When I did my review of the SIGMA 120-300mm entitled SIGMA 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM | S with the Canon 1D X at the Zoo (vs 200-400mm), I had some focus hunting challenges that really frustrated me with this lens. I had reviewed the Canon 200-400mm previously so my expectations were very high, but that’s a very expensive lens, so I was willing to give the 120-300mm a lot of slack. However, for all the good traits of this lens, I struggled to give a $3600 lens (at the time of this writing) a recommendation with the issues that I saw.
To ensure that the issue wasn’t only me, I let one of my readers who is also a 200-400mm lens owner to spend some time with this lens and share his thoughts. What follows are Joseph Calev’s thoughts after spending a weekend testing this lens:
When Ron asked me to take a look at the new Sigma 120-300/2.8 OS I instantly jumped on the opportunity to test this highly regarded lens. I have had the opportunity to use a large number of the medium telephotos available for Canon and I was very curious to see what this lens was capable of.
Over the years I have owned most of the medium Canon telephotos including the Sigma 80-400 OS, Canon 100-400, 70-200/2.8 II + 2x III, 300/4, and 400/5.6. I now use the newer 200-400/1.4x.
In this review I will compare the Sigma 120-300/2.8 OS with the 200-400/1.4x. In some respects this comparison is unfair given that the 200-400 sells for approximately three times the price of the Sigma, but I think this comparison will still be extremely useful for those wondering exactly what you get with the Sigma, and what more you get if you’re willing to spend the money.
Upon receiving the Sigma, the first thing I did was look at the overall features of the lens. While most consider image quality and autofocus speed to be the most important, you cannot discount the extras of a lens.
- Size – You would think that a lens that can reach to 300mm at a 2.8 aperture would be approximately the same size as one that can reach to 400mm at 4.0, but that is absolutely not the case here. The Canon 200-400 is significantly larger. In fact if you leave the hood on the Sigma, but remove it from the Canon, the two are nearly the same size.
- Build quality – These are both premium lenses and neither can be faulted for overall build quality. The Canon is the heavier of the pair, but the Sigma probably weighs more per cubic inch. Given the choice of which one to use to whack someone on the head, I would easily choose the Sigma. The lens feels professional and is a joy to hold. The one real difference I noted was when faced with cold weather, the Sigma was freezing while the Canon wasn’t so bad.
- Filters – Both of these lenses will require a different kind of filter than you likely have. The 200-400, like all of the big Canon primes, takes a special pop in filter on the back of the lens. The Sigma takes a 105mm filter on the front. Good luck trying to find your favorite filter in 105mm, though Sigma does make a polarizer this size. Canon sells a pop in polarizer and also a filter holder that accepts many 52mm standard filters. Personally I find the 52mm pop in much more convenient.
- Foot – The Sigma contains a steel foot that is part of the tripod collar, which itself can be removed. If you want to attach an Arca-Swiss compatible plate then you’ll need to buy your standard lens plate. Personally I’m not crazy about lens plates for the bigger telephotos as they make handholding less comfortable and I am always a bit freaked out depending on the lens plate connection for holding such an expensive lens.
The 200-400 takes a completely different approach. The lens foot itself is detachable, while the tripod collar is not. The lens comes with two feet – one for standard use and one for monopods. I really liked the standard foot as it was extremely comfortable to hand hold with its rubber padding on top. Nevertheless I replaced it with a foot from Really Right Stuff that is slightly less comfortable than the included foot, but is a much stronger connection. Overall I was not crazy about the Sigma’s foot, which is a bit bulky and quite cold.
- Weight – I shoot everything on my 200-400 hand held, so the 120-300 was no different. If you find the 100-400 or 70-200/2.8 heavy, then you’ll find the 120-300 even heavier. One thing I advise is to always attach the straps that came with the lens. For smaller lenses like the 100-400 this is unnecessary, but for the larger lenses this makes the lens feel quite a bit lighter and reduces the strain on the lens mount.
- Buttons/features – The Sigma comes with the same features you expect on Canon’s medium telephoto lenses. It has a focus limiter and two types of image stabilization. It also has a custom switch that I am not sure about. I tried looking on Sigma’s website for more information and from what I understand you can buy an optional USB dock that allows you to assign custom functions to these buttons.
The Canon, commensurate with your top of the line Canon telephotos, offers considerably more. Along with autofocus and manual focus it includes a power focus feature. This is mainly used for video where a constant focus speed is necessary. I have used it exactly once. It is quite cool but I almost never use this lens for video. For image stabilization it includes a third type used for panning. Essentially the IS only turns on when you press the shutter. I have tried playing with it but do not have a verdict yet.
The one feature I truly do use on the 200-400 is the focus preset button. This allows you to set a focus point and automatically go back to it. I find it crucial when I have a difficult to focus on main subject surrounded by other subjects. Given the price I was a bit shocked the Sigma does not include this.
Trying it out
Ron asked me to try this lens out in the real world, so I skipped any calibrated image quality comparisons and took it straight to the field. I traveled to a bird sanctuary that I had never visited before, plopped it on, and went for a walk.
First, it is obvious that this lens is not your ideal wildlife lens. It is simply too short. For most purposes 400mm is really the bare minimum. Closer to 600mm is where you usually want to be for wildlife. Still, I was anxious to see what this lens was capable of.
What Ron specifically asked me to look for was lens hunting. I have seen this often before. The Canon 100-400 and the 70-200/2.8 II + 2x III are infamous for hunting. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing the image of a lifetime going in focus, then out of focus, then in focus, etc. In my use of this lens I found none of that. The Sigma 120-300 latched in immediately on the subject and moved to focus.
Instead my primary issue was how quickly it focused. Given the 2.8 aperture this lens should make use of the maximum number of focus points on the Canon 5D3 or 1Dx. Instead the lens moved quite slowly to its target. How slowly? My best guess is that it is similar to the Canon 100-400 in AF speed (but far better in not hunting). When I press the shutter on the 200-400, however, the focus is right there. From what I have read, the Canon 300/2.8 II beats the 200-400 in autofocus speed, so I was quite shocked the Sigma was so slow.
The delay in locking onto a subject was quite annoying for me, and after I missed an eagle that flew overhead I relegated the Sigma back to the bag and replaced it with the 200-400. This was, after all, a shoot I cared about and I felt the Sigma needed some time to consider how it behaved – or more appropriately I decided to give it another chance when the light was better.
Image stabilization and sharpness
Later in the shoot I decided to give the Sigma another try. The trail had a number of nice viewpoints and I felt the Sigma would do well there. After all, given the focal length this should be just as awesome of a landscape lens as the 200-400.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, f/8 @171 mm, 1/200, ISO 1600, No Flash
This time the Sigma truly was up to the task. It was here that I checked the sharpness, taking identical images with the 200-400 and it. While the 200-400 did show sharper, the 120-300 is no slouch here. This is a very sharp lens. How sharp is it? I would probably rate it somewhere between the 100-400 and the 200-400. It’s sharp enough at 2.8 that you really do not need to concern yourself with sharpness.
I then tried an image stabilization test between the two. Here the Sigma also performed extremely well. When I pixel peeped I noticed a tiny improvement from the 200-400, but it was difficult to tell if this was from sharpness or from image stabilization. In truth this was basically a draw. Canon prides themselves on having top notch image stabilization, but it appears that Sigma has equaled them. I did not try out the panning mode on the Sigma as I really did not have a proper test.
It was just then that I noticed a large flock of thousands of snow geese fly in front of a mountain. I had been wanting this shot and instantly aimed the Sigma and fired away. I was quite surprised to see them, as normally they roamed twenty miles to the north, but I was absolutely thrilled with the discovery. To my dismay, the Sigma had an extremely difficult time focusing on the far away snow geese. I thought I got the shot I needed, but when I examined them on the back of the camera after the snow geese had flew on I realized I did not get it.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, f/4 @300 mm, 1/800, ISO 1600, No Flash
I was quite annoyed, so I put the Sigma back in the bag to sulk and put the 200-400 back on. An hour later I heard the snow geese again and this time the 200-400 was up to the task. I spent the rest of the trip tracking them across fields, but the 120-300 did not go back on the camera.
The 200-400 has a natural advantage here, given that its extender is part of the lens itself and may be engaged without removing the lens. Still, given that 600mm is extremely useful in wildlife photography I felt no review of the Sigma would be complete without trying this. The next day I sat down next to our bird feeders and tried it out.
My immediate reaction was – what the heck happened to my home point? Where did all of my focus points go? I felt I was back with my 5D2. Clearly the 5D3 removed most of the focus points given the effective 5.6 aperture. However, this does not happen when engaging the extender for the 200-400. All of my focus points are still there. Clearly though the Sigma does not support this. Luckily I realized my home point was still there – the 5D3 just moved it to the center because the original point was no longer available.
I found a bird and was back in hunting mode again. In and out the focus went. Where it stopped I’ll still never know. I gave up trying to focus on the bird and chose a stationary ball on the grass. That it eventually found focus worthy so I took a few shots. Wide open at 5.6 the image quality was horrible. However I did notice it improved considerably at 6.3 and at 8.0 the quality was fine.
Given the focal length, this is more of a sports lens than a wildlife lens. With no sporting events that day I used my dog instead. I did the standard thing – throw a ball and photograph the dog running towards you. It is actually quite difficult to get these types of shots sharp. Objects running towards you are considerably more difficult for the camera and the lens to keep up with.
My first experiment was at 2.8 and I did not fare so well there. While in the field I felt I could just not get a tack sharp shot, after I examined the photos up close on my machine I found a few decent ones. Part of the problem is 2.8 is shallow enough that when the eyes are in focus the nose is not. Still, even when I switched to 4.0 my keeper rate was less than one in ten.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, f/2.8 @ 300 mm, 1/1000, ISO 1250, No Flash
Was this due to my inexperience as an action photographer? I put the 200-400 back on and tried again. This time I was able to receive several good shots. I missed more than I hit, but overall the percentage was higher. Given that I rarely take these types of shots I cannot entirely lay the blame on the lens. I am sure there are photographers out there capable of consistently achieving action shots with this lens. That being said, it does seem considerably easier to achieve this with the 200-400.
Bokeh and Color
Once I download the images on my machine, I examined them for issues beyond sharpness. Both lenses look very similar in color rendition. In terms of vignetting, the Sigma does have noticeable vignetting at 2.8. When you move up to 4.0 it is much less pronounced and is similar to the 200-400. In terms of bokeh, the Sigma does a nice job there commensurate with what you would expect from a 2.8 lens.
Overall if you’re looking for an improvement over the 100-400, this lens is it. While I did not try it with a 1.4x extender, I suspect it will do just fine – minus a few focus points. In terms of how it compares to the 200-400, in image stabilization it is equal, in sharpness it is close, and in all other areas it simply doesn’t. The autofocus is slower, it takes extenders poorly, it is more difficult to use with quickly moving subjects, and it lacks most of the premium features you can expect with a top end telephoto.
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