I believe it was Robert Capa who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” While this is not incorrect nor is it bad advice, the fact remains that there will be times when our feet simply can’t do the zooming for us. To facilitate getting up close and personal without actually being up close and personal, photographers rely on telephoto lenses to bridge the gap between themselves and their subject.
With each lens I evaluate with every passing year, I am fortunate enough to bear witness to the staggering advances lens manufacturers are making in the world of photographic optics. Today, there are many instances where aftermarket “non-native” third-party camera lenses either meet or even surpass the performance of their more expensive cousins manufactured by their respective camera brand. We now have a high-grade glass without the high-grade price tags. This is especially true when it comes to long range telephotos and fast primes.
So, when the opportunity arose for me to get my hands on one of the newest budget-conscious telephotos, the Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens, I lept at the chance. I have a couple of friends who spoke quite favorably of this particular lens, so I had to see it for myself. Take a few minutes, sit back and relax, and let me tell you exactly why the Sigma 100-400mm might be a good choice for you if your bag is missing a good long-range zoom lens.
The main housing of the Sigma 100-400mm lens is made from a solid-feeling hard plastic. Being from the Sigma Contemporary line, it lacks the metallic-feeling TSC (thermally stable composite) construction of their Art series lenses. Even without this type of material, the lens feels incredibly solid in the hand and feels great. The zoom and focus rings are both rubberized and work smoothly.
The Sigma 100-400mm is exceptionally balanced. Overall, for a lens of this size, it feels surprisingly nimble when mounted on my Canon 7D.
Oddly enough, the balance seems to improve when the lens is extended out to its maximum focal length of 400mm. The lens hood included with this lens also offers a great hand-hold which facilitates easy “push/pull” zooming.
The lens sports a zoom-lock switch which is quite useful for carrying around a telephoto lens. This prevents gravity from slowly extending the lens while hiking or walking. The zoom-lock switch on the Sigma 100-400mm firmly locks the lens into place at its 100mm focal length.
The folks at Sigma have beefed up the weather sealing of their lenses considerably. As primarily an outdoor and wilderness shooter, I am constantly at the mercy of the elements. The weather sealing of this lens is superb.
Something that I love to see is a visible rubber gasket on the lens bayonet mount. This type of extra assurance and protection against dirt and moisture making their way to my camera’s sensor makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside even when the conditions outside are decidedly not.
One thing to note on the overall design of the 100-400mm is that it certainly has a lot of external switches. While these switches are each quite actionable and serve a purpose, they also make it difficult to manipulate the various lens functions without looking. With high range zoom lenses such as this such problems aren’t uncommon.
The sharpness of the Sigma 100-400mm is wonderful for the price range of this lens. In fact, I was stunned to see just how crisp the images produced at the maximum apertures actually were. Both at 100mm and 400mm the sharpness was impressive.
There was slight edge softening while at 100mm f/5 and at 400mm f/6.3. The incredible thing about the sharpness, which I feel speaks to the true quality of this lens, was only noticed while I was examining test images for this review at 3:1 magnification. Look closely at these two photos. The first was made at 100mm.
The second is the same scene but zoomed to 400mm.
Look closely at the left side of the clock tower. Here, let me help you. Below is the same image magnified in post-processing to about 1:1.
Yes, those are wasps or some other type of insects swarming around the clock tower! Considering the small size of the insects coupled with the distance, approximately 600 yards, the resolving power of this lens is exceptional.
Chromatic aberrations detected with the Sigma 100-400mm are barely worth mentioning. At 100mm using a relatively wide f/5 aperture, there is a minutely observable purple/magenta fringe in high contrast areas. Other than that, there is nothing remarkable to speak of with this lens.
Fast and responsive is the best description I can give to the 100-400mm Sigma autofocus. The AF performed well and focused locked well while in AI Servo mode on my Canon. The autofocus was quite silent and worked great for not disturbing “temperamental” wildlife.
The point of vibration reduction, sometimes referred to as optical stabilization, is where the Sigma 100-400mm didn’t exactly impress. Not that the OS didn’t work but the overall improvement was not as drastic as I have observed with some other lenses of this type.
There are two OS modes present on the 100-400mm not including the “Off” mode. They are OS1 and OS2. The OS1 mode is general OS. This serves to reduce multi-directional camera shake and what I generally left the lens set to during my tests. OS2 is geared exclusively towards panning with the 100-400mm and works to reduce single plane vibration.
Sigma offers a USB dock so that firmware and custom modes can be uploaded directly to the lens via computer with the Sigma Optimization utility. That’s where the custom mode switch comes into play. You can customize Autofocus and Optical Stabilization functions within the lens. I have never used the functionality but if you want ultimate control over every aspect of your gear, this is a great option.
The Tripod Collar Conundrum
The common complaint I’ve gathered about the Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 is concerning the lens’s tripod collar; there isn’t one. This comes as somewhat of a surprise to some photographers, myself included. Although, it seems to be of more importance to some than others.
Personally, the lack of a tripod ring is not a huge problem for me. The featherlike balance of the lens negates the need for a tripod mount in my opinion. Still, if you plan on using the lens with a smaller, adapted camera body, the weight of the lens could be an issue. If you want a lens with a tripod ring or collar, this might not be the choice for you.
Final Thoughts on the Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3
So, what’s the bottom line on the Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens?
First of all, the sharpness is outstanding. Even at its widest aperture, the sharpness is exceptional with very little edge softening.
The build quality is more than capable of serving as a “go-to” telephoto for sports and outdoor work and the beefy weather sealing only enhances the workability of this lens.
If you absolutely MUST have the capability of a tripod collar then look elsewhere because the Sigma 100-400mm lens simply doesn’t have one. If you don’t care about that, then for around $799 USD, this telephoto from Sigma won’t fail to impress.