Lens Review: Sigma 50-500mm f4.5

Some of you may recall the review of the Rokkinon 650-1300 super telephoto (you can search for it using those terms).  It turned out, to my complete surprise, that the Rokkinon was a far better lens than the ridiculously low price would indicate.  It was a keeper and I’ve used it several times.  But there is no way around the fact that it is really a niche lens, certainly not a “walk around” lens by any means.

Meantime I have a case full of lenses.  On trips like the fieldtrips, so long as I am working close to the car that is not an issue.  But when taking even a short hike, unless it is for a specific shot, carrying multiple lenses can become a problem of space and weight, not to mention the issues of sensor dirt from changing lenses frequently in very non-clean environments. No one makes an 8mm-800mm f1.2  lens and if they did, and could make it optically acceptable, it would take a forklift to carry it.

So where does one look to find out about exotic lenses, especially the so-called “super zooms?”

Birders.

Don’t laugh, serious bird photographers generally are very, very serious about techy data and the image quality of their lenses since they want to see every feather vein in the tiniest Chickadee.  And often they are professionals (doctors, attorneys, etc.) with the means to buy anything they want.  So it was a surprise for me to read how many of them spoke highly of a couple of Sigma lenses they anecdotally referred to as “Bigmas.”

Sigma?  Really?  Sigma?  THAT Sigma?

It turns out that company has quietly gotten its act together and if the birder forums are to be believed, is producing some very respectable glass.  For some time Sigma has made a highly thought of giant 200-500mm f2.8 telephoto zoom lens selling for $25,000.00.  It appears to have been specially designed and made for the Jolly Green Giant: it is green and HUGE!  They also make a 300-800mm f5.6 for only $8,000.  It seems the birders tend to like them.  So then I talked to my friend Lee Peterson, my optics go-to guy, and he verified that Sigma was currently making some very high quality glass.  So after reviewing the current Sigma catalog, I began to high center on the new ‘DG’ version of the Sigma 50 – 500mm f4.5  For hikes, if it were any good, that and my Canon 17-40mm f4L covers nearly all of a reasonable focal length ranges for all but specialty shots (i.e. real macro or fish-eye images). And after lots of further research, comparing MTF charts and graphs… I ordered one.

My goodness but it is H E A V Y:  6 lbs heavy.  Although with built in image stabilization it is billed as a hand-holdable lens.  Yeah maybe, for The Rock or Arnie.  But it is a real handful for us normal mortals and I think it really needs to be seen as a tripod lens.  That’s not a problem for me since after years of shooting view camera, I use tripods a lot.  But for some it might be a deal breaker.

Here is an illustration directly from the online Sigma Catalog.  I usually shoot my own illustrations but when I sat down to write this I realized I had not taken any shots of the lens mounted on a camera when I was testing it so grabbed this one.

Sigma catalog illustration of the 50-500mm f4.5

Sigma catalog illustration of the 50-500mm f4.5  In this shot the lens is fully retracted to its 50mm setting and does not have the lens hood attached.

The real issue for me is how does it shoot?  The answer is… amazingly well.  My friend Lee Peterson and I have played with it to determine things like distortion and aberrations and it is surprisingly clean.  It took placing one of Photoshop’s guidelines along the verticals to see that at the extreme settings (50mm and 500mm there actually was some very slight barrel and pincushion distortion.  At 50mm wide open there is some considerable vignetting though the lens correction in ACR removed it cleanly.  There is also what looks like a portion of the supplied lens hood blocking a corner but stop down a stop and it goes away.  At f8-11 it is all gone and since I tend to shoot mostly in that range it is no problem at all.

What is also amazing is that it will focus very close.  The Macro range varies a little with the focal length setting but at about 135mm it will produce a 1:3 close focus.  Not a true macro (1:1) but closer than many so-called close focus lenses that can only muster 1:4.

It is an “image stabilized” lens claiming, as do many, that it gains you 4 stops over the normal guidelines for hand-held shooting.  To truly believe that, you have to either be only shooting for very poor reproduction (newspapers and magazines and small prints at that)… or are simply delusional.  Think about it for a moment.  At 500mm the normal guidelines indicate you should shot at 1/500 second or faster in order to avoid camera shake.  Four stops would be 1/30 second.  Right.  You are going to shoot a 500mm six pound lens hand held at 1/30 of a second and expect shots with no motion shake.  Let me know how that works out for you… For me, since I am a tripod user it again is not an issue.

I have not had the time to shoot anything “real” but did run out to the San Diego River near Sea World drive to see if there were any of the wetland birds out fishing just to have SOMETHING other than test charts and test images to shoot.

Here are three images at different focal length settings.  All are taken from the roadway overlooking the river channel and with the camera/lens set on a tripod.  These are all uncropped so you can see the actual field of view of the lens at the various focal length settings.  The first is at 50mm

A "normal" 50mm shot of the San Diego River estuary with one of the herons (I think) fishing in the shallow water.

A “normal” 50mm shot of the San Diego River estuary with one of the herons (I think) fishing in the shallow water.

Then I set the lens to 200mm

Here the focal length of the Sigma lens is set to 200mm as we move in on the bird.

Here the focal length of the Sigma lens is set to 200mm as we move in on the bird.

And finally racked it all the way to 500mm.  By the way, you can click on these shots to enlarge them and see the image quality better (though these are still only formatted for computer monitor display).

And here the big Sigma Lens is set to 500mm.

. And here the big Sigma Lens is set to 500mm.

OK, so I’ll keep it.  But now am itching to take it out for real.  Fortunately in two weeks I’ll be taking the landscape class to otherworldly Alabama Hills (near Lone Pine, CA) and will be able to really play with it.  I’ll let you know how it worked out but I have some very high expectations for it.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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