In 2005, Sigma introduced a monster 10x zoom lens, the 50-500mm f/4-6.3 EX DG/HSM, which offered flare-reducing lens coating, a HyperSonic motor and SLD glass.
Five years later, they’ve come up with the replacement, reducing the maximum aperture slightly but adding optical image stabilization. And the stabilization, as it turns out, makes this a very nifty and practical superzoom lens.
The Sigma 50-500mm is a big, heavy lens, and requires its own tripod mount ring.
Look and feel
The lens has been redesigned from the bottom up, with 22 elements in 16 groups (which would account for the lens’s substantial 69.5-oz weight), four SLD elements, and a big 95mm filter thread. (If you’re using a DSLR with an APS-C sensor, you can attach a step-down ring that will allow you to use 86mm filters.) There’s an updated super-silent HSM motor.
The 50-500 f/4.5-6.3 is a BIG lens, measuring 4.1x8.6 inches—nearly twice that long when zoomed all the way. As befitting such a behemoth, it comes with its own tripod mount ring and carry case. Available accessories include a 1.4x and 2x teleconverter, and the lens is available in Sigma, Sony, Nikon, Pentax and Canon mounts.
I had to stay on the path and off the flower bed, which means at 50mm (right), I couldn’t get terribly close to the flowers framed by this tree. But at 300mm and 1:3.2 magnification and with Optical Stabilization turned on, I was able to get a nice, sharp, hand-held close-up (below).
The lens is hefty and well-built, with the flecked matte black barrel that is typical of high-end Sigma lenses. The ribbed focus ring offers moderate resistance, while the ribbed zoom ring offers more significant resistance, perhaps a tad too much. Sigma seems to have tightened its zoom rings in general lately, perhaps as an effort to avoid zoom creep. In fact, there was no zoom creep here: when I held the lens face-down while set at 50mm, the zoom mechanism didn’t budge.
The lens also allows for fairly close focusing, given its focal range, and intermediate focal lengths and magnification ratios are clearly indicated on the lens barrel as you zoom out. Minimum focus distance increases with focal length. Interestingly, its highest magnification ratio, 1:3.1, comes at 200mm. At 500mm, magnification is 1:4.5.
As with the variable focus, both the maximum and minimum apertures change with zoom. The smallest aperture registers as f/22 at 50mm, and f/32 at 500mm and f/29 at the middle focal lengths.
I have to be honest: bees scare me. I respect my phobias, and keep my distance. At 500mm, I was able to fill the frame with this little guy from a safe 8 feet away.
Stabilization and Image Quality
But really, the star of this show is the optical stabilization. Sigma claims it will give you four stops worth of steadiness, so theoretically, you could hand-hold this lens at shutter speeds as low as 1/60 sec at 500mm. I took the lens on a field trip to find out if these claims hold up in the light of day.
There are three optical stabilization modes: Off, OS1, and OS2. I found OS1 to be better are steadying the shot at the moment before exposure, and felt that one had the edge. Even when zoomed all the way out, images felt surprisingly stable…until the weight of the lens itself started to become too much.
Optimal conditions: In bright sunlight, with stabilization turned on, I was easily able to get a sharp close-up at 500mm at 1/500 sec. The test shots I made in lower light showed that I was able to get sharp handheld images at 500mm at 1/125 sec, and only minimal shake at 1/60th sec—very impressive!
I was easily able to get good hand-held exposures at 1/125 sec at 500mm, and barely-noticeable shake at 1/60 sec (the shakiness becomes apparent at full 100% enlargement).
Focus speed was fairly fast, although it did slow down at the longer focal lengths. But at around 300mm, it was quick enough.
Can the 50-500mm capture action? Sure! I caught this jogger handheld at 1/1250 sec at f/6.3 and 400mm.
Overall, image quality was excellent. There was slight pillow distortion at 50mm that was gone by 100mm. Flare, as one might expect for a long zoom lens, was prominent at 200-500mm, and moderate below that. I highly recommend using the lens hood to reduce the likelihood of flare. There is slight red fringing at 50mm in the corners. Interestingly, the fringing improves in the middle zoom range, especially at 100-200mm, but returns somewhat by 400mm.
At 50 through 300mm, images were tack-sharp in the center, with very slight fall-off around the edges at the widest aperture. By middle aperture (f/8-11) the focus is fairly consistent throughout the focal plane. The center remains sharp through 500mm, however even at the smaller apertures there is slight fall-off, which is slightly more pronounced with the aperture opened all the way. While it won’t compete with primes, it comes close in the middle apertures. Considering this lens’s long reach, this is a very good performance.
Did you know turtles can move awfully fast when they feel threatened? Moments after I took this picture from about 25 feet away at 500mm, I moved a step closer and these sunbathing guys suddenly jumped into the water.
The Sigma 50-500mm lens is not a starter lens: its bulk and weight are significant, and if you’re looking for a tele zoom to supplement your kit lens, this would be overkill. It’s much better suited for serious hobbyists and some professional users. It’s an excellent lens for wildlife photographers; its focal range, which translates to 75-750mm, is plenty for capturing shy wildlife, and can even come in handy for many sports shooters. The slower maximum aperture at longer settings (6.3 at 500mm, 5.6 at around 300mm) might cause sports shooters to balk, but if you have a DSLR that delivers high quality at high ISOs in low light, such as the Nikon D300s, for example, this lens could be more than enough.