Sony FE 400mm F2.8 Test | Preview with Sample Pictures

by alessandro_carpentiero

Sony FE 400mm F2.8 Test | Preview with Sample Pictures

Back in 2013, Sony started a big revolution in the photography market introducing the first autofocus full-frame mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera, the Sony α7.
In the following 5 years, thanks to a great effort in Research and Development, it released other 8 cameras and 30 lenses; a truly impressive effort with the aim of creating a complete ecosystem for professionals.
Still, there was something big missing. In fact, the lack of a bright 400mm lens was keeping sport & wildlife photographers from jumping from Canon/Nikon to Sony.
Finally, the Sony FE 400mm F2.8 GM OSS has been announced earlier this summer, and I have had the chance to test it at Photokina 2018, in Cologne (Germany).
Let’s see how it performed!

Weight & Dimensions

Lenses of this kind have always been famous for their considerable weight. In fact, they are normally so heavy that there’s little to no chance of using them without a tripod/monopod.
Here’s where Sony engineers really did some magic, creating the world’s lightest 400mm f/2.8!
The Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 weighs 2,89 kg (6.37 lbs), which is considerably lighter than the Canon/Nikon counterparts.
Just to give you a term of comparison, the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM weighs 3,85 kg (8.49 lbs), which is 1/3 more than the Sony.*
* [It should be mentioned that Canon has announced a few weeks ago the third version of its 400mm, which will have weight characteristics similar to Sony’s 400mm.  However, it will not be available for purchase before December 2018.]

The engineering revolution not only reduced the overall weight of it but it also greatly changed its weight distribution: most of the lens elements have been moved closer to the camera body, shifting the center of gravity of the whole setup closer to the user’s hands, which increases handling and usability.

You can play with the sliders below to see how different are Sony’s vs. older Canon’s 400mm f/2.8 schematics:

From a dimension standpoint, it is obviously a very big lens, measuring 35,9 cm x 15,8 cm (14 1/4″ x 6 1/4″).

Build Quality

The Sony FE 400mm F2.8 GM OSS has an outstanding build quality, which is a must for a lens that has to be extremely reliable in every kind of scenario.
Magnesium alloy has been used as the main material, while the lens hood is made of carbon fiber.
Something interesting to note is that the number of mount attachment screws has been increased to 8 (a standard lens usually has 3-4), to ensure maximum rigidity and durability.
The lens is also dust and moisture resistant, a must-have feature for sport & wildlife photographers, and its front element is coated with fluorine to resist dirt and fingerprints.

Features

This is hands down the lens with the highest number of features (and the most expensive) that I’ve ever used.
Let’s see why.

Switches, Switches, and Buttons

Seriously, it has so many switches and buttons.
They may seem overwhelming at first, but they effectively provide easy access to all the settings you might need change whilst shooting in action. Here’s a brief overview:

  • Focus mode switch: quickly switch from AF to MF.
  • Full-time DMF switch: when activated, it makes it possible to manual focus as soon as you move the focus ring, even if the camera is set to AF.
  • Focus-range limiter: if you’re 100% sure your subject will be within a certain distance, you can limit the focus range to focus faster.
  • Function Ring select switch: it assigns functions to the Function Ring (see the following paragraph). When set to “PRESET” it stores/recalls subject distances saved, while when on “FUNCTION” Power Focus is activated (focus shifts smoothly at a speed determined by the amount of function ring rotation).
  • SET button: when pressed, it stores the subject distance (the function ring must be set to “PRESET” to engage).
  • Steady Shot switch: activates or deactivates the optical image stabilization.
  • Stabilization mode switch: quickly switch between 3 different stabilization modes (1 fully stabilized, 2 for panning, 3 for fast moving subjects).
  • Beep switch: activates or deactivate the beep emitted every time the subject distance is stored (see SET button above).

Moving to the lens barrel, we find 4 customizable focus hold buttons. They all control the same function (which can be customized via camera menu) and have been positioned in four different locations for easy access.

Function & Focus Rings

Just below the 4 customizable buttons, we find two rings:

  • Function ring: it’s the smallest of the two rings, and it can either switch between the memorized focus points, or shift the focus smoothly, depending on how the Function Ring Switch is set.
  • Focusing ring: it has generous dimensions for great grip and it features Linear Response MF (LR FM), which is a responsive manual focus control that let the focus change linearly depending on how you rotate the ring.

Tripod Mount

Even if it’s the lightest 400mm f/2.8 lens in the world, chances are that you’re mostly going to use it mounted on a tripod or a monopod, especially for long days of shooting.
It’s built out of magnesium alloy to ensure high-durability, and it can be rotated to quickly switch between horizontal and vertical camera orientations.

Drop-in Filter Slot

Using regular screw-on filters on this lens can be pretty uncomfortable as the diameter of the lens is enormous. Gladly, it comes with a drop-in filter slot that accepts 40,5mm filters. [Image courtesy of Sony].  

Minimum Focus Distance

The minimum focus distance is of 2,7 m (8.86 ft), a standard for this kind of lens.

The Test

As I’ve previously stated, I’ve had the chance to try this long-awaited lens at Photokina 2018.
Please keep it in mind that it’s not a complete in-depth test, as I could use the lens just at the Sony booth. Still, I can share with you my first-hand experience with it, and especially sample pictures that I’ve taken with it.
The camera used for this test is the one for which this lens has been designed for, which is the fastest in the Alpha line-up, the Sony α9.

Sample Images

Such a lens must be tested with moving subjects, and gladly Sony had some action at the booth with two guys performing with a traditional Japanese skill toy called Kendama.

400mm | f/2.8 | 1/1000″ | ISO 1600

400mm | f/2.8 | 1/1000″ | ISO 1600

400mm | f/2.8 | 1/1000″ | ISO 1600

I have taken the shots above using the Eye Tracking Autofocus of the α9, and it was incredibly fast and accurate.
As the artists weren’t always facing the camera, I have then switched to AF-C with M Flexible Spot, and again, the results were awesome:

400mm | f/2.8 | 1/640″ | ISO 1000


400mm | f/2.8 | 1/640″ | ISO 1000

P.S. If you want to challenge yourself with this game, you can get it for a few bucks here on Amazon.

It’s a Perfect Match with the α9

Using this lens on the Sony α9 is a real pleasure, as the incredible speed of this camera is exactly what’s needed to make the best out of a 400mm lens.

In fact, the Alpha 9 makes it possible to place your focus point wherever on the sensor, and the tracking capabilities are truly stunning.
Using the electronic shutter, for example, you can shoot 12 fps of uncompressed RAW (or 20 fps of compressed RAW or JPG).

Just to give you an idea of how fast this combination is, take a look at this GIF I’ve created with 32 pictures shot at 12 fps!

Analysis

Let’s dive a bit deeper and analyze the results of the shots I’ve taken.

Sharpness

Sharpness is one of, if not the, most important aspect of a lens of this kind.
After all, the vast majority of the images produced by it are meant to go on huge news websites, magazines, newspapers, and much more.

I shot only at f/2.8, and I can assure you it’s really sharp. You can judge by yourself by taking a look at the 100% crops!

[Important note]: the crops you will find below are taken straight from the RAW files with absolutely no adjustment applied. When importing the images in Lightroom a standard sharpening is applied by default, but I have deactivated it in order to give you the truest results.
400mm | f/2.8 | 1/1000″ | ISO 1600400mm | f/2.8 | 1/1000″ | ISO 1600400mm | f/2.8 | 1/1000″ | ISO 1600

Autofocus

The autofocus is incredibly fast, and the tracking capabilities of the α9 do real wonders.
I can’t draw a more detailed conclusion, as I would have had to use the lens extensively for it, but from my quick test, I can definitely say that the autofocus performances are truly excellent.

Distortions

Let’s now focus, pun intended, on analyzing the distortions of the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM. Being built with the highest quality standards, distortions will be very much contained.

Radial Distortion

The lens has a slight pincushion distortion, which is easily fixed with the distortion correction applied in Lightroom as you can see below:

Chromatic Aberration

When shooting with this lens, you will very often use it wide-open in order to achieve the desired shutter speed and for separating your subject.
At the same time, shooting at the brightest aperture is usually pretty challenging for lenses.
In this case, though, I haven’t noticed any chromatic aberration, thanks to the use of three fluorite elements.

Vignetting

An aperture of f/2.8 is, of course, the most challenging to handle for the lens; here the vignetting is noticeable, but well handled. The light falloff is a bit under 1/2 EV.

Lens Profile Correction

The Lens Profile for the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 has been introduced starting from Lightroom 7.5; applying the Lens Profil Correction effectively removes the vignetting and the pincushion distortion in just a click.

Price & Availability

Do all good things have a price?

Not all of them, but this lens definitely does and it’s an important one as it retails for $11,999.99 (or 12.000 € if you live in Europe, which is about $1,700 more).

The lens is available at the moment by reservation only; you can do so here on B&H or on Amazon.

Conclusions

Many photographers switched to Sony in recent years (Sony is now #1 in Full-Frame Cameras in the US), but a portion of professionals, even if impressed by the cameras, couldn’t really move to this system due to the lack of a bright 400mm lens.
Now things have changed, as the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS sets a new standard in the industry with an innovative design, lightest 400mm f/2.8 ever produced, and outstanding AF & sharpness performances just to name a few.
It’s clearly not a lens for everyone, but if you really need it for your professional work, it’s absolutely worth it.

2020 Olympic Games are approaching fast and as you know, they are going to take place in Tokyo, which happens to be where Sony’s headquarters are.
Events of this kind hold an incredible mediatic power, and something tells me that we are going to see quite a lot of Sony cameras there, especially if a 600mm f/4 will be released before 2020.

But that’s another story.

 

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2 comments

Ziggy 14 December 2019 - 07:41

Thanks for this.
Re vignetting, the A9 also has a shading setting.

Reply
alessandro_carpentiero 16 December 2019 - 12:03

Anytime man, glad you’ve found this helpful!
And thanks for the tip, I didn’t know about it 🙂 Honestly, it was the 1st time I was using the A9, so sorry if I missed that.
Have a great Holiday Season!

Reply

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