Review: Minolta AF 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM Updated

 

1. Introduction

With telephoto lenses, depth of field is narrow, the long focal lengths make hand-holding tricky, and you're often shooting subjects that don't stand still. This means that fast and precise focusing is critical, bad bokeh has a really unpleasant effect on most pictures, and you'll be shooting your lens wide-open with Super Steady Shot turned on to minimize camera shake.

So ideally you want Super Steady Shot, fast and accurate focusing, good bokeh and good optical performance at the largest aperture. So let's see how the Minolta AF 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM lens fits this description.

I bought this lens in September 2005 and have used it on several trips to India and Australia. I have used the lens with a number of cameras from the Konica Minolta Dynax 7D to the Sony A99. This review is based on experience from the field as well as shooting resolution charts. The resolution test in this review is done with the Sony A99, while the example pictures are taken with various Sony and Minolta cameras.

A summary of my thoughts on the lens follows. Remember, this is a subjective review and your opinion might be different. This review is based on my experience with one lens only and sample variations might occur. Anyway I hope you find it useful.















 Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India
 Dynax 7D, 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM + 1.4x Tele converter Apo (D)
 f/4.0, 1/1000s, ISO 200 (Photo © Marcus Karlsen)

2. Different versions of 300/2.8

The AF 300mm f2.8 Apo G (D) SSM lens was released in March 2003. There are several different versions of the 300mm f/2.8 lens from Minolta and Sony.















 Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India
 Dynax 7D, 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM
 f/2.8, 1/3000s, ISO 200 (Photo © Marcus Karlsen)

The four different Minolta and two Sony versions of the 300mm f/2.8 are:

  1. Minolta 300mm f/2.8 Apo G: This is the first 300/2.8 lens released by Minolta in January 1985. It uses the autofocus motor in the camera and is known to have slow auto focus. It does not have AF stop button on the lens barrel. The lens had an integrated lens hood.
  2. Minolta 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (upgrade): After 1986, Minolta offered to upgrade the exisiting version 1 with a new autofocus drive (the same as the (N) version), but this upgraded version did not get the AF stop buttons that the (N) version had.
  3. Minolta 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (N): This was an upgraded version of the first lens released in 1988. It had improved auto focus speed and AF stop buttons on the lens barrel and a 'High Speed AF Apo 300mm' decal on the lens hood. The optics are the same as the 1985 version.
  4. Minolta 300mm f/2.8 Apo G SSM: This lens was released by Minolta in March 2003 and was a totally new design. It was the first Minolta lens to feature SSM focusing. The SSM lenses employ supersonic-wave motor technology for quiet, smooth AF operation. The AF speed and optical quality is improved compared to the older versions. This is the lens tested in this review.
  5. Sony SAL 300mm f/2.8 G: Released in June 2006 by Sony. This is the same lens as the Minolta 300mm f/2.8 Apo G SSM lens. Sony just rebranded the lens when they acquired Konica Minolta's camera technologies in 2006. The coating on the glass might be different, the rest is the same.
  6. Sony SAL 300mm f/2.8 G II: This is an upgraded version released by Sony in September 2012. It uses new nano AR coating an upgraded SSM motor that should be 4x faster and is weather sealed to keep out dust and moisture. The optics are basicly the same as the first Sony version, but MTFs are improved by nano AR coating and possibly some small design adjustments to the individual glass elements and their positions.

On the left is the 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM attached to the Dynax 9 and on the right the older 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (N) attached to the Dynax 700si. The size of the 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM lens is about the same as the older 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (N) lens, however the lens hood is considerable longer as can be seen on the picture.

Length of lens with hood attached:
SSM lens:       37,0 cm
Apo lens :       28,5 cm

Max. diameter of lens with hood attached:
SSM lens:       13,6 cm
Apo lens :       12,8 cm

The MTF graph

The graphs below show the manufacturer's MTF graphs for different versions of the lens.
Minolta 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (N) Minolta 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM Sony 300mm f/2.8 G SSM Sony 300mm f/2.8 G SSM II

3. Teleconverters

The SSM lenses will only autofocus when coupled with the Sony teleconverters or with Minolta AF 1.4x Tele Converter Apo (D) and Minolta AF 2.0x Tele Converter Apo (D). The only difference between the Minolta (D) converters and the Minolta Tele Converter II Apo's are that the new ones have eight lens contacts versus the older ones five. The Sony converters are the same as the Minolta Apo (D) converters, except that they might have a slightly different coating on the lens elements.

4. Lens data

  • Focal Length: 300mm (APS-C: 450mm)
  • Filter diameter: 42mm drop-in
  • Hood Mount: Slip-on cylindrical hood with locking screw
  • Dimensions: 122mm x 242.5mm (diameter x length)
  • Weight: 2310g (without the 170g tripod mount)
  • Aperture:
    • Largest: f/2.8
    • Smallest: f/32
    • Diaphragm Blades: 9 blade circular aperture.
  • Focusing:
    • Method: Supersonic wave motor, internal focusing, non rotating front element.
    • Minimum distance: 2.0m
    • Maximum magnification: 0.18X
    • Four focus hold buttons
    • Variable focus-range limiter
    • Prefocus function
    • AF/MF switch
    • Two Direct Manual Focus (DMF) modes
  • Optics:
    • Construction:  13 elements (Includes 3 AD glass elements)
                             12 groups
    • Angle of view: 8° 10'  (APS-C: 5° 20' )
  • Standard accessories:
    • Lens hood
    • Front cap
    • Rear cap
    • Trunk case
    • Lens strap
    • Tripod-mounting collar
    • 42mm optical element (drop-in filter)
  • Optional accessories:
    • Soft carrying case
    • 42mm drop-in circular polarizing filter
    • Y52, B12, O56, R60, A12, 1B, and ND4X filters
    • AF 1.4x Tele Converter Apo (D)
    • AF 2x Tele Converter Apo (D)














 Flinders ranges, Australia
 A700, 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM
 f/5.0, 1/800s, ISO 200 (Photo © Marcus Karlsen)

5. Appearance and Handling

This lens was released in March 2003 and was the last Minolta lens in the G - Series (together with the 70-200mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM). When you first see this lens it gives you an impression of solid quality. The lens is constructed using magnesium alloy internally to hold the optical components, and externally to protect the lens barrel. This keeps the weight of the lens down to a minimum. Even though the weight of the lens, when you include the collar, is the same as the old one it somehow feels lighter. The lens is also much better sealed from sand and dust than the older one (though it is not weather sealed like the Sony SAL 300F2.8 G2). It does not have the recessed focusing ring and the front protective glass element is now part of the lens and not removable. The lens is painted in a finely crinkled white finish. It looks like the same type of paint used on the Minolta 28-70mm f/2.8 G lens and withstands wear better than the white finish of the older Minolta G lenses.

The manual focusing collar, placed in the middle of the lens is wide and do not rotate when the lens is autofocusing. The customary golden ring, designating a G construction, is placed in front of the manual-focusing collar. The lens has four focus hold buttons placed right in front of the manual-focusing collar, these are evenly spaced at 90 degrees around the barrel. By pushing one of these buttons you can stop the autofocusing. When releasing the button the lens will start focusing again. By altering the custom functions of your camera you can set these buttons to perform different functions like DOF preview. There is also a read-out window for the distance scale, with some pretty useless depth-of-field indications for f/32, placed just behind the focusing ring.

Behind the focusing ring there are a lot of switches which control the auto focus functions. These are the Focus-mode switch, the upper left one, with which you can switch between autofocus or manual focus. The DMF-mode switch, the upper right one, sets the lens in standard Direct Manual Focus (DMF) or full-time DMF. Standard DMF allows you to fine tune the focus after the AF system has locked onto the subject (only in AF-A or AF-S mode). Full-time DMF gives you access to manual focus control at any time by simply turning the focusing ring.

The Focus-range limiter, the middle left button, selects the focusing range. You can choose FULL which is from 2.0m to infinity, from 6.4m to infinity and the last choice is a user defined range. The Focus-range setting switch, middle button on the right, sets the user defined range. To set the range first slide the Focus-range setting switch to the SET position. Then focus the lens to the minimum distance of the range and slide the Focus-range setting switch to the NEAR position. Focus the lens on the maximum distance and slide the Focus-range setting switch to the FAR position to complete the operation. The focus range limiter can be used to reduce the auto-focus time and eliminates the possibility of focusing on an object outside the scene.

The third row of buttons is used to control the prefocus function. This allows the lens to store a set focus position that can be recalled at any time by simply pressing one of the four focus hold buttons on the lens barrel. To set the object distance, slide the Focus-hold/prefocus switch to the PREFOCUS position. Focus the lens at the correct distance and press the Prefocus set button to store the object distance.

The last switch all the way at the bottom, is the Audio-signal switch and turns on or off an audio signal that confirms focusing range is customized or the prefocus distance is set or recalled. The good news is that it does not signal when focus is achieved.

The switches are easy to reach and change, still they will not accidently change position as you handle the lens. This was a big problem with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM IS lens. Several times when I brought the camera up to take a picture either the AF or the IS was disengaged accidently. This happened when I held the camera and lens combination around the lens barrel as I sat on top of an elephant moving through the jungle in search for a tiger or when I had the camera wrapped in a towel to keep dust out when moving around with a jeep at full speed.

All the way at the back of the lens is a solidly built tripod mounting collar that rotates 360 degrees and can be locked at any position. It can easily be removed when you are using the lens handheld. It is a good and compact design.

The lens hood is very large compared to the old 300mm f/2.8 Apo G. It is also detachable and can be reverse mounted for transportation and storage. It is made of lightweight carbon fibre and lined with black velvet to reduce flare. While it theoretically gives a better protection against flare due to the deeper hood, it is bigger and more cumbersome to attach than the sliding hood on the older lens. And I never had any problems with flare on that lens either.

The lens has SSM focusing. It means that the lens uses an internal motor to adjust the lens elements to focus. The design achieves a much quieter and smoother focusing than an in camera motor. The biggest difference is that the lens autofocuses without any noise, which is hardly the case with other Minolta lenses. Focus tracking is also much better and the lens does not run all the way out to infinity when it looses focus like the other older Minolta lenses have a tendency to do ever so often.

The filter thread is 42mm drop in filters. The lens is pretty heavy at 2310g but that is about the same as equivalent lenses from the competitors. The 2.0m closes focusing distance however is the best in the class.

6. Optical Performance

The lens is constructed with 13 elements in 12 groups. Of these three are AD-glass (Anomalous dispersion) elements, one is the protective front element (not removable like on the old lens), and one is a clear optical element screwed into the built-in filter holder. The AD glass elements are used to eliminate chromatic aberrations and distortion. High-quality multi-coatings increase transmittance and reduce flare to preserve contrast. A circular aperture keeps the defocused image of point light sources outside the depth of field round between f/2.8 and f/5.6.

The MTF graph

The graphs below are Minolta's own MTF graphs for the lens.
Figure 1. The graph shows MTF in percentage for the two line frequencies of 10 lp/mm and 30 lp/mm, from the centre of the image (shown at left) all the way to the corner (shown at right). The bold lines represent sagittal MTF (lp/mm aligned like the spokes in a wheel). The thin lines represent tangential MTF (lp/mm arranged like the rim of a wheel, at right angles to sagittal lines). On the scale at the bottom 0 represents the centre of the image (on axis), 4 represents 4 mm from the centre, and 21 represents 21 mm from the centre, or the very corner of a 35 mm-film image. Separate lines show results at f8 and full aperture.


6.1 Sharpness

Overall the AF 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM lens delivers a very good image quality. Based on optical performance I would rate the apertures as follows; f5.6 and f/4 with f/8 f/2.8, f/11 and f/16 just a tad behind. While at f/22 and f/32 optical performance suffers from diffraction. With the reduced image circle of an APS-C camera the sharpness at the corners are almost the same as at the centre. This coincides with the official MTF graph released by Minolta and shown above. Full frame performance at the corners are good and almost equal for all apertures.

Compared to the older Minolta 300mm f/2.8 Apo G lens the sharpness is about the same at all apertures except at f/2.8 were it is noticably better. Sharpness at the edges are also a tad better at f/4 to f/16 with the new SSM lens.

One of the benefits of the f/2.8 aperture is that you can attach a 1.4x converter and still retain a good image quality and autofocus. Using the Minolta AF 1.4x Tele Converter Apo (D) the image quality is still very good. The best aperture is f/5.6 with f/4, f/8 and f/11 not far behind.

6.2 Chromatic aberration / Colour fringing


Different wavelengths of light come into focus at different planes. The lens inability to correct this and bring all colours to focus at the same point is known as chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberrations can cause a coloured halo around points of light and reduced sharpness. Chromatic aberrations can be divided into two types, longitudinal or axial chromatic aberrations and lateral or transverse chromatic aberrations.

Longitudinal or axial chromatic aberration is the inability of a lens to focus different colours in the same focal plane. Axial colour fringing is identified by a single colour all the way around an in focus object and can occur anywhere in the image. Axial colour fringing is particularly seen in areas that are just out of focus. You will see purple colour in front of the plane of focus and green colour behind it. Axial colour fringing will go away as you stop down the aperture.

Lateral or transverse colour fringing is caused by a sideways displacement of the focus point (instead of along the axis, longitudinal). Look for colours like red, green, purple or blue that occurs along the image edges in areas of harsh contrast. Lateral colour fringing only affects tangential details and will give two differently coloured fringes at either side of it. It will not go away by stopping down the aperture.

See toothwalker's site for more information about chromatic aberrations.

Chromatic abberations is not a problem on this lens.

6.3 Spherical aberration / Coma


Spherical aberration is caused by the spherical shape of the lens elements. Light that hits the lens elements close to the optical axis is focused at one position, while light that hits the outer areas of the lens elements are focused at a position closer or further away from the lens. That means that the focus position depends on where the light is traversing the lens element. When the marginal focus is closer to the lens than the axial focus it is called under corrected spherical aberration and when it is located beyond the axial focus the lens is said to suffer from overcorrected spherical aberration (see toothwalkers site for a more detailed explanation).

Figur 6. Spherical aberration is an image imperfection due to light hitting the lens close to the optical axis being focused at a different position than light hitting the outer areas of the lens.

Coma is an artefact of spherical aberration, and shows itself as oblong shapes in the corners of images. It is especially evident at wide apertures in wide angle lenses.

The test shot above and the graphs on the right side shows that the lens is under corrected. This gives a very pleasant background bokeh which is good for a tele photo lens such as this.

The picture above is a shot of a row of white points taken whith the camera angled and focused on the centre point so that the left side of the screen is farther away (background bokeh) than the point of focus, and the right side is closer (front bokeh).
           The graphs below show the light intensity through the out of focus highlights in the image above. The Front bokeh has more
           defined edges than the background bokeh, this makes the highlights more distracting to the eye (more doughnut shaped).


           Background bokeh            Front bokeh

I have not seen any coma with this lens.

6.4 Illumination / light fall-off / Vignetting


Vignetting is the unintended darkening of the image corners in a photographic image. The effect is strongest when the lens is used wide open and will disappear as the lens is stopped down.

If you look very closesly there is an ever so slightly darkening of the corners at f/2.8 for the Minolta 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM lens on a full frame body. If you feel this bothers you it is easily removed in post processing. Illumination is even across the frame from f/4.

6.5 Geometric distortion


Geometric distortion is probably the most easily recognisable aberration as it deforms the whole image. Distortion causes straight lines to be projected as curved lines by the lens. Distortion is usually rendered in two different ways, barrel and pincushion distortion depending on how the line is distorted, bulging or bent inward. Distortion is independent of the aperture used.

For this lens geometric distortion is not noticable.

6.6. Bokeh: When the image is out of focus


The word Bokeh is of Japanese origin and relates to the fashion in which the out-of-focus areas of the image are rendered. A sharply focused subject set against a pleasingly silky smooth background characterizes a good bokeh. The transition from in-focus to out-of-focus should occur gradually. A large number of aperture blades give a more circular opening when the lens is stopped down, but this in itself is not sufficient to give a good bokeh. Another feature of the lens that affects bokeh is the degree of spherical aberration correction. Spherical aberration is when the rays of light from the middle and from the outside edges of a lens do not focus to exactly the same point.

Longitudinal chromatic aberration often operates in tandem with spherical aberration to shape the bokeh of a large-aperture lens. The combined effect of longitudinal chromatic aberration and spherical aberration is also known as spherochromatism.

The lens has a circular aperture that keeps the defocused image of point light sources outside the depth of field round between f/2.8 and f/5.6. See pictures below. This is much better compared with the older 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (N) and is probably one of the reasons the SSM lens has a better bokeh. The round aperture combined with the good spherical aberration correction of the lens gives the 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM a very pleasing image rendition. The background blurring attained by the lens is creamy and silky smooth.

f/2.8 f/4 f/5.6 f/8

6.7. Flare and ghosting

The narrow field of view of a telephoto lens means that you can use deep hoods that very effectively cut out glare and reduce flare. The lens also uses high-quality multi-coatings and internal baffles to increase transmittance and reduce flare to preserve contrast.

So far I have not noticed any problems with flare or ghosting when using the 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM lens.

7. Summary and Conclusions

This lens has the excellent optics, build quality and excellent autofocus that is to be expected from a top of the line Minolta G lens. It is equal to or even better than the older version on every aspect. The new silent SSM focusing is much faster and better than the former shaft focusing of the earlier version and the close focusing distance and the smooth manual focusing all comes as a bonus. The pre focus function is a very nice feature when waiting for action to happen. Just pre focus the lens to were you think something will happen, store the focusing distance, and you are free to photograph something else until the action starts. Then just hit the focus hold button and you are ready to go. The detachable tripod collar is nice if you use a beanbag for support. Just take off the collar and the lens becomes lighter and more stable on the beanbag. I am really happy with this lens and don't regret replacing the old one. All I can say is that this an exceptionally fine lens.

Pros
  • Excellent optical performance
  • Excellent build quality
  • Fast, accurate and silent focusing
  • Very good bokeh
  • Image stabilizer built into the camera body
  • Close focusing distance of 2.0m
  • Removable tripod mounting collar
Cons
  • Big and heavy, though not more than equivalent lenses from other manufacturers. But this is what you have to pay for a fast, high quality telelens.
  • I liked the retractable hood of the older lens better than the new detachable design that is more combersome, and not so fast to attach.

7. Magazine lens tests

  • German magazine Color Foto test results 
    21 out of 30 on sharpness
    29 out of 30 on contrast
    17 out of 20 on centering
    9 out of 10 on distortion
    8 out of 10 on vignetting
    That makes it 84 out of 100 total and that is the best score by a 300mm f/2.8, equal to the Nikon AF-S Nikkor II 300mm f/2.8 D IF-ED and 2 points ahead of the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM
  • French magazine Chasseur d'Images test results on an APS-C camera.
    Vignetting 5/5
    Chromatic abberation 4/5
    Distortion 5/5
    Sharpness 4/5
    Total score 4/5
    A magnificent lens that gives superb results.














 Kangaroo Island, South Australia, Australia
 A850, 300mm f/2.8 Apo G (D) SSM + 2.0x Tele converter Apo (D)
 f/5.6, 1/60s, ISO 800 (Photo © Marcus Karlsen)

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