Alongside the highly-anticipated a9 announcement, Sony also introduced the FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G Master telephoto lens. After the initial buzz and excitement over something shiny and new being announced subsided, I began to question why Sony released this lens at this particular time of intense market expansion.
If you missed the news, here's a general rundown of the FE 100-400mm G Master. The $2,498 full-frame lens has a variable maximum aperture of f/4.5-f/5.6 and a variable minimum aperture of f/32-f/40. On a crop-sensor camera body, such as the a6500, the lens is effectively a 150-600mm super-telephoto. It contains one Super ED element and two ED elements, and in total there's 22 elements in 16 groups inside. There's a Nano AR coating to reduce reflections, ghosting, and flaring, plus the front element has a fluorine coating for dust and smudge protection. The lens has built-in Optical SteadyShot and uses a Direct Drive SSM focusing system. Physical controls on the barrel of the lens include a focus range limiter (full or infinity–3 meters), three customizable focus hold buttons (top, left, and bottom), AF/MF switch, OSS on/off switch, and a mode switch. The tripod foot is rotatable and removable and you can adjust the zoom stiffness to your taste. This is the second lens Sony has released that is compatible with the FE 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters.
Now what I can't help but think is that the group of people who will actually buy this lens seems very small due to both the price and poorly distanced specifications compared to what Sony already has available. If Sony is going to release a lens alongside the battle-ready a9, wouldn't it have made more sense to really bring it and let loose on a sports lens show-stopper that goes all out in its niche rather than this slow, variable apertured telephoto zoom lens they announced? With the camera division kicking ass left and right in innovation, is there not any juice left over for daring lens development?
The lens seems crippled in a way in order to expand its marketability to a more diverse audience, but in doing so they made it into another generic release that pleases hardly anyone that they need on their side in taking this big step into professional sports and wildlife photography. Let's take a look at who the potential buyers are for this lens.
Canon or Nikon Photographers
The current lineup of lenses with Canon and Nikon beat out the FE 100-400mm from all sides. It's not a serious enough lens for sports and wildlife photographers and it's certainly not enough to be the final straw towards switching brands.
Current Sony photographers that are shooting off an E-mount body and require telephotos for their work probably already own the 70-200mm f/4, 70-200mm f/2.8 GM, or the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6. To purchase the 100-400mm, the owners in these groups are either going to sell off their current telephoto lens to offset the new buy, or they will pay up the full $2,498 price to add the lens to their kit.
70-200mm f/4 Owners
Owners purchased this lens because it was cheaper ($1,498), smaller, or lighter weight than the f/2.8 GM version. Many who bought it prior to the f/2.8 GM being released didn't find it necessary to upgrade either. None of these specs that these owners are interested in get any better with the new 100-400mm.
70-200mm f/2.8 Owners
Owners purchased this lens because of the one-stop speed improvement over the f/4 model, better image quality over the f/4 model, plus were willing to pay a premium in price ($2,598), size, and weight in order to get those. The ability to pay another $548 and get a Sony FE 2.0x Teleconverter may have been optioned and they have already been shooting at 400mm f/5.6 with good enough results for a while now. In comparison to the 100-400mm, 70-200mm f/2.8 owners already have a lower aperture in the 100mm-200mm range. Adding a 2.0x teleconverter will bring them up to a f/5.6 aperture and 400mm focal length, but that just ends up matching the numbers of the 100-400mm — plus there's still that versatility of just removing the teleconverter to open up your options again. Using a teleconverter will degrade image quality and autofocus to a degree, so it's up to the photographer for a final determination if it's enough to warrant paying for an additional premium G Master lens or selling the 70-200mm f/2.8 to help fund it; Either way will end up costing more than the FE 2.0x teleconverter's $548 price.
70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Owners
Owners purchased this lens either because it was previously the furthest reaching Sony FE telephoto lens option or for its cheaper price ($1,198). Owners who purchased on price simply may not be able to afford the $2,498 100-400mm. Owners who purchased for the focal length may not see the value in an extra 100mm reach being double the price.
I'm confident that there are buyers excited for this lens, but it seems like they are merely the exception. The Sony a9 says "This is the new future of sports photography," whereas the lens announced alongside it says "Here's just another thing we made." Unfortunately it's not enough of a knockout in originality for it to not be comparable against their previous telephoto releases, and for that reason I don't understand why they thought right now was the right time for it. A true professional sports lens makes so much more sense at this pivotal time. When Sony announced the category-of-its-own a9, I would have loved to see it be paired with a category-of-its-own lens as well: A fast super-telephoto prime, anyone?