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The Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM: A Bird Photographer's Dream Lens

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday June 16, 2016

You’re a very fine swan indeed

Swan? Me, a swan? Go on, you’re a swan

Take a look at yourself in the lake and you’ll see

And he looked and he saw and he said

It's me, I am a swan, wheeeee!

             The Ugly Duckling, Frank Loesser


The Ugly Duckling indeed! Swans have always been one of my favorite subjects. I photographed these two mute swans on the Housatonic River in Connecticut while testing out the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens. In the few weeks that I've had the lens it has proven itself to be the best bird-photogrpahy lens that I've ever used--and at a bargain price. Top photo: exposure was 1/500 second @ f/8, ISO 200. The lens was set at 550mm (825mm in 35mm). Bottom shot: 1/250 second @f/8, ISO 200, with the lens at 500mm (750mm equivalent on my Nikon DX body).

Snapshot:

Name: Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM

Class: Contemporary

Filter size: 95mm

Dimensions: 4.1x10.2 in.

Weight:  4.3lbs

Minimum aperture:  f/22

Minimum focusing distance: 280 cm / 110.2 in

Focus limiter: Yes

Includes: Case and lens hood

Special protection: Dust proof and splash proof mount; water and oil repellent coating on front glass element


To Dream the Impossible Lens

If there is one thing that all bird and wildlife photographers (including myself) have in common, it’s an insatiable desire for longer and sharper and faster lenses. Let’s face it, birds and other animals are relatively small creatures and most of them are somewhat private in nature. Getting close enough to them to get good photographs is one of the primary obstacles you have to overcome to succeed—and it can be a bothersome chore to say the least. Getting closer to wild creatures is a problem that photographers spend a fortune trying to overcome in terms of equipment and travel and time. 

I live just a few blocks from the shore of the Housatonic River and Long Island sound, and I’ve sat for days on end waiting for something other than the flies landing on my lunch (or the gulls waiting for a handout) to come close enough to photograph. As enjoyable as it is to sit there with a camera in your lap and a happy thought in your heart, it can wear you down. After a while you start to hear Danny Kaye singing that Ugly Duckling song in your head while you wait for a beautiful swan to appear.

For years I have traveled to Florida every winter to photograph birds both in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and in the Everglades, among other stops. I can’t tell you the number of photographers that I have seen driving beat up old junkers into the swamp and then carefully (almost reverently) unpacking their $10,000 600mm f/4 lenses. I wasn’t one of them, but I had visions of winning the lottery one day and owning one of those massive, fast and powerful lenses. I have always had a powerful case of lens envy. In bird photography, you just have to accept it: bigger is better.

Imagine my joy (and suprise) then at reading all of the stellar (and I do mean stellar) online reviews I read for the very affordable Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens. Aimed at travel, nature, wildlife, and sports and action photographers, the lens sells for about one tenth the cost of those giant swamp lenses that I’ve lusted after. But what really caught my attention was that where most online reviewers (on Amazon, for example) are quick to trash any tiny flaw they can find and downrate almost any lens they review, here I was finding review after review written by photographers about to climb out of their skin with glee over how sharp and fast and affordable this lens was. They weren’t just admiring this lens, or liking it, they were in lust with it. This was a lens I had to try—and thankfully my friends at Sigma were willing to make that happen.

By the way, if 600mm isn’t long enough for you, there are two teleconverters available for this lens: the Sigma Teleconverter 1.4X TC-1401 and the Sigma Teleconverter 2.0X TC-2001. I’m dying to try them, but have not so far.


As human friendly as most swans are, getting very tight shots of them still requires lens power. The Sigma 150-600mm lens let me close in for tight shots even when the swans were quite a distance away. Top: 1/600 second @ f/8 at ISO 200 with the lens at 500mm; bottom 1/800 second @ f/8, at ISO 400, with the lens at 600mm. 

One Lens, Two Versions

There are actually two versions of this lens available: the Contemporary (which is the version that I tested) and a Sports model that is intended for the rougher use that a professional sports photographer might heap on it. Optically there are some differences. The Contemporary, for example, has 20 Elements in 14 Groups 1 FLD and 3 SLD elements, while the Sports model has 24 Elements in 16 Groups 2 FLD and 3 SLD elements. Those SLD elements are made of special low-dispersion glass and FLD glass is said to provide superior optical performance, equal to flourite lens elements. The Sports model is heavier: 6.3 pounds compared to 4.3 pounds. You can read a full comparison of the two versions here

Unboxing this lens was a lot more fun that watching someone else unbox it on Youtube and honestly it felt a lot like Christmas morning (perhaps the year that I got the Beatles’ White Album—still a banner memory for me). The lens comes with a very sturdy and well-padded carrying case, a neck strap and a very nice (plastic) lens shade. The lens also has a very nice scale on the barrel so that you know what focal length you’re using—and I referred to it regularly (though wouldn’t it be nice to see that info in the viewfinder!).


I photographed this black-crowned night heron in a local marsh and when I first arrived there were no birds in sight. But I focused on a small patch of marsh grass and laughingly thought how nice it would be if something interesting landed there. Within a minute this heron landed and stayed long enough for me to get off more than a dozen good shots. I shot this with the lens zoomed full out to 600mm (900mm on my Nikon DX body) and I was blown away by its sharpness. Exposure was 1/320 second @ f/6.3, ISO 500 in fading afternoon light. Incidentally, I shot this from my car with the lens resting on a rolled up sweater in the window frame. Your car makes an excellent mobile blind--something I learned from one of my swamp-shooting pals in Florida where alligators and snakes are constant companions.


While swans are  pretty cooperative at being photographed, birds like this mallard duck are far more skittish and keep a good distance and they are also constantly in motion. I shot this one with the lens set at 600mm (900mm on my Nikon DX body) at 1/400 second @ f/8, ISO 400. You simply can't ask for a sharper lens at 600mm and I was floored when I saw this full screen.

In Search of the Ugly Duckling...and his friends

My first stop was a popular birding spot along the Housatonic frequented by various egrets and herons, lots and lots of colorful ducks and by one of my favorite birding subjects—the ugly ducklings (aka mute swans). I was going in search of two things: birds willing to let me take their portrait and image quality that lived up to the reviews that I had been reading online. I found both—and then some. The very first shots I took with the lens at 600mm were of swans and, being impatient, I quickly checked the LCD to test the sharpness. I was very impressed not only by the resolution, but by the accuracy of the focus, the accuracy of the colors and the beautiful contrast. Could this really be true? A 600mm lens that was the equal of lenses that I’ve used (i.e. borrowed and rented) that cost 10x as much? Yes, the 600mm beasts that I’ve used were a smidgen faster, but at what price—and how much more did they weigh?

The lens has very solid feeling and even though it’s a pretty large lens (especially when you rack it out to 600mm) and at about four-and-a-half pounds I’m not sure that it’s something I’d want to handhold for very long. I was able to take quite a number of sharp photos (very sharp) at about 1/125 second with the image stabilization on. But I’m a tripod user, so handholding isn’t really an issue for me. 

Over the next several days I revisited all of my favorite watering holes and shot in swamps, marshes and on beaches. Hour after hour I grew more and more impressed not just with the sharpness of the optics, but the speed and accuracy of the focus. While shooting birds, I tried many times to force the lens to fail—I shot through tall grass to try and fool the focus, or at least slow it down), I shot birds in flight (something I’m not great at doing, but had moderate success) and I shot in flat light and ultra-high contrast light. I also shot everything from fishing boats to Learjets (see photos below) to see how fast the lens tracked focus with action subjects. The results were nothing short of stunning and I honestly don’t recall a single time when the lens balked at focusing or caused me to miss a shot. The resolution of the lens, as you can see in the shot immediately below, is very impressive.


How sharp is this Sigma lens at 600mm? You can count every water droplet on this mute swan's neck--and you can count its teeth. When was the last time you were able to pick out a swan's teeth in a close-up shot? This lens is thrillingly sharp. Shot at 1/800 second at f/8, IS0 400.


A great egret fishing in a small inlet--probably 100-feet or more away. Shot with the lens at 600mm (which it turns out is the focal length that I used most); exposure was 1/160 second @ f/7.1, ISO 640. 

More than a Birding Lens

As I said, one of the things that I discovered as I kicked around the edges of Long Island Sound with this big lens was that it was more than a lens for bird or wildlife photography. Over the course of the few weeks that I have had the lens I've shot everything from fishing boats to Learjets to scenics. The ability to shoot distant subjects of all types and to compress giant chunks of space is very appealing. Also, while I really consider this primarily a tripod lens, I did shoot many shots (like the fishing boat below) handheld and got excellent results. The optical stabilization proved very worthy and reliable. Yes, I kept the shutter speeds pretty high, but when you consider that most of the big 600mm f/4 lenses on the markets (the ones that would cost a year of college tuition for your kids) are impossible to shoot handheld, it's great that you can just pull this out and shoot quickly sans tripod.


I've always wanted to shoot the Stratford, Connecticut Lighthouse on Long Island Sound from the local seawall, about a mile away, but never had the lens power. I shot this pretty scene with the lens set at 600mm. Exposure: 1/1250 second @ f/8, ISO 400. I shot this handheld.


These industrial buildings were probably a few miles from where I was standing in a marsh and they compressed beautifully into the sunset sky with the focal length set at 230mm (345mm equivalent). Exposure was 1/30 second at f/6.3, ISO 200, on a Manfrotto 055 tripod.

Conclusion:

I’ve only had this lens in my hands for about three weeks but I’ve already shot hundreds of photos with it and any lack of sharpness that I’ve encountered was entirely my fault—the light was too low or I was using too slow a shutter speed or I wasn’t paying attention to where I was focusing. Virtually every shot that I was careful with was sharp—blazingly sharp. Is this a slow lens at f/5-6.3? I don’t think so—not when you consider the focal length range. Is it too heavy to take backpacking? Nope. I’m old and lazy but I carried it everywhere as I prowled the riverbanks and marshes.

I’ll say this without hesitation: this is the finest and most convenient super-telephoto zoom that I’ve ever used (and it has me wondering about that Sports version). I have to return this one, but I know I’ll buy one shortly. And when I do, I hope I get a chance to head back to Florida to compare lenses with my fellow swamp rats.


This is one of my favorite shots with the lens--a Learjet heading off into the sunset. I shot this seconds after I shot the black-crowned night heron (above). I heard the jet engines roaring (I was near the end of a runway) and looked up, aimed and fired off three quick shots. I'm guessing that this jet is already doing a few hundred knots as it heads toward altitude and I was able to keep crystal-sharp focus. Exposure was 1/500 @ f/11, IS0 500. 

New Product News

Westcott Rapid Box Beauty Dish.If shooting portraits, fashion or doing commercial shooting on location is a part of your daily work, Westcott’s new travel-friendly 24” Rapid Box Beauty Dish should be of interest. Designed for Westcott by photographer Joel Grimes, this very portable beauty dish provides a nice soft beam of light and its umbrella-inspired design is supported by 16 heavy-duty interior ribs and folds into a nice compact package. Its available with speedrings to fit Balcar, Bowens, Elinchrom, Photogenic and Profoto lights. A full-stop diffusion panel and removable flat deflector plate are also included. 

Panasonic LUMIX G Leica DG Summilux 12mm F1.4 ASPH Lens. Panasonic has introduced the newest member of its prime-lens familty: the 12mm f/1.4 LEICA SUMMILUX high-performance wide angle lens for mirrorless micro four thirds bodies (equivalent to 24mm in 35mm). Although aimed largely at outdoor and nature photographer seeking that broad breathtaking view, its fast speed also makes it a great indoor lens for weddings and group shots. Its silent operation also makes it a great video choice. The lens is splash and dust proof when used with a compatible Lumix G mirrorless camera body. 

Nikon’s Prostaff 3S binoculars. One of the things that I’ve learned about bird and wildlife shooting over the years is that one of the best accessories you can carry is a great pair of binoculars. Binoculars let you scope out and spot subjects long before they come into camera range. Available in both 8×42 and 10×42 models, these new Prostaff 3S binoculars from Nikon feature a large 42mm objective and yet are lightweight and compact enough for carrying in a shooting vest pocket or just around your neck. They also feature a durable waterproof and fogproof exterior design. 

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