The Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G Master Lens at Monticello Motor Club

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It should be a quick drive from New York City to Monticello Motor Club, upstate in the Catskill Mountains, but driving out of “The City,” even on a good day, is an exercise in patience and brake-pad wear. Luckily for our hands-on test of the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens and the Sony Alpha a9, the average speed of our day increased exponentially as we arrived at the 4.1-mile asphalt race track.

When the Sony a9 was launched, it was obvious that the marketing effort was focused on the action-photography crowd. Long under the reign of the motor-driven SLR and DSLR, only the single-lens reflex camera had the sheer speed to keep up with the action on the court, pitch, field, and track. The Sony a9, with its blazing 20-frames-per-second speed and focus-tracking capabilities, is the mirrorless camera world’s first attempt to de-throne the DSLR as the king of speed.

For more on the Sony Alpha a9 and some action shots, check out this article by Shawn Steiner.

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1333230-REG/sony_sel100400gm_fe_100_400mm_f_4_5_5_6_gm.html
Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens
https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1333228-REG/sony_ilce_9_b_alpha_a9_mirrorless_digital.html
Sony Alpha a9 Mirrorless Digital Camera

To appeal to the sports shooter, you need to offer a lens with your speed-demon camera and, for Sony, it was the G Master FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 that launched in conjunction with the A9. While not as large, aperture-ly speaking, as the “pro” sports lenses, the new 100-400mm lens certainly has a great focal-length range for capturing lots of action.

A Porsche GT3 RS at speed, captured at 20 fps. It looks like a video, but each frame is a 24MP still image.

Location

I wanted to test both the Sony Alpha a9 and new G Master lens in an environment that would allow us to experience the lens’s telephoto range, as well as the camera’s ability to track fast-moving subjects while playing toward its 20 fps power.

Porsches race by at 20 fps.

As a bit of a “car guy,” the thought of shooting at a race track appealed to me. Unfortunately, shooting for B&H Explora is considered commercial photography, so showing up at Watkins Glen or Lime Rock wouldn’t really work. However, Monticello Motor Club, a private automotive country club north of “The City,” in the idyllic Catskill Mountains, would work well. Where else can you watch exotic cars circle a pristine racetrack? Where else can you crawl into the trunk of a BMW M5 and photograph a 1962 Renault Alpine M64 Le Mans Prototype?  And, where else can you get access, not only to a beautiful road circuit, but a cart and off-road course, as well? Did I mention a fantastic lunch and homemade cookies?

Yes, cookies.

I am not great at tracking, but here is a modified Porsche 911 coming and going at 20 fps.

I digress. Let’s talk about the lens and then more about Monticello Motor Club.

Ready for the next pass Cory Rice

Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens

Let’s skip the numbers for the purposes of brevity. If you are not familiar with the specs of the new lens, click here. For this article, I will start with what I liked and then address what I didn’t like so much, and let the images tell the rest of the story.

Track action Todd Vorenkamp

 

As Sony’s new flagship telephoto lens, this FE 100-400 has a lot riding on it. Optically, it did not disappoint. Everything looked sharp in the a9’s electronic viewfinder, but you can only tell so much from the viewfinder. On screen, the images are certainly sharp. I guess it was a combination of steady hands (maybe) and the Optical SteadyShot image stabilization that resulted in crisp images.

Karting action Todd Vorenkamp

What I really liked about the lens was its close-focus capabilities. Our adventures at Monticello took us from trackside, where we were photographing speeding cars at a great distance, to a few garages and the paddock, where we were immersed in automotive overload. The minimum focus distance of the Sony FE lens is 3.22' (nearly identical to the Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens). This close-focus capability allowed me to get detailed images of some beautiful machinery without having to switch lenses—fantastic for working the track and the surroundings. I could tell a great deal of Monticello Motor Club’s visual story with one lens.

Racing is in the details. Todd Vorenkamp

I was accompanied by my B&H teammates Cory Rice (photo writer) and Bobby Sansivero (video team). In between shooting cars and more cars, I turned my camera on them and shot some long(er)-range portraits. The G Master lens took to this task well. Bokeh quality? You can make that call on your own, because bokeh is a subjective thing.

Portraits Todd Vorenkamp

The FE 100-400 is not a super-heavy lens; it is lighter than the Canon of the same focal length, but after an entire day of shooting and 8,000 images (thanks to the 20 fps performance of the a9), my arms were definitely feeling it.

The snake-like Dodge Viper at 20 fps

My least favorite part of the lens is the feel of the zoom ring. The action is certainly smooth, but it reeks of plastic. Yep, I am one of those shooters who bemoans the loss of mechanical feel in today’s lenses. At first, the zoom ring felt particularly stiff. Then I noticed the friction control. Turning that to minimum (“Tight” to “Smooth”) helped, but the overall feel never shifted away from the feel of plastic on plastic. Does it feel horrible? No. Could it feel better? Probably, if the thing had more metal inside. Will I sit at my desk daydreaming and using the FE 100-400’s zoom ring as my newest fidget spinner? Definitely not.

The 1964 Renault Alpine M64 Le Mans Prototype, One of three built, photographed from the trunk of a BMW M5 on the track. “I never got out of second, because this thing is geared for Le Mans,” said the Renault pilot. Todd Vorenkamp

The Combo

Together, the Sony Alpha a9 and G Master FE 100-400 lens make a fantastic combo for today’s action shooter. The a9 is very fast when operating in continuous shooting mode with its mechanical shutter engaged—around 5 frames per second. Tracking cars at high speed and close range is difficult on a good day, but when you switch to the electronic-shutter-only mode and boost up to 20 fps on the a9, the lack of blackout is a boon to the photographer panning with the action. My miss rate dropped considerably once I was shooting in 20 fps mode—only losing tracking when the cars were mere feet away.

1962 Lotus 22 Formula Jr Todd Vorenkamp

The 1962 Lotus 22 Formula Jr at 20 fps

Having photographed race cars with a DSLR and long lens in the past, I would say that the a9 would be my preferred weapon of choice, moving forward. I cannot tell you if my hit rate was greater (it probably was), but being able to track the movement, uninterrupted, at 20 fps, is something to write home about.

The Porsche Cayman at 20 fps

When it comes to focus tracking and accuracy, there are zero complaints. The Alpha a9 is a smart camera and the flickering, constantly shifting focus indicators prove that the camera is thinking hard when it comes to getting every shot in focus.

The off-road course Todd Vorenkamp

NOTE: All images illustrating the article are straight-out-of-the-camera JPEG images, and no post-processing.

Monticello Motor Club

If you are having trouble imagining a country club with a racetrack, just imagine your local country club with asphalt straightaways instead of manicured fairways and golf carts with several hundred horsepower instead of electric motors. Monticello Motor Club, in Monticello, New York, is a country club where members can drive their own exotic vehicles on a pristine 4.1-mile circuit with 1.5 miles of straightaways and 450 feet of elevation changes. The course was designed by famous racer Brian Redman and architect Bruce Hawkins. Throw in a skid pad and two off-road circuits, as well as a clubhouse, garages, lounge, kart track, helipad, driving school, pit facilities, and more. Additionally, a fleet of high-performance vehicles is available for trips around the circuit.

The Club Todd Vorenkamp

Our hosts were extremely generous in showing us around, with track photographer and media coordinator Chris Szczypala taking us to the best vantage points to watch the cars, and feeding us delicious cookies.

18 Comments

With the a9's 20 fps and the addition of the 100-400 lens, I wonder if this combo will be used by sports photographers at NFL games and the Olympics.

"The a9 is very fast when operating in continuous shooting mode with its mechanical shutter engaged—around 10 frames per second"

 

I'm curious how you got 10fps with mechanical shutter when the specs say it can do only 5fps.

Hi Alex,

I was shooting JPEG only. Unless I am mistaken, it does 10fps with JPEG and 5fps with raw images.

If I am wrong, someone please correct me! It definitely was more than 5fps.

JPEG would not make any difference to the speed, only what can be held in the buffer.

 

Shootin JPEG would impact only on the number of images the camera can hold in the buffer, not the continuous shooting speed.

 

It clearly says in the manual, "5 images per second at maximum".

You are correct, sir! I was mislead by our own spec page and the fact that it definitely felt like it was faster than 5fps.

Thanks for helping us clarify. I will have the text changed ASAP.

Cheers,

Todd

 I believe that is referring to the mechanical shutter not the electronic shutter.

Yes, that is exactly what we were talking about.

I think we are all clear now, correct? :)

Hmmm I'm a Videomaker and I'm shooting my documentary with the Alpha 7 RII...I need a Zoom 70-200 Canon or this beautiful 100-400 sony lens? Any videoTest? 

Hi Antony,

Unfortunately, I didn't shoot video as I was concentrating on the still performance of the a9 and video, I am told, is not the a9's strength. Optically, it seems very very good, and the autofocus and zoom action are virtually silent. I would recommend it for video without hesitation.

Thanks for stopping by!

The photos/movies look like they are dark on the sides. I have a Sony 70-300mm and it does not have photos that are dark on the sides and also looks much crisper. I wish you had actually done a test on various subjects other than cars.

Hey mike,

Thanks for your input! There are photos of a helicopter as well as portraits in the article above, not just cars. Also, just to be clear, all images above are SOOC JPEGs.

Thanks for reading!

Awesome coverage. Really shows the a9 and new zoom in their element. The little not to love about this new body - its shortcomings are almost unnoticeable considering these results. Let's see if it is good enough to get into the movies!

Just wondering what the viewfinder / shoulder mount and hand control accessory is in the portraits set of pics? I have an a9 and a 100-400 on order and would be very interested in something like that setup.

Hi John,

Our videographer, Bobby Sansivero, was using a Sony FS7 digital video camera that includes the viewfinder setup you see. He was actually pulling focus by hand on Canon lenses adapted to the Sony camera. And, his shoulder rig mount was a Vocas base plate for the FS7.

Thanks for reading!