September 2017

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[personal profile] benveniste
I rented this lens for a weekend and came away with some generally favorable impressions.

1. Why do I need another lens?

Short answer, I don't. My gear is better at its job than I am as a photographer. But after looking at my photographs from our last two cruises, I found that about 25% of the shots I took with my 70-300mm VR were at 300mm, and I still ended up cropping quite a few of them. So when Sigma announced this lens with "a new level of portability and quality" at a moderately affordable ($800) price, I looked at the specs and decided it might be a suitable replacement.

Here's a shot showing the relative size of this lens. The Sigma 100-400mm is on the left. In the center is the 70-300mm I'm currently using as a "travel telephoto," and to the right is a Sigma 150-500mm lens which I have dreams of using for wildlife and will probably be using for the solar eclipse (click for larger view):
3 lenses

The fit and finish of the lens is excellent. Manual focus feel is "meh;" but no worse than most AF lenses. Zooming in and out is in the opposite direction from Nikon's. I almost certainly make mistakes in initial motion as a result, but I also seem to correct for it without thinking about it. The 100-400mm is noticeably larger than the 70-300mm, but the difference with the 150-500mm is far more dramatic. For road trip, hauling around the larger lens is no big deal. But when getting on an airplane or holding the lens for a few hours around a racetrack, the 100-400mm is far more manageable. While the 100-400mm is also considerably heavier than the 70-300mm, once I mounted it to the D800 it the combination felt balanced and easy to manage. So far, so good.

2. Optical Performance
I made no efforts to determine the maximum possible sharpness with this lens. Remember, I plan to use this lens as a travel telephoto, which means I'll usually be shooting without a tripod and under time constraints.

All that said, I was expecting to get better results at the long end than with my 70-300mm under real world conditions. My intial shots seemed quite nice, so I did break out the 70-300mm VR for a couple of handheld comparison shots and wasn't disappointed. First, the full scene:

Now, a crop from the Nikon

And a similar crop from the Sigma. Not perfect, but a noticeable improvement.

I also drove up to New Hampshire Motor Speedway to try shooting some amateur Motorcycle racing. Remember how I said my gear is better than I am? While I could try to blame the sightlines at NHMS, the reality is that I'll need a lot more practice if I'll ever become decent at race photography. In the hands of someone competent, and possibly with a camera better suited to action photography, I'm convinced that the Sigma could handle that role. Here's one of the few "keepers" from the session:

Now here's a shot which the lens could have spoiled in a couple of ways. The point reflections from the fences both in front and in back of the race official show fairly neutral bokeh, and chromatic aberrations seem to be pretty well controlled.

Front and Back OOF Circles

I also checked color rendition. The claim has been made that modern lenses render too warmly due to HRI glass absorbing excessive light in the violet and blue. While I don't have a Macbeth Color Chart, I do hae a colorful toy or two. As this comparison to a 1980's Tokina shows, under controlled lighting there's not a lot to choose from.

Color Test

Color Test

3. Stupid Lens Tricks™
One of the "tricks" possible with the 70-300mm VR is to add a close-up accessory lens for informal macro photography. Since the 100-400mm uses the same 67mm accessories, I tried the same thing with this lens. As you can see from this uncropped shot, this makes it possible to fill the frame with a dime.

Full Frame using Marumi 330 DHG

This flower was well less than an inch in size and in shadow. The result was a flawed but interesting shot.

The minimum working distance of the combination is around 10 inches. While a "real" macro lens will give better results, it's a heck of a lot easier to find room for a 1/2" thick accessory lens than a 105mm or 180mm macro lens.

4. Conclusions
Will I buy this lens? Probably, but I'm not in a hurry. Currently, the only "flying" trip I have planned is for the solar eclipse, and I'll be dragging along (or renting) full-sized gear for that. I suspect that once the "real" lens testers put this lens through its paces, it will put up excellent but not world-class numbers.

Should you buy this lens? Since like the 70-300mm, this lens doesn't have a tripod mount, if you're looking to set a "high score of the day" against a test chart, take a pass. Start saving the extra $600 on a 200-500mm f/5.6 VR or an extra $1600 on a 200-400mm f/4 VR and endure the extra weight of the larger lens and tripod. While this lens is 1/3rd stop slower than a Nikon 80-400mm or Canon 100-400mm, at $800 it offers a lot of reach and a lot of value in package of manageable size.

The real question, of course, is "does it still make sense to drag around a full sized dSLR when playing tourist?" But as Alton Brown would say, "that's another show." For today, I can that after using this lens, I won't be pining for either of the 80-400mm Nikkors.
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