March 21, 2014

Sony 55-210 OSS Tele-Zoom Lens: Hands-On Review

Three lenses: MC Tele-Rokkor PF 135 with SR mount adapter, SEL55210, and SEL1855 (L-R)

My favorite NEX camera lens (apart from the special-purpose SLR Magic 35/1.7) is the kit 18-55 tele-zoom. But I often found myself wishing for a longer focal length when outside or at events. I tried a few old Minolta lenses with an adapter, but these were difficult to use since they lack stabilization and auto-focus. So I decided to pick up the Sony 55-210 tele-zoom for the NEX system; here’s my hands-on review.

Wanted: A Longer Lens for Sony NEX Camera System

Walking around with my NEX-5, I often find myself drawn to extreme close-up photos with a shallow depth of field. This is mostly due to the limited lenses I have on hand: I usually carry just my SLR Magic 35 mm and the Sony 18-55 kit zoom. Although 55 mm on a NEX-5 is equivalent to almost 85 mm on a 35mm camera, it’s still not much of a zoom. I often found myself wishing I could “go closer” to more distant subjects.

Extreme contrast: The giant 260 mm Vivitar/Tokina tele-zoom and the tiny SLR Magic 35 mm prime

My first experiment with a really long telephoto lens was a classic Vivitar/Tokina 260 mm F/4.5 lens for the Minolta SR mount. I picked up a cheap adapter on eBay, and managed to take some excellent baseball photos with that lens combination. But the lack of in-camera image stabilization really works against lenses like this. Although I was able to shoot fairly well in bright light, it really needs a tripod and remote in the shade and is completely useless in dim conditions.

At the time, the only long stabilized zoom for the NEX system was the 18-200 mm “video lens” built for the NEX-VG10 camcorder. Although reviewers have waxed poetic about the quality of this lens, it costs $800 alone, or over $2000 with the camcorder. I just couldn’t justify spending that much money for a single lens that wouldn’t be used very often.

My next attempt was a fast and compact Minolta Tele-Rokkor -PF 135 mm lens seen at the top. The optical speed of this lens (F/2.8), combined with its shorter focal length, meant it didn’t need quite as much light. But I was dissatisfied with the overall experience, since the magnification was only 2.5 times more than the stabilized Sony kit zoom. My shouts from game one of the World Series in St. Louis were barely usable, a major disappointment for me.

It was a cloudy day in San Diego, but these images directly compare the SEL1855, SEL55210, and Minolta Tele-Rokkor PF 135
SEL55210 at 55 mm and f/4.5 SEL1855 at 55 mm and f/5.6
SEL55210 at 135 mm f/5.6 MC Tele-Rokkor PF 135 2.8 at 135 mm and f/6.3
SEL55210 at 210 mm f/6.3

Introducing the Sony SEL55210 Tele-Zoom for NEX

Fully kitted-out with filters, caps, and hoods, the SEL55210 is definitely larger than the SEL1855 kit zoom, but the pair isn't too much to carry around

Introduced in 2011, the Sony SEL55210 is a less expensive alternative to the high-end SEL18200 tele-zoom lens. As the name implies, the SEL55210 zooms from 55 mm all the way to 210 mm, with the aperture starting at F/4.5 and ending up at F/6.3. Although this is not a “fast” lens, optically speaking, the built-in image stabilization makes it much more usable in low light conditions than one would expect.

The SEL55210 is compact and lightweight, seemingly a longer-bodied brother of the 18-55 mm kit zoom then its “beer can” 18-200 mm cousin. It’s almost exactly the same size and weight as a 12 ounce can of Coke, making it portable and practical with a compact system camera like the Sony NEX.

Sony OSS makes this lens useful indoors and with poor lighting

Since it picks up exactly where the SEL1855 kit zoom lens leaves off, the combination of these two lenses really is a dynamic duo. Two jacket pockets of the NEX camera and both lenses for a trip around town, and a compact camera case holds everything for vacation. Start with wide shots at 18 mm (F/3.5), zoom in to 35 or 40 mm (about F/4.5), then change to the SEL55210 for F/4.5 shots from 55 mm on out. With these two lenses, you’re covered for long shots at 210 mm (315 mm equivalent) as well.

210 mm brings much-needed telephoto capability to the NEX camera

I was quite impressed by the amount of stabilization afforded by the SEL55210′s Optical SteadyShot technology. A half-press of the NEX shutter button engages OSS and camera shake ceases. In my first experiments in Union Square, I was easily able to track squirrels at 210 mm. I could also hold the camera steady enough with one hand to focus long-distance shots with the Direct Manual Focus (DMF) function afforded by this camera/lens combination. These photos would have been almost impossible with the non-stabilized Tokina lens.

Direct manual focus (DMF) is a very useful addition

Image quality with the SEL55210 is very high, though perhaps not professional grade. It’s certainly good enough for average photographers, for whom this lens was obviously designed given its affordable price. I’m really quite impressed by the lens: It is definitely related to the really-quite-good 18-55 mm kit zoom.

I only real complaint with the SEL55210 is the amount of time it takes the NEX camera to focus on distant subjects, and the frequency at which it gets focus completely, laughably wrong. I often find myself resorting to manual focus when this lens is attached, even in fairly bright light. And it is extremely difficult to focus on a fast-moving subject: By the time the NEX focuses the lens, the subject has moved. This is a a frequent complaint of the contrast detection autofocusing system used by the NEX, and the SEL55210 only makes it worse.

Stephen’s Stance

Overall, the SEL55210 is an excellent buy. Although certainly not the fastest lens (optically or workflow-wise) it’s a screaming bargain at $349-$399 (street price). The lens is light and compact enough to bring along “just in case”, something that can’t be said of many, SLR tele-zoom lenses. Once it finally focuses, image quality is excellent and the built-in Optical SteadyShot makes it usable even in low light conditions.

  • m7z

    I’ve been contemplating whether to get the 18-200 or the 55-210. The price of the 18-200 is a bit hard to swallow since I also want the new 50mm prime. After reading your review, I think I’ve decided to get the 55-210 & and the 50mm prime. Thanks!