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Lens Review: Sigma 500mm F4 DG OS HSM | S

Lens Review: Sigma 500mm F4 DG OS HSM | S

As a wildlife photographer little is more important than the equipment I take into the field as well as the knowledge and understanding of how to use it effectively. Many people have the latest & the greatest gear without the know-how, and on the flip side far too many people out there have an acute understand yet lack quality gear in order to execute to the fullest of their potential. That’s another blog post entirely 

The great team at Camera Tek asked if I wouldn’t mind testing the Sigma 500 f4 on a recent trip to the Masai Mara. I’ve personally never used any Sigma gear prior to this and I was rather intrigued by the idea of it. I had a look at the lens and upon first sight was struck by the solid “pro” build of it. It felt great in my hands, a good first impression. It’s solid & well built but not too heavy! It also had a great finish & looked great!

All that was now left to do was to test in the field and to see if it would live up to expectations. I used the lens on a Canon 1Dx mark 2.

Before we get too far in to this I would like to add that this is by no means a super technical crazy in-depth review of this lens. It’s an account of how I experienced it in the field in several different scenario’s. It’s notes from the field that I brought back & wanted to share with you, aspects that I thought would make practical sense to you as the user.

I’d also like to add that I typically use a Canon 400 f2,8 IS L mk 2 as my prime lens.

First, lets see what SIGMA says about the lens in their official capacity – taken from the website…

“The Sigma 500mm F4 DG HSM OS Sports lens is the first prime telephoto DSLR lens in Sigma’s critically acclaimed Sports line. Designed for professional photographers, the 500mm F4 Sports is a rugged dust and splash proof lens created to weather the harsh conditions that many photographers find themselves in when shooting outdoors. Exceptional image quality is achieved through rigorous optical design testing while autofocus and quality is maintained when paired with the Sigma TC-1401 1.4X and TC-2001 2X teleconverter. An advanced Optical Stabilizer (OS) touts a two mode switch, #1 for handheld photography, #2 for panning and tracking vertically and horizontally. The new Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) touts 1.3X the torque of previous models for fast and snappy focusing while the state-of-the-art electromagnetic diaphragm is included for Nikon mounts and provides a new degree of performance for high speed shooting.”

Technical Specs

Travelling with the lens

Something these reviews often leave out is a simply point – how do you get your equipment from point A to B. Now this 500mm (and any other 500mm for that matter) is not a small lens. It takes up a considerable amount of space & you need to plan accordingly if this is the lens for you. I travel exclusively with the f-stop Tilopa camera bag & the f-stop XL ICU unit. I fit my entire kit in there and it all fits snugly in the overhead compartment of most planes. I am able to fit all of my gear into this bag – 2 camera bodies, 500mm, 70-200, 24-70, binoculars and more. So it’s an important consideration. The last thing you want to do and something photographers often need to do is to travel with their whole camera bag AND the telephoto in its original case. This case can be bulky and takes up plenty of space. It’s best to ensure you have all your gear in one bag and in that way avoid the attention of airplane officials 😉

Initial thoughts

I’ve been photographing for some time now & I require quality performance from the gear I take with me. I now take far less photographs on every trip than what I use to. I travel so often & have become rather selective. This makes the performance of my equipment even more important because when I do swing my camera in the direction of the action, I need it to work & deliver what I am seeing infront of me.

As mentioned earlier, this lens felt great in hand. I really loved the matte-black look & feel. It’s looks pro & draws attention out in the field. The buttons also appeared to be big & easy to find when needed. The lens foot was rubber-coated & was easy to handle & manoeuvre. I never did mount the lens to a support & instead made us of a beanbag throughout.

As we all know though, something can look great yet leave you completely dissapointed. Lets see how the Sigma 500mm f4 performed out in the field.

Action

I know that as wildlife photographers we all love our action photography. We love the drama that comes along with it and the challenge of photographing action successfully. Few places offer better opportunities at action photography than the Masai Mara during migration season! The opportunities are plentiful & almost never ending.

1/1250 SEC AT F7,1, ISO 800, +1,3 EV

Along with the great migration in the Masai Mara comes plenty of predator action! One of the most anticipated events are the river crossings & the crocodile kills that tend to come along with it. It’s more challenging to shoot than what you may think. The water surrounding the beasts will often be very bright and the subjects crossing the river rather dark. You’re typically shooting at higher ISO’S in order to compensate for the “over exposure” to not lose details in the dark areas. This lens handled the challenges exceptionally well and when needed to perform captured scene’s such as this! Epic!

1/1250 SEC AT F7.1, ISO 800

For the shot above – the aftermath – I shot at an f-stop allowing me more detail. The image is pin-sharp and the action fantastic. Thanks to the 500mm focal length I was able to get nice & close to the action and the speed of the 1Dx2 (14 RAW frames per second) ensured that I did not miss a moment, a perfect combo! Once again the lens & camera had to deal with brights and darks and balanced them beautifully!

1/600 SEC AT F5.6, ISO 10 000, -1,3 EV

Crocodiles are not the only predators that wait in anticipation for the wildebeests to arrive. Lions make the most of the large herds & almost hunt & kill at will. Pictured above is a lioness about to catch a wildebeest calf. It was the very last light of day, about 15 minutes after the sun had set. She ran in as the wildebeests ran up the river bank & surprise was in her favour. It was low light yet the lens allowed my 1Dx2 to track perfectly.

1/1000 SEC AT F5.6, ISO 6400, +0,3 EV

One thing to understand about using a 500mm lens to capture action, is that it takes some skill & practise to pan along with the action. This is especially important when like in the image above, you subject’s filling up most of your frame. The image above is near full frame. I am used to the 400mm focal length but this 500mm required more concentration when following the action. It’s a long lens & you need to be aware of what or who is next to you.
I am however extremely happy with the performance when following & tracking the action. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the image captured above. Well, to be honest I would have loved to trim some of the grasses, ha ha, but other than that happy as could be!

1/1250 SEC AT F11, ISO 1600, -1 EV

1/1600 SEC AT F11, ISO 1600, -1 EV

1/1600 SEC AT F11, ISO 1600, -1 EV

1/1600 SEC AT F11, ISO 1600, -1 EV

Just looking at these images above captured during an incredible crossing you can see that this lens does not leave anything on the table. This is not a sequence but different wildebeests crossing & coming short. It shows the intensity of crossings & what wildebeests might endure along their epic quest.

The lens performed incredibly well. The tracking was on point & fast! I must say that the focal length was just perfect for many of the wildebeest crossings we witnessed & photographed. I never reached for the extender & only on a small number of occasions did I feel that I needed something with a little less focal power.

1/800 SEC AT F10, ISO 320, -1,3 EV

There’s plenty of action available at river crossings. There are also plenty of compositional elements to consider. It’s easy to lose the “punch” of you images because there’s just so much going on. If you don’t have a “lead character” in your frame such as the jumping wildebeest above, then you lose the story line a little. You can easily end up with just another shot of wildebeests crossing the Mara River instead of something truly unique & different.

What’s great about the 500mm focal length is that it allows you to get in just that little bit closer & allows you to isolate the story that you’re trying to tell.

1/1250 SEC AT F13, ISO 800, -0,3 EV

You’ve also got to be aware of the issues with focus that you could encounter with a lens not up to the task. There’s so much dust around and the wildebeest are rather dark. What you end up experiencing is that your cameras stutters with autofocus as it has nothing concrete to focus on. See, you camera focuses best when it’s given a good contract rich edge. If it’s just a heap of dust or a sea of black, it struggles to cut through and struggles to find an edge of contrast to focus on. The horns of a wildebeest, or perhaps the outline of a wildebeest against the dusty background is a good place to track and focus. Even then, a quality lens like this Sigma 500 f4 makes life easier & focused fast & efficiently and allowed me to capture images like these ones above.

It might seem like a small thing to consider when acquiring a new lens, but it’s something that can cause you a world of problems! You need a lens that won’t let you down in the heat of the action. Crossings are challenging to capture AND to tell a story, and a quality lens just makes it so much easier.

1/2500 SEC AT F8, ISO 320, -1 EV

1/800 SEC AT F10, ISO 800, -0,3 EV

As you can see, we experienced incredible crossing action. The Mara was drier than what I’ve ever experienced. It had not rained in weeks and the dust was heavy! It makes for dramatic wildebeest crossing scene’s, the kind that everyone wants when visiting the Mara.

The Sigma 500 f4 never let me down when it came to focusing performance. Coupled with the 1Dx 2’s lethal autofocus abilities I had a deadly camera & lens combination & the images are proof of that!

1/3200 SEC AT F9, ISO 1000, -1,3 EV

1/4000 SEC AT F9, ISO 800, -0,7 EV

I absolutely loved what this lens brought to the party. I prefer shooting these dusty dark scene’s rather under-exposed. I shoot them dark & when processing simply increase the white levels and in so doing end up with great contrast rich imagery. Not many lenses handle shooting dark like this very well. I’ll end up with a lack in image quality. Not with this lens – the images are still rich in detail yet give me that beautiful sleek pro finish and look.

1/1000 SEC AT 6.3, ISO 400, +0,7 EV

I end off the “action” section with this image here.

First of all it’s something I’ve never seen or photographed before. Warthogs are known to be rather omnivorous and I’ve seen them nibbling at carcasses in the past. This warthog however was defensive of a wildebeest carcass and so much so that he aggressively chased off the vultures surrounding him. It was fantastic to see & even better to photograph. My challenge though was that I need to focus through not only the grasses in the foreground, but also the vultures between me & the warthog.

Yes, the 1Dx 2 is an excellent focusing machine but the lens also plays an important role. I succeeded without much fuss & managed to capture some incredibly action between the warthog and a vulture that ventured too close to the carcass.

Panning with the Sigma 500 f4

Panning is something every wildlife photographer loves to hate! We all want those epic perfect panning shots but after hundreds of failed attempts we tend to let the frustration of the process get the better of us. Now look, I am not saying that I am a panning pro, but I do enjoy using this method & I do enjoy getting good results. It’s still only 1 of MANY that end up being good enough, but I gotta say I did enjoy panning with this lens!

1/15 SEC AT F11, ISO 100, +0,7 EV

1/15 SEC AT F32, ISO 125, +0,7 EV

1/10 SEC AT F5, ISO 125, +0,3 EV

Panning takes some skill & a very specific set of settings. It’s not just as simple as picking it up and shooting away. You have to consider the distance between you & your subject. Then you need to keep in mind how fast or slow you subject is moving. The faster moving subjects tend to be a little easier than say a predator walking past your car. You get more “movement” in the frame when an animal moves a little faster.

The challenge with wildebeests is that they bob their heads up & down when they run making it a little more challenging for the photographer.

The Sigma 500mm f4 proved itself in the field. It’s a long lens and again, you need to be careful with the long focal range. It’s easy to cut bits & pieces of your subject out of the frame, it’s just something you’d need need to keep in mind as you hand-hold this beast of a lens.

Beautiful smooth bokeh

Now this is something all of us, without fail, love to see in our images of wildlife – that clean, smooth-as-butter effect. Bokeh (Japanese for “blur”) renders the back & foreground out of focus and allows the viewer of the image to focus their attention on your subject. Your subject will be beautifully sharp and the background and foreground matter wonderfully out of focus!

Quality bokeh in a telephoto lens is something all of us as wildlife photographers are after, and let me tell you that I was not disappointed by what this incredible Sigma 500f4 had to offer.

1/800 SEC AT F5.6, ISO 3200, -2,3 EV

East Africa offers not only incredible photographic opportunities but also many scenario’s where bokeh comes into play. The area is clean with short grass dominating the landscape. It gives you an opportunity to separate your subject from the background & a lens offering beautiful bokeh – such as this 500mm – makes it just that much better.

1/1250 SEC AT F4, ISO 100, -1,7 EV

We followed this cheetah for some time. She posed beautifully atop termite mounds and gave us great opportunities for photography. I however love dark backgrounds when photographing cats. I just love seeing their tawny colours stand out against a very dark, rich coloured back ground. In the image above I found exactly that! She walked on to the edge of the Mara River and this gave us the opportunity to use the dark background as a way of making the cheetah “pop”. If not for the outstanding bokeh on the Sigma 500 f4, I would not have been able to achieve this striking image.

1/640 SEC AT F4, ISO 2500, -2,7 EV

Exactly the same can be said for this portrait of a male lion. I positioned our vehicle in such a way as to have the entire background behind the lion dark. By underexposing in aperture priority I was able to darken the image enough so that the male lion stood out. I also shot this at an aperture of f4 allowing the lens to beautifully blur that backdrop. It’s a great technique and you need a quality lens to pull this off effectively.

Can you see how incredibly beautiful the quality of the bokeh is on this lens? The proof is always in the results. Even the image gallery found on the Sigma website advertising this lens does not do it justice I believe!

1/1000 SEC AT F4, ISO 3200

This lioness peeking out at an approaching herd of wildebeest gave the lens another opportunity to showcase it’s stunning bokeh. Just look at how it separates her from the grassland infront of her and also behind her. What could have been a possible distraction to the frame now compliments it beautifully!

1/500 SEC AT F4, ISO 5000, – 0,3 EV

This male Olive Baboon sat by the wayside and allowed us a few quick portraits.

Again, even with the background not too far in the distance I was still able to separate the baboon enough so that he stood out in the frame & really popped. There’s little distraction & your focus falls immediately on their incredible eyes of his.

1/1000 SEC AT F7.1, ISO 250

We were so lucky to come across a newly born giraffe. It was a stunning scene as the whole herd would come up and make turn in greeting the youngster. They would smell him from tip to toe. I really wanted this interaction to stand out from the background and again the Sigma 500 f4 allowed me to do exactly this by bringing that beautiful smooth bokeh into play!

The result is a gentle moment where nothing else captures your attention apart from what’s happening between the new calf & the giraffe smelling it. Perfect use of bokeh thanks to a quality lens.

1/1600 SEC AT F4, ISO 320

We found Africa’s most famous male lion one afternoon. It was that magical hour in terms of sunlight and the lion was showing signs of standing up. My plan was to shoot at an aperture that would allow the bokeh of the lens to separate the lion from the back and foreground. The result in stunning. Even though there are grasses covering the bulk of his body his characteristic head still stands out thanks to the soft bokeh.

The lioness infront of him stood up too and again, using bokeh I was able to isolate her!

1/640 SEC AT F4, ISO 320, +0,3 EV

1/1250 SEC AT F4, ISO 500, +1,7 EV

When I find myself in a situation where the light is a little challenging, I try to compensate a little in the following way.

The lion above was in the shade of a tree. It was hot & very bright. Instead of sticking to a normal exposure or even worse, not photographing at all, I completely over exposed the scene. What it does is lift the dark shadows on my shadows caused by the shadow of the tree, and it also completely blows out any detail in the harshly lit grass behind and infront of the lion. Here’s the trick though. You get the best results when you use an aperture like f4. You then smoothen out the background and any detail, and it accentuates your subject.

This again is an image not easy to achieve when your lens does not offer you a striking bokeh.

To close off this sigment on bokeh, here’s a portrait of a wildebeest. Yes, they are not the prettiest of animals around and don’t often make the greatest portraits. I do however love to photograph these bulls with mud-covered faces. It’s a part of their territorial behaviour and makes for interesting photography. It’s accentuated by the pretty bokeh on offer from this lens.

At the end of the day the lens did not once let me down when I wanted to separate my subject from the back & foreground. Careful aperture selection is a vital part of storytelling in wildlife photography. You’re including or excluding detail on purpose, and allowing the viewing to interpret the scene the way you saw it. Distracting elements can now be left out using bokeh, or perhaps interesting elements can be included to add to the story.

This lens worked very well in that sense & offered wonderful bokeh whenever I needed it!

In closing

As I mentioned right from the start, I demand alot from the equipment that I use. It’s important to me that my cameras and lenses perform to my expectations when I need them to.

Even though I’ve never used a Sigma lens prior to this, I was wonderfully surprised by what this Sigma 500mm f4 brought to my photographic experience. It was an absolute winner, through and through.

All of the images you’ve seen here were captured within a 2 week period in Kenya’s Masai Mara. There were so many different situations and scenario’s and I feel I really tested the lens thoroughly. From dust, heat, cold, rain and more, it kept on performing!

I’d like to share some more images captured with this lens during this period.

1/160 SEC AT F4, ISO 400, -2 EV

This image was captured in real low light at an ISO value of 10 000. The lens retained great detail and contrast, more than happy with how it turned out. It was such a good sighting that I simply could not resist photographing it, even in the last dying moments of any form of light.

1/100 SEC AT F5, ISO 6400, -1,3 EV

On our last afternoon and very close to our camp we spent time with two male lions just as a rain storm set in. I slowed my shutter speed slightly and was able to get a great shot of this male lion as he repositioned himself. The lens was in the rain for about 20 minutes during this time period and I experienced no trouble whatsoever.

1/2500 SEC AT F8, ISO 500, -2,3 EV

I think after using this Sigma 500 f4 in the Masai Mara I may just do so again when I return next year. I loved the focal length and found it to be just about perfect. I allowed me close enough at many crossings to isolate single animals. The crossing action can be overwhelming and there’s thousands of animals streaming down the river banks en route to the river. I love to however isolate single animals as they  approach the river, and the dust made this even better and more dramatic!

I must also add that I never used an extender on this trip but it’s certainly something I’ll be doing when I return again next year.

Even though 500mm is a very long focal length I was still able to tell great stories with it. Take the above image as an example. The shot would not have been the same had the wildebeests not filled the frame. It tells a great story of the trouble the wildebeests face along their trek, and at 500mm you’re not too close to include more elements in the frame. When you shoot at 600mm or beyond you have to be more careful and likely give yourself more distance from your subject. The challenge then is that when you’re in a group of photographers you might be the only one needing to move back whilst the majority of the group might be quite happy to stay where they are.

Something to think about 😉

1/400 SEC AT F5, ISO 3200, -1 EV

We found a male leopard early one morning and he was on a territorial patrol. This meant he kept moving and he also did so along the inside of the river bed. He offered us some great shots but I loved this one of him stepping over the small stream of water. I am personally a big fan of photographing animals within their environments and although the 400mm I typically use allows me a little more freedom, I was not disappointed by the 500’s ability to also allow some space surrounding my subject.

1/1000 SEC AT F9, ISO 500, -2,7 EV

One of the best photographic sightings we had on this Masai Mara safari came when we found two cheetah brothers on a recently burnt section. It was a magnificent scene – the tawny cheetah coats really standing out against the dark black burnt field.

Again I had to deal with very “bright” cheetahs and a really dark scene surrounding them. The lens did a great job in maintaining contrast, balance and sharpness. I underexposed a fair bit in aperture mode and the result was spectacular! Loved this scene and the 50omm performed beautifully. Just look at that backdrop & bokeh, really allowing my subjects to stand out and present themselves to the viewer!

On the odd occasion I did find myself a little closer to the action than what I wanted to be. Over the years I’ve developed a neat way around this, having this “problem” on a regular basis with my fixed 400mm.

I simply shoot a panorama of the scene. Lightroom has made it so easy to stitch the images together in post processing and it leaves you with a great result.

In the scene above I really wanted the hippo’s to the left to be a part of the scene. It tells such a cool story. Had I not shot a 2-image pano here it would not have been possible to include them. Yes, in this case the 500mm was too much for the scene but there are creative ways around this as can be seen here.

The last images to share are of sunsets. We all love our sunset shots don’t we? It’s not the most difficult kind of photography but I just love the sunsets in the Masai Mara, certainly some of the most beautiful in the whole of Africa.

Conclusion

So, what are the pro’s and cons to this lens that I so enjoyed using. Let’s have a look at them based on my two week experience with it.

Pro’s

  • Great build quality – feels solid in your hands and extremely well constructed.
  • At a price tag of $5999, it’s half the price of the Canon version and even more so compared to Nikon’s 500mm.
  • Light weight. It’s only about 120 grams lighter in weight than the Canon 500mm. To be honest, I enjoy the slightly heavier lenses and especially at long telephoto lenses. They are more stable when hand holding and you’re not as badly affected by windy conditions.
  • The image quality is real good. I would have loved to test it in more low-lit conditions. You have to be in camp in the Mara shortly after sunset so there were not many opportunities to test the lens in the last light of day or under spotlight. The times I did use it in low light it performed pleasingly!
  • It tracked subjects & kept focus very well. This was in all sorts of conditions – from animals behind grasses, rain, dust and more.
  • It presents you with a beautiful bokeh, something very important to wildlife photographers looking for striking imagery, especially portraits.

Con’s

  • The buttons on the lens would move too easily. They were big & easy to find but they were too easy to move. Every now and again I’d find myself on MF or the wrong image stabilisation mode. I then got into the habit of checking every time I picked the lens up. This is something I don’t really need to concern myself with when using my Canon lens so certainly an area of improvement for Sigma.
  • The “drop in” filter at the base of the lens would open up from time to time. You need to push it in & give it a slight twist and in so doing it would fasten and fix to the lens. This however popped out too often and it’s actually difficult to pick up on as it still appears to be in place when in actual fact its not.

As you can see above, the pro’s far outweigh the con’s for me. I think Sigma’s biggest challenge is that they are up against two heavyweights in the form of Canon & Nikon’s 500mm’s. That said, the Sigma’s price tag puts it into reach for those unable to afford the more costly lenses. It’s an attractive proposition and the Sigma really delivered on my safari, enough so that I would love to use it again when I revisit places such as the Masai Mara or the Serengeti.

At the end of the day it is up to you. It’s a magnificent lens and if it worked this well for me in so many diverse situations, I can’t see it letting you down!

By MARLON DUTOIT