Which Long Lenses for The Sony A7RII?
Ok – let’s get my biases on the table up-front. I’m a huge fan of the Sony A7RII. I’ve been using A7 cameras since they first appeared. I loved the idea of a 35mm full-frame high-resolution camera that actually is smaller and lighter than most APS-C models, and many Micro Four Thirds ones as well.
It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride though, since Sony has taken a while until they hit their stride with this series of cameras. But now, with the A7RII, I believe that they have hit one out of the park. This camera has a 42 Megapixel BIS sensor with 5-axis stabilization, 390 phase detection autofocus points on the sensor covering 60% of the image area, front curtain and also fully electronic shutter, a new 500,000 exposure-rated vibrationless shutter mechanism, and (finally) a user interface that is highly customizable, and if not actually user-friendly. At least it’s not as user hostile as previous models were.
My own tests and practical use have proven to me that this camera gives up almost nothing in terms of image quality to virtually any camera on the market (and yes, I’m including the Nikon D810 and Canon 5Dr). Certainly in the mirrorless segment, while it is priced at the top-end, its performance is, on the whole, unparalleled.
The Dirty Little Secret
Sony has been working diligently to produce as many native FE lenses as they can. Most are pretty excellent, including their Zeiss branded designs and their top drawer G series lenses. Indeed the 35mm f/1.4 Zeiss, 55mm f/1.8 G and 90mm f/2.8 G Macro are among the top-10 lenses ever tested by DxO labs. These are in the company of lenses such as the 50mm and 85mm Zeiss Otus’.
But there’s a dirty little secret in the Sony world. There are no native FE mount lenses longer than 200mm. How Sony could have left this hole in their line-up for so long mystifies me.
With this in mind I’m going to look at long lens options for A7RII owners. Just about any lens ever made in Nikon and Canon mount (not to mention Contax, Pentax, Leica R et al.,) as well as by third party lens makers, can be used on the A7RII. You can also expect the A7RII’s sensor based five-axis stabilisation to provide at least two and sometimes three stops of stabilization regardless of the brand of lens used. All you need is a suitable adaptor.
A Suitable Adaptor
Ahh… there’s the rub. Because of its short rear flange distance just about any DSLR lens ever made can be mounted on the A7RII. (I’m not including the A7II in this report, because it lacks the A7RII’s 390 point phase detection AF, but if it’s of interest to you, then everything else that I write here applies, except for the quality of AF).
To use these lenses on the new Sony camera, you’ll need an adaptor. If you’re going to be using a Sony A mount lens then the adapter that you want is the Sony LA-E3. Unlike the more expensive LA-E4 which features a translucent mirror system with its own phase detection AF, the E3 is all you need, since this then allows the A7RII to use its excellent on-sensor 390 point phase detection system.
If you are using another brand of lens, be aware that there is no certainty that all features (especially autofocus) will work properly, or even at all. One of the most popular adapters for Canon lenses to the A7RII is the Metabones IV. As you will see, I have tried it myself, but can’t report that every lens I’ve tried worked flawlessly with AF. Some did and some didn’t. In fairness to Metabones though, they have not yet issued a firmware upgrade for the IV since the A7RII was introduced. One can hope that they will soon, and that many incompatibilities will get ironed out.
There are other brands of adapters, all less expensive than those from Metabones, but I have no experience with them. Note as well that there is at least one new adapter coming for Nikon mount lenses that features AF, but since, unlike with the Canon EF mount, there are differences in Nikon lenses, including some older screw drive models, this may turn out to be problematic as well.
Lenses Which I Have Tried
The previous generation Canon 100-400mm was, in the days that I was a Canon shooter, the lens that I loved to hate. It was extremely versatile and not too large or heavy. Sadly, it wasn’t critically sharp at the long end, which is where I (and most photographers) usually used it. I also wasn’t enamored of the trombone-style zooming.
But the new Canon 100-400mm is a dream. Gone is the push-pull zoom, and image quality has been upped at least a couple of notches. This, in fact, may be the best zoom reaching to 400mm on the market today.
Thanks to Henry’s in Toronto, I was able to test the new 100-400mm Canon on my A7RII using a Metabones IV adapter. It worked moderately well, but I sensed some inconsistencies in the AF, depending on focal length and distance of the subject.
Image quality, though, was excellent. If it wasn’t for one other lens, mentioned below, I’d have bought the Canon zoom and put up with the inconsistencies – hoping for a firmware upgrade soon from Metabones.
Since this article was first written and published the Metabones IV adapter now has firmware Version 0.44 and later, that works properly with the Sony A7RII.
The Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD in Sony A mount has been in my bag since early 2015. I used it on my most recent Antarctic expedition mounted on a Sony A7II using a Sony LA-E4 adapter and was very pleased indeed with the images that I was able to capture with it. Though it’s a specialized tool, I find myself enjoying using it whenever I can.
But, the lens is frankly too large and heavy for anything except travel by car, or when it needs to be schlepped around the world for a special purpose, such as a wildlife shoot. But, don’t let the low price fool you. This is an amazing lens, not just for the money, but in its own right. Highly recommended, and it works well and reliably on the A7RII using the LA-E3 adapter.
Sigma has a competitive lens, the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM. Regrettably, it is not available in Sony A mount, and while it might work with a Canon EF mount adaptor, as we’ve seen this can a problematic solution due to incompatibilities. Test before you buy, or buy from a merchant that allows returns.
There is a lens that, while not quite matching the Tamron at the long end in terms of reach, is quite a bit smaller and lighter. It’s the Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM II.
This A series lenses was redesigned in 2013, and updated with faster autofocus and new coatings – not to mention no longer being cursed with the nasty silver finish that someone at Sony should have been drawn and quartered for bringing to market on the original version.
Optical quality was always first rate, and now that AF speed is up, and contrast has been increased through the use of nano-particle coatings, the Sony 70-400mm G2 an excellent choice for A7RII users. Though I wasn’t able to test it side-by-side with the new Canon 100-400mm, looking at dozens of files from both cameras I would judge the Canon to be a smidge sharper at the pixel peeping level, but not enough to really matter in real-world imaging.
The Sony 70-400mm has a lot going for it, in addition to top drawer image quality. Build quality is very good, though for reasons unknown the lens isn’t rated as weather resistant. There is a removable rotating tripod foot and the lens is supplied with a plastic lens shade which has a reach-through finger window for rotating polarizer filters. The front element is 77mm and is non-rotating. There is also a focus limiter switch, useful for preventing “focus hunting” when subjects are at a distance.
This lens does not have built-in image stabilisation. The reason is because it was designed for Sony A series cameras which have in-body stabilization. Now, the A7II and A7RII have this as well, and so the Sony 70-400mm is an excellent choice for these cameras.
Of course there a great many other lens choices available, including within the Sony A line. One that I’ve tried is the Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G SSM II.
I used this lens for a few days, but in the end returned it for a refund. Mainly, I just didn’t find that the images had the contrast and sharpness that I wanted. The smaller size and lower weight are appealing, not to mention that it’s almost half the price of lenses in the 70-400mm range. But, I already have the excellent Sony FE 70-200mm f/4, and figured that if I was going to carry one more lens, it should be one that fully gave me the reach that I wanted.
Finally, if you really want to go nuts, there’s the Sony 500mm f/4.0 G. But, at a mere $13,000 it not only is beyond what I want to spend, but also what I want to carry. My article from 2002 titled 500 vs 600 will explain what I mean.
Buying in Canada
I live in Canada, and have seen swings of currency exchange from when the Canadian dollar was worth more than the U.S. dollar, to now when it’s worth a lot less. Indeed at the moment $1 USD buys $1.32 Canadian dollars.
The reason for this, my economist friends tell me, is that financial markets perceive Canada as a resource based economy, and the demand for natural resources is plummeting as China cuts back on demand. In reality the Canadian economy is, to quote Wikipedia ” …dominated by the service industry, which employs about three quarters of Canadians. Canada is unusual among developed countries in the importance of the primary sector, with the logging and oil industries being two of Canada’s most important. Canada also has a sizable manufacturing sector, based in Central Canada, with the automobile industry and aircraft industry being especially important. With a long coastline, Canada has the 8th largest commercial fishing and seafood industry in the world. Canada is one of the global leaders of the entertainment software industry”.
Be that as it may, this means that there is a wonderful arbitrage opportunity at the moment for U.S. buyers to shop in Canada. For example, the Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM II is currently USD $2,098 from B&H Photo. It can be purchased from most Canadian dealers for CDN $2,180. In US dollars that’s $1,645.
If you order from a Canadian dealer and have the lens shipped to a US address you will not have to pay HST, which is Canada’s 14% integrated sales tax. If you come to Canada and buy here in person, you will have to pay it, cutting your savings in half.
To my knowledge there is no tax and duty on cameras and lenses coming from Canada to the U.S., and if you have the retailer ship via postal service (Expedited) you won’t have any brokerage fees, which sometimes companies such as UPS and Fedex levy.
Some brands, such as Sony, have integrated sales operations, as well as service and warranty between Canada and the US. Other makers may not. It is up to you to check on this, as well as to confirm whatever other charges may be involved. I live on this side of the border, and so have no personal experience importing into the U.S.
Finally, check if the Canadian retailer that you decide to use has the item that you’re interested in in stock, or if not, ask how long it will take them to obtain it. Unlike U.S. superstores such as B&H and Adorama, which have huge inventories of even obscure items, because of Canada’s overall smaller market Canadian dealers do not.