Hands-On Review: Exploring Telephoto Imaging, with the Sigma 150-600mm Lens for Canon

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The Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary super-telephoto zoom is a very capable yet compact autofocusing lens, with 20 elements in 14 groups, using one FLD element and three SLD elements and optical image stabilization that puts great optical reach into a very rugged, field-portable 4.25-pound package.

Sigma makes two different 150-600mm lenses—this is the lighter-weight “Contemporary” version that has a slightly different optical design than the more expensive “Sport” version, which features more weather seals and favors ideal optical performance over greatest portability. Both models have durable outer coatings on the front and rear elements to resist water and oil. Although the Contemporary lacks full seals throughout the chassis, it does have a dust- and splash-proof rubber seal around the camera mount.



1/800 sec.; f/8; ISO 320; 484mm
 

As a DG-series lens, it is specifically engineered to deliver the best optical performance with full-frame digital SLRs; however, it is also compatible with 35mm film SLRs, as tested in this review with a Canon EOS 1V.

Sigma’s excellent HSM autofocusing system is powered using a quiet, high-speed ultrasonic motor. Focus is attained directly using the phase-detection autofocus system of the host camera with minimal racking, and can be overridden with full manual control at any time. It is an entirely internal focusing system, and is notably efficient—in use it felt like just a few elements were moving during focus actuation, and power consumption was not exceptionally high during the field test. Using a switch located on the side of the lens barrel, the focusing range can be limited from 33 feet to infinity, or 9 feet to 33 feet, to prevent excessive focus-racking beyond those ranges for critical subjects. This can be customized using the UD-01 USB Dock (sold separately) and Sigma Optimization Pro software (a free download) to specify other ranges needed in specialized applications.


1/800 sec.; f/11; ISO 320; 840mm
 

Optical stabilization (OS) is one of the trump cards of this lens design. This mechanism compensates for camera shake (not subject motion), and it dramatically expands photographic possibilities by compensating for camera movement on a tripod or when shooting handheld. At super-telephoto focal lengths, even with a very solid tripod locked down tightly, mild vibrations can look like an earthquake through the viewfinder, requiring shutter speeds of at least the reciprocal of the focal length in use, and ideally higher for safety. This, in turn, requires higher ISO settings or faster film in order to achieve at least the maximum aperture of the lens, if not a stop down for better optical performance. Two pre-programmed OS modes can be selected using the OS selector on the lens barrel: Mode 1, for horizontal stabilization, and Mode 2, for vertical orientation. This can be customized further using the UD-01 USB Dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software, and assigned to the Custom selector switch on the barrel.

Out of the box

When I was given this lens to review, I was eager to open the box immediately and see the lens I’d been aware of only on paper since its debut. The solid-feeling assembly utilizes high-quality aluminum alloy and high-performance polycarbonate resin and comes packed in a thoughtfully designed, sturdy black nylon soft-sided case with dense closed-cell foam padding on all six sides. The mount end of the lens is oriented up, and registers with a round depression in the zippered lid to prevent load shifts in transit. The deep polycarbonate custom lens hood is bayonet-mounted in reverse for storage, and is easily mounted for use with a 90-degree twist. The robust one-piece alloy tripod mounting ring is adjusted with a single rotating lock, allowing for use on uneven terrain in horizontal and vertical orientations.

Field Test

To test this lens, I decided to use one of my favorite New York City photographic stomping grounds: the north shore of Staten Island, along Kill Van Kull, a 3-mile long, 1,000-foot-wide tidal strait that is bordered by Bayonne, New Jersey, on the north shore and connects Newark Bay to the Upper New York Bay. The Staten Island side includes shipyards, parks, wetlands, and miscellaneous heavy industrial sites. Richmond Terrace runs roughly parallel to the undulating shoreline, providing varying degrees of access to the water. This is an excellent setting for a long zoom lens like the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM, where some areas are not legally accessible up close, but can be bridged with the longer end of the zoom range from a public area. Wildlife such as the waterfowl common to the area are generally shy in the presence of humans but, again, this can be aided by the long reach of the lens combined with good stealth. After all, there is no honor among wildlife photographers in capturing images of their subjects fleeing.


1/400 sec.; f/11 ISO 200; 840mm
 

For this test, I used a Canon 1Ds Mk III DSLR for color, and a Canon EOS 1V film SLR for black-and-white (using Ilford HP5) on a Gitzo Series 3 aluminum-alloy tripod with a Gitzo 3-way pan-tilt head as my support. Since I was working out of my SUV and not traversing great distances on foot—never more than a quarter of a mile—I chose this support for best stability and for the balance it affords when carrying the camera and lens on the folded tripod over my shoulder. Lighter carbon-fiber composite tripods do reduce the total payload, for a premium price, but to support longer lenses I prefer aluminum alloy for the “integrated ballast” it provides so that the whole assembly tends to level itself on my shoulder during transport. Furthermore, with lenses this long, any additional mass that can be added to the rig helps damp vibrations.


1/200 sec.; f/11; ISO 320; 840mm
 

Included with the lens was a TC-1401 1.4x tele-converter, which is specifically compatible with just three Sigma lenses at this time, including the 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary. It adds 40% to the focal length of the lens attached, turning my test lens into a 210-840mm optic at the expense of one f/stop and an additional 12 oz of weight. As with any tele-converter, image quality becomes a little softer, but this is outweighed by the ability to get an important shot with less background clutter as needed, and keep the total payload weight down as much as possible. Considering that the lens and EOS 1Ds Mk III together weigh nearly seven pounds, this is a reasonable addition.

In terms of operational strategy when using this lens, a professional-grade DSLR that can autofocus at f/8 instead of the more common f/5.6 is useful. Being a variable-aperture (f/5.0―6.3) lens, it is f/6.3 at the long end, which will either not autofocus or not do so reliably on a non-pro f/5.6 AF (D)SLR. When the tele-converter is added, it becomes an f/9.0 system at 600mm, which should have not worked on my f/8.0 pro DSLR and film SLR, but in use—and decidedly in bright New York City summer sunlight—autofocus was still possible, albeit not quite as rock-steady as it was without the converter. If this seems complicated, consider the alternative: a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM fixed-aperture super-telephoto lens weighs 8.6 pounds and costs about ten times the price of the Sigma at B&H… it can autofocus with a 1.4x tele-converter, and even with a 2.0x (2-stop) tele-converter on a professional-grade camera, however, a price like this certainly takes super-telephoto shooting out of the hands of most mortals. Bear in mind that professional SLRs and DSLRs with f/8 autofocusing capability are not necessarily out of reach, in terms of price; although I prefer cameras of this grade, I have never bought one new, and they do depreciate very quickly. Even with DSLR technology leapfrogging itself every couple years, pro-grade technology from four or five years ago is still quite good.


1/800 sec.; f/11; ISO 320; 412mm
 

When moving from one location to another, it is important to note the zoom lock on the lens barrel, which fixes the lens in the most compact 150mm position, preventing gravity from extending the chassis to the full 600mm length when slung over your shoulder. The alternative would be stiffer damping for the zoom cam, making the lens harder to zoom back and forth, missing the opportunity to capture twitchy or fast-moving subjects as they flee from or attack the photographer.



 

An important consideration for me during this field test was the merits of having a range of focal lengths at my fingertips, instead of the usual single focal length I generally prefer, being the prime-lens snob that I usually am. I was pleasantly surprised to experience first-hand the utility in being able to adjust my field of view for this focal range, particularly when encountering the unexpected live subject. Although most attention is paid to the long end of the focal range of super-telephoto zooms, it would be a mistake to overlook the short end of this particular lens, which can be handheld and is notably sharp.



 

Having spent more than a week in the field with this fine lens, first in a nearby city park for a shakedown run, and then along the north shore of Staten Island in varied settings, I came away from the experience pleasantly surprised by overall performance. For a comparatively average price, this lens allows a photographer to own outright (not rent, or sell organs to buy) a sturdy unit that is both practically field-portable, durable, and optically respectable. I pushed it to its outer limits using the generously provided TC-1401 1.4x tele-converter, and investigated its inner capabilities with the UD-01 USB Dock and free Sigma Optimization Pro software.

Did I come away from the field test finding anything particularly wanting in the design? My only complaint could be seen as a picky long-lens-jockey type of comment. I would have preferred a longer tripod-mounting shoe with multiple ¼"-20 tapped holes to provide a means to better balance the lens at different focal lengths and cameras of different weights. This option may appear from Sigma and/or third-party manufacturers as it has for other lenses, though many users may accept it as a minor issue, given the otherwise varying balance common to long zoom lenses. This did not, by any means, impair my appreciation for the optical performance on my DSLR and film SLR. Most notably of all was the portability and versatility of this exceptionally high-value optic, especially recently having personally carried the 36-pound Canon EF 1200mm 5.6L USM during an earlier B&H field test. With that visceral memory still firmly in place, my foray into the field with the 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary was refreshing. 

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