Sigma 50-500mm f/4-6.3 EX DG HSM APO
May 25, 2009
by Andrew Alexander
Affectionately known as the ''Bigma,'' this lens boasts a 10x zoom range, one of the largest available. The lens has gained a dedicated following of users, and Sigma has gone to great lengths to maintain this popularity by releasing versions of the lens Sigma, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sony and Four-Thirds lens mounts.
The lens is designed to Sigma's DG specification, meaning it's fully compatible with full-frame imaging sensors as well as 35mm film cameras. The lens uses a variable aperture, meaning the maximum (largest) aperture will decrease as the lens is zoomed out. The following table sets out the changes:
The Sigma 50-500mm ƒ/4-6.3 EX DG HSM APO lens comes with a petal-shaped lens hood, accepts 86mm filters and is available now for approximately $900.
The Bigma offers a mixed bag of performance; for the most part, between 50mm and 200mm, the lens offers respectably sharp images, with a few notable and problematic focal length / aperture combinations. Above 200mm, image sharpness degrades noticeably. I suspect our sample of the lens may have a slight issue with one or more de-centered elements, owing to the curious performance we occasionally found.
At 50mm, the lens performed admirably well on our D200 test body, showing an average of 2 blur units, skewed slightly towards the top of the frame. Stopping down the lens at this focal length improves image sharpness, until it reaches its optimal aperture of ƒ/8 where we note 1.5 blur units across the frame. Even fully-stopped down at ƒ/22 images didn't exceed 2 blur units across the frame.
Of course, you don't buy a lens like this to use solely at 50mm. The lens has a curious speed bump of performance when set to 100mm, where we note excessive corner softness wide open at ƒ/5 (specifically, the right-hand corner) - in the order of 8 blur units. This corner softness actually gets worse when stopped down to ƒ/5.6, then improves as the lens is stopped down further. This result may have something to do with the lens' configurable use with teleconverters, which can only be used with the lens locked to a minimum focal length of 100mm.
Wide open at 200mm we see some excellent results for sharpness - around 2 blur units across the frame - even though by this point we're reaching a comparatively slow minimum aperture of ƒ/6. Things here get a little better stopped down to ƒ/8 - a little better than 2 blur units - and a bit better still at ƒ/11.
Wide open at the 300mm mark (ƒ/6.3) we note significant corner softness, with one corner off the charts, and average overall image sharpness (around 3-4 blur units on average). It's marginally improved with wide open performance at 400mm and 500mm, but not much better. In all these cases stopping down the lens to ƒ/8 does little to improve sharpness, one needs to stop down to at least ƒ/11 if not ƒ/16 to get the sharpest results from the lens at these focal lengths. At these settings you'll see results of 2-3 blur units.
Performance fully stopped down is fairly good below 200mm, where the smallest aperture is ƒ/22-29. Smaller than that, and at longer focal lengths, the images produced become very soft - between 4-5 blur units across the frame.
Results for image sharpness are almost identical on the full-frame D3x, with perhaps slightly more exaggerated corner softness above 200mm.
|Center of frame, D200, 500mm, ƒ/6.3|
While the D3x employs automatic chromatic aberration reduction, CA is significant only when set to 50mm. At other settings, CA is nominal.
Light falloff isn't a significant issue with the lens mounted on a camera sporting an APS-C sized image sensor. For the most part, the corners are less than a quarter-stop darker than the center, except for wide-open performance at 50mm and 500mm, where you're looking at third-of-a-stop difference.
On the D3x, light falloff is a bit more prominent: there are actually only a few focal length / aperture settings that will produce an image where the corners are less than a quarter-stop darker than the center. In the worst case scenario, 50mm at ƒ/4, we note corners that are almost a full-stop darker than the center. The best performance occurs between 100mm and 200mm; at other focal lengths, you must stop down significantly to reduce the impact of light falloff.
To the credit of this lens, it produced images with a comparatively small amount of distortion, which is a remarkable feat considering the impressive zoom distance covered. There is almost no distortion at 50mm, and by 100mm the distortion profile is more or less the same: slight barrel throughout, with corners squeezing to pincushion. The effect is obviously more prominent with the lens mounted on the full-frame D3x.
The 50-500mm ƒ/4-6.3 employs Sigma's HSM focusing standard, which is available for Sigma, Nikon, Canon and Four-Thirds camera mounts. Pentax and Sony shooters will have to make do with traditional mechanical focusing mounts. The Nikon sample we tested focused quite quickly and silently, slewing between focus extremes in less than one second. Autofocus results can be overridden by simply turning the focus ring as desired.
Sigma's ultrazoom doesn't do so well for macro work - it provides a magnification of just 0.19x at a minimum focusing distance of 1 meter (just over three feet).
Build Quality and Handling
The Sigma 50-500mm ƒ/4-6.3 is a complex lens, designed with 20 glass elements in 16 groups. Its expanding design keeps it to a relatively small package when collapsed to its 50mm configuration, at just 8 1/2 inches long. It is significantly heavy, at over 2 pounds in weight. When fully zoomed out, the lens adds an additional 3 1/2 inches to its length, and with the lens hood in place we see a further 2 3/4 inches in length, making for a total package that's 14 3/4 inches long when fully extended. A distance scale is viewable beneath a window, showing distance in feet and meters. No depth-of-field scale is provided. There are magnification indicators marked on the lens barrel, viewable as the lens is zoomed out.
For all its complexity the lens is sturdily built, with a metal lens mount and plastic filter threads - one of the largest sizes available, 86mm. The lens aperture is made up of 9 diaphragm blades, which should produce pleasant out-of-focus elements. The entire body of the lens is covered with a rubberized texture. The lens features only main control, a zoom locking switch which has three settings. The regular setting allows the lens to be zoomed throughout its entire zoom range. Another setting locks the lens to the 50mm focal length, to prevent zoom creep. The final setting restricts the lens to a 100-500mm zoom range, and is marked ''CONV'' indicating that this setting must be chosen to enable usage with teleconverters.
The focus ring is placed closer to the lens mount, the smaller of the two rings, at 7/16'' wide. The lens is composed of a dense rubber with a texture of raised ribs. The ring has no hard stops to indicate infinity focus or close-focus. The front element does not turn during focusing or zooming operations.
The zoom ring is quite large - one and three-quarter inches wide - and is composed of the same dense rubber, with a texture of very large raised ribs. It takes a quarter turn (~90 degrees) of smooth but firm turning action to move the lens through its range of focal lengths. Zoom creep is an issue for this lens, for which Sigma has thoughtfully provided a zoom locking switch that locks the lens to its 50mm setting.
The lens comes with a beefy tripod mount which can also serve as a carrying handle. The mount sports a 1/4-inch mounting socket and is easily removable from the lens. The petal-shaped lens hood shares the same rubberized texture as the lens and is ribbed on the inside to reduce flare. The lens hood reverses and mounts on the lens for easy storage.
Sigma has produced something unique here, as no other manufacturer has a lens that matches its range of focal lengths. Others come close, and we'll examine the notable contemporaries.
Sigma 120-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DG OS ~$800
If you don't need the extra wide-angle or telephoto capabilities, you may wish to consider this model, which includes optical image stabilization. Image sharpness is comparable, perhaps even a little better at the ''wide'' end (120mm), but is noticeably weaker at 400mm. Chromatic aberration performance is significantly better, and results for corner shading and distortion are about the same.
Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM ~$1,500
The Canon contemporary is significantly more expensive, and if you can find a good copy of the lens, you'll be rewarded with impressively sharp images. CA is well-controlled, at least in the mid-range (200-300mm) and there's very little distortion and light falloff. Comes with image stabilization.
Nikon 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED AF VR Nikkor ~$1,600
Nikon's version of this product also employs image stabilization (Nikon's VR system). The lens produces impressively sharp images between 80-300mm, and even at 400mm sharpness is very good. CA performance is good when stopped down slightly, and distortion as well as light falloff are well-controlled.
Olympus 50-200mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 Zuiko Digital ~$1,000
Olympus' ultrazoom lens is a 100-400mm equivalent, owing to the 4/3-mount's 2x crop factor. The lens offers the largest aperture among all the different mounts, and image sharpness is excellent for this lens among all its focal lengths. CA is well-controlled, light falloff is marginal and distortion is kept to a minimum.
Sony 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6G SAL-70400G ~$1,600
Sony has the lens which perhaps best approaches the range of focal lengths offered by the Sigma 50-500mm. It is also perhaps the sharpest of the lot, with well-controlled results for CA, distortion and light falloff.
While image sharpness never hits tack-sharp levels, there are some aperture and focal length combinations which show very good results. Chromatic aberration is generally well-controlled. Distortion is kept to a minimum, but light falloff is an issue when used on a full-frame camera. The 50-500mm ƒ/4-6.3 may not be the best lens we've tested, but it's certainly one of the most versatile - and Sigma is still the only manufacturer that produces a lens with this sort of range. If you find yourself needing that level of focal-length flexibility, perhaps this is the lens you've been waiting for.
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 50-500mm f/4-6.3 EX DG HSM APO User Reviews
8 out of 10 points and recommended by hschulze (2 reviews)value priced, solid, well designed lensNot the best choice for wide field astro work
I purchased this lens as a midrange widefield astro-photography accessory to my Canon 40D. At lower zoom, it works well. At full 500 mm zoom, there are minor chromatic and coma, which I don't get with less expensive fixed lens like the now eol'd Orion 80ED 500mm F/6.25, which has similar glass quality and "APO" rating as this lens. The lens is still useful for selecting and framing a shot before activating a fixed-zoom much-hard-to-focus telescope setup.reviewed August 29th, 2008 (purchased for $975)
For the much cheaper manufacturing of the 80ED that originally turned me off on that tube, I would have preferred that the Sigma had the better night performance.
Either way, I still love using the Sigma for what it was designed for, daytime nature and event photography. It is my first real telephoto, and I am happy I picked that one for it's range and other features.
I would have liked to know if the Canon equivalent lens was any better in this astro application, but the price pushes it over competitive high-end designed-for-astro tubes.
Overall though this Sigma lens is solid, very portable and quick to set up.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by blackrex (2 reviews)Focal length, range, versatility
I like the weight and solid feel that this lens has, I find that it is a lot easier to hand hold and stabilise due to the mass, especially at the longer lengths. I was easily able to use this lens to photograph motorsport in over cast and foggy conditions, with a fast enough shutter speed and good DOF to capture the vehicles.reviewed June 2nd, 2008
The 10x zoom range makes for a very versatile lens, and can be used for portrait work, macro (to a point, it doesn't go 1:1) and long range.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by eteam (2 reviews)low cost, image quality in good light, focal length range, solid buildweight and size (comes with the focal length!)
With good light, this is an excellent performer. Don't confuse this with a f/4 $5K lens. Reasonably sharp across the entire 50-500mm range, wide open. For best sharpness 400-500mm, you should stop down from f/6.3 to f/8.reviewed March 12th, 2008 (purchased for $625)
I beat the heck out of this lens shooting college football games, all wide open, with shutter speed set to 1/800 to 1/1000 sec, from the sidelines. The zoom range was a huge asset as play ran near and far. Images were super sharp. There were plenty of pictures I would have missed with having less zoom range or having to carry (and switch between) two camera bodies.
Built like a tank, also. Solid kit.
With this lens, add a vertical grip to your camera body, you stand out from the rest of the crowd of picture takers as a serious gent. This can get you respect from the crowd milling around, and helps give you access to the vantage points you need.
If you want to use this lens for moon shots or 500mm nature shots (or any with shutter speed slower than 1/800 sec), you need to use the skills and technique required to do this well. This means using a solid tripod and head, mirror up mode, stopping down the lens a bit, and using a remote shutter release... and all in a wind protected area. Wait for the mirror vibe to settle before taking the shot, using only a remote release. If you cheat on any of these, don't expect perfection with ANY long lens.
Excellent value for money. If you work within its capabilities (i.e. F/8 or narrower at long end) and you employ proper technique, you will be rewarded with sharp, contrasty images.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by crissew (1 reviews)Great price, focal range, image qualityMust understand photographic technique
You will see tons of people commenting on the difficulty with using this lens. You will hear that you can not take hand held pictures with it, that it is soft at the end. None of that is due to the lens, it is due to the user of the lens. A 500mm lens is not going to be as easy to shoot as a macro lens or 50mm portrait lens. Your depth of field at 500mm is only a cm so there is little margin for error. You will get a good number of bad shots but that is part of the game. I hand hold my lens very often and have achieved some beautiful shots. You have to understand what shutter speed you need for the focal length, you have to have good photo shooting technique to minimize camera shake when depressing the shutter button.reviewed June 3rd, 2007 (purchased for $770)
Is this lens more work than your average lens? Of course it is. Being new to photography, I had difficulty with the lens initially but I didnt blame the lens. It will take you some time to master this lens, but once you do, it will amaze you. Some pieces of advice. Try and stay in the f8 range. Use the rolling shutter button technique. Make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/focal distance when possible when hand holding. If you can't do that, take a bunch of pictures and a few will come out regardless of the conditions.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by John H Maw (15 reviews)Wonderful optics (really). Amazing zoom range.Too big to hand-hold if you want best results.
I have the older version of this lens (non DG). Optically it was a huge surprise. Before buying I tested it against Sigma's 135-400 and prime 400 and this was the best (and by a considerable margin). Not what I was expecting at all. Don't even think of hand-holding in most conditions though. It's main drawback is its bulk, but you can't have everything.reviewed January 14th, 2007
8 out of 10 points and recommended by lajos (7 reviews)range, price, build qualitybig and heavy, no image stabilisation, mine is not sharp at 500 mm
At this range, this is the only lens that I find affordable. I haven't regretted buying it, but mine is not perfect. The biggest gripe is that it's not very sharp at 500 mm, even in bright sunlight, with a tripod.reviewed January 14th, 2007
If a stabilised version came out, I'd sell the current lens and buy that version. It really needs IS - although hand-held shots are not impossible in strong daylight. Also, the lens is very big and heavy, but that is to be expected. The autofocus is not on par with Canon's USM but it's OK.
Be prepared for some mundane issues if you are not used to this range: at 500 mm, just finding a flying bird or plane in the viewfinder is difficult.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by six100 (10 reviews)Range of course, very good image quality, HSM, EX quality, comes with a soft-case & hood, price.86mm filter size, wish it was at least a constant F4.
(Canon mount)reviewed January 8th, 2007 (purchased for $980)
I will use as a reference for this review the Canon 70-200 F2.8L which, I believe, is one of the greatest sub-2k lens available:
The main reason why I actually sold the 70-200 was the "short" range, and I have to say this is the MOST impressive feature of the Sigma all-in-all. I knew from the beginning this "extra-range" was going to cost me some "image quality", but to be honest, image quality was not that much compromissed and, to my surprise, the lens even shows some highlights where it outperforms the Canon. For example: Though overall image quality of the 70-200 is better, the 50-500 produces a better bokeh in about every situation.
HSM and EX finish are two very pleasant details (even though the lens is not weather sealed, but for a sub-1000u$s this is not surprising).
Another plus: the lens comes with a soft-case and hood.
Now the minuses:
86mm filter size is not cheap at all, but well, considering this lens is "only" about 950u$s and the only comparable lens in the market, the Canon 100-400L, is almost 500u$s+ (talking always about the Canon mount version)...then spending an extra 70 bucks for the UV filter is still a good deal.
Lack of stabilization and excessive weight are complains you can usually read here for this piece of glass, but IMHO any serious 300mm+ lens should be used with, at least, a monopod to achieve better results, and since I always carry a monopod in the backpack, neither of these are considered as minuses by me, but have in mind before buying that this is an almost 2 kilo (4 pounds) non-stabilized lens.
My biggest complain with this lens is the aperture. The F4-6.3 is a real limit to the posibilities of it. Though with an appropriate camera and a careful setting you can almost override most of the "light requirement" limitations and shoot everywhere-anytime. Of course you wouldn´t have to care for all that with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM but well, you need an extra 5.5K to get one of those, so in the end this Sigma jewel is kind of a real deal.
6 out of 10 points and not recommended by gadgetguy (62 reviews)long rangeneeds a lot of light, a monopod/tripod, or strong arms; heavy
When shooting in bright daylight (and a high enough ISO to get shutter speeds in the 1/1000+ range) then you can get reasonably sharp images from this lens on the long end.reviewed December 3rd, 2006
However, it's heavy, LONG and requires strong arms/shoulders and/or a tripod/monpod if you plan to use it for more than a few minutes.
The range is awesome, but this is one product that would have really benfited from some sort of image stabilization. perhaps if you have this built in to your camera body then you might get better results than on my 20D.
4 out of 10 points and not recommended by Gmnicholas (3 reviews)PriceHeavy, soft focus poor bokeh
I had it for a year, just traded it in. Using a good heavy tripod, remote shutter release and mirror lock up, I still had only a 50% keeper rate.reviewed November 26th, 2006 (purchased for $950)
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Tom (2 reviews)Great zoom range, sturdy, good priceheavy, hard to hand hold, slow lens
I love this lens, but like the others said here, it's tough to shoot with because of it's weight. I have also experienced "softness" however I think it's from movement. I have had some very crisp shots with this lens - but it's hard. I need a better tripod, I only have used a monopod with this lens. I did get one very nice hand held shot but it was on a sunny day. So there's a learning curve, you have to get used to the lens.reviewed September 18th, 2006 (purchased for $1,000)
I think it's very well priced too.
If you want to beat the "softness" use a tripod. However, another very important note is the lens says it is a f/6.3. My Canon 20d will actually display f/5.6 as available at 500mm...DO NOT SHOOT AT f/5.6 @ 500mm. I believe it to be an error. Follow the instructions. Shoot at f/6.3 and your softness goes away at 500mm.
Other than that, good lens.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by sduford (9 reviews)Awesome zoom range, well built, sharp, versatile.Heavy, requires a lot of light
This lens works very well when mounted on a tripod or monopod. I would not recommend it for hand-holding as it is very heavy and gets very long when zoomed out. The small maximum aperture and long focal length also means that you need a lot of light and/or use high ISO.reviewed August 1st, 2006 (purchased for $1,000)
It does get a bit soft at 500mm, but I find it surprisingly sharp throughout the range, as long as you use F/8.0 or F/11.0. It isn't bad wide open in the lower half of the range.
6 out of 10 points and recommended by kristo (1 reviews)
Under the right circumstances, this lens is awesome. However, because of the lack of a stabilizer, shooting without a very sturdy tripod is a waste of time. At maximum range, the sharpness leaves a lot to desire. At selective focus with a wide aperture, the background has a lot of noise.reviewed July 9th, 2006 (purchased for $1,200)