The 70-300mm G SSM sized up

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Today I took delivery of a Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G SSM lens. There is no doubt this is the best built Sony SAL lens I’ve handled (the CZ 135mm 1.8, 85mm f1.4 are a class above again). It weighs over 800g with its lens-hood, which is one of the most efficient deep tele hoods I’ve seen.

You can compare this to under 500g for the Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 LD Di Tele-Macro 1:2, which is also an nominal average of a half a stop faster across most of its working range. Even the classic Minolta 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6 APO (D) weighs just 485g, and that is also a whole order of size smaller with its 55mm filters instead of 62mm.

Here is the line-up of these three lenses seen with their hoods fitted:

You can maybe tell that replacing your beloved 100-300mm with a 70-300mm G SSM is not going to be the simple decision you thought. I was about to sell my 100-300mm but there are many times I would not want to be seen with a lens like the new 70-300mm G. My existing travel and work kit bags will not fit it easily, especially once it’s inside its padded pouch, even with the lens hood reversed:

Now this lens hood and this pouch would cost the buyer of a Canon 70-300mm IS USM £66 ($132) in the UK, as Canon wisely do not supply them with their lens. Moreover, the Canon hood for that lens is nothing like the custom-designed ultra deep tele hood you see here! It has long been a complaint that tele hoods were too short. Not now they ain’t!

The 70-300mm G is interestingly built. The actual optical unit is smaller than the Tamron zoom, which costs one-fifth as much at street prices. Though both take 62mm filters, the Tamron maintains its working apertures for longer up the zoom range, and the front glass totally fills the 62mm diameter. The Sony front glass has a generous bezel round it, and could possibly be fitted into a 55mm threaded mount:

There’s plenty of solid metal round the optical unit, but what’s interesting is the amount of air inside. The inner mount units holding the glass do not crowd it, and effective blackening (with some brass locator pins visible) kills stray light reflections from surfaces well beyond the baffles which define the maximum aperture of each lens group. The lightest surface you can see in the lens is that circular baffle which rapidly disappears down the barrel as the front zooms out.

The zoom action is very solid, not free, and the long single extension has very little play. There is some – I have yet to meet a zoom without it – but you would have to push the front unit firmly to detect it. Stick it out of the window of a Cessna with the hood on and you might regret it, but in normal earthbound hurricane conditions it will probably remain well centered.

The front rim of the lens, behind the extending section, is superbly machined black anodised alloy:

The zoom and focus grips are the usual Sony parallel ribbed rubber, which is very thick and not just a slip-on skin. My lens was not touched before studio photography – it was gripped by its rear cap, placed in its pouch and taken to the studio. Even so, every shot needed dust and marks retouching from the grips. Ten minutes of normal handling and you might as well have owned it for a month.

The focus ring is at the rear, because focusing is internal as well as ultrasonic. The SSM focus motor is totally silent – more so than any recent Canon or Nikon tele I’ve used – and small adjustments are extremely fast. It takes its time to refocus from minimum (1.2 metres) at 300mm, to any other distance. Manual focusing, selectable on the lens with no need to use the camera body switch, is very smooth yet positive and the crispness of the focusing image makes this accurate and easy.

The focus limiter – FULL or infinity to 3 metres – is useful for avoiding what can be a two-second hunt period if the lens should accidentally stray into a totally defocused state. You can not select close range only (1.2-3m) and this would have been a useful third option. Because of the internal focus, there is very little loss of working aperture at closer ranges, but the true focal length is changed. At the 1.2m minimum focus, 300mm is not really 300mm it’s actually under 200mm. This means that the lens reproduces subjects one-quarter life size (0.25X) which is no larger than the old 100-300mm APO at 1.5m.

However, 1.5m as you quickly learn is a substantial distance. That extra one foot closer at 1.2m makes the lens more comfortable to use indoors, especially for portraits, reducing the frequency with which the AF tells you to keep your distance.

Here is what the 70-300mm G SSM looks like mounted on an Alpha 700:

Removing the lens hood will make the lens far less obtrusive in public, but I suspect the shade is provided to back up a class-leading lack of internal reflections (created by the large barrel holding the optical unit well free of surrounding mechanisms). This, and new coatings plus digital design, will be producing what is already becoming a legendary level of micro- and macro-contrast for any tele zoom.

The lens is, interestingly, marked as ‘for DSLRs’:

If you can’t read, it says ‘Lens for DSLR Camera Model No SAL 70300G’. Ebay scammers, please note – the serial number has been ‘shopped’ and so will you be if you nick this image. It appears to work fine on my Dynax 7 which is definitely not a DSLR!

Extend the lens to 300mm, and the size gets serious:

The button on the side can be configured on the A700 and A100, but not on the A200-350 models, to act as a focus hold or depth of field preview as desired. The focus collar offers full time manual focus over-ride on all cameras, even the A200-350 which lack DMF (Direct Manual Focus, settable on the A100 and A700, KM 7D and 5D) as an option. Just turn the ring at any time to adjust fine focus and you can still shoot, and the camera will not try to refocus until you re-assert first pressure on the shutter.

If you use eye-start focusing, or continuous focus, you will never be aware of this lens focusing (in good light). By the time you are viewing the subject, focus will be locked. Your battery mileage may suffer.

When carrying the camera and lens normally, the hood reverses almost to cover the entire barrel:

The front does not rotate, so hood attachment and removal carries none of the annoyance factor present with the 100-300mm APO (D) or the Sony SAL 75-300mm kit lens.

The rear of the lens, the mount, is superbly designed with a rectangular baffle – again evidence of great attention to flare prevention:

The rear group moves forward a considerable distance when zooming, and again the innards are perfectly blacked to prevent stray light. The zoom action does cause an air-pump effect, and rapid zooming should probably be avoided in dusty conditions, to prevent dirt being sucked into the interior of the lens or the camera sensor chamber.

Overall, the lens gives an impression of very solid build without implications of weatherproofing, and the metal front ring is one exposed part out of many metal components. The rear unit feels as it may be casting or a strong polycarbonate moulding. Interior assemblies are mainly metal and the plastics seem to be used as a skin.

But when spending your money – as much again as an Alpha 700 body – you should consider the nature of this lens. It is not a walkabout friendly tele zoom, nor will it endear you to park officials and community police, who will assume you are a terrorist/paedophile/pervert the moment they see the lens hood. It may be black, but they will just think you are being clever and disguising a white lens to go about your illegal photographic activities. Herons, deer, football players and passing military aircraft will consider you a very restrained photographer and hardly even notice it.

Here, again, is the new 70-300mm G SSM beside Minolta’s solution to the same demand, the late 1990s 100-300mm APO (D):

Do I really want to sell that APO (D) and risk almost a kilo of G SSM for travel abroad? Well, if the performance is what I expect it to be, I probably do. I want perfect images. I want perfect 14 megapixel and 12 megapixel tele images. I’ll put it with wear and tear on this beautiful object if I have to!

Here is the combination which I reckon will produce images to put Sony ahead of the world:

Really, it’s not that huge a load to carry for 16mm to 300mm (24mm to 450mm equivalent).

My report on the 70-300mm SSM G lens will appear in the Summer 2008 issue of Photoworld magazine, to be published in July. It will have had a brief spin to Brittany and points south before going to press. To support this website, which is independent of Sony and lost any official ‘support’ when Konica Minolta closed down in 2006, subscribe to Photoworld magazine!

Our website report on the imaging performance of the 70-300mm SSM G will not appear until after Photoworld #3 2008 has been published – our subscribers get the first bite. I will add an interim page confirming (or otherwise) what I believe to be the case from everything I have seen so far, that this lens promises to be the best 70-300mm tele zoom yet made.

My next report will be an article our subscribers read in the Spring edition – ‘Which Kit Lens?’ – examining the 16-80mm, 16-105mm, 18-70mm, 18-200mm and 18-250mm Sony options and how to decide between them.

– David Kilpatrick

One comment

  • The Sony 70-300G lens looks massive !!!

    Is this down to the SSM, since the lens filter is only 62mm – but the body of the lens looks the same size as my CZ85 (which is 72mm thead).

    When you see the photo at the end comparing it to the 100-300mm APO (D), of a similar length (100-300) and speed (both f/4.5-5.6) – the Sony 70-300G looks the size of what you’d expect a constant f/4.5 would look like (so, slightly smaller than a 100-300 f/4)

    Anyone know why the lens is so BIG? Does size really matter?

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