The Sony E 55-210mm F4.5-5.6 OSS ($349.99) is the light, budget telezoom lens for the company’s APS-C mirrorless system. It’s often included in bundles, so you can get it for little or no additional money. If you’re looking to buy it at full retail price, be aware that while it has some benefits—notably a light, compact design—you’ll need to narrow the aperture to f/8 to get quality images when zoomed. For daylight use that’s not a big deal. But if you want a more versatile telezoom that delivers crisp images in more difficult light, consider the pricier FE 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 G OSS instead.
The E 55-210mm measures in at 4.3 by 2.5 inches (HD) at its shortest position, but just about doubles in length when zoomed to 210mm. It weighs just 12.2 ounces and has a small front element, supporting 49mm screw-in lens filters. A reversible hood is included, along with standard front and rear caps. Sony offers the lens in a black or silver finish.
Build quality is solid, with a metal barrel and knurled focus and zoom rings. The lens isn’t sealed to protect it and your camera from dust and moisture, however, so owners of the sealed Alpha 6300 and Alpha 6500 should consider an FE lens like the 70-300m or FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS, both of which feature sealed designs, if use in inclement weather is a priority.
The 55-210mm is designed for use with APS-C cameras. You can mount it on a full-frame Alpha 7 II, however. If you do, the camera will automatically crop its sensor to match the smaller APS-C size, matching the field of view of a 83-315mm full-frame zoom. You can set the Alpha 7 II to use the entirety of its sensor, but if you do so you’ll end up with a dark circular vignette surrounding the center of your images.
Minimum focus distance is 3.3 feet (1 meter), which is maintained throughout the zoom range. It gives the lens a decent 1:4.4 macro capability when working at the minimum distance at 210mm, projecting objects onto the image sensor at a bit less than one-quarter life-size. The more expensive 70-300mm does a bit better, projecting images at 1:3 at its closest focus and longest focal length.
I tested the 55-210mm with the 24MP Alpha 6500. It’s at its sharpest at 55mmm, notching 2,240 lines per picture height at f/4.5. Image quality is strong from edge to edge, with the periphery of the frame showing as much resolution as the average Imatest score, which is already sharper than the 1,800 lines we want to see at a minimum. Stopping down to f/5.6 bumps the resolution to 2,419 lines, and it’s sharper still at f/8 (2,619 lines) and f/11 (2,718 lines). Diffraction sets in at narrower apertures, sapping resolution at f/16 (2,430 lines) and f/22 (1,507 lines).
Image quality drops significantly when zoomed to 130mm. At f/5.6 the lens shows 1,757 lines, which doesn’t meet our minimum standards. Stopping down to f/8 changes the story, improving the average score to 2,290 lines. Image quality is a bit better at f/11 (2,365 lines) and f/16 (2,481 lines), but f/22 (1,695 lines) should be avoided.
At 210mm the maximum aperture is f/6.3, but shooting wide open nets softer results—1,630 lines on average, based on a crisp center (2,092 lines), soft mid parts (1,546 lines), and blurry edges (1,076 lines). At f/8 the average score improves (1,963 lines), and image quality is acceptable at all but the outer third (1,202 lines). You get better performance at f/11 (2,253 lines), with a periphery that is soft (1,565 lines), but not completely blurred. There’s a slight improvement at the edges at f/16 (1,634 lines), but the average score tops out at 2,178 lines. Don’t shoot at f/22—the lens resolves just 1,572 lines there.
There’s some pincushion distortion, typical of a telezoom, but it’s fairly well controlled—less than 1 percent at 55mm, and about 1.7 percent at 130mm and 210mm. Straight lines are drawn with a slightly inward curve, but you can enable in-camera correction to eliminate it from JPGs and pretty easily remove it using a lens profile if you develop Raw images in Lightroom CC.
I use an Expodisc to capture a flat, gray image, and analyze it using Imatest’s Uniformity tool to determine how even illumination is across the frame. Wide open, at any focal length, the lens shows about a 1.5 stop (-1.5EV) deficit at the corners of the frame compared with the center, giving images a slight vignette. Narrowing the aperture by a stop cuts the deficit to under -1EV, which is negligible in field conditions. If you shoot JPGs you can enable in-camera correction for this effect, and if you opt for Raw capture it’s taken care of by the same lens profile that eliminates distortion in Lightroom.
The Sony E 55-210mm F4.5-5.6 OSS isn’t a great performer beyond 55mm when shot wide open. If you’re looking for a telezoom that gets solid results at its maximum aperture, the FE 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 and FE 70-200mm F4 are both better choices, but also cost upward of $1,000. If you’re looking for a budget option, the 55-210mm nets solid images, as long as you remember to set the aperture to f/8. You’ll still be able to shoot at short shutter speeds to freeze motion and capture crisp action for outdoor sports and wildlife under bright light at f/8. If you want a telezoom that captures more light and delivers tack sharp results when its iris is wide open, you’ll need to spend more money.