Top critical review
Consider how you will use this lens before you buy it.
October 10, 2013
I've had this lens and used it pretty extensively for almost 4 months now. I bought it based on the overwhelmingly positive reviews which I've begun to feel are a bit misleading so even though this thing has almost 250 reviews I'm hoping to help out at least a few of you looking to buy.
Before you shell out for this lens I think it's important to know that this is more of a budget, specialty lens than anything else. If you're looking for something to run around with and get super tight wildlife or sports shots you're going to be frustrated or disappointed. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail but I'm going to assume that if you're on a budget or new to telephoto and hoping to score a killer deal you might not want to go this route.
So let me try and explain.
First of all at 300mm every tiny movement is amplified dramatically. If you have a cropped sensor camera (APS-C) like a Canon Rebel or a Nikkon D7100 you're going to be getting a 480mm equivalent zoom. While that extra length is pretty cool it also means that the shake is amplified even more. Even if you are a surgeon your hands will shake a bit and with this kind of zoom that means that hand holding for a nice shot is almost impossible. You'll get blur or out of focus areas almost every time.
The more expensive telephoto lenses compensate for this with something called Image Stabilization (IS) or Optical Stabilization (OS) for Sigma. This lens has none.
So if you want tight shots with sharp focus you'll need a tripod or a monopod at the very least.
To compensate for the shake you can sometimes crank up your shutter speed to say 1/1000 of a second but you need a lot of light to be able to do this. Without lots of light you'll need to open up your aperture or crank up your ISO. The Aperture on this lens only opens to f5.6 at 300mm so you'll need a bright day, lots of light or crank that ISO which leads to noise in the image.
On top of that this lens is very soft at 300mm with the aperture wide open. this means that at 300mm with an f stop of 5.6 you're not going to get very sharp images. To compensate for this you can shrink the aperture down to about f8-f9 and you'll get some of your detail back though you'll also increase your depth of field which may not be ideal if you're trying to set your subject apart from the background, and again, this decreases the light that will be coming into the lens so you'll need to compensate.
So ultimately what this boils down to is that this lens is best used in bright light conditions with good stabilization methods and a small aperture if you intend to shoot fully zoomed in.
To me that makes this a somewhat specialized lens.
Now in those conditions this lens performs pretty well, I've used it for events, wildlife and macro and I've managed to get some really nice shots in each of those situations. That said in the wildlife and event photography situations it was incredibly frustrating to realize the limitations of the lens while in the field. I ended up needing a hot-shoe flash and a tripod to get the results I wanted in the event setting which isn't really plausible 90% of the time. In wildlife I was able to shoot subjects that remained very still and I got some great shots of dragonflies and other critters when they were willing to stop for a second. But if you've ever shot wildlife you know that most of the time that moment of pause is very brief.
So then that leaves Macro, well this isn't a real macro lens. That is to say it will not give you a 1:1 ratio, this lens maxes out at 1:2, which is still pretty tight and with a crop sensor camera I think most people will be pretty happy with the results. Also at such a long focal length it means you can back away from the subject, you don't need to get so close that you scare butterflies and the like away. In a studio setting it gives you a bit more room to fill in with lights without the camera getting in the way.
You might read some complaints about the shallow focal range in Macro mode. This is actually a typical product of macro photography, all macro lenses will have the same properties. You can shrink your aperture down at the cost of light which is pretty valuable in macro photography. But if you really want that impressive depth of field you see in most professional macro shots you'll need to look into something called focus stacking. I won't go into it but my point is that Macro photography inherently has a very, very shallow depth of field.
So then lets just quickly discuss the general lens properties.
It is a telescoping lens which means it's not going to be a good idea to have it out in the elements. Sand and rain will get into your lens pretty easily.
It's mostly plastic but it does feel pretty solid. Considering it's focal length it's not very heavy but it will still be one of the heavier lenses in your bag.
In the 4 months I've been using it the focus ring has loosened a bit and the auto focus has become a bit jittery, however I've also been pretty rough on it and in the event scenarios it's gotten bumped into quite a bit.
Also Sigma's packaging is impressive. You get a really nice, custom case for the lens as well as a sturdy lens hood. For such a cheap lens the initial reveal was pretty high class.
FOCUS & ZOOM:
The focus ring is nice and big but it's also very loose in manual mode. Some people prefer this but I actually prefer a tighter/smoother feel to a ring when it's on a telephoto since adjustments become much more dramatic when zoomed in. The auto-focus is pretty noisy but it's also surprisingly fast for the range. Maybe not fast enough for a football game or catching a bird in flight but it's faster than I thought it would be at this price range.
The zoom ring is a little smoother but it has definitely loosened up since I've owned it. I actually like the feel of the zoom a lot, it's nice and smooth, not too stiff but not to loose. It goes from 70 to 300 in a little over a quarter turn. Again it's a telescoping zoom so it's really susceptible to debris and water getting in, I'm pretty sure it's time to have mine serviced.
Sharpness is all over the place with this lens, at 70mm with a wide open aperture it will get soft randomly and seems to suffer some focus issues (again, this could be due to abuse). At 300mm f5.6 it is always soft, you'll want to close down that aperture to compensate. In the middle it gives pretty acceptable results You're not going to be amazed if you're comparing this to a higher quality lens but you will get some acceptable shots and with some sharpening I'm usually satisfied with the results.
In macro mode with lots of light and good stabilization, I'm pretty impressed. I get lots of details when I'm set up correctly.
For everyday use I wouldn't recommend this lens. I just don't think you're going to be pleased with "walk-around" type shooting results and the amount of extra effort that is needed to get quality results isn't conducive to run-n-gun shooting. It's not weather proof so you'll need to be careful with it and keep it out of sand and rain.
For sports I'd say probably not, unless you've got a monopod and it's a very bright day outside.
If you're setting up for a still life, macro or a wildlife situation where your subjects are not dashing all over the place then you can get some solid shots out of this lens and on a budget I'd say yes it's worth the extra effort required to save that money.
Nice packaging. Custom case and lens hood included.
Good at very specialized types of shots.
Nice feel to the zoom ring
Reasonably fast focus
Pseudo-Macro mode bonus.
Soft at full zoom
Sharpness is somewhat random and requires some testing/learning/compensation
Slow for the length, hand holding at 300mm is almost out of the question.
Telescoping lens is prone to dust and damage
No weather proofing
No Image Stabilization
May have focusing issues without micro-focus adjustments.
Overall I like this lens when I have a use for it. It's not a walk around lens but when you need a stable shot in a controlled or well lit situation it's a nice option to have. If you can afford a nicer telephoto like the Canon f2.8 IS II well then you probably wouldn't be reading this but for shooters on a budget or people wanting to play around with a new style without fully committing to the tune of $2000+, this lens is a nice alternative.
I don't use it as often as I'd hoped but I do have fun with it when I pull it out. It's got a pretty steep learning curve and I can't stress how much it is really a specialized lens.
But if you know what you're getting into with it, it can be a lot of fun.