Pros: Fantastic build, world class image quality, fast f/2.8 throughout the range, lens length is fixed.
Cons: Heavy, large, expensive, paint job on the cheap side. Front rotates, so no grads.
Don’t do it
Take my advice, don’t ever buy a digital SLR. There are people that are predisposed to various kinds of addictions, whether it be gambling, drinking or upgrading. I fall into the last category. Many years ago when I purchased my first digital camera the big choices were 1 megapixel (tight budget) 2 megapixels (had a few bucks to throw around) and 3 megapixels (rich guy). That was many, many years ago.
I purchased a two megapixel camera and it served me well for nearly 4 years. I was never happy with it. The resolution was OK, the shutter lag was atrocious, and it ate batteries like they were free. Then I got another digital camera, and another. They weren’t good enough anymore as my photography grew from being a simple ebay tool, to a passion.
I then made the leap to a digital SLR, and soon after, I got another. It’s a vicious circle as you upgrade, something in the chain always seems to be the weak point. Only temporarily satiated with my dSLR body, my disdain and attention quickly turned to my lack of truly amazing glass.
It starts off innocently enough with a 50mm prime. Why? Because that’s what everyone tells you to scoop up first. It’s fairly cheap, speedy for low light, and sharpish. The advice is sound. Then you realize you need wider view of the world and more reach. You get a zoom lens, and that’s the beginning of the end. It’s the end of your wallet ever being full enough that is.
You see, a cheap zoom just can’t match the sharpness and the speed of a budget prime. You search for a zoom that can be prime-like, and like a junkie chasing an ever eluding high, you begin to lust for expensive glass and all its false promises. My first toe in the water was a Zeiss 16-80mm zoom. It was a bad copy, many of the early ones were. When it did do its thing just right (rarely) it was amazing. The sharpness, the color, the pop of the image was amazing for about $700 bucks. I sold it for $510 three months later.
Time to make the leap
I needed more. The troubled Zeiss was too slow for any real low light indoor work. Also, there just wasn’t enough reach. Wanting to step up to the big leagues, I was faced with a decision that all serious Sony Alpha shooters will face. Skipping the third party lenses altogether, there are only three top dogs, all are Minolta lenses. For the most popular range (70-200mm) the three kings are...
1.Minolta’s 80-200mm f/2.8 HS (high speed) APO G first made in 1993 (white)
2. The 2003 update, the Minolta 70-200mm f/2.8 G (D) SSM
3. What appears to be a simple Sony re-badge of Minolta’s 70-200mm G SSM.
That’s it, there’s nothing else out there that’s better. So what to do? They are all top-notch pro quality lenses. They are all expensive, with availability being the only limiting factor. There was an earlier black 80-200mm f/2.8 that appears to be optically the same as the HS version, but according to reviews, it was notoriously slow to focus. I never did see many of the non HS lenses around. So I researched and read everything I could, and talked to fellow Alpha shooters and here’s what I came up with. The most expensive of the bunch is the Minolta 2003 SSM version, even though it is most likely, optically identical to the Sony branded one.
The Sony and Minolta SSM version not only have the Super Sonic Motor, but they are digital featuring 8 pins for sending additional information back to the camera body. The Minolta SSM version seems to be semi-rare, and fetches north of $2,000 used. The Sony branded lens is usually in the $1,700 range new. The older HS version varies more in price because of condition and age. A clean copy can fetch nearly $1,300 if there aren’t many copies floating around at the time. If there are several copies floating around, and a particular HS has minor issues, it can still fetch over $900. During my search, there were days when I could find almost nothing (regardless of version) as people tend to not let these lenses go.
In all my research, I did come across more than a handful of reviews for owners of the HS upgrading to the SSM version with one complaint. That complaint was their misunderstanding of the SSM function. They were under the false belief that focus speed would be something fierce. When in fact, if anything it was a touch slower than the HS. The truth is, SSM only offers a smooth and nearly silent focusing action. The SSM and HS versions are very close in weight, so that was never an issue. What was an issue for me was lens length (tight fit in my bag with body attached). The HS is slightly shorter, so that was a plus for me.
I could also get the HS version for a good $600 less than the Sony version when you figure in tax on the new version. The only hit I would take is the silent and smooth focus. Image quality is comparable, with many owners swearing that the HS is not only better than anything else, but quite possibly the best zoom lens in the range ever made. A bold claim, and I won’t go there since I haven’t owned and shot with the best Nikon, Zeiss and Canon glass.
I go for a 80-200mm f/2.8 HS G, First impressions
So I found a very clean copy of the white HS for a tidy sum of $1,150 from a Minolta/Sony shooter changing over to all Minolta G primes. Unlike the newer SSM versions, the HS is a very simple and clean affair. There is only a focus hold button on the front as far as extras go. The HS version does not have the focus limiter or AF/MF switches found on the newer version. I have zero need for AF/MF control when this control is right on my camera body half an inch from my rear dial. I use it not only to release the AF moter, but as a quick focus hold if I want to re-compose.
Make note of it if your prefer such things on the lens. The tripod collar is not removable and several owners groan about this. I wasn’t sure if it would be an issue for me. The collar rests nicely in my hand, and it’s a fine balance point. It’s strange that it’s even there because I don’t own a tripod, I shoot everything hand held.
The filter diameter is 72mm (SSM versions are 77mm) it’s a slightly more costly size, but it is common. On the downside (take note filter users) the front element rotates, so you won’t be able to use grads or polarized filters. Well you can use such filters, but only in a sadistic, maddening kind of way. If there’s an Achilles heel on the HS, that’s it. The minimum focus distance is just shy of six feet, but that's not unusual for such a lens. The newer versions, shorten this by about one foot.
The focus ring is about 3/4 inches thick, so you can’t miss it, and it’s made from the same rubber type material found on the zoom ring with a different cut. The zoom ring is huge with just the right amount of grip. Where the focus ring is effortless in MF mode, the zoom action is smooth but on the stiff side. The focus speed on the HS is king, I can say that with no reservations. I recall more than one user referring to the focus speed as ‘brutal.’ I didn’t quite know what that meant. Now I know. The Alpha A700 has a very powerful, torque-y, fast autofocus motor.
The HS (high speed) lens is geared taller, and when the two meet, it appears the Alpha has no problem twisting and turning this tall geared configuration. The camera turns things so fast there’s this strange feeling that was new to me. It’s kind of like the first time you drive a front wheel drive car with a powerful motor. You can feel a kind of torque steer in the lens. It’s sublte, but it’s there, you can see the image in the viewfinder move ever so slightly until you adjust from the lazy hand you might have had before.
So with this lens, there will be no little boy hand-holding. When the lens does happen to hunt or swing from one extreme to the other, it’s not going be a wuss about it. The lens also includes a large white metal (non petal) hood. It is reversible making it easy to pack the lens in your bag.
Right off the bat, I knew I had to make some adjustments. The first issue I encountered was overexposing my pictures. It’s not related specifically to this lens but rather an adjustment to a zoom that can reach a bit further than I’m used to. My other three lenses have a short reach (50mm, 16-80mm Zeiss and 28-135mm) and because I was tighter on my subject, often overexposure was the result. My 50mm prime is one of my most used, and favorite lenses, and with more sky and more light in the overall picture, I tended to expose for all those factors. Tight in on nearby subjects (between 150mm & 200mm) my light changed, but I adjusted quickly. In the first few days as I went over my early photographs, I started to see what all the fuss was about.
What I liked
Wide open at f/2.8 there is something resembling sharpness. With DOF being narrow, sharpness can be an issue regardless. What separates this type of lens from another is that when focus is nailed, it’s sharp-ish wide open. If gives you more to work with when it comes to sharpening in post, and seems to cut down on noise for areas that are in focus. Out of focus areas always seem to have more obvious noise patterns at high ISO. That’s also a downside of missing focus just slightly when working at an ISO of 1600 and above. In such cases, faces and other things of interest have noise that can’t hide behind detail.
Also the quality of the light, color and shadow detail can be downright dreamy at times. This lens can render sweet neon signs at night, warm light at sunset on a person’s face, and texture that will make any Sony shooter lust for it. It’s not going to make you a better photographer, let’s get that out of the way. But when you do your job, the results are often pleasing, and on occasion stunning.
The bokeh is smooth and creamy I am happy to report. This lens features 9 circular blades for a rounder aperture. The HS bokeh isn’t the holy grail out-of-focus butter like the Minolta/Sony 135mm STF lens however. In normal daytime shooting the bokeh is smooth and pleasing. What I really find pleasing are lights in the background of night shots. Lights have a dreamy, puffy round quality my other glass can't touch.
I don’t yet own a full frame dSLR so I can’t comment on the true corner sharpness of this lens. With APS-C crop sensors always shooting in the center sweet spot (FF lenses) we are kind of spoiled in that regard. But with a crop sensor, I see no hit in sharpness in the corners. In all my shooting, flare has been an issue in sunlight without the hood attached, but that’s every lens to be honest. It’s nothing ghastly, and it’s always well controlled, with contrast taking a very small hit in such cases.
As mentioned previously, the focus speed is fast and it rarely hunts in good light. In low light (indoor, night shoots) it still seems to be a brisk focus. It only seems to hunt badly when the light is so low that I can’t really see all that well. Sharpness is stellar when you don’t have to shoot wide open. This HS lens is prime sharp (or better) by f/8, only the finest primes could outdo it in this regard. The build quality is top-notch but not a big surprise. It's what you commonly see with the best glass from Nikon, Canon and Pentax. No need for long description here. Paint aside, construction is robust, and built to last for a very, very long time. This thing made of so much metal, you'll have a hard time finding any plastic. It's good in the long run, but weight takes a hit for it.
Several owners complain about focus noise. My 50mm prime seems to make a bit more noise than this zoom. But in all honesty, I’m not shooting in a quiet church, so it hasn’t been an issue for me thus far. Make note of this if you shoot in very quiet conditions on a regular basis.
In all my shooting I could only find one real optical flaw. It’s CA or chromatic aberration (AKA purple fringe more blue in this case) but it’s rare. CA only becomes noticeable under very specific conditions. The common and easy CA test is shooting bare tree branches against a bright sky. That brings out CA in just about everything. I didn’t really see CA in that case. The first time I saw it was when I flashed indoors as I played with this lens in the first few days. I did something I would never normally do, I flashed with the aperture wide open.
I photographed my camera bag that’s black with big, white, Sony lettering. I could see a kind of indigo trace around the letters that couldn’t be missed. And that’s when I saw for myself that under extreme contrast conditions, wide open, or nearly so, CA would creep in. The only time I managed to get some truly ugly CA, it was to be honest, massive user error. My first time shooting in the snow was a humbling experience. If you’ve ever done it, you know what I speak of.
I shot in Lake Tahoe at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows just two week ago. A handful of shots had CA so bad it looked like I traced around my subjects with a blue light. But in those cases I shot at f/2.8 and f/3.2 and overexposed by a massive amount. I overexposed to the point that my subjects were nearly washed out. In those cases, the CA was horrendous. Beyond f/4 with proper exposure or with slight overexposure, it’s very difficult to induce any kind of noticeable CA.
It’s also possible that some of what I’m seeing is related to images being capture by a digital sensor. It might not be the lens in some cases. After researching further, I found that this optical condition has roots that are more complex than just lens design. So I won’t continue to delve into it any further.
As is the case with most zooms, the lens isn’t shining at its brightest on the short or long end. At 200mm, you have to stop down a bit to keep things sharp. Even so, this lens is a bit soft at 200mm, and it’s similar at 80mm. Between 100mm & 160mm that’s where this lens performs at its best. While I’m covering the down sides, I should mention the weight. This lens clocks in at just under three pounds. I do use it as my walk around lens at times, but it’s not my walk around lens every time because of weight. When I shoot for more than an hour, I feel it in my wrist and hand at the end of the day.
Also, the HS is known for having a pleasing white finish that chips a bit too easily. If you ask me, it chips a bit too easily for the price. Why Minolta didn't use a more robust paint job for their top-tier glass I'll never understand. The stock metal hood of my copy has several, large ugly chips of missing paint. There is also missing paint on the collar (where it meets a tripod) and one tiny chip on the main body.
Attention! I’m a guy with a big white lens
I feel that shooters tend to exaggerate a bit when they say white lenses bring too much attention. My experience has shown me that if you are close enough to me to notice my big white lens, you could most certainly see a big black lens. And if you happen to be in my viewfinder, you won’t see white, you’ll be looking at my front element. In my humble opinion, this white lens is not a flare in the night sky that many make it out to be.
I do relish taking candids and street type photography with this lens attached. If the size, paint, or focus noise have the potential to hold me back, the reach can make up for it. Where this lens will stop you dead in your tracks are venues where pro sports or concerts are held. If you don’t have a press pass, don’t even bring this thing to the parking lot. In such cases, there are people actively looking for long lenses, and this type sticks out too much.
Before you move up to this type of lens, understand this. If you don't have a decent collection of great shots with your current glass, stay put. If you haven't mastered what you've got, this lens is a waste of your money. Don't believe for a moment that the best tools, will make you the best photographer. All Sony Alpha & Minolta advanced amateurs and pro shooters should consider this lens when seeking a pro caliber, world class zoom.
It’s heavy, it’s big, you’ll have no semblance of a wide shot, and it’s expensive. However, the build quality and the potential to capture those amazing shots with such quality and character, well it simply begs consideration. Also, the price is lower than the new current model while maintaining similar image quality. Every nit-pick and con are wiped out when the results are in, that’s always the bottom line. If you want the fastest autofocus speed, skip the super sonic motors and get a high speed copy. If you can find one, you won’t regret the purchase.
See Photos @ StrangerSoundLabs.com