenses that use DDSSM or other autofocus mechanisms. And that makes sense since on the body side, Sony is making great progress with AI-based subject recognition and Real-time Tracking, Real-time Eye AF, and now even Real-time Eye AF for Animals. Being able to calculate all that information in the camera won’t matter if the lenses can’t keep up with executing it.
Using the 600mm f/4 GM, where I’m most impressed autofocus-wise is how well it can pick up birds from complicated backgrounds, how fast it acquires birds in flight, and how well it keeps focus as the subject moves closer or further away. As a Canon user, picking up birds in flight and maintaining accurate focus on the head does not come easy at all. I hear things are much better on the Nikon side for this, and I do wonder where the Sony fits in between those two.
Next up and probably the thing I fiddle with most on long lenses is the focus ring. Nature is messy and I don’t always have a clean shot to a bird with a lot of separation from the foreground and background. Sometimes foliage will get in the way, even though it appears see through due to the narrow depth of field, but when I go to focus it will get confused with the foreground object and hunt. Also, birds are small, and depending on the situation there might not be a lot of trust that the focus point is going to nail it correctly. Most of all, when birds hop from perch to perch and you’re waiting for a photogenic moment, it’s much easier to keep pace using manual focusing over auto. Good manual focusing is a requirement, and the 600mm GM focus ring is buttery smooth. However, and I wouldn’t expect Sony to do it any other way, focus by wire ain’t it chief when it comes to the task of manual focusing with very narrow depth of field and low resolution electronic viewfinders. It’s too finicky for the minute adjustments going from say the beak to the eye, and inside the viewfinder it’s too difficult to tell if the tiny eyes are tack sharp or not. It requires extra passes of front-focusing and back-focusing to be more confident I’m getting the right spot in focus, and we all know there’s not time with birds to do that. One thing I think Sony could improve on here within the confines of a subpar manual focus experience is to add focus ring speed adjustment options as either a lens switch or bury it in the camera’s menu.
What great benefit a focus by wire system could do but I don’t think is currently possible is to have a way to completely disable the focus ring from manual focusing. When I’m laying down shooting eye level, usually for ducks, I use my forearm or fist as a buffer between the ground and lens and that gives me all the control I need. Oftentimes this will inadvertently rub the focus ring. Same with shooting off a bean bag from a vehicle; the lens’ focus ring will be affected by the panning motion.
A couple months ago I tweeted out that “Sony’s next FE lens release should be a 20-year-old super-telephoto that costs around $3,000 used.” Now as luck what have it, I get to dive deeper into what I mean. But first, to quickly comment on the lens’ price as it stands at $13,000, I think that’s perfectly acceptable in the current market of what people are willing to pay. It’s the same price as the newly released Canon 600mm f/4L III even though the Sony has some spec bumps in some areas. Traditionally you would expect Sony to take whatever price everyone else charges and add the “number one full-frame mirrorless” tax to it.
Now forget the photo agencies, rental houses, and wealthy pros and enthusiasts who will make this lens release all worth it for Sony to manufacture, and let’s talk about me and you who will never be able to afford this. A super-telephoto gives a certain aesthetic to photos that many wildlife photographers are attracted towards. Unfortunately, the specific aesthetic of these lenses also comes with some of the most extravagant price tags in photography. It’s always uncomfortable when as an artist you are just out to create something that satisfies that itch of your mind’s eye, but money of all things creates a barrier between that.
With Sony, there is no gear upgrade path that will bring a wildlife photographer of standard means towards their intended artistic vision. As a new system, they don’t have a heavily discounted secondhand market for super-telephotos like Canon and Nikon where you can get the right look you’re after at a still high, but manageable price. When you buy a Sony and the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 or 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3, that’s kind of the end of the road for the average folk and not quite the right shallow depth of field, pop off the page look; there’s nothing bigger and better to look forward to unless you win the lottery.
For that, I’m not fully convinced Sony will be a deep player in the wildlife and bird genre in this day and age as they don’t have a history of products that gives an artist the right tools at the right price. In 20 years will this now new $13,000 lens be on the market at a $10,000 discount? Will we even be shooting with E-mount handheld digital cameras then? Either way, that’s 20 years from now, and I want to make awesome bird photographs today. The good news is that I’ve been shooting with a full Canon setup a third of the price of just this lens and would not agree that shooting with the Sony brought me any more or less joy in the art of capturing bird images.
- Taking on and off the lens hood of the 600mm is like heaven compared to my current lens. It fits in so snug and turning the lock knob slides the locking mechanism down so smooth. It’s one of those tactile experiences that makes you sound like a lunatic when written out, but it’s also something I do every single day twice a day, so I appreciate the extra effort in making it nice as possible.
- It bothers me that in 2019 companies are still shipping big lenses with a generic, make-nobody-happy tripod foot. Almost everyone is going to have to add an Arca Swiss-style plate or replace the entire foot in favor of a cleaner looking third-party offering that has the built-in dovetail. Why not make the overwhelming majority of customers happy and those few who require a different plate style do as they’ve always done and get the third-party add-on?
- Another Sony release, another “dust and moisture-resistant” claim. No one really knows what that means, or what it’s ever meant since it’s always the same phrase but different levels of “resistance,” and it should be Sony’s priority to set the record straight on this. I have talked to people who don’t switch to Sony based purely on the ambiguity of their weather resistant claims. We get it, you’re not weatherproof, but Canon and Nikon never claimed that either yet they have an ironclad reputation for handling intense weather conditions. I’m not sure if it’s a PR problem in conveying how rugged they really are or if the engineers just can’t make them truly rugged enough, but something has got to give in this area.
- As Andy Day has already written at in length, the Sony system is generally slower than Canon. In many circumstances, the differences aren’t noticeable enough to matter. Part of this I fully believe was my unfamiliarity with the camera itself; I don’t shoot Sony day in and day out, but I do have them in my hands every few months so I’m not completely caught off guard. However, with a very limited field of view using the 600mm and photographing those fidgety little birds, I find that the difference becomes more prominent and affects the shot output.
The Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS will be available to preorder beginning June 13, 2019 at 11 a.m. ET for a price of $12,998. Lenses will start shipping in August 2019.