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