In the world of photography, both amateur and professional photographers oftentimes tend to gravitate to the same brand of camera lenses as their camera body. Photographers with Nikon cameras like to stick with Nikon lenses because of their reputation for stellar image quality and excellent durability. If you owned a Canon camera, you tend to only look into Canon lenses. Third party camera lens manufacturers, such as Sigma and Tamron tend to be conceived as offering inferior lenses at a lower price or better value compared to similar offerings from the big camera and lens manufacturers such as Nikon and Canon. In the past, photographers usually only choose third party camera lenses to save money. Yes, there are photographers that purchase third party lenses because the particular lens is very unique in its focal length or design, but more often than not, it’s simply just to get better bang for your buck.
Back in 2008, Sigma experimented with a breakthrough concept. Someone at Sigma decided that instead of making inferior products at a lower price, let’s offer a better product for a better value! Thus the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG was born.. the start of the new Sigma era. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG was the first Sigma Lens, in my opinion, that offered photographers with a well thought out, high quality lens that rivalled lens from Nikon and Canon. Many attributes of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4EX DG was actually better than the Nikon and Canon counterparts, and they priced the lens higher than Nikon and Canon’s own 50mm f/1.4 lenses. The lens was a huge success and the start to something truly great for Sigma. Soon came the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG, another huge hit. I personally owned both the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG and the 85mm f/1.4 EX DG in the past and they were excellent lenses.
At Photokina 2012, Sigma Corporation once again takes another giant leap forward. They announced their new concept: Sigma Global Vision. They decided that moving forward, all lenses they produce will belong to one of the three Global Vision categories – Contemporary, Art and Sports. All the latest lenses have an all new exterior design that is solid, high quality and sexy. Sigma lenses are no longer poorly build, ugly third party lenses at a lower price. They are now unique, high quality options for amateurs and even professional photographers demanding the best in image quality and handling. The Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM is part of the Sports line, alongside other telephoto prime and zoom lenses designed for high speed action, such as sports and nature photography.
I’ve been a professional photographer for over eight years and have had the pleasure of photographing many performances and shows of all sizes (check out my work here). Photographing shows usually mean that I will be using one of Nikon’s excellent telephoto lenses. I’ve used the AF-S 200mm f/2, AF-S 300mm f/2.8, AF-S 400mm f/2.8 and AF-S 200-400mm f/4 for performances and shows, and they all provide excellent image quality, super quick and accurate autofocus and enjoyable handling. All of the above factors are very important to a professional photographer, because if either image quality, autofocus and/or handling is lacking on a lens, it can seriously impair our work. Back in July of this year, my team and I photographed the New Talent Singing Awards Toronto Audition 2014 新秀歌唱大賽多倫多選拔賽, the largest singing contest for the Chinese Community in Canada. The finals at the Hershey Centre in Brampton was broadcasted live on Fairchild Television. The newly released Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM Sport lens caught my eye so instead of shooting with my usual Nikon AF-S 200-400mm f/4 lens, I decided to give the Sigma 120-300mm a spin. Our photo pit was centre stage, slightly above stage level. This gave us an excellent view of the whole stage, but it means that we will need telephoto lenses to capture individual contestants on stage.
The Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM is a very unique lens. It’s the only telephoto zoom lens in this focal length range that offer the fast f/2.8 aperture! Even my go-to lens for performances and events, the almighty Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens “only” has a maximum aperture of f/4, one full stop slower than the Sigma 120-300mm. That extra stop of light could mean better image quality (due to being able to use a lower ISO setting and or faster shutter speeds), and could sometimes mean the difference between being able to get the shot or not being able to get the shot. Having a telephoto zoom with a fast aperture is very beneficial to any photographer, especially when photographing performances and shows.
For me, image quality is the number one priority to our work. My team of talented photographers and I must aim to capture excellent moments with stellar technical skills. In terms of sharpness, the Sigma 120-300mm lens is excellent. For the most part, photos are at least on par compared to similar Nikon telephoto lenses.. a truly excellent feat, considering the MSRP for the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 is $3999.95 while the Nikon AF-S 200-400mm f/4 VRll has a MSRP of $7699.95. That’s almost half the price! I know some may argue that we’re not comparing the same thing here, since the focal length is different, but to me, both the Sigma 120-300mm and Nikon 200-400mm are used for performance and shows.
Photos from my Nikon D4S with Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 are sharp and detailed. Zoomed in at 100% on my 27″ iMac, you can’t tell between photos from the Sigma 120-300 and Nikon telephoto lenses. Older third party lenses sometimes have a slight colour cast to the images, but I don’t see a different in colour when using the latest Sigma lenses.
Autofocus performance is also a major factor when choosing a lens. Traditionally, the autofocus performance is dependent mostly on the camera body. There is a spring loaded screw drive on the camera body lens mount (some of the newest entry level dSLR cameras omitted the screw drive to cut cost), and the lens itself has a screw hole that the screw drive falls into, and turns the focus ring on the lens to focus the lens. Many years ago, lenses started to come with built in electronic focusing systems. Nikon calls it the Silent Wave Motor (SWM), and Sigma calls it Hypersonic Motor (HSM).
The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 Sport Lens is equipped with HSM, meaning most of the autofocus performance is dependent on the lens itself. There is no longer a mechanical, screw drive system for focusing, allowing quicker (generally) and near silent focusing. When playing with the lens before the shoot, I noticed the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 lens focuses a bit slower compared to Nikon telephoto lenses. It’s less responsive and feels slower to lock onto the subject. During the New Talent Singing Awards, most of my full body and close up shots were taken with the Sigma 120-300mm lens. In the field, I didn’t feel that the “slower” autofocus performance hindered my photography. The lens mounted on my Nikon D4S still tracks moving subjects exceptionally well and I don’t remember a moment where I felt that the autofocus impaired my ability to capture a certain moment.
The handling and ergonomics of a lens is another important aspect. The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 feels very balanced on a full size professional dSLR Camera such as my Nikon D4S. There’s a smooth matte finish on the lens, similar to all of the latest Sigma Global Vision lenses. The zoom and focus rings are large and smooth to operate. My one and only complaint with the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 Lens is with the lens tripod collar.
The tripod collar is the part of the lens that looks like the “foot”. Its purpose is to allow photographers to attach the lens to a monopod or tripod, and then you can loosen the collar to allow you to easily switch between landscape and portrait orientation. You do not want to mount your camera onto a tripod with a large, heavy lens in front, because the weight of the lens could easily bend your lens mount and damage your camera body. With the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 lens, the tripod collar has one big knob that loosens the tripod collar to allow you to freely turn your camera and switch your orientation, and if you turn it far enough, it will fully open and allow you to remove the tripod collar if you do not need it. One major design flaw in my opinion is that as you loosen the tripod collar knob (which is necessary when shooting with this lens on a monopod), the lens tends to tilt forward and continues to grind against the tripod collar. This makes turning the camera orientation very very difficult. I am very used to the silk smooth tripod collars found on Nikon lenses. That’s because Nikon has two knobs on their tripod collars. One to loosen and allow for orientation change, and another for removing the foot (if applicable). The grinding on the Sigma tripod collar was so bad I had to move my left hand from the zoom ring towards the front of the lens and tip it slightly upwards to make the lens turn. I feel that this is quite a major issue with this lens that I hope gets redeveloped in the next version of the Sigma 120-300mm. The removable collar also means that sand, dust and other things can get stuck in the tripod collar, further making the collar operation very rough.
The Sigma 120-300mm F/2.8 DG OS HSM Sport Lens is another high performance, unique dSLR lens from a very reputable third party lens manufacturer. Sigma has come a long way and are now producing lenses that look great, have stellar image quality with good autofocus performance at a good price point. You are no longer sacrificing image quality in order to save money by going with a third party lens. No other lens manufacturer currently offer a 120-300mm dSLR lens with a f/2.8 aperture, making this lens a unique tool for both professional and amateur photographers.
If you plan to handhold this lens most of the time (very doable), then this lens is a no brainer if the focal length works for your style. If you do photograph a lot of performance, shows and sports and rely on using your lenses on a monopod or tripod, I would recommend going to your local camera store to try out the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 lens first to make sure the issue with the tripod collar is something you can live with. At just over half the price of the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR lens, you are getting an amazing lens for a great value. The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 lens is dust and weather sealed, similar to Professional Nikon Lenses (I’ve never tried using a Sigma lens in harsh conditions so I can’t compare it’s ability to handle the elements). It comes with 7 years of warranty in Canada, comparing to just 5 years of warranty on Nikon Lenses in Canada. You are able to use the new Sigma USB Dock and Software to adjust and customize many aspects of your lens on your computer. Sigma also has a new Mount Conversion Service that allows you to switch the lens mount of your Sigma Global Vision lens to a different mount (if you switch your Canon system to Nikon, you can get Sigma to change your Canon Mount Sigma Global Vision Lenses to a Nikon F Mount). All of these above items add value to your purchase, but in the end, it is up to you as the photographer to decide on what lens suit your work and needs. Special thanks to Greg Ricci & Mike Last at Gentec International/Sigma Canada for lending me the Sigma 120-300mm F/2.8 Sport Lens for the New Talent Singing Awards 2014.