Sony 500mm F/8 Reflex Lens Review - Photo Jottings

Sony 500mm F/8 Reflex Lens Review

Here’s a brief look at the Sony 500mm F/8 reflex lens.  Scroll down for the review.

SAL-500F80  Sony 500mm F/8 reflex super telephoto
Box contents
Rear cap, vinyl lens cover with drawstrings, users manual and two filters, a clear and ND4 filter.
$649 retail, discontinued around 2010.
Build quality
Additional information
Has focus hold button and built-in type hood from the factory.  Sony pictures don’t show the hood.  Also, Sony uses ND4 and ND4X interchangeably to describe the neutral density filter.
Specifications below
Optical configuration
7 elements in 5 groups
Angle of view
5° (full frame)  3° 10′ (APS-C)
F/8 fixed, round hole, no blades
Full frame and APS-C
Yes, made for full frame.   APS-C equivalent, 750mm
Depth of field and focus scales?
Focus distance window only
Minimum focus, image plane to subject
13′  (4m)
Minimum focus, end of lens barrel to subject
12′  (3.7m)
Hard stop at infinity focus?
Length changes when focusing?
Focus ring turns in AF?
Filter size
42mm exclusive use
Filter ring rotates?
Distance encoder?
Max magnification
Min. F/stop
Sony teleconverter compatible?
Dimensions W x L (my measurements)
3.5″ x 5.5″   89mm x 140mm
Maximum  extended length (my measurements)
5.62″  (143mm)
Weight bare (my scale)
24.7oz  (700g)  27oz (767g) with caps


Requisite product shots

Mounted on Sony A700.
Box and contents, note ND4X filter stored inside front cover.
Front reflector.
Side view with the focus hold button and filter location, also fully extended.
Note special filter and slot.
How it works
X-ray view, Sony screen grab.
Sony MTF chart
Cameras used for this review: Sony A700, and the Sony A900.  For full frame results, go to the bottom of the page.  For a better understanding of my review methods and terminology, go here.
If you want an auto-focusing super telephoto lens for your Sony DSLR body and don’t have much coin, this may be your only hope.

The Sony 500mm F/8 reflex lens (made in Japan) is meant for people who don’t have a lot of money, but want to bring their subject up close.  It does just that, but at a cost.  If this lens design looks familiar, then you probably own a compact telescope or have seen one in a store, it’s basically the same thing.  If you look down through the lens front, you’ll see yourself in the mirror at the bottom.  It has a fixed aperture (just a round hole), so you have to live at F/8.  This isn’t good.  At 500mm and F/8 in daylight, most people will need at least 1/300 sec for a sharp picture (or more) and that includes the use of image stabilization or Super SteadyShot, whichever you prefer.  Normal daylight here in southern AZ allows shutter speeds around 1/125s to 1/400s at ISO 100 with this lens.  Expect about half your shots to be sharp, and about a quarter to be tripod sharp.  You really need a tripod for sharp images or bump your ISO up.

Build quality is good, it feels solid in your hand, and it should as there isn’t much to move or rattle around, except the end of the barrel, which turns during focusing.  It’s satin black with rubber grip areas under the barrel by the mount, and at the end of the barrel including the hood.  It has the normal focus distance window and comes with a focus hold button which can be changed to DOF preview on select bodies.  It comes with a vinyl front cover that isn’t so great in my opinion, it’s too hard to slip on and off.  Incidentally, the website shows the lens without the included extended hood for some reason, this makes the lens about 3/4″ longer than the Sony page image, but I bet it helps with the flare and ghosting–see below.
About the included filters: the lens comes with two filters, a “normal” and a “ND4” or “ND4X” Neutral density filter, Sony uses the two names interchangeably.  These slide in (picture above) just in front of the lens mount area.  You should be using the “normal” filter for just about everything.  The neutral density filter is good for two stops down, have your tripod ready.  I can’t think of too many situations where you would need it though. Note: Sony says these filters are figured in to the element count for the lens, and you have to have a filter installed to have the lens function correctly.  I took the filter out and fired off some shots, and didn’t notice any difference in exposures or focusing.  The only issue would be a gaping hole in the lens.  Get your tape out.  The reason I’m telling you this is because for some reason you lose the “normal” or clear filter and still need to shoot with decent shutter speeds, you can just tape over the hole with electrical tape or other dark tape.  These filters cost $100 from Sony.
Focusing.   Manual focusing is good, if not a little quick, with just enough movement to get a sharp focus, unfortunately, the end of the barrel is very easy to move, so the focus doesn’t want to stay put.  If you manually focus, it’ll take about a half turn of the ring from up close to infinity.  The focus ring is located at the far end of the barrel and rubberized.  The lens auto-focuses quickly, and fairly accurately on the A700, or any body later than the A100.  This lens will, by default, set the focusing to “spot” and you cannot change it.  It doesn’t say this in the literature, but that’s the way it is.  Since you are using spot focusing, make sure you place the spot focusing square on the subject, and make sure it’s a good hard target, so it focuses properly.  If you do this, focusing is very good, if you wave the camera around trying to focus on small items, you may not be getting the actual subject in focus, and the depth of field is super slim up close.
Lens flare/ghosting.  Good, but stay away from the sun.  There’s quite a bit if you get real close to the sun, it’ll actually wipe out the entire scene.  Look at the photo below.  You get a big smudge of purple and blue all over.  In the real world you shouldn’t have a problem with this lens, at 500mm you can isolate your subject easy enough without worrying about the sun getting in the picture.   If the sun is in the image, you’ll wind up with a ring, see photos below.
Lateral color fringing.  This type of lens isn’t supposed to produce color fringing, and I haven’t noticed any during my photo outings.
Color and contrast.  Color is good, normal Sony color, but contrast is not very good up close, and looks similar to a super telephoto fixed lens camera shot, but again, only up close.
Corner sharpness.  Sharp, very good here.  I didn’t notice any sharpness differences in the corners.

Distortion.  See photo below.

Nothing here to report.
Very slight pincushion, this shouldn’t be a problem unless you analyze your pictures all day with a grid overlay.
Light fall-off 
This is the extent of the light fall-off or corner shading.  You can’t do anything about it.  Your pictures may appear slighly underexposed depending on the subject.  It’s not bad, and blends nicely towards the center.
Next, some sample shots and thoughts.



Flare and ghosting examples, above and below.

The first shot shows what happens when you shoot with the sun in the image. This ring is present even when the sun is centered.  You might use this for an artistic effect, other than that, I can’t think of any good to come of it.  The second shot shows what happens when the sun in on the very edge of the image.  Under normal conditions, everything is fine.  I had to wave the camera around while pressing the shutter button to get this shot.
Boken examples below.
The next shot is a sample of the not-so-good bokeh, or background blur.  Here we see some donut shapes that distract us from the beauty of the rain gauge, pretend it’s a nice looking gal.  The background is about 6′ or (2m) away from the subject.
Looking at the more enjoyable Purple Bougainvillea, I see a nice bokeh, unfortunately, I estimate you need at least 100 feet or 30 plus meters behind your subject to get this nice smooth background.

One more shot, this time a cactus, with a background about 200 yards or 200 meters distant.

Close focus shot.

Below, check out the sample, a 100% crop, taken with the Sony A700 12.2mp camera.  The maximum magnification shot was taken as close to the subject as focusing allowed; In this case, an earth shattering 12 feet” or 3.5 meters measured from the front of the lens barrel to the subject.  This is a standard US postal stamp measuring 1″ x 3/4″ (25.4mm x 19mm).

As you can see, this isn’t a very close macro type shot, and not a good one either.  In fact, it’s the worst one of all the lenses I’ve tested.  The reflex lenses aren’t good at focusing close.
100% crop, actual size so no link to bigger picture. F/8.


Full frame results using the Sony A900. 

Below, check out the slightly different results from using a full frame camera, as opposed to the APS-C camera above.


Light fall-off.



Light fall-off is moderate, but doesn’t look like this in actual use, see below.  This kind of light fall-off may need a little positive exposure compensation to make the picture come out right, depending on your metering mode.




Actual results of light fall-off.  The top gray image looks dark, but it blends smoothly towards the center, and isn’t very noticeable in a real shot.





There’s some pincushion distortion, but nothing to worry about.

Check out the center and corner sharpness below.


Image center
Extreme corner
october08/500mmf8ffctr3.jpg october08/500mmf8ffcn3.jpg
This lackluster image shows what little difference there is between the centers and the corners.  The extreme corner right shot shows some light fall-off, but no softness.

The Sony 500mm F/8 reflex lens is pretty sharp for the price.  While it will bring in distant objects like no other lens in this price range, you’re going to trade off some of the convenience factor, which is one of the reasons you wanted this lens in the first place.  First, at F/8, you’re going to need to use a tripod on any but the sunniest days.  Second, the background blur is not all that pleasing when the background is close to the subject, but that’s not a big deal for some people.  third, it spot focuses, so make sure you point it at the place you want to be in focus, or just use manual focus.  The good points are; the frame is sharp from corner to corner, no color fringing, and very little (APS-C) light fall-off.  I can’t directly compare this lens to another, because I don’t currently have anything close to this focal length.  I’ll post some comparison shots when I do have something in my hands.
This lens is sharp, contrary to the close focus stamp shot above.  Some people think it isn’t because either one; they’re not steady enough to hand hold the camera, or two, they’re using a tripod and not engaging mirror lock up to stop camera movement due to the mirror actuation, or three, they’re shooting through two miles of atmosphere, or four, they don’t understand they have a very thin DOF, especially at close distances which can put most of a subject out of focus.  The lens is sharp but it does have a lack of contrast and sharpness up close, so you shouldn’t buy this lens for shooting close objects, like less than 20ft (6m) away.  The aforementioned items combined with all the other factors gives the impression it may be soft.  This lens will provide much more detail when compared to the Sony 70-200mm F/2.8 with a 1.4x TC.  That combination is very sharp, but obviously doesn’t have the same focal length.
Last note:  If you buy this lens used, make sure you get the two filters, you really need the “normal” filter for everyday shooting.  If you don’t have it, it’ll cost you a cool $98 plus S-H, believe me, I checked!  You could tape over the resulting slot if you don’t have the “normal” filter, but I wouldn’t advise it.  Another idea would be to put in the ND 4X Neutral density filter (if you have it) and use a tripod forever.  Think about this is you’re going to get a “deal” off of ebay.
The Sony 500mm F/8 lens has been discontinued by Sony.  A great alternative would be the Sony 70-400mm, it’s sharper with more contrast at 400mm!!
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