Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 EX IF HSM APO Lens

Togsblog Star Rating

This a review of the Pre DG version, the EX DG is reviewed elsewhere on this webstite

“First impressions last:” they say, but for convenience will do them first, after a brief thank you to Ray of Sigma for organising the loan of the 120-300 and 300-800mm lenses for review.

First Impressions: I really wanted to like this lens, on paper it looked the perfect addition to my outfit, and my first impressions were very positive, the lens is finished in a sparkly black coating, with a gold coloured ring around the front end. Far more discrete than the Canon big white lenses. It is shipped in a green soft pouch, which seems to provide adequate protection and equipped with a shoulder strap, no belt strap which is understandable given the weight of this lens.

However it would be useful to have belt loop, whilst I wouldn’t recommend it for use on the belt that holds your jeans up, with something like the Lowe-Pro Street and Field Deluxe Belt with the shoulder harness it would be reasonably comfortable to use. Tipping the scales at about 6lbs (2 1/2 Kilos or so) it feels reasonably well balanced when mounted on an EOS1d body, maybe a little less so on a smaller digital SLR.

The construction of the lens is substantial, not just because of the weight, it has appears to have a metal body, no flimsy plastic anywhere to be seen, the paint finish seems reasonably durable, that is I haven’t marked it yet, which is unusual for me, as my kit tends to spend most of it’s time bouncing around on the back seat of the car.

Description: Starting at the camera mount end of the lens, there is a little white index mark for aligning the lens with the camera, I actually prefer the Canon indexing mark as it is raised and you can locate the index even in the dark, however just to the left of the index mark is the manual/Auto Focus switch, normally not a problem, however in the Canon mount version of this lens it sits right in front of the lens release button. The downside is that every time I have used this lens I have managed to switch from AF to M and sometimes the other way, usually not a problem, but when in a rush, it is easy to find the camera doesn’t respond the way that it should, by which time the moment has gone and so have several more whilst you find and re-set the switch.

In front of the AF/M switch is the Focus scale, which is rather vague on focus distance between 1.5, 2.5 and 10 metres. Next is the tripod mounting ring, which is rather thoughtfully marked at 90° increments, however the base of it is a little on the small side and because of the layout of the focus and zoom rings makes the zoom function difficult to reach when you are using the heel of your hand under the tripod mount to support the lens.

Sigma 120-300 with pouch

I would prefer the tripod mount to be not only a little longer, but also to have greater clearance between the the top of it and the lens barrel, which will make it much easier to handle when mounting and removing the lens from the camera body. Sigma have agreed to ship me the tripod mount from the 50-500mm which will fit, and apparently is a bit longer, which should make the lens handle a little better

Moving further up the lens is the Manual Focus Ring, the lens is a two touch model, which I must admit to preferring over the one touch zoom and focus function, and the zoom ring is slightly further forward. Both zoom and focusing rings are of generous proportions, and if they were fitted the right way round would be ideal. For a casual user this may not be a problem, but when ever I reach for a lens, I want to know that I can find the appropriate function without having to look whilst I have only been playing with this lens for a couple of hours, I keep reaching for the focus ring instead of the zoom. Up front, there is the previously mentioned band of gold, bayonet hood mountings and then a filter thread.

The lens hood strikes me as being a little short, however I am sure that if this lens makes it into my armoury I will end up modifying something to increase the effectiveness of the lens hood.  The lens hood itself is made of metal, and has no flocking, just matt black paint on the inside and a ribbed finish which I am certain will wear badly exposing a bright metal finish which will severely reduce the effectiveness of the hood, the bayonet mount is secure and the hood held in place with a knurled nut.

The lens hood is almost certainly going to be more securely fitting than the Canon bayonet fit hoods (like the 70-200 which falls off regularly); it is similar in design to the Canon 300mm F2.8, 400mm F2.8 etc hoods, I would prefer to have a lens hood with a bit of “give”, if you knock a Canon hood it flexes a bit and will absorb the shock, I feel that the Sigma hood will probably just bend. Come on Sigma, make a plastic hood that has some flocking; that will protect the lens and still return to shape after an impact.

Even though the lens comes with a filter thread, there is no lens cap, what is supplied is a leatherette “nose bag” which is a little fiddly to use, I abandoned the one for the EF400mm F2.8 the day that I purchased it; for the 120-300 with a fairly large front element I would prefer a clip on lens cap (as I never use filters to protect front elements).

Assuming the lens is not going to be kept in the Sigma supplied pouch, then the lens hood can be left on and the “nose bag” simply fitted over the mounted lens hood (unless you modify the hood), which saves a lot of fiddling about.

Sigma 120-300 Canon mount

How Good Is it?

The “proof of the pudding” as they say is “in the eating” and Sigma has made some big claims for this lens and it is fairly obviously aimed at the top end of the market squarely at working pros (either news or social) and the wealthy happy snappers.
I will have this lens for a couple of weeks so I fully expect to give it a good work out, both in terms of static test shots, so that you can see how good it is in ideal situations, and I look forward to using it in the real world where circumstances aren’t quite so perfect. The first lens that was delivered was faulty, as it had been dropped by the previous users and was next to useless, I hope that the next one (which will be brand new, straight out of the box) will be better, it just goes to show that no matter how robust a lens appears to be dropping it will not do it any good.  All of the little niggles above are only little niggles, and would not detract from the overall versatility of the lens, Sigma are in a unique position currently as no-one else makes anything close. But they are not quite there yet,  having dialogue with professional photographers (not just press togs, but anyone who uses their kit day in and day out) before even firing up autocad, could have made this lens the best thing since sliced glass.

[UPDATE 18th May 2005] How good is it, well having received the replacement a couple of hours ago, I have done a little playing around, including a smudge of another tog, and it certainly seems right on the money. I shall look forward to using this lens over the next 10 days or so, after the little play that I have had with it, I am reasonably certain that this will “hack it” so it will be on one of the 1d
bodies instead of the Canon EF70-200 F2.8L IS USM (unless I find I really need the IS).
The more that I use this lens the more that I like it, it really is tack sharp and a very useful range, the 120mm end is (I feel) idea for portraiture, it may be a little long for use in the studio, but for nice blown out backgrounds in outdoor portraits, the only lens that I like more is the Canon EF 200mmF1.8.  On an EOS 1D the 120mm equates to about 150mm which gives you a little more work space, compared to the the 100mm that most magazines and photography books seem to recommend, It also means that you are still close enough to be able to have a dialogue with the subject, with the 200mm voices needed to be raised.
[UPDATE 24th May 2005] This really is a good as it seems, I have included a couple of images of a Jack Barclay Bentley Turbo (number 9 out 10 built by the Mulliner Coach Company) that shows that the lens really is a corker, super sharp from centre to edge, wide open. I have done a couple of test shots working through the heavily tinted rear windows of my car and the AF works fine, in what was really quite low levels of light, the nature of these images means that they will not be posted here, principally because the the window glass has a greater effect on the quality than the optics in the lens itself. This lens is set to become a standard part of my kit, and I shall look forward to revisiting this review again in six months or so and although it is reasonably priced, I would rather have one for free (anyone listening at Sigma?)
Don’t forget that viewing images at 100% on screen is not the same sort of inspection you would give a photographic print, it is tantamount to using a 10x loupe on a 12″x16″ print from a 35mm frame. These images will have lost a little in being saved for the web.  The image above can be downloaded full size (18mb in Photoshop but compressed to around 700kb). Will add some further test images as time allows.
I have also tested the 120-300mm F2.8 lens with the Canon EF 1.4x Extender (the mk II version) and the Canon EF 2x Extender (mk II) and can report that the lens works well with the 1.4x giving an equivalent of 170 to 420mm F4, the AF works nicely, however the initial results with the 2x extender are not so positive. I will add more when I have had a chance to conduct further testing.
*1 Sigma have shipped the Tripod Socket TS-41, which is I believe standard on the Sigma 50-500mm, the difference it makes is substantial, it completely changes the handling characteristics of this lens. It makes hand holding the lens much easier, as it has a much larger base plate, it also extends further from the lens barrel, which means that when you place the camera and lens down the weight is carried by the tripod mount, rather than the base of the camera and the lens hood.  The TS-41 also has a strap supplied with it which attaches to the support, which will reduce the pressure on the camera mount, when the camera/lens combination is on your shoulder.  I hope that they will start to offer this mount instead of the standard one, as it is greatly superior. The down-side is; at present anyway, that this is an optional extra and will cost somewhere around £100.

According to Sigma’s marketing material

Large aperture of F2.8 at 300mm focal length

This lens represents a revolutionary leap forward in ease of use. This was achieved by transforming a large-aperture F2.8 300mm lens into a zoom lens that allows you to determine the picture composition you want without having to change your vantage point.
SLD glass and aspherical lenses
It has two SLD (the special low dispersion) glass elements in front group and another element of SLD is being used for rear group for excellent correction of chromatic aberration.
It prides excellent imaging capability like a prime lens.
Hyper sonic motor

The AF drive for Sigma SA, Canon and Nikon cameras is equipped with a silent, responsive and high speed HSM , which also provides full-time manual focus function.
Sigma Apo Tele Converters (optional)
High-speed focusing is possible when this lens is used with dedicated APO EX tele-converters (1.4x and 2x). By adding an APO tele-converter, which is sold separately, you can use this lens as a 168-420mm F4 AF tele-zoom lens with a 1.4x tele-converter, or as a 240-600mm F5.6 AF ultra-telephoto zoom lens with a 2x tele-converter. It is also possible to use AE (Automatic Exposure) function, even EX Tele-converters are attached to the lens.
Internal Focusing and Internal Zooming
Since focusing and zooming do not change its overall length, this lens is easy to hold and use. In addition, since the front of the lens does not rotate, a circular polarizing filter can be easily attached and use.

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