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Here's a brief look at the Sony 70-400mm F/4-5.6 G SSM super zoom lens.  Scroll down for the main review.

Lens

Box contents

Front and rear caps, hood, softcase and users manual.

Cost

$1998  retail, updated version II here for more money.

Build quality

Very good

Additional information

Works with Sony Tele-converters.  Also consider the Sony 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6 G SSM for much less money.

Specifications below

 

Optical configuration

18 elements in 12 groups

Angle of view

34°-6.2° full frame, 23°-4.2° APS-C.

Aperture

9 blades, circular

Full frame and APS-C

Yes, full frame and APS-C.   APS-C equivalent, 105-600mm

Depth of field and focus scales?

Distance window.

Minimum focus, image plane to subject

60" (1.5m)  actual use; 53.5"  (1359mm)

Minimum focus, end of lens barrel to subject

40.5"  (1029mm)

Hard stop at infinity focus?

No

Length changes when focusing?

No

Focus ring turns in AF?

No

Filter size

77mm

Filter ring rotates?

No

Distance encoder?

Yes
 

Max magnification

0.27x

Min. F/stop

F/22, 32

Sony teleconverter compatible?

Yes, but manual focus only

Length changes when zooming?

Yes

Dimensions WxL  (my measurements)

3.7" x 7.7"   95mm x 196mm 

Maximum  extended length (my measurements)

11.1"  (282mm)     15.2"  (386mm) with hood!!                                               

Weight bare (my scale)

52.2oz  (1481g) bare.   57.1oz (1618g) with tripod collar, and 61oz  (1731g) with hood, collar and caps.


Requisite product shots.

April2009/400kitz.jpg
Contents of box.
April2009/400bkz.jpg
Backside, and compatible with Sony tele-converters
April2009/400sdcam2z.jpg
Mounted on Sony A700.
April2009/400ftz.jpg
Front element with double light baffles in back
April2009/400detz.jpg
Silver color detail with switches and one of three focus hold buttons
April2009/400compz.jpg
Comparison to the Sony 70-200mm F/2.8 G on left
April2009/400doorzzz.jpg
Underneath showing tripod collar and hood window
April2009/400sdexzx.jpg
Fully extended
April2009/400sdinzx.jpg
Fully drawn in.
2012/70400mtf.jpg
Sony X-ray view and MTF chart

 
 
The Sony A700 and Sony A900 were used for this review.  For full frame results, go to the bottom of the page.  To better understand the review methods and terminology, go here.
 
The (made in Japan) Sony 70-400mm F/4-5.6 super zoom is a professional grade lens (large, heavy and expensive) aimed squarely at people with plenty of cash, and want convenience.  Amateurs may consider selling a couple of lenses they purchased, like the 70-300mm G and 500mm F/8 reflex so they can carry only one lens that will be better than both combined.  Is it possible?  Read on.  
 
This super zoom sports the new SonySilver® paint job, resembling the finish on a $29 DVD player at Walmart.  That should tell you how much I like the new color, and finish, oh well.  I thought Sony may have just copied the old silver that Minolta used in the late 90s, early 2000s on their cheap lenses, but it's not.  The new SonySilver® is brighter and less gold or Champagne looking.  Aside from the new color and slightly rough finish, the lens keeps the standard Sony rubber ribbed grip areas; they're easy to grip when your hands are sweaty, but they also hold dirt and it's hard to clean off.  In the box you get the standard front and rear caps, a nice soft-case, a hood and an owners manual.
 
On the outside, there's a focus distance window along with three focus hold buttons, which can be changed to DOF on select camera bodies.  It also has an AF/MF switch with a focus limiter, ∞-3m in the middle, see picture above.  This lens doesn't have a DMF switch.  Up front, the filter ring is thick, with plenty of threads to chew up if you like to force things on.  I also see two light baffles inside looking through the front.  These are used to control flare and ghosting.  The smaller sibling to this lens (70-300mm G) has only one.  This is one of a few Sony lenses that will work with Sony tele-converters, and they work OK (see full frame section) with this lens, but there is no auto-focus.
 
The EXIF data matches up with the focal length marks, which come at 70mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm, 300mm, and 400mm.   The lens is multi-coated with a mild magenta/green look typical for Sony lenses.  Sony claims the use of two "ED" glass elements in the construction of the lens.   
 
Build quality is very good, and similar to the 70-200mm F/2.8 G.  It looks like it has some ABS around the barrel, and a plastic barrel extension tube.  The area around the tripod collar is metal, as is the collar itself.  The zoom ring is a little stiff in my opinion, but my copy is brand new, so it may free up some in the future.  No worries about zoom creep, which is good, as there is no zoom lock.  The included hood is plastic and flimsy, but does the job.  It sports a velvet like anti-reflective coating on the inside, and a little door underneath so you can open it and adjust your polarizer or grads.  I don't like the somewhat loose fit of the hood, but it doesn't seem to want to fall off during normal use.
 
Auto-focusing is very fast, accurate and silent.  Spot focusing is nearly perfect at all lengths using my A700 or A900!!  Manual focusing takes a little over 1/4 turn from Close-in to infinity, with no back slop.  All the Sony SSM units (so far) have an over-drive manual focusing system, that is, if you turn the focusing ring a certain amount, the distance numbers in the window will turn a lesser amount.  This allows for more precise manual focusing.


Lens flare/ghosting.  Control is very good.  There's a small orange blob that shows up when the sun is in the shot, off center.  It's very small and wouldn't necessarily show up at all--depending on background content and exposure values.  There's the usual veiling glare as you zoom in, but if you use the included hood, or your hand, the problem is easily reduced, but only when the sun is outside of the frame.  Check out the samples below.  This lens has excellent control of ghosting, and is a class leader among zooms!!

Lateral color fringing.  Very good control, and among the best of all the fast mid-zooms I've tested.  I see a small amount in the corners at long focal lengths, see the 400mm  full frame corner crops.  
 
Bokeh.  Good at 70mm or so, then it gets progressively busy as you move out towards 400mm.  See samples below.
 
Color.  Similar to other Sony lenses, maybe slightly blue.  
 
Coma.  None on a full frame or APS-C camera.
 
Close-up filter.  N/A.  
 
Filter size is 77mm. This size is becoming more popular every year for Sony.  They also use it on the CZ 16-35mm F/2.8, CZ 24-70mm F/2.8, 70-200mm F/2.8 G, CZ 135mm F/1.8, and the DT 11-18mm F/4.5-5.6.
 
Normal filters cause no additional vignetting on APS-C or full frame cameras. 
 
Sony tele-converters work just OK, and there is no AF. 
 
Distortion.  See below.  Mild pincushion at all focal lengths, except towards the end of the zoom on full frame which shows moderate pincushion.  Overall, very good control.
 
Distortion examples 
 

April2009/70400dis.jpg
70mm, mild pincushion distortion.
April2009/70400dis2.jpg
Mild pincushion at 400mm.

  
Aperture/focal length guide below.

  
Sony 70-400mm G SSM F/4-5.6

Maximum aperture

          F/4

       F/4.5

        F/5

        F/5.6

Range

70mm - 90mm

90mm - 140mm

150mm - 210mm

230mm - 400mm


Sony 70-300mm G SSM F/4.5-5.6

Maximum aperture

          F/4.5

       F/5

        F/5.6

Range

70mm - 85mm

90mm - 130mm

135mm - 300mm

 

The overlapping numbers are normal, and depend on tiny rotational movements of the zoom ring.  The 70-400mm drops to F/5.6 at 230mm, where as the 70-300mm changes to F/5.6 at 135mm.

 

Random samples

 

Small orange blob, 70mm F/5.6

Glare at 400mm F/5.6, sun out of image

April2009/400mmght1.jpg
April2009/400mmght2.jpg

Bokeh,  70mm F/4

Bokeh,  70mm F/5.6

April2009/70400mmf2ffbokw40.jpg
April2009/70400mmf2ffbokw56.jpg

Bokeh,  400mm F/5.6

Bokeh,  400mm F/8

April2009/400bokfff56b.jpg

April2009/400bokfff8b.jpg

 
Full resized images with samples of flare/ghosting above.  Excellent ghosting control at all focal lengths.   I see a very small orange blob whenever the sun is in the image and off-center, usually at the short end, below 100mm.  When centered, there's no problem.  Zooming in shows a normal amount of veiling glare, the hood helps, but you'll still need to use your hand to block any bright lights (especially the sun) from hitting the front element.   Also, don't lose the hood that came with this lens, as it will set you back $100 for a new one--Sony rip-off!!  In a nut-shell, this lens has about the best control of any Sony zoom when shooting with the sun close to, or inside the image. 
 
Bokeh examples above, look pretty good at 70mm, but as you zoom out, things can get a bit busy.  I originally thought the smaller sibling (70-300mm G) had a better zoomed out bokeh, but upon further examination, found both had different bokeh characteristics, but neither one being "better" than the other.   Also like its smaller sibling, bokeh can look busy when highlights are just barely out of focus, but with a little more distance or blur, it quickly becomes very pleasing, which is true for most telephotos, as it's easy to pick a different background.

 
Light fall-off.

Light fall-off or corner shading is non-existent on a cropped sensor camera, but see full frame results at the bottom of the page.    

           70mm F/4

             400mm F/5.6

April2009/70400vigw.jpg
April2009/70400vigtel.jpg


Center and corner sharpness.

Below are crops from the
400mm image centers on the left, and the corners on the right.

           400mm F/5.6 center

              400mm F/5.6 corner

April2009/400mmctrf5.6tel.jpg

April2009/400mmcnf5.6tel.jpg

           400mm F/8 center

              400mm F/8 corner

April2009/400mmctrf8tel.jpg

April2009/400mmcnf8tel.jpg

 
The 400mm center crops show improvement by stopping down to F/8, where they look very sharp, F/11 looks the same, (not shown) so no need to stop down further for sharp shots.  The corners (on right) show a little contrast loss wide open, but look fine one stop down, and are the same at two stops down, not shown.   All crops were taken at infinity focus, at about 250 meters/yards.
 
Below, look at the 70mm centers on the left, and corners on the right.
 

           70mm F/4 center

              70mm F/4 corner

April2009/400mmctrf4w.jpg

April2009/400mmcnf4w.jpg

           70mm F/5.6 center

              70mm F/5.6 corner

April2009/400mmctrf5.6w.jpg

April2009/400mmcnf5.6w.jpg


On to the 70mm centers, where the results are pretty much the same as the 400mm shots, pretty sharp wide open at F/4, then maybe a hair sharper one stop down, but only visible blown way up on a computer screen.  I see a tiny bit of contrast loss at the corners wide open, but again, one stop down and things look better.  Remember, you're looking at 100% cropped portions of the original images, at normal viewing sizes, there is no noticeable image softness at any aperture or focal length.   
 
Let's check out the macro capabilities of this lens.

Below, check out the sample and click (412kb) for a 100% cropped portion of the full image.  The sample shot was taken with the Sony A 700 12.2MP camera.  The subject is a standard US stamp, 1"x 3/4" or 25.4mm x 19mm.  Also, note the macro shot was taken as close to the subject as focusing allowed; in this case a rather long 40.5" (1029mm), measured from the front of the lens barrel to the subject. 
 
 

April2009/70400mac972.jpg
As close as you can get, F/5.6.

 
The Sony 70-400mm G SSM has a rather large reproduction ratio of 0.27x, and turned in a great close focus shot, taken at F/5.6, it doesn't get any sharper by stopping down when focused this close. 
 
 
 

Full frame results using the Sony A900 below.

 

Check out the differences when using a film or full frame camera below.  I'm only pointing out the noticeable issues as compared to the APS-C bodies, so if I don't show it here, the results are not significantly different enough to warrant posting an additional set of images in this section.

 

Light fall-off 

 

         70mm F/4

          70mm F/5.6

April2009/70400vigwf4.jpg

April2009/70400vigwf56.jpg

         400mm F/5.6

          400mm F/8

April2009/70400vigtelf56.jpg
April2009/70400vigtelf8.jpg

 

Light fall-off is moderate at 70mm, F/4, but it isn't all that noticeable in real shots, see image below.  One stop down and everything looks good.  No real problems at 400mm F/5.6.   

 

Full image from A900 below.

 

April2009/400mmvigwf4.jpg

 

Here's a 70mm F/4 shot highlighting the worst of the light fall-off.  It's hardly noticeable even against a uniform blue sky.  The picture almost looks like an oil painting, why is that? 

 

70mm corner samples next.

 

         F/4

          F/5.6

April2009/400mmffwcnf4.jpg

April2009/400mmffwcf56.jpg

         F/8

          F/4 from center

April2009/400mmffwcf8.jpg
April2009/400mmffwcnctrf4.jpg

 

The 70mm corners show very gradual improvement up to F/8.  I threw in a center crop for comparison.  Obviously there isn't as much contrast in the corners, but the results here are still good for full frame, and wouldn't be noticeable unless greatly enlarged, like I'm doing here.  These crops were taken from the extreme corners, exposure differences are from light fall-off.  

 

400mm corners below.

 

         F/5.6

          F/8

April2009/400mmfff56cn.jpg

April2009/400mmfff80cn.jpg

 

The 400mm corners sharpen up a little as you stop down, but not much, and there isn't much difference between the sharpness changes above, and the APS-C shots.  The corners aren't as sharp as the centers, but they still hold up well, and don't forget you're looking at 100% crops of the full image, at normal enlargements or viewing sizes, you'd never see any difference.  You can see the lateral color fringing in the crops above, this type is seen along the edges of the image, and doesn't go away by stopping down the aperture.

 

Distortion next.

 

April2009/70400mmf2disffw.jpg
Pincushion distortion @ 70mm on A900
April2009/70400mmf2disfftel.jpg
Pincushion distortion @ 400mm on A900

 

There is very mild pincushion distortion at the short end, and moderate pincushion as you reach 400mm on the A900.  At full zoom, the distortion looks to be about the same as the Sony 70-300mm G, but less around 70mm.  I'd say this lens does a real good job at controlling distortion.

_________________________________________________________________

 

 

Bonus section with comparisons to other Sony lenses!

 

First, a look at the area covered by 400mm, then 300mm.

 

Sony 70-400mm, @400mm F/5.6

Sony 70-400mm, @300mm F/5.6

April2009/400mm651cmp.jpg

April2009/400300cmp654.jpg

Sony 70-400mm, @400mm F/5.6

Sony 70-400mm, @300mm F/5.6 upsized to match 400mm image

April2009/400mm651cmp.jpg

April2009/400300cmp654a.jpg

 

Here we see what the difference is between 400mm, and 300mm.  The top row shows 100% crops from the business card taken from 50' (15m) away.  The second row shows the sharpness difference if you greatly enlarged your shot, say for instance, using your 70-300mm G at 300mm, as opposed to using the extra 100mm length with the 70-400mm.  The texture of bird feathers will really show this difference when you're up close.  If you don't enlarge your images, or look at them blown way up on a computer screen, the differences you see above wouldn't be noticeable.  Both left side images are the same.

 

Sony 70-400mm G, @300mm F/8 using A900

Sony 70-300mm G, @ 300mm, F/8 using A900

April2009/400notc300f8663.jpg

April2009/70300at300f8668.jpg

Sony 70-400mm G, @300mm F/5.6 using A700

Sony 70-300mm G, @ 300mm, F/5.6 using A700

April2009/400at267.jpg

April2009/70300at262.jpg

Sony 70-400mm, @400mm,  upsized to match 500mm reflex

Sony 500mm F/8 reflex

April2009/651400up500.jpg
April2009/500mmf8.jpg

 

The subject above, and below, is a standard sized business card, taken at a distance of about 50' or  15 meters. 

 

The top row shows the difference between the Sony 70-400mm G lens, and the Sony 70-300mm G, taken at 300mm, F/8 with the A900. 

 

You'll notice the sharper shots in the middle row when using an APS-C camera, (A700 here) due to the crop factor and pixel density. 

 

The last row shows a big difference when comparing the 70-400mm G with the 500mm F/8 reflex lens.  The huge difference is not as apparent with real subjects at long distances through atmosphere, but the contrast on the 500mm reflex is obviously lower when compared to the 70-400mm @400mm, see larger real-life crops farther down the page. 

 

Sony tele-converter results and recommendations.

 

 

No TC, upsampled to match 1.4X.

Using the 1.4X TC

April2009/400mm651aa.jpg

April2009/400mm647aa.jpg

using 1.4x TC, upsampled to match 2.0X.

Using the 2.0X TC

April2009/40014tc647ups.jpg
April2009/40020tc640.jpg

 

The Sony tele-converters seem to provide only a slightly sharper image when compared to an upsized shot with no tele-converter used.  I do this so the image sizes match up and are easier to directly compare.  The difference using the 1.4x is noticeable, but only upon very close inspection, and the same for the 2.0x.  The differences you see here will not be noticeable unless you look at 100% crops, or print huge enlargements.  All images above were taken at 400mm, using the A900.

 

Please note; the Sony tele-converters are not compatible with auto-focusing on this lens, so you'll be focusing manually, no easy task, especially without the "type M" screen in your camera.   You'll also be getting F/8 with a 1.4x, and F/11 using the 2.0x at 400mm.  EXIF data shows the tele-converter used, and the corresponding focal length.  Don't use the tele-converters much below 400mm, it makes no sense.  

 

Comparison of the Sony 70-400mm G, and the Sony 500mm F/8 reflex below.

 

April2009/699a500cmp.jpg
Sony 500mm F/8 reflex

April2009/707400cmp.jpg
Sony 70-400mm G @400mm, unpsized to match 500mm reach

 

Th two 100% crops show the difference between sharpness of the two lenses, even though the 70-400mm G lacks the reach of the 500mm reflex lens.   The 70-400mm G image was upsized to match the 500mm reflex lens image.  The 70-400mm shows more contrast, (check the rock out at lower right) even upsized, which shows either this lens is really good, or the 500mm reflex isn't so good, or a combination of both.  If I used a 1.4x tele-converter, the 70-400mm would be slightly sharper yet.  People who own the 500mm reflex and purchase the 70-400mm should consider getting rid of their 500mm reflex in my opinion.  The A900 was used in the crops above.  Heat shimmer was present, and the crops above are indicative of the average shot.

 

 
 
Conclusion. 
 

I initially thought the Sony 70-400mm F/4-5.6 G SSM would be about the same optically as the smaller, and much less expensive Sony 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6 G SSM, but with a little more reach.  My initial thoughts were wrong; I can say now this lens is a little better all the way around, and performs very well at 400mm, even giving a sharper image than the longer Sony 500mm F/8 reflex.  

 

The build quality is very good, though there are some plastics used, (I'm sure it helps keep the weight down).  Focusing accuracy is spot-on with my cameras, I think this is an exception, or not?  sharpness wide open is very good, with best results coming only one stop down.  Color fringing and light fall-off are not noticeable unless you're looking for it.

 

The only real negative I can think of is quite often the long end bokeh looks harsh.  I fired off a lot of shots, in a lot of different situations.  Sometimes background blur looked harsh, sometimes it looked very smooth, it depends mostly on focus and distance, and not much by aperture.  I like a smooth bokeh, but I wouldn't let a harsh bokeh stand in the way of owning this lens.  One other thought, and not really a negative; this is no walk-around lens, it's slightly bigger and heavier than the Sony 70-200mm F/2.8 G lens, something you might want to consider if you like to pack light.

 

Bird shooters will want to eBay their 500mm reflex and 70-300mm G SSM lenses and buy this one, it's that good.  Be warned though; tele-converter use without a tripod is foolish, and the extra detail is marginal as I show above.  Hand jitter at 800mm is crazy, so don't expect the steady shot system to compensate for it.  Manual focusing is a pot-luck affair at 400mm hand-held, much less at 560mm or 800mm full frame, APS-C cameras equal 600mm at full zoom, 840mm with a 1.4x, and 1200mm with the 2.0x.  I had a hard time getting the best focus on a tripod---and bracket focusing.  In a nut-shell, tele-converter use is probably not a good idea with this lens, considering the loss of auto-focus, and light gathering power.  

 

The highly recommended Sony 70-400mm F/4-5.6 is an all-around winner and worthy of the fairly hefty price tag.  If you have the cash, get this lens!