A Year With Sigma Lenses (plus a review of the 70-200 f2.8 and the 150 f2.8 macro)

Posted in Lens Review, Photography Gear with tags , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2011 by Darwin

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

Sigma 50-500 f4.5-6.3 zoom

Sigma 17-50mm f2.8

Sigma 85mm f 1.4

Sigma 8-16mm lens

Sigma 120-400mm f4.5-5.6

Sigma 24-70mm f2.8

©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 24-70mm lens at 45mm

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):

  1. Sigma stuff could hit or miss; there is wide manufacturing tolerance and you’ll get either a dud or a winner
  2. Sigma is pretty good at telephoto and macro lenses but poor at making wide angle lenses
  3. 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:

Lens Variation

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:

Notes on Lens and Camera Variation

The Limits of Variation

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).

©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 17-50mm lens at 17, f14

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.

©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 8-16mm lens at 8mm

Build Quality

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!).

©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 120-400 at 400mm

Conclusion

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

  1. The Sigma lens is much less expensive than Canon’s version ($1480 vs $2580 at The Camera Store). That is a huge difference!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. This noticeably lens was better at f2.8 than the Sigma lens
  2. The Canon lens focuses a bit closer (which can be useful).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 70-200mm at 147mm, 1/40s at f2.8, hand-held

Sigma 150mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO Macro

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.

Photozone Review

Pop Photo Review

©Darwin Wiggett - Sigma 150mm macro at f9.0

The Weekly Photo – December 5, 2011

Posted in Art of Photography, TCBlog, Techniques, Workshops and Seminars on December 5, 2011 by Darwin

When I am out doing ‘serious’ photography, I have my ‘serious’ camera gear. Usually for landscape photography that is my Canon 1ds Mark III with my four Tilt-Shift lenses and a telephoto zoom (Sigma 120-400mm). But even with my landscape photography pack, I still always have my point-n-shoot camera in a pocket just to get fast grab shots in changing light. For the November Fire and Ice Tour we stopped at the Bighorn Dam west of Nordegg to find fast moving fog rolling through the spruce trees. I made these two quick snaps with the Canon G11 because the light was changing super fast. By the time I could dig out the ‘big guns’ the moment was gone. If I didn’t have the point-n-shoot I probably would have missed the moment! Mostly this is a reminder to myself to always have the point-n-shoot with me.

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

Inspirations – The Pinnacles by Beau Mitchell

Posted in Inspirations with tags , , on December 4, 2011 by sabrina

© Beau Mitchell

7 images panoramic stitch
Canon 450D 17-40mm F4 L lens @ 32mm

 1 second at f/16 with ISO 100

I wanted to shoot “The Pinnacles” on a cloudless evening to capture a soft gradient in the sky. I knew a cloud filled sky would clutter the composition. Fortunately, the weather on this night was perfect! As the sun disappeared into the horizon the limestone pillars lit up and the sky turned a nice purplish colour. A little bit of planning, and a little bit of luck, goes a long way when photographing a location such as this. ~ Beau Mitchell

A Few Lenses for Sale

Posted in For Sale with tags , , , , on December 3, 2011 by Darwin

My friend and photo assistant, Catherine, is selling a few of her entry level Canon lenses. These are good lenses for the hobbyist or for those looking for inexpensive alternatives to higher end Canon glass. Below are the lenses that Catherine has for sale along with the price and a link to reviews:

Please contact Catherine at cmbyram@gmail.com if you are interested (Calgary, Alberta area).

Canon EF-S 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 IS lens – $75 – review here

Canon EF-S 28-80mm F3.5-f5.6 lens (discontinued) – $100 – review here

Canon EF 75-300 f4-5.6 III – $100 – review here

Canon 18-55mm lens

Fire and Ice Photo Tour Results – Roger Raepple

Posted in Workshops and Seminars with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2011 by Darwin

Below are Roger Raepple’s favorites form the Fire and Ice Tour:

©Roger Raepple

©Roger Raepple

©Roger Raepple

©Roger Raepple

©Roger Raepple

©Roger Raepple

 

Inspirations – Ed Brydon

Posted in Inspirations with tags , , on November 30, 2011 by sabrina

© Ed Brydon

iPhone 4S using Instagram with “Lomo-fi” processing selection

I had never had a smartphone and finally upgraded to an iPhone 4S when it came out, principally because the plan I could get was a global one. However, one of the first things I like to do when they have something new is to play with it. I tend not to open the manual unless I cannot work out how to do something as I find that trial and error, while maybe slower, sticks with me better. At any rate, I had popped out to get my lunch during work and was walking around Columbus Circle when I saw this great little stage-like scene. The hard, low sun was pouring through into this little area. I backed up against the wall, framed roughly where my I wanted the image to play out, watched and waited. Any time I thought I saw something developing I would press the shutter. I experimented with compositions as people passed through the scene and was having a lot of fun. One of the things I keep my eye out is for alignments of nature and man or the man-made within the city; that juxtaposition appeals to me. For this particular image I caught the flutter and flight of a few pigeons out of the corner of my eye and pressed the shutter button when I thought the timing was right, trying to allow for the slight lag. I had only once chance to make this and it turned out exactly how I wanted it, with the pigeon seemingly flying directly above the woman’s head.

To me it doesn’t matter what I made this image with, it was more important that I had something on me I could photograph with. The fact it was new, and unobtrusive, allowed for a little playtime, which is often when we become inspired. ~ Ed Brydon

Fire and Ice Photo Tour Results – Royce Howland

Posted in Workshops and Seminars with tags , , , , , , , on November 29, 2011 by Darwin

Below are Royce Howland’s six favorite photos from the Fire and Ice Photo Tour.

All photographs were taken with a Panasonic LX-5 point & shoot camera at a wide aperture, usually f/2.8. I pressed the camera lens right to the surface of the ice, as close as I could get to the features buried within, and used a small pocket LED flashlight for selective lighting. Each final image was developed with HDR processing (using Oloneo PhotoEngine) from 2 – 3 bracketed exposures, followed by finishing work in Photoshop for additional contrast & color.

©Royce Howland

©Royce Howland

©Royce Howland

©Royce Howland

©Royce Howland

©Royce Howland

The Weekly Photo – November 28, 2011

Posted in Weekly Photo, Workshops and Seminars with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2011 by Darwin

©Darwin Wiggett

This one is from the November Fire and Ice Tour. I used my trusty 17mm TSE lens to give me a wide-angle view with a leaf in the foreground. I used tilt to give me incredible DOF. This one is from Preacher’s Point on Abraham Lake. I used Photo Engine  (HDR) and Nik Color Efex Pro 4.0 (for contrast control) to process this one.

© The 17mm TSE tilted and in action to capture the photo

©Darwin Wiggett

Detail shot done with the Canon G11 and processed in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 and Nik Colour Efex Pro 4. Save 15% on all Nik products – use the code darwin on checkout (this code will expire Dec 1, 2011).

Inspirations – Olga and Boris

Posted in Inspirations with tags , , , on November 27, 2011 by sabrina

© Olga and Boris

Everything that is created on the Earth–fine, unique and surprising–is created by nature. Or God. It seems to us that when the potter molds an amphora from clay, he sees before himself such image. We have tried to “mold” an amphora by means of a photo. And it seems to us that it has turned out. ~ Olga and Boris

Fire and Ice Photo Tour Results – Fikret Onal

Posted in Workshops and Seminars with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2011 by Darwin

Below are Fikret Onal’s six favorite images from the Fire and Ice Photo Tour.

©Fikret Onal

©Fikret Onal

©Fikret Onal

©Fikret Onal

©Fikret Onal

©Fikret Onal