Unsung hero: a review of the Sony FE 70-300 G OSS lens for landscape and travel photography
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Over the last few years, the Sony mirrorless line has quickly become the most popular platform for professional and enthusiast photographers looking to adopt a mirrorless system. The Sony A7 line was the first full frame mirrorless offering, and more recently, the 3rd generation of A7 cameras revolutionized autofocus performance for mirrorless cameras, with their refinement of features such as human and animal Eye Autofocus. Until recently, most veteran photographers from the Nikon and Canon full frame camps were hesitant to adopt the Sony system for many reasons, and one of those reasons was the rather nascent lens ecosystem. Specifically, the lack of super-telephoto options for the system. I'm defining super-telephoto as a lens with a minimum reach of 300mm, though I'm uncertain if this is technically what it's defined as. Today, when it comes to super-telephoto zoom options, Sony offers two acclaimed lenses for their FE (full-frame) line. These are the Sony FE 200-600 G OSS lens, and the exceptionally well reviewed Sony FE 100-400 GM OSS lens. However before both of these offerings, Sony offered the lens that we'll be reviewing, the Sony FE 70-300 G OSS. First announced in 2016, the 70-300 G was received with lukewarm reviews. Many reviewers compared this lens to the excellent but older FE 70-200 F/4 lens, which had superior border sharpness, contrast, and smoother backgrounds with its constant aperture. Additionally, the 70-300 G was criticized for its pricing, especially when compared to the much less expensive 70-300 offerings from Nikon and Canon.
Today, the 70-300 G is often the most forgettable of Sony's prosumer line G lenses, and though it is praised as being a versatile lens, its seldom ever recommended. Having now used this lens for about 6 months, I hope to change your mind about this lens, and take you through my experiences with it.
Handling and Build Quality
The build quality of the 70-300 G is the least contentious aspect of the lens. It measures 8.5 x 14.4 cm at 70 mm, and weighs 854 grams. The 70-300 is part of the Sony G lens lineup, which is their prosumer line rather than their professional G-Master line. However like other G lenses, it is built to a very high standard. The lens has a magnesium alloy construction with a hard plastic outer layer. The lens features a dust and moisture - resistant design, and we can see a rubber gasket around the mount. I've used this lens several times in challenging conditions and it has held up quite well. The lens features a large rubber zoom ring thats easy to grip and quite smooth, and a rubber focus ring closer to the rear element. The lens' filter thread measures at 72mm and the hood is plastic but sturdy. The Sony 70-300 G also features a lock switch that can used when the lens is at 70mm, preventing zoom creep when stored or travelling. Coming from the Fujifilm X-mount system, the 70-300 G is my replacement for the formidable Fujifilm XF 55-200, and is in comparison quite hefty. But when considering the full-frame zoom range, build quality and and optical steady shot built in, it's quite compact.
On the other side of the lens we see 3 more switches and a customizable button under the G logo. I have personally set this to the "Super 35 mode" which is essentially the 1.5x crop. The 3 switches are the autofocus/manual focus toggle, a focus limiter which prevents focusing closer than 3 meters (for quicker focusing on distant subjects), and a switch to turn the optical steady shot on and off. The lens is capable of focusing as close as 0.9 meters throughout the zoom range, meaning a possible 1:3 macro magnification at 300 mm. The aperture of the lens starts at f/4.5 at 70 mm, and closes down to f/5.6 at 300 mm .
For my travel and landscape photography, I like to bring only 2 lenses. These are Sony 16-35 GM lens and 70-300 G lens, and my body of choice is A7R iii . I find this combination to be quite versatile, and for the missing focal length between 35 and 70 mm, I can either crop in or stitch a panorama. On the 3rd generation A7 bodies, I find that the 70-300 G handles well, especially when paired with something like a L bracket grip, though when fully extended to 300 mm the setup can be a bit front-heavy. One of the main selling points of this lens for me was the size. At it's shortest position, the 70-300 G is more compact than all of Sony's other offerings within focal range, making it a much more attractive option for travelling (and also packing for travel). You can use this link to see how it compares in size to the 70-200 F/4 and 100-400 GM.
Optical SteadyShot (Lens Stabilization)
The 70-300 G features built in optical image stabilization, which is brand as Sony's optical SteadyShot (OSS). On 2nd generation and newer Sony A7 cameras that feature in body image stabilization (IBIS), the lens and camera stabilizers work in sync with one another to give 5-axis image stabilization. At longer focal lengths I find the stabilization to still be a bit shaky for steady video work, where a tripod would definitely be preferred at focal lengths over 200 mm, but for photography I find this system to be excellent, allowing you to use shutter speeds much slower than you typically would with the reciprocal rule. To test this, I took multiple shots of a test subject, at different focal lengths (70 mm, 135 mm, 200 mm, 300 mm), with different shutter speeds to test the effectiveness of the dual - IBIS/OSS. I started each test shooting just one stop slower than the reciprocal rule, and went as slow as 4 stops for each focal length. For each shutter speed I took 5 shots, standing with the camera and not braced. My test subject was a small wooden model boat, and my focus target was the text "May Flower".
For each test shot there were 3 possible outcomes: sharp, acceptable, and blurry. Below are an example of each and you'll find that the margin between each rating is very small. My reasoning here is that if I'm using a high resolution camera, well having high resolution is somewhat important :) .
To save you time from observing 80 images, I've put together 4 graphs of my findings.
An obvious limitation here is the small sample of test shots for each respective shutter speed, but it should still give you an idea of how effective the stabilization is. What I found interesting is that the shortest focal length seemed to do the worst. In the field, it is definitely possible to use this feature to hand hold shutter speeds you otherwise wouldn't be able to in low-light situations, and example of this is below.
Being a super-telephoto zoom lens ( or what I'm defining as such), a lens/camera combination having solid autofocus performance is sought after feature, especially in situations where one comes across wildlife. The aperture of this lens isn't exactly bright but for outdoors and with the newer Sony bodies its more than adequate. Unlike their newer lenses with the excellent Sonic-Type (SSM) motors, the 70-300 G uses an older linear focus motor. Despite this, I found this lens paired with the A7R iii to be a good combination. I've never used this lens for birding or in a situation with fast-paced targets, but on a recent trip I did use this lens for shooting a sequence of big-horned sheep and a wild goat. Below you can see 1:1 crops of this sequence, with no editing besides exposure adjustments. In retrospect I should have used a higher ISO and faster shutter speed for the big horned sheep (first set). My focus settings used were: Flexible spot medium area, and continuous autofocus (AF-C), with the focus area on the animal's face. For the first set my exposure settings were: 300 mm, F/5.6, 1/320, ISO 100. For the second set my exposure settings were 300 mm, F/5.6, 1/640, ISO 640.
Given that I mostly use this lens for isolating and compressing landscapes, with occasional wildlife, I find the autofocus performance with this camera/lens combo to be very good.
Update (July, 2020): After experimenting with the different AF areas, I found that the "wide" setting actually performed the best for continuous tracking, as it kept up with moving deer in low light ( where the single point AF would struggle in low light).
In other reviews, you would find that this is often the most critiqued area of this lens. I have personally not owned either the FE 70-200 F/4 or the acclaimed FE 100-400, but I find that the 70-300 G is capable of producing some exceptional images, and I often find myself reaching for it often to produce compressed landscape images. The lens is quite sharp in the frame centre throughout the zoom range, with corner quality degrading more as 300mm is approached. I find the sweet spot between corner and centre performance to be around F/8. For a better quantification of this lenses performance using MTF charts, I'd recommend reading the review by Optical Limits. Below you can find some of my favourite images taken using this lens.
Regarding Vignetting and chromatic abrasions, I have never found these to be issues in the images taken with the 70-300 G given that I typically turn on profile corrections in Lightroom and remove chromatic abrasions using software. A feature that I do require of my lenses though is that they need to handle flare well, as I often like to shoot with the sun in the frame. Below on the left you can see an example of the worst flare that I've experienced with this lens. You can see the that the flare artifacts and ghosting aren't too bad, and this is the worst that I've come across. However, in most situations we can alter our angle of shooting or composition to minimize this effect, as we can see with the image on the right, where there is no ghosting and just a small artifact. Update (July, 2020): The last 3 images from the above gallery also showcase how flares could be purposely used in an artistic way with this lens.
We can also use the image on the right to see what kind of sunstars we can capture with this lens (captured at F/20), though these type of telephoto zooms are not often used for sunstars.
The last thing to touch on when it comes to image quality is the out of focus areas. Despite the narrow aperture of the 70-300 G, it is capable of producing some pleasing out of focus areas, especially towards the end of the zoom range. Some areas where it does struggle though are foreground out of focus areas and when there are specular highlights in the background. In these situations, especially at shorter focal lengths, the out of focus areas can be somewhat distracting. Below are examples of 2 images where I found the subjects to be isolated well with smooth out of focus areas.
Value and alternatives in 2020
In 2020 I would still recommend this lens to those looking for a (relatively) compact travel zoom within this focal range. In my opinion its currently the best balance between size, focal range versatility, image quality, and price when looking at native Sony options.
VS Sony FE 70-200 F/4 G OSS: When it comes to size and price, the 70-200 F/4 G is the closest competitor to the 70-300 G, as they are similar in weight and cost about the same. The 70-200 F/4 is an internally zooming lens, meaning when zoomed all the way out, it's shorter than the 70-300 G. However at 70 mm, the 70-300 is more compact meaning easier packing and travelling, and that's a feature that's preferable to me. The 70-300 G also has the extra 100 mm of range, which I find invaluable for travel and landscapes. Advantages of 70-200 F/4 (based on other reviews) are the constant F/4 aperture, better corner resolution and contrast, and smoother out of focus areas.
VS Sony FE 100-400 F/4.5-5.6 GM OSS: When it come to focal range, the 100-400 GM is probably the closest competitor to the 70-300 G. The 100-400 GM seems to be a superior lens when it comes to all aspects of image quality and autofocus performance. Some obvious advantages for the 70-300 G is the 70-100 mm range, more compact and lighter form factor, and most importantly, costing half as much. For myself the 100-400 GM may be the natural progression from the 70-300 G, but I'd have to figure out how much I'd miss 70-100 mm range because I'd still want to have a 2 lens combo for travel, and I'd be holding onto my 16-35. When going through my favourite images taken with the 70-300 G, there aren't too many taken in the 70-100 mm range, but at the same time I can't recall a time where I absolutely needed the 300-400 mm range. It's probably a lens that I would rent first before committing to buying. Edit (November 2020): With the recent recent releases of the Sigma 100-400 for Sony, and Tamron 70-300, I will need to update this section to compare to those lenses.
The Sony 70-300 G is currently a unique option in Sony's lens lineup given the price point and focal range versatility. When compared to DSLR offerings the price tag may seem high to some, but this isn't the case when compared to other native Sony lenses. Overall, it's a reliable lens that I can definitely recommend as a travel option, especially for those that are going to stop the lens down to F/8 or narrower apertures for most situations.