Rediscovering the Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 zoom lens for Outdoor Photography

I’ve spent much of the past month with the Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM supertelephoto zoom lens photographing birds along the New Jersey shoreline and in ponds in Central Florida and have come away with renewed appreciation for this variable-aperture telephoto zoom lens. The combination of supertelephoto reach with zoom versatility in a lens that only weighs about four pounds means it is easy to carry all day on photo hikes and easy enough for many photographers to handhold without a tripod or monopod.

A sandhill crane poses for my camera in front of a pond on a golf course in Florida. Thanks to the grab-and-go ease of this supertelephoto zoom lens, it was mere seconds from parking to making the first photos when I first saw this trio of birds.  Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 at 500mm 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 400 on a Sony A-850.
A sandhill crane poses for my camera in front of a pond on a golf course in Florida. Thanks to the grab-and-go ease of this supertelephoto zoom lens, it was mere seconds from parking to making the first photos when I first saw this trio of birds. Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 at 500mm 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 400 on a Sony A-850.

When I say I’ve rediscovered and have a new appreciation for this lens, here is precisely what I mean. For years, like many photographers, I could only bring myself to see the negative trade-offs when considering a variable aperture zoom lens. However, I now also can see and appreciate the positive trade-offs of the variable aperture zoom lens design, as well.

An anhinga dries its wings after diving for food in a pond in Central Florida. 1/1000 F6.3 ISO 250 at 500mm on a Sony A-850.

Variable aperture zoom lenses can be more compact in design than a similar focal range constant-aperture zoom lens. True, you do lose light-gathering power as you zoom to longer focal lengths, so shutter speeds must be adjusted accordingly, but the tradeoff in terms of overall portability is well worth it in many situations. Many of the photos shown here would have been missed outright if it weren’t for the grab-and-go nature of this compact supertelephoto lens.

A Great Blue Heron allows me to get close enough to really get in tight at 500mm for a profile. 1/1000 F6.3 ISO 250 on a Sony A-850.

For comparison’s sake, the Sigma 500mm F4.5 lens weighs just about seven pounds and is best used with a tripod or monopod in most situations. True, the 150-500mm at 500mm is a full stop slower, meaning the difference in shutter speed with the lens wide open is twice as long (for example, 1/1000 at F4.5 is equivalent exposure to 1/500 at F6.3).  You could also add the 1.4x teleconverter to the 120-300mm F2.8 for a constant-aperture F4 168-420mm zoom for a similar range, but again, this combo weighs over seven pounds in the hand and is a lot heavier to haul around. But for daytime usage, from just past sunrise to just before sunset on most days, the F5-6.3 maximum aperture is bright enough to stick to lower ISOs.

At 500mm, this easygoing Sandhill crane’s head and beak fill the frame. 1/1250 F6.3 ISO 400 at 500mm on the Sony A-850.
This is the exact same crane, caught at 230mm at 1/2000 F5.6 one frame before zooming in tight, with just three seconds between the two shots to recompose to show more of the bird and environment. All in all, I had about seven minutes of total time with this trio of Sandhill Cranes, and the versatility of the 150-500mm allowed me to make the most of it!
Of all the photos I made of the Sandhill Cranes in this set, this is probably my all-round favorite due to the overall framing, background, and ruffled feathers that really adds a dramatic element to the image. 1/1000 F6.3 ISO 400 on the A-850 at 500mm.

For the most part, I found myself sticking to the farther end of the zoom range, occasionally creeping back from 500mm on those occasions when I was able to get amazingly close to some of the birds in Florida. As a native of New Jersey, I am always startled at how many birds apparently have a smaller zone of comfort in Florida! For example, at one point, I was less than ten feet from a trio of Sandhill Cranes on the shoreline of an unnamed pond at the starting hole of a golf course in The Villages, which allowed me to add these beautiful birds to both my birding life list and bird photo portfolio in dramatic fashion!

As this Great Blue Heron stalked prey along the shore, I was able to zoom back to 420mm to get the tightest framing possible of the whole bird as it walked the shoreline. 1/1000 F6.3 ISO 250.

And even birds that are very skittish in my normal Jersey stomping grounds, like Great Blue Herons, allowed me to get much closer in Central Florida. Thanks to the reach and range of the Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 zoom lens zoom lens, I was able to make the most of it and quickly zoom in and out as I followed these birds along the shorelines for tighter and looser compositions.

A Herring Gull flies with a bivalve in its mouth above Sandy Hook Bay, NJ. 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 320 at 500mm on the Sony A-850.
A White Ibis perches on a rustic fencerail next to a marsh in central Florida. 1/1000 F6.3 ISO 250 at 500mm on the Sony A-850.

For birds, I almost always shoot at maximum aperture in order to keep the fastest shutter speeds, and crank up the ISO a little in challenging light. I was very pleased with focal plane sharpness, even wide open, at all focal lengths and focal distances. Since I wanted to keep my shutter speeds as fast as possible—most of the photos shown here were captured at 1/1000 or higher by cranking up the ISO when necessary—I didn’t use Optical Stabilizer much while making these photos. (OS is better suited to limiting camera movement during slow exposures than freezing moving subjects. Learn more about how and when to use OS here.)

As I was framing that white Ibis, a wood stork flew straight out of the marsh and I caught this single frame as it passed by. The ability to handhold this supertelephoto zoom means you can react very quickly when a new photo presents itself. 1/1000 F6.3 ISO 250.
These Brant’s Geese were a long way off, so I tried to focus on the composition and capture the birds as they passed about the decaying pilings for some color symmetry in this image. I cropped it to a more panoramic format to make the birds and postings more prominent in the frame. 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 320 on the Sony A-850 at 500mm.
I spied this songbird in a tree next to a walking path after spying the Anhinga shown above. I stopped down to F/9 for this shot to ensure the entire bird was in sharp focus. If you have a positive ID, please let me know in the comments below. 1/1000 F9 ISO 320 at 500mm on the Sony A-850.

As a photographer, I’m definitely now older, and perhaps even a bit wiser, too. When it comes to a versatile birding lens that’s grab-and-go easy for all-day use, this variable-aperture zoom combining reach and range in a very portable package is very likely to be my new go-to lens.

Read more Tips and Tricks for working with Supertelephoto lenses in this blog posting.

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