Earlier this year we received Sigma’s long zoom telephoto lens – 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM – one of the more accessible lenses in the category. We went to test if this inexpensive lens can provide a worthy option for those seeking cost effective quality solution.
The Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM
Some background – Back in 2008 Sigma announced a new low cost zoom-telephoto lens – 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, the lens was the “little sister” to the much more expensive APO 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM (a model that was a remake of a different lens from 2005 and was released in 2010).
Over the years the 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM became a very popular lens among nature photographers and more particularly – armature bird photographers. For us this lens was of a special interest after testing the new Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR (see our full review) which we find to be very sharp – but also pretty expensive, so looking for a cheaper alternative is a definitely on our list.
Build Quality – The build quality of the 150-500mm is great. We keep finding ourselves surprised again and again by the high build quality of Sigma’s lenses and its a ability to deliver inexpensive glass with such high standard of build quality (sometime higher than much more expensive lenses by other manufacturers). In our view this has a lot to do with the fact that all of Sigma’s lenses are manufactured in Japan itself – we can only hope that Sigma will be able to continue this tradition in the future and maintain profitability.
The Sigma 150-500mm closed
Getting back to the lens itself, the 150-500mm has a long body when closed (252 mm) and a very long when extended to its maximum telephoto range of 500mm (about 300 mm long). Despite this long extension, and unlike many cheap telephoto lenses from other manufacturers, the 150-500mm extended part doesn’t feel loose in any way.
The lens has two rings – a focus ring and a zoom ring – both pretty wide and very comfortable to hold. The zoom ring has a nice feel although its not super smooth (this didn’t bother us to be honest on this type of lens). The focus ring on the other hand is very smooth and its movement is continuous (complete opposite to the focus ring on the Nikon 70-300mm).
The Sigma 150-500mm open
The 150-500mm comes with a metal lens collar – we highly recommend using it and working with a tripod (or at least a stable monopod) for best results.
The 150-500mm collar
Switches – the 150-500 has 3 switches:
- Focus – Manual / AF.
- Image Stabilizer – 1/2/OFF.
- Lock – Locks the lens at 150mm (so it won’t open by accident).
The only thing which requires explanation is the image stabilizer (OS). State 1 is a general purpose stabilizer for regular hand held use while state 2 is for use on a tripod for panning (we used it most of the time when shooting from a tripod).
Sigma 150-500mm switches
While you certainly can shoot with the 150-500mm from the hand (we did that for a full day) it is heavy and long so as we mentioned a tripod is a very good idea and we got the best results when using a tripod with the lens.
Focus, stabilizer and macro capabilities
Focus – If we had to classify the focus on the 150-500mm we would say its fair – its definitely not the fastest we tested but its not extremely slow to the point that you can’t catch a bird in the air (although this can always be a complex task with some bird – no matter what lens & camera you are using). From our experience though we would say that the new Nikon 80-400mm is noticeably faster.
Stabilizer – Without a tripod we used the lens on OS mode 1, now you have to remember that with no OS at all and with a crop camera like our D7100 you need at least a 1/750 second shutter speed at 500mm – you can’t always get this of course and with our recommendation to shoot at f/11 (for maximum sharpness) – its even harder unless you are in broad daylight. With even 3 stops of stabilizing you can supposedly shoot at a minimum speed of 1/100 or even a bit less but from our experience you should definitely use a tripod even with this supposed OS advantage – the lens is so long and big that holding it without moving for long periods of time is simply hard (at least for us – and we did it for a full day). So simply put the lens on a tripod and move it to mode 2 or if you don’t plan on panning turn it off completely – this is the best way to get the highest results from the lens in our experience.
Magnification – On paper the macro capabilities of the 150-500mm are not amazing (1:5.2) and the minimum focus distance is 2.2 meters (7.2 feet). However despite that the lens can be used quite effectively for close ups (it is by no means a substitute for a proper long macro lens like the Sigma 180mm or other similar lenses from Canon/Nikon, but from the minimum shooting distance you can get some nice close ups with good amount of detail).
150-500mm – decent close up – see the details on the fabric
We tested the lens extensively to see how sharp it is in different focal lengths. As we mentioned from our tests we recommend using the lens at f/10-f/11 on a tripod (some other reviewers claim they see a significant improvement in IQ on 400mm compared to 500mm – to be honest we didn’t really see a huge difference although this can be due to difference in copies).
The Sigma 150-500mm @300mm, f/10, Nikon D7100, ISO 100
The Sigma 150-500mm – 100% crop
For comparison sake here is an image we took with the same Nikon 70-300mm @300mm with the exact same definitions – 100% crop
As you can clearly see the Sigma is clearly sharper than the Nikon (not a big surprise – the Nikon is at the end of its focal length and the Sigma is in the middle).
The Sigma 150-500mm @500mm, f/10, Nikon D7100, ISO 100
The Sigma 150-500mm – 100% crop
Keep in mind that this is an extreme test. Our target was far away and there was quite a bit of atmospheric disruption in the way – our best results with the lens were achieved when shooting targets under 10m (or 30 feet).
Vignetting – On our D7100 we didn’t see any vignetting at 500mm at f/6.3 – changing to f/11 didn’t do much (keep in mind this is a a crop camera – on a full frame your results might very well be different).
Flare – The 150-500mm has a pretty long plastic hood – we didn’t notice flare on any of our images.
The Sigma 150-500mm was until recently a pretty unique lens in the market. It offers an extreme long telephoto range, image stabilizer with AF with a very attractive price tag.
On the weaker side the aperture is only f/6.3 at 500mm (and we recommend stepping it down to f/11 for sharpness reasons which limits its use even more in non perfect lighting conditions). Another point is the focusing speed – the Sigma 150-500mm focusing speed isn’t slow but its not fast either (certainly not on the level of pro telephoto lenses).
Sigma – 150-500mm – long telephoto at a reasonable price
The final topic is of course image quality. Here things really depend on where you are coming from. If you are used to professional telephoto gear the IQ of the 150-500mm is going to disappoint you (there is no way around it – you can’t get something for nothing and good IQ cost money – especially when it comes to long focal length lenses). On the other hand, if you are coming with more modest expectations, you understand that you will need to shoot with a tripod, step down the aperture to around f/11 and shoot from a relatively close distance (say 10m / 30 feet or less), you can get pretty decent images – like we believe we did (see below).
So what do we think about the lens after about a month of use? well, if you need a long telephoto lens with and image stabilizer, AF and you can’t get a more expensive lens like the Nikon 80-400mm, the 150-500mm was maybe your only option until recently. Late last year Tamron announced its new 150-600mm and created a stir in the market. We are waiting to test one however in the meantime we would not disqualift the Sigma just become its focal length is shorter (at least not until we can test the IQ of the Tamron).
As for Sigma – we highly recommend that the company will consider a new telephoto lens for this market segment (bird shooters and nature photographers). The ideal lens in our view is not a zoom lens (we almost never used the zoom on the 150-500mm or the Nikon 80-400mm) but a 500mm f/5.6 (or if not possible f/6.3) prime lens with great IQ wide open (or at least one stop down), very good build quality with much faster AF and a price tag of under $1500 (another option is of course to make a APS-C only version which will be smaller, lighter and cheaper – after all most bird shooters use crop lenses).
What we liked
- Good build quality.
- Focal length (almost) without competition.
- Good metal collar which comes with the lens.
What we would change
- Bulky (although not necessarily more than other comparable lenses).
- Max sharpness achieved only on f/11-f/13 (ideal for optimal lighting conditions).
- Focusing speed only adequate.
- Despite the image stabilizer you will probably still need a tripod (or at least monopod).
The Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM is available on Aamzon for just under $900 (for both Canon/Nikon and Sigma cameras).
Here are some images we took with the lens using the Nikon D7100
We would like to thank SFO for loaning the lens for review.
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