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.
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 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:
Here are three more shot at 120mm from top to bottom f/2.8, f/7.1 & f/22:
Here is a portrait shot at f/2.8, 300mm:
Below is a 100% crop of the eye, which you can see is quite sharp:
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.
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.
Zero chromatic aberration present
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.