Sony f/2.8 GM vs. f/4 G Lens Showdown—Which Holy Trinity to Pick?

Sony f/2.8 GM vs f/4 G Lens Showdown—Which Holy Trinity to Pick?

If you want to cover all your bases, you only need three lenses: a wide-angle zoom, a standard zoom, and a telephoto zoom. This set is so practical that every major manufacturer has its own holy trinity of zooms. Sony happens to have two—one G Master set with f/2.8 apertures and a G series with f/4 apertures. You can’t go wrong with either, or mixing and matching for that matter, but let’s take a closer look at these two lens trinities and see which one is best for you.

What Lenses are in the Trinity?

Even though many photographers know exactly what lenses I am talking about, it is still worth calling out the models here—and there have been some slight tweaks over the past decade.

The standard zoom is probably the most popular lens in any lineup, and here it is the 24-70mm. The telephoto zoom is the most wished-for lens, and that would be the 70-200mm. Regarding the wide-angle zoom, there is some debate; I would say that this option is the 12-24mm, although traditionally this would be more like a 16-35mm. The 12-24mm is newer and is a spectacular lens that extends your total zoom range.

Sony has its own take on the lens trinities:

f/2.8 Trinity f/4 Trinity
FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM FE 12-24mm f/4 G
FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM II FE 20-70mm f/4 G
FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II FE 70-200mm f/4 Macro G OSS II

Apertures—f/2.8 vs. f/4

Historically, the holy trinity referred specifically to the f/2.8 zooms because these were the pinnacle of lens technology and optical quality for the manufacturers. These were fully loaded optics that were designed for professionals, proven in the build quality and price. More recently, we have seen more premium mid-range optics that offer the same versatility in a different package. There are pros and cons to each, so that’s why we are going to take a closer look at the two lens sets.

The biggest question is always what aperture to get. The f/2.8 versus f/4 debate is never-ending. Bigger apertures are better, right? Well, yes, but the question is a bit more complex these days. Having the extra stop is beneficial in so many ways. You can create images with shallower depth of field, capture more light for lower ISOs and/or faster shutter speeds, and the big glass is often some of the best available.

f/2.8 G Master Advantages f/4 G Advantages
One more stop of light Lighter and more compact
Shallower depth of field Extended zoom ranges and features
Top-of-the-line optics More affordable

If all you want is the best possible image quality, the f/2.8 G Master lenses will deliver that. With most of the GM series on version II, photographers will benefit from even more optimized designs and newer mechanics. That extra stop of light and shallower depth of field is a great benefit, as well.

FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM II
FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM II

When you start shopping for lenses, you will notice that the f/2.8 zooms are expensive. They are some of the most expensive lenses in the lineup. They are also larger and heavier, owing to the need for more and larger glass elements to achieve that fast, constant f/2.8 aperture along with the mechanicals to support them. This puts them out of reach for many shooters. That’s where the f/4 options come into play and, even then, I think some f/2.8 diehards could be convinced to go with what is often considered the mid-range option.

FE 70-200mm F4 Macro G OSS Ⅱ
FE 70-200mm F4 Macro G OSS Ⅱ

Sony specifically has taken care to develop new f/4 options that make them compelling even with the f/2.8 lenses on the table. Besides being smaller, lighter, and more affordable than the f/2.8 lenses, the f/4 versions often come with extra features or functions. For example, the standard zoom in the f/4 range is 20-70mm, providing a bit of extra range at the wide end to make it that much more versatile. Another added feature in the f/4 series comes with the 70-200mm, which adds Macro to the name, thanks to a half-life-size reproduction capability. These G lenses are awesome.

Now let’s do some of the head-to-head comparisons, because even though it is nice to have a matched set you might find that mixing and matching the f/2.8 and f/4 options is a better choice.

The Wide-Angle Zoom

The wide-angle world has gotten much more interesting in the past decade. Things have gotten wider, faster, and sharper. This can be seen in the fact that we aren’t talking about 16-35s in this section and have moved on to the ultra-wide 12-24mm lenses. Sony has an f/2.8 and f/4 version of this extreme zoom and if you are working with architecture, landscapes, and astrophotography these can be your go-to lenses.

Boasting top-tier optics is the G Master f/2.8 zoom. That G Master means something to Sony and this ultra-wide is aiming to deliver a sharp rectilinear image from edge to edge. The faster f/2.8 aperture means you benefit from additional light-gathering capabilities that can be useful for astrophotography.

Granted, unless you are doing astrophotography or often find yourself working handheld in low light with an ultra-wide lens, you may not need that f/2.8 all that much. The f/4 G option is more than half a pound lighter and dramatically more compact. Optically, you are looking at a phenomenal lens and, unless you are desperate for that extra stop of light, this one will serve you wonderfully for landscapes and architecture.

FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM Advantages FE 12-24mm f/4 G Advantages
Faster f/2.8 aperture More compact and over 1/2 lb lighter
Shallower depth of field More affordable
Top-of-the-line optics  

The wide world is a bit easier to navigate since there aren’t real differences besides the aperture, size, and price. Each of those could easily determine what lens you choose. Both the f/4 and f/2.8 will do very well. Go with your heart (or your wallet) for this decision.

The Alternatives

Even though the 12-24mm seems like a better fit in the trinity (no overlap with the 24-70mm and a wider starting point than traditional wide zooms for added versatility), I should still mention the 16-35mm. This lens lived on my camera for a few years, so I can attest to its versatility, and it is the original wide-angle member of the trinity. If you want a wide zoom that is a little more “normal,” you can’t go wrong with the FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM II or the slightly more affordable first version of the FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM. Another option is for videographers—the FE PZ 16-35mm f/4 G. This adds power zoom if you want that smooth zoom effect for video and film.

The Standard Zoom

You can’t go wrong with a standard zoom. Covering wide-angle to short telephoto focal lengths, the standard, or normal, zoom lens is sometimes all a photographer needs. Many photographers swear by theirs. That’s what makes the 24-70mm such a popular lens. This is the first lens we recommend if you are starting your lens collection.

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM II
FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM II

This is also the most interesting comparison between the f/2.8 and f/4 models, since they vary in focal lengths. The G Master is the standard in many ways, including the 24-70mm zoom range. The f/4 G model is very non-standard, with a 20-70mm range. Going wider is less common than going longer with these types of lenses, so this is incredibly appealing. The smaller, lighter design of the 20-70mm f/4 makes it a better option for handheld operation, such as vlogging, where that extra range on the wide side will help you with framing yourself.

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM
FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM

Looking back at the f/2.8 model, we have one of the lenses that Sony is most proud to offer. This version II model boasts superior image quality than its predecessor, and the faster maximum aperture means it will create smoother bokeh and shallower depth of field than its f/4 counterpart, while also gathering a stop more light.

FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM II Advantages FE 20-70mm f/4 G Advantages
Faster f/2.8 aperture Wider starting focal length of 20mm
Shallower depth of field More compact and almost 1 lb lighter
Top-of-the-line optics Less than half the price

The 20-70mm f/4 G is a good choice for more mobile shooters who want one good lens to cover their needs. It wins out, especially for vloggers looking for a lighter, handheld option where that 20mm focal length helps with selfies. The 24-70mm f/2.8 GM II is a phenomenal lens and if you want that extra speed and undeniably good image quality, it is the lens to get. Just make sure you are comfortable with the size and price.

The Alternatives

The standard range has a few alternatives if these two lenses aren’t doing it for you. If you want that f/2.8 aperture, but are on a budget, you can go for the original 24-70mm f/2.8 GM instead of the version II. If you want extra zoom range of your standard zoom at the tele side, you can pick up the FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS—which also has image stabilization as a bonus. And, if you want to have the most fun, then I would recommend ignoring the zooms and going for a prime, such as the FE 50mm f/1.4 GM.

The Telephoto Zoom

I think the coolest lens of the trio is the 70-200mm. This is often an aspirational next purchase for many photographers who already have a standard zoom in their kit. The lenses are bigger, can throw the background even more out of focus, and they usually look cool. This is certainly the case with the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II and FE 70-200mm f/4 Macro G OSS II. Matching focal lengths, Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, and both being newly updated version IIs make this a more classic aperture battle.

Thinking about the use cases of a telephoto zoom, you’ll need to make your decision based on how you want to use the lens. That faster f/2.8 aperture is going to provide some advantages if you plan to use it for portraits with better bokeh, or in low-light action scenes, or if you are shooting sports and wildlife and want to attach a teleconverter.

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS II
FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS II

If you're working in bright light or want to be more mobile, you will be well served by the f/4 model. It has the same reach and support for teleconverters, although that missing stop of light will mean that dim lighting won’t be as good as with an f/2.8 lens.

Sony has been making the f/4 G models more interesting and the 70-200mm has a trick up its sleeve with the “macro” designation. This lens can get you half-life-size reproduction (1:2 or 0.5x), which makes it a touch more versatile and potentially means it can serve as your only macro lens if you aren’t doing pure macro.

FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM II Advantages FE 70-200mm f/4 G II Advantages
Faster f/2.8 aperture Macro capabilities (half-life-size)
Shallower depth of field More compact and 1/2 lb lighter
Top-of-the-line optics More affordable

My recommendation for choosing between the two is to default to the f/4 model and then decide whether your technique requires a faster aperture. The added size and weight make a bigger difference when you get to telephoto focal lengths. The f/2.8 delivers shallower depth of field for portraiture, making it more versatile, if you need it.

The Alternatives

When you are talking about telephoto zoom, there really aren’t better places to go than the 70-200mm. Unless you need something longer, the 70-200mm is a great optic for everyone. If you are on more of a budget, you can consider the version I models of the 70-200mm f/2.8 GM and the 70-200mm f/4 G.

As you build up your lens collection, you can’t go wrong with anything mentioned here. The holy trinity of lenses is considered such for a good reason, and it is a wonderful place to start because it will cover practically all your needs.

Let us know which lenses you have on your wish list, or which lenses you already have in your bag! Or, if you have any more lens shopping questions, feel free to post them below.