The new f/2.8 telephoto zoom in the bag

Looking down the throat of the monster

I’m preparing to take a group of photographers on LuminOdyssey‘s 2013 Botswana trip, and for the first time in a while I’ll be taking a significant new lens: the Sigma 120-300mm/2.8 OS “Sports” telephoto zoom. Over the last few weeks I’ve been preparing my kit, and have been asked a lot about the new lens. So here’s some initial feedback.

But first, some history.

Not my first Sigma lens

I have owned two Sigma lenses in the past. One was my first wide-angle DSLR lens and was very disappointing (I eventually replaced it with the Canon 17-40mm/4 L IS USM, which today is still my workhorse wide-angle lens). I’ve also owned a 180mm macro lens which performed great, until eventually its autofocus system wasn’t compatible with the latest Canon cameras.

I’ve always understood that while Sigma made some great lenses, their quality control wasn’t very good. Better in some models (e.g. macro lenses) but it’s always seemed that the odds of getting a bad copy were higher with Sigma than with manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon. The math-nerd joke is that the standard deviation of their quality has always been a bit high (the standard symbol for standard deviation is the lower-case Greek letter σ: “sigma”).

The new Sigma

Sigma’s recent revamp of its new lenses into Art, Contemporary, and Sports ranges promised many advantages for me:

  • A new set of testing hardware and procedures in the Sigma factory, including a lens-testing machine that is fast enough that hopefully they can test every lens before it leaves the factory rather than just testing samples from each batch. That’s sure to improve their sigma!
  • With the Sigma Optimization Pro (“SOP”) software and USB Dock each lens can be updated without having to send it back to a service centre. Not only can we update the lens firmware, we can also fine-tune the AF with more control than provided by in-camera adjustments, as well as adjust other parameters depending on the lens model.
  • Hopefully there’s no need to fret about investing in the lens only to run into compatibility problems with a future Canon body: as long as Sigma can provide timely firmware updates of course, these can be installed via the USB Dock.

The 120-300mm lens has some particular advantages for me over the previous model:

  • The addition of a focus-limiter, so that if the AF misses the subject it doesn’t have to traverse all the way down to the minimum focus distance (MFD). This can make the AF faster, although the cameras’ “Lens drive when AF impossible” setting can help as well even on the old model.
  • The lens has a “Custom” switch with three positions: “off”, “1”, and “2”. In the custom modes we can set (via the USB Dock) details of the focus speed, the stabilisation, and the focus range (the focus limiter switch only affects the “off” mode).
  • The lens was described as being apparently rain and dust-proof. One less reason to get a 105mm UV/protective filter for it (which helps reduce dust intake on the previous version). However, while the lens mount has a similar rubber guard to those of the current Canon L lenses, the lens manual does admonish us to avoid getting it wet. But at least it’s reasonable to consider it as being better-sealed than the previous 120-300mm model. All manufacturers’ claims of sealing and “weatherproofness” should probably be taken with a few grains of salt.
  • Some examples of the old lens have had problems with failure of the electronics. We can hope that this has been considered in the revamp. Design issues as well as sealing may affect this.

I had played with the previous version of this lens a year ago, but wasn’t comfortable enough to commit to it.

By the way, in the last week Roger Cicala over at published two posts regarding this lens, the second of which compares it to the previous model. It’s interesting to see that the internals are very similar, including some of the same parts. But the extra configuration options, the extra sealing and claimed quality control improvements still make me happier with the new model.

Why this lens?

For years my telephoto workhorse lens has been the EF 100-400mm/4.5-5.6 L IS USM, and so far it’s managed to keep up with my DSLR bodies, starting out with the 3 Mp D30 (APS-C), through to the 18 Mp 7D (APS-C) and the 22 Mp 5D Mk3 (full-frame). But at times the limitation of f/5.6 (often stopped down to f/6.3 or f/7.1 to improve the quality) has been a handicap for me. Being able to raise the ISO further in the 5D Mk3 helps, but doesn’t solve all the issues.

Leopard in Samburu GR, Kenya
EOS 7D with 100-400 @ 330mm/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 1600
I had been watching for news of the Canon 200-400mm/4 (with internal 1.4x) lens since it was announced in 2011. Now that the lens is out, while the quality is amazing the price is a big handicap. The Sigma 120-300mm/2.8 holds up well even with a 1.4x extender (giving me a 168-420mm/4, which is faster than the 100-400mm).

The Canon 200-400mm/4+1.4x would give me a longer lens and that would be useful at times, but I learnt a long time ago that no matter how long a lens you have, when photographing wildlife there will always be times you want longer. The trick is to get a reasonable length and then take advantage of it. I’m used to working with a zoom up to 400mm, and am prepared to compromise. I do like the quality of many prime lenses (I own and use a few shorter primes, and have used Canon 300/400/500mm primes in the past) but am often frustrated at the restrictions compared to a zoom.

After a lot of thought, several weeks ago I bought the Sigma 120-300mm lens (no, this post isn’t paid-for advertising!) along with a USB Dock. I bought it locally as I wanted to have access to local Sigma warranty and service if there were any issues, rather than having to deal with third-party repairers (“factory” warranty service removes many opportunities for “the blame game”). Also as it happens I paid less for the lens than I would have buying it overseas, and didn’t have to wait for it. It wasn’t always this way!

But of course there was still a lot I had to find out about this lens for myself.

A weighty lens

Physically the lens is very impressive. The rubber coverings of the end of the hood (and the end of the lens itself) are a nice touch. The hood attaches via a bayonet mechanism, and is then held in place with a screw on the side, which normally sits at the bottom. Incidentally, when you tighten this screw it pushes the hood away from the lens (distorting the circular hood slightly to improve the grip). Only a slight tightening is required: no need to go overboard.

There’s some cloth tape on the lens and camera here: I like to protect my gear (LensCoat hadn’t arrived yet).

While I had hoped that with new composite case materials the new lens would be a bit lighter than the previous 3 kg model, it’s in fact heavier. With the lens hood and with the QR plate mounted (see below) the lens weighs in at around 3.5 kg. While this is a lot heavier than my other lenses: even heavier than the Canon EF 500mm/4 L IS USM, I’ve found it’s quite easy to handle. Part of this may be due to the weight being closer to me than with the longer 500mm lens.

So far I can shoot handheld for long periods, although I do also use the lens with a monopod and a tripod (and it works particularly well with the Wimberley Sidekick gimbal mount). When set up on a gimbal mount I first set the lens to 300mm and then balance the mount so that it will rest in whatever direction I point it with the mount loose. When the lens is zoomed back to 120mm the weight does move slightly forwards, but it’s only a slight change.

1.4x Extender

Note that I’m currently using a Canon EF 1.4x Extender II which I already had, rather than buying the Sigma 1.4x APO DG. If Sigma had introduced a new model recently I would have been more tempted to purchase their teleconverter, but the lens is working great  with the 1.4x II so far.

Taking a lesson from Apple?

The side panel which has the AF/MF switches is held on with tiny screws, as one would expect. What I was surprised to see was that these are neither cross-headed screws or 6-pointed Torx, but rather 5-pointed heads like on recent Apple laptops. Of course a matching tool is already in my kit, so if I do need to tighten any screws on the road I won’t be stuck. I once had a lens almost fall apart after days on the rough roads of the Northern Territory but screwed it back together before it was damaged, so I like to be prepared. The tools don’t live in my pocket, but they will be in my bags somewhere.

Mounting the lens

On the 180mm, 70-200mm, and 100-400mm lenses I’ve used Wimberley P-20 plates. These lenses only have one screw hole, and the “lip” at the rear of the plate stops the plate from twisting when the lens is mounted sideways. The plates are long enough that there’s enough room at the front to mount flashes.

Wimberley P-20 on 100-400mm

The 120-300mm lens foot has three 1/4″ screw holes for secure mounting to a support, and I’ve used the Jobu Designs NXM lens plate (B&H link) to attach to the front two holes, leaving room for mounting a flash bracket to the front. As you can see, a lip at the rear of the plate would not suit this lens.

Jobu Designs NXM plate on 120-300mm

The NXM plate is a curious beast. The “stop screws” at the ends of the plate (and those that attach the front cross-bar on the other side) use a 3/32″ hex driver, which is different to the 2mm drivers used for the Wimberley plates. Also the stop screws protrude a lot further than those on Wimberley (and Really Right Stuff) plates, which reduces the range of movement in a clamp (they won’t slide into the spaces allowed for stop screws on many clamps). But the NXM plate is already giving me enough room to balance the rig on my Sidekick.

Balanced for 5DIII with grip, and 1.4x extender, with still some room to move.

Another choice would be the Really Right Stuff MPR-1 plate which should have enough room to attach to the third hole, but I don’t think the difference is critical.

The lens ships with a shoulder/neck strap which attaches to the loops on each side of the mounting ring, but I have instead attached connection straps to match the Op/Tech neck straps I use on my cameras, monocular, CP-E4 flash battery pack, etc. When not attached to a neck strap, I usually connect these straps together to form a safety loop through my BlackRapid strap or around the top of my tripod, etc. A little bit of paranoia never hurts.

Carrying the lens

For transport, the lens fits neatly in my Gura Gear Bataflae 26L backpack, usually detached from a camera body. I can fit the assembled camera/teleconverter/lens in one side of the Bataflae, but only with the hood reversed. Including the hood the entire rig is 48 cm long. Thus when on safari I can’t easily have it assembled but in the bag (away from dust/etc) and ready for immediate access. But that’s OK: polarfleeces make great dust-covers for gear on the seat beside you.

By the way, that’s a LensCoat XL Hoodie on the lens (instead of the monster 105mm Sigma lens cap). It also fits over the other end of the hood in the shooting position, so I don’t need to take the hood off to cover the lens.

When walking around with the lens ready to shoot handheld, I tend to have it hanging from my BlackRapid strap (which is clamped onto the lens plate). Having the lens hanging from the camera body on a traditional strap would be both uncomfortable and would put a lot of strain on both the camera and lens!

It remains to be seen how easy the lens is to handle on pelagic birding trips, which is something I have got very used to doing with my 100-400mm lens.

Masked Boobies near Lord Howe Island
EOS 5D3 with 100-400mm, handheld on the back of a small boat

Calibrating the lens

Using in-camera adjustments, the EOS 5D MkII allows us to adjust the AF at one focal length and at one distance (usually the long end of the zoom and at something close to your “normal” working distance). The 5D Mk3 improves on this by allowing us to adjust the AF at each end of the zoom. But that’s still only two points.

Using the SOP software and the USB Dock, the lens’s AF can be tweaked at 16 points: the combination of 120/150/200/300mm and four distances. I’ve spent a while testing the lens (using my LensAlign for the close distances) with my EOS 5D Mk3’s AF adjustments zeroed out.

I then checked the focus with my 5D MkII (it didn’t need any in-camera adjustments) and then attached the Canon EF 1.4x Extender II and re-calibrated both bodies in-camera with the “168-420mm” lens (the focus did shift very slightly).

USB Dock on lens

Incidentally, the USB Dock comes with its own USB cable, and of course the cable is different from those used with Canon or Nikon cameras (which use standard “mini-B” and “micro-B” connections). A special cable which you’ll want to keep track of.

But it turns out that it’s the same cable used for Sigma cameras (makes sense) so spares can be tracked down via eBay. Even better for me, it’s the same as the USB cable from my Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds camera (which I use for infrared photography), and because I use card readers I’d never even got the USB cable out of the box before I went looking for it to check. It’s nice to have a backup cable on-hand.

Sample photos

With all of that calibration and testing out of the way, I headed out to do some real-world testing. These aren’t anything special, just some convenient shots nearby to home. Click on the images to view them bigger.

Phoebe: my patient shnauzer model
EOS 5D3 with 120-300 @ 153mm/3.2
100% crop: that DOF is shallow
Tight crop on a Coot at the local park
EOS 5D3 with 120-300 @ 300mm/4
Aerial rat
EOS 5D3 with 120-300 @ 300mm/4
Super-tight crop
EOS 5D3 with 120-300 @ 300mm/4
Lost football
EOS 5D3 with 120-300+1.4x @ 420mm/4.5

During the calibration I was impressed at how much sharper the images became with slight adjustments in front/back focus, and as a result I think any reviewers who take this lens out for testing without checking and tweaking the lens first, run the risk of not seeing the lens in its best light. Doing all this calibration is a hassle, but I knew what would be involved before I purchased it and now I’m happy that I have an excellent lens. Now it’s up to me to make great images with it!

Calibrating Photoshop/Lightroom

Of course, I’ve also created Camera Raw Lens Profiles for the lens with and without the 1.4x extender, which allow Lightroom to automatically correct many optical issues including as vignetting. This greatly simplifies my image-processing workflow!

Adobe provide pre-built profiles for most lenses, but not always when combined with extenders, so I’d done this in the past for things like my 70-200mm/4 L IS USM. I may tweak these a little more before we head out.

Heading off!

With a 120-300mm/2.8 and 168-420mm/4 lens in my kit, I’ll be leaving the Canon EF 100-400mm/4.5-5.6 lens behind. I may take the EF 70-200mm/4 IS as a backup, along with 17-40mm/4, 24-105mm/4, and a 24mm/1.4 prime. I will be taking the USB Dock with me so I can tweak the Sigma’s custom modes on the road if necessary.

After we return in mid-July I’ll be able to give better feedback on how the lens performed “under stress”.

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