The 150-600mm focal length is rare in the world of photographic lenses, with only three options on the market. Sigma offers two of the three with the Sigma 150-600mm F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary and the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport, giving customers a choice between lightweight portability or premium optical performance and weather sealing. At B&H, we recently got our hands on the value member of this pair, the Contemporary, for a tour of the Big Apple. The Sigma lenses are available in Sigma, Nikon, and Canon mounts.
When it comes to reach, the 150mm focal length at the short end of the zoom range isn't very special, since many kit lenses cover this focal length, but when you zoom the lens out past 300mm, you know you are going places that only a select few lenses ever go, and that is the attractive feature of these lenses. Sure, you can slap a 2x teleconverter on a 300mm f/4 lens for the 600mm experience, but your sharpness is degraded, and you are starting at f/8. The Sigmas and the competition bring you to 600mm without a crippling teleconverter, and you arrive there at f/6.3. In the super-telephoto world, every stop and every fraction of a stop helps.
Speaking of teleconverters, these Sigma lenses offer compatibility with the Sigma TC-1401 1.4x Teleconverter (Canon mount), and the lenses are optically transformed into eye-watering 210-840mm glass with the loss of one stop. Sigma offers the TC-1401 for Nikon and Sigma mounts, as well.
I’ll say this: I am a fan of Sigma’s design aesthetics. Unlike the world of premium automotive design, the folk who draft lens bodies are relatively unknown. The design team at Sigma, or whatever team to whom they may outsource their design work, deserves a round of applause. Like other Sigma glass, the 150-600mm Contemporary features a look that is about as clean as a lens can get these days. The flat black is satin-finished and satin-smooth. The markings are clear and everything looks harmonious. If you want bling in the form of gold rings, red rings, or silver rings, Sigma is not for you. On some lenses, such bling denotes premium optics; on other lenses, it just denotes bling.
Although the Sport version features maximum weather sealing, the Contemporary features a dust- and splash-proof mount.
The Contemporary’s lens hood completes the lens with a squared-off attachment. As the main body of the lens curves outward toward the 95mm diameter objective lens, the curves and angles become right and then extend to the end of the hood. I assume that, because this lens is far from wide-angle, there was no need to continue the widening of the lens when it came to the lens-hood design.
The main adjustment ring is for zoom. A thickly ridged zoom ring provides a sure grip with the grooves running longitudinally with the lens. An anti-clockwise turn of the ring brings you from 150mm to 600mm. A reach across the lens will let you go through the full zoom range with one twist, but using a standard shooting hold, it will take most users two separate turns to get from one end of the range to the other. A zoom lock slide lever will lock the lens at 150mm and prevent zoom creep, or at 600mm to prevent un-zoom creep.
The manual focus ring is tiny in comparison to the zoom ring, and it probably rivals other lenses for the title of narrowest zoom ring textured grip. There is plenty to grab onto, but like many lenses today, the money is going into autofocus technology, not into manual focus ergonomics. Aft of the manual focus ring is a clear window with a focus distance scale.
Next to the focus window is a quadruple-switch suite. The top switch runs through your focus modes: AF, MF, and MO. The MO mode is a combination auto/manual mode that allows the shooter to overrule the AF. When in AF, a patch of white appears aft of the switch, to allow a quick glance to confirm you are in AF mode.
The next switch is the 3-position focus limiter switch that allows full range, 10m to infinity, or 2.8m (minimum focus distance) to 10m.
The 3-position Optical Stabilization (OS) mode switch features an OFF setting and two modes. Mode 1 is full stabilization, and Mode 2 is used to isolate either the vertical or horizontal sensors, so if panning with your subject, the OS does not interfere with the panning. The lens detects the lens orientation to the horizon and automatically disengages the appropriate OS motors.
Last of the switches is the 3-position custom switch. When combined with the Sigma USB Dock, you can create custom profiles for OS, AF, and focus-distance limits to meet your specific needs.
The Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary is similar in stature to a modern 70-200mm f/2.8 lens or a 300mm f/4. When zoomed out, the lens displays pronounced growth in the length department. Zooming is definitely not internal and the lens grows by 3.25" when zooming from its fully retracted position at 150mm to a fully extended 600mm.
The barrel size is manageable in the hand and may even squeeze into the spot in your camera bag formerly reserved for your 70-200mm. The objective filter thread is, as mentioned before, a gaping 95mm. The larger Sport version checks in at 105mm at this end.
Sigma designed the Contemporary to be the lightweight option of the 150-600mm lenses, and it tips the scales at 4.25 lb. This is not a light lens, but the Sport version adds more than 2 lb of additional ballast to your camera bag, weighing over 6.3 lb.
The weight and matte finish of the lens combine to give it a solid feel. The body is made from a combination of aluminum alloy and polycarbonate resin. Although lighter than the Sport, you will find that the Sigma on a full-frame body will give your arm a workout as you carry it between shooting locations. But, simply remind yourself that you are carrying a 600mm lens with a respectable maximum aperture, and all will be forgiven. Many 600mm lenses could be sold with optional pack mules, assistants, dollies, or fork lifts.
The zoom ring has a nice heft, as does the diminutive focus ring. Turning through the zoom range makes you believe that you are turning plastic on plastic. Likely, that is exactly part of what you are doing. Nothing on the Sigma feels like metal aside from the tripod collar, and the mechanicals have a plastic feel. This is not a criticism; it is just a statement of fact. The weight of the zoom ring and focus ring are really quite nice, but alchemists have yet to design polycarbonate lens mechanicals that feel like metal. Until then, you get plastic feel with plastic construction. Trust me, there are dozens of lenses on the market that have plastic components that are drastically inferior in tactile feel to the Sigma.
It must be the conservative design of the black Sigma or the blasé attitude of most New Yorkers, but the big Sigma, even when zoomed out, rarely got a second glance from passersby. Shooting in popular tourist areas with the lens mounted on a brand-new Canon 6D got me exactly zero queries on what I was shooting or what I was shooting with. That is a good thing for most photographers trying to get good shots and not disturb others.
On my first outing, I wanted to really test the lens. Before I took the lens out, I was told to keep my shutter speeds high and stay away from caffeine. Well, I quit caffeine several years ago. All that was left for me to control was the shutter speeds. To heck with the warnings, let’s shoot this thing handheld, at twilight, at 600mm. After all, digital is free!
Well, it was either my non-caffeinated hands or an excellent OS system from Sigma, but I was able to get sharp photos, with the lens wide open in fading light and without a tripod in sight, at ISOs less than 1600. Sigma advertises a four-stop OS on a few of its lenses, but I was not able to find a published OS spec for the Contemporary. Regardless, I either have the steady hands of a surgeon, or the Sigma works hard to keep the image steady. I’ll give Sigma all the credit here before I challenge friends to a round of Milton Bradley/Hasbro’s Operation game.
Were the images tack sharp? No. But, it was getting dark and I am sure if anyone watching me knew anything about photography, they would doubt that I was able to come away with the shots you see here. Perfectly sharp? No lens could get a perfectly sharp image in those conditions without the benefit of a tripod. Sharp enough? You bet.
The following night, I retraced my steps, this time with a tripod. Success! This time I stopped down from wide-open, used mirror lockup on the 6D, and soaked in the light.
At 600mm, the lens features very shallow depth of field, and if focusing on something relatively near (even hundreds of yards away), you will get a soft background. If you are looking for gorgeous star-points around distant highlights, this lens is not for you. Even stepped down to f/16, the 9-blade aperture diaphragm failed to produce super-attractive aperture stars.
For some shots with the sun overhead, I left the Sigma in its included soft carry case, attached the 6D, and biked over to Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, in search of Tennessee Warblers and Louisiana Water Thrush. I heard many birds in the trees, but none posed for the Sigma. For birding fans, I stopped by the water to photograph the famous (they have appeared in the New York Times) mute swans (Cygnus olor) of Prospect Park Lake, as they and their neighboring geese are not in hiding.
Overfed by scores of children, the swans and geese were on the shore, ignoring the food being tossed at them and immune to the close company of humans. I was able to point the Sigma at its minimum focus distance at the swans that could care less about my presence or the presence of the Sigma lens.
I wanted to try the Sigma’s ability to track fast-moving wildlife. The one squirrel I saw dove into a bush before I could get a model release prepared and the Sigma pointed in its direction. Undeterred, there were scores of high-speed Homo sapiens on two-wheeled machines cruising by. Perfect.
I won’t report a 100% hit rate, but I did get handfuls of sharp photos of the bikes speeding by. It was probably a combination of user error, lack of practice at panning after 20-30mph targets, and my relative unfamiliarity with the Canon 6D that kept me from getting more successful images of the bikes. I cannot pass the blame to the Sigma, as the silent and fast autofocus definitely seemed up to the task. The shallow DOF of the Sigma gave me more than one shot where the biker’s shoe was tack sharp, but the bike’s drive train was soft and vice-versa. This could also be a side effect of the cacophony of motion involved in bicycling, even at blistering shutter speeds. Regardless, I feel that the Sigma and 6D delivered some keepers.
After a few days with the Sigma 150-600mm lens, I was left impressed, and I wanted to keep taking it out to capture images that mere mortal telephotos cannot capture. Birders, wildlife shooters, and those wanting to simply extend the reach of their DSLRs without breaking their backs or wallets should have great fun with the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary.