Quite sharp when stopped down. 1:1 magnification. Nominal distortion. Focus limiter feature.
Somewhat slow, noisy screw-drive autofocus. Edges soft at wide apertures. Not sealed against moisture and dust.
- Bottom Line
Sony's 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens is a sharp optic that captures objects at full life-size, but it's often slow when used with autofocus.
By Jim Fisher
Despite offering a cutting-edge full-frame SLR in the form of the Alpha 99 II, the A-mount lens system that supports it has some legacy lenses that could stand to be updated. The 100mm F2.8 Macro ($799.99), which we first reviewed along with the original Alpha 99, does a fine job keeping up with the latest camera's high-end 42MP image sensor. But a screw-drive focus system and lack of sealing to match the latest body hold it back from getting top marks. The Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD is a better option—it's one of the sharpest macro lenses that we've tested, less expensive than the Sony, and our Editors' Choice.
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The 100mm Macro is finished in black, with few adornments. It measures 3.9 by 3.0 inches (HD), weighs about 1.1 pounds, and supports 55mm front filters. A reversible lens hood is included, and you can use it if you want, but the front element is recessed quite a bit, so it's not necessary in most situations. Light coming in from odd angles is unlikely.
Controls are scant. There is a focus limiter switch on the side, which can be used to allow the lens to hunt through its entire range or only to search for subjects at longer distances, speeding the autofocus system. Even on the Alpha 99 II, the 100mm can hunt back and forth when the limiter isn't engaged, and it does so noisily. The screw-drive is efficient, but loud. There's also a button to hold focus, a useful tool for macro photography.
The manual focus ring is covered in texured rubber and quite grippy. Because the focus system is driven by a physical screw on the camera mount, you need to make sure the camera is set to manual focus to turn it. There's a bit of tension in the movement, and the inner part of the barrel telescopes from the outer portion as you focus closer.
The 100mm Macro is capable of 1:1 magnification which means that, at its closest 14.4-inch focus distance (measured from the sensor plane), objects are projected onto the sensor at full life-size. The working distance from the front element is shorter, roughly 7 inches when the lens is fully extended. You can see what the magnfiication level is at any given time thanks to a printed scale on the top of the interior portion of the barrel.
The lens omits image stabilization, but that's not a big deal—Sony SLRs feature in-body stabilization for any attached lens.
I tested the 100mm Macro with the 42MP Alpha 99 II. At f/2.8 it scores 2,870 lines per picture height on the standard Imatest center-weighted sharpness test. That's better than the 2,200 lines we want to see at a minimum. Image quality holds up through most of the frame, but there is a drop-off at the periphery, which is slightly soft at 2,078 lines.
Results at f/4 are just about the same. At f/5.6 there's a bump in resolution, with an average score of 3,125 lines and edges that are acceptable at 2,221 lines. At f/8 the score jumps to 3,263 lines and edges approach 2,500. The best performance comes at f/11 (3,425 lines) and f/16 (3,484 lines), where edge resolution tops 3,000 lines in both instances. Shooting at narrower apertures is not advisable. Diffraction cuts into image quality significantly at f/22 (2,184 lines) and f/32 (1,361 lines).
We reviewed the Tamron 90mm SP on a different camera, the 50MP Canon EOS 5DS R, so results are not directly comparable. It hits an amazing 4,371 lines at f/2.8, and tops 5,000 lines at its peak. Those are the best results we've seen from any lens, and while you won't get quite as high marks on a 42MP sensor, you'll get more detail, and a more modern design, with the Tamron.
There is some corner dimness at f/2.8. When shot wide open the corners lag behind the center by about 1.1 stops (-1.1EV) in brightness. Its a pretty minor issue that's easily remedied via in-camera correction when shooting JPG or any decent Raw converter. At narrower f-stops corners are very close to the center in brightness. There's no distortion to speak of.
The Sony 100mm F2.8 Macro is showing its age, but still delivers crisp images, especially at the narrower apertures you typically use for macro photography. But a screw-drive focus system and telescoping design aren't something you expect from a modern macro lens, especially not at this price point. If you shoot with a Sony A-mount system and are looking to add a macro, the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD is a much smarter buy. It's incredibly sharp, even at f/2.8, features an in-lens focus motor for quick, quiet focus, and is less expensive.
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By Jim Fisher Senior Analyst, Digital Cameras
Senior digital camera analyst for the PCMag consumer electronics reviews team, Jim Fisher is a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he concentrated on documentary video production. Jim's interest in photography really took off when he borrowed his father's Hasselblad 500C and light meter in 2007. He honed his writing skills at retailer B&H Photo, where he wrote thousands upon thousands of product descriptions, blog posts, and reviews. Since then he's shot with hundreds of camera models, ranging from pocket point-and-shoots to medium format… More »
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