Olympus TCON- 17x Review

Olympus TCON– 17x Review for Sony Alpha Cameras

When I first purchased my Sony Alpha camera I had a lot of fun with the 55-210 telephoto lens, but after cropping several photos considerably and not being entirely thrilled with the results, I realized I was going to need an even longer focal length to get closer to the action. The 55-210 is a pretty good telephoto but the focal length falls a bit short for more serious wildlife photography.  Getting a tiny bird in the frame always requires as much reach as you can afford.  The Sony 55-210 can take some great photos under the right conditions and I have managed to take some incredible shots at times, but I found that when wildlife was far away, I often wished that I had more lens reach. 

More lens reach would allow me to get closer (without disturbing the animal of course) and capture more detail in my photos of the amazing creatures in our Rocky Mountain backyard.  Especially with small creatures like birds, having a longer lens would allow me to get a usable shot, which as anyone who has every photographed birds knows can be a Sisyphean task. In this post, I’ll describe the options that I found in my research to remedy this problem, and discuss how I ended up choosing the Olympus TCON-17x to complement my Sony 55-210mm lens. 

When I started looking at the options for extending my focal length, I quickly found out that they were rather limited as far as superzoom telephoto lenses for Sony e-mount cameras. 

Big Horn Sheep with the Sony 55-210.
Big Horn Sheep with the Sony 55-210. It works well when the animal is large and you’re close!

Sony G-Master 70-200mm with a 2x Teleconverter

For those without a budget there are some exceptional options such as the full frame Sony G Master 70-200mm f2.8 but at around $3,3000 USD it’s more expensive than my camera and all my other lenses combined!  Then add a 2x teleconverter for another $500USD and you can get up to 400mm.  This combination would provide exceptional sharpness but $4,000 all in is a little bit too prohibitive for me considering I’m about to embark on a round the world trip. 

If you’re a professional with a full frame camera and need the best, or if money is not an object, this may be the option for you.  Unfortunately I can’t justify that cost yet (experiences over things, right?)!

Snowy Owl taken with the Sony 55-210 and Olympus TCON-17x
Snowy Owl taken with the Sony 55-210 and Olympus TCON-17x

Adapting Telephoto Lenses on to Sony Mirrorless

One of the key advantages of Sony’s mirrorless technology is that with adapters you can use lenses from other camera manufacturers on Sony’s E-Mount.  This opens up the vast range of Canon and Nikon lenses, so this is the next option that I explored. 

The two options I looked at were the Sigma 150-600mm and the Tamron 150-600.  Both gave an amazing amount of reach and are outstanding lenses in terms of optical performance.  With an adapter (LA-EA4) or (MC-11) they will work on an E-mount camera like my Sony A6000

The tradeoff of adapting glass onto an E-Mount camera is autofocus and a loss of IQ.  With many systems you unfortunately lose autofocus speed (or, if it’s a cheap adapter, you may lose autofocus all together).  Unfortunately, autofocus is often important when you’re taking photos of wildlife. 

Furthermore, only the Sigma 150-600mm has Optical SteadyShot stabilization.  This would be pretty important when you’re zoomed in at a 600mm focal length and without it you’re going to have to up your ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to counteract the shaking in your hands.  If you’ve got a Sony A6500 or full frame Sony with in-body stabilization this need not concern you. 

Moose taken with the Sony 55-210 and Olympus TCON-17x
Moose taken with the Sony 55-210 and Olympus TCON-17x

At the end of the day, both of these options are viable but despite scouring the internet I couldn’t find a whole lot of examples of people using the combination in real life.  The only ones I did were a couple photos of the moon or some ducks, but nothing inspiring from photographers using them for wildlife photography outside of the local duck pond.  That’s a little worrying when you’re investing a few grand into a lens and adapter. 

Blue Jay with a Peanut - taken with the Sony 55-210 & Olympus Teleconverter
Blue Jay with a Peanut – taken with the Sony 55-210 & Olympus Teleconverter. 

If you’re willing to drop this level of coin and try adapting glass, don’t cheap out on the adapter.  If you don’t have one already you may want to consider upgrading your body to the Sony Alpha 6500 or a full frame alternative to make use of in body stabilization.  If you do use this combo let me know and send some photos, I’d love to hear how it works for you! 

Olympus TCON-17x (1.7x Teleconverter)

Unfortunately, aside from the Sony 55-210 there aren’t many e-mount options beyond 200mm that work for me.  Most involve dropping several grand and still compromising on performance which doesn’t really seem like a great deal.  The remaining option was to start looking at how I could make what I had work. 

Northern Pygmy Owl with Olympus TCON-17x
Northern Pygmy Owl with the Sony 55-210 and Olympus TCON-17x. This little guy is the size of a pop can so there’s no way I would be able to get a shot without the teleconverter!

One of the options that I came across in my research was the Olympus TCON-17x.  This is a 1.7x Teleconverter that you snap on to the end of the Sony 55-210 turning it into a 93.5-357mm focal length lens.  A bit short of the 500mm on the Tamron or Sigma, but it gets you closer.  The name of the game with super telephotos for the E-mount unfortunately seems to be compromise, but the best part of this one?  It’s about 10x cheaper and only around $200 CAD!

After reading through pretty much all of the reviews on the internet and finding some sample photos I decided to pull the trigger.  Here’s what I found out:

Great Horned Owl looking back at me taking his photo
Great Horned Owl looking back at me taking his photo

Pros of the Olympus TCON-17x

  • You do not lose any stops of light – marvelous! Especially with a 5.6-6.3 lens this is pretty key. 
  • You may lose some clarity and detail, but it’s not significant. The length that you gain more than makes up for it over cropping from further out. 
  • The combination adds some considerable heft to your lens and pulls the Telephoto lens to it’s extension. Not much of a deal breaker but it can get a little annoying.  You’ll also want to make sure the Teleconverter is screwed on tight so that it doesn’t slip off.  Alternatively you can screw it on when you need it but then you won’t be ready for the shot.  I prefer to keep it on and have gotten used to the weight. 
  • It’s small and lightweight compared to other telephoto lenses making it easy to take traveling or hiking. Even if I had one of the fancy 500mm lenses I’d still use the teleconverter for hiking and backpacking. 
  • The Teleconverter is pretty easy to screw on or off your lens is still functional as a normal 55-210.
A Great Gray Owl near Water Valley, AB. Once again, with the Teleconverter
A Great Gray Owl near Water Valley, AB. Once again, with the Teleconverter

Using the Olympus TCON-17x (Things to be aware of before you buy)

  • First, to make this combo work you need a 49mm-55mm step up ring. This can be purchased for less than $10 from Amazon.
  • I also recommend a Domke Lens Wrap as it works really well to wrap up the whole camera, lens, and teleconverter, making this unwieldy combination quite manageable.  
  • At the lower ranges there is vignetting from the edges of the teleconverter. You’re likely going to be using this for its length on the long end so this doesn’t really impact usage. 
  • While the teleconverter and lens combo is light compared to a 500mm, it does add some serious weight and looks a little goofy on the camera. Make sure that your strap is burly enough to hold it.  Also, the extra weight on the end makes the telephoto extend when it’s hanging on the strap which is a bit of an annoyance. 
  • The Sony 55-210’s Optical SteadyShot still works but you will need a fairly fast shutter speed at 300+ mm which can result in some noise in your pictures. 
Up close with a Downy Woodpecker at our Suet Cage.
Up close with a Downy Woodpecker at our Suet Cage.

Cons of the Olympus TCON-17x

  • Unfortunately in a land of compromises, this still isn’t enough reach to compete with the biggest and best lenses. Still, it does the job and you can get some great shots for a fraction of the cost and half the weight. 
  • Continuing on that point, the Sony 55-210 can get some great shots under the right lighting.  That said, it’s not going to compete with a $1,000 to $2,000 lens in sharpness and optical quality.
  • The lens cap seriously sucks. It’s loose and easily comes off in hot weather.  Stick some electrical tape along the outside and you’ll get a tighter fit.  The lens wrap mentioned earlier helps with this problem.
 

In the end, until Sony (or a third party) comes up with some longer focal length options for e-mount, I recommend an Olympus TCON-17x.  It’s surprisingly capable, relatively lightweight, and excellent value.  It will help you take your wildlife photography to the next level without breaking the bank. You won’t regret it.  

Sony A6000 with the 55-210 & Olympus TCON-17x Attached
Sony A6000 with the 55-210 & TCON-17x Attached