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PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2008 8:12 pm 
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Hi all,

have just received my copy of the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO macro used from eBay for a very good price. Not only was the lens and the complete package in cosmetically very good condition, but my first test showed that the optical quality of this lens is quite impressive.
Unfortunately, this lens cannot be bought as new, as Sigma decided to discontinue the production in favour of zooms.
But if you look at the (testing-)history of long zooms, almost every zoom is optimized up to 3/4 of its max focal length (i.e. 300mm of a 80-400mm) but shows signs of IQ deterioration at it's longest length (even the fabled Nikon AF-S VR 70-200mm). A fixed focal-length lens on the other hand has only to be good at one length, so that seems much easier to design, and I suppose something of these design consequences shows up in the optical quality of this lens.
By the way, it's also far easier to control build-quality for a fixed focal lens than for a zoom. And as many of us have already experienced, quality control at Sigma is debatable, to say the least :?

I'll do a short series of tests and present the results to you, so that you are able to judge for yourself, how good this lens is, and whether this could be the long tele-lens for you. In the meantime you might want to update your knowledge about comparable long zoom reviews from me be following this thread...

(***NEW***) There is also the very similar Sigma AF 300mm f/4.0 APO macro for those who prefer a one stop larger aperture and don't need the large magnification of the 400mm.

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Last edited by Thomas on Sun Aug 24, 2008 9:51 pm, edited 6 times in total.

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PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2008 8:46 pm 
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Now here's the answer to the most important question for all you Camera Labs forum members:
Is this lens good for capturing da duck O' the day?

Well, yes! This is one helluva lens to capture those quackers from near and far as you can get up close and personal up to 1:3 magnification from 1.6m away. And a quack of 30cm hight can be captured from 8m away and still fill the frame of your humble APS-C sensored camera. For full-framers it's a little closer at 5-6m...
So these are the best preconditions to make Patti jealous with envy or overjoyed with the results of your next quack-safari :D

But seriously, here are the main facts from the catalog:
Size: 89x265mm = large :(
Weight: 1290g w/o caps and collar = not too heavy for such a big lens :?
Optics: ?? elements in ? groups = ?? Don't have any information :?
Closest focus distance/max.magnification: 1.6m / 1:3 (tested and confirmed) :D
Filter-thread: 77mm = standard :)
No IS = very bad :cry:
AF (no built in focus motor/HSM), so does not work on D40/x/D60-bodies :( , manual-focus override by turning a ring :?
Covers full frame/FX or smaller = normal :)
Comes with a nice lens-bag :)
Price: around 300-400€ used = not dirt-cheap :?
The front- and rear lens-cap are cr*p (as usual with a Sigma lens) :(
Distance information is relayed to the camera, so the Nikon body can do all the advanced exposure-related stuff with this lens :D
Aperture ring = yes, just like a Nikon D-lens, moves in 1/2 stops :D
Built-in lens-shade :)
Removeable tripod-collar, easy to turn camera to portrait-mode :D
Limiter switch: Yes, with two positions: "full" or 3.5m to infinity / 1.6-2.5m.

Versions:
There was an earlier version that was not designated "macro" which can be found even cheaper on eBay (around 200€) and there was also a HSM (aka AF-S) version which would have worked on a D40/x/60...
Mine is the macro but non-HSM version.

Alternatives:
Well, apart from zooms ending at 400mm or beyond there's only one fixed focal 400mm out there for Nikonians: the "cheapo" Nikon AF-S VR 400mm 2.8G ED for above 7000€ :shock: At 4.6 kg not a light-weight either :roll:

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Last edited by Thomas on Sat Aug 09, 2008 9:41 pm, edited 7 times in total.

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PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2008 9:25 pm 
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Ah, you want to know how images look like with this lens?!
Yeah sorry, but no ducks (so far)! But I have tulips and the dreaded Siemens-star for you. All taken at f/5.6 (=max aperture)...

Image

Image
Click through to all the full-glory 4288x2848 resolution!

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PostPosted: Fri May 09, 2008 9:50 pm 
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Here's another image from today shot handheld at f/5.6, ISO 800, 1/2000 sec in bright sunlight from 25m distance.
It shows you the nice small dof that you can achieve full open, but it also shows you that even at 1/2000 (!) you can see traces of shake in the image (click through to the large original).

Ira in the Sun
Image

So it's absolutely necessary to have a good support for your lens and/or use the shortest possible shutter times to get critically sharp images.

The other thing I experienced is heavy flare, when the sun shines directly into the lens, so avoid that at all cost. Which is not easy as the built-in lens-shade is only 4cm deep and you cannot handhold the cam+lens with your right hand and use your left hand to shield the sun 8)

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PostPosted: Mon May 12, 2008 3:28 pm 
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Some additional remarks:
- I use the auto-ISO feature on my D300 with the ISO floor set to 800 and the min shutter-speed to 1/250sec (unfortunately the D300-settings won't let you go to shorter shutter-times)
- I shoot at aperture priority and keep the aperture fully open most of the times (which is no prob as the lens produces stunning results at this aperture)
- This together lets the camera choose the shortest shotter-speed under all circumstances, increase the ISO to 3200 (the set limit) when lights get dim or decrease the ISO below 800 when the light is to bright for f/5.6+1/8000 sec.
- All this is very convenient and ISO 800 again proves its worth on the D300 :D

There were also some reports on flimsy switches (AF and focus-limiter). My report back in this issues is:
- AF/MF-switch: it's a ring behind the focus ring, very convenient, not flimsy at all. But I assume that the HSM-version has a different switch...
- The focus-limiter lets you choose 3.5m-infinity or 1.6-2.5m. It's not the sturdiest switch (in the front section besides the distance window) but I wouldn't complain
- The switch to lock the aperture ring is not marked and looks a little flimsy. But then it is not much stronger on original Nikon lenses...

Btw. when you're switched to AF, the focus ring can be turned freely. And when you switch to MF the focus-mechanismis completely detached from the camera. So no manual AF-override with this versio of the lens- You need the later HSM-version to accomplish that.

All in all the lens makes a very sturdy and non-wobbling impression (much easier for a fixed-focal to achieve). Lens mount and lower lens-body are decidedly made from metal. The finish is "clean" and has a good grip although I personally don't prefer the smoothness of the broad rubberized focus-ring.

As to the quality of the tripod-collar I can make no comment, as I'm not an avid tripod shooter. But I can say that the collar is easy to lock/unlock for turning the camera from landscape to portraiture and easy to detach without dismounting the lens from the body.
So I'd give the mechanical part a clear 4 stars :D
...were it not for the missing manual override of AF that you really could need some times, when the focus is hunting in the wrong direction...

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Last edited by Thomas on Mon May 12, 2008 4:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon May 12, 2008 4:08 pm 
Good review on the lens, i checked out that image of the dog on the bigger version and its the shake is obvious, its a bit in your face. But i have a feeling if your going to do macro with this lens, you would be mounting it on tripod! and thus maybe it would work better, using a timer or shutter release not to cause camera shake (and hope that there wont be an earthquake :P)

This is a pretty long focal length, when using it on the D300 sensor isnt that 400*1.5=600mm?

What was the purpose for the buy if i may ask?


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PostPosted: Mon May 12, 2008 4:58 pm 
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I've always been looking for some longer reach with AF, as my Tamron 500mm f/8 mirror-lens is short and light (and much cheaper) but lacks AF and also has some strange (some say outright uggly) bokeh and not a very high resolution.
So after trying out the obvious zooms (incl. the best of them, the Nikon 80-400mm VR) I was not convinced to invest 800-1600EUR for something that was either not really sharp (Tamron/Sigma) or outdated for that price (Nikon).
And after the first images of the new Sigma 120-400 turned out to be less than convincing I headed for this lens. Complemented by my Nikon 180mm f/2.8D it covers the long end with impressively sharp images for a pretty low investment (the Nikon 400mm f/5.6 alone is at 1000EUR new, 600-700EUR used and still has no VR).
On a cropped sensor body the 400mm is certainly too long for everyday use (unless you're on a Safari :wink: ), but will get more useful on a FX-body.

A nice alternative (albeit still without IS) seems to be the Sigma 100-300 f/4.0! IQ seems pretty good even wide open and it comes with the flexibility of being a zoom. But having the Nikon 180mm/2.8 in the middle and this lens not having the reach of the 400mm plus the prices even used are pretty high (>500$/EUR) I refrained from looking into this lens.
My only real hope is that Nikon innovates the 80-400 VR with better VR and a better performance on the long end. But this then will be a HUGE investment for some later time...

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PostPosted: Fri May 23, 2008 10:18 pm 
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Just getting back from an extented outdoor-shooting with this lens.
I can report that the dreaded shake of this non-stabilized lens can be effectively minimized even for an aged guy like me: Just grab the lens at the foremost point with your left hand - that being the extended lens-shade. This way is much more stable than holding the lens midway at the focus-ring (as I'm using AF anyways)!
I was able to get quite sharp shots consistantly at 1/125 sec handheld free standing without doing any Zen tricks :wink:
((and don't you forget: 400mm on APS-C = 600mm effective focal length))
In this respect this long and relatively heavy lens is much better (to hold steady) than my 500mm mirror lens :idea:

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PostPosted: Fri May 23, 2008 10:34 pm 
Hi Thomas,

that's a great and informative review and some very convincing images to boot.

I've been looking to increase my range from my 55-200VR for my D40. I realize that there would be no AF with the D40 and this lens, but I would not mind using manual focus.

However, I'm also intrigued by your 500mm mirror lens - the one you took that great image of the kid on the beach with - although F8 is a little "scary" lol. WHile my superb precision elite-instrument (D40..lol!) is versatile, ISO higher than 800 is a territory I try to avoid..:-) THen again, 500mm is wow..

Might I ask what it set you back?

Cheers :-)


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PostPosted: Fri May 23, 2008 10:54 pm 
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I saw a lot of the 400mm/non-HSM/77mm version going for 400-470€ on the German eBay site. No offer of the HSM-version when I watched it. And the older 72mm front-filter thread version was around 250€.

With the experience up to now I'd say 400/500mm is quite extreme. Esp. when it's not a zoom! You happen to end up with tighter crops than you might like many times. So a 80-400 or 70-300mm zoom might be something that gives you a lot more shots than those long fixed-focals.
Looking at the price/performance-ratio it's hard to beat the 70-300mm/5.6 VR! Esp. as you get image stab. thrown in for good measure :D

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PostPosted: Sat May 24, 2008 6:54 pm 
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Further testing revealed some slightly strange behaviors of this lens:

(1) When you stop the lens down the exposure gets darker too. Approx. 1/4 EV per 1 stop. I immediately tested another lens, as I had a similar effect with my old D80 body which was due to a mechanical prob of the body but the D300 + Nikon 180/2.8 exposed fine. So this is indeed a characteristic of this lens. I didn't tumble over it immediately because with long tele-lenses I tend to use them wide open or 1EV stopped down.
Here's my statistic: If you take f/5.6 as perfectly exposed, you need +1/4EV to compensate for the darkening @f/8, 1/2@f/11, +3/4@f/16, 1@f/22, +1.2EV@f/32. So in effect the lens is delivering aperture information to the body that makes the body underexpose by about 1 stop when stopped down :(

(2) This lens has 1/2 aperture stops, but the body can only react to it if you set EV-steps to 1/2 or 1/3. Otherwise the following happens: If you chose say f/5.6 and expose right (assume 1/1000 sec @ ISO 200) and then you close the lens 1/2 stop to f/6.3 the body still exposes with 1/1000 sec not the 1/750 sec that would be appropriate :idea:

All-in-all (1) is not an optimal behaviour but honestly I'm not using anything smaller than (or above) f/11 on this lens and as I'm shooting RAW the leeway for exposure is big enough to compensate for it afterwards (in post-processing).

Do I think that this is a problem of my individual lens :?:
Well, no! I'd suspect that this is the problem of the whole series. But if you get one for yourself, either test it beforehand or make sure it does bother you as little as it does bother me...

And make sure you have set exposure-steps in your camera correctly.

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Last edited by Thomas on Sun May 25, 2008 12:57 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Sat May 24, 2008 7:13 pm 
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And there was a question from LahLahSr: "How do you find this lens, compared to the 500mm mirror lens - other than the difference aperture?"
The pros of the Sigma 400mm compared to the Tamron 500mm mirror:
+ 1 stop larger aperture (f/5.6 vs. f/8 )
+ easier to handhold stable (got 1/125 sec sharp vs. 1/500 or even 1/1000 needed on the 500mm)
+ better contrast
+++ has AF
+ has more than just one aperture so you can control dof
+ nicer bokeh (all mirror-lenses have this strange doughnut-shaped bokeh)
The cons of the Sigma:
- costs more (at least double or triple the Tamron)
-- is much heavier and longer, so everybody is suspecting you're taking their photo whereas the Tamron is so short most people don't think of it as a tele-lens.

Now what is my favourite? Well it depends:
- capturing nature, wildlife etc.: the Sigma 400mm
- capturing people: perhaps the more unobstrusive Tamron 500mm

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PostPosted: Sun May 25, 2008 10:31 am 
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To give you an impression of size here is a bunch of lenses that go to 180/200/400/500mm:

Image
Sigma 400/5.6D AF, Nikon 180/2.8D AF, Nikon 18-200VR @200, Tamron 500/8 mirror MF
So the shortest (the Tamron at 96mm) is the longest (=500mm focal length) :)

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PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 9:34 pm 
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After some "interesting" results from my Nikon 180/2.8 I tested the Sigma 400/5.6 at the same subject for longitudinal CAs:

Image

Not much to be seen here. Compare to the results from the Nikon lens here.
So this lens is almost free of CA problems as I've seen not much of lateral CAs either :)

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 16, 2008 7:34 pm 
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Here's intersting proof of how the borders/corners of this lens hold up even at f/5.6 (all crops 100% for pixel-peeping):

Center:Image Corner:Image

Nice, huh?!

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