Review: You Should Want Sigma's 120-300mm f/2.8 Sport Lens

Review: You Should Want Sigma's 120-300mm f/2.8 Sport Lens

Large, imposing and drop dead gorgeous, the new Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM AF is one hell of a lens. Sigma has done an outstanding job in recent months producing some top quality lenses and they didn’t let up on the gas with the first Sport category offering in their new global vision. With two levels of optical stabilization, a wide open f/2.8 aperture, crazy fast and accurate AF and a beautiful body build, you want this lens, even if you don’t know it yet.

Weather sealed to keep out dust and the occasional splash of water, Sigma’s foray into a lens specifically designed for sports shooters is a truly beautiful piece of work. It’s weather sealed at the mount attachment, manual ring, zoom ring and switches which keeps the inner electronics and your camera safe in the extreme conditions of shooting outdoors and during inclement weather. The gorgeous matte black metal housing many of us have come to love about Sigma’s new design does not disappoint here. There is significantly more surface area to work with on this lens than on any other lens they have released on their new design, and Sigma went to town. I have shown many other photographers (some who have shied away from Sigma in previous years) and every single one was shocked at how beautiful this lens is. Many couldn’t believe it was a Sigma.

120-300 perspective

There is something to be said about the imposing nature of a lens of this caliber. With the 120-300mm mounted on a 5DMKIII, I waltzed onto a bike race track, got a breakdown of the situation (unheeded mind you, they came to me) by race officials, and was allowed a prime shooting location right after a key turn, no questions asked. The highway patrol parted the seas for me. Sometimes, a lens is better than a high profile press pass.

The lens hood that comes with the 120-300mm is a beautifully crafted solid aluminum that fastens on in the traditional screw motion but is held solid by a tightening bolt. Either I have fingers of unfathomable strength or the fastening screw is a little weak as while screwing the hood on, I stripped out the fastener. Not a big deal, but just be careful not to over tighten the hood.

The entire zoom range is housed inside the body of the lens. I love this, as I never have to worry about the physical size of my lens changing. I also expect this out of a lens in this category of professional gear and price range, so kudos here.

As you can well imagine, this lens is enormous (5.0 x 11.4”) and quite heavy, weighing in at 6.5 pounds. It’s nearly impossible to use it without a tripod or monopod, but I don’t believe it was ever intended to be used without them. From a carrying-in-your-bag perspective, 6.5 pounds isn’t terrible and it fits into my F-Stop bag perfectly. When mounted on a monopod, it is easy to move around and control.

Focusing and zooming feels smooth and glorious. However, because I have small hands, I did find it hard to quickly change focal lengths or manual focus on the fly. The lens is just so huge that it was hard for me to get a good grip. Totally limited to users with tiny palms like me, and many of you shouldn’t have any issues.

sigma 120-300mm functions close up

Sigma offers two levels of Optical Stabilization. What each does is rather complicated, so I defer to Sigma on this one. I can say is that it is helpful when shooting outdoors and on the move with such a heavy lens on your camera.

You might have noticed the “Custom” switches just below the Optical Stabilization switch on this lens. These allow you to program custom functionality into the lens using Sigma’s new USB Dock. You can program it to react differently for individual scenarios. You can set your own AF speed, focus point or stabilization functionality for whatever different situations you might find yourself while using this lens. It’s totally up to you, but gives you a lot more flexibility when you’re out on the job.

The 120-300mm also has a focus limiter to offer an adjusted range of auto focusing, including a faster auto focus speed. You can also, as mentioned above, fine-tune this with the USB Dock to your precise specifications.

The image quality produced from this lens is really great. Though it is not the absolute sharpest lens I have ever shot with (that is reserved for the Sigma 35mm f/1.4), it performs exceedingly well. Though there are of course sweet spots (I found the best to be at f/7.1 at all focal lengths), nowhere was I disappointed with the lens. Everywhere from f/2.8 through f/22 was sharp, with some fuzziness occurring at f/22, as to be expected. Generally, the sharpness was darn consistent across the aperture range which is extremely impressive. What variations in sharpness exist are minor. Below are three samples from the aperture range (from top to bottom f/2.8, f/7.1 & f/22) shot at 300mm. Please pardon the ISO noise:

300 f2_8 mk2

300 f7_1 mk2

300 f22 mk2

Here are three more shot at 120mm from top to bottom f/2.8, f/7.1 & f/22:


120 f2_8 mk2120 f7_1 mk2

120 f22 mk2


Here is a portrait shot at f/2.8, 300mm:

portrait example

Below is a 100% crop of the eye, which you can see is quite sharp:

eye example
Where this lens really surprised was in the total and complete lack of any chromatic aberration anywhere. Sigma built in two FLD glass elements and one SLD glass element to fight chromatic aberration, and the result is fantastic. Where I have struggled with aberration on other Sigma lenses (granted, they all were generally at wide angles where chromatic aberration is more difficult to combat), the 120-300mm is a shining example of extremely high image quality. In every situation, I had nothing but stellar results from this lens. In studio, outdoors in bright light, in dim light, etc., this lens performed extremely well. Yes, I took it in studio and got the below result (shot at f/20, 192mm). You can see that though there is minor flaring, it's well controlled.

APO-SONNAR-2-135mm-ZEISS

Vignetting is only an issue at and around the 300mm focal length at f/2.8. It’s not terribly severe, but it is noticeable if you're looking.

Auto focus speed and performance is of paramount importance to sport photographers. Often they only get one chance to nail an image and that shot takes place in fractions of a second. I was seriously impressed by the speed of the AF right out of box, and even more excited about how much you can fine-tune it to your personal preference. Much of the time, the AF is based on how quickly the lens’ motor can operate. Here I have only good things to say. Sigma’s AF has been extremely fast, accurate and silent in every lens produced in the last six months, and once again this new lens is no exception. But outside the power of the motor, a lot of AF performance is also tied to how the lens communicates with the camera. It is here that many of the issues that plagued Sigma users in the past can likely point the finger. With the USB Dock, this problem completely disappears. No matter what firmware or updates your camera takes, you can always update your lens to match it. Don’t like the performance? Fix it. Optically this lens is nearly perfect, and the ability to fix the speed and accuracy of the AF to exactly what you personally want makes the investment in this heftily priced lens a lot easier to swallow.

KZ4A3073

KZ4A3094

KZ4A3096

KZ4A3108
What I liked:

Zero chromatic aberration present
Customizable functionality
Autofocus Speed
Consistent Sharpness
Build Quality

What Could use improvement:

Minor vignette at 300mm f/2.8
Very slight fuzziness at f/22
Tightening screw on lens hood a little flimsy

I am not a sports shooter, so those of you who are going to really push the limits of this lens, I recommend you rent it and test it out. If you're seriously considering the lens, pick up the USB Dock so you can fine tune your rental. It's not a big expense and will make your rental tests a little more demonstrative of your final experience if you were to purchase it. Plus it makes sure that wherever you rented it from doesn't sway your view due to some strange setting someone else may have put into it.

From my perspective, Sigma listened to what photographers wanted in a lens of this caliber and delivered in stunning fashion. Not only will the looks of this lens impress both you and anyone around you, but it performs beautifully in a range of situations, some it was never intended to be placed into. I can safely say it was never intended to act as a product photo lens in studio, but I tested it there just to see how it handled and I actually really enjoyed the experience. For those of you who were waiting for Sigma to up their game and give you a lens with the accuracy and speed needed to tackle a real sports shoot, your wait has ended. The ability to fine tune the lens to your specific needs is absolutely fantastic and something you won’t find anywhere else but with Sigma. You can turn an over-the-counter lens into truly your lens. Truly unique to you and your needs, and truly outstanding for just about anything you can imagine. It's not cheap, but no lens in this category is and, quite frankly, the Sigma is extraordinarily well priced at $3,599.

For more on our review process, read our full rundown. For more on this lens, check it out at B&H.

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46 Comments

This lens is brutal ! I bet the price is going to be gruesome too ...

Mike Last's picture

"It’s not cheap, but no lens in this category is and, quite frankly, the Sigma is extraordinarily well priced at $2500."

The lens is $3,599.00 for the new Sports version. The older version is $2,499.

Still a good price,and of course the street price will drop...

Fuzziness at f/22, didn't see that coming. Ever heard of diffraction?

Tam Nguyen's picture

He's merely stating the fact. You don't have to be so negative. Jeez.

Are you seriously a photographer? Stating a fact?

"What could use improvement?"
"Diffraction at F/22"...
"obey's laws of physics"...
"doesn't zoom to 800mm at F/2.8"...

It's actually a fair comment IMHO because the f/22 fuzziness was listed as a "con" and "something that can be improved".

Diffraction should have been mentioned somewhere in the article and it was *NOT*. You can't magically make a lens compensate for diffraction issues w/ a sensor so that indicates a misunderstanding of the issue...
nathan down below should be allowed to borrow the lens and write a review for f-stoppers...

Why the picture of the Zeiss 135/2 half way down?

Jaron Schneider's picture

And I quote... "Yes, I took it in studio and got the below result (shot at f/20, 192mm). You can see that though there is minor flaring, it’s well controlled."

$3,600? It better not have any of the usual "3rd party lens AF issues" for that price....

Jaron Schneider's picture

I would like to add that those bike photos all took place in the course of about 10 seconds. They flew past. Without fast and accurate AF, those photos would not have been possible.

Shooting a bike race is about the most conservative of situations in which to test a lens. You have a bunch of subjects, all grouped together, where it's very easy to mask focusing errors, b/c the viewer isn't exactly sure where you were trying to focus in the first place.

And i'm willing to bet you prob shot about 30+ photos in that 10 second period, picking the best 4 or so to put in the article....with the exception of the last one, none of them show the actual ABILITY of this lens, and whether or not you were actually TRYING to pick that SPECIFIC rider out (the one who is in focus), is anyone's guess......

btw, the first biking picture is actually back focused, as you can tell the support car's grill is more in focus than the riders, so better get that checked.

Go shoot a lacrosse game from the sidelines, or down the 3rd base line at a ball game, with runners full sprinting towards you....then i'll be satisfied that the review was a true test of this lenses ability.

To me, sharpness, while important, almost takes a back seat to focusing speed and accuracy....these don't exactly show both...

To quote Jaron from another reply, "There was not a large opportunity for me to experiment with action shots where I am. It's not my sphere of influence in the photo world. I got lucky with this bike race." I feel you're criticisms are a little unfair, and not written in a particularly constructive manner.

I dont own the lens, or have access to one, so i cant review it...if i could, i would...i just know that if you're going to make quotes like this:

"For those of you who were waiting for Sigma to up their game and give you a lens with the accuracy and speed needed to tackle a real sports shoot, your wait has ended."

...you better show hard evidence to back it up...and this doesnt...he could have easily shot tighter on a single subject to highlight the tracking ability....just sayin...sorry if i expect a product review to tell me more than what i already expect as the basics a lens should deliver.

How about you link us to your work to see you know anything about sports photography, as I'm sure Nathan knows worlds more about it than you could even dream of.

In which case, he's way more qualified to critique this empty "review" than yourself.

Agreed, the only real point of a true sports lens- durable, fast. nothing else matters.

Such a lovely community spirit here in the comments. Puts me in mind of the comments section on most youtube videos...

Nothing like a lens review to scare up the mean-spirited measurebaters, pissed-off pixelpeepers & idiot I-could-do-it-betters who only shoot sharpness charts and focus-testing grids with all of their gear...

Beautifully put sir...

I'm new to this, so please bare with me. What sort of "3rd party lens AF issues" over OEM lenses are we talking about?

Jaron Schneider's picture

There have been complaints over the years that if you use a lens that isn't Nikon or Canon branded, the AF can be sluggish, slow or inaccurate (or all three). From what I have gathered, it has less to do with the lens (generally, there are exceptions) and more to do with how the lens communicates with the camera. There are rumors from within the industry itself that Canon and Nikon have, for years, sabotaged third party lenses with camera firmware updates, making their camera bodies react poorly with those lenses. This is unconfirmed.

That is why Sigma's new USB Dock is such a big deal. If you experience errors with the lens as time goes on, you can adjust the lens to compensate. This was, in the past, very hard to do or impossible depending on how communications with third party corporate went.

"it has less to do with the lens (generally, there are exceptions) and more to do with how the lens communicates with the camera."



Yes, that's why a Sigma 30 f/1.4 has AF errors on multiple bodies, while a 35 f/2 has no such errors, on said bodies. The cameras' fault,

ROTFLMAO!!!!!!

Jaron Schneider's picture

I don't think you get it. I want to try and explain it to you, but I don't know if it will matter even if I do.

Cool! Thanks for explanation! :)

Tam Nguyen's picture

That girl's hair is epic.

Andrew Richardson's picture

Does this new model actually reach 300mm on the long end? Previous versions of this lens would report as only like 270mm (confirmed by me when I shot one against my Canon 300 2.8 from the exact same position and the image through the Canon was tighter). Can you confirm the zoom actually reaches 300 now?

Edit: According to your EXIF data, it's actually hitting 300mm. I would still like to see side-by-side shots with a Canon copy though.

Andrew Richardson's picture

Also, do you have any action shots shot at over 1/1000? The bike shots seem to range from 1/320-1/500 so it's hard to get a feel for how images shot at action-freezing shutter speeds look.

Or you could ship it to me and I'll try it out for you at the NFL preseason camps I'm covering, that's an option too xD

Jaron Schneider's picture

I was wondering if someone was going to point this out. No, I don't and I really wish I had. There was not a large opportunity for me to experiment with action shots where I am. It's not my sphere of influence in the photo world. I got lucky with this bike race. I will see if I can amend that situation and get some more shots where I shoot past 1/1000 of a second. I will update this post if I manage to do so.

And in answer to your first question, it does hit 300 but I don't have a comparison side by side with Canon. I might be able to arrange that, but it really depends on the demand for that kind of result. The time and equipment needed to do it is costly, but I don't mind investing into it if it's what you all want. Like this comment if you want me to do a comparison.

Andrew Richardson's picture

I figured, no worries! Thanks for all the info in the post. I've been really hoping that this latest update would bring the same level of quality that the 35 1.4 did, and so far it sounds like it does. I'll probably just take my 300 into a shop once they have them in stock and see how they stand up to each other.

When I read $2,499.00 I knocked my kid down the stairs running for my checkbook. I went to B&H and saw it was still $3,599.00. Now I have to explain to him why I don't have a new lens.

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