Should you buy the Sony 100-400mm GM lens for surf photography?

Summary: If you need the best image quality and consistent focus performance, get the Sony 100-400mm. If not, the Sony 55-210mm + teleconverter works great too.

One of the things you need if you’re taking photos of surfing from the land, is a long lens. I use Sony e-mount apsc camera bodies, currently the Sony a6000 and Sony a6500, so the longest native e-mount lens I can use right now is the Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 OSS GM.

The GM stands for ‘Gold Master’ – which is Sony’s top level of lenses, and it’s got a price that reflects that. You’ll pay about US$ 2,500 for the lens, and as it’s relatively new it’s not likely you’ll see many on the second hand market for a while.

Here’s my short video which features sample images and examples of focusing and tracking using this lens on the a6000 and a6500 bodies.

Sample images from the Sony 100-400mm OSS GM lens

Here are some of the photos that appear in the video, all shot with the Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 OSS GM lens:

Small wave, in the evening. ISO 2000, 400mm, f5.6, 1/1000. Link to high res jpeg.

Kestrel (or maybe a Sparrow hawk?), hovering, early evening. ISO 200, 400mm, f5.6, 1/1000. Link to high res jpeg.

Slow shutter speed wave. ISO 100, 400mm, f10, 1/8. Link to high res jpeg.

Flaring wave, early evening. ISO 250, 303mm, f5.6, 1/2000. Link to high res jpeg.

Ben Howey at the Boardmasters longboard competition, Fistral Beach, Newquay. ISO 640, 400mm, f5.6, 1/1000. Link to high res jpeg.

How does the Sony 100-400mm GM perform with the Sony a6000?

I tried it out with both my cameras, and as you’d expect the image quality is great with both, there’s no noticeable difference at all in final images.

The biggest difference is in the focus modes, and especially the ability to track a surfer across the frame with the a6500. Although, as you’ll see in the video, the a6500 performs really well with the budget friendly 55-210mm lens and screw-on teleconverter too.

I recorded the LCD screen output so I can use it in a forthcoming course about focus modes and techniques, and it shows where the a6000 lags behind the a6500 for focus. The best way to make sure you get good focus is to use the central focus point, but it can make it harder for the camera to keep track of the subject as it moves away from the middle of the frame. I still managed to get good results with the a6000 but it wasn’t as easy as with the a6500.

If you’ve already got the a6500 then the big advantage is image quality and a wider aperture. If you want to use it with the a6000 you wont magically get significantly better auto focus than the 55-210mm lens for instance.

What are the alternatives to the Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 OSS GM lens?

I wrote a long blog post about the various telephoto options for people shooting with the Sony a6xxx range of cameras. At the time the longest GM e-mount lens was the 70-200mm f2.8, and I suggested that getting that lens and a 2x teleconverter would be my preferred option if money were no object. Now I’d change that recommendation to the 100-400mm lens.

You can use the Sony teleconverters with the 100-300mm lens, but I don’t have the need for a longer focal length than 400mm. I discovered that after using the Sigma 150-600mm lens with the MC-11 adapter for a few months.

There will also be a faster 400mm being released very soon, and there are rumours of a 150-600mm native sony e-mount lens, or similar, coming soon too.

What’s my best alternative to the Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 OSS GM lens?

I’m going to continue to use the Sony 55-210mm lens with the Olympus 1.7x teleconverter. It gives me a small, versatile, and relatively decent quality lens that can reach 95% of the surf action I photograph.

You can get the lens and screw-on teleconverter through Amazon (you also need a step-up ring to attach it to the end of the lens):