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Sigma 150-500mm f5-6.3 DG OS HSM Thomas, June 2012
 

Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM review

The Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM is a stabilized super-telephoto zoom lens; indeed it's one of only two stabilized telephoto zoom lenses reaching 500mm focal length, the other being Sigma's own 50-500mm 4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM.

The 150-500mm is available for Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Sony and Pentax mounts. Announced January 2008, it's the longer sibling to the Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM which is very similar in construction. In fact it looks like only the front-end between both lenses is different to accommodate the different focal lengths.

With these three lenses Sigma has covered many bases in its long zoom offerings. So people looking for something to complement their kit lenses or moderate tele-zooms will almost certainly have one of Sigma's zooms on their short-list. As all three offer optical stabilization the choice comes down to maximum focal length and zoom-range. The 50-500mm seems to be the logical choice here as it covers the greatest range. But it also is the most expensive of all three, and a 10x super-zoom represents a much greater challenge for optical construction than the moderate 3.3x zooms covering 120-400mm or 150-500mm. That makes the 150-500mm the best choice for people wanting the longest reach at the most affordable price. Whether Sigma was able to come up with a well performing zoom within these design parameters is subject of my review. To really put this super-telephoto zoom through its paces I got hold of the F-mount version and tested it on a 36 Megapixel full-frame Nikon D800. Read on to discover how it performed.

 
Sigma 150-500mm review
 


Facts from the catalog

 
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As usual I'll have a look at the technical data first. I've rated the features with a [+] (or [++]), when it's better than average or even state of the art, a [0] if it's standard or just average, and [-] if there's a disadvantage.

Size (diam. x length): 95 x 252 mm (3.7 x 9.9 in). For a lens reaching 500mm focal length it is not too big: at its shortest state it is only 4 cm longer than Nikon's 70-200/2.8. But it extends another 63mm when zoomed to 500mm focal length, plus it has a 100mm deep lens-hood. So all-in-all this lens can be as long as 406mm (16 in, measured from the lens-mount). [0]

Weight: 1780 g (62.8 oz) = not too heavy for its size. But you should definitely not use a strap attached to your DSLR to carry the combo on your shoulder. Better to use the supplied lens-strap fixed to the grip of the lens. [0]

Optics: 21 elements in 15 groups. This is a lot of glass but pretty much standard for modern zooms. The manufacturer has to be extra careful with good lens-coatings to maintain a decent level of contrast and flare-resistance. And the owner should really use the lens-hood. This is also a good protection for the large front-element. The cross-section shows three low dispersion elements. [0]

Closest focus distance/max. magnification: 2.20 m (7.2 ft.) / 1:5.2. I measured this with manual focus to go down to 1:4.7. This is quite useful for moderate close-ups. [+]

Filter-thread: 82mm = bigger and more expensive than the 77mm standard with pro lenses. But to achieve f6.3 at 500mm you cannot stay at 77mm filter thread. [0]

IS: Yes = this is a really critical feature for such long focal lengths. [+]

AF: AF with HSM (hyper sonic motor), means it works on Nikon's D60/3x00/5x00-bodies, plus there's simple manual-focus override by turning the focus ring. [+]

   
 
   
   

Covers full frame/FX or smaller = very good. [+]

Price: around 890 EUR new (incl. 19% VAT) = the cheapest way to reach 500mm with stabilization! The Tamron 200-500mm (non-stabilized) is 900 EUR and the Sigma 50-500mm at 1300 EUR. Only the Sigma 120-400mm is cheaper at 750 EUR, but of course it doesn't reach 500mm. [+]

Comes with a soft padded case, an extra lens-strap, a reversible lens-shade, and standard lens-caps (Sigma has finally caught up with Nikon in that respect). [+]

Distance information is relayed to the camera, so the latest bodies can do all the advanced exposure-related stuff with this lens. But this is true for most alternatives too. [+]

Aperture ring = no, just like all Nikon G-lenses. [0]

Sealing: no. Better take care in the great wet outdoors! [0]

So the score in the "features-department" is 0[-]/6[0]/7[+]. This lens ticks most important boxes, except perhaps weather sealing for those using this lens extensively outdoors. Sports and wildlife shooters be warned!

 

Motivation:

A 150-500mm zoom is clearly for those wanting to grab a subject that is pretty far away. This may be animals in nature or action / sports-shooting. Image stabilization makes it possible to shoot without a tripod or simply relying on a light monopod. And the zoom range makes it easier to adapt to the distance from your target which cannot always be influenced under less than ideal shooting conditions. Just to give you a feeling how far away you can be for capturing the full height of an average person with this lens: from 15m to 50m is the working distance for landscape orientation on an FX-body or portrait-orientation on a DX-body.

 

Alternatives:

Current zooms reaching 500mm include only three alternatives:
- Sigma AF 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM, 20% shorter and over 100 EUR cheaper but otherwise the same.
- Sigma AF 50-500mm 4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM, for 400 EUR more you get an extension of the short end from 150mm to 50mm.
- There are also some 80/100-400mm lenses on offer of which the venerable Canon EF 100-400mm IS USM and Nikon AF VR 80-400mm 4.5-5.6D ED are the most popular.

You could of course try other lenses with a tele-converter to reach 500mm. E.g. one of the popular stabilized 70-300/4.0-5.6 zooms mounted on a 1.7x converter gives you a 120-510/6.8-9.5. But see the problem? You lose over one stop maximum aperture on the long end compared to the Sigma 150-500 OS. Most AF-systems stop working under these conditions.

 

Sharpness and contrast

Let's have a look at the theoretical performance (MTF-charts) of the Sigma 150-500 OS first.

 
MTF of the Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 DG OS HSM
The Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 150mm, f5.0
  The Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 500mm, f6.3

   

These charts show the lens-performance at the largest aperture, in this case for f5.0 (at 150mm, resp. f6.3 at 500mm). Higher values are better and the closer the dotted and the continuous lines of each color are together the less astigmatism (= resolution depends on the orientation of the test-pattern) the lens has. The x-axis displays the distance from the optical axis (=center of the sensor) in mm. I'll show you the real-life performance at 4 mm (center), 13 mm (DX-corner), and 20 mm (FX-corner) on a D800 in a moment.

The charts above imply that the lens should have a pretty good overall contrast. But it also shows that regarding sharpness it either has a problem outside the DX image-circle on the short end or a general problem with astigmatism at the long end. Let's see how this theoretical performance translates into real life results in the sharpness test based on Siemens-stars.

What follows are near-center results (first column) followed by DX-corner results and FX-corner results on a D800. The D800 results from the DX-corner should be a very good approximation for performance on a 16MP DX sensor (like the D7000), because the pixel-pitch of both sensors are the same. But differences in the AA-filter and micro-lens-design of a D800 and a D7000 might yield different end-results.

Processing was done in Lightroom 4 from RAW at camera standard settings. This is a deviation from my earliest reviews which were developed in CaptureNX 2. This was triggered by a close comparison of both RAW-converters: Lightroom 4 has a sharpening algorithm that can be better tuned for small details. Noise-reduction is set to 0, sharpening to 70/0.5/36/10, with no extra tone, color, or saturation-adjustment. White-balance was adjusted to a neutral white and I did some exposure compensation to make the brightness match. Removal of standard (tangential) CA is ON, for longitudinal CA OFF.

These are all 100% crops!

 

First are the results from 150mm focal length:

Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 150mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 150mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 150mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
f5, 200 ISO
f5, 200 ISO
f5, 200 ISO
         
   
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
         
   
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
         
   
f11, 200 ISO
f11, 200 ISO
f11, 200 ISO
         
   
f16, 200 ISO
f16, 200 ISO
f16, 200 ISO
         

This is quite an astonishing performance for a zoom: even wide open the results are very good at the center, the DX-corner, and the FX-corner. Remember that we are looking with a 36MP sensor at the performance of this lens. So this is an excellent result!

 

Now let's see whether the lens can keep this level of performance at 200mm too:

Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 200mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 200mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 200mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
f5.3, 200 ISO
f5.3, 200 ISO
f5.3, 200 ISO
         
   
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
         
   
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
         
   
f11, 200 ISO
f11, 200 ISO
f11, 200 ISO
         
   
f16, 200 ISO
f16, 200 ISO
f16, 200 ISO
         

Performance in the DX-corner and the FX-corner deteriorates a bit below f8 compared to 150mm. But still the center performs very good already at f 5.3 and corner resolution is not too bad too. At f8 the image quality across the FX sensor has improved to very good levels with the center performing flawlessly. Note: I think the test-shot of the DX-corner at f5.6 may be marred by some residual shake and not show the full potential.

 

Next up are the results at the 300mm focal length:

Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 300mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 300mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 300mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
f6, 200 ISO
f6, 200 ISO
f6, 200 ISO
         
   
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
         
   
f11, 200 ISO
f11, 200 ISO
f11, 200 ISO
         
   
f16, 200 ISO
f16, 200 ISO
f16, 200 ISO
         

Center performance is still pretty good already wide open although the corners suffer from low contrast and astigmatism at f6. F8 sharpens up the FX-corner while the center and DX-corner don't profit equally. F11 gives the center a boost to very good sharpness and the DX-corner get visibly more definition. But even at f16 you can no longer reach the quality of 200 mm focal length at f8.

 

Next are the results at the 400mm focal length:

Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 400mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 400mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 400mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
f6.3, 100 ISO
f6.3, 200 ISO
f6.3, 200 ISO
         
   
f8, 100 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
         
   
f11, 100 ISO
f11, 200 ISO
f11, 200 ISO
         
   
f16, 100 ISO
f16, 200 ISO
f16, 200 ISO
         

Good center performance can now only be achieved at f8 but the corners (at DX especially) are suffering from some light-bleeding. And even if you stop down further neither the DX-corner nor the FX-corner achieve good definition. BTW. the deterioration in image quality at f11 from the center into the corners can also be seen at 66% or 50% magnification. So even on a D4 or a D700 the weak corners will show.

 

And finally at the maximum of 500mm:

Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 500mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 500mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS at 500mm with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
f6.3, 100 ISO
f6.3, 100 ISO
f6.3, 100 ISO
         
   
f8, 100 ISO
f8, 100 ISO
f8, 100 ISO
         
   
f11, 100 ISO
f11, 100 ISO
f11, 100 ISO
         
   
f16, 100 ISO
f16, 100 ISO
f16, 100 ISO
         

At the 500mm focal length you need to stop down to f11 to get good center performance. But it seems that the image quality at the DX- or FX-corner is immune to stopping down. But there is still some definition of fine detail even fully open in the corners although everything is covered in a haze.

 

Sigma 150-500mm f5-6.3 DG OS HSM sample images gallery

The following images were taken with the Sigma AF 150-500/5-6.3 OS on a Nikon D800. Each image was recorded in RAW and converted with Lightroom 4 at Adobe Standard settings. Noise-reduction is set to 0, sharpening to 70/0.5/36/10, no extra tone, color, or saturation-adjustment was used. Some images have White Balance set to a standard daylight value to make them comparable. You can click on each image to access the large original. Please respect our copyright and only use those images for personal use.

The first image shows what you can achieve in a typical landscape situation.

 

Unremarkables: Infinity shot with Sigma 150-500 OS at 300mm on a D800
f8, 1/320 sec, 100 ISO, OS=OFF; Below: 100% crops from main image from different places
 
   
f8, 100 ISO, center
 
f8, 100 ISO, 8mm off
  f8, 100 ISO, FX-corner

Clicking of the image gives you access to the large original version. The central building is about 2.8 km away from the camera and you have to take into account that heat-shimmer is already building at 8:38 in the morning. Still the image quality is very usable.

Next up is a shot that shows you the performance with closer targets. Focus was on the duck in the middle and the 100% crops show the details you can get. It also shows a more typical situation where the corner performance is not really critical.

Ducks: shot with Sigma 150-500 OS at 290mm on a D800
Main image (DX-crop) and all 100% crops: 290mm, f8, 1/640 sec, OS=ON, 360 ISO, no NR
 
   
100% crop
 
100% crop
  100% crop

 

Birds in flight belong to the more challenging shots you can do with a long tele-zoom. I had to use 500 mm and still crop to DX to display the birds in a satisfying size. I set the ISO automatic of the D800 to use 2x focal length (i.e. 1/1000 sec in this case) because I didn't want to bet that the OS could eliminate all shake/movement from this action-shot. Again - quite typical for many long tele shots - corner performance doesn't matter here.

Birds in Flight: shot with Sigma 150-500 OS at 500mm on a D800
Main image (DX-crop) and all 100% crops: 500mm, f8, 1/1000 sec, OS=ON, 320 ISO, no NR
 
   
100% crop
 
100% crop
  100% crop

 

Can f6.3 lenses produce Bokeh? Yes they can. Just remember that a small dof is not only produced by large apertures but also by large magnification. The following shot was taken at 500/6.3 at around 2.8m distance. The 100% crops are from the focal plane, a little behind, and even further behind the point of sharpest focus. As you can see the bokeh of subjects far behind the focal plane is pretty good (right crop) but the middle crop displays a characteristic that we've already seen in the Siemens-stars: subjects still keep some degree of sharpness but bright areas produce a halo and bleed into their darker neighborhoods. Thus the contrast of out-of-focus subjects is reduced visibly but without the "creamy" characteristic of a top-notch bokeh.

Flowers: Bokeh shot with Sigma 150-500 OS at 500mm on a D800
Main image and all 100% crops: 500mm, f6.3, 100 ISO
 
   
100% crop
 
100% crop
  100% crop

 

Check out more Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS sample images.

 

Focus and build quality

Focus accuracy and repeatability is critical for long tele lenses with their large magnification and resulting shallow depth of field. Repeatability (the accuracy of focus on the same subject after repeated focus-acquisition) of the Sigma zoom is very good with no outliers over a series of 20 shots although there is a slight focus-difference when the lens comes from infinity vs its minimum focus distance. The lens focuses relatively slowly taking around one second from infinity to 2.2m.

The focus ring of the 1.8G turns approximately 125 degrees from infinity to MFD. This throw is good enough for manual focusing (in live-view), and there is no play between the focus-ring and the focus-action. The movement of the focus-ring is pretty smooth and AF-operation is quiet. The movement of the zoom is very smooth which easily leads to zoom-creep when the lens is pointing down or up. Fortunately Sigma implemented a zoom-lock at 150mm. But you have to be very careful: If you hold the zoom at the front-end to keep the lens stable you might easily shift the focal length by simply pushing or pulling at it. The general impression of build quality of this lens is smooth and precise with only small tolerances although the light weight implies that it is not built like a tank. So be careful when carrying or transporting this lens: the use of the padded case might be a good idea to prevent the lens from bumping around in your trunk.

 

Image stabilization

All lenses with image stabilization look quite good through the viewfinder - which unfortunately has the negative effect of giving you almost no visual feedback on the quality of your hand-holding. But even if you have OS/IS/VR in your lens you better do your very best to keep the lens as stable as you can to make the action of the image stabilization as easy as possible. Because I can tell you: Looking through the viewfinder and finding everything smooth and virtually shake-free does not necessarily translate into blur-free 500mm images when examined at 100% magnification.

So I did some tests hand-held at 500mm to find out whether switching on OS could help to get a hit rate of sharp photos that equals shots without OS at 4x shorter shutter speeds. So I was effectively testing the assumption that the OS could give you a 2 stops advantage. When I tested the Sigma 120-400 OS I was quite disappointed to find only a 1 stop advantage (see my review of the Sigma AF 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM).

It turned out that the shots at 1/125 sec with OS=ON almost matched the distribution of quality that I could achieve at 1/500 sec with OS=OFF. So this implies an effectiveness of the image stabilization of around 2 stops.

 

Overall: We all know that top performance beyond 300mm focal length costs top dollars. So don't be too disappointed at the image quality of this lens at 400 mm and 500 mm. For (a) this lens sells for under 1000 EUR and (b) the performance at the center is still quite good at the longer end, and if you're photographing wildlife or sports, it's the center that really counts. This only leaves me to wrap things up in my Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 OS verdict.

 
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