We are living in a time where our photographic reality is absolutely overflowing with optical options. Regardless of which system or systems a photographer is invested in, the choices are plentiful.
I was an early adopter of mirrorless system cameras, in fact this very blog was largely built upon the back of my passionate love affair with the micro 4/3 system over a decade ago. In the time that I’ve been writing about photography on this site, I’ve wholly switched over to mirrorless cameras which has provided me with certain benefits as well as a few drawbacks. A facilitating factor for much of my excitement originally was adaptability and that factor has, over these years, turned into a revolution in many ways with the birth of smart adapters for the mirrorless setups I have and am currently shooting with in the micro 4/3, Canon RF and previously the Sony E system.
One drawback to investing in newer mirrorless system architecture is that many new lenses are expensive. A global economic landscape, combined with investment needed by the companies building these newer systems, in optical engineering, manufacturing and marketing results in that cost being passed to the consumer, especially with proprietary offerings.
In come third party manufacturers. Whether you’re shooting a mirrorless or DSLR system, third party lens options can offer huge cost:performance benefits. The last few years have seen some changes in my life, not the least of which seeing me move from part time working independent photographer, to hobbiest. Cost is now more important to me than ever as I’ve seen my fun budget reallocated elsewhere by necessity these days. C’mon in to see more from this Sigma super tele zoom lens on Canon, Sony and Micro 4/3 bodies, and to see if it’s up to snuff.
A super tele, variable aperture zoom lens, like this Bigma are normally looked at as sub-par by more discerning shooters. How does a lens like this compare to a pro spec’d zoom, a 400mm f/2.8 or 600mm f/4 lens in pure IQ wide open? Probably not indistinguishably, but I’d venture that this lens would at the very least, hold its own optically, and deliver an overachieving result considering the respective price tags. Professional sport or wild life shooters will probably ignore offerings like this, rather opting for the $10,000-15,000+ super tele prime lenses. Sure, I would too if I made my living shooting with these types of lenses, or especially if my employer was the one footing the bill. How about for those of us that dabble in birding, outdoor or sideline sport shooting or just like having some pretty remarkable reach without breaking the bank? Well, after shooting this lens for a few years now, I can say that Sigma has again filled a void while offering a huge return on investment for me.
The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG Contemporary Lens, is the more budget friendly, and non weather sealed version of Sigma’s super tele-zoom pairing. I’m testing and reviewing the Contemporary lens here, just to be clear. It’s under $1000, and offers me a variety of options by way of super tele shooting on my full frame Canon or Sony bodies, and another adapted to my Micro 4/3 bodies which gives me a 300-1200mm equivalent bazooka when used via the Kipon Smart Adapter (you can see my thoughts about the Kipon EF>m4/3 adapter HERE ). Sure, if we shoot these on a high resolution full frame sensor, we can merely crop in post, but to maintain 20mp by way of the micro 4/3 cameras, I can get a higher resolution “crop” by shooting with the right camera if knowing I want that extra resolution and reach.
This article is in no way looking to debate sensor size, but merely point out how we can use the same lens on different sensors as different tools, and to me, that we can do this in our modern digital reality, is really cool. To get it out of the way my copy is an EF mount lens. On all shots using Micro 4/3 cameras, I used the Kipon EF>m4/3 smart adapter, on the Sonys I used the Metabones EF>FE MkV smart adapter and on the Canon EOS R the standard EF>RF adapter was used.
Onward and upward. So, what would one looking at a lens like this (especially adapted) be interested in seeing? Well, for me it has been auto focus speed and accuracy as well as image quality. That’s the meat and potatoes here, really. I’ll also take a look at the Optical Stabilization, as well as how this lens does for some “non traditional” applications. The focal range is quite broad, and gives you a mid to super tele reach. How about using this for portraiture? Close ups? We’ll take a look…
1 – Auto Focusing Speed, Tracking and Accuracy (hit rate)
Keep in mind I’m not shooting the more expensive “Sport” designated lens, but rather the more cost efficient Contemporary version of this lens. Below is a series of shots on the Canon EOS R, utilizing the EF>RF adapter (which is amazing for adapted EF mount lenses BTW) set up with zone Servo AF, following this guy from about 80-100 feet away from me, to flying directly over me in the span of about 4 seconds. These are consecutive, sequential shots directly out of the camera, ie: there are no skipped or misfocused frames removed here. I had the EOS R set up for a slower burst to prioritize servo AF which clocks in at about a measly 4 fps, but still, considering that the lens still needs to keep up with that rate, and does so without missing a frame, is commendable. Also, not to further pump this lens up, but follow focusing/continuous AF with a subject moving toward or away from the camera’s position, is HUGELY more difficult to keep track of compared to a subject remaining at a semi-constant distance moving laterally through the frame from one side to the other, especially at decent speed. Have a look, and click on the image to see at full size.
Not one missed frame. I wasn’t expecting this from a “budget” lens, nor a camera that isn’t at the top of the heap in regard to continuous AF performance. That it did, and does perform at this level makes me realize how much more valuable this lens, and combo is for this type of shooting being that it is a very realistically attainable combination, cost wise.
I shot these this last week, and while I did have some other series of follow shots, the only issues I saw that stumped the auto focus, was when something else (a tree, or prominent back or foreground element) came into the focus zone, or the subject was too far away, occupying a miniscule portion of my frame.
I will say, when shooting in low contrast or lower light levels, especially indoors, the AF is not nearly as snappy or accurate. This isn’t unique to this lens by any means, but needs to be noted. If shooting in a good amount of light, I’d say you can expect good results, hampered by the camera’s AF system more than the lens’ ability. If your camera is capable of keeping up on the AF front, this lens shouldn’t let you down…again, in decent to good light and contrast.
Kudos Sigma (and to the Canon R)!
2 – Image Quality/Resolution
Because I do not own, nor have access to the $10,000+ Canon super teles or pro super tele zooms, I can only compare what I do have on hand. Let’s have a quick look at the Sigma 150-600 f/5-6.3 compared to the very quality Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS USM zoom with the 1.4x EF tele extender. Below, I’ve shot and compared these lenses at base ISO on the Canon EOS R with each lens adapted, and shot on a tripod with self timer used. Image stabilization was turned off on both lenses.
First, I shot both lenses wide open at the longest focal length the 70-200+1.4xTC was capable of (280mm) and as close as I could eyeball on the Sigma (275mm was what it read in EXIF). Wide open on the EF lens with tele extender was f/4. At 275mm, the largest aperture on the Sigma was f/5.6 with shutter speed adjusted a stop to achieve the same exposure.
WIDE OPEN – full shot as captured (Canon EF 70-200 + TC at f/4 – Sigma 150-600 at f/5.6):
100% Crops (Canon lens on the left – Sigma lens on the right):
STOPPED DOWN TO f/8:
100% Crops (Canon lens on the left – Sigma lens on the right):
This is not a definitive test to determine if the Sigma is truly beating the pants off of my albeit older, but at least twice as expensive Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM lens, but in this test, it did. Both at the widest available apertures at the given focal length(s), and stopped down to f/8 where I know the Canon lens to have always performed well, the Sigma did better in pure resolution. Impressive.
Now, I don’t have another modern lens that gets anywhere near 600mm, so we’ll just have a look at the Sigma at that 600mm focal length, shot from the same distance, from the same tripod, under the exact same conditions just to see how it looks.
SIGMA 150-600mm – at 600mm f/6.3 WIDE OPEN full shot as captured:
WIDE OPEN 100% Crop (click to see full sized):
At 600mm – f/8 – full shot as captured:
At f/8 – 100% Crop (click to see full sized):
Without a direct comparison to one of the vaunted super tele primes I can’t say it is or isn’t up to that standard, but I am plenty happy with both the sharpness wide open and stopped down 1 and 2/3 stops, and VERY happy with the meager purchase price comparatively. Solid performance for my money. To be completely honest, I’d entirely expected the results to show the Sigma to be bested by my Canon 70-200, even with the 1.4x TC attached. Having not pixel peeped this lens since having it, I have to admit that I’m very happy and pleasantly surprised.
3 – Optical Stabilization
Any super tele zoom will benefit from optical image stabilization or some form of sensor based stabilization, period. Anyone who’s got experience shooting a super tele focal length, even on a tripod, can attest to how easily you start to see vibrations from wind, movement, breathing or even a heartbeat, seriously. While I’m of the mind that there’s no replacement for a fast shutter speed to account for my (and my subject’s) movements, having stabilization is very handy to help in a couple key ways. One, is keeping the image through the viewfinder steady (or steadier as it were). At long focal lengths, little movements from the camera’s position can lose a subject in the viewfinder really quickly and having that stabilized is very handy if trying to keep a subject in frame. The second is accounting for movement on the part of the photographer. OS, IS, OIS or IBIS does absolutely nothing for subject movement, only fast enough shutter speeds can freeze that motion. When shooting with a lens such as this, for the things one tends to want to shoot with a lens like this, any aid in softening that movement as we quickly swing our lens toward the receiver of a pass, or moving with a quickly darting subject, is a good thing.
That said, there is no good, objective and comparative way to test a lens’ stabilization “in action” as there are far too many variables. With the AF test on the eagle above, my shutter speeds were enough to freeze and account for any movement on my part, the OS via the lens however did greatly enable me to keep the bird in frame as I was handholding the lens, and following the trajectory of Mr Freedom up there.
To “test” a lens’ OS capabilities, I’ve found no better way for my purposes, than to set up a static subject, and shoot at the 1:1 focal length:shutter speed, or as close as my camera is able to, at the extreme ends of a lens’ zoom range, adjusting shutter speed and ISO, stop by stop to see how it handles. In this case, I did two tests, one at 150mm (starting at 1/160sec) and another at 600mm (starting at 1/640sec). I did this test twice through at each focal length to see how consistent my technique was. I shot two shots at each shutter speed, one with the OS engaged and a second with it OFF to show how much heavy lifting the OS is doing.
Click the below images to see the 100% crops. All settings listed under each frame.
Frame shot at 150mm, as captured:
OS at 150mm – OS-1 on the left, OS-Off on the right:
Shooting at 150mm, the non stabilized shots start to soften immediately. Try as I did to brace my left elbow, breathe out, hold and shoot, even at 150mm, I struggled to self stabilize. That is the human variable here. Had I, or you done this test at a different time, perhaps we’d see different results, but this test isn’t scientific, just rather a user test. The OS holds up well for three full stops, and might just be usable at 1/10th of a second/4 stops. That’s pretty impressive. Not worldbeating these days by any means, but for such a budget minded lens, it’s not bad at all. Hopefully, no one is shooting this (or any) lens handheld, regardless of the focal length, at 1/10th of a second and expecting tack sharp results, but test we must.
Frame shot at 600mm as captured:
OS at 600mm – Again, OS-1 on the left, OS-Off on the right:
Now, looking at the 600mm shots, I felt I was able to squeak another stop out via the OS. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps my technique tends to jive with longer focal lengths for some reason, or maybe the OS is optimized for the longer end of the range most likely, but regardless, 4 to 5 stops of stabilization for a 600mm lens being able to shoot down into the neighborhood of 1/20th of a second is kinda nuts. Would I rely on this? No. Knowing this lens seems to be able to pull this off though, is a great little nugget to have in the arsenal. One other thing to notice, or one that I noticed, was how much more the frame moved without the OS. I focused each frame on the snowman’s face, which stays mostly center frame in the OS aided shots, but moves around quite a bit in the non OS shots showing just how much little movements at the camera’s position can affect your framing, and subsequent sharpness at these extreme focal lengths.
4 – Non Traditional uses for a Super Tele Zoom
When I hear super-tele, or super-tele zoom, my mind goes directly to sport or wildlife. I’d guess those are primary uses for a lens like this. Coupled with a decently performing auto focus system, you can use a lens like this 150-600mm for capturing distant action and subjects… in good light at least.
How about using this lens for portraiture, or close up/abstracts? Why not?
While there are well documented reasons not to use such extreme focal lengths for things like portraiture (over flattening facial features, loss of overall depth and dimensionality, pincushion distortion, etc) that isn’t to say you can’t work around it. If you’re shooting a beauty campaign, sure, invest in a good 85mm or 135mm prime and call it a day. Buuuuut, what about having fun with scene compression or blowing backgrounds out in bokehfied oblivion on a budget?
Seeing as it’s the holiday season currently, and there tend to be many, many colorful lights around, why not utilize this bazooka for some fun shots?
Well, it feels good to have completed a lens review again. It’s been a while. Who is this lens for? Well, me for one. I don’t make money shooting sports, but like to have a lens around that I can for the kids games, or if ever we’re allowed to congregate again at maybe an airshow or wildlife refuge, this lens will fit the bill. I didn’t know I’d find as many birds as I’ve shot over the last couple years as well, and while I don’t plan on going on Safari anytime soon, there’s plenty of local wildlife that I can find if that tickles my fancy. It provides a great option for the birder on a budget and definitely punches above its weight in both AF speed in good light, as well as overall image quality and resolution.
Some years ago, I rented, tested and reviewed the amazing Canon EF 200-400 f/4 L IS USM lens for a one design nationals sail regatta, and then brought it around with me to shoot random stuff. It was amazing. It was also $11,000usd. That’s a lot of dog food. I did, however, gain a desire to have a super tele zoom around which led me to this Sigma. No, the Contemporary version isn’t weather sealed (the Sport is though), and the max aperture of f/5-6.3 isn’t lightning fast, but consider that a Canon 600mm f/4 L IS USM prime lens costing $13,000, is over 13 times the price and only 1 and 1/3 stop faster at that 600mm focal length. Sure there are better optics and AF motors for that cost, but again, for the average Joe Shooter, this Sigma is entirely usable for most things any of us would need it for, plus with the money you save, you can buy a fricken car.
For those who may be a little more serious about their super tele needs, and have a bit more budget to burn, the Sport version clocks in at about double the price but ads more fancy glass elements, weather sealing and a more substantial hood vs the Contemporary. For all intents and purposes, they are two different lenses with different optical makeups and constructions covering the same focal length range at the same max aperture speed. Do you need weather sealing, fancier coatings, elements and sturdier hood? If you shoot a lot of outdoor sports or wildlife, yeah, maybe. For the rest of us fair weather super tele shooters, this Contemporary model is a pretty solid option for bargain basement pricing.
I’m not going to say it’s a straight swap for the high end primes or insane pro zooms in the full frame market place, but I’d venture a guess that for 99% of us, this lens will be more than we need in a super tele optic. That it covers a range starting at a modest, useful 150mm and reaches into the stratosphere at 600mm while performing admirably optically, and adequately in the auto focus department, is plenty enough for me to thoroughly enjoy it for what it provides.
I’ll leave you with a few more frames from my time with this lens. Thanks for the read. I hope everyone is happy and healthy. Here’s to seeing the end of 2020. May 2021 bring us many changes, a more peaceful and healthy reality, a return to normalcy and continued enjoyment of this hobby we love. Happy shooting, and here are a few shots from the last few years…
Be well and all the best,