One of the most disappointing realizations new DSLR owners face is that their 18-55mm kit lens only has a puny 3x zoom range. Coming from point-and-shoots with 10x, 20x, or even 50x zoom ratios, it can feel pretty limiting. The solution? Telephoto lenses.
The Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS (MSRP $349.99) is one such lens, providing enough zoom range to capture faraway subjects. It won’t rival a 60x superzoom for sheer reach, but it will take much better photos—especially if you know how to take advantage of it.
Best of all, it won’t break the bank. Sure, Sony had to make some sacrifices to get the price that low, but if you’re looking to add reach on a budget, this lens should be on your radar.
When evaluating any lens, we focus on four key areas: sharpness, distortion, chromatic aberration, and bokeh. A perfect lens would render the finest details accurately, wouldn’t distort straight lines or produce ugly fringing around high-contrast subjects, and would create smooth out-of-focus areas.
The Sony E 55-210mm OSS succeeds in checking off two of our major areas of concern—sharpness and chromatic aberration—but is merely average in terms of bokeh and overall distortion. Still, in its class of affordable zoom lens, the overall performance is quite strong.
A lens's sharpness is its ability to render the finest details in photographs. In testing a lens, we consider sharpness across the entire frame, from the center of your images out to the extreme corners, using an average that gives extra weight to center performance. We quantify sharpness using line widths per picture height (LW/PH) at a contrast of MTF50.
Mounted on the Sony A6000 in our test labs, the Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS proved itself to be a fairly sharp zoom lens.
It's strongest at 55mm, where it's able to resolve well over 1,900 lines in the center of the frame, from the maximum aperture of f/4.5 through to f/8. Midway (50% from the center), that figure drops to roughly 1,700 lines, while the corners sink to about 1,400 lines. Generally speaking, that's quite impressive for a zoom; anything over 1,600 lines is considered sharp on this system.
At 135mm, the profile changes. The center resolves around 1,900 lines at f/5.6 and f/8, while the corners jump to between 1,550 and 1,700. But by 200mm, things get grim: At the maximum aperture of f/6.3, center resolution drops all the way to 1,250 lines while the partway and corners only resolve 1,050 and 1,150 lines, respectively. Those numbers improve at f/8 (1,525/1,225/1,225), but only slightly.
While performance at f/11 is acceptable from 55-135mm, we don't recommend going past the diffraction limit (f/8) if you can avoid it. The f/16 and f/22 performance, in particular, is very poor across all focal lengths.
The Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS is one of a familiar breed of lenses: an entry-level telephoto zoom lens designed to be paired with the standard 18-55mm kit zoom.
On the plus side, this lens has enough reach for sports and wildlife photography, and includes helpful optical image stabilization (that's the OSS) that can help prevent blur from hand-shake at longer focal lengths. But there are downsides, too: Its small maximum aperture makes it less than ideal for dim shooting situations or very fast-moving subjects.
To pack this much zoom into a compact $350 lens, Sony's designers had to use an aperture that closes down as you zoom in. At full telephoto, the aperture can't open any wider than f/6.3, which starves the sensor for light. In bright sunlight you'll be okay, but when the sun goes down you'll have to either use slower shutter speeds (resulting in blurrier photos) or higher ISO settings (grainier photos).
If you plan to do a lot of shooting in variable lighting, you'll want to consider a brighter lens, like the Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS. However, that sort of lens will cost you a lot more money, in addition to being bigger and heavier. Unfortunately, there's no cheating physics.
Though it's not too big or heavy, the Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS has a premium feel that many other affordable lenses lack—even those from market leaders like Canon and Nikon. Like other Sony lenses, it also has an extremely minimalist look. Most of the controls you’d usually find on a lens—stuff like autofocus and image stabilization—must be handled through your camera's menu.
The only physical controls on this lens are the prominent focus and zoom rings. And as you'd expect from a modern autofocus lens, the zoom ring is huge, while the focus ring comes across almost as an afterthought.
The zoom action is relatively smooth, and there’s a reassuring physicality to the mechanical action—especially if you're used to working with a Sony Power Zoom kit lens. The focus ring is also smooth, since it’s a focus-by-wire system. When you turn it, all you’re doing is telling the focus motor to move one way or the other. It’s much less responsive than mechanical focus systems, but common on modern autofocus lenses.
We penalize lenses for distortion when they bend or warp your images image, causing normally straight lines to curve.
There are two types of distortion: When the center of the frame seems to bulge outward toward you, that’s barrel distortion. It's typically a result of the challenges inherent in designing wide-angle lenses. When the center of the image looks like it's being sucked in, that’s pincushion distortion. Pincushion is more common in telephoto lenses.
Distortion from the 55-210mm OSS is quite consistent across the zoom range, with around 1% pincushion at 55mm, 1.8% pincushion at 135mm, and 1.5% pincushion at 210mm. That's not a huge surprise, since the lens only covers telephoto focal lengths. It's also not that troublesome—anything under 2% is quite easy to correct.
Chromatic aberration refers to the various types of “fringing” that can appear around high contrast subjects in photos—like leaves set against a bright sky. The fringing is usually either green, blue, or magenta and while it’s relatively easy to remove the offensive color with software, it can also degrade image sharpness.
We examined the 55-210mm's CA performance at 55mm, 135mm, and 210mm and found that it controls quite well for lateral/axial chromatic aberration. CA is most evident at 135mm, but even there it's still what we'd call minor. You may notice it in some shots, but it's easily corrected and will only be a real nuisance in the extreme corners of particularly high-contrast scenes.
Affordable telephoto zoom lenses are popular with consumers, but rarely excel in our test labs. The Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS is a notable exception. It's certainly a much better lens at 55mm than it is at 210mm, but as long as you keep the aperture to f/8 or wider, it can deliver impressive results.
In the lab, we were particularly impressed by the lens's ability to render very fine details in the center of the image. Small details like the texture of a piece of clothing or fine strands of hair are clearly visible. Even in the corners of the frame, most of our shots looked quite sharp.
There are certainly some caveats, though: At 210mm, the only aperture that yields consistently sharp shots is f/8. The lens struggles both wide open at f/6.3 and at smaller apertures from f/11 to f/22. That's a pretty tight window if you want high-quality shots at full telephoto, and it means you'll need quite a bit of light to get the job done.
In the field, the 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 impressed us with its control of optical defects like chromatic aberration and geometric distortion. Despite its restrictive maximum aperture, it also was able to produce smooth out-of-focus areas (though Sony's 50mm f/1.8 OSS is a much better choice if that's your primary concern).
Below you can see sample photos taken with the Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS mounted on the Sony A6000. Click the link below each photo to download the full-resolution image.
Most new DSLR and mirrorless camera owners start with a standard kit lens—usually an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 or something similar. These are good starter lenses, but they're better for landscapes and everyday snapshots than zooming in on faraway subjects. The Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS is a lens that can bring those distant subjects closer, providing the extra reach you're looking for.
Like all affordable zoom lenses, it makes compromises to keep the size and cost down, but for the most part they're smart choices. The limited maximum aperture is the biggest issue, starting at f/4.5 and shrinking to f/6.3 at full extension. That limits the amount of light that hits your sensor, meaning you'll often need slower shutter speeds or higher ISO sensitivity, which degrades image quality.
Sony's Optical SteadyShot (OSS) stabilization goes some way toward compensating for this issue. It helps correct for blur caused by hand movements at slower shutter speeds, but it can't correct for your subject's motion. That means this lens isn't ideal for anyone looking to shoot indoor sports like basketball or volleyball. It can work in those situations if you can't afford a brighter zoom, but you'll have to work a lot harder (particularly in processing your images) to get clean shots.
The Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS is far better suited to outdoor sports and wildlife photography, where there's plenty of light and you can use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. In those situations, it's certainly worth the $350 asking price and makes a great companion to an 18-55mm or 16-50mm kit lens.
Bokeh refers to the quality of the out of focus areas in a photo. It's important for a lens to render your subject with sharp details, but it's just as important that the background not distract from the focus of your shot.
While some lenses have bokeh that's prized for its unique characteristics, most lenses aim to produce extremely smooth backgrounds. In particular, photographers prize lenses that can produce circular bokeh that’s free of aspherical distortion (or “coma”).
For a consumer-grade telephoto zoom, the Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 does an admirable job of rendering these out-of-focus areas, even with its limited maximum aperture. The 210mm end of the zoom range provides the smoothest results, creating the shallowest depth of field.
The shot above is a best-case scenario for this lens: It does a good job of isolating the sign, but the background is also a significant distance behind. At the very least, this lens's bokeh doesn't have the "busy" or "nervous" quality common to small-aperture lenses; while backgrounds lack the dreamy quality we prize, they're not overtly distracting.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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