Product Review: Sigma 150-500mm f/5.6-6.3 lens

Does this super tele-zoom have what it takes to win on the gridiron?

A professional sports photographer takes this $1,000 lens on assignment to a football game to see if can capture the action.

O.K., I admit it: I have a severe case of lens snobbery.  As a photojournalist, I have shot with Nikons for years, and all of my personal glass is the Nikon brand. I tend to be one of those photographers who invests more in the glass than the camera, because I feel the lens is the business end of all my images. My philosophy is that you can have the most expensive, high-tech camera in the world, but if you put cheap glass in front of it, you’ll get cheap looking images. Makes sense, right? Add to this equation that I shoot sports more than most other subjects and the glass that I use tends to get very specialized, which equates to high price tags for each that I buy. When shooting sports, a $5,000 lens is not unusual.


An Alabama defender leaps past an Arkansas runningback prior to the end of the first half of play. Again, the lighting varied greatly during the game and this shot was made in what I would consider “normal” game lighting conditions. The exposure was 1/640th of a second at F8 and an ISO of 400. The Sigma lens was set at a focal length of 375mm.

 
Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy moves to hand off the football. The tracking on the Sigma was thrilling to use, and I was very pleased at the high percentage of sharp images I made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, when the editors of the Adorama Learning Center asked me to run the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG APO OS HSM AutoFocus Telephoto Zoom Lens (Adorama price $999.00) through its’ paces on a real assignment, I was a little hesitant because my lens snobbery kicked in. It’s one thing to take a lens for a test drive, but quite another to shoot a real assignment that produces images with my name next to them in a magazine with an “unknown” lens.  I finally agreed to take the challenge, and in a meeting mentioned it to my client, Mike Lacy, who edits a magazine called Touchdown Alabama. Mike was enthused about this challenge and suggested I use the lens while shooting the Alabama-Arkansas game for his publication at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Great: One of the biggest games of the year for the number three team in college football, shooting for an editor who demands high quality, and with a lens that’s completely unknown to me. No pressure there, huh?
 

I love the definition that the Sigma gives this shot. You see the muscle tone, facial features and small details in the equipment with ease. Here, Alabama linebacker Corey Upshaw defends against two Arkansas opponents.

I received the lens and immediately opened the box to find a wonderful case that has the appearance of being custom-made for this lens. It uses a high quality weave fabric exterior that sports a “Sigma EX” logo, giving me a clue that this was a premium lens in the Sigma line. The question in my mind, though, was if the lens had the chops to compare to those costing 5 times as much and could deliver the image quality that my client was accustomed to?

On the barrel of the lens, Sigma has stamped a “DG” prominently next to their name. This designation means that the lens has been specially “tuned” for use with digital cameras, and according to Sigma, the difference is in the optical coating that is applied to the lens, which enhances image quality in chip environments. The lens, however, is still usable with good old film cameras too.
 
Another shot from the endzone of Alabama Defensive Back Javier Arenas during a return. Shot at 400mm and at F8, I found these to be the optimal settings for the long end of the Sigma’s reach.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look and Feel

I pulled the lens out and was amazed at the length- it’s big. Placing it next to my Nikkor 300mm F2.8 lens, I found that in the 150mm position, the Sigma is exactly the same length as my Nikkor. When the zoom ring was moved to 500mm, the Sigma expands to a length that I’d estimate is at least three inches taller than the Nikkor. The lens girth though is about half that of the 300mm, due to the aperture difference between these lenses, which is about 1.5 stops.

The 150-500 also has a spectacular finish that is a smooth, flat charcoal black with flecks of silver embedded, causing the lens to glisten when you move it under light. It has a handsome appearance, with wide rubber grips for zoom and focus rings that invite your fingers to touch them, and are comfortable to use as they look, although I found the zoom collar to be extremely tight and difficult to turn. The numbers and lettering are a brilliant white contrast against the blackness of the lens that makes them easy to read.  The barrel also carries an “APO HSM” designation, meaning that selected portions of the 21 element, 15 group lens incorporate extra-low dispersion glass that reduces chromatic aberration that’s more common in lesser-made telephoto lenses.
 

Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders makes a line for Arkansas quarterback Mallett. The image was made with a focal length of 250mm and an exposure of 1/400th of a second at f/8 with an ISO of 800. The beauty of a good zoom lens is illustrated in this image. Had I been using the 300mm prime, I would be too tight to make this same image.
 

The test of a really great autofocus system? This shot. I cropped the image to the left of the runningback, but the rest of the image is full-frame. To have fast action happening that close, with a perfect focus is pretty impressive. This image was made at 500mm with an exposure of 1/640th of a second at f/8 with an ISO setting of 400. The runningback is Alabama’s Julio Jones (8).

The HSM is Sigma’s Hypersonic Motor, used for the autofocus incorporated into the camera. In initial tests in my back yard, I found the lens to be very fast focusing with little search. The real test though was yet to come, and my hope was that the lens has the ability to keep up with Crimson Tide running backs just as easily.

 The a zoom lock only worked on the 150mm setting. If it allowed you to lock the lens down at any focal length, I’d love it and would regularly use this feature.

The lens also contains Sigma’s “OS” technology, or optical stabilization. At 500mm, hand held at 1/30th of a second at F8, every detail was crisp and available in the image. A great test with impressive results, but again, I kept asking myself if it would hold up to the real challenge of high-intensity sports photography?

Game On

Fast forward now to game day. The weather is rainy and overcast, and I’m a little nervous about using a F5-6.3 lens and shooting fast action. With the low light conditions, would the lens be able to keep up and focus correctly? Would I have enough light to use the lens? At the beginning of the game, I decided to push my ISO up to 800 and settle for an exposure of 1/500th at f/8. In earlier tests, I found that at the full 500mm focal length, and wide open, the lens has a noticeable softness that I found objectionable.

Perhaps the single image that I am most happy with during the game is this one. The sharpness and color fidelity are spot-on and it’s an unusual moment to capture simply because it’s rare to see defensive linemen throw their runningback into the air! The Sigma was set to a focal length of 290mm and was recorded with an exposure of 1/640th of a second at F8 with the ISO at 400. The detail in the shot is razor sharp, and I give the Sigma kudos for keeping up with the action.

By f/8, it clears up nicely and in fact, shoots a very fine image. I stuck with the f/8 setting throughout most of the day, preferring to change the ISO and Shutter speeds as necessary. I also found that the 400mm focal length at f/8 was the true “sweet spot” and again, the image quality was nothing short of incredible. The ISO ranged from 400 to 1200 during the day, depending on the amount of light that was available.

The 150-500mm focal length is ideal for shooting football. I realized how much running and walking I usually do on the sideline because with the Sigma, I could literally sit in one location for extended periods of time, and still cover the action as I was accustomed to. The 500mm focal length allowed me to cover the full half of the field, and in some cases, even farther.

The only real complaint I had with the lens doing this is that racking the zoom was difficult, and often, I had to twist the zoom collar so hard that I’d lose track of the action. I finally decided to pre-determine the focal length that I anticipated needing for the situation on the field before the play started. This, to me, is one of only two drawbacks to this lens and can easily be corrected by Sigma in later versions if they so choose.

The only other drawback in my opinion, is the slowness of the lens. I would gladly pay $3,000 for this lens if it had internal focus and was a constant F4. If Sigma would do this, and work on the sharpness at the wide open setting, they would sell a mess of these lenses to photojournalists and advanced amateur photographers alike.

Arkansas defenders stack onto an Alabama runningback at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. This shot was made with the Sigma set at 400mm and an exposure of 1/500th of a second at f/8. In low resolution, it’s difficult to tell the difference in sharpness between the 400mm and 500mm settings, but on a full-resolution image, it becomes more apparent. I found that I preferred the 400mm setting at f/8 for most of the images I shot. To me, it seemed to be the “sweet spot” for this lens.

I loved the image quality that this lens produces- and as I said at the beginning of this article, that’s where I put my emphasis. The images are blazingly sharp and are comparable to anything I’d shoot with my 300mm F2.8 prime lens.  When I pulled up my images on a laptop at halftime, I literally lost my breath and was thrilled with the quality, and knew my client would be as well. The colors are extremely vivid, and I like having a lens that I don’t have to make saturation adjustments to punch up the colors. I was pleased with the autofocus as well, which I have to say, is amazingly good. I had few frames that were out of focus and felt that the lens did at least as well as my Nikons, and maybe even a bit better.
 

Even in low light and at 500mm, the Sigma’s autofocus kept track of the action amazingly well. I was completely happy with the consistent sharpness in all of my images. This show was made with the Sigma at 500mm with an ISO of 400 and exposure of 1/640th of a second at f/8.

Conclusion and recommendation
This lens is a jewel. I found few problems, and shot some excellent images with it. The autofocus is quiet and blisteringly speedy, making it easy to keep with the action as it developed on the field. Oh Yeah, I also found three other photographers on the sidelines who were shooting with a Sigma 150-500 as well, and in an informal survey, found that each of these photographers loved the lens as much as I did. For the money, it’s an awesome lens and I can recommend it to both casual and advanced shooters alike. And yes, it is comparable to those lenses that are five times the price, if you understand the limitations of the Sigma and can work around them, you can shoot some very fine images. I have to also concede that I am a much-humbled lens snob now, and will consider the Sigma line when I need to upgrade my glass- it really was that good.
 

Alabama defensive back Kareem Jackson makes a run on the far side of the 50 yard line, shot from the endzone with the Sigma at 300mm focal length.

 

Mark Lent is a freelance photographer and teacher based in 'Bama.

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