Sigma 150-600mm Sport: Hands-on preview of Sigma’s latest ‘Sigmonster’ telephoto lens
posted Friday, October 24, 2014 at 7:10 AM EST
For outdoor sports and wildlife photographers, a versatile, high-powered super-telephoto zoom lens is an essential piece of kit that lets you get shots from far away…and even farther away. Just prior to Photokina last month, Sigma announced not one, but two new super-tele zoom lenses that have undoubtedly caught the eye of long-lens enthusiasts. The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport and Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary full-frame lenses offer not only an extremely versatile focal length range, but also a choice of lenses to fit your budget.
I had an opportunity to test the new "Sport" version of the Sigma 150-600mm lens recently and get some initial impressions of the handling and performance of this new massive super-telephoto lens. Unfortunately, we were only able to hang on to this lens for the weekend, but our full SLRgear review will be coming shortly once we get the lens back in-house, so definitely keep a look out for that soon!
Handling & Build Quality
When I said "massive super-telephoto lens," I meant it. This lens feels huge and heavy, and it's probably the largest lens I've ever had the opportunity to shoot with. The Sport version is also the larger, more professional-oriented of the two 150-600mm lenses and its optical design is comprised of a whopping 24 elements in 16 groups, including two "F" Low Dispersion and three Super-Low Dispersion glass elements. It's also fully weather-sealed (unlike the Contemporary version that's only sealed at the lens mount). Measuring in at over 11 inches long at 150mm, about five inches in diameter, and weighing in at around 6.3 pounds, this lens is far from your compact, vacation, travel-zoom. It's a serious professional lens. (Oh, and the lens extends quite a bit when zooming out to 600mm, and the lens hood adds even more length!)
I paired it with our Canon 1D X and went out to shoot some wildlife as well as test it out at a local airshow (alongside the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Zuiko Pro). Retracted, the lens packed just fine into a relatively compact camera backpack -- a Lowepro Flipside 300. The 1D X was packed in there as well, though not attached to the lens. Sigma does provide its own carrying case as well, with thick sturdy padding and a shoulder strap. The Sport lens also includes carrying-strap mounting points should you want to attach the included shoulder strap (the Contemporary version does not have strap mounts).
In use, the Sigma lens and the 1D X was a very hefty combo and, at times, quite unwieldy, especially for shooting something like an airshow where you're often pointing the lens high into the sky and panning rather quickly to capture the aircraft. Handholding this lens for a prolonged length of time can be quite tiresome -- at least for someone who's not accustomed to shooting with heavy supertelephoto lenses very often (my personal Canon 400mm f/5.6L lens is featherweight by comparison). I wish I had had access to a gimbal head tripod for use at the airshow, as it would have made the whole session much more comfortable and allowed me to pan much easier to follow the aircraft using a slower shutter speed so as to blur the propellers. Attempting to do this handheld, at 600mm, was pretty much a fool's errand since you typically want shutter speeds all the way down to 1/125s for shots like that.
However, the sheer weight of the lens can be a double-edged sword. While it's quite bulky and heavy, by necessity you end up holding it rather firmly and inherently steadier than you would with a much lighter lens. Combined with the built-in optical stabilizer, I was still able to capture sharp photos at 600mm with a 1/250s - 1/320s shutter speeds, for example!
I've been talking about the bulk and weight of the lens, and well it's because this thing is built like a tank. It feels extremely well built and solid, with splash- and dust-proof construction, so the heaviness and chunkiness of the lens wasn't really all that surprising. As with all Global Vision lenses, the new 150-600 Sport is very reminiscent to the Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 lens we reviewed last year -- a sleek, black, metal-like exterior with large, thickly-rubberized zoom and focus rings.
Unlike the 120-300mm, however, the 150-600mm barrel extends significantly when zooming. I found that not only is the zoom ring rather stiff, you're also moving a fair number of glass elements. Therefore, when hand-holding the lens, supporting the large weight of the lens with your left hand, it can be awkward to zoom the lens quickly as it takes more than just a thumb and forefinger to rotate the zoom ring. That said, the zoom ring was very smooth to rotate, it just takes some "oomph."
A consequence of the extending barrel design is lens creep. And yes, it happens on the 150-600mm, when facing towards the ground or upwards. Thankfully, Sigma has included a zoom lock switch, and a rather clever one at that. Not only does it lock in the fully retracted position at 150mm, but also at each focal length marking all the way to 600mm. This is very handy if you now you'll be shooting at a set focal length for any period of time. At the airshow, many of my shots were at full 600mm, and so I could lock the lens at 600mm and not worry about it retracting itself if I held the lens up between shots (and vice versa for shorter focal lengths when holding the lens down).
Image Quality and Performance
Moving on from the physical side of things, how does this lens actually perform? Without data from our full lens review to back me up, it's difficult to know for certain, however I definitely feel that the lens is indeed very sharp. Images at both 150mm and 600mm look sharp and crisp with lots of fine detail like individual bird feathers and the rivets on the side of an aircraft.
I did see some rather noticeable vignetting as you zoomed to the longer focal lengths, with 600mm being the strongest. It will be interesting to see the vignetting test results once we get the lens into our lab, though I suspect it's not a severe amount by any means. Lens profile correction in photo editing software should be able to clear this up easily, but currently, in Adobe Lightroom 5 for example, a profile doesn't yet exist for this lens. Other optical characteristics like distortion and chromatic aberration looked very well controlled and practically nonexistent from the shots I captured.
Autofocus performance also seemed quite good and very quiet. Single-shot and continuous servo AF performed very well on this lens when paired to the Canon 1D X thanks to Sigma's Hyper Sonic Motor AF system. I was able to acquire focus very quickly and maintain focus even on far away and fast-moving subjects.
Overall, the Sigma 150-600 F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport is an all-out beast of a lens! Extraordinary build quality with an extremely versatile zoom range leads to an all-around impressive lens. While it's far and away from a typical lens that your average enthusiast photographer will likely use, for those who are serious about wildlife, nature, sports or other telephoto-centric outdoor subjects, the Sigma 150-600 F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport lens is definitely one to put on your short list. The lens is sharp, it focuses quickly, and being a strongly-built, weather-sealed lens, it should be able to withstand nature's wrath when you're out shooting in the wilderness. If you need the "tank-of-all-tanks" supertelephoto zoom lens, and you're okay with the hefty size and weight of it, you most definitely need to check out this lens.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, we only had access to this lens for the weekend, and we therefore didn't have time to run it through our test lab. It should be heading back our way in the near future, so stay tuned for the full review soon!
In the meantime, check out many more sample photos over in the Canon 1D X Gallery Page, and look for photos with "-Sigma150-600_" in the filename.