Saturday, August 23, 2014

Sony E-Mount 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS (SEL-55210) Review

"Small" is relative. By the standards of the film era, modern digital cameras... DSLR's and compacts alike... are all smaller than their 35mm film precursors. That in itself is a good thing, but for many people, cameras cannot be small enough given how much bigger they are relative to cell phones. When you shrink a DSLR into what is the modern mirrorless class of cameras, "small" not only becomes relative, it actually reveals itself as a situation quality. Mirrorless cameras are only small when they have small lenses attached to them. If you need longer or brighter focal lengths, the practical working size of the cameras isn't that much less than your average entry-mid-level DSLR.

Inevitably, compromises have to be made. The Sony SEL-55210 is one such compromise. On the one hand, it gives a very useful extension as a 55-210mm zoom in APS-C format. On the other hand, it's a slow variable-aperture lens that only ranges between f/4.5 to f/6.3. By DSLR stands, that would make it a mediocre lens, but in the context of Sony's mirrorless system, it's a sensible buy. It's all about context


The 55-210mm is a a striking lens to look at. The silver version looks more like a fancy coffee tumbler than a piece of camera equipment. Cosmetically, it will match either the silver or black bodied Sony mirrorless cameras, as the sheen of the metallic finish is tempered by the wide rubber control surfaces of zoom and focus rings. The black version of this lens is similarly striking, but only matches the black cameras well.

Sony SEL55210 with A6000

If you extend the zoom barrel, the cost-savings becomes apparent. The finish of the inner barrel is flatter and betrays its plastic construction. There is a hind of barrel wobble, but no more than any other lens in this category. When you pick up the lens, it is remarkable how light it feels in your hand. Sony resisted the temptation to push the aperture size on this lens; the result is a light and slim construction that only requires a 49mm diameter filters.

Though it is an inexpensive lens, the optical design is 13 elements in 9 groups, and includes 2 elements with 4 aspherical surfaces. These types of elements are more expensive than normal to produce, but at this price range they are of generally of the moulded/laminated glass variety, and not like the ground-glass aspheric elements found in high-end lenses. Aspheric elements hold to reduce the amount of glass necessary to form the optical system; their pervasive use in modern lenses is part of the reason why entry-level optics today is so much better than it was in the past, but as is discussed below, there are some implications.

As with long lenses in this price range, there is no provision for a tripod collar, nor does there need to be, as the lens is light enough that it does not impose an excessive amount of torque on the tripod mount. With any of the Sony mirrorless cameras, you would be okay with a decent tripod rated to 2kg of static load. 

General Use

The SEL55210 is suited to the NEX mission in that it provides reasonable image quality for a general-purpose audience. Like the other consumer-oriented E-Mount lenses, the SEl55210 was designed primarily for JPEG shooters and was designed to work in conjunction with the cameras' built-in optical correction software for distortion, lateral chromatic aberration, etc. Unlike the kit 16-50mm zoom that comes standard on the Sony A5000, A5100 and A6000, the 55-210mm isn't a complete optical disaster when you take the unprocessed data instead of the in-camera JPEG. There isn't a crazy amount of distortion or optical aberrations to deal with. 

Here are examples of how the field of view changes as you zoom out:


Image Quality: Detail Resolving and Bokeh

Generally speaking, this is 90% of what most casual photographers will need. If you require more zoom than this, the chances are that the subject matter is also moving, in which case a DSLR would give more consistent results. The SEL55210 will do fine with family outings and kids sports in outdoor situations, but its narrower aperture will pose some challenges in achieving adequate shutter speeds for indoor arenas. Generally speaking, you can still use this lens for indoor sports, but be prepared to raise the ISO as far as you can tolerate. Though it won't help you freeze the motion of moving subjects, the optical image stabilizer works just as well as any other system in steadying the lens for non-moving subjects.

In technical terms, geometric distortion is fairly well controlled, but is always on the pin-cushion side of the equation. As you would expect for a lens with a small-diameter front element, vignetting is something that you have to live with (if you shoot RAW). It's not excessive, but it doesn't truly become unassuming until f/8; that's true throughout the focal length range. Chromatic aberration is higher than average for this lens. It's true that the JPEG engine corrects for this, but it's never truly eliminated and is something to be mindful of when shooting in harsh lighting conditions. In terms of outright resolving power, the performance pattern is fairly typical of consumer zoom lenses. The lens is generally sharper and more contrasty at the wide end of the lens, and the corners lag behind the central portion of the image.

Coming back to the use of aspheric lens elements, there is a downside to their use if done so on a budget. Bokeh does tend to suffer because of this, and that is especially true for the SEL55210. If you are shooting against a busy background, you can get results like this:

55mm, f/5.6
100mm, f/5.6
210mm, f/6.3

The take home message is that you can produce decent images with this lens, but always be mindful of what is in the background behind your subject.

Concluding Thoughts

As was previously alluded to, the Sony SEL55210 is almost a no-brainer lens for the Sony E-Mount system. "The smart money is in lenses" ... and that is true for the E-Mount cameras. This lens adds functionality that isn't available with the basic kit option, and for the most part, there are precious few alternatives. One thing to bear in mind, no matter how svelt the E-Mount system is, in practical terms, once you add longer lenses, the practical difference in size is not that far from that of a small DSLR:

Left: Nikon D3300 and 55-200mm      Right: A6000 and SEl55210

Even though the mirrorless option is smaller and lighter, it requires a similar amount of camera bag to carry around. The difference is that you can leave the longer lens behind and be left with a true small system. For the majority of people, long-zoom lenses see significantly less use than their standard-zooms. Though this may be true of the SEL55210, its low price and competent performance make it a lens worth having nonetheless.

With thanks to Broadway Camera

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