“REDEFINING WHAT IS POSSIBLE” Sigma writes on their site with this brand new sleek F/2.8 120-300mm zoom lens. But does it really? – Read on and find out.
One thing is sure, as of lately Sigma has been on a roll gaining momentum like nobody else in the photography business. With recently releases of truly world-class lenses as the Sigma 35mm F1.4 Sigma aims to catch the professional as well as the consumer looking for the very best at a lower price range than OEM prices. The Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S is no different to that philosophy with stunning new looks, sleek new design and a plethora of new features that you won’t find on any other brand.
Last year Sigma revamped their entire lineup of lenses with the Global Vision philosophy.
The Sigma Global Vision site explains:
“Sigma is organizing all its interchangeable lenses into three product lines. Each line has its own clearly defined concept, and every lens we develop from now on will be assigned to one of these lines.
Our objective is not to impose a new way of categorizing equipment, but simply to clarify the approach we have taken in developing each new lens. Our hope is that these new product lines will help guide photographers, giving an overview of the type of image creation each lens was designed to support.
You might think of it as adding tags to a database. The new product line categories provide additional guidance, but it is ultimately the photographer who will consider this information in choosing the right lens.
As we take our lenses to a new level of quality we’re providing additional information that describes them from a new perspective.
Simply by identifying the product line that resonates with his or her own photographic orientation, any photographer will be able to find the right Sigma lenses quickly and easily. This is sure to close the gap between the photos you’re taking now and the photos you’re capable of taking. Sigma‘s new product lines are going to redefine the way you relate to photography”
In short words it would be: “We’ll increase quality and split our lineup into 3 genres, (A)rt, (C)ontemporary) and (S)ports for you to make the easier choice”
They weren’t kidding!
Lets talk build quality for a second. In 2012 I reviewed the former model the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM which I was quite fond of with very few complains. One was addressed to the build quality or quality of the lens hood at the very least. With the new S model things are in fact very different. This time we’re talking solid aluminium and a quite hefty lens hood!
This Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S is by far the most well made from Sigma by FAR only second to the Sigma 200-500mm F2.8 APO EX DG but that’s a whole another class and price range. Compare it to my Sigma 300-800mm F5.6 there’s no comparison, in fact compare it to ANY 300mm F2.8 lens and you’ll start thinking they all the sudden feel cheap. It’s hard to Conway in an image, especially since I admittedly didn’t capture the sharpest images of the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S but if you ever had the chance to grasp a cine-type lens that’s probably the greatest comparing point. It’s aluminium, sleek curves, tough rubber and the heaviest tripod collar you’ll ever come by (that is to Sigma releases a bigger S line lens. Please 300-800 OS, please, please.. 🙂 ). All this heft and material increment comes with a price namely weight, as this zoom lens is a fact quite heavy even for a 300mm F2.8 weighing in at a solid 3.39 kg´s. So am I fond of the build quality? – You bet.
The Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S is a joy to use. If we take a look at the beefy lens you’ll notice the grip actually large enough you can grab it with both hand. That’s the zoom ring and while you might suspect it’s a drawback to have the zoom ring as the main grip it’s not. The zoom ring goes tightly and need some effort if you want to zoom. Just behind the zoom ring sits the focus ring and while the zoom ring is tight and requires effort the focus ring turns easily and smoothly. You’ll be holding lens at the zoom ring and tweaking the focus ring with your pinkie, it turns that easy – Great!
On the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S you’ll find a number of buttons too. There the standard Focus mode button (AF/With MF override or MF), a focus limiter selector, OS (Optical Stabilization) selector as well as the unique Custom selector.
While the focus limiter in new on the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S this lens has another huge trick up in its sleeve uniquely to any manufacturer. More and that later.
The focus limiter has built-in 2-3 selects one being “Full”, another being from 10 meter to infinity and the last being from closest focus distance which is 1.5 meter to 10 meters. A feature you come to expect from a grade A lens like this and one that works as advertised.
The OS selector allows the user to select between “OFF”, tilt and panning stabilization as well as panning stabilization only. – Why you ever what to select the later beats me. The OS (optical stabilization) works impressively well and you’ll be shooting in a darkish scene 300mm F/2.8 handhell more often than you’d come to expect. Sigma claims it 4 stops and while I didn’t make any scientific test I’m pretty sure it’s up there among the best.
But the fun starts with the Custom mode selector. This is where Sigma made it nerdy, cool and quite awarding. You see the Custom selector allows you to select between any 2 mode you determined within the Sigma optimization Pro software. You literally code the firmware and install it in the lens. It requires the Sigma dock which costs close to nothing and a PC / MAC and you’ll all set.
Within the software there’s a plethora of adjustments and tweaks to be made besides the regular firmware lens update. As seen above I’m here coding the C1 mode on the Custom Selector button. Within here I can adjust AF Speed between 3 modes.
The 3 modes consists of “Motor drive speed priority”, “Standard” and “Focus accuracy priority”. In fact this menu is probably the sole reason you should by the Sigma Dock. I’ve read a few reviews so far where the most complains of a slower autofocus speed than expected and while I agree the “Standard” mode which is always selected before any tweaking isn’t as fast as I would hope, the “Motor drive speed priority” speeds the focusing up quite severely. – It’s so essential for my work to select to option I’m truly puzzled why no-one ever mentions this. So here’s my shout out to the “Motor drive speed priority” – If you buy this lens do yourself a favor and enable this mode as quickly as possible.
I’ve heard arguments that “MDRP” allows for more unfocused shots but after a couple of weeks of shooting I saw no real evidence of this even with the 1.4x teleconverter and 2x teleconverter. Hence I see no reason anyone should choose the other 2 modes with the “Focus accuracy priority” being slow and very fine tuning.
Let’s say you’re sitting in a hide for 10 hours a day only to photograph a bird within a very small and certain area. Then how about setting the lens to focus between 1.5 meter and 3 meters for an ultra quick focusing. The software does that too. I coded mine never to go all the way to infinity as I would never use it as well as allowing focusing starter from around 3 meters. It’s truly remarkable how easy it is and I can’t believe no one’s thought of this before. Another huge plus in my book!
Within the OS settings menu there’s also 3 options. I tested all three out and found very little difference between “Dynamic View Mode” and “Standard”. The improvement came when I selected the “Moderate View Mode” where the viewfinder remained extremely smooth even when zooming and focusing between various subject where’s the others tended to jump slightly from time to time. – If you’re recording video handheld this is the mode you want to select.
A funny observation was that neither my teleconverter liked the “Moderate View Mode” and made the viewfinder jump like crazy. I blame the TC’s as they are of the non-reporting types that’s basically throws away some of the signal from camera to lens.
The Focus Setting menu is where things get’s really nerdy almost overwhelming. I’m sure you heard about front-focus or back-focus issues from various online forums almost up to the point where you would think there’s nothing else to complain about. This is where Sigma went all in and gives the user the most refined tweaking ever seen this side of Rep. software. The above image explains itself and while I found no focusing issues with this copy of the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S, this is where the forum warriors can go all crazy spending days adjusting focus. : “But Tobias I own 14 different lenses and 12 bodies, neither has the need for focus tweaking. This must be a Sigma issue...” – Right, just say keep an eye on the next Pro Body from the biggest manufactures. I’m sure they’ll be aiming for something similar – (Sony kinda did)
So how does the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S perform optically?
Dare I say this is one of the sharpest zoom lenses ever created. From get go widest aperture F/2.8, the lens is almost as sharp as it get’s. It gains very little stopping down on the larger focal lengths but much less than you would think. What’s really good is the lens actually gets sharper in the extreme corner at 300mm than it is at 120mm. The lens is at it sharpest at F/4 but chances are you wont be able to tell much difference between F/2.8 and F/4.
Adding a 1.4x TC takes a toll albeit a small one on the overall sharpness is still super sharp when stopped down a half a stop to a full stop. The AF speed suffers ever so slightly as do AF accuracy. Adding the 1.4X TC allows to user to get closer to most wildlife as well as not to shy birds. You need frame filling bird shots? Add the 2X TC.
With the 2X TC the sharpness is overall decreased. Wide open renders the shots noticeably less sharp. I recommend you stop down at least a full stop to two stops depending on your subject. Not a problem with a F/2.8 but I’m sure most readers wouldn’t be surprised otherwise. It’s a complex zoom lens after all, much more complex than almost any prime lens. The AF speed is decreased but not by much, at least with a professional camera body. AF accuracy takes a toll too not for the better but overall still very usable!
Downloadable samples straight from RAW files (right-click and choose save as..) – Note I’m using a non-reporting teleconverter.
Let it be no secret I’m not the biggest fan of the 300mm focal length. I almost always found it too short and it’s a hassle to carry both the 1.4x TC as well as the 2x TC and if I would quickly find a subject closer than whatever focal length I was at I would almost always miss the subject.
Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S completely changes that! This is a lens with a superb build quality, an almost overwhelming amount of tweaking and adjust features and near prime like quality.
Comparing it to the previous generation I found it to blow it out of the water in every department other than sharpness which already was extremely good.
So if you’re looking at a first-class, gorgeously build, fast and very sharp lens for most wildlife photography the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S would be a wise choice. It’s really that good!