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Sigma 500mm f4.5 EX DG HSM Lens

sigma 500mm f/4.5 review

One thing us wildlife photographers always long for is reach. Whatever the subject is, most of the time you’re never close enough for those frame-filling shots. Before I go on, it’s always important to remember that it’s good to try and include habitat in some photos, and this may only require a 200mm or 300mm lens. But for those small birds or distant mammals, the best way to capture photos of them without disturbing your subject is a longer lens. The Sigma 500mm f/4.5 lens is one candidate for this, so I put it to the test.

sigma lens 500mm review

Competitors

As I’m a Canon man, the go-to lens for wildlife has been the very popular EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens. This is usually chosen over its larger 600mm & 800mm cousins due to portability and lightness. It’s still no bag of feathers, weighing in at nearly 4kg, but compared to its cumbersome elders it offers the best compromise. It can be handheld (for short spells of time), is reasonably compact for storage, and is razor sharp wide open. It’s a great lens to have in the kit bag on a day out. For longer spells, or shooting from a hide, I’d always recommend using a tripod. Not only to get extra stability but to save your arms! Now there’s an even lighter and sharper Mk2 of the Canon 500mm lens out now and second hand prices of the Mk1 have started to fall further. Still, a decent second hand Mk1 will set you back around £3700 with the Sigma pitching in at that for a new lens (and around £2200 second hand) , but is it a better buy?

Handling, Features & Build Quality

Upon unboxing the lens I noticed it’s not as heavy when compared to the Canon, coming in at just over 3kg. I found the hood quite short in comparison to the Canon’s, but it seemed to do a decent job of controlling any stray light and flare. The tripod lens foot, which many of us photographers use to carry the lens around when not on a tripod, has some nice grooves in it for your fingers to slot into. This makes it very comfy whilst lugging it along and it is something both Canon and Nikon need to implement on their bigger lenses! The tripod-collar unlocking screw works well, and the lens rotates smoothly in the collar allowing fast changing of composition between landscape and portrait orientation. There is just one switch on the side to play with, which is the focus distance limiter. This is pretty self-explanatory, but choosing the right one for your setting will speed up the focus response time and stop the lens from hunting too much. The focus ring grips onto the fingertips well and rotates without any hiccups. There’s no image stabilisation which would help when shooting handheld, but this is not a deal breaker. All in all, it is a pretty solid and well-made, tactile lens – so off to a very promising start!

sigma 500mm f4.5 lens review

Focussing

Due to photographing wildlife, almost 100% of the time I’m in AI SERVO (continuous AF) mode. From owning many USM (Ultrasonic Motor) driven lenses over the years, this one instantly struck me as noisy. It’s meant to have a Hypersonic Motor for quiet operation, but I could always hear a slight jittery adjustment going on whilst autofocusing. My other lenses do this movement too, but you just don’t hear or feel it. It’s not overly loud by any means and still focused on things I pointed it towards, without much delay too! But it always had a noise associated with autofocusing that over time I’d probably find really annoying, especially when sitting in a hide where you can hear a pin drop.

I wanted to make sure to get the best out of this lens so I carried out a micro adjustment of the autofocus on my camera body to make the lens as accurate as it could be in partnership with my camera. This way I knew that any problems in focusing were either going to be an error on my part (incorrect settings/insufficient shutter speed etc.) or because of the lens itself. I really was chucking it in at the deep end photographing red kites, what with their aerial acrobatics and fast dives, so it was definitely going to put it to the test.

sample photos sigma 500 f4.5

sigma 500 mm sample photos
A 100% crop shows the kind of detail expected from the Sigma lens.

I did find it to be a bit hit and miss, more so than my Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM (even when with a 1.4x extender fitted that’s meant to slow down AF responsiveness and accuracy)! Some shots were absolutely spot on, but some were just a touch off and I found this to be the case throughout the afternoon’s shoot. This was even when using shutter speeds of 1/3200 second. As you can see from the comparison photos below (at 100% crops) of some static subjects with these sheep, the Sigma 500mm is noticeably softer using the exact same camera settings than the Canon 500mm Mk1 lens. Again, I think this is a case of you get what you pay for, but it’s a massive difference to me – especially the fuzzy out of focus parts.

canon and sigma 500mm comparison

Aperture & Image Quality

Minimum aperture on this lens is f/4.5, which is good for wildlife (and sports), allowing nice depth of field and background compression. It doesn’t have bokeh as creamy as the Canon lens, and it is a little bit soft wide open, so choose your subjects carefully. A great remedy for softer wide open shots is to stop the aperture down to maybe f/6.3 or f/8. This will help sharpen up those images thanks to the ‘sweet spot’ of the lens, but you’ll lose some of that lovely, blurry fore and background you come to love with long lens shots, not to mention reducing the amount of light intake – so either shutter speeds slow or ISOs need to climb. The quality and resolution is pretty good from this lens; considering it’s quite an old lens these days (along with the Canon 500mm Mk1) it did a decent job. Chromatic aberration was fairly low even in contrasty scenes, sharpness and tones were good thanks to the ELD (extra low dispersion) glass.

sigma 500mm sample wildlife photo

100% crop
A 100% crop shows the detail that can be expected.

Summary & Buying Options

Looking through the shots it was a bit hit and miss, but when the focus was nailed, there was some great detail to be seen in the images, the colours looked great and I’d be more than happy to use them. Better than the Canon 500mm? Personally, it’s nowhere near. The focusing issues didn’t fill me with confidence and it was a kind of shoot and hope approach as opposed to my normal regime of knowing exactly what was going on. As big prime lenses go, the Sigma is really the only option other than the Canon 500mm for Canon users, and as such you have a decision. Does your photography warrant the extra capital expenditure? Like all things in life, it boils down to the money side of things. If you’re just a keen shooter who likes birds and wildlife, you’ll be after a super telephoto prime such as these. From the Sigma corner you’ll get a decent output, solid build quality and it does the job – but it’s not excellent. Or choose the Canon to get Image Stabilisation, razor sharp at f/4, better bokeh, not to mention a faster and more accurate auto focus in general. Prices will continue to fall on both sides, but for an investment into a big lens to last me, I’m pretty sure where I’d put my money…

You can buy the Sigma 500mm f/4.5 from the following reliable retailers:

 

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Sigma 500mm f4.5 EX DG HSM Lens
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Visit Drew's website

Drew Buckley is an award-winning landscape and wildlife photographer based in Pembrokeshire, UK. He's a regular contributor to the very best of wildlife, landscape and photography magazines and has his own books published. Self-taught, Drew has always had a passion for combining the great outdoors with his love of photography. He also runs his own photographic workshops.

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