Sigma 120-300 F2.8 EX HSM DG

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“First impressions last:” they say, but for convenience will do them first, Having had the original version of this lens for a couple of weeks, I was looking forward to reviewing the DG (the digitally enhanced version). The new version was shipped during August and has been bolted to one of my EOS1D bodies ever since.

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 black 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.

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.

120-300mm on EOS1D mkII N. Click image to download high res version

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.

120-300mm on EOS1D mkII N. Click image to download high res version

The new DG version of this lens was shipped with the TS41 tripod mount which makes a huge difference to the way that this lens handles, it also has the advantage of a strap lug, which is preferable to having the full weight of the lens hanging from the camera lens mount.

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.

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 have had this this lens for a couple of weeks and have used it on a number of occasions and can confirm that the lens is every bit as good as I had hoped. One observation though is that rather than being a traditional zoom lens, it is of a varifocal design, that is that as you zoom from one end the scale to the other, the lens also needs refocusing, not generally a problem with today’s AF cameras, however I have yet to test how it will cope follow focusing a fast moving object whilst simultaneously zooming. (obviously that will also vary depending on the camera body that you use).

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] This version of the lens is now a permanent addition to the outfit, and it now lives permanently on one of my EOS1D bodies. It has been used in anger on several occasions and certainly the lens performs superbly. It is a highly recommended addition to any press/sports togs outfit.

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.

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