Friday, January 11, 2013

Sony DT 55-300mm SAM f/4.5-5.6 Review

Sony DT 55-300mm SAM f/4.5-5.6 Review
January 2013, Carl Garrard

Sony DT 55-300mm SAM f/4.5-5.6 Review- Announced on July 25th 2012, Sony introduced the new 55-300mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM telephoto zoom lens. This lens doesn't officially replace any lenses in Sony's Alpha SLT lens line up yet offers an alternative focal length zoom lens at a budget price with the new SAM II focus motor and new styling design. Priced at $299.00 USD the lens is considered budget but the build quality and tolerances might fool you into believing it should be a higher price. Surley lenses aren't judged solely on those features alone, so, how does the new Sony 55-300mm SAM perform in other aspects? In this exclusive review I answer these questions and more.




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Sony SAM DT 55-300mm SAM f/4.5-5.6 Review: Intro and First Impressions

So the first thing most of us want to know is how this lens performs optically, right? Well I'll get more into that later (c'mon I can't blow the surprise/or/lack thereof that early), right? First lets discuss how this lens falls to the hand, how it balances on a DSLR/SLT, and my impressions of its "features".

Sony have seemingly decided to up the build quality on the SAM lens line from previous iterations. First, the 16-50mm f/2.8 and 18-135mm SAM were introduced with a new exterior and build quality, and now the 55-300mm SAM. I have to say, all of the new lenses are refined and sophisticated on the exterior, first of all.

Sony has struck a nice balance between form and function on the exterior of these new lenses and all I can say is- keep em' coming. Exterior wise, you've pretty much nailed it Sony, so no need to change the exterior on future lenses. I like it. My only small quibble is the ultra fine ribbing that seems to go out of its way to find particles of ... anything to suck into its crevices. And they aren't really easy to clean either, even with a top notch goat hair brush that I have.

Metal rear mount, AF/MF switch, and a zoom lock are all of its external features. There is a metal bezel surrounding the plastic front element that adds a quality aspect to the lens but also will help the lens take a thunk or two without cracking the delicate plastic that surrounds the front element.

Moving on, if you aren't looking closely, you may just mistake this lens for the more expensive 70-300 G Sony SSM. Of course there are differences in the exterior, but the general impression is similar to me and almost indistinguishable from any distance. It's a handsome lens, if that at all matters to any of you.

Made in China not Japan or Taiwan for that matter, this lens's low price is undoubtedly influenced by the lower production costs out of Sony's China manufacturing facility. But don't let that fact fool you. I see no differences in the quality of production between this lens and the 18-135mm that was produced in Japan. At least on the sample that I purchased. I can't report on sample variations if I only have one lens to work with.


Sony SAM DT 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Review: Optical Performance

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Optically this lens is not overly complicated. The addition of an ED element (shown in green below) helps tame the distortion output though over previous A-Mount lenses, such as the old KM rebadged 75-300mm, and it's much better than the Tamron 70-300mm DI Macro at controlling CA's especially. Sharpness is also improved over the budget Tamron model (and similar Sigma 70-300mm macro's), but the difference isn't as great as the reduction in color fringing which is very noticeable and well controlled (yes, I mean from the raw files not the corrected Jpegs in camera).
12 elements in 9 groups and one ED element (in green). Not a complicated formula at all but rather one that simply has good overall optical performance. As you will see in all of the sample images below.

Sample at 300mm f/8. Tack sharp and very good contrast- simply hard to beat at any price. This sample was taken using the A57 Sony DSLT.

For those of you who like to use a good 1.4x Teleconverter- here is a sample with the Kenko PRO 1.4X (hard to find anymore). This is quite an excellent paring as the sample clearly demonstrates. Glad the rear element doesn't extend too far, which means Sony's 1.4x teleconverter can be used as well.  Shot with the A57.
Again at 300mm, wide open at f/5.6 this time. Shot with the Alpha-7 DSLR for this image, still plenty of detail. Notice the lack of corner shading as well as the the detail retained in the entire image.
And 300mm again, but f/8. Slight increase in contrast (slightly different exposure than the other sample though) and just a little more sharpness, but not a significant increase either way over the wide open sample. So this goes to show just how good the optics are - especially considering the price. Again shot with a 6mp DSLR- the Alpha-7.

At 55mm the lens shows no real weakness either, and has a slightly wider filed of view than your typical lens of this class. Sharp corner to corner at f/8 and no corner shading/vignetting.
Wide open at 55mm f/4.5. Just a tad of corner shading (not a big issue at all) but very sharp.

The MTF chart for the 55-300mm Sony looks pretty good too as you can see from the supplied graph here. When using this lens wide open in the field, results translate. Don't be shocked when this lens' performance in the field surprises you in a good way (at least optically).

Bokeh also looks pretty decent, but so do most zooms in this class especially when you use the longest focal length. The curved aperture blades help, but there are only 7 of them. Still, nice looking images with isolated subjects can be made with this lens no problem. This without the distraction of nasty looking foregrounds or backgrounds.

A little bokeh sample for you. Not too shabby.

For close ups this lens has a decent magnification of about 1:4, which is very decent although lenses that cost half its price can be had that have 1:2 magnification. So if you are wanting the best performance from a lens in this class there are other options. Still I consider 1:4 very decent and with a bit of cropping close ups have plenty of detail even with a 6mp sensor. Remember too, a magnification filter can be added to the front of the lens if you really need more- and for little cost.


Close ups look nice with this lens. Sorry to get artsy fartsy on you but hey, I'm a photographer before I'm a reviewer/writer so there you have it. I particularly liked this image. Shot at 210mm, even greater magnification can be achieved than this.
Excellent results are quite possible. Normally CA's show on this coots white beak when I make images of them every year, but not with this lens. As good of a performance optically as the much more expensive Sony 70-300mm G SSM.
Worst case scenario for color fringing. The dreaded tree limb test. Look at the lower limbs, CA is there even at f/8 but its not the sharp kind and easily correctable. I've seen much worse, trust me. Especially at this price.

Sony SAM DT 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Review: Handling and Stuff
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Handling wise I prefer to use this lens on a larger Alpha body. The old KM Alpha-7 is an excellent paring, and a very comfortable duo (even more so than using it with my A57). Thus, the review was written using it on this camera and the Alpha 57 as well. The big zoom ring and and focusing ring are welcomed although I can't help but think this lens could be a bit more compact adding to it's overall appeal.




Size wise this lens is pretty large, here it is compared to the KM APO "D" 100-300mm lens and you can see its wider and longer than this very popular lens. Granted you get a much wider view than the 100-300mm as well, but they probably could have made it a bit more compact I'd think. Thus without the lens hood, it's not too bulky considering the range of zoom it has.

Both the zoom and focusing ring operate how I like them too, precise and smooth. The zoom ring can be a little bit jerky at times, but it won't creep when you point the camera downward- so I'd rather have it that way. The focusing ring is really nice for manual focus, with a quarter turn taking you through the focus throw. This makes it a bit difficult for precise manual focusing but most DSLRS allow magnification through live view now anyways- so it's not the issue it used to be.

It's smooth enough to combat even the short throw however. On the plus side the short throw makes for fast manual focusing on moving subjects- which is a good thing. Just be careful to remember that this lens has no auto clutch and does not disengage when you have it set to auto focus. It moves quickly when the camera autofocuses so keep your hands off it. Bummer.

Fit and finish are both very decent. The lens has sort of mottled flat finish that resists oil, scratching, and dirt/dust pretty well (bar the zoom/focus rings of course). The finish also looks very nice too. Although this lens is mostly plastic (bar the lens mount and front bezel) you don't really get an impression of a cheap fit or finish- better you get a feeling of value.


Sony DT 55-300mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review: Conclusion
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Overall a nice value for a "kit" zoom lens. It seems to straddle the bare bottom offering to mid priced zoom range quite well. Optically most shooters will need to look no further for a lens of this type

Overall the Sony SAM 55-300mm doesn't disappoint this shooter. Unless you expect it to be an AF speed demon and use polarizers on a daily basis, this lens should please everyone else. It's most obvious weakness I found, is the hunting you'll experience. The lack of a focus limiter and a bit slower focusing means that if the lens overshoots your subject while autofocusing- you're going to have to have patience while it runs it's course to try and find your subject again.

Translation- it's not a lens I'd choose first for tracking moving subjects. For those on a budget though, you can overcome this weakness some by getting good habits and using multiple AF points rather than just the center (as I usually do).

Optically, it's much better than the sub $200.00 70-300mm cheapo Tamron's and Sigma's many of us have used or currently own because of the versatility and price tag of those lenses. The 55mm focal is welcome, and makes this lens a lot more versatile than you might think- at least when compared to the 70-300mm class. The Tamron 70-300mm VC is much heavier and a bit more expensive and you really don't gain any optical advantage. That lens will give you better tracking capabilities however.

Kit lenses keep getting better and better for the price in all other brands, so it is nice to see Sony keeping up with the pack here. My only wish is that the front element didn't rotate, but that would mean internal focusing and thus a higher price tag as a result - that's just the way the cookie crumbles friends. Otherwise I have no qualms about the image quality and for the causal shooter it's a very good handling and balanced lens, with very decent build quality for the price that should keep most purchasers happy for some time to come.

On a 1-10 scale for overall value I'd give it an 8.5. Optically, an 8, build a 7.5, and features a 6.5 (and that's being a bit generous). So overall a pretty good score considering it's $300.00 price tag because at the end of the day what matters most is how well the images look, and this lens is capable of making some very good looking images for it's price tag.

I do like a good bang for the buck, so an overall 8/10 rating for this lens which is very good considering a 10 would be a perfect performance in every aspect of a lens review. Comparatively the Tamron 70-300mm VC would get a 7.5/10 overall from me- but more on that at a later time perhaps!

Plug: If you liked the review please do not click the link below. Because if you do you might just send some monetary gain my way- and we all know my writing isn't worth a hill of beans let alone a tiny commission.

Amazon Best Price Sony SAM 55-300mm

As usual, please be safe and happy shooting!

-Carl

Didacts and Narpets (Pro's and Con's for those that need translation)

Here is a quick and dirty assessment of the Sony 55-300mm lens in a fun and wonderful list that will take very little of your precious time to read. It pretty much sums up the entire review, but for those who do actually like to read, I recommend reading the entire article please. Thanks.

Didacts:
  • Very Good image quality for a "kit zoom" (circular blades help out of  focus areas/bokeh)
  • Versatile focal range
  • Good handling lens (lots of room on the control surfaces)
  • Great Bang for the Buckaroni
  • Decent magnification (1:4) for closeups
  • Good build quality at any price (front element surrounded by metal bezel for example)
  • Smooth focus and zoom ring action (almost no play on either)
  • Comes with a zoom lock (but you'll never need to use it), yet no creeping
  • Recessed rear element design means use of 1.4x teleconverters on all brands 
  • Includes a lens hood
  • Low aberrations of any kind
  • Common front filter size of 62mm

Narpets:
  • Front element rotates when focusing, no auto clutch
  • No focus hold button/or limiter
  • Lack of distance scale information of any kind
  • Minimum focusing distance (just shy of 5' from subject to sensor, too far for my taste)
  • Focus speed can vary at times from very slow to only moderate (Tested on A57 and A7 DSLRS)
  • Hunting, paired with slow focus, means you'll need patience (Tested on A57 and A7 DSLRS)
  • Focusing not as quiet as the SAM 18-135mm (but also not as expensive, and its not loud by any means either)

Sony DT SAM 55-300mm f/4-5.6 Lens Specifications

  • Lens Type : Telephoto & Telephoto Zoom
  • Aperture (Max.) : f/4 - 5.6
  • Aperture (Min.) : f/22 - 29
  • Filter Diameter : 62 mm
  • Lens Groups-Elements : 12 elements 9 groups including 1 ED glass element
  • Minimum Focus Distance : 4' 6” (1.4 m)
  • Aspheric Elements : No aspheric
  • Distance Encoder : Yes
  • Aperture Blade : 7 blades (Circular aperture)
  • Focal Length (35mm equivalent) : APS-C: 55-300mm (35mm Equivalent: 82.5-450 mm)
  • Lens Weight : 1 lb. 3 oz. (460g)
  • Magnification : x 0.27 
  • Dimensions (Approx.) : 3 1/8 x 4 5/8" (77 x 116.5 mm)
  • Weight (Approx.) : 1 lb. 3 oz. (460g)

13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice Review! I was curious how it stood up against the Tamron 70-300 USD, and it sounds like its virtually the same optically and a little lighter. I think I'll go with the Tamron for the USD focus motor, but I'm glad to see Sony putting out some nice gear lately.

January 12, 2013 at 8:21 AM  
Blogger C.GARRARD said...

Thanks, yep that's what I thought too. ;)

C

January 12, 2013 at 2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'am still looking for a 300 mm lens for my a580. Price wise the tamron usd is close, so I think that will be my choice. Although this review makes me think again. Very positive surpised with the results. In the 70 to 210 mm I normally use my very good beercan copy. So what to use for the last 90mm. I must say the range on the sony is very nice.

January 13, 2013 at 3:26 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

A good review Carl. Thanks for the effort. It sounds (and looks) like a very good value. I'd be tempted to try it, but I really like focus limiters. Maybe some of the Sony APS-C bodies will eventually get the A-99 trickle down.

Any reason you didn't include the EXIF in the sample images?

January 16, 2013 at 1:19 PM  
Blogger C.GARRARD said...

Thanks Ed. Just perhaps they will.

I haven't removed any exif, could be a blogger thing, hard to say. I'll have to look into it.

C

January 16, 2013 at 4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does it compare to the Minolta 70-210 4.5-5.6?

January 19, 2013 at 3:39 PM  
Blogger C.GARRARD said...

Well the lens you mention really wasn't all that good, the 70-210mm f/4 was much better, and the 55-300mm Sony performs better than that lens optically in most circumstances (all but bokeh).

C

January 19, 2013 at 9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew it wasn't very good because I own it, and would like to replace it. I'm a bit surprised you mentioned that it's generally better than the beercan though... given the reputation of that lens.
Thank you so much! Glad I didn't just dismiss this lens as another "kit type" (quality wise) tele-zoom like I was originally inclined to do!

January 24, 2013 at 3:33 PM  
Blogger Marja said...

I was in doubt whether to buy the Tamron 70-300 or this lens for my A55. Your review make me decide to buy the Sony 55-300. Thanks Carl.

March 16, 2013 at 12:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Prima Bericht.
Danke.

May 11, 2013 at 8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi, excellent review, its hard to find on the net, well i liked your moon photo you took with teleconverter.. Does auto focus work after attaching one? Or do u need to use MF??

June 7, 2013 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger C.GARRARD said...

Thank you :)

Yes the AF works with the TC on, good light though and not all bodies may AF with it, just depends on the AF system for each body.

C

June 7, 2013 at 6:20 PM  
Blogger aj said...

Would the VC of the Tamron 70-300 USD have any advantage over the Sony DT55-300. I plan to use it on my Sony A58.

October 6, 2014 at 7:01 AM  

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