Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS Lens Review
Sony's entry-level telephoto zoom isn't the fastest lens around, but makes up for it in other ways.
As DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have dropped in price over the years, more people have been taking the step up from point-and-shoots in search of better photos. The larger sensors found in cameras like the Sony A5100 and A6000 perform much better in low light and have more dynamic range, but they also make things more difficult for lens designers.
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.
Who's It For?
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.
Look and Feel
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.
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.
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