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 (updated: 07/22/04)


Sigma 300-800 F5.6 Sigmonster



I may have been one of the first U.S. buyers of  the Sigma 300-800 in early March 2003.  Since most pros are oriented to Canon's or Nikons, the lens was readily available at its introduction.  I received the lens 3 days after ordering it from a reputable New York retailer.  I typically have to wait months after new equipment becomes available to a market. After receiving the lens, I was able to take a few photographs before it began raining for over a week. Quite unusual for Southern California. Thus, I had time to write a few comments about the lens. 


I currently use 3 Nikkor lenses for telephoto purposes: the Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS, a Nikkor 80-400 VR, and a Nikkor 1200 F11 ED.  This test is entirely subjective and I'll only compare the relative optical quality and handling capabilities of the 300-800 to these other lenses.  Keep in mind that the Nikkor 500 is a $7,200 lens while the Sigma 300-800 is a $4,500 lens.  The 1200 is ancient history but still very sharp given its limited light gathering capability which can make it difficult to use. 


I've heard the comment made that why would anyone want an extremely long telephoto zoom lens.  If you've ever taken surfing or auto racing photographs, the reason becomes obvious.  The fast moving subjects pop in and out of photo range quickly. Very frustrating.  Even for sports such as football, access to the sideline may be difficult so you really never know which focal length lenses to carry.  A 300-800 zoom lens solves most of this problem, especially for sports played on large outdoor fields.



 Initial Thoughts:



I remember renting a manual focus 600 F4 several years ago to photograph champ cars at the Long Beach Grand Prix. What a boat anchor and not easy to use either. The following year, I rented a 500 F4 P and what a difference; a much larger percentage of successful images. The 500 can also be carried on a tripod and ready for use on a second's notice.  Due to this experience, it was with trepidation, that I ordered the Sigma 300-800, sight unseen. In the last couple of years, I've put together a tripod/Gimbal head combination that allows me to effectively use a 1200 ED which gave me the confidence to order the 300-800.  The 500 can usually be handled on a larger ball head. 






While handling and photographic sharpness are the most important traits of a lens, once you've paid mega bucks for a lens, you want it to be good looking even though appearance doesn't affect the picture taking qualities.  Compared to the 500 AFS, Sigma didn't focus primarily on cosmetics. (pun) The lens barrel sports a black matt finish and all F-stop numbers are surface printed. Overall, it is not quite as elegant as the quality finish and the gold relief detail on the 500 AFS.  I would like to think that this is why the Sigma 300-800 lens costs several thousand dollars less than the 500 AFS. 


However, the lens does come with an internal mounting 46mm polarizing filter.  Once the existing filter is replaced with the polarizing filter, the filter can be rotated with a knurled ring around the base of the lens.  Even the 500 AFS doesn't have this.  Very nice and will save you several hundred dollars compared to buying a rotating polarizing filter separately.  Because changing filters in the field requires dexterity, I recently contacted Sigma and bought another internal filter mount to hold the polarizing filter permanently.  This is another $70 but will increase the speed of changing filters.






This is a big heavy lens and is not intended for shooting from the hip as is possible with the 80-400 VR. Basically, you station yourself at a sporting event and use the lens's zooming capability to frame your images. (I even carry a little 3 legged seat.) With a fixed focal length lens, you'd be constantly repositioning yourself. This lens does not contain image stabilization which may be a major draw back for some Canon users but I'm only familiar with Nikon vibration reduction (VR) and it doesn't work on tripods anyway.


The tripod setup that I use is significantly different than what others use.  Out of several hundred photographers shooting at the Boost Mobil Pro surfing contest at Trestles last year, I was the only photographer on the beach using a Manfrotto 3421 Gimbal head mounted on a Bogen 3011 tripod.  The setup was further stabilized with a Manfrotto long lens support.  With the proper adjustment of controls, this setup glides extremely smoothly allowing for very sharp images of surfers even at slow speeds. The 3011 may not be considered the sturdiest of tripods but the vast majority of images I shoot are moving and rock solid steadiness in not the most important criteria.






The Sigma 300-800 utilizes separate zoom and focus rings.  To zoom from 800 to 300 (the subject is moving towards the photographer), the user turns the zoom ring counter clockwise which is the same as the VR 80-400.  This is really convenient and I don't have to learn anything new.  Compared to my 80-400 VR lens, the zoom ring on the 300-800 is silky smooth.  This becomes more evident if you do a lot of zooming while shooting. 


Second, locating a fast moving subject with an 800 mm lens is really difficult.  Locating the subject in the viewfinder at 300 mm, zooming to 800 mm, and slightly depressing the shutter release to lock on focus, is fantastic.  It takes a little practice but greatly facilitates locating and focusing on wildlife.



 Auto Focus: 



My understanding is that Sigma's HSM (hypersonic) auto focus mechanism is similar to AFS (silent wave) or USM (ultrasonic motor). In use, the HSM is extremely fast and not noticeably slower than AFS.  However, the Sigma 300-800 does not have a limit switch.  The Nikkor 500 does have a limit switch which further increases the speed of achieving focus by limiting the focus range.  A limit switch, on an auto focus non AFS Nikkor lens, can greatly increase focusing speed and eliminate dreaded focus hunting.


The Sigma 300-800 is also missing a manual focus/auto focus switch and relies on the attached camera body to determine focus mode.  With the F-100, auto focus with manual override only works in the AF-S mode (auto focus-single) according to the instructions.  In this mode, the lens will stop focusing once focusing has been achieved.  This is great for stationary subjects but not good for moving subjects such as surfers, auto racing, and flying birds. 


Manual override will not work In the AS-C (auto focus-continuous) mode. In this mode, the camera continues to refocus, maintaining constant focus on a moving subject.  I'm more comfortable using this mode but I can envision circumstances where I will need to switch back and forth, a minor hassle.  With action photography, you really don't have time to manually focus anyway.


The Sigma 300-800 focuses down to a little less than 20 feet.  The AFS 500 also focuses to 20 feet but the extra magnification at the 800 end of the zoom range is really convenient.



  Optical Capability:



Immediately upon receiving the lens, I quickly ran off a roll of film to get an initial feel for its sharpness. At this point, if I get a negative impression, the lens immediately gets repacked and shipped back to the retailer.  I had to use 400 ISO negative film since it was cloudy, slightly hazy and late in the afternoon.  Not exactly the best conditions for testing sharpness.  I shot some photos of leaves and flowers from about 20 to 30 feet, took them to the local photo lab, and waited for the processing to be completed.  Wow!  Over the years, I've owned other Sigma lenses and this lens is significantly sharper. The lens includes two extra low dispersion (ELD) elements to correct chromatic aberrations.  This is not your normal Sigma lens.


One week later, I photographed some egrets and night herons in San Diego. The lens focuses quickly and accurately and definitely portrays the contrast and sharpness found in lenses containing large front elements containing fluorite and/or low dispersion glass.  In addition, the 300-800 also renders very accurate colors without manipulation. Please refer to the images below.


In early July, I had the opportunity to photograph some lotus blooms in a pond at Echo Park in LA.  It is often difficult to get close-ups without getting wet.  Enter the 300-800 zoom.  From 20 feet at F8 or F11, this lens is critically sharp. If you want to really stretch the optical capabilities of big glass, try a close-up. The close-up capability of the Sigma was a pleasant surprise. Even some of my other long lenses begin to lose detail or experience a color cast under 40 feet.


As with other long lenses, the Sigma 300-800 is optically designed to have a filter inserted in the internal filter slot at all times. The Sigma 300-800 will not accept a front mounted filter, nor does it contain a front protective glass, which exposes the front ED element to the environment.  This may be a cautioning factor when near the ocean.  The front element is also located very close to the front of the barrel, leaving it exposed to contact with other objects. I plan to leave the hood on the lens, even when not in use, to protect the front element as much as possible.  The hood attaches to the lens bayonet style, can be secured with a screw lock, and is very well designed.






The Sigma 300-800 lens is cosmetically Spartan, sports only the most needed features, but achieves the optical quality necessary for a pro/advanced amateur grade telephoto lens.  While the zoom capability and the optical quality are the reasons for purchasing this lens, the built in polarizing capability makes it an even better value. Upon getting the initial photos back from the photo lab, I immediately taped an identification sticker on the lens and started designing a custom weather cover to protect the lens from the elements when shooting at the beach.  My goal is to significantly increase the number of action keepers and the Sigma 300-800 should be able to do that.


I have been shooting with the 300-800 for 9 years, mostly pelicans in La Jolla and surf contests in Southern California.






An 800 mm lens (any big glass) is significantly more difficult to use than the new crop of mid range zooms. The 80-400 VR is a delight to handhold while shooting moving subjects.  Don't even think about this with the 300-800.  Properly supported, the 300-800 will capture images you could never capture with smaller zooms, but you may need to visit the gym before carrying the 300-800 along with a solid tripod and Gimbal head. I actually have rented a number of bid glass lenses over the years before deciding on which ones to purchase.


Original posting: 03/15/03