Review: Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM Sport Lens
The latest addition to Sigma’s long lens armoury is the Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM Sport, an ‘affordable’ alternative to the big-hitting and wallet-bruising Canon and Nikon versions. Priced at a shade under £5,000 it is a saving of around £2,500 on its main rivals: the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR.
My first question is always to ask if there is a trade-off in quality with a cheaper brand lens for the lower price tag, or is it simply that Canon and Nikon have such a loyal following – especially amongst sports and wildlife photographers – that they can command a higher price regardless. I must admit that by and large I stick to my main brand, which happens to be Canon, when purchasing new lenses simply because I have confidence in what I’m buying and I don’t want to compromise on quality. That said, I am more than happy to consider other options, especially if they offer better value for money and I do own an excellent Sigma 180mm macro lens for that reason. So, would this offering from Sigma’s ever-expanding stable of lenses do the business in the field? That was what I was about to find out as I put it to the test over a coupe of weeks of wildlife shooting in the Scottish Highlands.
First up lens terminology always confuses me and the string of letters and numbers seems to be getting longer and longer with each new lens that comes out. Once I get past the f/4 bit I start to glaze over, but for those who like to know such things the DG refers to a ‘special’ coating that Sigma puts on their new lenses so they are optimised for digital photography, although they can be used to shoot film as well. According to Sigma, DG lenses feature improved light distribution from image centre to edge, and incorporate the latest multi-layer lens coatings to avoid reflections of the sensors of digital cameras.
The OS refers to the optical stabilisation system, which is similar technology to image stabilisation (IS) and vibration reduction (VR) systems used by Canon and Nikon respectively to facilitate shooting at much slower shutter speeds especially when hand holding the lens.
HSM stands for Hyper Sonic Motor, the mechanism to drive autofocus, obviously a critical part of the lens to enable rapid focusing on your subject. This latest motor also reduces noise when autofocusing and is the first of its kind in an independent brand lens.
As you might expect Sport is used to define telephoto lenses (both zoom and fixed focal length) aimed at sports and wildlife photography. Generally, these lenses tend to be quite pricey and also feature relatively fast maximum aperture settings to allow fast shutter speeds to be used.
That’s some of the jargon out of the way, but what I’m most interested in is the overall handling of the lens and ultimately the quality of the end result. I have been using long telephotos (500mm or 600mm) for more than twenty years and they are the one lens that I wouldn’t be without for shooting wildlife, largely because here in the UK getting close to my subjects is never easy and these lenses give you that necessary reach. There are of course other (cheaper and lighter) options out there if you’re looking for this kind of focal length such as the Sigma 150-600mm zoom, which is incredible value for money, or the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens. So why splash the cash on a 500mm f/4? Well, essentially because of that f/4 maximum aperture, which not only allows fast shutter speeds to be used (without the need to crank up the ISO to excessive levels) but should in theory provide a superior autofocus response, locking onto the subject more quickly and often more reliably. An f/4 lens used wide open (at maximum aperture) will also produce much nicer out of focus backgrounds with attractive bokeh, which is an appealing aspect to so-called ‘fast’ telephotos.
If you’ve not previously used a long telephoto lens, then this Sigma 500mm f/4 is going to seem like a beast, but it is actually a very manageable lens. As a regular user of telephotos this 500mm f/4 felt quite dainty, but it was well-balanced and handled very well. Made of tough magnesium alloy it weighs in at a little under 3Kg, which is certainly not a trivial weight to cart around the countryside but neither is it overly heavy and for anyone used to lugging hefty bits of equipment it will not come as any great shock. Most of the time I supported the lens in some way either on a tripod – my preferred choice – or a bean bag. You would certainly want to support the lens if using it for long periods, although a monopod would be a good alternative in some situations where you needed to be a little more flexible. The lens has a brass bayonet mount, which attaches to the camera very easily with a minimum of fuss.
There are two standard screw threads in the lens mount for attaching either directly to a tripod or via a quick release plate. I always use the latter and for a lens of this size and weight having two screw threads means that you can attach a longer plate fixed in two positions, which then locks the lens firmly to the tripod without the annoying problem of the lens coming loose from the plate and twisting. Another practical feature of the lens is the tripod collar – standard on any long lens – which is part of the lens mount and allows the lens to be rotated between landscape and portrait format shooting. There is a knurled knob that tightens to hold the lens firmly in position but a quick twist loosens it so the lens can be quickly rotated to allow vertical images to be taken. There is also a handy click that positions the lens in vertical (or horizontal) alignment assuming your tripod head is level in the first place.
I did hand-hold the lens quite a lot when photographing mountain hares primarily for greater flexibility of movement but also because I found it easier to stalk the subject without the burden of the tripod. Holding the lens for long periods fixed on the subject – when waiting for some action for example – is very tiring with a heavy lens like this so really hand-holding is only an option for short spells. I didn’t have chance to do any birds in flight whilst I had the lens on loan but again hand-holding would be an option for those with strong forearms to allow greater ease of movement.
3. Optical Stabilisation
As is pretty much standard these days, the lens has Optical Stabilisation (OS), which according to Sigma proves the equivalent of around 4 stops of stabilisation. This is very useful when hand-holding the lens and I kept it switched on all the time when doing this, shooting at shutter speeds down to 1/60th second with around a 75% success rate in terms of sharp images.
For those with steady hands, it may be possible to obtain sharp images at shutter speeds lower than this when photographing static subjects but I wouldn’t make a habit of it personally. The OS has two modes, one for ‘general’ stabilisation such as when hand-handing when camera movement is random, and the other for use when panning a subject. This second mode is aimed more specifically at sports photographers, although it does have applications when shooting wildlife as well. OS can be left switched on when working from a tripod and it won’t adversely affect the image quality (some older stabilisation systems had a detrimental affect when employed with the camera/lens on a tripod). The OS system itself is very quiet with an audible click when the shutter is partially depressed to engage OS and a slight whirring sound while operational.
Although this is an autofocus lens the Sigma 500mm f/4 can be switched to manual focusing via the AF//M button. It also has manual override MO switch, which means that the lens remains in autofocus but you can manually tweak focus even when in continuous AF using the wide rubberised manual focusing ring. I found this very easy to use and proved useful a few times when I had to make a slight adjustment to the focusing in order to obtain critical focus on the eye of the hare I was photographing. In the AF position, standard full-time manual focus is also available. Manual focusing or Manual Override can also be handy when shooting through vegetation or when its raining or snowing as the lens can have difficulties locking on accurately. As you would expect the lens focuses internally so there are no moving parts on the barrel when employing autofocus.
Overall I found the autofocus to be very reliable locking on quickly and accurately, typically using the central focusing point of my Canon 1DX. I used the lens in testing low light / low contrast conditions with a number of different subjects and it acquired focus at the first attempt on almost all occasions. There were times when the lens hunted for focus, but I would expect this of most lenses and this can be dependent on where you are trying to attain focus since the lens requires some kind of ‘edge’ or difference in contrast to lock on accurately. Of course, autofocus accuracy and performance is a combination of lens and camera and some cameras will autofocus better than others but the lens itself did its job and I had no complaints in that regard.
I was able to shoot some running hares to test how well the lens was able to follow focus and again this is down to the camera, your choice of settings and panning skills but overall the lens did a good job in maintaining focus. The autofocus mechanism is very quiet due to the Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) so that even when hunting, noise is kept to a minimum.
A feature that I didn’t use, but can be useful in some situations, are the focus recall buttons on the barrel of the lens. A separate button allows you to pre-set a focus distance, for example on a perch that a bird is regularly returning to. If you have focused on something else and the bird hops back onto the perch you can then press one of the focus recall buttons and the lens will instantly re-focus on the perch at the predetermined focus distance. Obviously, this will only work if the lens is mounted on a tripod or other fixed point.
Something I seldom use, but is commonplace on most modern telephotos including this Sigma 500mm f/4 is the focus range limit switch, which allows you to limit the range of permissible focusing between two distances. On this lens the choice of ranges are 3.5m – 10m, 10m – ∞ and the full range. This can be helpful if you know your subject is going to be within a certain distance to prevent the lens from hunting for focus over the entire focus range. The Minimum Focus Distance of 3.5 m is certainly impressive and proved very useful when shooting extreme close-up portraits of mountain hare allowing me to fill the frame with the hare’s head. It would also come in very handy if you wanted to shoot much smaller subjects such as butterflies and dragonflies, using the lens as an alternative to a macro lens. Using a long lens in this way can be especially beneficial when trying to shoot wary insects that don’t allow a super close approach.
5. Facing the Elements
The weather was unpleasant for a lot of the time I was using the lens, and so the supplied lens hood was used mainly for keeping raindrops from falling onto the front glass. I always fit a hood for that reason and for protection should it inadvertently drop down onto the tripod and to generally protect the front of the lens form accidental knocks. It also did the job of minimising flare when shooting crested tits backlit.
The low winter sun was coming directly towards me so I was grateful that the hood was sufficiently long enough to shield the lens. The overall build quality of the lens was very good and it certainly got rained on several times and held up in the wet conditions without any problems of internal condensation. The lens has weather seals to prevent water / dust ingress and you simply have to trust that they will do their job. In addition, a water and oil-repellent coating is used on the front and rear elements. Most photographers would probably use a rain-cover in persistent rain but it’s good to know that you can carry on using the lens in the rain for short periods of time at least.
6. Image Quality
Ultimately any lens will be judged on image quality and the Sigma 500mm f/4 didn’t disappoint in that regard churning out pin sharp images at all the apertures used. A lens of this type is engineered to be used wide open at maximum aperture (why bother forking on an f/4 lens unless you intend to shoot at this aperture) and it is superb at this f-stop at producing very crisp images.
Others have noted vignetting at maximum aperture but I didn’t find this to be an issue with the subjects I was shooting, and in any case this can quite easily be fixed during processing if necessary. I stopped the lens down as far as f/16 and didn’t notice any significant fall off in quality at the smaller f-stops. Diffraction usually leads to slightly softer images at smaller apertures but I didn’t go beyond f/16 and its unlikely you ever would want to. In fact, it’s rare for me to stop down to f/11 so I was more than happy with image quality at the setting I was using. Zooming in to 100% on the close-up hare portraits reveals extraordinary detail in the animal’s eye, fur and whiskers and is testament to the quality of the glass used in this lens. In the conditions I was shooting there were no discernible lens aberrations and overall image quality was excellent.
The lens can also be used with Sigma’s Global Vision tele-convertors to increase focal length but I didn’t have these to test so cannot comment on how the lens performed with these fitted. It was annoying that my Canon convertors didn’t fit so it would be necessary to buy Sigma’s own brand should you wish to extend the pulling power of this lens. The lens is also set up so that various features can be customised via the Sigma USB dock for personalised shooting. Again this was something that I didn’t have as part of this test.
The Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM Sport is a solid bit of kit that provides an excellent alternative to the major brands. Without doing side by side laboratory tests it is very difficult to compare one lens with another but in my opinion this lens certainly holds its own against its more expensive rivals.
The lens handles very well, being light enough to hand hold when necessary with a sturdy build quality that is going to withstand the rigours of being used in the field. It has all the features that I would expect to find in a telephoto lens of this type and in that regard is of a very similar spec to other 500mm f/4 lenses. While some of these features are important, the decision whether to buy this lens will be judged on performance, quality and price. Autofocus reliability and accuracy are of paramount importance and I was very impressed with how this lens performed, producing a very high percentage of sharp images (where it mattered) in all shooting conditions.
Overall image quality was excellent and the images compared very favourably to those I get from my Canon 600mm. Whilst significantly less expensive than it’s rivals, the Sigma 500mm f/4 still carries a hefty price tag of a shade under £5000 so it won’t be within everyone’s budget. But for anyone looking for a solid performing 500mm f/4 lens, then this is a serious contender and you’ll save yourself a few bob in the process.
- Features 9/10
- Performance 9/10
- Handling 10/10
- Image quality 10/10
- Value for money 9/10
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