Review: Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C Lens
If you’re into wildlife photography, then chances are you’ll soon find that you are hankering after a super telephoto lens in order to capture frame-filling pictures of your subjects. The problem is that the majority of these lenses from the likes of Canon and Nikon are big, heavy and very expensive. There is no doubt that the quality of these lenses and the features they boast go some way to justifying the huge price tag, but they are out of the reach of many photographers and even if you can afford to buy one you may not be too keen on lugging 5 or 6kg of glass around. Fortunately, there are alternatives to these pricey heavyweights without having to compromise on focal length. One of these is Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary (C) lens, a relatively new offering aimed at sports and wildlife photographers looking for a quality lens at a budget price.
Size and weight is relative and some may feel that this lens is still a brute in this regard, but compared to a 500mm / 600mm f/4 or 400mm f/2.8 it’s much more manageable and easier to handle. There are other ways to reach a 600mm focal length, such as using a 2x convertor on 300mm lens, but if you’re looking for a lens that provides this level of magnification without needing to add extenders then this lens is about as light and small as they come. Add to this an effective image stabilisation system for handheld shots, together with a very useful and wide ranging focal length zoom, then you have a lens that packs a heavy punch in this category at a very affordable price.
Design and Build
The Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary is one of a pair of lenses that covers the same focal range. It’s smaller, lighter, and less expensive than the Sports version, but it doesn’t look, feel, or perform like a budget lens. Sigma categorises its latest lens line-up as either Art, Contemporary or Sports, which provides a clue to their respective intended use but is somewhat confusing when there are lenses offering identical focal lengths and aperture ranges, as is the case with this pair. The main differences here are that the Contemporary lens lacks weather sealing and has a less sophisticated optical arrangement.
On the upside however, it is around 10% smaller than the Sports version and considerably lighter, weighing in at a little under 2kg, compared to almost 3kg for the Sports lens. The lens is available in Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts – I was using it primarily on the full frame Canon 1DX, although it operates equally well on cropped sensor cameras, with the added benefit of even greater magnification. On a Canon 7D Mark II (cropped sensor), for example, the effective focal length range would be 240mm up to a whopping 960mm.
Handling and Features
At around 2kg, this lens is certainly not overly heavy for a 600mm lens, and is significantly lighter than my usual 600mm f/4 lens so it was a pleasure to use from that point of view. At this weight the lens is hand-holdable and there were times when I did so for short periods of time, but for best performance from the lens I would suggest using some kind of support whenever possible. The lens is supplied with a solid tripod collar and mount which allows it to be easily attached to a tripod or monopod for greater stability and to take the weight. It balanced well with my 1DX by using a quick release plate so that I could position the lens optimally on the tripod head. With a fixed plate, or when attaching the lens directly to the tripod, then the lens may not be as well balanced and this may be more noticeable with lightweight camera bodies. I also used the lens on a bean bag from a hide, although care had to to be taken not to inadvertently alter focusing when moving the lens since the manual focusing ring is in contact with the bean bag. Changing focal length quickly is also not that easy when the lens is on a bean bag, but this is true of most lenses due to the positioning of the zoom ring on the lens barrel.
The lens is finished in a high quality matt black exterior with a robust feel that gives the impression of a solid construction that will withstand the rigours of extended outdoor use, albeit without weather sealing so you’ll need to take care using this lens in wet weather or dusty conditions. The lens mount does however have a rubber gasket to prevent the ingress of dust and moisture into the camera. The zoom ring is substantial and conveniently positioned for ease of use and is smooth to operate, making it a doddle to change focal length, which is important when wanting to quickly alter composition or framing. I found this a great advantage when photographing my local red squirrels, allowing me to compose a range of shots from a fixed position in the hide.
This is often a frustration of using fixed telephoto lenses and can result in missed shots when the subject comes too close for example. With this lens I could quickly zoom out to a shorter focal length to frame the squirrel for the optimum composition. I found I was able to shoot a much greater range of images by having the freedom to zoom. This lens provides that flexibility to alter your approach and shot-making decisions, which I found very liberating and was the major advantage over the lenses I usually use.
One slight downside is that the zoom ring does have a tendency to creep forward when the lens is pointed up or downwards, causing an unwanted change in the focal length. There is however, a useful switch that allows the lens to be locked at 150mm when transporting as well as a ‘soft’ lock with a manual override at any of the marked focal lengths. This is a useful function when you know you’re going to be using the lens at a certain focal length for a period of time and don’t want to accidentally change it.
I found the Autofocus to be quick, accurate and quiet, thanks to the use of a Silent HSM motor. And on the 1DX the lens tracked moving subjects very well, although this is due in part to the camera rather than the lens. That being said, I was impressed with the focusing overall with the lens locking on well in all lighting situations, even when conditions became quite gloomy. Although focusing was very fast, on the most part there were occasions when the focus wasn’t as accurate as I would have liked but the overall number of keepers in regards to focus was high and certainly acceptable. As you would expect focusing is performed internally, so there are no external moving parts during this process. This means that the 95mm filter thread does not rotate, making this lens suitable for use with a polariser or graduated filters, should you wish to use them, or for that matter afford them in that size!
It is also possible to focus the lens manually by simply turning the thin focus ring on the lens barrel. Manual focusing can be awkward on some ‘big’ lenses but was a breeze with this lens as the focus ring is well damped and smooth to operate. Another major plus of the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens is the close focusing distance of 2.8m, which is very close for a 600mm lens, although not as close as you can focus with the Sports version. The close focusing on my Canon 600mm f/4 is 4.5m, so this is a significant difference and allows super close-ups of subjects, and also makes the lens suitable for shooting small subjects such as butterflies and dragonflies from close range.
Image stabilisation (referred to as optical stabilisation – OS – on Sigma lenses) comes as standard on the majority of lenses these days and is a useful addition for a long telephoto lens such as this Sigma 150-600mm offering. Personally, I don’t see image stabilisation as a huge benefit for shooting wildlife as I would routinely try to shoot at shutter speeds that are fast enough to eliminate subject movement and therefore camera shake as well. That being said, when shooting at slow shutter speeds, even when the lens is mounted on a tripod or resting on a bean bag, image stabilisation can be very useful to prevent blurred images. For this test I was able to consistently shoot sharp images of static subjects at shutter speeds as slow at 1/60th second, even at the 600mm end of the zoom, when hand holding. This is impressive and is a distinct advantage if you plan to hand hold the lens on a regular basis. When shooting from a tripod I would tend to switch image stabilisation off but the lens seemed to perform just as well with it switched on and can be used to steady the camera when shooting at slower speeds.
As is common for stabilised telephoto lenses, the Sigma 150-600mm features mode 1 (normal) and mode 2 (panning) options for use depending on the subject you are shooting. Some noises are heard at OS startup and shutdown, but the operational hum is quiet and unobtrusive. There is sometimes a small amount of ‘jumping’ at OS startup and shutdown and subject framing drifts a small amount during OS operation, which is something that affects a lot of stabilised lenses.
For me the real test of any lens is image quality, as the rest of its attributes go out of the window if it’s incapable of producing sharp images. The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens doesn’t disappoint in that regard, producing excellent results throughout the focal length range. Quite often, zoom lenses fall down at either end of the focal length range but that isn’t the case with this lens. At 150mm, sharpness is superb at the centre of the frame at maximum aperture (f/5) and the clarity achieved towards the edges of the frame is excellent. There was no noticeable benefit to image quality by stopping down to a smaller aperture. Zooming to 300mm produces excellent sharpness in the centre of the frame with only a slight fall off in sharpness towards the edges at maximum aperture. Image sharpness increased slightly by stopping the lens down to f/8. At the 600mm end sharpness in the centre of the frame at maximum aperture was good, and again peaked at between f/8 and f/11. Typically, I found I was using the lens at its maximum aperture for any given focal length (in order to maximise shutter speed) so image quality was slightly reduced at the longer end of the zoom, but it wasn’t significant enough to concern me. In situations where the subject is fairly static and/or there was plenty of light then I would recommend stopping the lens down to f/8 if you want to maximise image sharpness.
Fall off in illumination towards the corners of the frame is typical for a telephoto lens with a moderate maximum aperture and such is the case with this lens f/5 – 6.3. Consequently there was a darkening of the corners of the frame when shooting at maximum aperture on my full frame 1DX. Again this is not a major issue and can be corrected during processing if required or by stopping down to f/8 at 150mm or f/11 at 600mm to eliminate the problem. When shooting wildlife the main subject is typically towards the centre of the frame and so the vignetting when shooting at maximum aperture won’t concern most users and can actually enhance the image, drawing more attention to the centre of the frame. For those using a cropped APS-C format camera body vignetting is not noticeable at any aperture settings.
Chromatic aberrations (CA) were well controlled for a super-telephoto zoom lens with very minimal fringing throughout the zoom range. This extremely low level of CA should pose few issues, even in large prints or substantial crops. Any noticeable CA can be corrected in post-processing if necessary. I used the lens quite a lot for backlit shots of squirrels, shooting directly towards the sun, which was a problem in regard to flare and contrast but I would expect this with the sun directly striking the front of the lens. The lens does come with a deep, circular hood, which does a good job of minimising unwanted flare in most situations. To reduce flare in the extreme backlit situation I was working in, I had to shield the front of the lens by holding it inside the hide to prevent the sun striking the front element.
I suppose the main issue for me with this lens is the maximum aperture settings possible across the focal length range, which equates to f/5.0 for focal lengths from 150-179mm, f/5.6 from 180-387mm and f/6.3 from 388-600mm. While not ‘slow’, the lens is at least 1 stop slower than many fixed telephoto lenses across most of it’s range. This affects viewfinder brightness, resulting in a darker viewfinder image compared to faster lenses (f/2.8 or f/4) and also means that shutter speed is limited at any given ISO setting. This is a disadvantage certainly, when compared to a fast prime telephoto lens and may influence your decision to buy this lens.
However, with the improved and continually improving ISO capabilities of the latest DSLRs this isn’t so important as it would have been just a few years ago. If your camera is capable of shooting clean (noise-free) images up to around ISO 1600 then you won’t find this much of an issue for the majority of shooting situations. However, if you routinely shoot in very low light conditions, or like the bokeh that an f/2.8 lens can deliver, then this won’t be the lens for you. But if you can accept that you’ll need to compromise a little in terms of maximum aperture and own a camera that is able to shoot great images at quite high ISO settings when required to freeze action then you’ll be delighted with how this lens performs. In any case, when shooting fairly static wildlife subjects – when a fast shutter speed is not as important – there isn’t much of an issue in this regard.
With the 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens, Sigma have created a lens that offers incredible telephoto reach, fast focusing, and solid image stabilisation at a reasonable price that provides excellent value for money. I found the lens to be sharp where it matters with a good reliable autofocus system that will deliver the goods 80-90% of the time. Without prior knowledge of this lens I was pleasantly surprised at its high level of performance and very modest price tag of around £900, which all adds up to a lens that is very hard to match for quality and value for money.
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