In Search of the Sigmonster
A Review of the Sigma 300-800mm f5.6 zoom lens
By: Miles Hecker
Some people like dinosaurs, others like the Loch Ness monster, but my favorite monster is a beast of a different kind, it's the Sigma 300-800mm f /5.6 EX zoom lens, nicknamed by Romy Ocon 'the Sigmonster'. First announced by Sigma at Photokina 2002 it is a beast whose legend is growing daily among the seekers of the ultimate super telephoto lens. It's size is truly leviathan, 21.4 inches in length and 12.7 lbs in weight. It's front element is 6 inches in width. It's street price hovers near a beastly $6000.
David & Goliath
On top the Sigmonster, below EOS 400mm f/5.6
Lenses 400mm and longer in focal length are usually called supertelephoto lenses. They are the holy grail of optical design and the enemy of your bank account. At these focal lengths any optical aberration is magnified many fold. Chromatic aberration and fuzziness lurk at any high contrast edge waiting to degrade your image. Worse yet, vibration, mirror slap or movement of any kind is magnified as well. Norse legend holds that any lens of merit seeking to bend the light in this realm must be pure of heart and prime of focal length. A modern addendum to that legend, from the land of Canon says, IS or image stabilization is needed as well to slay the demons of vibration and lens movement.
The Making of a New Legend
In the town of Aizu, Japan, at the Sigma design center there dwelled a team of non-believers. They did not heed the legends of old and in late 2002 they introduced to the world a lens that could not be made. A zoom supertelephoto lens with a focal length of 300-800mm and aperture of f/5.6, the Sigmonster was born.
In Search of the True Supertelephoto
I've shot Wyoming & Rocky Mt. landscapes for many years. Sometime last year as I approached retirement I began to develop an interest in bird and wildlife photography. I live in an area of inspiring vistas, but the truth is many months of the year those vistas are brown or hazy. This is not the result of man's actions, but the consequence of the weather. The area is also awash in wildlife and bird life. Amazingly enough this type of photography is good all year round. As a result of this interest I studied the supertelephoto offerings and photos taken with them. During this time I saw the bird photos of Romy Ocon, a Philippine bird photographer. Romy had taken a chance on the new way. I was impressed with what I saw of the new legend. I purchased a Sigmonster of my very own and a Manfrotto 3421 gimbal head to hold it.
The New Way or Zen and The Art of Sigmonster Maintenance
The new way is very much the old way. Do you own a remote shutter release? Do you remember shooting macro or big lenses with film? If so, you were a photographer before the digital age and the advent of IS (image stabilized) telephoto lenses. You may even know how to manually focus a lens, though this is not necessary most of the time. If you want to feed the Sigmonster, you must get into the Zen of image making.
If all this crazy talk scares you, don't read on, go home now and turn on your Ipod. If it sounds good stay with us awhile.
Just How Good is the Sigmonster?
Scary good, amazingly good, the match of almost any prime lens when properly used. I shoot real images not test patterns, so the first thing I did was shoot some real images in my yard to check it out.
Squirrel meets the monster
EOS20D ISO400 1/320sec @ f7.1. Sigma 300-800mm @ 500mm
Click on the photo for 100% crop.
After doing that I took it to the local Audubon preserve and challenged it with a great horned owl sitting deep in a spruce tree trying to get some sleep during the day. The low light resulted in a long exposure, mirror lock-up and fill flash to pull off the shot. Note that great horned owl feathers are very soft so they can fly quietly and the focus point was set on his left eye.
Whooo are you?
EOS20D ISO200 1/50sec @ f9
@ 610mm. Mirror lock-up
Click on the photo for 100% crop.
Finally I lugged it, (about 28 lbs with lens, head, camera & tripod) about one half mile into the Beartooth Mts to shoot the resident mountain goats cavorting in their alpine environment.
EOS20D ISO200 1/200 sec @f8
Click on photo for 100% crop
I'll let the images speak for themselves. If you've shot big glass before, you are probably impressed. You're thinking this all looks very good, but it's not quite as good as the finest primes. Romy wondered about this himself, so he purchased the legendary EOS 500mm f4 IS prime and did his own test.
Romy Ocons supertelephoto shootout
Sigmonster vs EOS 500mm f4 IS
Click on photo for shootout images.
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The good, the bad and the ugly
If you are still paying attention, you must like what you see. Image quality is superb. What about focus speed? The Sigma HSM focusing motor is the match of Canon's Ultrasonic USM motor at f5.6. The Canon system is faster at f4, but that's always the case. A larger maximum aperture will allow for faster focusing speeds. Focusing accuracy is also, at least in my sample very, very good. I almost never override and use manual focus, and I'm a stickler for focus accuracy.
On Mars, this would be an easy lens to haul around, unfortunately most of us will use it on Earth. Lens, head and tripod tip the scales at about 30 lbs. This is a load for most people. The EOS 500mm f/4 and 1.4x converter would save you about 4 lbs. That's about a 13% savings. The EOS 600mm f/4 and converter would weigh about the same 30 lbs. Is this a problem? I don't know how often you pump iron. Consult your personal trainer before making this purchase.
It's also worth mentioning that conventional big glass technique, remote shutter release, sturdy tripod and mirror lockup below a shutter speed of about 1/80 sec is required.
Finally lets look at the price. It hovers in the range of $6000. On top of that you should add the cost of a heavy duty tripod and a gimbal head. This ups the ante an additional $500-$1000. Even if you can swing it, the cost of the divorce that might follow could be far higher.
In my opinion, this lens is a breakthrough product. In real world situations it will get you many shots that you would miss with the prime and teleconverter system. It takes me about one second to zoom in and frame, once I've acquired my subjects at 300mm. If my prime lens doesn't have enough reach, it takes me about 20 seconds to remove the camera, add the converter, replace the camera and recompose. That is often just not quick enough. In the mountain goat shot you see above, I had about a 10 second window of opportunity before they vanished over the ridge.
Well, there you have it. The makings of a legend.
Happy shooting and may the Sigmonster be with you!
Miles J. Hecker is currently retired following a 30 year teaching career at Casper College located in Casper, Wyoming. He specialized in electronic imaging and digital still photography. Mr. Hecker is also co-founder of WyoFOTO, a web site which is dedicated to Rocky Mt. and Southwestern landscape and nature photography.
Mr. Hecker's landscape work has been published in Backpacker, Nature's Best Images and Wyoming Wildlife and won several national awards. More of Mile's work may be seen at WyoFOTO.com.