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Recently Sigma Canada lent me a copy of their new 50-500mm f4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens to try out on my Spring Photo Tour in the Canadian Rockies. I used the lens for six days in a variety of conditions and took hundreds of photos. Here is what I thought of the big lens with the 10x zoom! Note: all sample images were made with a Canon EOS-1ds Mark III full frame camera.
Listed below are the ‘features’ of the lens that might entice someone to consider this piece of glass:
- crazy all-in-one 10x zoom range; 50-500mm on a full frame camera or 75-750mm lens on an APS-sized camera!
- optical stabilization feature for a 2-4 stop shutter speed advantage for hand-held photography.
- HSM (hyper-sonic motor) for silent auto-focus.
- low dispersion glass elements for best lens performance.
- ‘reasonable’ price for a lens with these capabilities (approx. $1800 CAN, street price).
OK, so what’s not to like about a lens that goes from the normal point-of-view of the human eye to pinpoint telephoto images? How much zoom is 10x in the real world? The two images of the below highlight the incredible zoom range in action and show the same subject photographed from the same position (in my car) only seconds apart.
©Darwin Wiggett - Bear at 50mm with the Sigma 50-500mm lens
©Darwin Wiggett - Bear at 500mm with Sigma 50-500mm lens
During my spring photo tour I mostly used two lens; my trusty Canon 24mm TS-E (tilt-shift lens) for big wide-angle scenes and the Sigma 50-500mm lens for everything else. I loved the flexibility of the zoom range of the big Sigma lens from normal for generic landscape photography to telephoto for skittish wildlife and distant scenes. The more I used the lens, the more I liked rarely having to change lenses and the better prepared I felt for any photo opportunity! I could frame and zoom on the fly and get things I would have missed if I had to change lenses.
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm at 500mm, 1/40s at f6.3
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm lens at 58mm, 1/4s at f14
Besides loving the zoom range and the flexibility of the lens I also really liked the build quality and the operation of the zoom and focus rings. Best of all the lens was snappy and fast to focus and auto-focus was accurate on my 1ds Mark III. The OS (optical stabilization) worked well down for me down to about 1/60th of a second hand-held even at 500mm. I was able to walk around and photograph wildlife without a tripod and the lens seemed to grab focus the majority of the times (except in very low contrast light).
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500 at 500mm, 1/250s at f6.3
500mm at f6.3 - detail at 100%, no post production sharpening
I also liked the ability of the lens to focus close at all focal lengths. I could make images of flowers and hummingbirds and other small subjects from a distance and nearly fill the frame. I cropped the image slightly to make a more squarish presentation but even at this distance I was not a minimum focus.
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm lens at 500mm, 1/250s at f6.3
All in all the lens was a joy to use because of its crazy zoom capabilities and responsive auto-focus. I felt like I could photograph anything I could see and I certianly got images that I would not get with a kit full of prime lenses or regular zooms because the opportunity would be lost when changing lenses.
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm at 413mm, 1/15s at f10
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm at 167mm, 1/400s at f5.6
Ok, so the zoom range is fantastic… but what about sharpness?
Sharpness is subjective. In the end, is the sharpness of the lens going to suit your purposes? Are you selling professionally, do you make mega-big prints or will you never make anything over 12×18 inch prints? What is sharp for one person is crap for another….
When I test lenses for myself, I have a simple subjective scale for lens sharpness:
- Excellent (the rating for sharpest lenses I have tried e.g. macro lenses or prime short telephoto lenses like an 85mm or 135mm lens). Does the tested lens match up to these levels of sharpness?
- Very Good (good zoom lenses like a 70-200mm lens, or a prime 50mm lens would fall into this category).
- Good (decent zooms producing professional or nearly professional quality).
- Acceptable (good enough to make a nice 12×18 prints with a post-production sharpening)
- Crap (Coke bottles are better than this)
Most lenses I have ever tried are normally in the good (consumer lenses like a 70-300mm f5.6) to Very Good range (pro level lenses like a 24-70mm f2.8 lens). Some lenses have sweet spots. Some lens are sharp in the center but crappy on the edges. Some zooms are better at some focal lengths than others. Some lenses are optimized for sharpness wide open while others need to be stopped down a bit for good performance. You can spend a lot of time testing every possible permutation and other sites offer this information on the web by running the lens through bench tests in the lab. But for me, I just want to know what I can get in the field with a lens and if the results give me what I need (publishable sharpness). I am lens interested in optical bench tests.
Based on my field tests making actual images in the field I would rate the sharpness of the Sigma 50-500mm lens as follows:
- 50mm – Acceptable
- 100mm – Good-
- 135mm – Good
- 200mm – Very Good
- 300mm – Very Good
- 400mm – Good +
- 500mm – Good –
The lens seems to have a sweet spot for sharpness in the 200-300mm range. I found the 400mm images from the Sigma 50-500mm lens to be sharper than the 40omm images taken with a Sigma 120-400mm lens or the Canon 100-400mm lens so I would say this is a great lens to use in the 200-400mm range. I think 50-150mm is the weakest performing range of this lens.
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm lens at 332mm, 1/25s at f10
At 500mm the Sigma is decent but of course it’s nothing like a 500mm prime (I have tried the Canon 500mm f4L and would rate it as Very Good). I got publication quality photos with the Sigma 50-500mm lens at 500mm and even though it does not perform to the levels of a 500mm prime, it still gives decent results. Everything is a compromise, even if you could afford a 500mm prime ($6000-$9000 CAN) would you constantly carry the giant beast in your camera bag (over 8lbs)? With the 50-500mm it was small and light enough that I actually had the lens with me all the time and got shots at 500mm that I would have missed if I owned a 500mm prime (because I would have left the lens in the car). Sharpness is the be-all for some photographers, but having a great shot that is a little softer but useable is better than having no shot at all!
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm at 500mm, 1/25s at f10
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500 at 450mm, 1/640s at f7.1
No lens is perfect and the 50-500mm lens has some flaws that may make or break it for you:
- 95mm front lens element means the lens is hard to filter. I managed to use a polarizer and ND filters by using a Cokin Z-Pro Holder and a Cokin Z-Pro 95mm adapter ring but using filters on this lens will cost you big bucks to buy Z-Pro or Lee sized filters. This is not an easy lens to filter.
- if you use 1.4, 1.7 or 2x extenders you will not be able to auto-focus your lens (manual focus only). I would not recommend extenders for this lens as sharpness suffers to non-acceptable levels. Plus who needs an extender when you got this much zoom range?
- the lens is less contrasty than Canon or Nikon lenses and sometimes the colours seem a bit flat (but for me that was an easy fix in JPEG camera settings or in RAW conversions).
- when I use live view and manual focus I love it when the lens stays sharply focused no matter what focal length I zoom to (like my Sigma 120-400mm lens does) – the 50-500mm lens needs to be refocused every time you change the zoom setting (frustrating for the way I shoot). But when auto-focus is used, the lens is zippy and so refocusing is less of a chore.
- the weight and bulk turns some people off but it is only a tad bigger than the Canon 100-400mm lens and for what you get I think the lens is actually surprisingly small.
- like all big lenses, to get optical sharpness requires precision in technique – this lens requires a super robust and sturdy tripod for any shots less than 1/60th or 1/125th of a second. People might complain that this lens is not sharp but chances are good it’s an inadequate tripod problem and not a problem with the lens! For longer shutter speeds, 1/30th of a second or longer, mirror lock-up and a remote release are a must! It is difficult to get a sharp shot with this lens at slow shutter speeds unless you are using proper technique and have a super solid tripod and tripod head.
- this lens (and many super long lenses) doesn’t do great with distant subjects; atmospheric haze, heat shimmers and other atmospheric effects can reduce apparent sharpness in long lenses and long zoom settings; realize this is not a issue with this lens but is a a long telephoto issue in general.
- the lens vignettes (slight darkening of corners) at all focal lengths in apertures from f4.5 to about f9.0. I don’t mind this because I often purposefully add vignetting to my photos in post because I like the effect (the vignetting can easily be fixed in Camera RAW). But some people demand and need even exposures across the frame.
- the lens does suffer from fringing at the edges of the frame with full-frame cameras when the lens is in the 50-150mm range and shot in contrasty light (this can easily be corrected in Camera RAW in Photoshop or Lightroom). If you plan to shoot JPEGS and do not want to spend time correcting fringing, then this lens might be problematic for you.
- edge sharpness on full frame cameras is about one quality factor from center sharpness (but this is common with most lenses). On APS-sized sensors both edge vignetting and edge sharpness concerns disappear because of the crop factor of the camera.
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm at 450mm with a Cokin P173 Blue-Yellow polarizer, 1/4s at f16
Below is an image shot at 50mm with the Sigma 50-500mm lens and the image that follows shows the fringing at the edge of the frame in contrasty light.
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm lens at 50mm, 1/1600s at f10
Colour fringing at the edges of the frame at 50mm with the Sigma 50-500mm lens
I was super skeptical about this lens. Any lens with a 10X zoom range I am ready to write off as crappy in terms of image quality. I told Sigma I would test it but that they should be prepared for a completely honest review. I was prepared to pan this lens. But I was wrong.
Sure the lens is not as sharp as a 300 or 500mm prime lens, but who would expect it to be? I was surprised by how good this lens actually was especially in the 200-400mm range. It was decent at 500mm and yields publication quality images (with a little help from post-production sharpening). The weak spot in the lens is the 50-150mm range where sharpness and fringing are problems that need to be fixed in post-processing. Also this lens needs to be used with proper techniques to yield optimal results.
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500 at 244mm, 1/30s at f13
The one thing that caught me off guard is how much I loved the zoom range and how I felt I was ready to capture any subject from intimate details, to landscapes both grand and extractive, to wildlife all with one lens. I got addicted to having one do it all (and more) lens on my camera. How liberating! And surprisingly I found that long lens settings in the 400-500mm range made up the vast majority of my landscape work with this lens.
If I was going on a trip that was a combination of generic nature photography where I might expect grand landscapes, wildlife and intimate details, then I would be tempted to take just two lenses; a 24-70mm f2.8 and the 50-500mm lens. Two lens and I am covered for every possibility! In fact next year I am going to Iceland and these two lenses might be my perfect travel companions.
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm lens at 167mm, 1/60s at f5.6
Sigma lenses are made to fit Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, and Sigma cameras so if you have one of these camera systems, then you might consider the Sigma 50-500mm lens. The problem is Sigma makes a few long range telephotos to choose from and so your choices become a bit difficult:
Sigma 50-500 f4.5-6.3 – reviewed above ($1800 CAN)
Sigma 150-500mm lens f5-6.3 – (street price $1200 CAN)
Sigma 120-400mm lens f4.5-5.6 – see my review here (street price $1000 CAN)
Which one to buy?? It all depends on what you own already, your needs, your photographic subjects etc. I bought the 120-400mm lens after I reviewed it because I liked it better than Canon’s 100-400mm lens and I liked that I could filter the lens easily (77mm filters which I already own). Plus I already have a 70-200mm lens. That choice made sense for me. Look at the specs of each of these lenses and check out several reviews to decide if any of these lenses shoot your shooting style and budget.
For an all round nature shooting I would be happy with either the 50-500 or the 120-400mm lenses. I have not used the 150-500mm lens. If I planned to be a wildlife specialist, I would save up my coin for a fast prime lens (300mm f2.8, 500mm f4 or a 200-400mm f4 or Sigma’s new 120-300 f2.8) but all of these these lenses are very expensive and very heavy. There is no perfect lens but with a little research you can find one that is a good match for you. Good luck!
Full disclosure: I am sponsored by Sigma Canada. I give fully honest reviews of what I think but for some people the issue of ‘sponsorship’ might colour their view of this review. I only accept sponsorship from companies where I am allowed to say whatever I think, Sigma Canada allows this. If you buy from B+H Photo I will get a small percent of the sale that helps support this website.
If you want to buy the 50-500mm lens in the USA I recommend B+H Photo (good service and prices and they support this website) and for Canadian customers please support The Camera Store – the best place to buy any camera stuff in Canada (a biased but honest opinion!).
I hope this field review has been useful. Feel free to comment but keep things polite and reasoned and offer useful input that will help others make informed decisions. Name-calling, thoughtless comments or personal attacks on anyone will not be tolerated and those comments will be removed. Play nice!
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500 at 167mm, 1/4s at f13
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500 at 167mm, 1/10s at f10
©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 50-500mm lens at 500mm, 1/250s at f6.3