Sunday, 8 February 2015

Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sports

I like the Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 (my review) for use on Nikon 1 cameras. It is very light and compact, and performs well. It is easy to bring along as a handheld birders lens.

However, there are times when you need more reach, and there are times when you need better low light performance. Nikon 1 cameras generally perform well up to ISO 1600, but not so good above that.

The solutions can be: To get an even longer lens for use on Nikon 1 using the FT-1 adapter, or to get an APS-C based system with better high ISO performance. In this article, I will look into both.

We recently saw the launch of the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3, which could have been an alternative for use on the adapter. However, the lens does not operate on Nikon 1 cameras at all with the Nikon FT-1 adapter.

Sigma also launched a lens with very similar specifications, the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sports. It comes at twice the price of the Tamron lens, but adds enthusiast friendly features such as splash and dust proofing, water repellant front and rear lens elements. It seems like the perfect long zoom lens for bird and wildlife photographers on a budget.

Here are the two lenses, the Nikon CX 70-300mm in the foreground, and the much larger Sigma 150-600mm in the background:

When extended to the maximum focal length, and with hoods and cameras mounted, the size difference is still large:

The Sigma based system is 0.55m long, while the Nikon is 0.3m long, in total, including the hoods and cameras.

When using the Sigma lens on an APS-C DSLR camera (DX format), the two lenses have a similar equivalent focal length range, with the Sigma option being slightly longer:

You can use the lens on full frame cameras as well, where it will behave just like the specifications indicate, with a 150-600mm focal length. However, I am guessing that this lens will be used mostly on APS-C cameras, where it gives a more useful reach.

The specifications reveal that the Sigma lens is five times heavier, not nearly as easy to bring along when hiking:

LensNikon 1 70-300mmSigma 150-600mm Sports
MountNikon 1 CXNikon FX/DX, Canon EF
Max aperturef/4.5-5.6f/5-6.3
Equiv focal range190-820mm225-900mm (1.5x crop)
Crop factor2.7x1x-1.5x
Lens elements/groups16/1024/16
Minimum focus distance1m2.6m
Optical image stabilizationYesYes
Filter thread62mm105mm
Hood includedYesYes
Tripod collarOptional, Nikon TR-N100Yes, built in

Using the Sigma lens on Nikon 1 cameras

With the FT-1 adapter, you can use the Sigma lens on Nikon 1 cameras. It is shown here with the Nikon 1 V3 camera:

Due to the 2.7x crop factor of the Nikon 1 system, this setup gives an equivalent reach of 1620mm, which is truly enormous.

This setup does work: You can control the aperture as you would expect, and the image stabilization operates fine. The autofocus is somewhat of an issue, though. You can only use the centre AF point, and this goes for all lenses you would use on the FT-1 adapter. Also, you lose the AF-A option, and are limited to AF-S and AF-C only. This is not that much of a problem.

Beyond this, I also noted that when using the Nikon 1 V3 camera, the autofocus was quite inaccurate. However, that was when testing the lens during the winter 2015. Since that time, there is more light (with summer), and there has been a Nikon 1 V3 firmware upgrade. Now, I find that the focus works much better.

To illustrate how the lens works on the Nikon 1 V3, I have taken these example images. The images were taken handheld, using AF-S mode, at a fairly short focus distance. Click for larger images:

300mm, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 400
400mm, f/6, 1/640s, ISO 400
500mm, f/6.3, 1/640s, ISO 400
600mm, f/6.3, 1/640s, ISO 400

Here are 100% crops from the images, for comparison (click for larger image):

You can also download the RAW image files, if you want to examine them. Here they are: At 300mm, at 400mm, at 500mm and at 600mm.

You can also find a more systematic comparison here.

And another series, taken at a longer focus distance:

300mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 160
400mm, f/6, 1/500s, ISO 180
500mm, f/6.3, 1/500s, ISO 200
600mm, f/6.3, 1/500s, ISO 200

And again 100% crops:

As you see, this combo is usable even at 600mm, and even when handheld, as long as you have sufficient light. These seagull series were taken at 18:00 in the evening, in the Nordic summer.

In dimmer light, in the evening, I also found the autofocus to be quite slow with this combination. It does help to limit the focus using the switch on the lens, though.

If you are able to get the focus correct, then the lens does perform quite well on Nikon 1, even at 600mm. Here is an example:

Nikon 1 V3 with Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm f/6.3Nikon D3300 with Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm f/6.3

And 100% crops from the centre of the images (click for a larger view):

As you see, when you have the right focus, the image quality is usable even on the smaller Nikon 1 CX sensor, even if the sharpness is not perfect.

Using the Sigma lens on Nikon DX cameras

The other option in my introduction was to use the Sigma lens on a DX DSLR camera. With the 1.5x crop factor, the equivalent focal length is 900mm, just marginally longer than that of the Nikon CX 70-300mm, 810mm. But on top of this, you also get the significantly better high ISO performance of modern APS-C DSLR cameras, and a higher image resolution too.

I think that most people who are interested in birds and wildlife will use this lens at the longest focal length pretty much all the time. So that is how I tested it.

My camera, the Nikon D3300, is the least expensive of all the current DX cameras from Nikon. It lacks the sophisticated autofocus options that you might want for photographing moving subjects. But for stationary birds, it works just fine. I mostly used the centre AF spot.

Here are some example images, with 100% crops on the right hand side. Click for larger views:

Mallard, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/800s, ISO 3200:
Nuthatch, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1000s, ISO 560:
Big tit, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1000s, ISO 1800:
House sparrow, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1000s, ISO 640:

I think the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sports gives very good image quality at 600mm f/6.3. I did notice some loss of contrast when having the bright sky in the background, though.


Using the Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 on Nikon 1 cameras is very convenient, giving an enourmous reach in a small and compact package. However, sometimes, you could wish for better high ISO performance, and more reach.

Even if the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sports lens does work on Nikon 1 cameras, using the FT-1 adapter, it is not without problems. The focus accuracy is variable with the V3 camera, and the sharpness is not perfect at 600mm, as you might expect with this level of magnification. But if you use a tripod and take some time with getting the focus right, this is one way to get beyond 1000mm reach at a reasonable price.

Using the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sports lens, on even an entry level DX camera body, gives you slightly more reach than the CX 70-300mm lens, and, more importantly, better image quality across the whole ISO range. And higher resolution to boot.

However, using the Sigma 150-600mm comes at a price: Twice the price, in fact, but more importantly, five times the weight. Mostly, you will prefer to bring the CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, with the much smaller dimensions.

The CX lens is also much easier to use for birds in flight (BIF), with the smaller size and lighter weight, and with the sophisticated AF performance of the Nikon 1 cameras.

No comments:

Post a Comment