A Year With Sigma Lenses (plus a review of the 70-200 f2.8 and the 150 f2.8 macro)
Just over a year ago I was approached by Sigma Canada to see if I was interested in being a Sigma Professional. What that meant was that I would get some free lenses and all I needed to do was make images using Sigma lenses that Sigma Canada could use on their website to promote the brand. What photographer (especially a guy) does not want free lenses? So I agreed but on the condition that I could review their lenses and tell my honest impressions of each. If I could not say what I really thought, then I was not interested in the sponsorship. They agreed and so I used the lenses (a lot) and formed some opinions and did some reviews (see the list below). To see all upcoming reviews please visit me over at oopoomoo.com
Going into the deal I had some biased opinions about Sigma lenses (mostly based on what I heard form other photographers but not from any personal experience):
- Sigma stuff could hit or miss; there is wide manufacturing tolerance and you’ll get either a dud or a winner
- Sigma is pretty good at telephoto and macro lenses but poor at making wide angle lenses
- Sigma lenses are lower in contrast and build quality is lower than Canon or Nikon lenses
After using Sigma lenses for a year my impressions changed:
There is a load of stuff on the web about people trying out numerous lenses of the same model and same brand in search of a winning copy (e.g. Canon’s 17-40L lens is a classic one where photographers try out many before finding a ‘good’ copy). This copy variation theory was suggested as applicable for all almost all brands, but the third party manufacturers (Sigma, Tokina, Tamron) were blamed for having the most variation.
I have no data to refute or confirm if variation is higher in the third party brands or not, but I do know that there are numerous variables that contribute to what photographers ‘perceive’ as lens variation (e.g. the same lens will test differently on different cameras of the same model and auto-focus gives different – usually softer – results than manual focus in Live View for instance). For an excellent series of articles on this topic every photographer should visit these links:
In the end, I do note that if a lens (Sigma or otherwise) is optimized for a particular camera body that optical performance is greatly increased. The nice thing about Sigma Canada is that if you think your lens is ‘softer’ than it should be, you just send it back to Sigma and they will calibrate it to your camera body and you’ll get back a lens that is performing to its best specs. I have talked to numerous photographers who have done this and they have all been amazed by the results! All of a sudden their so-so lenses became great. I have heard the same thing from Canon shooters who have had Canon recalibrate their lenses to much better results. So mileage my vary depending on how you drive….
All the lenses Sigma sent to me were ‘pimped’ out for optimal auto-focus for my camera bodies so they performed really well using auto-focus. But for my sharpness tests I only used manual focus and live view so the auto-focus variable was not a factor in my overall judgement of sharpness. In the end none of the lenses I tested from Sigma was lacking in the sharpness department. Indeed many were as good or slightly better than the Canon equivalents (see my previous review articles).
Telephoto versus Wide Angle Lenses
Some photographers insist that Sigma knows how to make telephoto lenses but that their wide angle lenses are not great. In my tests of the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 lens I was impressed and for me I liked the lens better than Canon’s 24-70mm lens in terms of performance and sharpness. On my Rebel I use the 17-50 f2.8 lens as my default lens and find is just as sharp as the Tamron or Canon equivalent. And one of my favorite Sigma lenses is the 8-16mm lens for APS-C sensors. That lens is wicked fun and seems really nice and sharp to me. So… I dunno, I am not a lens tester, just a photographer and the results I got from all the Sigma lenses were perfectly fine to my eye.
Build quality within a product line varies greatly. For example Canon’s consumer kit lens, the 18-50mm is a piece of crap but its pro lenses like the 70-200 f2.8L Mark II is super robust. You get what you pay for. Sigma has consumer lenses which are cheaply built (but not as bad as Canon’s 18-55mm!). And they have pro lenses which to me seem pretty robust but not as fully gasketed and weather-proof as Canon or Nikon’s top line lenses. Nevertheless the Sigma stuff lives up to my abuse (-40 Celsius, wind, dust, rain and snow). I have not had a failure yet but if push came to shove I think the Canon top end lenses might be just a bit better sealed (except for Canon’s 100-400mm dust-sucking monster!).
Here is the bottom line: All the lenses I got from Sigma, I am going to keep and use. In fact, I sold a number of my Canon lenses. For me the Sigma lenses are as good as the Canon lenses (in some cases I liked them better) and they are usually 30-40% cheaper. If I had to buy these lenses this would be a huge factor. Look, I could sell all my Sigma glass (which I got for free) and buy Canon replacements. But why would I? The Sigma stuff is great and works for me and I see no real advantage to getting the Canon glass (except for Canon’s Tilt-shift lenses which is a whole other story!).
You may be skeptical and thinking, he is just saying this shit because he is sponsored and he wants more freebies. Well, the truth is I have recently rejected renewing any sponsorship or affiliations (more on that later). I am no longer sponsored or affiliated with anyone. I won’t get any more free stuff from anyone (including Sigma). I will be buying whatever I need with hard-earned cash just like the rest of you (so value for my dollar will be important going forward). For me I learned that Sigma gives good value and performance for the money spent. I don’t hesitate to recommend their products to any photographer.
Quick Review: Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM
This is Sigma’s pro 70-200mm lens that features optical stabilization, silent auto-focus (HSM), flourite low dispersion glass and full frame coverage. It is meant to compete with Canon’s 70-200 f2.8L IS II lens or Nikon’s 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. I have had the luxury of shooting with Sigma’s 70-200mm lens for about a year and I am happy with its sharpness and performance but can it compete with the Canon and Nikon 70-200’s? I can’t speak about the Nikon lens but I compared the Sigma and Canon lenses and found the following benefits for each lens:
Sigma 70-200mm f2.8
- The Sigma lens is much less expensive than Canon’s version ($1480 vs $2580 at The Camera Store). That is a huge difference!
- I found the Sigma lens to be just as sharp as the Canon lens across all apertures from f5.6 to f22 at all focal lengths The Canon was noticeably better at f2.8 both on edge and center sharpness and better at f4 along the edges.
- The autofocus on the Sigma was zippy and quiet and just as fast as the Canon lens except in low light where the Canon ‘hunted’ less for focus.
- I was super impressed by the lack of fringing and chromatic aberrations with the Sigma lens (IMO better then the Canon)
Canon 70-200 f2.8:
- This noticeably lens was better at f2.8 than the Sigma lens
- The Canon lens focuses a bit closer (which can be useful).
- Where the Canon lens really shines is with its Image Stabilization which easily lets your get sharp shots hand-held down to 1/15th of a second. Amazing! The Optical Stabilization on the Sigma worked well down to 1/60th of a second and sometimes gave sharp shots to 1/30th.
- The build quailty of the Sigma is really good, but the Canon is better with gaskets for waterproofing.
Overall, I would rate the Sigma easily as good or slightly better than Canon’s previous version of its 70-200mm f2.8L lens. The Sigma is a very good lens especially for its price point. But the improvements to Canon’s latest 70-200mm lens (Mark II) are significant and for people who might shoot hand-held especially in dimmer light (e.g. wedding photographers or journalists) the better wide aperture performance and image stabilization on the Canon might justify the extra $1100 in costs for the Canon. Or if you shoot in rough conditions (sand storms, ocean spray etc), then the Canon might make more sense as well with its gasketing. But for photographers like me, who mostly use a tripod and only occasionally use f2.8 (which really ain’t bad on the Sigma), and who shoots outdoors but not in crazy extremes, then the Sigma 70-200mm lens makes more economic sense.
This one is easy; for me the longer the macro lens the better because the camera and lens will be further from the subject (working distance) and so I will be less likely to bump, shade, or disturb the subject. As well, a longer telephoto macro lens takes in a narrower background making it easier to make clean compositions. But everytime you double the focal length of a macro lens, the price doubles. A 100mm macro is twice the price of a 50mm macro for example so long lenses like a 150mm will cost you dearly (the Sigma costs about $1240 in Canada). But if you can afford it, I think a longer macro lens is better (especailly for nature subjects).
I have owned many macro lenses mostly in the 100mm to 180mm focal length and found all macro lenses to be among the sharpest optics made by lens manufacturers. Sigma is no exception, many of their macro lenses are highly rated. The previous 150mm macro without optical stabilization is well known among photographers to be a winner of a lens. So how does the newest version stack up?
I did not do a direct comparison with other macro lenses nor did I have an older 150mm for comparison but I can honestly tell you I was impressed by the sharp images I got with this lens. So far this is the sharpest macro lens I have owned. Possibly the Canon 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM is sharper but I have not done a comparison between the two lenses. The Canon has gotten some rave reviews to suggest it is a stellar performer.
Here are a couple of reviews that of the Sigma 150mm lens. For me this lens does all I need it to and at an attractive focal length for nature photography. Consider it when shopping for a macro lens.