SAVE OR SPLURGE

70-300mm lens

IS IT WORTH SHELLING OUT FOR THE PREMIUM VERSION OR NOT?

Although their zoom ranges and aperture specifications are virtually the same, these are two very different lenses that are separated by both price and performance. The 75-300mm version looks a little old-fashioned whereas the 70-300mm is more streamlined and homogeneous. But there are many more important things to consider. In fact almost everything is different both on the skin and under the surface, as these tests reveal..

SONY 70-300MM F/4.5-5.6 G SSM

BETTER SPECIFIED THAN ITS SIBLING BUT MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE

This lens is a stablemate for Sony s entry-level 75-300mm zoom (reviewed on the facing page). It offers a shade more zoom range (70-300mm) and benefits from both an SSM AF drive and ED glass. It is also a!most exactly four times the price of its lesser sibling.

Given that both lenses share the same maximum aperture (f/4.5-5.6) it is surprising how much bigger and heavier the more costly lens is. The barrel is uniformly cylindrical along its length with a broad zoom collar at the front and a narrower focusing collar mid-barrel, behind which sits a focused-distance window.

There is a focus lock button on the left of the lens between the two collars and a focus-mode slider at the rear. The slider offers a choice of MF or AF across the full distance range or restricted from infinity down to 3m. Closest focusing is 1.2m, so this lens has the same maximum magnification as its sibling even though the latter is described as  macro  but the former is not!

70-300mm lens

The SuperSonic Motor AF drive is quick, reliable and almost silent: there is no movement of the manual-focusing collar in AF mode but manual adjustments can be applied at any time. Unfortunately, the same design that puts the MF collar at finger-touch distance also means the zoom ring is just slightly too far forward to use comfortably without changing grip slightly.

Sony says the use of ED glass provides sharp edge-to-edge image rendering and also reduces chromatic aberration. In practice, although the lens exhibited some chromatic aberration on test-target images, particularly at the ends of the zoom range, there were no significant problems in real-world pictures. Similarly, the lower MTF figures for 70mm (see technical graph, right) were out of step with the other focal lengths but there was no demonstrable weakness in real-life images taken at this setting.

Excluding 70mm, the MTF curves are very consistent but exceed the important 0.25 cycles per pixel threshold only at f/8 to f/11. That said, MTF graphs always have to be read with caution as different subjects suit different levels of sharpness. Also, the results are dependent on the host body as well as the lens so may vary slightly with different cameras (sensors).

Overall, Sony s 70-300mm lens is clearly better than the 75-300mm in its AF drive and overall image quality. It feels better built too and comes with a protective carrying pouch as well as a petal-type lens hood. But it is also larger, more massive and much more dear.

Shooting the same scene side-by-side on both lenses invariably resulted in better images being recorded by the 70-300mm lens but sometimes it was necessary to look very closely to see the differences. Nevertheless, if image quality rather than simple pulling power is important then Sony s 70-300mm is definitely the one to choose.

SONY 75-300MM F/4.5-5.6 MACRO

 zoom range

ENTRY-LEVEL ZOOM AT AN AFFORDABLE PRICE

ot many Sony lenses are priced below ?500 but this one costs less than ha!f that. For that modest outlay you not only get a useful 4x zoom range and full-frame coverage but also a Macro label.

The lens barrel is surprisingly narrow: not only does this mean the lens is more compact than would otherwise be the case but also it makes handling very comfortable thanks to the way the lens nestles in the palm of the hand. The middle of the barrel is dominated by a wide and tactile zoom ring. There is a narrow manual-focus ring at the very front but no other buttons, or controls on the lens: switching between AF and MF modes has to be carried out using the selector button on the camera body.

Manual focusing is awkward due to the forward location of the MF collar but the friction is just right and the wide throw (about 135°) gives a good level of precision. The MF collar rotates in AF mode but is unlikely to be obstructed by stray fingers given its location.

The Macro label is rather cheeky since the zoom s 0.25x maximum magnification falls far short of the 1:1 ratio required for a true macro rating. And the AF motor is distinctly audible. But these things are forgivable in such an affordable lens.

Chromatic aberration is another matter. Very clear colour fringing was seen on test-target images across the full aperture range and at all focal lengths. The same problem affects real-world pictures but not to the extent that the test-target fringes might suggest.

 zoom range

Although the MTF curves are nothing special, only crossing the critical 0.25 cycles-per-pixel level at one mid-range focal length, visual image quality is good for most subjects. That last qualification is important because although colour fringing is not always obvious this is only because most subjects do not tax lenses in that way; portraits, for example. But any subject that has high-contrast boundaries, or features black-against-white edges, can be problematic. Real-world examples encountered during testing of this lens included modern architecture and lettering on signs.

Overall, Sony s 75-300mm zoom has a significant weakness in its chromatic aberrations and a lesser weakness in the noisiness of its AF motor: the big question is whether these limitations are tolerable given the lens s amazingly low price-point. For casual users the answer is probably yes but for more demanding users there is Sony s alternative 70-300mm G-series lens, which has the same maximum aperture but is better specified-albeit at four times the price.

PROS Bargain price-point

CONS Chromatic aberration

CONCLUSION

This is a clear case of getting what you pay for. The 75-300mm lens is a good entry-point offering and benefits from lovely handling; the 70-300mm version is better specified and better performing but also much costlier. In fact when compared with other manufacturers  ranges, the 70-300mm is priced well above the norm and Sony fans may be envious of the prices paid by users of other systems for similar lenses. Sony users may therefore wish to consider Sigma s

70-300mm DG OS lens; it is less than half the price of Sony s high-spec zoom yet scored just one point fewer when tested earlier this year.

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