A short review of the Minolta AF 400/4.5 APO G

September 8th, 2004 - 03:38:57 PM:

A 400 mm lens is one of the most useful longer telephoto lenses. It's ideal to photograph wildlife and larger birds. It has a size and weight that still allows you to handhold it if you need to. It still offers good image quality when combined with a 1.4× or 2× TC. A 600 mm is better suited for smaller birds, but it typically costs five times as much with almost triple the weight. Carrying a 600 mm over longer distances is not what you want to do every day, especially when you have to carry all your other photo equipment as well.

Minolta's 400 mm prime lens is unique in the 35 mm world because of its f/4.5 maximum aperture. Other makes offer either a slower f/5.6 lens or very expensive f/4 or f/2.8 lenses. There was a big “hooray” when Canon released their 400/4 DO lens because it was praised to be so much smaller and lighter than the typical 400/4 lens, for the price of a slightly worse image quality and much higher cost. But we Minolta users already had a 400 mm lens that was only slightly slower but just as small and light, and we don't have to sacrifice image quality and only have to pay a third of what you pay for the Canon lens.

Lens features

  • 400 mm focal length
  • aperture from f/4.5 to f/32
  • 9 aperture blades, rounded
  • internal focusing
  • shortest focus distance 3 m
  • 42 mm rear filter (clear filter in standard package)
  • 95 mm front protective filter
  • tripod collar
  • lens hood
  • focus range limiter
  • two focus hold buttons
  • lens case
  • two carrying straps, one for lens, one for case

The focus range limiter works stepless. You can limit the focus range either at the far end or at the near end. You just loosen a small knob, turn the limiter either left or right, and then re-tighten the knob. What you do with this is move the end stop of the focusing barrel within the lens. When you find yourself in a situation that you need the entire range quickly, you can just loosen the knob, and the focusing barrel can again move through the entire range.

The hood is made of metal. It's white on the outside and coated with velvet on the inside. The front has a rubber edge. The hood can be reverse-mounted to save space when the lens is in your backpack.

The two Minolta APO TCs match with the 400/4.5 APO G. With the 1.4× TC the lens can still auto-focus, although slower (because of the reduction gearing in the TC and the light loss). With the 2× TC you can only focus manually. With the Dynax 7 this is especially easy, because the body automatically de-couples the AF gearing when you mount this lens/TC combination. With older cameras you have to switch to MF manually.

The tripod collar turns 360° and has no click-stops. I personally prefer not having click-stops, because with a tripod that is not exactly level with the ground these may force the lens into a position that is not exactly horizontal or vertical. The tripod collar is not removable. This is not a problem, because when you handhold the lens the tripod collar will not interfere with the hand holding the lens.

The lens has a 95 mm front filter size. A clear protective filter comes with the lens. Since these large filters are expensive (if they are available at all) and unreachable when the hood is mounted, the lens also takes 42 mm filters in a filter drawer at the rear end of the lens. Unfortunately only Minolta brand filters made especially for this holder will fit. The thread size is very uncommon, and the filter needs to be quite slim. This wouldn't be a problem if Minolta made a wider range of filters. However, only very few are available (orange, yellow, red, ND 4×, 1B skylight). I don't know any source for other common filters like a 81A or 81B.

There also is a special circular polarizer that comes with its own holder. This holder has a small thumb-wheel that lets you rotate the filter while it's mounted. This filter is very expensive. Luckily, I recently got one off eBay for a reasonable price. At least, the filter can also be used with other APO telephoto lenses (300/2.8 APO G, 300/2.8 SSM APO G, 300/4 APO G, 600/4 APO G).

A clear 42 mm filter comes with the lens, and since it's included in the lens' construction, it must always be mounted in the filter drawer (or one of the other filters).

The focus ring is slightly recessed and not very wide. There is a sliding metal cover for the focus ring. When you use AF mode and hand-hold the lens you can slide the cover over the focus ring so that you can hold the lens at its center of gravity without blocking the focus ring. Maybe that was the best solution for the problem at the time. Today, Minolta would surely use the new focus ring design that was introduced with the 200/4 APO Macro G and is now used in most D lenses.

The front cap is a padded leather cap with a velcro. It can be mounted over the hood when it's reverse-mounted, but it also fits over the other end of the hood. You can not mount it on the lens alone. However, you should always use the hood with this lens anyway.

The lens case is an aluminium box with padding inside. It has pockets for additional 42 mm filters, but no space for larger accessories (like a camera body). The locks are quite primitive, and the print on the outside shouts “valuable photo equipment inside, please steal me”. I use the case for storage at home. When I'm on the road, the lens goes into a photo backpack.

Two carrying straps come with the lens. One is for the case, the other is for the lens. The lens strap is attached to the tripod collar.

In the field

I have used the 400/4.5 APO G with a Dynax 600si and a Dynax 7, often combined with the Minolta APO TCs and Kenko extension tubes. I've been using a tripod most of the time.

The lens is very sharp, even wide open. You can gain only little by stopping further down. This is a good thing, because you will use this lens wide open more often than not. Telephoto zooms in that range are often most sharp when stopped down for 1 or 2 stops, and not very sharp wide open. The resulting shutter speeds make it difficult to stop the action and to reduce camera shake. That's one of the prime reasons to get a prime lens (they perform well even wide open).

AF speed could be higher for my taste. Combined with a 600si (which is not really nicknamed “speed daemon”) AF was slow and unassertive. The 7 has a much better AF system, and AF speed is a lot higher. Still, I think that the lens is missing the last extra bit to be called “fast”.

The 400/4.5 APO G is working well with the APO TCs. With the 1.4× TC image quality is reduced only minimally. With the 2× TC you can see some reduction of image quality. It can be kept at a minimum by improving your technique. The 800 mm focal length requires a steady hand, good tripod and precise focusing.

The weight of the lens allows you to hand-hold it if necessary. Of course, using a tripod whenever it's possible is the better solution.

Sample images

Here are a few sample shots:

There are many more shots taken with the 400 mm in my Florida gallery.

Conclusion

  • Excellent image quality
  • Excellent build quality
  • AF should be faster
  • Only very few 42 mm filters available
  • Compatible with the Minolta APO TCs

A 400 mm lens is one of the most useful longer telephoto lenses. It's ideal to photograph wildlife and larger birds. It has a size and weight that still allows you to handhold it if you need to. It still offers good image quality when combined with a 1.4× or 2× TC. A 600 mm is better suited for smaller birds, but it typically costs five times as much with almost triple the weight. Carrying a 600 mm over longer distances is not what you want to do every day, especially when you have to carry all your other photo equipment as well.