If you want to photograph all kinds of subjects from long distances—from wildlife to athletes to fast-moving vehicles—then the Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM telephoto zoom is for you.
Among birders, the Sigma 150-500mm has become legendary. Birder photographers need at least 400mm of telephoto power; 500mm is better. So birders have adopted the 150-500mm, as well as its stable mate, the 50-500mm, as their go-to lens.
Birders are not the only ones who find the 150-500mm to a be a sharp, fast-focusing lens. Sports fans, from momtographers to sideline pros, utilize this super telephoto zoom to reach the action, from soccer matches to hockey games. For all kinds of action subjects, a wide range super telephoto zoom allows you to lock onto your subject and then zoom in.
Photographers choose the Sigma 150-500mm for good reasons. One of them is cost: long telephoto primes cost anywhere from $5,000 to $12,000, making them way beyond the budget of most photographers. Plus, these expensive lenses are also really BIG!
Enter the Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens. At just over four pounds, less than ten inches long, and well under $1,000, this legendary lens fits into both budget and reasonably sized camera bags. To boot, it’s sharp, has pleasing bokeh, and sports an optical stabilization system that can give you at least three additional stops for hand-held shots.
Design and Features
The first overall impression of the 150-500 is often surprise at how compact the lens is. Most people envision a 500mm lens as gigantic—that is, quite large in size and a shoulder-buster to carry. Indeed, many fixed 500mm lenses are a foot and a half long and weigh eight to ten pounds. The Sigma 150-500mm zoom—two-thirds the size and about half the weight of 500 primes—is a welcome addition to any moderately sized camera bag. To be exact, the 150-500mm lens weighs only 4 lbs. 3.4 oz. and measures just 9.9 inches long and 3.7 inches in diameter.
The 150-500mm lens comes with a sturdy tripod collar onto which any number of plates can be attached, from small quick releases matching ball and pan heads to long Arca-style plates for gimbal heads. While the tripod collar is removable, much of the time I leave it on when hand-holding. Its long, sculpted base fits comfortably into my fingers, making for a well-balanced lens.
In the old days, a variable aperture lens ranging from f/5 to f/6.3 might have been a problem, but with today’s exceptional high ISO performance cameras, photographers can simply dial up the ISO to 400 or 800 and start shooting.
The good news for full-frame shooters is that the 150-500mm lens is in Sigma’s DG series, meaning it fits all full frame D-SLRs. And for those using cameras with an APS-C size sensor, the lens becomes a 225mm-750mm on 1.5x cameras and a 240-800mm on 1.6x models. That’s a lot of reach for such a moderately-sized, affordably-priced lens!
I find the front 86mm filter ring on the 150-500mm to be very reasonable in size. Budget conscious photographers might want to consider buying high quality 86mm filters and then attaching them to their other lenses with step-up rings. So that I’m prepared for midday shooting, a Sigma 86mm circular polarizer accompanies me wherever I go.
One of the nice things about this lens is its strong close-focusing ability. Focusing to 86.6 inches at 500mm provides a maximum magnification of 1:5.2. This means that photographers can isolate flowers, butterflies, or other macro subjects with the narrow field of view afforded by a 500mm lens.
Long lenses are best mounted to tripods, but there are times when hand-holding is the only choice. Fortunately, the Sigma 150-500mm zoom comes with optical stabilization. The three settings are Off for tripod-mounted shots, Mode 1 for most hand-held shots, and Mode 2 for panning.
Handling in the Field
The compact size, relatively light weight, and quality build make the 150-500mm zoom a pleasure to use in the field. The small barrel diameter means that even shooters with small hands can hold, zoom, and manually focus the lens comfortably. The wide forward rubber zoom ring is easy to find while shooting. Its 90 degrees of rotation is perfect, allowing smooth zooms without awkwardly twisting your wrist to get from 150mm to 500mm. Auto focus can be manually overridden with the slightly narrower rubber ring one inch behind the zoom ring.
Most shooters will find the tripod collar functions as an ergonomic handle for stabilizing the lens for hand-held shooting, but it can be taken off easily, reducing the lens weight to under 4 lbs. A zoom lock prevents the lens from extending while carrying it around, and an AF/M switch allows photographers to turn auto focus on or off. Included with the 150-500mm zoom is a sizable, sturdy lens hood that reverses during transport.
The Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens is flat out sharp. Indeed, there’s no way this lens would not have achieved its legendary status among birders in such a short time if it weren’t for its outstanding image quality. Individual feathers, even the vanes of feathers, are distinctly visible in bird photos taken with the 150-500mm.
Like all zoom lenses, the best results come when using a tripod. The 150-500mm works well on moderate-size tripod and heads; if I have room during my travels, however, I prefer to mount the lens to my gimbal head. Gimbal heads, like the Wimberley II, help in tracking subjects and provide a rock-solid mount with both knobs locked down. When the use of a tripod is not possible—such as shooting from a boat—the optical stabilization is a great help, giving you three or more increased stops of shooting (details and sample photos below under OS Performance).
The 150-500mm is sharp at all apertures, including at it’s widest apertures, which vary from f/5 at 150mm to f/6.3 at 500mm. It’s also sharp at f/22 throughout this range. Of course, all lenses perform better when stopped down two or three f-stops, and this is the case with he 150-500mm. In the field, I often shoot at f/8 or f/11, taking advantage of today’s high ISO digital cameras, giving me shutter speeds fast enough to freeze action. During a recent trip to Alaska, for example, I photographed tufted puffins from the deck of a boat using the 150-500mm racked out to 500mm at f/11 and 1/2000 second at ISO 1600.
While most people recognize that sharpness is the most important quality to look for in a long lens, many never stop to consider its bokeh. The Sigma 150-500mm renders out-of-focus areas pleasingly. During a recent trip to the Baton Rouge Zoo, I had the opportunity to photograph a juvenile ostrich. The feathers on its head and neck appear tack sharp, and they are set off nicely against the out of focus background of vegetation. The one-two punch of sharp subject details and pleasing out-of-focus backgrounds results in prize-winning images.
The zoom range of the 150-500mm is ideal for wildlife and action photography. It’s also great for isolating parts of the landscape. One of the problems for wildlife photographers, especially birders, is finding the subject in the viewfinder. Long tele zooms allow you to find the subject at the short end and then zoom in for great isolation shots. The 3.3x zoom allows you to perfectly frame subjects without loosing pixels through cropping.
500mm is very important for bird photographers from two aspects, first it allows you to bring distant shots of large birds, such as hawks or eagles closer as you would expect from a telephoto. ( At 500mm, the magnification is equivalent to what you would see with a pair of 10x binoculars.) But because the Sigma 150-500also has excellent close focusing ability, its also great for photographing tiny backyard birds.
The auto focus performance of the Sigma 150-500mm is quick and accurate. Tracking moving subjects, from birds to athletes, is no problem. Set your camera on continuous auto focus. Birds in flight, for example, can be followed quite easily, and focus is fast, resulting in amazing mid-air shots. Another challenging photographic situation is whale watching. It requires seeing the cetaceans surface, swinging your camera into position, and firing off in-focus shots immediately. In Resurrection Bay, offshore from Seward, Alaska, I used the Sigma 150-500mm to capture shots of a variety of whales.
Optical stabilization becomes increasingly important with longer lenses. Fortunately, the OS on the 150-500mm provides exceptionally strong performance. A switch on the left side of the lens offers three modes: Off, 1, and 2. The Off setting should be used when the lens is mounted to a tripod. This turns off all movement of the lens optics. Mode 1 should be used for most hand-held shots. This mode uses accelerometers to sense camera movement and adjusts the optics up and down and left and right to compensate for movement in any direction. Mode 2 should be used for panning subjects from left to right. During panning, the lens adjust the optics along the vertical axis but not along the horizontal axis.
I find that in day-to-day use, Mode 1 provides three stops or more improvement over hand-holding. While in Rochester recently, I photographed details along the top of the Kodak building. The standard rule of thumb is to shoot at 1 over the lens length for clarity. For a 500mm focal length, that would require shooting at 1/500 second. With the OS in Mode 1, I could get clear images of the building at 1/15 second. That’s an additional five stops!
The Sigma 150-500mm also provides a second OS mode for panning. Mode 2 adjusts the internal optics vertically during panning but not horizontally. This theoretically improves sharpness when photographing moving subjects. My tests bear this out. I stood along a local state highway and panned along with moving cars. For all three modes, I photographed nine images. I then evaluated sharpness. With OS off, none scored a “good” or “very good” image quality. With OS in Mode 1, two shots scored a “good,” and no shots scored “very good.” But with the OS set to Mode 2, one shot scored a “good” and three scored a “very good.” So for panning with the 150-500mm, set it on OS Mode 2. The best shots of each set are below.
To test the panning capabilities, I positioned myself parallel to a state highway and panned moving vehicles. I took nine shots in each of the three panning modes: Off, 1, and 2. The best shot from each of the modes are above, in order from Off (top) to 1 (middle) to 2 (bottom). The third image of the silver Cadillac is indicative of my results: the panning mode (2) greatly enhances the sharpness of panned subjects. Nikon D800E, Sigma 150-500mm at 350mm. All images were taken and processed using the same settings, including the same 1/40 second for each shot, except that the exposure was changed from f/16 to f/20 and adjusted in Adobe Camera Raw to compensate for changing light on a partly cloudy day. Processed in ACR and PS CS5. Photo © 2014 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.
Both the Sigma 1.4X Teleconverter EX APO DG and the Sigma 2.0X Teleconverter EX APO DG work with the 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens. In both cases, manual focusing is required, but optical stabilization is fully operational. Using careful techniques and a sturdy tripod are critical for sharp images when using the 150-500mm with these teleconverters. Indeed, adding these multipliers can give you focal lengths ranging up to 1000mm for full-frame cameras and 1600mm for APS-C cameras.
Below is a series of images taken at the minimum focusing distance (86.5 inches) using a full-frame camera. The first image was taken without a teleconverter. The second was taken with the 1.4x. The third with the 2x. Notice the sharpness evident in the anthers.
All three images above were taken with the Nikon D800E. Sigma 150-500mm at 500mm focused at minimum focus distance (86.6 in.). f/16, 1/15 second or 1/30 second, ISO 400. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and ball head. Cable release with mirror lock-up. Processed in Adobe RAW Converter and PS CS5. Photo © 2014 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.
If you want to photograph all kinds of subjects from long distances—anything from birds and bears to soccer games and race cars—or you want to greatly isolate closer subjects from their backgrounds, then the Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens is for you. It’s sharp, compact, and reasonably priced, has pleasing bokeh, and packs outstanding optical stabilization.