SIGMA 150-600MM F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM SPORTS REVIEW

Sigma 150-600 Sports lens

Sigma-150-600-on-Canon-1DC-1024x702

 

My need for telephoto started at age fourteen when I would stalk tigers in the jungles of India with a Nikon FE and a 300mm Nikkor with a roll of 36 exposures Kodachrome 64 in the camera and if lucky, another roll in my pocket. All Manual Focus, no Image Stabilization, no LCD to check ‘playback’, no post processing to sharpen, adjust Chroma or contrast. No luxury of shooting in a burst mode, always being afraid of finishing the roll of film prematurely. Leopard with a cub on the tree feeding on a gazelle? Get exposure, focus, framing and press the shutter only when the moment seemed perfect as later cropping or even horizon straightening would be difficult.

As time passed I got busy making a career and started working full time with motion picture camera and stopped all still photography until fifteen odd years later when I bough a new camera, everything had changed. The new camera, a Canon 5D2, had great features available but came with a huge learning curve. Someone who got focus just by aligning two split images together had to learn how to select focus points, technique of center focus and recompose, servo focus, back button focus. Then histograms, sensor cleaning, micro adjustment…! Learning camera was not enough; I had to learn how to process photos myself – Photoshop is a different beast altogether.

The reason for this little background is for you to know how I marvel the advancement of technology and am not at all super critical of issues in equipment. I prefer to use the gear that I can afford and try to get the best results by overcoming the shortcomings of it.

About two years ago I was amongst the first ones to buy the Canon 200-400 f4 lens to replace my 300 f2.8 and 600 f4 (Both version 1). I have been travelling to Africa every year for wildlife photography and the zoom seemed to work better than carrying two lenses and getting the perfect composition quickly rather than having to put one camera down and pick up the other with appropriate lens. Things happen very fast in the bush (!) and zoom would work better. But I soon realized that I had an $11,000 lens sitting in the shelf for 20 days of use per year. Besides I was not thrilled that I had to switch a lever to engage the 1.4 extender to reach 600 mm. Sigma announced the 150-600 sports version for just $2000 and that got me thinking: slightly lighter, no lever to play with, whooping $7000 cheaper. I sold the 200-400 just two months before my scheduled February 2015 Kenya safari with the hope that I will buy the Sigma and take it along. I sold the 200-400 urgently thinking (stupidly) what if the Sigma turns out super and the price of the Canon lens falls? I preordered at all top stores – Adorama and BH photo included – but no luck and time was running out fast. I started questioning my timing of selling the 200-400 and nervousness started setting in. One fine morning I checked on Ebay and Samy’s Camera in LA was selling it. Turned out that they had only one copy and no one had preordered from them. Immediate buy! The lens arrived four days before my departure and after two endless days the AFMA settings looked like:

AFMA-for-SIGMA-150-600-F-5-6.3-with-new-1DC

I have not done AFMA (Auto Focus Macro Adjustment) on any Sigma lens (or bought a 3rd party lens) before so do not know if the calibration is extreme. I guess it does not matter, as long as makes the lens give sharp pictures. I find the AFMA process very tedious and error prone. I can never be sure if the settings I choose are correct and wish there was an absolute foolproof method. With the lens calibrated to the best of my ability I mounted it on my 1dc and never took it off for next two weeks on safari in Kenya. Here are some of the photos I took with this lens. (Right click and open in new window to see 1280 pixels wide shots.)

Lion sitting in the Jungle of Kenya Lion sitting in the Jungle of Kenya (100% crop)

470mm @ f 6.3 1/500 ISO 200 (Full frame & 100% crop)

three buffaloes standing, Kenya Lion sitting in the Jungle of Kenya (100% crop)

401mm @ f6.3 1/100 ISO 1600 (Full frame & 100% crop)

_N159932-as-Smart-Object-1 _N159932-as-Smart-Object-1crop

600mm @ f 6.3 1/200 ISO 400 (Full frame & 100% crop)

_N153626-as-Smart-Object-1 _N153626-as-Smart-Object-1crop

600mm @ f 6.3 1/320 ISO 1250 (Full Frame & 100% crop)

_N151449-as-Smart-Object-1 _N151449-as-Smart-Object-1crop

600mm @ f 6.3 1/200 ISO 500 (Full frame & 100% crop)

_N156379-as-Smart-Object-1 _N156379-as-Smart-Object-1crop

600mm @ f 6.3 1/160 ISO 1600 (Full Frame & 100% crop)

_N153497-as-Smart-Object-1 _N153497-as-Smart-Object-1crop

200mm @ f 6.3 1/50 ISO 2000 (Full frame & 100% crop)

_N150270-as-Smart-Object-1 _N150270-as-Smart-Object-1crop

300 @ f 6.3 1/1,000 ISO 1600 (Full frame & 100% crop)

_N154765-as-Smart-Object-1 _N154765-as-Smart-Object-1crop

600mm @ f 6.3 1/800 ISO 1250 (Full Frame & 100% crop)

_N155313-as-Smart-Object-1 Buffalo giving birth in Kenya

600mm @ f 10 1/400 ISO 400 (Full Frame & 100% crop)

_N156525-as-Smart-Object-1 sitting in the jungle of Kenya

600mm @ f 6.3 1/125 ISO 3200 (Full Frame & 100% crop)

Lion looking Away, Kenya _N159911-as-Smart-Object-1crop

321mm @ f 6.3 1/320 ISO 400 ( Full Frame & 100% crop)

African Elephants in the Jungle of Kenya _N150010-as-Smart-Object-1crop

309 mm @ f 5.6 1/800 ISO 400 (Full Frame & 100% crop)

_N151440-as-Smart-Object-1 _N151440-as-Smart-Object-1crop

600mm @ f 6.3 1/125 ISO 500

On close examination of the results I find the pictures not as sharp as I would have liked. My shooting methods remain the same as before: Always on servo focus and careful placement of focus point, but on the same camera I got sharper – much sharper results from the Canon 200-400 demonstrated here. Shot at f4:

_73O3502-as-Smart-Object-1 _73O3502--crop

338mm @ f 4 1/800 ISO 400 (Full frame & 100% crop)

I did not find the above sharpness in any of the Sigma photos. At full frame the difference is not as noticeable as at 100% crop. Here each whisker is sharp! The MTF charts show that the Canon is indeed sharper. I am sure this does not come as a surprise to many. Sigma 35 mm A lens may be sharper than Canon’s 35 mm but when it comes to telephoto, Canon rules.

But was I doing anything wrong with AFMA? I decided to check sharpness using live view, tripod, IS off and such. Will I continue with this lens for my telephoto needs or replace with some other lens? Lets investigate together.

To compare the sharpness of the lens I tried to rent a 200-400 to compare with but did not find a single lens in Mumbai and so settled for another of Canon’s sharpest zoom: 70-200 mm f 2.8 Version 2.

Canon-Crop Sigma-Crop

Sigma-vs-Canon-FF

The Sigma held up very well to the industry standard Canon zoom lens at 200 mm. Very reassuring.

Next I wanted to compare the Sigma at 200 mm v/s 600 mm at f5.6 and f11:

200-f5.6-crop 600-f6.2

200---f11-crop 600mm-f11

At 600 mm the lens looked much softer than 200 at full open f-stop. The lens becomes sharper at f 11 but the 600 mm sharpness full open prompted me to do another test and here are the new results:

200-f5.6-crop-2nd-test 600-f6.3-Crop-2nd-test

This time around the results are a little better but 600 is again softer than 200. Not happy as I would generally not have enough light for f 11 where the lens looks much better at the long end:

200-f11-crop-2nd-test 600-f11-crop-2nd-test

Here the difference is much less – Remember we are looking at 100% crops and in actual life we will never zoom in so much. This is how it looks full frame:

200mm-FF 600mm-f6.3-FF

At full frame the Sigma’s IQ at 200 mm and 600 mm seems identical for all practical purposes. (No contrast/sharpening enhancements applied.)

Auto Focus Performance: I found the lens to focus well and not hunt so much. Perhaps other lenses focus faster but this focuses fast enough and I never (never!) missed a single shot because of focusing or tracking speed, the few that were out of focus were operator error. Some other lenses I have used (Canon) focus much faster – here I could sometimes see the focusing (v/s instantaneous) but this never came in my way of catching action. The lens can be programmed for fast or more secure focus. I always want my photos to be in perfect focus and kept the settings to ‘Focus accuracy-priority’ instead of ‘Motor’s drive speed-priority. Besides the camera in use plays a huge factor in focus performance and the distinction between both becomes difficult to discern.

Image Stabilization Performance: In my previous telephoto lenses whenever I engaged the IS switch I could always feel the shake reducing. Interestingly enough I never felt the steadiness change on flicking the switch making me doubt if the IS was working or not. I made a test and was happy to see that I could hand hold the lens @ 600 mm and get sharp pictures at 1/40 shutter.

600-140-IS-OFF 600-140-IS-ON

Handling: Zoom ring works both if rotated or pushed/pulled. I found it easier to zoom using the push/pull method but that is I, someone else may prefer to rotate. There is a convenient zoom lock provided which makes it possible to lock the lens at all focal length markings only. The handle to carry the lens is very badly designed. It has sharp edges and digs into the palm and the distance between the lens and the handle (tripod mount) is so less that knuckles keep scraping against the lens. I have average hands, wonder how bad it will be for people with larger hands!

Zoom Range: The 150-600mm zoom range is near ideal for wildlife photography. It falls a bit short for birds on full frame and sometimes too tight on crop sensors but this is the ideal zoom range to cover most situations in the bush. When on ‘off-road’ safari in most private game reservers and where the guides go off road when rangers are not watching 600mm prime lenses tend to be very tight. But when in strictly no off road situations – e.g. most of Kruger and Etosha National park 600mm can sometimes be bit short. So overall this is a brilliant zoom range. On a crop sensor this lens would be appropriate for distant bird photography as well.

F Stop: F5.6, the average opening of this lens is not too fast, but is this a matter of concern? Every passing year modern camera’s are delivering better and better IQ at higher ISO – with modern full frame camera delivering amazing quality un to 2500 ISO, a lens with f5.6 opening works fine. There is a period of about an hour early in the morning and late in evening when the f4 of Canon’s 200-400mm would be desirable but outside of that f5.6 is just fine. The f2.8 of a prime 400mm lens gives lot extra light and a shallow depth which is fantastic when required but lacks the zoom flexibility and the shallow depth can be (actually is) a big limiting factor when trying to get the entire animal in focus or when capturing wildlife behavior moments when more than one eye is required in focus. In my opinion the average f5.6 opening of the lens is not a problem as such. Do realize that f4 lens would be more expensive, larger and heavier.

 

The images from Kenya not being perfect could have been due to imperfect AFMA but I can never be sure. The live view tests I made seem to show improvement in sharpness but only marginally. At $2000 the lens is a bargain and can be used perfectly well to make impactful photos. If I ever get a paid assignment I will immediately swap this with the Canon 200-400. The upgrade would be for a combination of IQ, IS, AF and perhaps for mental security.

To get all details of lens: MTF charts, weight etc visit http://www.sigmaphoto.com/product/150-600mm-f5-63-dg-os-hsm-s

And of course wait for Bryan’s review at http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/Sigma-150-600mm-f-5-6.3-DG-OS-HSM-Sports-Lens.aspx

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.

Recommended for further reading:

PhotographyBlog.com

http://www.photographyblog.com/reviews/sigma_150_600mm_f5_6_3_dg_os_hsm_sports_review/

  • Thank you Sanjay for your review. I noticed the shutter speed even at 1/50. I am curious you were using monopole/tripod. Based on my experience I don’t dare to shoot that kind of shutter speed hand holding especially at longer end.

    • I meant whether you were using monopod/tripod

    • Yes shooting handheld with these big lenses is not the best method. I supported the camera on the car window for most of the wildlife photos. The IS test was made handheld.

      • Thank you Sanjay for your reply. It looks like you are a seasoned photographer and I prefer not to preach.
        I do have Sigma 150-600 since November and I am personally happy with my perception about Sigma’s sharpness. I managed to shoot without shake only upto 1/125 with D810 handholding @600mm – I may not be good and also with 36MP Camera. I normally will not shoot below 1/320 and go faster than 1/1250 when it comes to BIF. I did not do any focus tuning and you may visit the bald eagle in flight and other pictures from my web site.

        When you were shooting with Window support, hope the vehicle was off to avoid engine vibration. I may also suggest you to look into another copy if you have the option of return/exchange before writing critical review which is read all over the world. Also it is a good idea to test it out in local zoo before taking to an expensive Safari in Africa.

        • I am glad you are happy with the lens. I am happy too, just wonder if I could do better AFMA to get sharper photos. The manual focus shots do look sharper. The results of my shoot are posted for all to decide for themselves.

          I would be the first to say put the camera on a solid tripod when shooting with a any lens leave alone a heavy one.

          Testing a lens is a great idea before a trip but not always possible. Can you post a few photos from your lens here?

          • SKM

            My apologies for the delay in replying

            >> Can you
            post a few photos from your lens here?<<

            First, let me admit that I am not a PRO – just a hobbyist. These
            pictures mostly handheld/Monopod. Some of these pictures are bit over processed.

            http://www.tiger-rider.com/Client-Galleries/BaldEagle/

            Some of these pictures are from Sigma 150-600

            http://www.tiger-rider.com/Client-Galleries/ART/

            This one is using a tripod – D810-Sigma @1800mm (crop mode
            with TC-2001)

            http://www.tiger-rider.com/Expeditions/Memphis/Moonshine-in-Memphis/i-cKpcNN2/0/X3/DSC_7482_87-CROP-X3.jpg

          • Sanjayfgupta

            Some lovely photos there!!! Thanks so much for sharing… Your copy of the lens seems to have better focus than mine.

          • SKM

            Sanjay,

            It looks like your AFMA seems to be bit extreme comparing my
            serviced D810 – especially something don’t look right (for example -7@50F to +8
            @ inf for 150mm also bunch of 0’s at infinity). How are you testing your AFMA?

            Here is my story. Couple of weeks ago I bought Reikan FoCal
            2 I did some test on my D810 & all my lenses – in summary my camera was
            completely messed up (with AFMA of >+/-50). So I sent my camera & lenses
            to Nikon. After spending a week with Nikon service, I got it back within
            tolerable limits. As you can see below, I need to make major AFMA only @ 600MM.

          • Sanjayfgupta

            Interesting. I thought AFMA was a setting which is done only on the lens, not the camera. Of course the calibration is done for a particular camera for the lens but all calibration is on the lens only. Must read up on this further! I use Canon 1dc and unfortunately FoCal does not support that model.

  • Tom

    I’ve read your review twice and it seems like you are not overly impressed with the 150-600. Did the lens really need to be adjusted when you first purchased it? That is a task I would prefer not to do. I have the canon 70-300 L and was looking for something with more reach without the cost of a prime lens. Do you think your opinion will change as you use the lens a bit more?

    • For a $2000 dollar lens I am ok with it. I intend to do AFMA from start again. I will see if my opinion changes post that. Unfortunately at this point in technology AFMA seems to be a necessity and its best we accept that. :)

  • Kayaker72

    Thanks Sanjay…I have actually been waiting to hear your impressions. I am probably a bit more impressed with my copy than you were with yours. Hopefully AFMA helps. In my tests, the 150-600S @ 600 was a bit better than my 100-400 Mk I @ 400 but not as good as my 70-200 II @ 200.

    I am not surprised that the 150-600S is not up to the 200-400 f/4. What I wonder about is the 100-400 II plus 1.4tc. It seems that is a very good combination.

    But, at the end of the day, I have enjoyed shooting the 150-600S, it accomplishes what I wanted it too. I look forward to hearing more of your impressions.

  • SKM

    My apologies for the delay in replying

    >> Can you
    post a few photos from your lens here?<<

    First, let me admit that I am not a PRO – just a hobbyist. These
    pictures mostly handheld/Monopod. Some of these pictures are bit over processed.

    http://www.tiger-rider.com/Client-Galleries/BaldEagle/

    Some of these pictures are from Sigma 150-600

    http://www.tiger-rider.com/Client-Galleries/ART/

    This one is using a tripod – D810-Sigma @1800mm (crop mode
    with TC-2001)

    http://www.tiger-rider.com/Expeditions/Memphis/Moonshine-in-Memphis/i-cKpcNN2/0/X3/DSC_7482_87-CROP-X3.jpg

    • Sanjayfgupta

      Some lovely photos there!!! Thanks so much for sharing… Your copy of the lens seems to have better focus than mine.

      • SKM

        Sanjay,

        It looks like your AFMA seems to be bit extreme comparing my
        serviced D810 – especially something don’t look right (for example -7@50F to +8
        @ inf for 150mm also bunch of 0’s at infinity). How are you testing your AFMA?

        Here is my story. Couple of weeks ago I bought Reikan FoCal
        2 I did some test on my D810 & all my lenses – in summary my camera was
        completely messed up (with AFMA of >+/-50). So I sent my camera & lenses
        to Nikon. After spending a week with Nikon service, I got it back within
        tolerable limits. As you can see below, I need to make major AFMA only @ 600MM.

        • Sanjayfgupta

          Interesting. I thought AFMA was a setting which is done only on the lens, not the camera. Of course the calibration is done for a particular camera for the lens but all calibration is on the lens only. Must read up on this further! I use Canon 1dc and unfortunately FoCal does not support that model.

        • SKM

          You may visit the pictures I took last weekend (after AFMA)

          http://www.tiger-rider.com/Client-Galleries/TuscalUSA/

  • Rahul Lamba

    That’s a nice review Sanjay. Sorry to know that the Sigma disappointed you. Although your expectations are high when you are pitting it against the 200-400, i’m confident they can’t be so far apart for a ‘good copy’ of the Sigma. In real world usage the difference would be more subtle (as i’ve seen with the Tamron 150-600 vs 500 F/4 II).

    I own the Tamron version of it. The 500 F/4 II is better, of course it must be!, but the difference is not as obvious as in this case. And no doubt, that at F/8 the Tamron produces sharp results, much sharper than what i am seeing in your posts.

    In the same breath, i am sure that the Sigma should produce Sharper results than the Tamron (or at least as sharp) which makes me think that it’s that AFMA issue you mentioned. Which is clear in the second set of Number plate crops (shot from Live View), i can see the tiny ‘India’ text within each of those characters, clearly!

    Have you tried Reikan focal, or that ‘Moire interference pattern’ method? I’ve tried the latter and it worked like a charm. Secondly, when performing that AFMA did you follow the thumb rule of 50x focal length? In all likelihood your calibration distance was too short while your actual subjects, at field, were relatively farther away which would’ve magnified any back/front focus issue.

    Cheers.

    • Sanjayfgupta

      Thank you for your comment. I am not really disappointed as it is just a 2k lens. But I will AFMA it again before my next trip and hope for better results.

  • Rahul Lamba

    That’s a nice review Sanjay. Sorry to know that the Sigma disappointed you. Although your expectations are high when you are pitting it against the 200-400, i’m confident they can’t be so far apart for a ‘good copy’ of the Sigma. In real world usage the difference would be more subtle (as i’ve seen with the Tamron 150-600 vs 500 F/4 II).

    I own the Tamron version of it. The 500 F/4 II is better, of course it must be!, but the difference is not as obvious as in this case. And no doubt, that at F/8 the Tamron produces sharp results, much sharper than what i am seeing in your posts.

    In the same breath, i am sure that the Sigma should produce Sharper results than the Tamron (or at least as sharp) which makes me think that it’s that AFMA issue you mentioned. Which is clear in the second set of Number plate crops (shot from Live View), i can see the tiny ‘India’ text within each of those characters, clearly!

    Have you tried Reikan focal, or that ‘Moire interference pattern’ method? I’ve tried the latter and it worked like a charm. Secondly, when performing that AFMA did you follow the thumb rule of 50x focal length? In all likelihood your calibration distance was too short while your actual subjects, at field, were relatively farther away which would’ve magnified any back/front focus issue.

    Cheers.

    • Sanjayfgupta

      Thank you for your comment. I am not really disappointed as it is just a 2k lens. But I will AFMA it again before my next trip and hope for better results.