Over the past week I've acquired two interesting things - one for the Sony fellows, and one that even other brands can like.
First is the Sony 70-400 SSM G. I'm selling my Bigma (attention any Sony/Minolta a.net users, PM me for info ) and this lens is replacing it. The main reason I'm moving to this is because the G is lighter, more compact, and has SSM (ultrasonic) focus. The Bigma is still a good lens, but I don't use the 500mm end all that much and at this point someone who wants a less expensive telezoom can have the opportunity to use it.
The G has a platinum pearl finish. It's not silver in the sense of a metal flake color - the finish feels like a tough powdercoat. It certainly feels more robust to the touch than the older white finish on the Minolta primes. The SSM focus is certainly much faster than the Bigma, and silent too. The only noise is the lens elements moving; the motor is dead silent.
Here's an image gallery of the lens, case, box, and a comparison with the Bigma.
At 400mm, the actual lens body of the G is shorter by about an inch compared to the Sigma at the same focal length. However, the G's hood is much bigger. Here's a few initial notes and observations.
1. The Sony lens case for it is interestingly designed. It's certainly more compact than the Bigma's soft case. The strap is very thin, though. Maybe I'll put my old Sony camera strap on it instead. Odds are this case won't be used much. However it does have a loop connector so you could thread it on to your belt or a backpack. The case opens and closes via means of a twin zipper system, making it easy to stow if you attach the case to a bag or belt. The Bigma's bag requires you to unzip the top, which can be a bit cumbersome to add or remove it. I hear this case design is similar to some Nikon cases; it wouldn't surprise me if it was made by the same company. The materials are leather and felt with some ballistic nylon mixed in.
2. The silver color is not as garish as I thought it would be. It's a platinum type of color, similar to my old Titanium Powerbook G4... though the G4 was a little darker. The finish has a tacky non-glossy texture to it and it's not very smooth. Probably some form of powder coat. If you don't like it... buy a lenscoat.
3. The lens shade is not as flimsy as I expected. In fact, it's quite similar to the Bigma (which is shorter) and the Tamron 70-200 hood in terms of weight and feel. I have a nice, positive CLICK when locking it in. There isn't much resistance when it is not locked in, though. It is not metal, thusly people will notice, but I do not think it is bad. Plus, it has the polarizer window, one of my favorite features. Simply slide the window open and you can adjust your polarizer or other filter. It's also flocked with velvet instead of the ribbing used by Sigma and Tamron.
4. In the hand the weight does not feel too different than the Bigma at first. That is to say, this is a very dense lens. With the caps, tripod collar, and lens shade attached, the 70-400 weighs 3.8 lbs (1,723 g). The Bigma in the same configuration is 4.4 pounds (1,995 g). Sony's official specs lists the lens at 3.5 pounds or 1500 g, so that extra weight must come from the tripod collar and lens shade. Suffice to say that nearly half a pound is a significant weight reduction.
5. I love that silent and fast SSM focus. The Bigma was not really a slouch for tracking but it did take forever to rack from minimum to infinity. The focus limiter works from 3 meters to infinity, which cuts a lot of the focus range out. Perfect for aviation and air shows, cause you're not going to close focus in those situations.
6. The lens, in terms of compactness, is about an inch shorter than the Bigma in their collapsed and extended positions (when the Bigma is at 400mm). The 70-400 G's hood is significantly longer. The 70-400 is also somewhat narrower in diameter. This makes it easier to fit in camera bags, especially with a body attached.
7. The tripod collar on the 70-400 cannot be removed when the camera body is attached. Incidentally, this is also true for the Bigma. However, the 70-400's collar is much easier to turn, and it has both 1/4 and 3/8 inch tripod sockets to accommodate various quick release systems. The collar also can't act as a handle like the Bigma's, but the Bigma's collar can be unwieldy at times. Bit of a tradeoff here but Sony erred on compactness.
The waether here is going to be terrible over the next week, so image quality samples will have to wait for now.
Another thing that I picked up that is useful to all photographers is the BlackRapid RS-5 "R-Strap." The idea behind the R-Strap is that it acts as a sling that allows your camera to freely move up and down the strap. In the rest position, the camera sits around your hip. It's designed for quick access to the camera and comfort. With the R-strap attached to the Bigma's tripod collar, it feels like barely having anything on you at all. Moving the weight to your shoulder and chest helps keep you from tiring out.
The strap can also be used to help stabilize long lenses by placing your elbow into the nylon part. It's a clever idea that works very well to keep you from shaking and bobbing the lens.
The RS-5 has a lot of clever features, like a cell phone case (that can hold big smart phones) and a secondary flap that holds memory cards, batteries, business cards, etc. That secondary flap opens and closes via magnets, so you don't have to fiddle with clasps, velcro, etc. Just throw the flap over your shoulder and it automatically locks up. Very clever.
The only drawback is that it costs $54 for the cheapest version (RS-4 which has no extra flaps or cell phone storage). The RS-5 was $64. It's not a cheap strap by any means, but it's a case of getting what you pay for here. There's a lot of cleverness that you probably wouldn't find in a knockoff. If you have a heavy lens that you like to handhold, it would probably make your day a lot easier.
One thing that drives me absolutely batty is the propensity of the lock on the Connector to sieze up and be difficult to loosen. I think I might ask them for a replacement. It took three a.net photographers (myself included) to unscrew it for the first time. It wasn't that difficult in the store! Also, you might be tempted to use tripod quick release plates instead of the Fastener thingies, but there have been reports of the rings on those quick release plates deforming and failing because they're not made to be load bearing. BlackRapid's working on a replacement D-ring to solve this problem. If you want to read something more detailed, you can check out my full review.