The G series lens has been justifiably revered amongst users of the original Minolta Dynax (Maxxum) SLR camera system. The G series lens was there to provide the very pinnacle of optical performance for the demanding professional (with a price to match). Not only was the highest quality optics employed but the lens body would be constructed from high quality materials to provide the best build quality and user experience.
Things have changed under Sony. The G series is no longer the sole high end optics for the Alpha mount but shares it with the Carl Zeiss series of lenses.
The 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G SSM lens is the first G series lens produced by Sony and helps to plug an obvious gap in the lens line up for the serious photographer. The lens is designed for use on a camera with a full frame sensor with means it is a lens that will be happily used on the A900 but can also be used on the APS-C based cameras such as the A700 and A350. The benefit of using this lens on the cameras with the smaller sensors is that the effective focal range becomes 105-450mm.
The packaging that contains the lens gives a fault impression of the size of the contents in side. The box is large, much larger than you would reasonably expect it would be for a lens of this type. Opening the box and all becomes clear. Rather than reversing the lens hood and packing it with the lens, the lens hood is packed into a separate compartment with the pack. The lens hood is rather large. The main body of the lens is similar in size to that provided by Nikon (Nikkor 70-300mm VR) but the lens hood is substantially larger.
The design of the lens is in keeping with other Sony lenses. The lens body is solidly constructed but from what seems to be different materials from that used on older G lens designs such as the 85mm f/1.4 G and the 70-200mm G lenses. Never the less the construction is in keeping with the G designation. The grips for the manual focus and focal length are of a substantial size to ensure for easy handling. As with many of the modern lenses the manual focus ring is closest to the camera body. Down the left hand side of the lens (with the front of the lens facing away from you) there is a focus limiter switch to define the focusing range and cater for manual focusing.
Further down there is a focus hold button which is nicely positioned so that it falls under your thumb on your left hand. The button is programmable via the attached cameras custom functions. Used on the A700 the button can be programmed to hold focus (default) or activate depth of field preview.
There is no image stabilisation built into the lens body. As with all Sony lenses (and prior Konica Minolta) the image stabilisation is provided by the systems build into the Sony camera bodies. This method does not always make the lens cheaper or smaller than similar lenses with built-in stabilisation but it does mean that any compatible lens attached to an Alpha camera body will automatically benefit from the cameras image stabilisation feature. As always when needs be the tripod can always be resorted to.
The SSM technology originally introduced by Minolta on a few of it's G series telephoto lenses is featured here and it seems to of been upgraded. The version on the 70-200mm f/2.8 SSM G saw smooth and reliable at focusing but did not quite have the speed of it counterparts from over brands. The version in the 70-300 G rectifies this. It not only maintains the focusing accuracy of the previous incarnation but but adds greater speed. Focusing as a result feels very responsive.
There is no escaping the fact that the 70-300mm SSM G lens is a lens that will get you noticed whether you want to be or not. It is not that the lens is bigger than comparable lens (see photos) but the large lens hood when attached just seems to attract attention. Despite this the lens hood was used at all times to ensure the best optical performance was derived from the lens. It seem to do its job well as flare was never an issue.
The aperture value increases as the lens focal length increases in the following manner:
- 70mm (mm) : f/4.5
- 90mm (mm) : f/5
- 135mm (mm) : f/5.6
It can be seen that the onset of the slowest aperture of f/5.6 comes a little early in the zoom range.
Contrast was as expected for a G series lens, very high. No scientific tests were conducted but it was obvious to see that images were rendered with extra depth and colours had more life. It is not the kind of look you can easily replicate in image post processing.
Flare was well controlled. Shooting under bright sunny conditions did not impose any kind of restrictions. No doubt the large lens hood is a factor here but even shooting with a light source in the frame did not cause issues.
Chromatic Aberration did not appear to be an issue at any focal length. This is good as Sony Alpha cameras do not have CA correction built into their image processing. Should any CA be found it is likely to be minimal and easily removed in image post processing. It is worth noting that the software provided with Sony Alpha DSLRs does not provide for CA removal.
Shooting with the 70-300mm G SSM lens on the 12mp A700 or the 14mp A350 gave acceptably sharp results at the widest apertures across its zoom range. Stopping down the aperture a bit is improves sharpness but this is of greater concern towards the 300mm end of the zoom range. This is not unexpected as it is usually the case with such telephoto zoom lenses that the highest sharpness is achieved at the shorter focal lengths.
This is a lens that was confidently used for taking photos of wildlife as well as scenics. Focus accuracy was very high but it was dependant on the camera body used. Used on the A700 the lens had no problem keeping track of fast moving vehicles and autofocusing consistency was high. Using the A350 still revealed great results. Focusing was still quick but there was a slight drop in focusing consistency which is no doubt due to the simpler AF system employed. For many users of the A350 and the 70-300mm G SSM lens there is little to be concerned about as it is just under the more demanding situations that the better AF system of the A700 ensures you get the best out of the lens. The 70-300mm G SSM has a fair weight to it and on the A350 it felt better to have the vertical grip attached on the body for better balance.
The focus limiter was employed most of the time especially when photographing wildlife. By limiting the focus between 3 metres and infinity the effective focus time is shortened as time is not wasted with the lens cycling through close range subjects before acquiring sharp focus on the subject. Although the focus limiter switch can be set to manual focus in practice the lens can be manually focused without resorting to changing the focus mode.
Manual focus was smooth with sufficient damping to make the action feel positive. For best results when manually focusing it is better to change the standard focus screen (if permitted by your DSLR) to one design to make determining if your subject is sharp more obvious (or at the very least show if focusing it a little out). There is always the cameras focus aid light which can be used for added guidance.
The 70-300mm G SSM lens turned out to get a great all round lens. There were no significant defects to mention and the operation and performance in the field was smooth and inspired confidence. The only missing item from the lens is weatherproofing. No doubt all lenses have to have a certain degree of environmental protection but without the lens being certified as weatherproofed it would not be wise to expose the lens to harsh conditions.
This is a lens that inspires confidence and as such is sure to find a lot of time in the camera bag rather than in the cupboard at home.