Hands-On Review: Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Lens

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The recently introduced Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM lens is the first lens to be part of Sigma’s Global Vision Sports line, and as such, strives to be a highly precise and optically sound lens that can function well in fast-paced situations. The long reach of this lens, coupled with a large constant maximum aperture make it ideal for shooting from a spectator’s vantage point, while capturing imagery that exhibits a type of intimacy as if it were being photographed from close-up. While this lens category is given the name "Sports," it is equally well situated for nature, wildlife, bird and race shooting; essentially situations that must be observed from a distance but are still fast-paced and spontaneous.

The most noticeable characteristic of this lens at first glance is its size—it’s a big lens. It measures 11.5” long and weighs 7.5 pounds, making it notably larger and heavier than even the biggest professional DSLRs. This size can be attributed to its constant f/2.8 aperture and integration of customizable image stabilization systems. While the lens itself is quite large, it is manageable to shoot with handheld, and the incorporation of two distinct OS modes benefits working this way by compensating for the appearance of camera shake. When you're working with a tripod or monopod for ensured stability, a removable collar is included to provide a balanced mounting option. When you're holding the lens, the ergonomics are designed in a manner that makes it easy to access the control switches with your left thumb, while keeping a grip with your fore- and middle finger on the rubberized zoom and focus rings.

I found both of the rings had surprisingly tight tolerances when I first rotated them using the lens; however, the more I became accustomed to working with the lens, I grew to appreciate the stability and assurance knowing that precise focus or zoom placement would not be lost while composing or tracking a moving subject. Also benefitting the handling and usability of the lens is an internal zooming and focusing mechanism, to maintain the overall length of the lens and contribute to the dust- and weather-sealed design. The bayonet mount, focus and zoom rings, switch panels and cover connection area also feature a weather-sealed design to allow for worry-free shooting in inclement conditions and to match the weather specifications of many DSLRs. Also suiting this lens’s use in varying weather conditions is the integration of TSC (Thermally Stable Composite) material into the construction of the lens barrel. This material has a similar texture and rigidity to metal while also providing greater elasticity than polycarbonate to suit working in high or low temperatures.

In regard to the optical design, the lens integrates two FLD (“F” Low Dispersion) and one SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements into its construction to help reduce chromatic aberrations throughout the zoom range. These elements also work to minimize sagittal coma flare and general coma at the edges of imagery in order to produce an image quality more akin to a fixed focal length prime lens. The FLD elements are designed to perform as fluorite glass elements would, which is especially crucial for combating aberrations that are more prevalent in telephoto lens designs, leading to clear light transmission and color fidelity.

In addition to the integral lens construction, Sigma’s Super Multi-Layer Coating has also been applied to lens elements to lessen surface and internal reflections that can cause flare and ghosting, which in turn results in imagery with vivid contrast and clarity even when taken in backlit and difficult lighting conditions. The images I made with this lens certainly displayed a high level of sharpness and were accurate regardless of the lighting conditions in which I was working. They were realistic in intention, yet still vivid, which is just how a lens should perform throughout its zoom range and when working with a variety of apertures. While shooting indoors, there was an inherent softening of imagery when working at the maximum f/2.8 aperture, but when stopped down to a prime setting, like f/11, images were sharp throughout and had an aesthetic out-of-focus quality when there was notable distance between the subject and the background or foreground. This attractive softness is due in part to the rounded nine-blade diaphragm, which creates a nearly circular aperture and can render out-of-focus specular and point highlights in a pleasing manner.

Aside from the image quality and handling of the lens, its performance and speed live up to its category’s name and proved to be exceptionally quick in any circumstance I could find. Acquiring focus and maintaining focus on moving subjects was especially easy and surprisingly silent, which makes using this lens in quiet conditions or when working in more spontaneous circumstances extremely accommodating. This focusing performance is controlled by the HSM (Hypersonic Motor), which is designed to be both fast and silent. It also lends itself to being manually overridden at any time simply by turning the focus ring. This capability enables you to quickly acquire focus on any subject and then fine-tune the exact focus if the subject moves slightly or if working with shallow depth of field and selective focus applications. The autofocus system can also be completely disabled to provide full-time manual focusing abilities.

In addition to a well-performing AF system, there is also an intelligent and adjustable OS (Optical Stabilizer) image stabilization system to help achieve sharper pictures. This system benefits shooting up to four shutter-speed steps slower than normally possible without OS, by compensating for a range of motions, contingent on the nature of the subject. Two standard OS modes are available and are easily selectable on the lens barrel or, alternatively, OS can also be completely disengaged if desired. Mode 1 is designed to provide general image stabilization, which is suitable for most shooting situations; Mode 2 is a more dynamic type of image stabilization and is designed specifically for working with faster-moving subjects, such as automobiles or airplanes.

Where this lens, and others that are part of Sigma’s Global Vision series, truly separates itself is through its ability to be customized by way of a USB dock. The USB dock is a connector that attaches to the lens at its mount and allows you to tether it to a computer running the Software for applying a range of customizable settings and future firmware updates. As a member of the Sports line of lenses, there are a few more options available to customize as compared to the Art and Contemporary lines.

When the lens is connected to the computer via the dock, you are able to create two distinct custom profiles for the lens, which are accessible via the Custom switch on the lens barrel. Inherent to these profiles is the ability to select between three different AF speed settings, allowing you to place a higher priority on speed or accuracy; choose between three OS modes for further personalization depending on the type of subject matter on which you are focusing; and you can set a specific focus limit to apply constraints upon the range in which the lens is able to automatically acquire focus. Additionally, a focus-setting option is available to give fine-tuning abilities across 16 categories: four options on intermittent focal lengths within the zoom range and four options depending on the subject distance. The interface for accessing all of these controls is seamless and intuitive; it took me just 15 minutes or so to become accustomed to all of the functions and employ a number of settings to test.

Aside from working with just the 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM lens, I was also given the opportunity to work side-by-side with its predecessor, the 120-300mm f/2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM lens. One of the most obvious improvements the new lens has over the previous version is its integration within the Global Vision series, and thus, its compatibility with the USB dock for more control over how the lens performs in accordance with your own shooting style. Both of the lenses performed in similar optical fashion upon first glance, which is due to their identical optical construction and inclusion of a Super Multi-Layer coating. The other noticeable benefit the new lens had over the old one was the sheer speed and quietness of the autofocus system.

While both lenses employ an HSM focusing mechanism, the new lens acquired focus much more quietly and seemed to lock onto subject matter more deliberately and precisely. The recently introduced lens also happens to be 1 pound heavier than the old version, but I found the additional weight to be fairly unnoticeable during use, since neither lens could be considered lightweight. This discrepancy in weight is likely due to the integration of a more thorough range of image stabilization modes and the adaptation of customizable settings.

Overall, I truly enjoyed working with this lens and was especially drawn to its image quality and versatility, because the lens is an apt telephoto zoom as opposed to being a prime 300mm f/2.8. The extra amount of range available helped when working in fast-changing scenes, and the quality of imagery remained impressive throughout the range of focal lengths. The constant f/2.8 aperture and ability to apply a host of intelligent OS systems made for easier shooting in dimmer conditions and also lent an intuitiveness that allowed me to keep shooting rather than having to stop to check lens settings. Finally, one of the most impressive facets of the lens, to me, was that I could fine-tune its performance aspects via the USB dock to suit the type of subject matter I was shooting.

The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM lens is available in Canon EF, Nikon F, and Sigma SA lens mounts.

For more information on this and other lenses in the Sigma Global Vision Sports line, speak with a B&H sales professional at our New York SuperStore, over thephone at 1-800-606-6969 or online via Live Chat.

  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM
Lens Mounts Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA
Focal Length 120-300mm 120-300mm
Maximum Aperture f/2.8 f/2.8
Minimum Aperture f/22 f/22
Angle of View 20.4° - 8.2° 20.4° - 8.2°
Minimum Focusing Distance 4.9-8.2' / 1.5-2.5 m (W-T) 4.9-8.2' / 1.5-2.5 m (W-T)
Maximum Magnification 1:8.1 1:8.1
Lens Construction 23 elements in 18 groups 23 elements in 18 groups
Number of Diaphragm Blades 9 9
Filter Size 105mm 105mm
Dimensions 4.8 x 11.5" / 124.4 x 291mm 4.5 x 11.4" / 114.4 x 289.2mm
Weight 7.5 lb / 3.39 kg 6.5 lb / 2.95 kg

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Are you able to show some samples of the images taken by this lens? By the way, are you using the Nikon mount or the Canon mount? I am looking to buying this lens but worries too much on its focus accuracies. Some image samples on outdoor and indoor would be good, straight from camera without any sharpening. :)

For this review we were using the Canon EF mount of the lens on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. During use we found there to be no focusing inaccuracy and, conversely, found its performance to be quick and precise. The overall handling of the lens is quite intuitive and straight-forward considering its overall size and weight; both manual and auto focusing were handled well. Also benefitting the focusing of this lens is its compatibility with the USB Dock, which allows you to restrict the focusing within certain parameters for even faster, more controlled performance that can be tailored to your specific shooting needs.

Is this lens also available for Sony A-Mount?
Thanks!

Currently Sigma is only offering the lens in Nikon, Canon and Sigma SA mounts. Unfortunately there is not any indication either way as to whether they will offer it for Sony and other mounts in the future.

Can you honestly recommend this lens for my High School sports and Surfing photography Business? Some of my work is indoor sports and I will be taking advantage 2.8 will I get the sharpness i need to sell my work? Thank You Joe

Yes. It is definitely quite a competent lens selection for sports and active subject matter. Depending on what camera you are using it on would determine how effective it is for surfing. (Meaning that at 300mm on a full-frame format could take some surfing photos but is somewhat shy of the strength that most surf photographers prefer.) Most surf photographers prefer to shoot at around 400-500mm when possible. If you are using an APS-C format camera with a 1.5/1.6x magnification factor the lens would be much better suited. You could also consider using it with a teleconverter should you find it to be too short for surfing. As far as the image quality and focusing speed go, you would not be disappointed.

I'm shooting with the 7D and a 1.4 teleconverter would also be a definite on some days! I have been shooting with the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens and find at 300 even around f8 when I zoom in on PS or crop my subjects faces are soft and at times unrecognizable! I have used the 100-400L and the results where very sharp in caparison. I really need the constant aperture for my indoor and night time shooting! On a scale of 1-10 10 being the 100-400L where do you think the sigma would be? Sorry to be a pain but I cant afford a bad buy!

The Canon EF 70-300mm a good entry level lens. However, you have progressed beyond it's abilities. As you have seen you are ready for L lens image quality. Now as to which lens to buy, it comes down to the application and which lens is best suited for that. Determine which situation is more important to your photography surf or inside work. If inside go with the Sigma. If outside, go with the extra reach of the Canon. If you must combine, then I suggest going with the Sigma and the 1.4 converter.

Thanks for your help this is why I have bought all my gear from B&H

I shoot High School and NCAA sports and have purchased this lens in a previous version and was not happy with the sharpness. I currently use a 5D3 as my primary body and use a 24-70 2.8L, 70-200 2.8L IS & a 400 2.8L. Is this lens significantly sharper than the first version and do you still offer the 30 day return if not satisfied? Also would my canon 1.4x first version work well or should I get the Sigma 1.4x. Thanks for your input.

Sigma didn’t change the optical design between this lens and the previous version, so optically it will perform the same as the first version of the lens. B&H does have a 30-day Return Policy; the lens would need to have all of it’s original packaging. As for teleconverters, Canon’s teleconverters are only compatible with a select number of Canon pro-level telephoto lenses. They would not be compatible with a Sigma lens. To use a teleconverter with the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8, you would need to go with a Sigma teleconverter.

Gostaria de saber se o desempenho dela é similar ao da 300mm f/2.8L  IS da canon. Trabalho com esportes e preciso saber se o auto focus trabalha bem com na canon 300mm.  

Sim o motor HSM da Sigma é bastante rápido e funciona tão bem como o motor USM das lentes Canon.