Last week, Sony announced two APS-C cameras and two more G-series lenses for their crop-sensor system. In this first-look review, I share my thoughts after photographing birds with the new a6600 and E 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS.
Handling and Operation
Pairing up the 1.1 pound Sony a6600 and 1.3 pound E 70-350mm is a relatively lightweight and compact 2.4 pound kit considering the full-frame equivalent focal length goes from 105mm to 525mm. The E 70-350mm in fact is now Sony’s longest APS-C lens. The combination of these two products will be easily handholdable for a majority of people, with in-body image stabilization and the lens’ Optical SteadyShot working in tandem to help anchor down the framing without carrying a tripod.
At its most compact, the lens length measures in at 5.6 inches. Adding a couple more inches to account for the a6600 body, it’s not too unwieldy to keep on a shoulder strap or use a smaller shoulder bag to store it in when not in use. In comparison, it’s very similar in size to the full-frame FE 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G OSS lens except has a slightly smaller diameter (3 inches) while still packing in an extra 50mm of reach.
The 70-350mm lens body does extend externally while zooming in to 350mm by up to about 2.5 inches. There is a zoom lock to avoid lens creep from occurring, but it’s unfortunate that it will only lock while the focal length is at 70mm. As someone who would (and did) use this lens at 350mm for 99 percent of the time, nothing is more infuriating than accidentally backing off that focal length from simply handling the lens while shooting. You learn pretty quick to adjust your shooting style to always put a very slight clockwise pressure on the zoom ring to ensure you’re kept at the highest focal length.
One new change making its way to the a6600 is adopting the newer, larger capacity Z battery previously found in Sony’s full-frame a9 and a7 III-series cameras. On the a6500, which uses the smaller W battery, CIPA rated it for 350 shots. Now on the a6600 with the Z battery, CIPA is rating it for 810 shots. That’s a major bump with more than double the shots, and Sony claims it has the longest mirrorless APS-C battery life in the industry.
After a few hours of setting up the camera and shooting, my a6600’s battery was at 68 percent. To me, that seems like a quick drain, however I wasn’t exactly shooting in my typical fashion. Anytime I’m reviewing a camera under a time crunch, in this case just a couple hours to be hands-on, there’s always the lingering pit in my stomach that I won’t produce enough content. So I’m always shooting, half-pressing the shutter and hanging onto that in-body and lens OSS image stabilization, chimping photos in the viewfinder and on the back screen to make sure I’m not messing up, and constantly digging in the settings menu. With that, 68 percent seems less concerning to me.
I did not shoot video with the a6600, so I am curious to see how the battery upgrade performs in that area. Since the a6300 was released with 4K capabilities, the 6000-series has been growing a reputation for being a decent budget-friendly video option. One of the bigger downsides of recording 4K on these cameras was the battery life, and with this upgrade alone I can imagine the a6600 will increase its worth for run-and-gunners.
With a bigger camera battery comes a bigger grip to house it. The depth is on par with the a7 III-series cameras, but not quite comparable to the much better a7R IV design. To me, it’s less of a noticeable issue when pairing the a6600 to the 70-350mm as the pairing is more like holding the lens with a camera attached to it rather than holding a camera with a lens attached to it.
In my opinion, the biggest missed opportunity with the a6600’s new physical form factor is not including a front control dial on the grip. As it is now, there’s only two control dials on the camera yet three exposure settings — shutter speed, aperture, ISO — I always want instant access to. When I asked Sony whether or not this was due to any sort of limitation with the internal layout of the camera, I was informed it was not. However, from my conversation it did sound like a front dial for this system is very much on Sony’s radar and could very well appear in a future higher end APS-C model.
Sony a6600 Electronic Viewfinder and Rear LCD Display
One of my first thoughts after pairing up these two newly announced products was wondering if it would be a good kit for a birdwatcher that wanted to transition into photography. From what I’ve seen now, I’m not sure the case can really be made completely. A big problem is the low quality EVF that looks far too digital for people who want to see fine details. Sony went with the same old 2,359k-dot EVF found in the a6300 on up to the a7 III rather than splurging for the a7R III’s 3,686k-dot EVF and certainly not the noticeably improved 5.760k-dot EVF on the a7R IV.
On the back of the a6600 is a 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD that can now tilt 180 degrees up and 74 degrees down. While this scenario involves neither of the new tilt limits, I really appreciate a mirrorless camera’s LCD screen when I’m trying to photograph any birds at ground level. Instead of laying prone, if I wish I can be crouched instead and flip up the screen to 90 degrees and not lose any autofocus reliability like with DSLRs. With the a6600 for photography, I can be mostly thankful that Sony again refused to cave to the YouTube elite and didn't put a swing-out swivel screen on it.
Before I even started shooting with the kit and was still at the announcement event, the first thing I did with the 70-300mm is find out where in the focal lengths the change in variable f-stops occurred. So to break it down, from 70mm to 81mm it’s f/4.5, 82mm to 113mm it’s f/5, 114mm to 199mm it’s f/5.6, and 200mm to 350mm is f/6.3. As I stated above, I would personally use this lens at the far telephoto end, so it’s going to be all f/6.3 all day for me. The smaller aperture means it’s going to rely more on the a6600’s ISO performance to gather the light needed in my exposures.
Let’s move on now to the combo’s autofocus performance. The a6600 comes with Sony’s latest autofocus improvements including Real-time Tracking and Real-time Eye AF for humans and animals. It also has a bump in contrast-detect autofocus points, going from 169 in the a6500 to 425 in the a6600. There’s still 425 phase detect autofocus points as all a6000-series cameras have (except for the original a6000 model). Sony claims the a6600 can autofocus down to EV -2 in AF-S mode.
On the lens side, the E 70-350mm sports Sony’s top-of-the-line XD linear motor. It’s the same motor used in their latest G Master lens releases, as well as in the E 16-55mm f/2.8 G lens that was announced alongside the 70-350mm. The 70-350mm features a customizable focus hold button and AF/MF switch on the side of the barrel.
Combined, I found the system to be relaxed but accurate to acquire focus. It’s not lightning fast to acquire focus, and if you told me the lens had Sony’s XD linear motor over their older technologies I wouldn’t have guessed it. There was no noticeable speed bump in the autofocus system that I could see when it comes to sweeps of the focus range. I’m guessing the benefits with the XD motor in the 70-350mm are found in tracking movements to effectively lock on a subject moving from point A to point B (rather than defocused at point A and acquiring focus at point B), utilizing the new Real-time Tracking and Real-time Eye AF modes of the a6600. For tracking birds in flight, panning with the bird was always accurate, but the more the bird was angled toward me in flight the more frames were slightly out of focus. That said, almost every camera I’ve ever owned has had the same deficiency.
Unfortunately, there is no full-time manual focus override, so in order to manually focus, one does need to flip the switch. For bird photography, this can be problematic in some situations where the subject is in dense foliage or tall grasses and I need to manually focus to the general spot where they are bouncing around, waiting for them to pop up and autofocus on them. It’s also much faster to manual focus back to the right spot when a lens begins to hunt focus rather than wait for it to go through the range and circle back. The motion of moving your hand to flip the switch to MF, moving to adjust the focus manually, then moving back to flip the switch again to AF is asking a little too much for fidgety birds.
On the plus side, manual focusing is linear response driven. Rather than having the speed in which you adjust the focus ring determine how much the focus changes, it acts more like a traditional lens where a small turn at any speed gives you the same shift in focus. It’s more predictable and for me, makes manual focusing speedy and accurate.
Single Slot UHS-I SD Card
This is something I didn’t even learn until after I was done shooting for the day, but the a6600 is only UHS-I compatible. So take that for what you may on its real-world importance. I also had to be reminded that some people really care about having two card slots. I’m not one of those people, but if you are, there’s strike two with the storage.
Although Sony claims the a6600 now has 1.8 times the processing speed to funnel their 16-bit image capture outputted as 14-bit raw files, I will say that clearing the buffer after shooting a 8 frames per second photo sequence was borderline slow. I never found myself in a “come on, come on, come on!” situation, but it was also an uneventful, rainy day at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York. With more use, this may become a point of frustration, but for now it got me through the day.
Shooting photos of birds is tons of fun, but what’s it all for if the image quality doesn’t inspire more creation? The a6600 features a 24.2-megapixel sensor with improved color reproduction and can shoot up to ISO 102,400. The 70-350mm lens uses 19 elements in 13 groups including 1 aspherical element and 3 extra-low dispersion elements. When the subject is close, there is a good amount of fine feather detail being resolved out of the lens.
For songbird photography with a maximum equivalent focal length of 525mm, many image files are likely going to be cropped to some degree to enlarge the animal. The a6600 files handled cropping moderately well, although the higher ISO noise characteristics became problematic as they grew in size. Having just 24 megapixels to work with, there is a fast approaching limit to how much crop can be performed in the first place while still having a decently sized image to print or share outside of Instagram.
The lens exhibits heavy vignetting at 350mm. I program my Sony cameras to use zebra masks for highlights, and it was apparent even while shooting that the zebra would light up as a circle in the center of the frame far before the exposure of the corners would. Once popular photo editing applications start adding camera and lens profiles for the new gear I’m sure a lot of this will go away automatically in lens corrections, but there has to be some loss of image quality or color fidelity in the corners to match the center.
Finally, there were no surprises with the out of focus qualities of this $1,000 APS-C f/6.3 lens. If you shoot it like you do with an f/4 super-telephoto lens, of course it’s going to be rather busy in comparison. This lens won’t be melting away any imperfect backgrounds. The smart way to play it will be to understand its limitation and adapt around it by working in places where the background will be further from the subject, having more patience to get closer to your wild subjects, or just use the not-so-out-of-focus backgrounds to your advantage by going for bird in the environment shots rather than close-up portraits.
For a combined total of $2,400, the $1,400 Sony a6600 camera and $1,000 Sony E 70-350mm lens opens up a new avenue for photographers looking to begin down the path of capturing detailed wildlife images in the Sony mirrorless system.
The Sony one-mount ethos also lends a hand to new adopters. Down the line, the lens may be upgraded to the FE 200-600mm G meant for full-frame Sony cameras, for example, but is perfectly compatible with the a6600 as well. And on the other hand, a photographer may want to trade for a Sony full-frame camera and the E 70-350mm will adopt over just as well using the camera’s crop mode (with still 24-megapixels to work with if moving to the a7R IV). This places a lot of safety in suggesting Sony’s APS-C line to those who have a tighter budget, because they won’t be woefully locked in if circumstances or needs change.