Nature Photography by Sash Dias

Camera Lenses Closeup N Black Background
Jun 2012

Lens Review: Sigma 300-800 f/5.6 EX APO IF HSM

Affectionately referred to as the 'Sigmonster' because of its size, the Sigma 300-800mm is the second largest DSLR zoom lens currently being sold today at any price (incidentally the largest is also manufactured by Sigma - the 200-500mm f/2.8).
Weighing in at almost 13 pounds, the 300-800 is no welterweight. It has 18 elements in 16 groups, and is an internal focusing design meaning that the front element of the lens doesn't move as the lens is focused.

Build Quality & Handling
As befitting a lens of this price, the build quality is excellent. As you'll find if you read some of my other articles here, I'm not a fan of the finish Sigma applies to their lenses - the dark furry finish seems to magnetically attract scratches and rub marks. However, the body of the lens feels like a solid, professional tool in your hand (or more likely on your tripod).
Kudos to Sigma on the design of their lens foot (Nikon take note here) - the foot is a low profile, solid hunk of rubber-covered metal and fulfills its purpose perfectly. The finger indents on the top means it doubles as a very effective carrying handle. Compare this to the tripod feet on Nikon's large lenses - the Nikon tripod feet are skinny, overly tall, wobbly pieces of deadwood that most photographers replace immediately upon buying the lens.
The zoom ring and focus ring are a little too stiff for my taste, but not a big deal. The single piece lens hood is well made and seems sturdy enough too. 

sigma-300-800p-2_med

Autofocus
The HSM motor in the seems pretty fast especially for such a long lens. It's a hair slower than a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 with a 2X teleconverter, but the difference isn't significant. The low light conditions I normally shoot in cause almost any long lens to hunt, but the Sigma didnt seem any worse than other big lenses I've used.
Image Quality
You'll know by now that I'm a big fan of the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens, which coupled with a 2X teleconverter has been my primary long lens for a few years now. I shot the lenses side by side and the images below are 100% crops from the center of the image.

nikon-vs-sigma-2_med

nikon-vs-sigma-1_med

So can you guess which picture is from the Sigma and which is from the Nikon? The first one is from the Sigma and the second one's from the Nikon. You can make your own conclusions, but to my eyes the Nikon is quite a bit sharper. This couldn't have been due to lens shake as multiple shots were taken locked down on a tripod with 1/400 sec+ shutter speeds. Ignore the lighting differences as the sun went behind some clouds as I was shooting with the Nikon.

Stopping down seemed to help make the Sigma's output a little crisper, but not by much.

I've been asked a few times why my reviews of long lenses stick to analyzing just the center of the image in a field setting. Wouldn't shots of a test chart in perfect studio lighting conditions provide a much better guide to lens sharpness? I don't doubt it. I'm almost always shooting in bad light and less than ideal conditions, so performance in a studio setting means nothing to me. Also I hardly every put anything in the corners of the image so corners sharpness doesn't mean much either for a long lens.

Size & Weight
The picture below shows the Sigma 300-800 compared to the Nikon 400 (with 2X TC). They're both big lenses, but the Sigma is a few inches longer and a few pounds heavier. It's definitely enough to feel on a day in the field.

sigma-300-800-1_med

Conclusion
The Sigmonster is a very specialized tool for a specialized application. It's calling card is the sheer flexibility of the zooming. In my experience the greatest benefit is in zooming out to 300mm, finding the subject, and quickly zooming in to 800mm. Having missed great shots in the past due to being a split second late in finding the target, I can't stress enough how important this is.
On the downside, you do trade some size and sharpness disadvantages for this flexibility - some of the name brand prime lenses are noticeably sharper and weigh less to boot. Is this lens the right one for you? If you need the zooming flexibility in a super telephoto lens and don't mind carrying around a gargantuan lens, this might be the one! 

Comments

Technique: Getting smooth Bokeh (blurred backgrounds)

Several people have asked me this question over the years, so I'll give you an answer that applies to ALL my photographs. I don't ever remove the backgrounds in my images using software - the soft, blurred backgrounds are the result of the lenses I shoot with and the way I position the background.

Lenses
I try to stick to lenses with either a long focal length or wide aperture as both these factor into getting a shallow depth of field. My lens of choice for bird photography is the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 VR used mostly with a 2X teleconverter, and for flight shots or very close subjects I use the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (sometimes with a 1.7x teleconverter). Both these lenses have pretty nice Bokeh, and using the teleconverters further reduces the depth of field compared to a 'straight lens' - for example, the 400/2.8 with 2x teleconverter (effectively 800mm f/5.6) has a smaller depth of field than a straight 800mm f/5.6 lens.

Background positioning
I try to make sure the background is as far away from the subject as possible, as combined with a small depth of field this results in a blurred background. How can you change the distance of the background in wildlife photography? Simple - just reposition yourself so that there's nothing behind the subject for 10-15 feet at least.

tree-swallow-3_med
An example of good Bokeh - the background is a blurred, soft wash of color and emphasizes the subject

wood-pigeon_med
Bad Bokeh - the branches in the background detract focus from the subject

Comments
May 2016
Mar 2016
Apr 2015
Feb 2014
Nov 2013
Feb 2013
Jan 2013
Oct 2012
Aug 2012
Jun 2012
May 2012
Apr 2012
Mar 2010
May 2009