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09.24.2013

The Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM is one of my favorite lenses of all time. My copy has been there by my side shooting in rain, snow, freezing low temps, scorching high temps and more delivering the sharp images I need month after month.

How do I get the most out of my 50-500mm? Here are my 7 favorite tips in order of importance.

Tip 1. Always use the right Shutter Speed

Stopping subject motion for the maximum sharpness is critical and even when the subject is not moving you have to avoid vibrations and camera-shake. This is even more important if you prefer to work hand-held with the 50-500mm as I do. Start at 1/1250th s for photographing action for the sharpest results.

Brown bear cub checking out photographers. Hallo Bay Alaska. D800E, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1000th s, f8, at 340mm, ISO 720, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography.

Brown bear cub checking out photographers. Hallo Bay Alaska. D800E, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1000th s, f8, at 340mm, ISO 720, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography.

Tip 2. Always use the optimum aperture

As a general rule a lens performs best usually 1 or 2 stops past the lens maximum aperture. In terms of optical performance, many lenses are at their optimum at this setting, for the 50-500 I prefer f/8 to ensure the sharpest results possible.

Bald eagle on the attack, Alaska. Nikon D4, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/2000th s, f8, at 380mm, ISO 640, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

Bald eagle on the attack, Alaska. Nikon D4, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/2000th s, f8, at 380mm, ISO 640, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

Tip 3. Autofocus

Make sure your DSLR is set to continuous or servo auto-focus mode. Also make sure your DSLR tracking sensitivity speed is set to slow to give you more time before the camera drops focus off of the subject. When photographing action it can help to pre-focus in the area you expect to shoot to make focus target acquisition faster. Lastly try a personal favorite of mine, rear button focus activation, for the ultimate level of AF control with the 50-500.

22 eagles and one photographer, Alaska. Nikon D4, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1600th s, f8, at 140mm, ISO 640, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

22 eagles and one photographer, Alaska. Nikon D4, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1600th s, f8, at 140mm, ISO 640, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

 Tip 4: Practice makes perfect

Spend as much time as you can in the field to make sure your performance is at the same level as your equipment. Most photographers will blame equipment for soft results not realizing that they are the weak link in the imaging chain. This is especially important factor with new lens like a 50-500 or after taking time off from photographing.

Eagle touching down, Alaska. Nikon D4, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1600th s, f8, at 240mm, ISO 640, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

Eagle touching down, Alaska. Nikon D4, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1600th s, f8, at 240mm, ISO 640, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

Tip 5: Check your diopter

Check that your your DSLR viewfinder diopter correction is set properly and check it often. It never ceases to amaze me how many photographers are oblivious to the the fact that they are shooting with a blurry viewfinder. The only way to know exactly there the lens focus is on a subject would be by actually being able to see it in focus.

Brown bears at play, Alaska. Nikon D4, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1000th s, f8, at 500mm, ISO 3200, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

Brown bears at play, Alaska. Nikon D4, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1000th s, f8, at 500mm, ISO 3200, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

Tip 6. Use Optical Stabilization properly

Switch off OS when when your 50-500 is locked down on a tripod but otherwise leave OS on when tripod mounted on a gimbal head (not locked down) or handheld. I will turn OS off in cold temperatures when photographing birds in flight hand-held. I do this to conserve battery power since I do not see a gain with OS on above 1/1250th s shutter speeds.

Bumble bee with a 50-500mm lens. Hallo bay, Alaska. Nikon D700, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/400th s, f8, at 340mm, ISO 250, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

Bumble bee with a 50-500mm lens. Hallo bay, Alaska. Nikon D700, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/400th s, f8, at 340mm, ISO 250, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. Hand-held. Image copyright 2013 Robert OToole Photography

Tip 7: Use manual mode

Manual exposure mode will give you the best and most consistent results. The trick is to set the best shutter speed, set the optimum aperture then use the camera’s ISO level as the variable to set the exposure. This method will make sure you are always shooting with the optimal settings to capture the image.

As always all of the images in this post were made featuring 100% free and wild non captive animals.

Robert used the 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens for the images taken in this blog post.


Robert O’Toole is a Sigma Pro and has been a professional photographer for more than 20 years. As an accomplished instructor, Robert leads photography workshop tours across the US and internationally. For more info visit Robert’s web site at robertotoolephotography.com

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  1. Any one having problems with image stabilization nor working on a new D4S nikon ?lens works perfect on a new Nikon D7100….. maybe firm ware ?