Earlier this year Sigma Photo Corporation was kind enough to lend us copies of the Sport and Contemporary versions of their popular 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 lenses to evaluate during our annual Tropical Bird Photography Workshop Tour in Costa Rica. We really enjoyed shooting with both lenses, and we both ended up buying one version for our own photography. Which one? Read on!
Googling this lens will bring up a number of reviews that will tell you all about the specs and the technical aspects of the lenses. Rather than a traditional review, we'd like to simply share our impressions from shooting the lens in the challenging conditions of the tropical rain forest through a simple Q & A session. Quickly though, here's a rundown of the specs:
As is clear, the Contemporary version is cheaper and lighter and aimed at the “consumer” market. The Sport is reportedly sharper, has faster autofocus, is more ruggedly built, and boasts better weather sealing. The Sport version is aimed at the “pro” market.
We're both pros, and yet we chose to buy the Contemporary version for our own use. What the what?
That's right, we elected to buy the consumer version of the lens, and we're here to talk you through our decision.
Q & A with Doug and Greg
Greg: So, Doug what made you choose the Contemporary over the Sport?
Doug: I found it to be just as sharp and fast to autofocus as the Sport version but in a much lighter package and at less than half the price.
Greg: I totally agree, and that's why I made the same choice. If I want to lug around a lens that weighs 7 lbs. I'll take my 300 mm prime with teleconverters, and I'm sure you, Doug, would take a 500 mm or a 600 mm prime. To be able to get out to 600 mm for less than $1000 and in a package that weighs a mere 4 pounds is awesome.
Doug: Definitely, and what really impressed both of us is that the performance at 600 mm even wide open at f/6.3 was quite good. In fact, and this is not hyperbole, we had trouble telling which pictures were taken with the Sigma Contemporary and which we shot with the Canon 600 mm f/4 and the Canon 500 mm f/4 with a 1.4x!
Greg: That's a little depressing isn't it given the cost of the primes?! When we were shooting and evaluating, these were my own thoughts. But Doug is the biggest sharpness nerd I know (really, he's super nerdy about this, and he's like 6' 3”). When he concurred, I knew that the lens was good. But come on, it's not as good as a Canon super telephoto, right?
Doug: Of course not. I'm not going to sell my 500 mm or 600 mm prime, but I'll tell you what. I really think the Sigma Contemporary offers incredible bang for the buck. It's 85% of the Canon 600 mm f/4 for 1/12th price.
Greg: I think it's 87% of the Canon 600, but we'll agree to disagree there. Seriously, though, I'm not going to sell my 300 mm f/2.8 either, and that brings up an interesting point. I'm a rainforest photographer, and people will ask me, isn't the Sigma 150-600, either version, too slow for the rainforest?
Doug: Well, it's not ideal, but we're talking about a sharp performer in a light package that gets you out to 600 mm for $1000. That's very useful, and with the excellent handling of high ISOs in today's DSLR bodies, it's not that big an issue, especially when you consider that for bird photography, you'll often want to stop down a bit to have your depth of field cover the head and shoulders of your subject. So for me, it's a lens that I think is very useful for tropical bird photography. What about you, Greg? Shooting in the tropical rainforest is your bread and butter, and you're not strictly a bird guy. How will you use this lens?
Greg: That's a good question. Like I said, I'm not going to sell my Canon 300 mm f/2.8 because there are times when I need the speed of that fast aperture. Also, I simply love the look of f/2.8! But the Sigma 150-600 offers me three things – the ability to get out to 600 mm without using teleconverters, the ability to zoom for composition in-camera (I'm a nerd that way!), and the ability to have a long lens for hiking in the rainforest or for certain trips where I don't want to carry a heavier prime.
Doug: I hear that, especially the last point. I'm actually considering leaving my telephoto primes at home and just bringing the Sigma zoom for our Costa Rica workshop next year.
Greg: I could see that working fine. I've been putting the lens to use the last few months here in Costa Rica as well as in the cloud forest of Ecuador, the Amazon rainforest of Peru, and the Atacama desert of Chile. I've absolutely loved the ability to zoom for tight shots of a wildlife subject and then pull back for more environmental portraits. This is the kind of thing I really like to do in my wildlife and bird photography so the zoom is great. But, Doug, your specialty is birds in flight. What do you think about the Sigma 150-600 Contemporary for birds in flight, say out at the Bosque del Apache in your backyard in New Mexico?
Doug: Well, there the slow aperture is not an issue. When you have good light for birds in flight, you have plenty of light to shoot at f/6.3. And the zoom could be quite useful to shoot tight shots and group shots or to zoom in and out as birds approach. The big question with this lens is whether the autofocus is fast enough to track flying birds. What I've found is that the lens does a very serviceable job of AF for birds in flight. It can’t match the performance of an f/4 lens that lets in 1 1/3 additional stops of light, but I’ve gotten some nice flight frames with the Sigma 150-600. It’s also important to remember that although you give up light gathering ability with the Sigma, you gain maneuverability due to the lens’s light weight and compact design. The principal drawback to the Sigma lens is its image stabilization, which I find to be inferior to the Canon version. That said, the light weight of the Sigma zoom compensates for that to a degree and, for birds in flight, stabilization is actually not that important because you're using pretty fast shutter speeds by definition.
Greg: Ok, cool. So, I've seen a few reports out on the web regarding calibration issues with this lens, that it back or front focuses. I simply haven't seen it. I tend to think micro-calibration is overrated unless one sees issues; trying to calibrate a lens that doesn't need it can lead you down a rocky road. So, the way I deal with a new lens is to go out and shoot and to check and make sure I'm getting the focus I expect. I've shot the lens with the Canon 7DII and Canon 5DsR and haven't had issues so I haven't done any AF adjustment.
Doug: I haven't either. I'm a stickler for checking my AF performance, and I haven't had to make any adjustments. I saw some of those reports too, and they seem to reference Nikon. Perhaps there is an issue there but since both of us are Canon shooters, it's not something on which we can comment at this point. By the way, I've been playing around with the lens on the new Canon 1Dx II. It's a pretty sweet combo.
Greg: I read something online the other day that Sigma has released a firmware update for this lens that, when installed via the Sigma USB dock, will speed up the AF performance. I might have to look into that. The USB dock is only $50 or so.
Doug: Yeah, I might that check out too. Every advantage helps, especially when you shoot a lot of action like I do. So, I think we're pretty well agreed on why we like the Sigma 150-600 mm Contemporary lens. Does this mean you wouldn't recommend the Sport version?
Greg: I have to say that I would not. I think the Contemporary version is just as sharp and so much lighter and cheaper. And in fact, we saw some issues with the lens hood and the weather sealing on the Sport version. To put it bluntly, I just don't see that there's any advantage to the Sport. Even if the price were the same, I would go with the Contemporary based on the equal performance and the weight savings.
Doug: I agree. I just don't see spending over double the money and hauling around nearly double the weight for reported performance advantages that we simply didn't see.
Greg: Ok then, I'd like to close by saying that I think we both really like the Sigma 150-600 mm Contemporary. I would recommend it for three kinds of users. First, for someone just getting into bird photography, this lens is a great way to get that Holy Grail reach of 600 mm without breaking the bank. Second, I think it's a great lens for people who, due to age or physical condition, simply can't deal with the weight of a super telephoto for bird photography. And third, I would suggest it to any pro who wants to travel lighter at times and who wants the flexibility of a quality zoom.
Doug: Agreed. I think we'll both be recommending it as a great option for our workshop clients. On that note, please check out the links below if you'd like to join Greg and me later this year at the Bosque del Apache in New Mexico or in Costa Rica in 2018 (our 2017 trip is already sold out)!
Doug and I would like to thank Sigma Photo Corporation of America for lending us the lenses for this review. Sigma is making some really exciting glass, and we hope to test more of their lenses in the future. We'd also like to thank Hunt's Photo for helping us out with the purchase of our new Sigma 150-600 mm Contemporary lenses. Hunt's gives great personalized service. Check them out online or give them a call at 781-662-8822.
Doug and I hope you've enjoyed this post. If you have questions, please feel free to drop us a line via a comment below!