Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM 'S' for Nikon
I am fortunate to have recently purchased this lens from My Camera Focus. I received a good deal from John and paid $2,900 which included a USB dock (yet to arrive) and is Aus stock, so get Sigma warranty. There are several reasons why I wanted this lens. First, it’s a 2.8. The Nikon and Canon versions are $6,000+, so for half price this lens is already a great bargain, especially if the lens turns out to be even 75-80% of the quality of the big primes.
It should be noted there are no direct competitors to this lens – it is the only zoom lens of this nature. Obviously the optics are not going to be as perfect as a prime, however for this trade off we get versatility. The wide aperture allows for a variety of teleconverters, so in theory I have a lens from 120-600mm using the 1.4 and 2.0 times teleconverters.
My second reason for purchasing this lens is because my previous telephoto was an old 70-210 variable aperture from the late 80s (full of fungus too). The reviews of the previous OS version of this lens was that its optics are very good (centre sharpness close to Nikon/Canon primes) so I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes with my D800.
Finally, I wanted this lens to take advantage of the new Sigma USB customisation modes. I can update the firmware, alter the focus speed (from ‘accuracy priority’ to something along the lines of “absolute speed holy hell priority”), focus limiter distance, OS settings (how stabilised the image is in the viewfinder) and most importantly, AF fine tune. Regarding the focus adjustments, you can adjust the focus not only for each focal length (120-300), but also at each distance (2.g. @ 2.5m, 10m, 25m, 30m and infinity) for each respective focal length. It will take a fair while to make the appropriate adjustments at each focal length and distance, but I’d imagine it will be worthwhile. You can also store separate adjustments for use with teleconverters too.
History of the Sigma 120-300 f2.8
First for some history of the Sigma 120-300mm 2.8. The first model did not have any optical stabilisation, average optics, weather sealing and poor AF. Needless to say, Sigma released the second model which came with OS, improved AF and redesigned optics. Unfortunately the electronics were prone to failures – everything from AF to OS failing at a very high rate (Lens Rentals have much commentary on this). So, while the optics were very good, the electronics were letting it down big time. This prompted Sigma to release a new version only a couple of years from the last – the ‘Sport’ model which I have purchased. The new ‘Sport’ model shares the same optics however apparently redesigned electronics, improved weather sealing and USB dock compatibility.
The new ‘Sport’ model
Regarding the electronics, I hope they are more reliable – indeed I imagine that was the reason why Sigma released this model so quickly after the previous. The chassis has been redesigned with a different texture (metal foot), improved weather sealing, in addition to a return to a metal lens hood (with twist knob lock thing).
Included in the new lens is a much needed focus limiter with three settings – full, 10m-> infinity, close -> 10m. Distances can be customised by the user using the USB dock. There are also two OS modes (again customisable) and a 3 position “Custom” switch (C1, C2, Off) which means a user can set each to a particular task – e.g. one for fast sport/wildlife, another for smooth focus etc and the default for everything in between. These custom settings might seem a bit of a gimmick, but I can see them being quite useful for in the field.
Regarding price, I purchased this for $2,900. The previous model is retailing for about ~$2,200, so for an extra $700 you’re getting apparently improved electronics, focus limiters, build quality and USB customisation. I think the price increase is about right and will no doubt decrease in time. It’s worth getting this version, although if you’re budget conscious you might be able to pick up the previous version on special.
This lens is heavy. 23 elements in 18 groups will do that and puts it up to a hefty 3.4Kg. For comparison, the Nikon and Canon 300mm 2.8’s are about 2.9Kg. Fortunately I have a decent monopod to help out.
Now the build quality is right up there. It feels just as solid and well manufactured as any pro spec Nikon/Canon lens. Aesthetically, it’s a large lens – you won’t be inconspicuous as it is larger than the 300mm 2.8 primes (although the Canon/Nikon hoods consume a larger volume than the Sigma’s). I was pleased to see a rubber gasket at the mount to aid in weather-sealing.
Image quality can be hard to measure. I can sit here shooting test charts and pixel peep (which knowing me I’ll probably do just a little bit :P ) but the real test is what images I get off it in the field. I’ve only had about a day of shooting, so see the images at the end of this post which I think speak for themselves – it’s awesome. Not many technical reviews out there of its sharpness resolution, so for now I will rely on the previous version’s results where centre sharpness at 300mm 2.8 is pretty much ‘excellent’ and approaches Nikon and Canon 300 2.8s. The midframe starts to drop off a bit but still achieves ‘very good’ and the corners are ‘fair’ to ‘good’. If you’re shooting on DX forget about the corners. I’m using a D800 so every flaw will show up, but considering I intend on shooting wide open with the lens for the most part the corners should be blown out due to DOF anyway so I am not that concerned. We’ll see though!
Focusing and zooming are both smooth with the right amount of resistance. It’s a quite a thick lens, so you won’t be getting a grip right around the barrel. I’m yet to have a fiddle with the AF speed, but the default setting is okay – a cycle from close to far is apparently to Lensrentals 0.9 seconds. When the focus limiter of 10m-infinity is engaged, it speeds up considerably and is capable of handling BIF shots (see below). I really need to work on my technique since I have never owned such a heavy and long (mm wise) telephoto before, but for now it seems to be pretty good.
I must admit, I haven’t used the OS yet. I’ve done a bit of reading which suggests OS/VR/IS is only useful for when your shutter speed is below 1/500th as that is the Hz limit of the stabilisation itself. Not sure if that’s actually true, but in any case since I was shooting above 1/1000th OS wasn’t necessary anyway, so I’ll leave it off unless I need it.
I have only had this lens for two days – not enough time to really understand nor experience the lens. I can’t wait to put it through its paces over the coming weeks.
For now, however, my first impressions are bright. The bottom line is there are no direct competitors for a 300mm 2.8 zoom lens – it is in its own category. However, for arguments sake the closest competitors are the 300mm 2.8 primes from the big brands. Fact is, this lens can produce stunning results for a fraction of the price of the big brand lenses. For someone who cannot afford $6-7k for a Canon/Nikon 300mm 2.8 this is your only real option. But like most third party vs Canikon questions is does come down to whether you want to pay for the absolute best – a subjective question each individual must consider for themselves.
I am yet to receive the USB dock from John as they haven’t been delivered by CR Kennedy yet. I am looking forward to getting it as I’m sitting on about -15 AF adjust already (going off my trials in the field) so once I get it I am technically able to do AF adjustments in the -40 -> +40 range (20 units each way on the camera and another 20 units each way on the USB dock). The fact that you can make adjustments for each focal length at each distance (total of 16 adjustments) means gone are the days where you need to send your lenses + camera body to the manufacture for adjustments.
I’ll continue to update this thread with my experiences and sample images where relevant.
See below for the first images from this lens.
270mm @ 2.8, 1/200, OS on, SOOC
Above ~100% crop
300mm @ 2.8 , 1/4000, ~90% crop. Focused on left surfer. Even 300mm is not really enough for surfing, thankfully I have a 2x TC coming next week.
300mm @ 2.8, 1/4000, ~90% crop.
300mm @ 2.8, 1/1000, full frame. I was sitting down on the rocks/grass area of Burleigh Heads point and did NOT see this snake all of 1.5m away from me having a sleep. I got up real fast...pays to look at your surroundings!