Sony 200-600mm Lens Review: Wildlife Photography Field Test
On Tuesday, Sony announced two new 600mm lenses: a 600mm f/4 prime aimed at pro sports and wildlife photographers, and a much more affordable Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 which is certain to appeal to a much broader audience. Read on to find our wildlife photography review of the Sony 200-600mm lens, including sample raw files for you to download and check out.
I have worked closely with Sony over the last few years as they have launched new cameras and lenses suitable for wildlife photography. As a result, Sony let me try out both of the lenses before their release. At this stage, I haven’t thoroughly tested the 600mm prime out in the wild, but I was able to conduct a thorough field test of the 200-600mm. Full disclosure: Sony gave me the lens early and sponsored the field test.
Handling and Build Quality
Long zoom lenses like 100-400mm, 150-600mm and 200-500mm versions from various manufacturers already exist, but they all have one thing in common: they telescope as you zoom (i.e. the front of the lens extends out). There are two reasons I don’t like this:
- It is harder to weather-seal these lenses and the telescoping action can suck in moisture or dust.
- As you zoom, the centre of gravity of the lens shifts forward so it becomes is less balanced and more unwieldy.
The first thing I noticed about the new Sony 200-600mm lens is that the zoom is internal so the length of the lens never changes. It feels like a slightly larger 70-200mm f/2.8. This makes for a beautifully balanced lens that is very easy to handle.
As with most new telephotos these days, the 200-600mm lens is remarkably light – just 2.44kg (for comparison, my Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 weights around 1.7kg). This weight will be easily hand-holdable for most people. The lens also has optical stabilisation and I would be confident to shoot handheld with it at 600mm with a shutter speed of around 1/500s or faster.
To complete this Sony 200-600mm lens review, I took it up to Scotland to photograph ospreys fishing. This is a challenging subject with any equipment, as the action happens very quickly. I knew the autofocus in particular was going to be tested to its limits. You can see my full field test video below:
For this test, I paired the 200-600mm with my Sony a9. As I demonstrate in the field test video above, the focus performance of this combination was very impressive.
I was using the tracking features of the latest a9 firmware that allowed me to initially focus on the subject that my focus point was over, and then continue tracking that subject anywhere within the frame for as long as the shutter button was held half-pressed. This meant I just had to get my focus point over the osprey at some point and then try to keep it in frame while the a9 blasted away at 20 frames per second.
Develop your skills: A Beginner’s Guide to Wildlife Photography
Even in very gloomy conditions, I found the lens initially obtained focus very rapidly and thereafter the focus tracking was near flawless. It is worth noting that this was with Sony’s flagship a9 body. I expect the focus will still be very good with other bodies such as the a7 iii or a6400, but they do not have the same processing power dedicated to the AF engine and therefore will probably not perform quite as well as the a9 did in my test.
Limitations of the Sony 200-600mm Lens
I am more used to photographing with telephoto primes but, for this field test, I found the zoom very helpful. With a long prime, it can be incredibly hard to get a fast moving subject in frame and I have missed many shots in the past for this very reason. However, with the zoom, I was able to start at 200mm and once I had the subject centred in my frame, zoom to 600mm with a quick twist of the zoom ring. This technique meant I never struggled to lock on to the ospreys and certainly increased the number of useable shots I was able to capture.
The weather up in Scotland for the short time I was there was not ideal. In fact, it was miserable and extremely gloomy! This, in combination with the fast shutter speed of 1/2000th second that I needed to freeze the osprey, really highlighted the main limitation of the lens – that maximum aperture of f/6.3 at 600mm.
In good light or when photographing a slow moving subject, a maximum aperture of f/6.3 is not going to be much of a problem, particularly on modern cameras which boast excellent high-ISO performance. However, a fast-moving subject in poor light meant that I had to push the ISO up to 25,600. This is higher than I would normally go and resulted in a fair bit of noise in my images.
For this reason – and because I also like to use shallow depths of field to isolate my subject from messy backgrounds – I see myself continuing to use fast telephoto primes for the majority of my work in the future. Of course, primes like the 400 f/2.8 and the new 600 f/4 are six times the price of this lens and overkill for the majority of people.
For subjects like birds in flight, I believe most people will also have a much better chance of getting the subject in frame and capturing useable shots with a lighter zoom lens like this.
Sony 200-600mm Lens Sample Photos
The noise in my osprey images made it difficult to judge the sharpness of the lens. When it brightened up later in the day, I put the lens on a tripod and photographed a stone bridge at various apertures and focal lengths. For me the sharpness in the centre and out towards the edges seemed very good. If you would like to judge for yourself, I have made the RAW files available for download here.
The cost of the 200-600mm at launch is around £1,800 in the UK. At that price point I can happily say that this lens represent fantastic value and is a great option for anyone needing more reach with a Sony camera.
Has this Sony 200-600mm lens review convinced you to add one to your camera bag? Well, it can be bought at the following trusted retailers: