Review Sony 500 mm

Sony 500mm f/4 G SSM SAL-500F40G & Sony A77 (S-APS-C)

This Sony 500 mm lens is a long telephoto lens with a very fast f/4.0 aperture that is ideal for professional sports or nature photography. When you're shooting sports or nature, you will appreciate that this lens has interlocking weather-resistant seals to protect against moisture, dust and grit.
I am no professional photographer and normally we review much smaller and lighter lenses at CameraStuffReview. Nevertheless, we're happy to give you an impression of the optical qualities and usability of this high tech monster in combination with a Sony A77 camera.

Sony-SAL500F40G 3

This is Sony's largest and most expensive lens available today. Looking at the specifications, the Sony 500 mm f/4 is smaller in size then both the Nikon or Canon 500mm f/4 and lighter then the Nikon 500mm. The Sony 500mm f/4 is compatible with both Sony α cameras with a full frame sensor and Sony α cameras with an APS-C sensor. When used with a compatible APS-C format camera, the equivalent focal length of this lens is a whopping 750 mm. According to Sony's press release, the rugged dust- and moisture-resistant design makes the Sony 500 mm an ideal partner for a Sony A77. Such a combination is ideal for sports, wildlife and other demanding imaging applications requiring very high magnification. Translucent SLT camera's have no moving mirror, which minimizes camera vibrations, which is a very nice feature in combination with large telephoto lenses.  The Sony SteadyShot in-camera image stabilization system comes in handy for hand-held shot images, as does the blazing fast AF with a Super Sonic Wave Motor (SSM), using a drive circuit four times as fast as previous versions.

Sony-telephoto-lens-review
Sony 500 mm f/4 @ 200 ISO, f4, 1/125 (RAW), from tripod
Click on this image for a larger and cropped version.
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Sony 500 mm f/4 @ 200 ISO, f5.6, 1/800, hand-held + Steady Shot
Click on this image for a larger and cropped version.
The Sony 500 mm 4 super-telephoto lens will typically be used for getting distant subjects closer. This lens has a field of view equivalent to a 750 mm lens on a camera with a full frame sensor. The Sony A77 performs best at low ISO settings. The large f/4 aperture provided by this Sony 500 mm lens makes it possible to opt for low ISO values, which results in much more natural images, due to the absence of noise reduction. See for comparison the image of the same Dik dik as in the image above, but shot @ 1600 ISO in our Sony 55-300 mm review.

Construction and autofocus

 

The Sony 500 mm f4 lens is built for professional use. It's rugged build quality equals the build quality of the professional Canon L lenses we've tested so far. This large lens comes with a aluminum carrying case, which offers a little additional space for accessories like (polarizing) filters or a tele-converter. Filters are inserted at the rear of the lens.

The Sony 500 mm lens focused surprisingly quickly, typically being able to achieve focus in a fraction of a second. The Sony 500 mm uses a SSM (Super Sonic wave Motor) drive circuit for extremely high speed autofocus, which really ensures responsive AF with significantly faster object tracking than conventional Sony lenses. In order to minimize AF delays even further, you can prefocus, hold the focus and limit the focus range with switches. You can overrule AF anytime by manual focus. A two-way DMF (Direct Manual Focus) mode button gives you two options: continue DMF or Standard DMF (without DMF during continuous AF).

Specifications
 

 

In-camera correction

 

The Sony A77 offers a choice to correct jpg files for vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion. In this Sony 500 mm review we set the camera, using firmware 1.3, to compensate automatically.

Sony-A77-incamera-correctie

Image stabilization

 
For an untrained photographer, it's very difficult to aim and keep such a monster lens still without the aid of a tripod. The Sony 500 mm f/4.0 is compatible with the Sony in-camera image stabilization ('Steady Shot") system, featured in all Sony α SLT and DSLR cameras. The Steady-Shot reduces the amount of camera-shake in the viewfinder, which is very convenient.
With long and heavy telephoto lenses vibration will be induced in the camera, even when using a tripod, by pressing the shutter, by the movement of a SLR mirror and by the shutter itself. Cameras with a Translucent mirror like the Sony A77 are good companions for long telephoto lenses, since they have no moving mirror.
When this extreme telephoto lens is attached to a sturdy tripod, you can still see the image in the viewfinder move slightly when you press the shutter. The camera body is not directly attached to the tripod, but basically hangs at the end of the lens which is attached to the tripod through a socket. Such a construction magnifies motion/vibration. For the Sony 500 mm resolution tests in this review we applied the 10 second delay self-timer, but this is not practical in real life. A remote shutter release will be a good investment to reduce vibrations and actually improve the quality of your images.

Sony-500mm-review

Running-dogThe bright f/4.0 maximum aperture allows use of faster shutter speeds which enables you to freeze the action. This image of a fast running dog was shot hand-held @ 640 ISO and 1/2000 sec (RAW file).
Click on this image for a larger version.

Sony 2x teleconverter (Model number: SAL20TC)

 

The Sony 500 mm is compatible with 1.4x and 2.0x extenders. For the 2x extender only the manual focus mode is available.  Manually focussing a 1000 mm lens is time-consuming and very difficult too. Sony's focus peaking comes in very handy to assist you with manual focussing.
In the Lens Carrying Case provided by Sony we found a 2x tele-converter. We decided to include the 2x teleconverter in this review as well. The Sony 2x tele-converter consists of 6 lens elements in 5 groups and weighs 200 grams. Carrying a 2x tele-converter with you, allows you to increase your telephoto shooting capability without carrying extra equipment. Given the choice between a 1.4x and a 2x tele-converter, I would definitely go for a 1.4x converter, which still offers autofocus in combination with the Sony 500 mm 4.

See also this Sony teleconverter (1.4X and 2.0X) review

Sony-2x-converter

FOV-55mm

FOV 55 mm (83 mm @ full frame)

FOV1000mm
FOV Sony 500 mm +2x teleconverter (1500 mm @ full frame)
The Sony 500 mm has the longest focal length of all Sony lenses at this moment. If a focal length of 400 mm still doesn't provide sufficient magnification for far away subjects, a tele-converter might help.

Vignetting Sony 500mm + 2x converter

 
The Sony 500 mm f/4 showed a little more vignetting (0.5 stop) wide open than we expected. Move your mouse over the image to see an example of a clear blue sky, shot at f/4. It surprised us, since this lens is designed for use with full-frame cameras and in this review we used the Sony A77, with a smaller, APS-C sized sensor. We expect that vignetting will be clearly visible at f/4 when this lens is used on a camera with a full frame sensor. Apart from the just visble vignetting at f/4, we encountered no visible vignetting.

When the Sony 500 mm f/4 is used in combination with the Sony 2x tele-converter, there's no visible vignetting even when the aperture is wide open at f/8.
Vignet-Sony-2x-converter

Distortion Sony 500 mm

 
As you would expect for a telephoto lens, the amount of distortion caused by the Sony 500 mm is so low you will not notice it in any of your images. We measured a 0.3% pincushion distortion. Distortion-Sony-500mm

Bokeh

 
The 9-blade circular aperture of the Sony 500 mm f/4 results mostly in beautiful Out of Focus ("OOF') or bokeh. As you can see in the image to the right, the bokeh is nice and circular. Below we included an example of OOF, which nicely contrasts with the mud which flies of the tail of a running dog. Click on the image for a cropped version.
But under sunny circumstances, specular highlights sometimes give a harsh bokeh, as can be seen in the image below right and in the image of the running dog above.
bokeh
mudje
Sony 500 mm @ f/4, hand-held @ 640 ISO and 1/2000 sec.
Click on this image for a cropped version.
Sony-500mm-bokeh-example

Flare and ghosting

 

The optical design of the Sony 500 mm includes 11 elements in 10 groups, including three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass elements. It's also the first G Lens from Sony to feature an advanced new coating process that, according to Sony, ensures crisper, clearer images. The Nano AR Coating process cuts internal reflections drastically for extremely low ghosting and flare. Additionally, this lens comes with a carbon fiber lens hood lined with black velvet fibers for high absorption of incident light.

We did not have the facilities to test flare and ghosting in our studio with this extreme telephoto lens. In our Sony 70-400 mm review, we shot some images of a bright moon as an alternative flare test. For our Sony 500 mm review, we did the same. In addition, we took a picture straight into to sun (image to the right). We did see some blown out highlights in these pictures, more probably caused by the sensor than by the lens. We found no ghosting.

flare

Moon
Sony 500 mm + 2x converter @ 1000 mm, f/8, 1/160 sec, 100 ISO

Resolution Sony 500 mm f/4

 

The first time we tried to measure the resolution for this telephoto lens, we expected to find even higher resolution than we reported in our Sony 70-400 mm review. But we didn't. It could very well be that our resolution  measurements for such extreme telephoto lenses are limited by the experimental set-up, which consisted of a 2 meter large resolution chart at a distance of approx. 40 meters from the camera. The camera body is not directly attached to the tripod, but to the back end of the Sony 500 mm lens. Motion/vibration is easily magnified in such a set-up. We could see the image in the viewfinder move when the shutter button was pressed. We did not have a remote shutter control available for a Sony camera and thus we used the 10 second self timer, which allowed the vibration to be damped in 10 seconds.

Resolutie-Sony-500mm

Later we have repeated our resolution measurements for the Sony 500mm f/4 , using a wire remote shutter release cord and after an AF micro adjustment. The Sony 500 mm f/4 shows good resolution. See for yourself in the Sony 500 mm sample images we've included in this review. Center resolution and corner resolution are equal, even at f/4, which is very good. We consider the differences in resolution between f/11 and f/4 insignificant.

Wild-boar-mini
Sony 500 mm, 200 ISO, f/5.6, 1/200 s + tripod

Sony-500mm-sample-image
500 mm, 200 ISO, f/5.6, 1/100 s + tripod
Click on the image for a larger version.

Sharpness Sony 500 mm + 2x teleconverter

 

In order to test the resolution of the Sony 500 mm + 2x tele-converter, we needed a distance of 60 meters between the resolution chart and the camera. Unfortunately, we did not have such a studio. Therefore we only provide two sample images, as an illustration of the sharpness of this 1000 mm (1500 mm full frame equivalent) telephoto lens. Both sharpness and contrast of the images shot with the 2x tele-converter are notably reduced in comparison with images shot with the Sony 500 mm f/4 lens without converter. Nevertheless, the 2x teleconverter offers an opportunity to shoot images you otherwise would not have obtained.

Move your mouse over the flamingo for a cropped version at 100%.

1000mm
Sony 500 mm + 2x converter: 1000mm @ 1600 ISO, f/8, 1/1250 sec

Using the 2x tele-converter reduces the maximum aperture to f/8 and thus you will need a lot of light and or a high ISO speed to obtain a fast shutter speed for a 1000 mm (1500 mm @ full frame equivalent). Manually focusing a 1000 mm lens is time-consuming and very difficult too. You will obtain the best results with subjects that don't move.

My personal preference for the Sony A77 is to keep the ISO setting below 400 and to shoot some extra images when slow shutter speeds are inevitable, hoping one of the images will be unblurred. The image to the right was shot with a shutter speed of 1/50 second and you can still count the wild boar's eyelashes. 

Click twice on this image of a wild boar for a large 100% crop.

1000mm-boar
Sony 500 mm + 2x converter: 1000mm @ 200 ISO, f/8, 1/50 sec + tripod

Chromatic aberration Sony 500 mm f/4

 
Chromatic aberration is very low at all apertures, in both RAW and jpg files.  Chromatic-aberration

Continuous AF Sony 500 mm

 

Large and fast telephoto lenses like the Sony 500 mm f/4 are almost exclusively used by professional photographers. Many of them use this lens for capturing fast actions. The 500 mm lens focuses very quickly, typically being able to achieve single focus in a fraction of a second. I tested the continous autofocus speed (and my own aiming capabilities) by making a hand-held series of images of two fast moving subjects: an arrowplane flying over and a flock of geese flying by.

First of all: with heavy, very large telephoto lenses and their very limited field of view it takes some practice before you are able to correctly aim at your subject. And secondly: I seldomly use a telephoto lens.
Nevertheless the series of images I made of the geese were all sharp. The series of images of the arrowplane were a mixed bag of sharp and blurry images, as shown in the two examples below. Taking into account my limited "paperazzi telephoto lens" experience, I was pleasantly surprised by these results.

C-AF-Sony-A77
Continous AF, f/5.6, 200 ISO, 1/2500 sec
C-AF-detail2 C-AF-detail1

geeseSony 500 mm f/4 @ f/8, 200 ISO, 1/2500. Click on this image for a larger version.

Conclusion Sony 500mm f/4 G SSM SAL-500F40G review

Sony-500mm-review

See our overview of all tested lenses or the list of tested lenses with a Sony mount to compare the performance of this lens with other lenses.

ECWYSIWYG score: This table shows the performance of this lens when you store the files in the camera as jpg, with all available in-camera lens corrections applied. This score gives you for this lens/test camera combination: "What you see is what you get".
500
750
8.1
7.7
9.1
8.8
8.5
ECPure RAW score: This table shows the performance of this lens when the file is stored in the camera in RAW format. This score approaches the intrinsic quality of the combination of lens and test camera.
500
750
7.6
7.3
9.1
9.5
8.2

Pros

  • High quality ultra-telephoto for sports and wildlife; sharp to the edge, low chromatic aberration, low distortion, insensitive to flare
  • Extremely fast AF
  • Rugged weather- and dust-resistant design
  • Longest-ever focal length G Lens from Sony
  • Bright f/4.0 aperture for superior light gathering
  • Compatible with IBIS (in body image stabilization) in all Sony α cameras

Cons

  • A large and heavy lens like this is much more difficult to handle than telephoto zoom lenses like the (excellent) Sony 70-300 mm or Sony 70-400 mm
  • High price
To be honest, the Sony 500 mm f/4 telephoto lens is out of our league. I am no professional photographer and the experience of walking around with a 2.5 kg lens on my camera was new to me. It was the first time in my life I used a 1000 mm (using the tele-converter) lens with a field of view that equals a 1500 mm lens on a camera with a full frame sensor. Without a tripod, this large and heavy lens can only be used successfully by very experienced photographers.  Due to my inexperience with extreme telephoto lenses, I've shot many unsharp images with this lens.
For a professional sports or nature photographer this fast lens might be the best choice. This lens has the fastest AF of all Sony lenses and gives you sharp and high contrast images from corner to corner at f/4. This lens is fast enough to maintain AF, even when you combine it with a 1.4 x tele-converter. But a large and heavy lens like this is much more difficult to handle than telephoto zoom lenses like the (excellent) Sony 70-300 mm or Sony 70-400 mm lenses. And when you take the price/quality ratio into account, this Sony 500 mm lens is beaten by the Sony 70-400 mm.

 

Ivo Freriks
Author: Ivo Freriks
With Camera Review Stuff I hope to make a modest contribution to the pleasure that you get from photography. By testing cameras and lenses in the same way, evluating the results and weighing up the pros and cons, I hope to help you find the right camera or lens.

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