The Sigma 500mm F4 is a big lens. I shoot with bigger lenses because I need the longer focal lengths when I’m on the wild horse ranges but this is a really big lens – the biggest I’ve ever used, actually. It’s a big ticket item too, as my dPS editor Darlene gently reminded me. Be extra careful.
Sigma has their lens safely back and I didn’t trip, fall, drop or dunk it so I guess it’s okay to share now that I’m very hard on my gear. This lens withstood two weeks with me and emerged unscathed. Bonus points to Sigma. This lens is built like a tank.
What I really wanted to know when I tested this lens
When I tossed my name in the hat as a reviewer for this lens, what I really wanted to know was if a large 500mm prime lens is a practical focal length for the rigors of photographing horses, birds, and wildlife? How is it to shoot using support, rather than hand held as I normally do? Is the autofocus responsive? Does the lens make ultra sharp images?
I tested it in as many situations as possible in the limited time that I had it, starting with a few birding trips to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Birding was followed by visits to the Lincoln Park Zoo to get up close with the lions and tigers. I wrapped everything up by using it for the “at liberty” portion of an equine portrait session with four polo ponies. I love my results. Read on to find out why.
A few technical specs
- Weight/Size: 7.3 pounds (3.3 kg), approximately 5.7″ wide x 15″ long (144.8 x 380.3 mm)
- Focal length: Fixed 500mm prime, the lens does not extend further when focusing.
- Maximum aperture: F/4.
- Filter: Rear drop-in, 46mm.
- Mount: Available for Canon, Nikon, and Sigma
- Recommended uses: Nature, wildlife, sports and action
- Price: $5999 USD
- Release date: December 2016, shipping January 2017.
You can read more detailed specifications here.
Supporting the lens
When photographing animals, birds, and wildlife, your typical gear is probably similar to mine. I mostly use the affordable Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens with either the Canon 7D Mark II or Canon 5D Mark III. If I’m a bit further from my subject, I add a Canon Extender EF 1.4X III. Normally I shoot handheld.
The Sigma 500mm lens with my Canon 5D Mark III (which also has an L-bracket on it) weighed approximately 10 pounds. That’s about three pounds more than my typical gear. It initially seemed possible to hand hold but fatigue and a resulting loss of sharpness set in quickly. My solution was to use a quick release plate to attach the foot of the Sigma 500mm F4 DG HSM OS Sport lens to my heavy-duty Feisol monopod with a Jobu gimbal head.
This combination supported the weight of the lens/camera combination while allowing me to position the lens exactly where I wanted it. It wasn’t as flexible as hand holding, but far more so than using a tripod.
Using support, I was able to shoot for a lot longer without fatigue – and without the shaky shots that come from fatigued hands. I also found the gimbal/monopod combination very portable and easy to maneuver when using this lens.
I would recommend using a sturdy tripod (rather than a monopod) to anyone setting up in a blind, with the intention of waiting for wildlife to approach a known watering hole or feeding spot. Over time, balancing this lens and camera combination on a monopod did take its toll on my shoulders. You wouldn’t want to miss a shot that you’d been waiting hours for, because your body was too fatigued from supporting your gear on a monopod, so use a tripod in that situation.
Performance in adverse weather
Illinois in the fall is mainly cool. It’s rainy sometimes but more dry than humid. It is also often very windy. I did not have a chance to test the Sigma 500mm F4 DG HSM OS Sport lens in rainy conditions but it shot flawlessly in the cold (the coldest temperature tested was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, -1 celsius). Wind was more of a factor because of the large profile of the lens. Some gusts would really grab it and that movement caused a loss of sharpness.
Of course, this isn’t an issue specific to this lens – any larger, longer focal length lens will be affected by gusty winds. Solutions would be to shoot in a more protected area, to use higher-than-normal shutter speeds, or to wait for a less windy day to shoot (which is what I would have done if I wasn’t reviewing the lens in a limited timed frame).
The autofocus on the Sigma 500mm F4 DG HSM OS Sport lens is flawless.
First, you can turn the annoying autofocus beep off with a simple switch right on the barrel of the lens. Turning the autofocus beep off is essential when photographing wildlife since the noise can make your subjects anxious. Thumbs up to Sigma for putting this feature in such an accessible location.
There are also settings for autofocus, manual focus, and manual override. The point of the manual override mode is to have the lens in auto but be able to easily switch it into manual by grabbing the focusing ring. Because I could manually override the autofocus at any time, even when the lens was in auto mode, that’s the mode I preferred to use.
I tested the Sigma 500mm F4 DG HSM OS Sport lens with and without the stabilization turned on. There are two options; OS1 for handheld photography, and OS2 for panning and tracking. While using my monopod and gimbal head, I didn’t see a noticeable difference in sharpness between OS1 and OS2. There was, however, a noticeable difference in sharpness when OS was turned to the off position. Ultimately I switched it to OS1 and left it there.
More convenience at your fingertips
In addition to the stabilization, beep, and autofocus options there is a “focus limiter.” This switch allows you to choose within which range you need the lens to focus. For example, if you know you aren’t focusing on anything close to you, you can set the lens to focus only from 10 meters to infinity. Setting this limiter allows the lens to focus a smidge faster and that gives you a better chance of sharply capturing fleeting moments.
My favorite feature
Perhaps my favorite feature is the group of four rubber buttons circling the front of the lens.
To use them, find a location you want to have as a primary focusing point, hold down one of the buttons and hit the set button on the lens barrel. This action programs the lens to focus on the specific point you selected. The focus lock on that point is based on distance so if you move, you need to reset your buttons.
If you are stationary, sitting in a blind photographing birds or wild animals, this is an amazing feature. You can essentially compose four different shots in four different locations by assigning one of these buttons to each location. When a bird lands in one of your four locations, press the button for that focus point, press the shutter and grab your shot. I tested this with some of the spunkier zoo inhabitants and it worked like a charm.
Again, the advantage here is that this is a little faster than asking the lens to refocus. That millisecond is a precious advantage when photographing wildlife.
Image quality is a subjective thing but without it, state-of-the-art features and well-placed buttons don’t mean a thing. I was blown away by the images I produced with this lens.
Straight out of camera the colors rendered beautifully. They were soft, nuanced and creamy. Backgrounds blurred softly away creating a clean canvas for wildlife compositions. The separation between elements was also phenomenal. I had a lot of fun experimenting with “layering,” like the series of four monochrome equine images above and the zebra image below.
Images made with this lens are tack sharp. Details of eyes, fur, and feathers are crisp and well-structured. There is no visible distortion and only very minimal vignetting. For wildlife images, I prefer the range of f/8 to f/11 but I didn’t find any unusable apertures. I could have happily shot at f/4 if the circumstance called for it.
Because I was so happy with the quality, all of the wildlife and bird images included in this review were very minimally processed in Lightroom CC. I sharpened the RAW files, adjusted the white balance, and made a few targeted adjustments to enhance details.
Transporting and carrying the lens
While the weight and length of Sigma’s 500mm F4 lens aren’t unusual for this lens category (the Canon version is almost exactly the same weight and dimensions, and also $3000 more!) it is a factor when using it. First, you need to be careful about how you carry a large lens like this to prevent damaging your camera’s lens mount. During a typical shoot you might normally hold your camera by its grip, and let the weight of the lens hang off of the camera body. With a lens this large, that isn’t recommended. Instead, make it a habit of holding onto a lens of this size by the foot, and support the camera’s weight with your other hand. You can also cradle the lens like a baby, which I did often (I didn’t sing it any lullabies, though).
You also need to consider carefully the logistics of hiking to your destination with such a large lens. Investing in a special large lens backpack like this one might be a solution for ease of carrying. Lastly, if you have weight and bag restrictions when you travel, you’ll have to find a workaround for that.
This lens performed very well for me. Images were sharp and overall quality was excellent. For me, because I am often hiking (or recently, biking!) to locate and then keep up with very mobile herds of wild horses, the size and weight of the lens were a bit difficult to manage. Horses are also unpredictable and I often need a shorter focal length to capture all of their behaviors as their curiosity overcomes them and they start to approach me.
If you’re like me, I’d recommend the Canon 100-400mm I mentioned earlier in this review. For an affordable option with an even longer focal length, try Sigma’s own 150-600mm that weighs in at around 4 pounds for under $1000.
I would recommend the Sigma 500mm F4 DG HSM OS Sport lens for a birder, or any type of wildlife photographer that stations herself in a blind, and waits for the animals to come into view. If you’re that photographer, sign up at B&H to be notified when this lens will ship (here for Canon mount, or click here for Nikon) to ensure you get one of the first copies. You won’t be disappointed.