Friday, January 13, 2012

Lens review: Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM

I’ll admit to being a little photo oriented, as you can probably notice from this site. However, it seems to me that some people suffer as naturalists because of this (the “let’s take a picture of this now, then identify and learn about it later” phenomena – I have been a victim of this before, certainly) – but I like photos to support findings and to replace specimens in taking records (imagine if all bird records needed to be substantiated with a specimen!). I usually do my birding without my camera at the ready – it usually resides in my backpack waiting for something good. But in December, my trusty lens, the Canon 100-400/4-5.6L, died unexpectedly and I was left without even the option of taking pictures of birds…

Chilean Swallow, Tachycineta meyeni, i.e. the reason I am here

A group of ornithologists from Cornell was coming down to Chiloe at the beginning of January and very kindly agreed to carry a lens down here for me. So the question was: which one to buy? The choices were: Canon 100-400/4-5.6L, 400/5.6L, or Sigma 150-500/5-6.3. The price for the Sigma was much lower than either of the Canons and it seemed to be garnering good reviews recently and I could not resist the 500mm range – I am not a professional, so the slight image quality reduction was not worth the nearly $800 price difference (to me) and I thought the slight reduction in speed would be OK.

Black-faced Ibis

So after two trips to Caulin bay and some walks around the Senda with it, here is my very unprofessional review:

The first thing I noticed was: it is heavy and large. Not so heavy that it is unusable, but heavy enough that continuous use probably would lead to strong forearms and biceps, i.e. a little bit heavier than the 100-400. The autofocus and image stabilizers are VERY QUIET – much more so than the Canon. Having had two months of only using a macro, on my camera it felt like I was aiming a telescope – I had trouble finding the birds at 500mm.

This picture exemplifies my problems with the lens, I had to bump up the ISO and produced a REALLY noisy
picture. I am not a post-processing guy, so I had to leave it, but what masquerades as a lack of sharpness here is
really just a mess of noise (and this is only shot at 400, I need a faster body, I think).
Black-necked Swans, Caulin Bay

The minimum aperture of 6.3 (at 500mm) lets in less light, thus forces a slower shutter speed than the 100-400, a disadvantage for birds and a real disadvantage with my quite old camera body (a 30D) which is not good at high ISO. But regardless, I have been satisfied with the image quality - though using a higher ISO, my photos have been noisy - and because it is slower, I have to bump the ISO up a level or two. It is reasonably sharp and improves as you move from 6.3 to 7.1 to 8 - the speed is more of an issue to me than the sharpness - it is fine for my purposes. 

Fire-eyed Diucan, Senda Darwin.

Physically, I like it better than the Canon. A nice feature of this lens is to zoom you turn a ring on the lens, not like the Canon which slides (or doesn’t, depending on how it feels) between focal lengths. That was my least favorite part of the Canon, the other that the lens caps and the hood would not stay on well – the Sigma seems to have no trouble in that respect, though when I bought the 100-400 it was well-used, and the Sigma is brand spanking new. Both lenses are built very solidly, which is nice, as should be expected in mid-range lenses and certainly a plus for field photography.

Sedge Wren, Caulin

For those that like to take pictures of butterflies and dragonflies while birding – this lens focuses to 2.2 meters – the 100-400 to 1.8m – but at 500mm, this is fairly comparable (though you get more shake and a lower aperture at 500 than 400, so perhaps it is much worse). I have gotten fair photos of dragonflies with it, though I have not played with this all that much yet.

All in all, I have only had the lens a week, but I am satisfied with it – whether I keep it or the 100-400 after repair remains to be seen, but it will be spending the remainder of Chile with me and heading out to Peru as well. 

South American Snipe, Caulin (near the bridge)


  1. We sympathize with the loss of your lens, Eric, but so glad you were able to get a replacement! It's so frustrating when equipment dies unexpectedly--this happened to us on our trip and we were camera-less for over a month. Photos with your new lens look great! How much longer in Chile? And where in Peru?

  2. I read that episode on your blog (before I met you guys), it's such a bummer and the prices for everything down here are simply absurd (when you get it, of course).

    A couple more weeks in Chile, then back up to the Chiclayo area of Peru until May.


  3. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)