You know it’s going to be a good Spring when you get to test drive two new lenses in a row. So far it’s shaping up to be a good Spring indeed, having just wrapped up my thoughts on the new Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art Series lens, I now find that I get to take the new Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG HSM OS Contemporary Lens out for a spin.
The freshly minted copy I received had a Canon EF mount on it, so it got to spend some quality time mated up to a Canon 5D Mark IV. As they say in the restaurant industry, nice pairing.
Now let me be right up front here, a 100-400mm, f/5.0 – f/6.3 lens is not a product that I would normally go looking for. I am a very deliberate shooter, in that I tend to have in mind what I am looking for when I head out the door. Be it street shooting, macro, landscape or sports, I configure my kit for the intended purpose of my photographic outing. That being said, I will admit to being pleasantly surprised with the look, feel, construction and results of this lens.
So with that disclaimer, out there on the table, as it were, here are a few thoughts on the build of the lens. The construction is in line with what I have come to expect from Sigma, in their Art, Sports and Contemporary Series lenses, that being solid, well machined, with excellent fit and finish. This lens does not disappoint in any of these categories and holding the lens in ones hand and mounting it on the camera are both visually and tactile satisfying experiences. The lens does provide a bit of a surprise in one area, that being its weight. The lens is smaller and lighter weight than one would have expected in the focal length combination that it represents. One quickly figures that the weight and size savings are both by-products of its aperture range of f/5.0 to f/6.3. This trade off, gives me the idea that this lens could serve as a street photography lens, for the shooter who wants a little more telephoto pull (to sneak in those candid shots) without a massive lens to carry around.
Given my above thought process, I embark on reviewing this lens against a shooting style and genre that may not exactly have been the target market that the manufacturer had in mind when designing this piece of glass.
First and foremost, for me, is the build of a product and as I mentioned above Sigma once again delivers what looks to be a solidly made lens. Build quality is apparent the minute you pick up this new lens. It’s weight is less than I would have expected, but that’s again primarily due to its reduced size, not lack of quality materials. The lens feels good in one’s hand and all controls operate as expected. Inspecting the lens, from back to front, reveals a solidly constructed mount (in this case a Canon EF mount), a smoothly machined aluminum main barrel, firmly mounted and tactile control switches, rubber ribbed focus and zoom barrels (that feature different ribbing for each barrel, making it easy to tell by feel which control you are touching), and ultimately culminating in a front optic in a 67mm threaded opening that features a bayonet style outer ring for attaching the included lens hood.
The overall impression is that this is a lens that’s solidly built, with an attention to both quality and detail. The fit and finish look to be top notch, with the expected, signature silver Contemporary emblem in place and all aspects of operation seemingly smooth and ergonomically thought out.
Sigma touts, that with very few exceptions, almost all of their lens components and lens assemblies are done in Japan in a single integrated production system. They point to a process of design and manufacture that features not only leading edge technology, but is manned with dedicated, passionate, highly trained technicians. Once again Sigma has delivered a design and build that appears well thought out and built with care.
- Construction : 21 elements in 15 groups
- Angle of view (35mm) : 24.2-6.2 degrees
- Number of diaphragm blades – 9 (rounded diaphragm)
- Minimum aperture : f/22 (f/29)
- Minimum focus distance : 160cm / 63″
- Filter size : 67mm
- Maximum magnification : 1:3.8
- Dimensions (Diameter x Length) : 86.4mm x 182.3mm / 3.4″ x 7.2″
- Weight : 1,160g / 40.9oz
- Mounts : Sigma / Nikon (F) / Canon (EF)
Hands on use
With all of the first impressions out of the way and the specifications neatly laid out, let’s get to some of the results of actually taking this lens out for a spin. As I said, I went against the grain here and used this lens for two street shooting sessions. It’s smaller size and reduced weight left me thinking that I could make this work as a tool to get in close to people without having to personally be on top of them. That notion worked well and as you’ll see, as I walk you through some of the shooting scenarios, it delivered good results
Street photography with a 100–400mm telephoto zoom lens is a little bit counterintuitive, at least to me. My normal approach being one of, identifying the subject and then isolating the subject within the frame, by moving closer to achieve the desired framing of the image. Undoubtedly, this method was born out of my almost singular use of prime lenses, when out doing street shooting. Changing that formula to include a lens that has a longer, variable focal length was a game changer indeed.
For me this change of game took on two forms, the first being a greater ability to simplify composition by virtue of narrower field of view when zooming in, and the second being a longer window in which you can observe your subject before being noticed or caught in the act.
In the first pair of sample images below, you can see that I came across a scene that I found to be both compelling and potentially a great study in color. Normally, if the conditions would have allowed, I would have moved closer to frame up the composition I wanted, for the final image. In this case, that would have significantly changed the perspective and the composition. Finding the foreground images to be distracting, at a 100mm focal length, I used the new Sigma 100-400mm lens to recompose a tighter, cleaner, more impactful composition.
Looking at the above two images, we should be making a subtle yet important observation, dramatically changing the field of view (via focal length adjustment) has an effect on shutter speed (I was shooting in Aperture Preferred mode). It’s not critical in this image, but it could be later and something we want to keep in mind. Auto-ISO could be very handy when using a lens like this.
Given that this is a lens review and not an article on composition, let me take a few moments here to make some observations regarding the lens itself. The reduced size and weight are allowing me to perform as expected, shooting handheld with the lens and moving around freely. The autofocus seems responsive and locks onto subjects quicker than I would have anticipated, a fact that I am very happy about. The zoom control operates smoothly and it takes both very little movement and effort to zoom in and out on a scene. The zoom control makes visually alternate compositions through the viewfinder effortless and interactive.
In the second set of sample images, you can see that I have another scene where I want to show off the ability to recompose via focal length. Here I am taking a busy campus scene, which is overly complex due to the number of elements in the frame and making it much simpler via a longer focal length, the narrower field of view that comes with that and the reduced number of items in that new field of view.
Again the lens performs as expected and is providing images that have good color saturation, even with the less than ideal overhead light and are showing good details in the darker, shadowy areas of the images.
This next trio of samples images, come from a scene I stumbled across, that was just crying out to me to be photographed. To be fair, it’s hard to say what the back story is on the fellow in the scene, but whatever it may be, the scene has a feeling of despair that I absolutely wanted to capture. As I worked the scene, I iterratively moved in close and closer to the subject, but whereas I normally would have done that by physically moving myself, I was able to make those moves, in this case, by shifting the focal length of the lens. This provided two really nice benefits, one I could the shot I wanted, the tighter composition, without intruding on the subject’s personal space and the narrower field of view not only cleaned up the lose elements in the scene, but turned the wall into essentially a nice backdrop.
Ultimately I like the freedom that the Sigma 100-400mm lens is giving me, especially in this serious where I was able to remove trademarked logos from the final image that any decent university might object to being portrayed in this manner. Also, as you can see below, I decided that the final edit was to be in black and white. Doesn’t have much to do with the review of the lens, but I thought folks might be interested in where I decided to go with the final edit.
As we continue to explore images, where we are using the zoom feature of the lens to control composition, it’s a good time to explore the Optical Stabilizer that is built into the lens. It makes sense, that as we increase focal length, that we would encounter both reduced shutter speed as the aperture naturally stops down, as well as an increased sensitivity to parallax movement concerns. In a lot of our sample images we are violating, if you will, the notion of keeping the shutter speed at one over the focal length (the rule states, for example, that at 400mm, the shutter speed should not drop below 1/400 of a second).
The next three sample images provide a scene, a closeup of that scene without the Optical Stabilizer turned on, and lastly a closeup of that scene with the Optical Stabilizer turned on. Even though the third image is taken at the maximum focal length of the lens, with a less than ideal shutter speed, the resulting image, aided by the Optical Stabilizer shows nice sharp details in the image, clearly doing its job effectively.
The next series of images, five in total, was originally taken to show off the major focal length designations on the lens. The variable nature of the zoom function on the lens certainly offers more focal lengths than the five shown here, but this shows the entire extent of the lens and some pre-marked focal lengths in between the lens limits.
In each of the above pictures (Zoom Check I – V), I am taking a less than scientific look at picture quality, at the various focal lengths as noted. It is worth stating that I have corrected perspective on each of the images, as I was not standing level with the subject when shooting it (Photoshop Free Transform adjustments), other than that these images have not been modified. I don’t see any noticeable vignetting in the images and tonality seems consistent across all five frames. What I do notice, however, is a slight bit of pincushion in all five images, regardless of focal length.
Here are the same five images again, this time with the pin cushion adjusted, in Lightroom:
There is a slight increase in pin cushion in the 300mm to 400mm range (again this is not scientific, so the range stated may not be exact) so a little more adjustment was required in images IV and V. The adjustments were made manually as no lens profile is available quite yet in Lightroom. One assumes it’s only a matter of time before one is made available. Generally speaking the aberration is minor and the adjustment fairly simple.
One of the things that I am interested in, in any lens, is how it handles minimal depth of field. Specifically I want to see how the out of focus background looks and is there good differentiation between that and the sharp areas in the image. Given the aperture range that this lens offers (f/5.0 – f/6.3) I honestly wasn’t expecting the results I got, which I feel are pretty good. The backgrounds are creamy and at the same time handle color well. Details are sharp in the focal plane and the falloff between the two gradual. What strikes me here is the compression of the foreground and background, which of course one would expect in a longer focal length, but it’s not always something that you think of when street shooting. It’s a nice surprise and one can certainly see where it would be a strong composition tool for the genre. The next two images are examples of compressed scenes with minimal depth of field. You’ll note that point of view, can dramatically impact what is or is not in the background of an image with a nice, narrow field of view.
Before taking the lens back to my friends at Midwest Photo, which makes me a bit sad, I take one more shot at using this lens as a street composition tool. Granted its not a decisive moment shot, nor does it capture the human condition, I do feel they are a solid example of why I would take this lens on street shoot any day. Here are the two images, where I show the composition possibilities that are available from a single position.
Bottom line, I like this lens, it has plenty to offer and for it’s intended price point, I think that offering is a good deal. All the operational aspects of the lens met or exceeded my expectations and did so at a weight and size that are surprisingly less than I would have expected. Image quality is solid, with a minimal number of optical issues (quite frankly less than I expected for the range of focal lengths available) are minimal. I do wish it had a tripod mount, as I could see using this on a monopod for sports, when paired with the right body, but that’s not a huge knock, because the weight, size and Optical Stabilization do seem to offset that need some.
- Small Size
- Relatively Light Weight
- Focal Length
- Quick Focus
- Price Point
- I wish it had a little more aperture (f/4.5 maybe), but I can understand the tradeoff in weight and size that is gained.
- No Tripod Mount / Collar
About the Author
Tim Neumann is the owner of Soft Lite Studios. He regularly teaches classes for MPEX U and has wide range of photographic skills. His portfolio is internationally recognised, published, and rewarded, with numerous contest wins. This article was also published here and shared with permission.