[Editor’s Note: Today’s article comes from frequent contributor Ben Hendel – @wdw_ben about renting and using the Sigma 150-600 lens. Having shot the Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens before at a High School football game, I can only imagine what it must have been like to lug a lens that long into Animal Kingdom. But if I did have access to that lens, you bet your bottom dollar Animal Kingdom would be the place to shoot it at. I’ve seen people at my local zoo with monster lenses like this one and I’ve always wanted to try that out.]
A few weekends ago I went to an airshow in Fort Lauderdale featuring some of the best jet teams in the world. Because of this, and some travel I have planned in the future, I wanted to bring along a super-telephoto lens to test before spending thousands on one. I had done a fair amount of research, and I settled on renting the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport, shot on a full-frame Nikon D610. This lens does work on a crop sensor camera, however, your effective range is 225-900mm, with an effective aperture of roughly f/7.7-10. This does mean you can see into Wednesday two weeks from now, but you’ll need a lot of light to do so.
The Sigma is a beast! Weighing in at 6.5 pounds, it is a hefty lens for which you’ll want a tripod or monopod if you plan on using it for more than a few hours. But with that weight comes a lot of glass. The reach of this lens is incredible. Never having owned a lens with a focal range of over 120mm (my Nikon 80-200mm), having 450mm of range was useful. That being said, I mostly rented this lens for it’s ability to be pushed all the way out to 600mm and remain tack sharp. Fair warning, though, I did spend a night calibrating the lens to my camera using FoCal’s wonderful calibration software. [Editor’s note, I’ve talked Ben into contributing a future article about calibrating your lenses.]
On a practice day in Disney’s Animal Kingdom the day before the airshow, I had a ton of success getting pictures I could only dream of beforehand. I spent a ton of time on both walking trails and walked away with a ton of keepers, especially on the animals most people want to see especially: the tigers and gorillas. The sharpness of this lens was incredible after calibration. When I zoom in on the eye of the tiger (I will not sing, I will not sing, I will not sing…) [Editor’s Note – I am now singing this for you.] , I am able to see the blue sky and even some white clouds reflected back at me. The bird houses were incredibly interesting, especially because the weaver birds were busy building little houses. I was able to get clear shots of any bird I wished, when they stopped flying around, that is! Tracking a subject at 600mm is a chore, but that’s not a flaw in the lens, that’s just being really, really tight. I quickly developed a technique at the airshow of being pulled all the way out to 150mm to acquire and begin tracking a jet, then pushing in to 600mm (or as close as I wanted to zoom) to set up for the shot I was looking to take. I did not take this lens on Kilimanjaro Safaris as it would have lead to a fantastic black eye and terrible photos.
One thing to note, when it game to objects in motion, especially at the 600mm end of this lens, fast moving objects are incredibly tough to frame, even once you’ve acquired them. Flittering finches and fast moving (we are talking miles an hour measured in the multiple hundreds) jets don’t stay in your viewfinder long if you’re not panning. And panning this lens is a chore. I recommend, if you’re worried about framing, pull out 15 to 25 millimeters and firing in a “spray and pray” manner. A less tight shot will allow you more freedom after the fact to crop and adjust your framing. This was a tip passed along to me by Don Sullivan (@donsullivan, check out his incredible photography) and I am passing it along to you. For shots like the tiger and gorilla, I was able to work more slowly and properly frame before pulling the shutter.
In the category of “ooooh, that’s a nice feature” is the tripod collar. The downside is that this behemoth of a collar does not detach. It also has three different screw bosses in it, so you can balance it on basically any camera and tripod combination. That means the foot of the collar is huge. However, it does have a fantastic little “click” to it when you’ve hit 0, 90, 180, and 270 degrees rotation with the lens. It’s a nice surprise so you know you’re locking in your camera at one of those points, and if you’ve leveled the camera on your tripod properly with one of those markers, the others will also be level if you are spinning it from portrait to landscape, or back again.
This lens has a lot of upside. It’s incredibly sharp, it’s very accurate when focusing, and it’s reasonably priced for a super-telephoto lens. What does reasonably priced mean? The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport will lighten your wallet by 20 pictures of Benjamin Franklin – $2,000. This sum of money gets you a lens, a shoulder carrying case for it (no picture of that, I’m sorry), and a heck of a bayonet that screws on to the front of the lens. It also screws on backward for transportation. There is no lens cap to speak of, but it does come with a nylon-like cover that Velcros around when the bayonet is stored backwards, with a little cutout for the thumb screw. This lens also supports Sigma’s USB Dock for Lens Calibration and firmware updates, however, it is not included. That’ll set you back an extra $59.
My biggest issue with this lens is the weight. I understand that in order to get good, sharp, super-telephoto glass you’re looking at weight. But all in, with a 1.5 pound camera strapped to the back of it, I had a package weighing 8 pounds that I was swinging back and forth on a beach in Fort Lauderdale for four hours. Monday was rough, I’ll say that much. My other big issue is that at 600mm, you get some crazy vignetting in your corners. While not noticeable on the camera’s LCD, they are prominent once loaded into a program like Lightroom. Thankfully, Lightroom contains automatic lens profile corrections for this lens, and that takes care of the corners quickly. When editing, it is the first thing I do to any photo before diving into deeper corrections. Finally, this lens does not accept teleconverters. Why you would want one is up to you (maybe you really do need a 300-1200mm lens for photographic the Church on the Blood from Nome), but this is a point to a lens I’m renting later this month.
Overall, I really liked this lens. It’s reach is fantastic, it’s fast for the price, the price is very reasonable, and it doubles as good help for bicep curls. But that last part is the biggest downfall for me. It is an incredibly heavy lens, especially when you are pointing it at an upward angle all day, like at an airshow. I would say the vignetting was an issue, but that was quickly and easily corrected in Lightroom, so it’s more of an annoyance than anything else. I would rent it again, should I need the reach at an airshow and should my upcoming rental of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 not meet my needs for a super telephoto.
Author’s note: There is a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary also on the market for less money and weight. I have not shot it, so for a review, I’d recommend Tom Bricker’s excellent review here: http://www.disneytouristblog.com/
[Editor’s Note: Thanks for contributing the article again Ben! Always interesting stuff!]