GEAR REVIEW - SIGMA 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM CONTEMPORARY
In photography there is a well known saying. "It's not about the gear, it's what you do with it." And I'm inclined to agree with this statement. How you use your equipment in terms of technical and creative abilities is paramount to good photography and impacting images. Far more so than what gear you actually own. However, I would argue that wildlife photography is the one genre that is somewhat of an exception to the rule.
You can be highly proficient with your camera's technical abilities, understanding how to capture images under any lighting conditions and solve any issues surrounding them. You can be fantastically artistic and creative in your work too but, if you're subject matter sees, hears or smells you in the vicinity, all of that goes out the window if the bugger runs or flies off. I know this first hand, from trying to capture images of a variety of animals in the wild over the past few years and I have come to the logical conclusion that gear has certainly played a crucial factor. This is further evidenced by the fact that you tend not to see professional wildlife photographers sporting an 18-55mm kit lens on the front of their camera, when heading out to shoot critters. Not that you can't do so, just that it would make the job a thousand times harder and in some instances, exceptionally dangerous. It's for this reason, that super-telephoto lenses are used.
Until recently I had been using the Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF. A reasonably fast aperture lens with an acceptable focal length for photographing birds and animals. When the reach wasn't enough, I attached a Kenko DGX PRO 1.4x teleconverter and was happy with the results. However, for particularly skittish birds like Red Cardinals in Canada or the Common Kingfisher in Britain, even 420mm wasn't enough reach. Added to this fact was my essential tremor, that causes my hands to constantly shake meaning motion-blur galore if handheld.
Even tripod mounted, the affects of this were always noticeable, unless shooting at very fast shutter speeds. I finally had enough of being limited by these factors and decided to go for a super telephoto lens with optical stabilization. Of course, I'd have loved a 600mm f/4, but until those damn lottery numbers roll in, I won't be owning one of those for a while! After much deliberation, researching and comparison, I opted for the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary.
In decades gone by, Sigma (along with all 3rd party manufacturers) were known as the "poor man's alternative." Priced to cater to amateur enthusiasts, the cost savings compared to the likes of the OEM's lenses (Original Equipment Manufacturer) were generally reflected in resulting picture quality. However, in modern times Sigma has succesfully shed this image by producing some of the best lenses available, many of which have achieved a cult following. This all began with their 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM which rivalled and even out-performed Canon/Nikon's versions. This was further reinforced with the phenominal Art range of lenses which deliver outstanding resolution levels, even wide open. Sigma didn't stop their either. Their innovation introduced the Lens Dock, allowing customers to update lens firmware themselves and configure the lenses autofocus system specifically to their camera body, at a variety of focal lengths and focusing distances. No more sending lenses back to be calibrated or upgraded!
Anyway, enough with my waffling and onto the bit you're waiting for. The review!
The 150-600mm Contemporary is a pretty big chunk of glass, weighing in at 1.93kg and 26cm in length, fully retracted. At full zoom and the hood attached, the total length increases to an impressive 41.5cm, which attracts many comments from fellow photographers and other members of the public, I might add. With a whopping 95mm filter thread and 20 elements in 14 groups, there is obviously going to be some weight to this lens. Having said that, I wouldn't class it as unduly heavy, having spent 8 hours walking around a local wildlife reserve with it on a hot summer's day, I can honestly say I didn't find it tiring and you could comfortably shoot this lens all day, handheld and not get fatigued.
Build quality is up to a typical standard for modern lenses, with composite plastic used for the body and a metal mount. While perhaps not as robust as its big brother "Sport" version in terms of material and weather-sealing, the Contemporary is still constructed to a high level and will withstand the usual minor bump and scrape. I have adorned mine in a rather fetching neoprene camouflage coat, to further protect the lens from wear and tear that one would routinely expect to encounter in the field. These are readily available for around the £40 mark on eBay and I recommend buying one to help protect the body of the lens from scuffs and scratches. These covers also aid in keeping your hands warmer, if using lenses in colder weather. While a metal body might give you more peace of mind for durability, in all honesty if you dropped either lens, you'll probably damage something, so the reduced weight is rather welcomed here.
As already mention, the Contemporary comes with a large lens hood, which helps prevent stray light entering the lens, causing flares and reducing contrast . Having said that, the optical coating does an excellent job of safeguarding against this anyway. I always recommend using hoods on your lenses, as they protect your front element from damage, and if being used in the rain, it will stop water hitting the glass. The hood can be reverse mounted onto the front of the lens whilst in storage/transit and therefore readily available when needed.
The lens also comes with a removable tripod collar. While this is obviously essential for mounting the lens on a monopod or tripod, I wish it was as big as the collar on the Sport version. For some reason Sigma elected to include a collar with a signficantly shorter footprint on the Contemporary. I struggled to get the lens to balance when used in conjunction with a gimbal head like the Beike BK-45, which is annoying. To get around this, I purchased an extra-long Arca-style plate, together with a second Arca clamp, just to be able to use the lens on a gimbal. This cost about £20 in total, which isn't a huge amount of money but the fact I had to do so in the first place was rather irritating.
The tripod collar also gives you the option to fit a shoulder strap, for carrying your camera around. This is a no-frills addition and while handy, it's does not offer any padding. It can also get in the way when mounted on a tripod. As I'm a big fan of Peak Design's gear, I opted to fit one of their anchors instead, allowing me to use my Slide strap. This is instantly adjustable in length, very comfortable and also quickly detachable, so it doesn't get caught on the tripod, when using the gimbal head. If you're going to purchase this lens I highly recommend you get yourself a Peak Design Slide strap to go with it. You'll be pleased to know that the tripod collar is the only negative I have encountered with this lens personally.
To keep the lens retracted whilst carrying, a zoom lock is featured. Although the zoom is very well dampened, due to the weight of the front elements, the zoom does creep after a while while walking around. To prevent this, simply set the focal length to 150mm and engage the lock. Just remember to disengage it, before attempting to zoom in again in a hurry! With time this will become second nature to you, but be mindful when you're still familiarizing yourself with it.
Performance wise, I have absolutely no complaints about the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary and it ticks all the boxes in requirements for wildlife photography for me. The image quality delivered is very good, considering that not only is it 600mm but also a zoom lens. This is facilitated by the 3 SLD and 1 FLD elements.
The level of detail it delivers is crisp, particularly if you're able to fill the frame with your subject. F/8 seems to be the sweetspot for this lens, so you're not having to stop the lens down hugely to get the best out of it. The photograph opposite of the blue tit, shows a 100% crop and the sharpness of the image.
Even cropping heavily with the 36MP D800 sensor, I was impressed with the results. The Kingfisher image near the beginning of this review was heavily cropped from 7360 × 4912 down to 1149 x 1460 pixels and the level of detail was still very useable.
The Hypersonic Silentwave Motor, is barely audible, locking onto the target very quickly and accurately. This is essential when photographing birds in flight or little ones hopping from branch to branch. I should point out that the lens is noticibly slower to focus at the 500mm to 600mm end, than the 150-300mm region. This is to be expected considering the focal length and distance to cover. Good technique largely overcomes this issue, by remembering to pre-focus on a branch that the bird frequents. Kingfishers for example tend to have favoured perches to hunt from and feed.
I was equally impressed with the performance of the Optical Stabilization system on this lens. Shooting at 600mm handheld is always demanding, purely due to the focal length.When you consider I also have an essential tremor in my hands to contend with, the combination should render any photograph I took below 1/4000 sec a complete write-off. However, precariously standing upon a fence rung, handheld at 1/1000 sec, I managed to get a razor sharp shot of a frog in a small pond below! I cannot begin to stress what a game-changer this is for me and a testament to the Sigma OS system. Simply astounding!
On top of this highly impressive zoom range, is the ability to use one of Sigma's Teleconverters. These newly developed optional extras can take the 150-600mm to 210-840mm or even a 300-1200mm respectively with the TC-1401 or TC-2001! Obviously that comes at the cost of some light with the 1.4x giving you an f/7-f/9 maximum aperture and the x2.0 a rather paltry f/10-12.6. The latter would be highly unlikely to autofocus, due to the massive light reduction levels. However the 1.4x should still allow autofocus on higher-end camera bodies, provided there is sufficient contrast.
I did use the Sigma in conjuction with the Kenko 1.4x DGX Pro teleconverter and I did find that the lens hunted a lot in all but direct sunlight and even then it had to be on an area of the bird that had a decent level variance in luminosity values or colour. I also used the lens in conjunction with an extension tube to shorten the working distance, when birds were coming within the minimum focusing distance. Again, the light loss caused the lens to hunt quite significantly in all but the brightest of conditions. This is to be expected really and is more down to the camera's auto-focus limitations than the lens itself. If your subject is motionless for long enough, then there's nothing stopping you manually focusing the lens but, just be aware of these problems that you potentially could run into.
In summation, I think the 150-600mm Contemporary is an absolutely fantastic lens, particularly at the price point of £739.00. It's already delivering me with some fantastic images that I simply wouldn't be able to get otherwise. The focal range makes it incredibly useful and while image quality may not be quite as high as something like a 600mm f/4, it is still very impressive nonetheless. You also have the added ability to zoom out at a moment's notice, which can mean the difference to framing a shot well, versus clipping off wings or antlers. You're also comparing a £739 lens to a £9729 one!
Focus speed, accuracy, build quality and weight, will be attractive to both wildlife and aviation photographers and you can comfortably hand hold this lens all day, thanks to the Optical Stabilization. The tripod collar, which I'm not alone in my grievance with, can be solved by adding an Arca-style rail/plate and additional clamp, so you can balance the lens with a gimbal head. All-in-All, I think it's excellent bang for buck and I would score it 9/10, with a point deducted for the tripod collar.