To say that my anticipation for this lens was fever pitch would be a mild understatement!
I have been using the new generation of Sigma Lenses (Art & Sport) for the last four years, one of the greatest missing elements in the Sigma range was without doubt a fast and fancy prime, the bread and butter of Wildlife & Sport Photographers across the globe.
Enter the 500mm F4…
So, looking at the release pictures of the 500mm had me salivating at the mouth and having the lens in my hands I was not disappointed, it’s a bit of a looker. The lens is exactly what you would expect a high-end pro level prime lens to look and feel like.
The 500mm f4 has the look of a serious and well thought out lens. Picking it up you are immediately satisfied with both the balance, weight and ergonomics of it.
Over the last few years Sigma has undoubtedly brought the heat when it comes to build quality with all their recent releases being all but bulletproof…trust me I have given them a good thrashing!
The 500mm is no different, although they have moved in line with the major manufactures with a more modular build, including the lens hood which is a big improvement on the older range of lenses. The lens comes in at 3300gr only marginally heavier than the Canon by 100gr and slightly shorter at 38cm.
So, from the outset the unboxing of this lens was a fantastic affair, it ticks all the boxes, it’s got the looks, specs and all the required buttons you would expect…but does it have the performance…
To say I gave this lens a tough test would be selling it short.
I have tested the lens in some of the harshest condition we experience in Africa in a soaking wet Botswana and a scorching hot dusty desert…so let’s get to the detail.
My only criticism of the build would be the use of the tiny screws on the lens hood that without doubt with strenuous use would start to loosen.
The weather proofing on this lens is exceptional as I can attest, having got stuck in some of the heaviest rainfall in Botswana in decades recently! Dust proof, splash proof and bomb proof is all you need right!
Wildlife and Sport togs are a notoriously fickle and demanding bunch we want the longest, fastest and sharpest lenses with the greatest DOF available. So, when we look at this lens the widest aperture of F4 is a huge improvement for Sigma from the older versions and the other sport ranges variable apertures.
The lens aperture range is from F4-F32 a broad range but for the purposes of this review I will be focusing on the wider apertures.
Image Quality & Sharpness
The lens was tested with a Canon 1DX mark 2 and a 5D Mark 3.
When considering purchasing a lens with the size weight and cost of a fast prime, you are likely intending to use the lens at f/4 and that means wide-open image quality is of utmost importance.
I’m pleased to say that wide open the 500 F4 is sharp corner to corner at F4 and there is a marginal improvement in sharpness at F5.6. The brightness and depth of field wide open are what you would expect from a lens of this cost and promise.
A small caveat to this is that initially I had some mixed results with the focusing accuracy forward and back focusing, but as soon as I updated my firmware on my bodies (which admittedly I’m terrible at) I had an immediate improvement in accuracy. So, it’s worth bearing in mind that being a third party manufacture it’s essential that you ensure that the firmware is up to date on your bodies as well as the lens.
Here are some real-world examples in Raw shot off a bean bag…
Corner sharpness is so often seen as a differentiator between lenses and the Sigma 500 Sports lens performs exceptionally. Honestly, I’m not sure that it is the most important factor? For wildlife togs like myself it is of little consequence. But, having sharp corners can still make a big difference in some images including when part of the subject and plane of sharp focus meet in the corner.
Evaluating Bokeh from lens to lens is tough thing to do, but it must be said that this lens provides a very clean, deep and creamy Bokeh.
I often find that unnatural looking Bokeh’s render things like tree’s and branches in to a double vision sort of look. I am happy to report that this is generally not the case with this lens and thus far I have been exceedingly happy with the results I have achieved.
With all telephoto lenses vignetting is to be expected, of course not all lenses are created equal as is the case with this lens.
The vignetting on this lens is very manageable with at most a 1.5 stop vignette wide open at F4. With basic lens correction, I found the vignette to be incredibly manageable and not a factor with this lens at all.
Getting into the minutia of the performance of the 500 F4, chromatic aberration is an often-overlooked factor.
Given the pro level expectations of this lens…you would expect the lens to perform on the level of its competitors it delivers very little aberration at all and is well in line with acceptable levels.
In conclusion, the Sigma 500 f4 offers an exceptional level of Image Quality. Image sharpness is fantastic corner to corner sharpness and at the critical wider apertures it performs admirably. It offers a creamy and delightful Bokeh and there are very little concerns when it comes to any of the lens aberration factors. So that ticks that box…now onto the big one Focus!!
All the image quality in the world is rendered completely useless if you cannot achieve sharp images due to the focusing performance of a lens. To evaluate the ability of this lens I’m going to look at a few critical aspects…Focusing System, Low-Light Capability, Optical Stabilization and Tele-Converters.
The lens’ AF system is driven by Sigma’s HSM (Hyper Sonic Motor) and it internally focuses very quietly, incredibly quietly in fact. Focus speed is decent in the default “Standard AF” mode, but program one of the two custom modes for “Fast AF Priority” (via the dock), switch to that programmed mode and watch this lens focus extremely fast.
I also tested the lens at a Track & Field meet with the subject moving directly toward the camera, a situation that requires the highest performance of both body and lens and found that attached the Canon 1Dx Mark 2 the keeper rate was exceptional!
The third AF speed option available via the custom mode is “Smooth AF Priority”. The latter is described by Sigma as “Priority smooth autofocusing. Offering a slightly slower but very smooth autofocus, ideal for use with video.” While I did not find the smooth mode to be drastically different from the standard mode, the fast mode was very noticeably faster, with subjects locking into focus nearly instantly.
A top tip to prevent any focus “hunting” issues in to select the focal distance range for which you are shooting, which should drastically reduce any “hunting” issues.
Another rather cool AF feature is focus preset/recall with a beep confirming either.
Essentially what this feature does is allow you to preprogram a focal distance and switch it to that focal distance with the preset switch which you set by focusing on said spot and the hitting set…so those pesky bird shots with birds coming into a habitual perch, you can nail with abandon!
Low Light Capability
Something that is of utmost importance to us wildlife and sports shooters is the ability for a lens to focus quickly and accurately in low light and back-lit scenes. The bane of my life is lenses that struggle in these situations as it’s the sharp end of where we find ourselves shooting a lot of the time.
Happily, this lens operates as great as I have seen on any of the Sport range lenses recently released, as you would expect from a lens of this magnitude. I shot a great deal of low light shots in testing including shots with very busy backgrounds and found the lens to be adept at finding and locking focus quickly and accurately.
A few images examples:
With modern lenses the OS system is a key factor in producing consistently sharp images in tough conditions and added to that assisting with those wonderful artsy motion blur shots we all know and love. Needless to say that any high-end lens worth its salt has to have a very solid OS system attached to it.
This lens has a 4-stop-rated OS system. I achieved a great deal of consistently sharp images at 1/50 second shutter speeds and still mostly sharp images at 1/40. Results at 1/30 were mixed and a low percentage of sharp images were captured at speeds as slow as 1/10. The OS system comfortably deliverers great Optical stabilization performance between 3 and 4 stops of assistance.
In sticking with Sigma’s theme of ultimate customization you can further still adjust your OS settings to your liking with the USB Dock.
Those that are unfamiliar with the USB Dock should check it out, it’s a handy piece of kit for fine tuning your lens and as mentioned previously, you can really push this lenses performance to the next level with a bit of tweaking.
There are three custom setting you can achieve via the dock:
Dynamic View Mode – This mode offers a recognizable OS effect to the image in the viewfinder. This helps to ensure the composition of images quickly.
Standard – This is the default setting. The OS effect is well-balanced and suitable for various scenes.
Moderate View Mode – This mode offers an excellent compensation of camera shake, and achieves very smooth transition of the image in the viewfinder. The composition of the image remains natural even when the angle of view keeps changing.
The dock software and interface with give you very easy way to establish which option is best suited for your type of shooting.
The addition of tele converter to lenses is always such a divisive topic. Although there can really be no argument for the fact that adding a 1.4 or 2x converter to any lens has too have a resultant image quality effect…but sometimes you know…you just need that extra reach!
I tried this lens out using both 1.4x and 2x converters.
Beginning with the 1.4 there was a visible shortfall in image quality and sharpness, but overall it performed very well with the 1.4x, in reality I would say that the keeper rate with the 1.4x drops by around 30% but considering that this lens has a very high keeper rate to begin with I found the drop off to be quite reasonable.
The 2x converter again reduced the IQ by a further margin and as a standard rule I would avoid using the 2x converter unless it was absolutely necessary. In saying that of course I would have to say that this is always the case no matter the lens.
Have a look at these shots taken at 500mm and 700mm (1.4x)…. (Raw, Unedited & Unsharpened)
F5.6 ISO800 1/1600 (Raw, Unedited & Unsharpened)
F5.6 ISO1600 1/1250 (Raw, Unedited & Unsharpened)
It’s one sexy bit of kit!
So, aside from it looking cool and it having all the other togs’ drooling at your arm candy, it is a firm win for Sigma in its first new Fast Long Prime lens endeavor.
This lens delivers on its hype! It is built for rough use, although $6000.00 I’d wrap it up, Its image quality is on par, it’s sharp, fast, innovative and with little to complain about from a stabilization point of view it’s a real win when you start compare price vs value against other manufactures it really is great value.
Having waited for this lens for the last 4 years I can happily say that it is worth the wait & weight… and is certainly a pro level drool worthy edition to any camera bag.