Sigma 300mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM APO
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April 6, 2009
by Andrew Alexander
The 300mm telephoto lens is widely used in sports and wildlife; situations with poor lighting (such as dusk and dawn for wildlife, and poorly-illuminate gyms for sports) make a fast ƒ/2.8 aperture almost mandatory. These lenses are typically big, heavy and... expensive.
Enter the Sigma 300mm ƒ/2.8. Sigma has created a niche by developing less-expensive equivalents to the major manufacturers, available in a variety of lens mounts. In the case of this lens it is available in Sigma, Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Sony/Minolta mounts. The lens is designed to cover a 35mm frame of film, making it compatible with both full-frame and sub-frame digital SLR camera bodies. On a sub-frame body the lens will provide an equivalent field-of-view of 450mm (on Canon sub-frame bodies, 480mm).
The lens comes standard with a soft case, tripod collar, caps and a large, round lens hood. The lens is available now with a street price of approximately $2,700.
Sigma has surprised us in the past, producing inexpensive lenses which perform very well even when used wide open. The 300mm ƒ/2.8 performs well, but never reaches the level of tack-sharpness that other Sigma lenses have produced. Let's take a closer look.
Mounted on the sub-frame Canon 20D, the 300mm ƒ/2.8 performs well wide-open at ƒ/2.8, with an average performance of 2 blur units pretty much solid across the frame. Stopping down the lens only improves sharpness results marginally, reaching 1 to 1.5 blur units in a small central region of the frame by ƒ/8, and maintaining 2 blur units into the corner regions. This isn't bad performance by any means, it just isn't the tack-sharp result we've seen on more recent Sigma lenses. Diffraction limiting begins to set in at ƒ/11, with a minor loss in sharpness; performance at ƒ/22 is still quite good at 3-4 blur units. Fully stopped-down at ƒ/32 the lens becomes quite soft, in the order of 5-6 blur units.
With the lens mounted on the full-frame 5D, we see similar results, with an increase in the level of corner softness. Wide open at ƒ/2.8, we again see an average of around 2 blur units, just slightly better in the center and significantly softer in the corners - in this case, between 3-5 blur units. Stopping down doesn't do much to improve the corner softening, it just seems to move it around (our sample may be slightly de-centered). Central sharpness improves slightly, but by ƒ/5.6 you've reached the apex of what this lens can offer for sharpness (it's quite similar at ƒ/8) - a small region of sharpness in the center, 1-1.5 blur units, and escalating corner softness - between 2 and 4 blur units. Diffraction limiting sets in at ƒ/11, and again, it's still quite usable at ƒ/22. Fully stopped-down at ƒ/32, results are just as soft on full-frame as they are on sub-frame.
In summary, good results on average, but you don't see big gains through stopping down. As well, the Sigma magic doesn't seem to come through on this sample of the lens; there isn't an aperture setting which provides extraordinary sharpness.
Results for chromatic aberration are somewhat high, though to Sigma's credit the best performance is observed at the widest aperture setting (ƒ/2.8), where this lens will probably be used most often. As the lens is stopped down, CA increases, especially in the corners. The full-frame 5D seems to be a bit more forgiving of CA, but not by much. I'd check our sample photos to see if the chromatic aberration is objectionable to your eyes.
Corner shading isn't much to write home about when the lens is mounted on the sub-frame 20D - the corners are just a quarter-stop darker than the center when used wide open at ƒ/2.8. Stop the lens down even to ƒ/4, and the shading goes away.
When mounted on the full-frame 5D however, light falloff is a bit more noticeable. When used at ƒ/2.8, the corners are 3/4 of a stop darker than the center. Stopped down to ƒ/4, this shading is slightly alleviated at just under a half-stop differential, and at ƒ/5.6 corner shading is reduced further to just a quarter-stop. At any other aperture, light falloff isn't significant.
The Sigma 300mm ƒ/2.8 is excellently optimized to produce distortion-free images. On the sub-frame 20D, there's almost no evidence of any distortion. On the full-frame 5D, there is just the slightest bit of pincushion distortion (-0.05%) in the corners.
Sigma uses its HSM technology for autofocus on its Sigma-, Nikon- and Canon-mount versions of this lens; Pentax and Sony users are limited to mechanical focusing strategies. A full focus movement (infinity - close-focus - infinity) took about 1.5 seconds, though the lens is quite ''snappy'' when focusing between short distances. The HSM-variants of this lens allow the focus to be adjusted at any time by just turning the focus ring; as well, the lens is near-silent during focus operations.
With a magnification ratio of just 0.13x and a close-focusing distance of 2.5 meters (over 8 feet), macro users should look elsewhere.
Build Quality and Handling
The Sigma 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens is nicely built, composed of both metal and plastic construction. Its black matte finish has a roughed texture, making it easy to grip and maneuver. The lens mount (as you would expect for a lens of this size) is metal; filters are the 46mm drop-in type, and a normal filter is included with the lens. This lens uses a convenient system for rotating drop-in filters: there is a thin ring with ridges next to the filter holder that rotates a small gear in the lens, which meshes with a gear on the filter holder to rotate the filter. A white reference dot is marked on the filter rotator ring to give you a sense of how far you've turned the filter.
There isn't much in the way of control features on the lens other than the aperture and focus rings; a single switch allows the user to deactive autofocus control on the lens. A recessed and windowed distance scale is provided, with markings in feet and meters, however there are no depth-of-field markings; neither is there an infrared index. The lens aperture is composed of 9 diaphragm blades, which should serve to produce pleasing bokeh.
The focus ring is the dominant feature of the lens. The ring is 1 1/2 inches wide, composed of soft rubber ribs which run lengthwise to the lens. The ring turns 180 degrees through its focus range, providing excellent tactile resistance for manual focusing operations: it's nicely cammed, and very smooth. There are soft stops at both ends of the focus spectrum to let you know you've reached the end, but the focus ring will still turn albeit with an increased resistance. The lens can focus past infinity.
The lens hood is significantly large, at 3 3/4 inches long. It's a circular-style hood that attaches via a bayonet-mount and reverses onto the lens for storage. The interior of the hood is flocked to reduce stray light from entering the lens. The front lens cap is actually a smaller hood that slides over the front of the lens.
The tripod collar uses Sigma's standard design which allows for a quick release. The collar has a single 1/4-inch mounting socket. On the lens, there are two marks serving as 90-degree rotation marks for landscape and portait orientations, but if you want to align the lens in a counter-clockwise position you'll have to use the ''Sigma EX'' logo as a reference point.
While almost every manufacturer produces a fast 300mm lens, we haven't included the Olympus 150mm ƒ/2 (excellent lens that it is) as the Sigma 300mm ƒ/2.8 is not available in the four-thirds mount.
Canon EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM ~$4,100
The Canon 300mm ƒ/2.8 is significantly sharper than the Sigma, hitting almost tack-sharp (1 blur unit) sharpness at ƒ/2.8. Chromatic aberration results are also much better; distortion and corner shading is about the same. The Canon lens provides many more control options including focus limiting and memory, as well as image stabilization. Of course you pay quite a bit more for these features.
Nikon 300mm ƒ/2.8D ED-IF II AF-S ~$4,800
We haven't yet tested this Nikon lens, but similarly to the Canon the lens is complemented with a variety of control options as well as image stabilization. Also similar to the Canon, the lens is a fair deal more expensive than the Sigma.
Pentax 300mm ƒ/4 ED IF SDM SMC DA* ~$1,000
Pentax used to offer a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens - the Pentax 300mm ƒ/2.8 ED IF SMC P-FA - but this lens has been discontinued. Instead they offer a ƒ/4 version, which is smaller and less expensive. The lens uses Pentax's SDM autofocus technology.
Tamron 300mm ƒ/2.8 LD IF SP AF ~$3,000
Tamron produces a 300mm ƒ/2.8 for Canon, Nikon and Sony/Minolta mounts, slightly more expensive than the Sigma. We haven't yet tested this lens. The lens uses 46mm drop-in filters, but surprisingly, also has 112mm filter threads on the front for some giant filters.
Sony 300mm ƒ/2.8 G SAL-300F28G ~$6,000
We haven't yet reviewed the Sony offering in this category, but it's the most expensive of them all.
If you're looking at this lens, the odds are you're wondering how the Sigma lens stacks up to those provided by the ''brand-name'' manufacturers. Our tests show the Sigma 300mm ƒ/2.8 to perform very well: sharpness is very good, CA is optimized for use at ƒ/2.8, there's virtually no distortion and light falloff is almost non-existent. Optically, the lens stands well on its own. However, for lenses of this category, it's not just about the optics; the Nikon and Canon offerings, for example, include image stabilization and multiple focus control options.
So it's hard not to recommend the lens: it's solidly-built and performs well, especially for the price point. In the final analysis it could come down to a situation where, if you're going to shell out that much for a lens, is it worth it to go the extra mile and get a lens which performs that much better?
The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
Sigma 300mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM APO User Reviews
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Pike40 (1 reviews)Sharp, Lightweight for a 2.8 lens, good AFNo IS, a little soft in the corners
This lens just does not get enough respect. I have waffled between this lens and a canon 300 2.8 v1. Finally decided to give this a go because of the used price. Initially had about the same results as the SLRgear review which is ok but not in the Canon league. but after I adjusted the MFA the center sharpness is outstanding now. Took a +20 MFA but wow what a difference. I wonder if the SLRgear review made a similar adjustment. For the price of these used it is a killer bargain and very competitive with the Canon on picture quality.reviewed December 14th, 2013 (purchased for $1,500)
To be clear though, it does not focus as fast, although close, and it is softer in the corners than the Canon, and a big deal to some is it does not have IS.
I have only played with the Canon V2 once, it is just better all around.
In conclusion, I really like this lens, very competent for the price and a sleeper in this segment in my opinion.
5 out of 10 points and recommended by gary1952 (4 reviews)Small, compact, easy to use, fairly sharpNo extras what so ever. Mine is for Pentax and screw AF
I own this lens in the Pentax mount and used it for about two years. I then moved to Canon and bought the 300 IS and now the Caono 300 II lens.reviewed September 28th, 2013 (purchased for $3,000)
First I am comparing against the Canon lenses. The Canon 300 II has no equal IMO. Rarely use the Sigma lens now.
It is a good lens. Without a T.C. it is very good. I get nice fairly sharp shots. And with minimum sharpening it is definitely usable. To get professional quality photos.
I totally disagree with the other reviewer. With a T.C. the quality no matter what F stop is unacceptable for me. It looses the sharpness required for birding. With the 2X it is not even in the hunt. Horrible quality. I have read many reviews about this lens. Most just rave about it. For birding it is a non starter period for me.
I personally did not like the Canon 300 IS for birding either. The Canon 300 II changed all that. It is the first lens I am happy with. For birding. A great all around-er that takes T.C.'s fairly good and AF excels with pro body's.
I Have tons of pics with the Sigma 300.
When Pentax comes with the K-3 I will review it again.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Hokum (5 reviews)Very Very sharp, great colour, fast AF, "cheap"Not weather sealed
Probably the best lens i have ever used. Sharp at f2.8, and even sharp at f4 with a 1.4 x TC, with the sigma 2x you only need to stop down 2/3 to f7.1 to get exceptable images.reviewed June 12th, 2006 (purchased for $1,100)
The bokeh is creamy smooth, the contrast is good and the colour rendition has none of the old sigma yellow cast.
Though lacking VR/IS and weather sealing for the price it is more than worth not having these. Both the canon and the nikon are several thousand more.
AF is fast, though not lightening like, but more than capable for tracking birds in flight. AF accuracy is ok, my copy does tend to front focus a little. Without the TC's lockon is SURE with the 2x TC it does sometimes hunt.