A real life, in the field, non-scientific review by a working photographer
Back in 2010 Sigma kindly loaned me the original, unstabilised version of this lens to take on our Nikongear.com Ultimate Big 5 Safari. I never got to grips with the lens on that trip and found it pretty difficult to get sharp shots, especially when using the 2x Sigma teleconverter.
I do believe that the problem had more to do with my poor long lens technique than it was the lens being rubbish. This in itself is an indication that casual users of long telephoto lenses, like me, are more prone to experience sharpness failure than those who practice better technique, ergo they are also more likely to rubbish the lens than they are to rubbish themselves. On that first Big 5 trip I ended up using the Sigma 70-200/2.8 OS HSM with 2x converter for just about everything, mainly because I couldn’t get what I wanted from the big pro lens.
I guess I’m one of those photographers who leans more towards reliance on the OS than on his own technique, which is why for this most recent trip Sigma kindly loaned me the newer version of the 120-300/2.8 that has the Optical Stabiliser built into the lens. Image stabilisers, whilst no replacement for good technique, do give us less discerning photographers the edge against camera shake, especially when your best techniques for stability are largely compromised. Like in an open Land Rover on a game drive, for instance.
What follows is my personal opinion of the new 120-300mm 2.8 OS by Sigma and how I ended up using it on our recent Big 5 Safari to Sabi Sabi.
Aesthetics & Ergonomics
Adding the stabiliser to the 120-300/2.8 has come at the expense of an additional 350 grams over the older version, pushing the lens to just shy of 3 kilos. Not light by any stretch, but what Sigma have done to minimize the weight gain is provide you with a plastic, bayonet style lens hood, instead of the older carbon-fibre type one that got held in place with a metal screw. Also new is the regular pinch-style front lens cap, which is a massive 105mm diameter! I don’t like this cap at all and I think they should have stuck with the soft cover “sock” we’re used to seeing come with large pro grade lenses.
On the whole though the lens remains very well made and pretty handsome looking too. It definitely passes the test for looking like a pro lens. The tripod foot has the grooved handle on it to make carrying it more comfortable, plus the body finish is the new black Sigma polycarbonate material found on their recent line of top end lenses. I have read elsewhere that the lens is supposedly made of a metal body. If it is then it must be coated in something that looks and feels like polycarbonate.
The zoom and manual focus rings are very smooth and easy to turn, which is a blessing considering the girth of this lens. When you are hand holding it and resting the tripod mount in the palm of your left hand, you can easily reach both these rings to make zooming and focus adjustments when you need to.
On top there is the usual windowed distance scale and to the left side there are switches for AF/MF and the Optical Stabiliser’s various modes (Off/1/2).
The tripod mount comes off in a bayonet-like manner, not hinged like on the 70-200/2.8 and Sigma will supply you with a nylon material strap that you can loop onto the foot for easier carrying across your shoulder. Now, a word of warning on using this strap: while we were on safari it somehow worked itself loose and there was a near calamity when I got out of the Land Rover one evening. As I shouldered the lens together with the D700 I felt it slipping and fortunately I managed to catch the pair before they hit the dirt at my feet. How I did that I still don’t know and it’s a good thing I wasn’t carrying any other gear at the time otherwise I would definitely have had a big problem on my hands. So, if you’re going to use this strap make damn sure that you loop it around the supplied buckle twice so that it has less chance of working itself loose.
Things I like about the aesthetics of the lens:
- it has a nice finish
- excellent zoom and focus ring damping (feels like the old MF Nikon lenses which is a strong indicator of excellent build quality)
- tripod foot is easy to use
- strap adds carrying ease, but make sure you fasten it properly to the lens
Things I don’t like about the aesthetics:
- lens hood feels cheap for a lens of this caliber
- lens cap is too big and awkward – easy to scratch the front element if you are not careful and don’t even think about trying to find 105mm Ø UV protection filters for it at a reasonable price – probably cheaper to replace the front element if you damage it!
- the long tripod foot requires me to buy new Arca-Swiss type mounts because the ones I have are too short or will need to have their anti-twist nibs filed off (OK, this is a personal thing, I’m sure most other people won’t mind buying a dedicated mount for this lens)
When I was doing my planning for this safari I decided that I didn’t want to travel with a backpack because while they can swallow up a lot of gear, they remain impractical in situations where you don’t have a lot of space or can’t lay the backpack down anywhere to get stuff out of it. Case in point being my seat in the front of the Land Rover. A big 20L backpack just doesn’t work in the vehicle, plus they tend to attract unwanted attention from the baggage check-in people at airports.
So, I decided I was going to take a smaller, shoulder style bag on safari this time around. I had recently bought a Lowepro Nova 200AW for a different job I was commissioned to do earlier in the year. It’s a nice size bag, not too big and not too small, but it does have a very awkward default configuration in its padded layout. I tried for hours to find a way of putting the 120-300/2.8 into this bag in a way that would leave enough room for the other items I wanted to take with me, but I kept coming up short. It was too tall to stand upright in the bag and when you lie it down it took up just about all the available space. It was a head scratcher, for sure.
Then I had a light bulb moment. By removing the lens hood as well as the tripod mount I freed up a lot of space in the bag and found I could lie the lens down flat on its own in a compartment across the length of the bag’s bottom, using only about a quarter of the volume available in the bag. I could also pack other items above it by placing padded dividers along the top of it. Eureka! But what to do with the hood and the tripod mount? Well, unless you’re fussy about keeping all this stuff together there is no rule against packing it in your checked luggage, which is exactly what I did, using the very nice nylon bag that Sigma supply with the lens itself.
In addition to the hood and tripod mount, I also put my chargers and a few other odds and ends into the Sigma bag and was happy to have a nicely packed Lowepro AW200 ready for the flight. When I got to the other side I could always re-pack the lens in its own bag and reconfigure the Lowepro for more convenient use, which is exactly what I did.
When you take off those two items the Sigma 120-300/2.8 becomes fairly manageable size-wise to pack and I’m sure it would fit better in slightly different bags to the Lowepro Nova 200AW I have. Ideally I would have preferred to stand the lens upright in the bag, but hey, all’s well that ends well. Something I would like to see for future development of lenses that require really large hoods is perhaps a hinged or clip-together one that comes in segments that fold up to save space in smaller bags. It would probably cost quite a bit to manufacture one that didn’t break easily, but the idea is out there now if any lens developers are reading this.
It might be the gym I’ve been doing, it might be the lens design, but I found that hand holding this particular lens this time around was a lot easier, despite it being heavier than the older version. Sure, I wouldn’t like to do that all day while walking around shooting on foot, but then that didn’t turn out to be a problem on game drives. I found that if I wanted extra stability all I had to do was swing up my left knee and use that as a support while keeping my left foot on the seat. Of course I couldn’t have done it that way in 2010 as my physical shape was, shall we say, significantly different back then! Most of the time I got by using just the regular hand held method.
Initially I wasn’t all that thrilled with the AF speed when it travels from one extreme to the other, but at the same time that I got this lens for evaluation I had also just (temporarily*) bought a used Nikon 300mm 2.8 AF-S, so the basis of my impression was against this much more expensive, but much less complicated fixed focal length optical design. Of course it was going to be a bit slower than that kind of lens. Look at how much more work is being done to shift those elements around inside the zoom lens compared to a fixed focal length one.
And yet in spite of this, the Sigma isn’t that much of a slouch when compared to its more illustrious OEM prime lens options. Given adequate contrast, even in dim lighting, I found that it locked on and kept focus well enough. I didn’t experience any hunting in dim conditions and really there are no issues to report on in this regard.
If there is a gripe to be had about the AF on this lens it is that it’s not as silent as I’d expect an HSM lens to be. You can hear things moving around in there as it acquires focus, whether you have the OS switched on or off. With it on there’s a clacking noise when the OS elements are engaged and disengaged. I suppose it’s a small price to pay when you consider the small price of this very unique lens compared to the equivalent prime lenses from Nikon and Canon.
* the 300/2.8 Nikkor was not in a good optical condition so I returned it to the seller and went on safari with this Sigma
Nobody else makes a lens like this. The most obvious, or closest comparison that can be made to it is Nikon’s 200-400/4 VR, which costs more than twice the price and only allows half the light through it’s optics when compared to the Sigma. Is the Sigma as sharp? Probably not, but it is certainly a lot more versatile when you lock on a teleconverter onto it. With a 1.4x you get a 168-420/4 and with a 2x you get a 240-600/5.6 with all functions retained when using Sigma’s TC’s. I have not read good things about shooting the 200-400/4 with TC’s, especially not 2x options.
The price vs. functionality ratio of the 200-400/4 is just totally blown out of the water by this Sigma. On the Nikkor you’re losing a whole stop of light for an additional 100mm focal length. At more than twice the price, I should add. For some this might be an OK price to pay, but for me the $3,800 difference in retail price doesn’t compute well with my financial approach to photography at all. That money, which is almost the equivalent of what we charged for 2012’s Ultimate Big 5 safari could be spent on a lot of additional kit if you’re a serious photographer on a budget. Think about it.
Here are some interesting spec comparisons between this lens and its nearest Nikon rivals (weight, length, price)
Sigma 120-300/2.8 – 2995g – 289mm – $2,999
Nikon 200-400/4 – 3360g – 367mm – $6,749
Nikon 300/2.8 – 2900g – 267mm – $5,799
The one disadvantage to the Sigma in comparison to the Nikon lenses is that it doesn’t have the drop in filter slot. You’d need to weigh up just how important that is going to be to your needs if you’re in the habit of using filters, especially polarisers.
For me the true mark of a lens is how much of a “wow” factor I get when shooting it at its widest aperture. I look for sharpness firstly and then I look at colour neutrality and out of focus rendering (bokeh). I generally don’t bother checking such things as edge-to-edge sharpness or light fall off because that’s for scientists and people whom those things bother. If I don’t notice something out of the ordinary immediately when shooting a new lens then I don’t specifically go looking to see whether it’s actually there or not. That behaviour would be counter-productive to the reason why I take photographs. I want the “wow!” factor. That’s all.
I have not shot any brick walls with this lens at any apertures, nor do I intend to. I have photographed a lot of lions with it and I submit these examples for you to consider whether this lens is worthy of taking on a safari with you or not.
Nikon D700, Lightroom 4.2, Sigma 120-300mm @ f/4 ISO 1600
Nikon D700, Lightroom 4.2, Sigma 120-300mm @ f/2.8 ISO 1600
Nikon D700, Lightroom 4.2, Sigma 120-300mm @ f/2.8 ISO 5000