Lens Review: The Sigma 120-400 4.5-5.6 APO HSM Telephoto Zoom

First the preamble:

I am a working landscape photographer. I am not a lab technician. I do tests in field conditions shooting with the gear just like I normally do. I do not take photos of lens charts or do studio tests. I want to know how well a lens or camera works in the field. I am not paid to do these reviews nor do I get a kick back for any sales of products reviewed. I do not get free camera equipment nor am I sponsored by any camera or lens manufacturers. I am only interested in finding decent gear at a fair price. When I do find a ‘good buy’ I will share my findings with others and then you can decide if the gear will be a good fit for your shooting style.

Note: To see all future reviews please note this blog is no longer active, please visit me over at oopoomoo.com

The Backgound

Anyone familar with my work knows I use Canon cameras and Canon Tilt-Shift lenses for the majority of my landscape work. Overall I am pretty happy with the gear I use and when I am not I freely express what I think are the short-comings of the gear (which probably has not made Canon happy at times).  :-)

What is less well known is that I love telephoto zooms to create ‘extractive landscapes’ (like the one below). I carry a little Canon 70-200 f4L lens in my pack and a Canon 300mm F4L IS lens to cover my telephoto needs. When the 70-200mm does not supply enough reach, I switch to the 300mm. I am happy with these two Canon lenses but sometimes I wish I had all that zoom range in one lens. So I thought I would test the Sigma 120-400mm lens. I chose this lens for it useful focal range, the fact that it accepts 77mm filters (I love filters!), the fact that it is not too crazy heavy (1750 grams) and the fact that it is affordable (about $1000 CAN). I also compared it to Canon’s 100-400 f4.5-5.6L lens which I used to own but sold because I was not a huge fan of the lens (but maybe that was a mistake–we’ll see).

©Darwin Wiggett

The Procedure

In the field I used a solid Gitzo tripod and a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head to support the camera and lenses. I used mirror lock-up, a cable release, no filters, and used live view to focus. I have tested my Canon EOS-1ds Mark III extensively and I get sharper photos using Live View at 10x magnification than I can get with the camera using auto-focus even after focus calibration . I also turned off Optical Stabilization (Sigma) and Image Stabilization (Canon) for all tripod shots. I shot near and distant scenes. Here are my findings:

The Lenses Tested

The lenses compared from left to right:

Sigma 120-400 4.5-5.6 APO, Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6L, Canon 70-200 F4L and Canon 300mm F4L

First Impressions

I was impressed by the build quality and handling of the Sigma lens. It felt sturdy, and the focus and the zoom mechanisms were smooth and silky. The lens did not feel ‘cheap’ or clunky in any way. The zoom ring is at the front of the lens and a half twist of the hand takes you quickly from 120 to 400mm. Most Canon lenses have the focus ring in the front of the lens and the zoom ring behind so it took me some time to get used to having the opposite arrangement with the Sigma lens. The Canon 100-400 lens has a push-pull zoom that also takes a little getting used to. People that own the 100-400 either love or hate that push-pull zoom, few people are neutral about it. Sigma’s rotating zoom is probably more acceptable to a wider audience.

The Sigma 120-400 and the Canon 100-400 zoomed out to 400mm

An interesting note about the Canon 100-400mm. Numerous photographers I know refer to the Canon lens as the Vacuum Cleaner. Take the back lens cap off the 100-400 and cup your hand over the rear lens element. Now push and pull the zoom back-and-forth. You’ll get a good stong flow of air sucking in and out of the lens. Guess what moving air attracts? Dust. A fairly common complaint with the Canon 100-400mm lens is that it is a big dust sucker leaving you with a dirty camera sensor. I tried the same test with the Sigma lens and there is still airflow while zooming but significantly less than with the push-pull Canon Lens. If you want to vacuum your carpet as well as take photos, then the Canon 100-400 might be a good choice :-)

Sharpness Tests

I compared all the lenses at every aperture and at numerous overlapping focal lengths. Rather than bore you with pages and pages of 100% screen captures just let me summarize my findings below. You’ll need to take a leap of faith that I did my best to make the field comparisons as fair as possible and to keep shooting conditions as controlled as I could. I repeated the tests three times to confirm my initial findings. I will include a couple of critial comparison for visual reference. Also I will let you know about my preconceptions before the test so you know what I expected to find (my bias). I assumed that the 70-200 f4L and the prime 300 f4L would outperform both the Canon 100-400 and the Sigma 120-400. Also I expected the two big zooms would probably be close in quality.

Sharpness and Aperture

Lenses all tend to have a sweet spot where there are one or two apertures that give the best resolution or sharpness performance. All four of the lenses tested here had the best sharpness at apertures of f5.6 to f11 with f8 being the sweet spot for all the lenses at all focal lengths. For example, I photographed the image below with the Sigma 120-400 at 200mm.

Shot with the Sigma 120-400 lens at 200mm

 In the 100% magnified view of the same scene you can clearly see that apertures larger than f11 start to lose edge sharpness.

100% view of Sigma 100-200 at 200mm based on aperture

All of the Canon lenses used in this test had a minimum aperture of f32. I would happily use any aperture on any of these lenses from wide open to f11. Even f16 was acceptable in most cases. But f22 and especially f32 are useless apertures in my opinion due to loss of sharpness through diffraction. Below is a 100% view of a photo of a fence in my backyard showing a comparison of f11 and f32 using the Canon 100-400mm lens at 200mm – the differenes are striking. I repeated this test three times in different light and with all the Canon lenses–in the end I found that  f22 and 32 are useless if you want pro caliber results and/or the capabilities to make large prints.

Canon 100-400 at 200mm

Vignetting

Often zoom lenses will show some uneven exposure across the frame at wide open apertures where the edges and corners of the frame are darker than the center. Usually one or two apertures down from wide open and exposure across the frame evens out. The photo below shows the lens vignetting for the Canon 100-400 at 120mm (left) and the Sigma 120-400mm at 120mm (right). By f11 the exposure totally evens out for both lenses. The Sigma seems to suffer from a bit stonger lens vignette than the Canon. The other interesting difference is in the colour between the lenses. The settings on my Canon EOS-1ds Mark III were exactly the same for both sets of pictures and the sets were taken only minutes apart. The Sigma lens renders colours much warmer than the Canon lens.

Lens Vignette Test, Canon 100-400 on left, Sigma 120-400 on right

I found that the Canon 70-200 F4L and the 300 F4L have slightly less lens vignette than the  the two big zooms and that the exposure across the frame is even at f8.0. Whether lens vignette is a problem for you depends on what you shoot and your style. Correcting vignette is easy in Adobe Camera Raw and in Adobe Lightroom so if you like to shoot wide-open alot then you may need to correct this problem in post-production. But frankly, most people are purposely adding a vignette effect to their photos so I really think only the most anal photographer would be bothered by the vignetting seen on any of these lenses. But do note, the Sigma has the greatest lens vignette of all the lenses tested.

Sharpness comparisons

I tested all four lenses in the field using various subjects but the the three scenes that showed the differences in sharpness the best were the photos below. One image (the trees) was shot in overcast light, while the wooden fence and the chain link fence with signs were shot on a sunny evening . I  compared the sharpness of Sigma lens with the Canon lenses based on these three scenes.

The scene used to compare lens sharpness

Scene used to compare lenses on overcast day

Scene used to compare lens sharpness

Canon 70-200f4L vs Sigma 120-400mm lens

When I compared the Sigma 120-400 with the Canon 70-200f4L I was surprised by how well the Sigma lens performed. Both lenses seemed sharpest at f8. At the tested focal lengths of 120mm and 200mm there was little to distinguish the two lenses in terms of sharpness. The Canon slightly edged out the Sigma at f5.6 but  after that they were about even in sharpness until f16 when the Sigma had a tiny edge. Really I could not see much of a difference between the two lenses.  Below is a comparison of center sharpness in both lenses at f8. Do note the slightly bluer colour cast to the Canon lens

Canon 70-200f4L vs Sigma 120-400mm lens - Center Sharpness

Where I did notice some differences between the lenses was at the edges of the frame. The Canon is better controlled at lens vignette at wider apertures but when it comes to edge sharpness the Sigma came out on top at all apertures tested. The disturbing thing about the Canon 70-200 f4L was that there was some colour fringing (magenta) at the edges of the frame (see photo below). Maybe Canon needs to update this lens to a Mark II version to overcome this flaw. For me as a landscape shooter, I like the files I got from the Sigma in the 120-200mm range better than the files that came from the Canon 70-200 f4L.

Canon 70-200 F4L vs. Sigma 120-400mm lens - edge sharpness

Canon 300mm F4L vs Sigma 120-400mm lens

For me this test was a no brainer, I figured that the prime Canon 300mm lens would easily surpass the Sigma lens in terms of sharpness–a prime versus a big range zoom–c’mon! But, I was impressed by the Sigma lens. At 300mm, at almost every aperture, the Sigma zoom could easily match the sharpness of the Canon prime. At f5.6 the Canon had a slight edge but by f8 and past the two lenses performed almost identifcally in terms of sharpness. The Canon lens has a tiny bit more ‘snap’ (contrast) and a slightly cooler colour cast but otherwise the lenses performed essentially the same. The photo below compares center sharpness at f8 between the lenses.

Canon 300 f4L vs. Sigma 100-400 - center sharpness

When I compared edge sharpness between the two lenses I was surprised that the Sigma lens was just as sharp along the edges as the Canon prime. And the good news is neither lens showed the magenta fringing at the edges like I saw in the 70-200mm lens. I also compared the sharpness of the Canon 300mm lens coupled with a Canon 1.4x converter to give me 420mm. I zoomed the Sigma out to 400mm and compared the sharpness of the two lenses. The Canon lens with the 1.4x converter could not match the sharpness of the Sigma zoom at any aperture whether in the center or along the edges. Below is a photo showing center sharpness at f8 for both lenses.

Canon 300mm F4L with a 1.4x converter vs. Sigma 120-400

The Sigma 120-400 can easily compete with Canon’s 70-200 f4L and 300mm F4L lens in terms of sharpness. The other two lenses have a bit of a speed advantage with a wide aperture of f4 (useful for sports and wildlife shooting) but for landscape purposes, the Sigma is way more flexible combining a huge zoom range with excellent overall sharpness.

Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6 vs. Sigma 120-400 f4.5-5.6

Ok, this is the shootout that I was really interested in. Are the two lenses comparable? I tested the lenses at 120, 150, 200, 300, and 400mm at all apertures. In the images below I present the results at f8 where both lenses tended to perform the best.

At the 120 and 150mm the Sigma was superior because it had much better edge sharpness and very little colour fringing. The Canon lens has noticable fringes in contrasty areas along the edge of the frame (see photo below). Also note that the Canon has a much cooler colour cast than the Sigma lens.

Canon 100-400 and Sigma 120-400 at 120mm

At 200mm sharpness evens out between the two lens with similar center sharpness and a a slight nod to the Sigma for better edge sharpness (see below)

Canon 100-400 vs Sigma 120-400 at 200mm

At 300mm the Canon is sharper in the center but the Sigma is sharper at the edges of the frame (see photo below) so I would call the test a draw.

Canon 100-400 vs. Sigma 120-400 at 300mm

At 400mm the Canon is clearly superior both in the center and at the edges (see below)

Canon 100-400 vs. Sigma 120-400 at 400mm

But in my other sharpness tests with the two lenses I found that the Sigma Lens gave equal or better results than the Canon at 400mm. I think the reasons for the differences are dependant on the ability of the camera or the user to get precise focus. I used Live View at 10x to focus all lenses but at 400mm I noticed that the Canon lens ‘snapped’ into focus more obviously using Live View than did the Sigma when both were racked out to 400mm. The photo of the fence below shows that the Sigma can give great results at 400mm if perfect focus is achieved

Test 2 of Canon 100-400 vs. Sigma 120-400 at 400mm

As a general conclusion the two lenses are pretty similar with the Sigma performing better at the wider end of the zoom range and the Canon performing better at the longest focal lengths or at least the Canon was easier to focus precisely at longer focal lengths. In the middle ranges of 200 and 300mm the lenses are pretty evenly matched. The Canon has a little less lens vignette but the Sigma has less colour fringing on the edges. The Sigma lens is a little warmer in colour cast than the Canon lens.

Autofocus and Image Stabilization

I did some autofocus testing with the both lenses on static and moving subjects and I really could not see any difference in lens performance between the Canon 100-400 or the Sigma 120-400. Both seemed zippy and locked focus pretty well. I had the same amount of keepers from both lenses when using auto-focus. But I am not an action/sports shooter so my tests were not rigourous. As well, in my casual tests of how well the Image Stabilization (Canon) and Optical Stabilization (Sigma) worked for handheld shots, both lenses gave me similar results. I was happy with the stabilization system in both lenses used and I could manage hand-held shots about two shutter speeds below what is recommended for non stabilized lenses.

Conclusion

As a landscape lens I really liked the Sigma 120-400 lens for its great range and convenience. It gave me as good as the results I currently get from my  70-200 and my 300mm Canon lenses and better results at 400mm than I get with my 300mm coupled with a 1.4x converter. So now I can take just one zoom lens and leave the two other lenses and the converter behind. If I were a wildlife shooter I might stick with the two Canon lenses for the extra speed that f4 gives me.

When it comes to the Canon 100-400mm and the Sigma 120-400mm it really is a matter of weighing benefits and costs. The Canon lens performs better (or is easier to focus precisely) at 400mm and it vignettes less at wide apertures. On the other hand it has the push-pull dust-sucking zoom and chromatic aberations at wider focal lengths and costs significantly more than the Sigma zoom (about $1750 new in Canada). The Sigma performs better than the Canon zoom at focal lengths 200mm or less with little or no fringing and better edge sharpness. At 300mm the lenses are eqaully matched but sharpness (or ability to get sharply-focused images) falls off a bit at 400mm with the Sigma. The Sigma is a bargain at $1000 Can.

Personally, I would buy the Sigma lens over the Canon 100-400 zoom simply because I can not see much in the way of benefits or performance for me as a landscape shooter with the Canon over the Sigma. And $750 in savings is the benefit I get from my choice.

©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 120-400mm lens at 273mm

I have read mixed reviews about both the Canon 100-400mm and the Sigma 120-400mm lenses in terms of sharpness. Whether this is a quality control issue with the manufacturers or testing differences among reviewers is hard to dissect. I do know that many photographers use too flimsy a tripod and have poor technique (center post up, no mirror lock-up, no cable release) when using telephoto lenses and so maybe some of the sharpness issues are a result of user error. When using proper techique both the Canon 100-400 and the Sigma 120-400mm lenses can deliver professional results. I would not hesitate to use either lens.

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112 Responses to “Lens Review: The Sigma 120-400 4.5-5.6 APO HSM Telephoto Zoom”

  1. Great review Darren just kidding Darwin, I might sell my 300 because of your review thanks.

  2. Darwin,

    What a great review! I have to say that I admire that fact that you are always truthful when you do these types of reviews. You concern yourself not with a brand of choice but, just the facts on how that equipment performs for you. It sure makes life easier for some of us. As you are aware I am a Sony/Minolta shooter, all I need is to get you to compare the Sigma to Sony’s 70 – 400 Zoom. I could try it but, your understanding of the important issues are much better than mine. It may all come down to price in the end and the Sony is around $ 1700 – 1800 CDN. So if it does I am confident that I can now go with the Sigma and for mine needs it should work well. Thanks for help all of us with these types of choices. Great review.

  3. Ken Hopkins Says:

    Very interesting Darwin. I do own the Canon 100-400mm L and would trade it off for a 300mm any day.

    thanks for taking so much time and posting this info for all of us.

    Ken

  4. Darwin,

    Very practical and helpful review. I’ve had 3 copies of the Canon 100-400 zoom and the quality difference is ridicules! To say there is a QC problem is an understatement. My current version is very sharp and i find it to be almost as sharp as my 400mm f/5.6 at 400mm and my 70-200 f/4 IS at 100mm – 200mm at most apertures. I don’t like the Canon’s push-pull design so maybe the Sigma would be a nice replacement. I’m hopeful that Canon will eventually design a 200 – 400 f/4 IS zoom soon. The Nikon shooters have had that lens for awhile and it seems to be a great wildlife and sports lens. Thanks again for your well thought out review.

  5. Nicely timed review. I’m someone that currently owns the 70-200 looking for a bit more reach. Now I have a 3rd option to consider.

  6. Thank you for the honest review. I prefer Canon lenses as well but go Sigma to get my moneys worth-like the exceptional 10-20mm f/4-5.6. It really all boils down to a photographers needs.

  7. Thanks for the review! You review made me decide on a next lens purchase:)

  8. Thx for the comparison. I have to say I think you have either a bad copy ofthe 300 f4 IS or a bad Canon 1.4x II. I’ve used all of these lenses and the 300 f4 IS with TC is indeed sharper than the 120-400 and 100-400 at 400. This is confirmed by Photozone and WCastelman’s reviews with the 300 f4 IS.

    I would definitely prefert a combo of the 300 f4 IS and the Sigma over the 100-400 any day.

  9. Beate Dalbec Says:

    I own the Sigma 120-400 and just used it on a 10 day safari in Kenya. I absolutely love this lens. It had the perfect range for this trip, especially combined with my Canon 50D. It performed very well and I would highly recommend it!

  10. I really enjoy your reviews – well researched and you seem to take great care to be objective. I also like the way you use real world application. Who cares about lab tests?

    I’m so impressed with my 2 Sigma lenses (70-200 and 150 macro). The 70-200 seems to give me the best results, even when compared to some of my supposedly superiour L lenses.

  11. Thanks for another great honest review Darwin.

  12. Hi Darwin,

    It is nice to see someone do an honest review.

  13. Thanks for the great and helpful review, Darwin. I hope to own a lens like this someday.

    - Dan

  14. ASteve Johns Says:

    Thank you for such a thorough and well-illustrated review. I have been “agonising” over a choice between the Canon 100-400mm and the Sigma 120.400mm for the past month. Your review confirms my own impressions from some personal very limited testing and I now have decided to go for the Sigma and pocket the price difference. I have, however, met a couple of people who have had serious AF problems with the Sigma, but that seems to have been down to a Rogue batch of lenses and has since been corrected, so I have been told.

    • It seems that the only way to ‘buy’ a lens today is to buy it from a store that will let you rent your potential purchase first so you can make sure it performs to your standards. I will no longer buy a lens without trying it first. It seems all manufacturers have some variance in quality control. The Sigma and the Canon lenses I used seemed really good. What I would love to see is a review from someone taking 5-10 lens that are the same model and manufacturer and compare performance and measure variation. Are QC problems a myth or reality.

  15. Florin M Says:

    Darwin,
    Thanks for your excellent review. As you stated in an earlier post the best way is to rent the lens, try it and then decide if you want to buy it.
    In the end are you keeping the Sigma ?
    I am too trying to find a more practical solution without affecting the quality of the files and this Sigma lens looks like it’s a very good alternative.

  16. [...] Lens Review: The Sigma 120-400 4.5-5.6 APO HSM Telephoto Zoom … [...]

  17. Neil Fiertel Says:

    This is an utterly believable detailed and excellent professional review. Did I leave out any superlatives? I own this very lens as when I bought it last year there were no real trustworthy reviews on the net and the various personal comments by those that tried it and cried “terrible” I figured did not do any of the things necessary to really test the optics of the lens as you did. I did the newspaper stuck to the door routine as it was 46C below zero when I got the lens so please understand that it was not laziness but the desire to survive the test. I also know as many do not that curvature of field is an issue with any lens and thus I focussed separately for the centre test and the edge tests on a full frame Canon 5D mark II so similar gear for all practical purposes to yours and I got exactly the same results…My Sigma is a marvel. The only place it falls down is in backlight conditions wherein there is a definite colour bloom and haze under extreme conditions with literally the sun or cloud covered sunny sky behind a dark nearby subject is affected. Big surprise with a zoom lens..not! It is very much able to stabilise better than you suggest in my experience as I mounted a custom made handle onto the tripod mount on the lens and shot over and over at 1/25 of a second at 400 mm a bracket and wire on a very distant power pole and 4 out of 5 were so sharp that I could and did print out a 36 inch print of it! Again that was hand held over and over at 1/25th f8 at 400 mm..That is absolutely no exaggeration. I am 68 years old so this was not because I am the Man of Steel either. My custom handle was self made from one of those ancient Vivitar flash brackets that are still floating around used. It was not an easy task but it was worth the work under the circumstances as one cannot always haul a heavy lens and a tripod. Naturally I would not presume that such an absurd shutter speed is a good risk but this is a fact that I had to mention. I think I made a great choice by purchasing this lens as also, I am in Canada and the Canon was VERY expensive in comparison and now I feel justified in getting the Sigma. I had the option to return it to the dealer and instead called the manager to applaud this lens to him..and to all of you.

  18. Peter Taylor Says:

    I have just purchased the Sigma for my Nikon D700 after reading other reviews and comparing cost against a Nikon 200-400mm zoom. I have now read your excellent review which is in line with my early impressions.

  19. STANLEY WILSON Says:

    BRILL REVIEW HAD OLD SIGMA 120/400mm NOW WANT NEW SIGMA
    THANKS FOR MAKING MY MIND UP
    CHEERS STAN

  20. [...] Sigma 120-400 tegenover Sigma 150-500 Volgens deze review geeft de 120-400mm gelijkaardige kwaliteit als de 300/F4 (tenminste op 300mm). Die 300mm is 2x [...]

  21. Rui Araújo Says:

    I have one of these Sigma 120-400mm and it sucks from 320mm onwards to 400mm.
    Looks like high ISO noise, even at lowest ISO.

  22. I own the 120-400 which is very underrated. Mine is better than my Canon 70-200 f4 and f2.8 IS at same ranges, and OS is far more usable than the one of the Canon 300 F4.
    At 400, handheld, it might be very sharp, but needs some training … as any lens at this range.
    A very good lens. If it needs calibration, no worry, Sigma service is competent and fast.

  23. Peter Errmann Says:

    THANKS – for a professional and honest review Darwin. I am fortunate to have you in the neihbourhood. The foothills and the Canadian West are made for this Sigma lens, I will get one. Keep up the good work. Peter.

  24. Very good review. I have been researching lenses of this mm for my wife’s birthday; she is into wildlife photography, but lacks a proper focal length lens. A landscape/wildlife pro photographer friend of hers had recommended the Nikon 70-300mm VR; but I just didn’t think that length would get her close enough to the subjects. I began looking closer at the 400mm and 500mm max. telephoto super zooms. In this length, the price of a Nikon was out of the question; too pricey for my comfort zone. Other than a couple very good-quality Nikons, I have one Tokina (12-24mm) lens and love it. So I concentrated on the Tokina 80-400mm AT-X Pro D and also the Sigma 120-400 DG APO OS HSM. Although at almost twice the price of the Tokina, I was already swaying toward the Sigma, mostly because I “know” the additional $400 should buy more quality results, given that Tokina and Sigma are pretty evenly matched on price-to-quality offerings. Your review and a few others, and my research have now convinced me to go with the Sigma. So I’ll be getting the lens shortly. Thanks!

  25. Neil Fiertel Says:

    This is an excellent review on this lens and reflects exactly my experiences with the Sigma which I happily own. I also agree that many of the experiences others report on this lens is likely the result of insufficient tripods or bad techniques of one sort or another. The lens sells well in my area according to my personal salesman and the store had them in stock and more than one which reflects on their need to keep it available. It is excellent in its Image Stablisation feature and I had consistent results hand holding this lens with a purpose built grip that I built from an old Vivitar flash handle that I modified to fit the lens tripod ring mount. I could consistently hold this hefty lens and shoot at 1/25th of a second at 400mm on a distant object and enlarge to 36 inch print size and have it sharp!!! I first thought this was a fluke but I can do it every time so the particular manner of holding the lens on the hefty Canon 5D and battery case is not for the faint of heat but is a steady on combo. The lens is well built and does the job admirably except perhaps in bright backlighting wherein there is definite loss of contrast due to internal flaring. Not a big surprise but I thought just to point it out. It is a great deal and a fine performer. A winner.

  26. Peter Harris Says:

    A great review. Have just bought a Sigma 120-400 for my Nikon (sorry!). I wanted a lenses with more focal length for my wldlife photography, which I have just got into. This lense is great. Although it is not the lightest of lenses, (which is the case with telephotos as a against primes) it is a solid build and handles well with the tripod/grip collar.

  27. Does anyone know if the Sigma zoom reviewed in this thread will work with the Canon 2x teleconverter? And if so, are there any restrictions to combining them (i.e. Autofocus, Image Stabilization)?

    • You will lose AF, for canon unless you have a 1D, all cameras need f/5.6 effective aperture for AF to work. You can’t use a converter when the maximum effective f-stop of a lens is less the 4.0. The 1.4x gives you one effective F-stop, so if your lens has a max aperture of 4, with a 1.4x you’ll have a maximum effective f-stop value of f/5.6 but if you attach a 2x, that loose two stops of light, you’ll have an effective f-stop of f/8 and you’ll lose AF capabilities.
      The general rule of thumb is, a 2x converter works on an F/2.8 or faster lens, and a 1.4x works only on an f/4 or faster lens. Any slower lenses don’t waste your money because you’ll lose AF. (Unless you have a 1D, the rule changes 1 stop slower to an effective max aperture of f/8. 2x works with f/4 or faster and 1.4x f/5.6 or faster lenses). But if you still want to use them, you’ll need a killer MF technique, a solid tripod and a good flash or light, cause even with the extender III series, you’ll lose sharpness.

      F-stop link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F-number

  28. Thank you very much for the comparison review. I’m ready to move up from a 70-200 + teleconverter. I’ve rented the 100-400 and was pretty pleased, except for the push zoom. As the Sigma gets roughly similar results, has a twist zoom and costs a lot less, you’ve tipped me in that direction. It’s tricky when there is no one clear all around winner.

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  30. Michele Zbudowski Says:

    Hi, excellent reviews, but has anyone tryed either the Sigma 120-400mm or 150-500mm with OS on a Pentax K20D. I’m wanting to take bird and wildlife photographs. With all these different reviews it’s getting harder for me to decide on which lens to purchase. I’m not worried about price or weight , more concerned with quality action images. I have a heavy duty Manfrotto tripod , but am willing to lug a big lens around and shoot handheld if I’m getting decent quality. Can anyone tell me if the extra 100mm is worth the investment. Cheers.

    • Peter Calamai Says:

      Michele
      I opted for the Sigma 150-500 because I wanted to shooot birds. I use it mostly on a Nikon D300 body, which has a 1.5 crop factor. It’s acceptable out to 400mm but not as sharp as I’d like beyond that. Of course whe shooting birds, the photographer can’t use mirror lock-up or a cable release in most circumstances. For major bird colonies, such as Cape St. Mary’s in Nova Scotia, Canada, you may not even be able to get a tripod into position. So my results are not in any way comparable to Darwin’s

    • Jens Rueckert Says:

      Don’t knowif you’ve already done the purchase. I had the opportunity to test the lens on wildlife, landscape and people on my pentax k10. Marvelous results. Since I want to change to fullformat, the lens will be part of my next canon equipment. Defentely worth the bucks. cheers

  31. Otto Dwiyanto Says:

    Excellent…..
    Darwin help me to point the right choice in the store without asking more.
    Thank you Darwin

  32. Vinod Kumar VK Says:

    A Superb review with all the info required to a buyer.. a great test in all the points..

  33. I really enjoyed reading this review. I am off to the photography show today and will certainly test the Sigma 120-400 and the Canon 70-200F4. I have a rebel XSI and am using a Quantaray 70-300 F4-5.6 as my zoom lens but want to upgrade to a better zoom. One concern is the reach between 200-300 that I would miss, so adding a 1.4x extender should take care of that. I love shooting landscapes, sunrise/sunsets and action shots like soccer, planes and auto racing events. So many lens’s so little time. :)
    Cheers
    Rick

  34. [...] APO OS HSM ik vond een heel goede revieuw over de nieuwe sigma 120-400 29 juni 2010 om 04:20 http://darwinwiggett.wordpress.com/2…elephoto-zoom/ http://darwinwiggett.wordpress.com/2…elephoto-zoom/ Very good and [...]

  35. I own a canon 400D, and with a sigma 18-250 mm lens and was looking for options on canon 100-400, and other in the range. Darwin really helped me to zero in on this. G8 review.

  36. [...] if the quality was what I needed for my work – my first reviews of Sigma lenses were of the 120-400mm lens and the 8-16mm lens (before I was sponsored) and I ended up buying each lens (obviously I was happy [...]

  37. Thanks for your excellent review

  38. paul spilsbury Says:

    When using my 120-400,I am concerned about a glitch that I have noticed,that being that when I use this lens on my D80 (shutter set manually to 4000 second), that there is a marked difference in the speed the shutter opens and closes when the lens OS is and is not switched on. Even though the camera is stating the shutter is opening and shutting at 4000th each time? The sound of the shutter opening and closing with the OS on is markedly slower than when The OS is switched off. So much so that i do not use the OS setting

  39. Hi Darwin,
    What a great review!!! Thank you for helping us all.
    I have a Nikon D700 and am going on a trip to photograph mainly wild life in Yellowstone Park. I have a 70-200 2.8 Nikon lens but realise I need something longer. Was just told to look into the Sigma 120-400. How does it work with my Nikon D700 and are all the functions of the Sigma as automatic/autofocus as it would be with the Nikon lenses?

  40. Great review…. do you have any experience with Sigma’s 150-500 OS HSM lens?

  41. Sorry, I have no experience with the 150-500.

    Darwin

  42. Darwin,

    Before I read this review I just got the Tamron 70 to 300. It had great reviews and I have not even had it a weeks so cannot give my own personal evaluation yet. But I got a good price so If I want to sell on ebay or somewhere elso I will not lose. A friend just got the Sigma so i will have to make comparisons with his. My camera is a Canon 5D Mark II. After some testing i will post again. If anyone has insight on either lens, please post.

  43. José Sánchez Says:

    Thank you very much for your time, experience and help. You have confirmed my own conclusions (asking at some photo shops and reading articles), but I´ve appreciated, as a Canon´s user from 30 years ago, your independent point of view that decided me to buy the Sigma 120-400.We use to say in Spanish that: “The best is the enemy of the very good”. It is true even if time and money were not a crucial factor for a photo amateur.On the other hand, many years ago, may be Sigma or Tamrom have tried to “copy” Canon or Nikon lenses, but now there are totally different lenses and technologies with their own advantages and disadvantages and price/quality rate.
    I have not experience with the Sigma 120-500 but it seems to be a very similar lens to the 120-400, but a bit more costly, heavy and larger and, in my case 120-150 for “human faces” were more important that 400-500 for “bird nests”.

  44. SUPRIYO MUKHERJEE Says:

    Hi, thanx for the gr8 review… I already own the same lense & its a good lense indeed…but unfortunately not givving me good results in low light or dark… specially in the case of moon….i tried with the best setting (f9, 1/250) & tried a lot but it’s no luck so far…

    Hope someone can help me out .

    • To keep the moon sharp you need to keep your exposures time higher than 1/15th of a second. darwin

      • SUPRIYO MUKHERJEE Says:

        yeah, sure….i m talking about texture on the moon surface…I did some nice job before with simple Nikor AF 70-300,, at f9-11 & 1/200 to 1/250 sec exposure time with ISO at 200 or below …with a tripod & remote offcourse,,….but having no clue with this sicma…

        & its not practically possible to increase the exposure above 1/200 sec as the moon seems to be moving very fast when u zoom at 400mm

        so far my all moon shots with Sicma 120-400,, are either poorly exposed or very blurred. can u plz put some more light in this matter..

  45. Darwin, Thats a great review. Though you had done it almost a year back it helped me a lot in deciding on the Sigma lens. Being an advanced Amateur, both cost and quality matters a lot. I’m going to get this lens for sure. Thanks for helping me make my decission!

  46. Thanks for this review. I’m from Canada too. But I’m in New York for a couple of days and made my usual stop at B&H to just “look” for a new Canon telephoto. Jessica convinced me to look at the Sigma which I normally wouldn’t have considered. To my cursory inspection it looked and felt really good so I took a chance and bought it. Still haven’t tried it yet but your review makes me feel a whole lot better about it.

    You provide a real life, pragmatic perspective that the rest of us can relate to. Well done and please keep it up.

    Cheers

  47. Darwin – Thanks for the excellent review on the lenses.

  48. I had done a lot of research and then came across your review Darwin. I sold my Tamron 300MM on eBay for about what I paid for it on eBay, and bought the Sigma 120mm to 400mm. Not regrets, it is a fantastic lens, hand held or on a tripod. I use it on a Canon 5D II. Results are great, right down to the fine detail.

  49. [...] to THIS TEST The sigma actually beats the Canon L in sharpness…. No experience with it myself though. [...]

  50. Thoroughly enjoyed and respect the review. Definately leaning toward the Sigma for my Alpha. However, my interest really is more toward the 400mm range and as such am also considering the Sony 500mm Reflex. They are both about the same price but obviosly the Sigma would be more versatile. Do you or your readers have any experience with the 500mm reflex lenses? Also, Henry’s camera has a the Sigma 120-400 for $899 this week ($200 discount). Cheers, Jerry

  51. Well written, a nice resource to those, like me, considering this lens for their versatile long lens.

  52. Don Siegrist Says:

    I am going to try out the 120-400 Sigma. I want it to photograph birds in flight. I currently have an AF Nikon f/4 lens that I use on my Nikon D200. It is very sharp but the focus is slow and spends too much searching. I am hoping that the Sigma will improve focus and give me more options for framing with the zoom. My concerns are:
    The nikon lenses are supposes to render a certain “color” because of their
    lens coating and the sigma images may look completely different.

    The Sigma will be a little heavier and I would like to be able to hand hold it.

    What has to be done to have it re-calibrated and how do you know if it
    needs to be re-calibrated?

    As far as sharpness goes, sometimes I think we split hairs and the differences really require the average viewer to look very hard to see the differences.
    So if this lens can be hand-held by me and works well I will post an update.

  53. Fudge Cake Says:

    I had purchased the Sigma 120-400mm for BIF and used it extensively for about one year. It had similar characteristics to what you describe in your review. Although in the review you suggest that it is user error to use it without a tripod, non mirror-lockup and needing a remote shutter, may I point out that it does come with OS and is intended for non-tripod use? Readers of your review should understand that it is written from the perspective of a landscape photographer and that the review does not thoroughly explore its’ use with wildlife, comparatively to the Canon 100-400 or Canon 300mm f/4. It does little good to know that it performs best at f/8 – f/11 when shutter speeds in excess of 1/1200, handheld are required.

    For the money, the Sigma 120-400 is an economical choice for birds in flight, but at the expense of sharp images at the 400mm end. The images at 400mm will be soft, unless you can shoot at 1/1600 with f/8. The Canon 100-400mm will easily produce better images at that end allowing wider apertures and therefor faster shutter speeds. Just as in landscape photography, the intent is to always attain the best possible detail.

    • Don Edwards Says:

      I agree 100%.. I use it for bird photography.. and am finding 400mm to be soft hand held and even with a tripod. I’ve been shooting it manually setting shutter and aperture and letting the ISO adjust

      I was considering returning it for the Canon 100-400mm but hard to justify the price. Will give this more time before getting rid of it!

  54. Not so long ago, I wasn’t sure whether to buy the Canon 100-400 or the Sigma 120-400. Thanks to this article, I made the right choice: I opted for the Sigma 120-400mm. It’s a great lens. I always shoot wildlife handheld and very rarely use OS; and I still get very sharp results @ 400mm with f/5.6. Weight was the only beef I had with this lens. That said, probably because it’s not been off my camera since buying it, I now don’t notice its weight.

    I’d recommend it to anyone who feels that Canon prices are a little extortionate.

    • Don Edwards Says:

      not sure if it’s my copy but while it is tac sharp at lesser distances.. at 400mm I get “soft” photos at best.

      I agree that as of late Canon prices are out of control and this is a good alternative. I’m also getting used to the weight but do love my 70-200 L with a 1.4 extender for tracking birds in flight!

      My recommendation.. rent it for a weekend and try it out first!

  55. The Rog Says:

    i must say that im impress we have the sigma lens & i must say it is a good lens but i think it aperture is slower when its cloudy. & can i use the sigma for all sports?

  56. [...] Lens Review: The Sigma 120-400 4.5-5.6 APO HSM Telephoto Zoom … Feb 23, 2010 … If you want to vacuum your carpet as well as take photos, then the Canon 100-400 might be a good … [...]

  57. Otto Dwiyanto Says:

  58. [...] 120-400mm lens f4.5-5.6 – see my review here (street price $1000 [...]

  59. Don Edwards Says:

    I just bought a Sigma 120- 400.. I also own a 70-200L F4.0 which i love.. I do quite a bit of bird photography. The Canon with a 1.4 extender performs very sharp and is very easy to follow birds in flight. I just started using the Sigma and seem to have focusing problems on the long end. It seems very sharp but at 400mm the photos were soft.. I was suspecting it was a focusing issue. I use a Canon 7D. I was just about to try to return it for a Canon 100-400 but after reading this review I’m gong to try live view focusing and mirror lock up. I royally messed up a great photo opportunity of Osprey’s.

    Thanks for a great review.

  60. I just bought a Sigma 120-400. i love it.

  61. Thank your for your excellent review which really made me decide to go for the Sigma 120-400 today. I have rented a Canon 100-400 just a week ago, so was already to compare some shots. Guess what? I am so happy, the 120-400 outperforms the 100-400 quite easily. It could be that the 100-400 was a rental (obviously well used) but even at 400mm the Sigma was (in my examples) the clear winner. Many thanks! Best regards from Holland.

  62. Ahmad M. Hailan Says:

    can any one tell me if i can attach sigma extender or not plz?

  63. Thanks so much for this photographer review. Exactly what photographers need to make a decision. Sure helps me making mine.
    And by the way, your photographs are nice too…

  64. Carol Brewerton Says:

    i have been agonizing over the two lenses, but can’t really afford the canon, i use canon 400D camera and am concerned about some comments about the 400mm end not being as sharp with the Sigma , but am feeling prone to that one. I do really want it mainly for wild life, every day sports, such as tri- athlons , football and air shows, etc. Does the quality of camera make any difference when using these lenses

    • The lens is one factor in good quality images (probably the main factor) but the camera used also effects quality, a great sensor with a great lens is the perfect combo. Pick both components carefully.

      d

      • Carol Brewerton Says:

        so would you consider the 400D suitable for this 400m lens. I am happy with my largest tamron 18-270 and my smaller lenses. they all produce sufficient quality for my usage, but i want that extra mileage, and can’t afford a canon. thanks for a very informative review

  65. Darwin-

    Thanks for this review. I have been up in the air between choosing this or the 150-500 with my Pentax K-5. Your review and my past (good) experience with the ‘lesser’ Sigma 135-400 put helped me with my decision…

    Cheers,
    Neil
    thewarmland.com

  66. Gary S Meredith Says:

    Dear Darwin .
    You did A great test here comparing all the different Lenses in your lens test , and thank you for all the info on these test you have done here .

    All I can say is the Canon 100 – 400 is the worst Canon lens I have
    ever owned and I have had it A very long time ( April 1998 ) and
    I have finally retired it to the closet and I am now using the Canon EF 400 F 5.6 lens in it’s place ( the Toy Lens ) and I couldn’t be happier , the sharpness between these 2 – lenses is truly amazing .

    Happy Photos
    Gary S Meredith

  67. [...] now I can take just one zoom lens and leave the two other lenses and the converter behind.” Darwin Wiggett Lens Review: The Sigma 120-400 4.5-5.6 APO HSM Telephoto Zoom / Canon EOS-1ds Mark II… var a2a_config=a2a_config||{};a2a_config.linkname="Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM Telephoto [...]

  68. Hello, Just ordered a sigma 120-400. Your review alone convinced me. Also the comments previous to this endorse the honesty of your comments. So many reviews have such manufacturing bias its hard to get a real opinion. Thanks for the review, I feel I will not be disappointed.

  69. You are aware that the amount of air pushed by each lens is dependent on the maximum movement of the lens body, right? I suspect that both ‘push air’ to the same amount, but due to the ease which you can ‘pump’ the canon, it feels like more airflow. Simple physics, unless the sigma is loosing air elsewhere and that would mean an even worse sealed lens over the long run.

    Am I correct? I don’t own either (yet), but have rented both.

  70. Hi Darwin
    I found your comparisons great, but would have liked to see the comparison include the 120-300 2.8 Sigma even with a 1.4x TC. What are your views on this lens. I would definitely see it as a good proposition for my Tele Lens. The sigma 50 – 500 4.5 is a bit heavier and has certain anomolies but is price competative?

  71. Pianist4Him Says:

    Great job with the review. Thank you. This is appreciated, honestly. God bless, m8.

  72. After reading this review I bought the lens about 6 months ago and have been really happy with it. I will really test it this month with a trip to the Southwest; Valley of Fire, Monument Valley, Capitol Reef, Bryce, etc.

  73. Thanks for your review. I was considering getting rid of my 120-400 Sigma which I use on Canon 5D MkII/40D setup in favour of the Canon 100-400. I thought, Canon, must be better. Your review has convinced me to stick with what I have and spend my money on other things I am sure I need.

  74. Dear Darwin- Great review. This has helped me in deciding the telephoto I shuld buy for my Canon EOS 600D which is having 18-135 lens. Thanks and regards, Mohan

  75. Great review mate, just one question. I like to take surfing photos do you think the Sigma 120-400 will get me some nice results? Am currently using 55-250 cheap Canon lens which came with my 600D.

    Cheers mate

  76. Dear Steve

    Gary S Meredith Here ( Canon CPS photographer )

    The Sigma 120 – 400 is A Very Good Lens BUT if you want to use the Canon Tele-converter with A Sigma Lens ( it will NOT Mount to the Sigma Lens ) the rear opening of the Sigma lens IS NOT as BIG as the Canon Lens .

    As for the Auto Focusing with Both the Canon or the Sigma lens
    what do these 2 – Lenses have in common ( they are BOTH f 5.6 Lenses ) , so this means it will be manual focus ONLY .

    My best guess for you would be to get the Canon Lens and if
    you want to use Any Tele – converter ( I would only go with A 1.4 Tele – converter ) and remember to ( SHUT OFF THE Image Stabilizer switch ) , and when you do plan to use ANY Tele – converter with the Canon 100 – 400 lens ALLWAYS put it on
    A tri – pod .
    Sincerly

    Gary S Meredith

  77. Norwood C. Hazard Says:

    I have had the same experience, Live View focusing is more on target than Optical Viewfinder, on my Rebel T3i. Even the focusing scale hits distant subjects better than Optical. This with Canon 24mm f2.8, Canon 50mm Macro, Tamron 11-18, Tamron 28-300, and very sadly with Tamron 70-300, a great lens for birds in flight. This focusing problem by Canon has been subject of those who promote cameras with live sensor focusing, such as NEX-7. But it means replacing a whole system…!

  78. Sigma 120-400 is also in my camera bag,I regularly use it with a Sigma 2x converter and on a sunny day,tripod mounted and with a remote release get very acceptable images. This is a very good lens.
    Thanks for a very professional review Darwin.

  79. Whats the Sigma like up to the sony 70-400g
    On the sony a 77

  80. Thanks so much for your review, I just bought the Sigma 120-400 and a Nikon D7000, mainly for shooting birds, wildlife, and horse shows. The combination scares me to death…although I’ve been doing photography for over thirty years, this is far and away the most sophistocated equipment I’ve ever owned. One question …shooting shutter priority on a cloudy day, no matter where I aimed the lens or where I set the ISO, I could not get the shutter speed above 125. It also jumped around oddly when I turned the dial to set the shutter speed…didn’t necessarily decrease as the f stop changed. Was there just too little light ? I’ll add my two cents when I get a chance to shoot on a nice day.

    • Your shutter speed should have changed when you changed your ISO. Wierd. Try aperture priority and set it at f5.6 and point around the camera to see if the shutter speed changes. Darwin

  81. Can’t thank you enough for your effort. I am a Nikon user and realized that Nikon does not have the equivalent of Canon 100-400..as the 80-400 by Nikon does not have its Silent-Wave-Motor. After reading your review I am almost decided on buying the Sigma lens even though your review does not compare it with Nikon/nikkor

  82. wow most impressed with this artical only today considered ordering a sigma 120-400 but after your artical wil purchase tomorow regards and thanks

  83. but is it as good as the sony 70 400 len i now it is a £ 1.400 one

  84. Kees groeneveld (the netherlands) Says:

    Impressive test. I am a Nikon user and I was very interested in the Sigma test. Thanks for the effort.

  85. Vigneswar Iyanperumal Says:

    Which one u guys would recommend? Canon 70-200mm f4l or sigma 120-400mm? Thanks in advance

  86. I must thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this website. I am hoping to check out the same high-grade blog posts by you later on as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my own blog now ;)

  87. I have recently purchased a new DSLR and I am searching for some quality lenses. Your review really helped. Thank you so much for sharing!

  88. Mary Ziglar Says:

    Thank you for your review, I have had my heart set on a canon 100-400 for well over a year now. But the chunk of change it cost to get it has been a huge deterrent. I will now be looking for this Sigma 120-400 to see if I can find it with in my price range! But I am curious if it will respond quickly enough for action shots that I am looking for?

  89. Ladislav Says:

    Hey Darwin,

    at first let me thank you for a great and practival review of this lens. I have 650D and after 3 months of chosing the lens I bought a Tamron 70-300 Di VC 2 days ago. On field and after very amateur test at home I was very shocked of image quality. It was very bad. When I made a photo of same object (stone) on balcony from same postition on tripod, cropped result of my 18-135 STM on 135 mm was better – sharper than Tamrons on 300! I was trying to go to shop ask them to gave me my money back, they said, that they can change it for another piece, or I can buy something else in this price. I am wondering (to dont loose money by selling it) to buy sigma instead of it in same shop. What do you thing, if you have to compare tamrons and sigmas image quality? I would like to do wildlife and bird photography, I am amateur, but I cant see that result of Tamron. May it is just piece variability, but I think I dont trust it anymore. I am not in a position to throw money in the air. I love that hobby, but result must be “watchable” and sharp. Please advise me.. Thanks.

    Ladislav

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