Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hands on Review:
Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3  DG OS HSM lens

The Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens on a Nikon D600.

I came upon the Sigma 150-500mm zoom while researching for a long telephoto lens that would be small enough to be portable, stable enough to be hand-held, and sharp enough to deliver quality images capable of high magnification.  I use the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens for this purpose.  I also have the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 which I use for more serious work, but it is a heavy, tripod-bound lens -- definitely not something to stick in my back pack for occasional use. 

The lens has a substantial tripod collar that can double as a carry handle. The base of the collar has the popular Arca-Swiss style tripod mountSo an auxiliary mounting plate won't be necessary if your tripod head accepts this popular plate.

There is a sliding lock button on the side that locks the lens in its closed (150mm) position for transport.  This prevents the lens from extending itself when it is being carried face down.

The OS (optical stabilizer) allows you to hand hold the lens even at long focal length extensions.  I am very conservative when it comes to hand holding long telephoto lenses at slow shutter speeds, and particularly so with a lens as long and heavy as this one.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, at how well the OS system allowed me to take hand-held shots with full extension to 500mm and shutter speeds down around 1/125 second. 

This hand held image shot at sunrise and 500mm shows very good contrast and detail in the deep shadow areas.

This photo of New York City wild life was taken hand held at 500mm and the lens wide open at f/6.3.  Click here for a larger version of this image.

I ran a series of tests to see how the Sigma stacked up optically against the Nikon 80-400mm lens, its closed competitor with image stabilization.  The Tamron 200-500mm would also be interesting to compare, but it is not image stabilized so I did not include it.

These photos show the difference in size between the Nikon 80-400mm zoom and the Sigma 150-500mm.  The upper image shows both lenses in their closed position, while the bottom image shows them extended with their lens hoods attached.  To make the comparison more accurate, I only extended the Sigma to 400mm in this photo.  The Nikon is a substantially smaller and lighter coming in at 2.99lb (1.36kg), 6.7" (17.02cm) length, and 77mm filter size.  The Sigma weighs 4.19lb (1.9kg), is 9.9" (25.15cm) long, and takes an 86mm filter. 
I tested the lenses with both wide open and stopped down apertures.  In all cases, the Sigma returned superior results.  It was noticeably sharp in the center and had much better performance in the corners.  I have always found the Nikon lens to be very soft in the corners.  The Sigma, while not perfect in the corners, did return acceptable results even with the aperture open full.  As you might expect, the results improved as the aperture was closed down one or two stops. Of course from f/6.3 this means working at f/9 and f/13. Click here to see the image larger.

Close up detail of the terra cotta friezes on the Flat Iron Building in New York taken at 500mm and f/6.3.

I decided to see how the Sigma zoom compared to the Nikon 300mm f/4 prime lens, which has always been one of my favorite telephotos for hand held shooting.   I thought this test would be completely unfair, and heavily biased in favor of the 300mm.  But I was completely surprised when the Sigma came in equal if not even slightly better when both lenses were used at 300mm.

This comparison shows the Sigma zoomed to 300mm on the left compared to the Nikon 300mm f/4 lens on the right.  Click here to see the image larger.
Nikon cameras and lenses are excellent performers when it comes to quick, accurate auto-focus.  I wanted to see how the Sigma would compare in this category, particularly because I anticipate using it quite a bit for capturing wild life images with moving subjects.

For this test, I set extended the lens fully to 500mm and locked onto a taxi cab coming straight towards the camera.  This is the most difficult subject movement to track.  The lens was mounted on a Nikon D600 shooting at 6 frames per second.  I ran the test quite a number of times, even switching focus from one cab to another occasionally.  The Sigma did not let me down.  It maintained a sharp focus well over 90% of the time, and the few times it missed could just as easily have been due to my own tracking error.  I have to admit I did not expect such a good performance.  It may be the test that puts me over the edge on deciding to purchase this lens.
Shooting directly into a mid-day sun is a difficult situation for any lens.  The Sigma managed to maintain good detail in the shadow areas with a pleasing amount of flaring in the highlights.
This photo of the Statue of Liberty was taken with a Nikon D800 set to its 1.2x crop mode.  This resulted in an increasing the 500mm focal length to 600mm.
Putting the Nikon D800 into its DX crop mode with a 1.5x magnification resulted in a focal length of 750mm for this photo of the moon.

Detail of the upper friezes on the Flat Iron Building taken at 300mm focal length.  Aperture was f/11; camera was on a tripod; resolution is superb.  This photo demonstrates what this lens is really capable of producing when used under ideal conditions.  Click here to see a larger version of this image.


I have to admit I had some serious doubts about the performance of this lens before I began these tests.  A lens with a zoom range of 150-500mm is a very difficult optical system to compute, and when you factor in the relatively low price point, the task is all the more daunting.  I was prepared for compromises along the way.  I have to say, however, that all things considered, this lens is a solid performer.  It exhibits and overall sharpness beyond what I would expect.  It is solidly constructed, focuses quickly and accurately, can be hand held even at full extension.  Its size and weight, while not diminutive, are convenient enough to make it readily portable.

This lens delivers its best results in the f/8-f/11 range.  Admittedly, it is not always possible to work at such a closed aperture, particularly when shooting hand held.  As the Flat Iron detail photo above illustrates, doing so will return excellent results.  Since the newer FX cameras such as the Nikon D800, D600, and D4 are very capable of going to high ISO levels with little loss in quality, I think my preferred tactic would be to keep the lens stopped down and boost the ISO.

In the past I had been skeptical about using off-brand lenses on high end pro cameras. Generally, the build quality was so low they could not take the same beating pros are inclined to give their equipment in the field.  I have tested several of the newer Sigma lenses recently, and have to say their construction has vastly improved.  This lens, in particular, feels quite sturdy and smooth.  Of course, the real test of this will be with use over time.

I suppose the true test of any performance results is whether they would make you run out and purchase the lens.  In this case, the answer is a definite "Yes".  I plan to add this lens to my arsenal of serious equipment.

Mid-town New York photographed at sunset with the Sigma zoom set to 220mm


  1. Hello - great review - on Question - did you take a look into the 50-500? rigt now I don't know which is better the 150-500 or the 50-500
    I need a bigger range sometimes I get the chance to do action shots from a fishing boat - I can not change the lens in saltwater Conditions
    The 70-200 is not long enough
    I am using a D800 - so so far i was good to go with cropping

  2. I never tested the 50-500mm. I'm always a bit skeptical when a zoom tries to cover too much ground. My suspicion is that the 150-500 will be the better bet.