INTRODUCTION: SIGMA 18-300mm Contemporary
The Sigma 18-300mm 3.5-6.3 DC HSM OS Macro │ Contemporary lens is by far and away the very best multi-purpose optic that I have ever used. I added “by far and away” to emphasize how exceptional this lens really is, namely because I have photographed with some not-so-impressive multi-purposes glass in the past. The Sigma 18-300mm, however, is just the opposite: it’s extraordinarily impressive.
Tack-sharp throughout it’s range, accurate in its color rendering, truly macro at 1:3, small in size, lightweight, and offering a four- to five-stop increase in hand-holdability with its Optical Stabilization (OS), the Sigma 18-300mm 3.5-6.3 DC HSM OS Macro should be in every photographer’s bag, amateur and pro.
DESIGN & FEATURES
What would you use a multi-purpose for? Well, just about everything! It’s now the lens that I keep on my camera everyday—when I’m traveling or when I’m at home. For impromptu portraits of your family—grab the 18-300mm. For wildlife in your backyard or along the trail—grab the 18-300mm. For landscapes—grab the 18-300mm. For macro—you guessed it—grab the 18-300mm. It’s the Swiss Army Knife of lenses, and it does everything well.
One reason you’ll keep this impressive optic on your camera full-time is its small size. For such an impressive 18-300mm zoom range (27-450mm in 35mm terms), this baby is small, incredibly small. From front to back, it measures only 4 inches long, and it’s just 3 inches across. Weight? Equally diminutive—only 20.6 ounces. The front takes modest 72mm filters. And the 18-300mm comes with a tight-fitting petal hood and front and rear lens caps.
As far as zooming, the 18-300mm rotates with just the right amount of stiffness throughout its range. Pointed straight down, the lens does not creep; a zoom lock, however, near the back of the lens helps to secure the lens during highly active walkabouts. Zooming from 18mm to 300mm requires a bit less than a 90 degree rotation. The rubber zoom ring comprises 1 7/16 inches of the overall 4 inch length.
The optics are made up of 17 elements in 13 groups and include four FLD lens elements and one SLD element. Aperture settings range from the variable minimum (f/3.5 at 18mm to f/6.3 at 300mm) to f/22.
The Sigma 18-300mm 3.5-6.3 DC HSM OS Macro autofocuses using a Hyper-Sonic Motor (HSM). A switch on the side allows for manual focusing with the 5/8 inch-wide ring, which is located in front of the zoom collar. Autofocus rotation is about 40 degrees. The minimum focus distance is 15.3 inches at all focal lengths, meaning that at 300mm you get incredible close-up magnification.
Many zooms have “macro” written on them even though they come nowhere near the old stand-by definition of a 1:4 reproduction ratio. More stringently, Sigma requires its own lenses to achieve at least a 1:3 ratio before designating them “macro.” The Sigma 18-300 offers 1:3 and by any definition is a true macro lens.
For hand-held shooting, the Sigma 18-300mm is equipped with optical stabilization. One-half inch from the back of the lens on the left side is an OS switch. Turn the stabilization “On” for everyday, hand-held shooting and “Off” when using a tripod.
Finally, the 18-300mm is USB Dock-ready. Sold separately, the USB dock allows photographers to update the lens’s firmware and adjust parameters, including focus fine-tuning in 16 zones.
HANDLING IN THE FIELD
In the field the 18-300mm is a joy to use. With quick autofocus and such an incredible range, it’s hard not to get exactly the shot you want. Take photographing a sunset. From wide angle to super telephoto, you can capture the sky-wide splendor of a sunset and then zoom on the orange sun as it sets.
During a recent book tour in Florida, I stopped on Siesta Key, where I photographed a spectacular sunset. My preferred method to capture sunsets is to start wide, then work my way down to telephotos as the sun begins reaching the horizon, and then go wide again. That is, when the sun is, say, 10 degrees above horizon, colors spread through the clouds. At this time, the 18mm setting is great. As the sun reaches the horizon, zooming in on the orange-yellow orb produces dramatic results. I often like really long focal lengths to make the sun look huge. Zooming to 300mm (450mm equivalent) is just the ticket. And then, as the sun sinks below the horizon, color returns to the clouds in pinks and purples—a good time to zoom back out to wider angles of view.
With a handful of prime lenses or several shorter zooms, this sunset photo technique requires several changes of lenses, but with the 18-300mm, you can keep one lens mounted and keep shooting. But, wait, what about quality? My field testing has proven to me that this is one incredibly sharp lens throughout its range. In fact, I’m convinced that I could cover 80 to 90+ percent of my professional photography needs with this one lens—it’s that versatile and sharp!
Landscapes are not the only use of this multi-purpose lens. With such long reach, it’s great for birds. The standard rule is that to capture bird images you need at least 400mm of reach. The 18-300mm is an APS-C lens that provides a 35mm-equivalent reach of 450mm. Besides having the requisite reach, the portability of the 18-300mm is important. Lugging a 400mm or 500mm lens around is a lot of work, something you may not feel like doing every day (even if you have a $5,000 to $10,000 to buy one!). But, if you are carrying your camera around with the diminutive 18-300mm mounted, you are ready for long teles in an instant.
During a recent stay in West Palm Beach, Florida, I walked out of the hotel and spotted 40 feet away a juvenile Northern mockingbird playing around on top of a hedge. I grabbed my camera, dialed the ISO up to 1000, turned the OS on, zoomed out to 300mm, and started shooting. I was ready to take pictures in an instant. The result was a fun, head-cocked pose of the little guy. Really, that was too easy! I’m used to getting out my big tripod, mounting a heavy, long lens, and finally starting to shoot…all-too-often with the bird already having flown off! Did I mention how handy this lens is and that it’s sharp at 300mm?
So far I have mainly discussed the extremes of this lens—shooting fully wide or at extreme telephoto—but the middle focal lengths are equally useful, particularly for photographing people. While traveling this summer with my family, I often turned my camera toward my children. I found the 18-300mm focused quickly on my active kids, and the results were sharp and contrasty.
While visiting Siesta Key Beach, our youngest daughter, Annabelle, lay belly down in the sand. As she frolicked around, splashing, giggling, and smiling, I zoomed the lens to 105mm and got down low to the ground. The results were in-the-action shots that captured her summertime exuberance.
While photographing animals at the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach, Florida, for an upcoming “Curious Critters Florida” board book, I placed an especially colorful native green anole on my daughter Phoebe’s hand. I asked her to extend her arm out so that the anole would be closer to the camera. My intention was to use a wide aperture so that the lizard would be in focus and her smiling face would be softly out-of-focus behind. I zoomed to 155mm, popped open the on-camera flash to put small catch lights in her eyes, and engaged the OS. The result was a fun portrait that shows local fauna and my daughter’s love of critters. Beyond the effective portrayal of the subjects, the shot demonstrates the creamy bokeh this lens is capable of at wider apertures.
During my recent Florida book tour, I had the pleasure of returning to WTVJ, Miami’s ABC-TV affiliate, to talk about my latest children’s book, “Curious Critters Marine.” After an enjoyable interview with Roxanne Vargas, I asked the Miami TV star if I could take a couple portraits of her. She was more than willing, but we had to work fast. On the fly, in the brief time between my segment and the next, she posed for the fun image above. Quick and responsive, a lens like the 18-300mm allows you to get professional-looking shots, even when you are in a newsroom-paced hurry.
Recently I received a call to produce a portrait for a church directory. The client asked for not only a picture of herself but also of her two dogs, energetic Malteses. The range of the 18-300mm covered the directory head shot, individual pictures of the dogs, and a group shot showing the client and her two pets. Autofocusing quickly and accurately, producing sharp images, and rendering colors nicely, the lens easily was up to the task.
As if the Sigma 18-300mm isn’t impressive enough, it’s macro capability is just as amazing. Some lenses dubiously sport a “macro” label even though they don’t come close to the standard 1:4 reproduction ratio, that is, rendering images at ¼ life-size. The 18-300mm exceeds this macro standard, producing images at 1:3, or 1/3 life-size. To get this full magnification, just zoom the lens out to its fullest and focus at its minimum focusing distance, 15.3 inches. Flowers will fill your viewfinder. Insects will look alarmingly big. And hand-made jewelry destined for eBay will sparkle in great detail.
Of course, providing close macro is not enough. The real question is, “Is it sharp?” Again, you bet! Zooming in on the pink zinnia above to 100% (see below) shows a sharp, contrasty photo, with great detail on the yellow ray stigmas and unopened disk florets.
Want to get even closer? Screw on the optional Sigma Close-up Lens AML72-01, which was designed specifically for use with this lens. This 72mm filter-size lens increase the magnification to 1:2 or ½ life-size without any loss of light or sharpness.
NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY WITH THE 18-300MM
Besides capturing a wide variety of day-time subjects, the Sigma 18-300mm also excels at nighttime photography. From astrophotography to skylines, all you need to do is mount your camera to a sturdy tripod, turn off the OS, and start shooting.
On a recent visit to the Missouri Botanical Garden, I photographed their wonderful Chinese lantern exhibition. One of only a few such displays ever seen in North America, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s “Lantern Festival: Magic Reimagined” features twenty-two lantern sculptures that range in size from 6 feet tall to sprawling displays over 40 feet high and 100 feet long. The lanterns consist of steel skeletons covered with stretched silk fabric. During the day the figures are impressive, but at night, when they are illuminated from within, they become truly magical.
Mounting my 18-300mm lens on a tripod, I turned the OS off and attached a cable release for mirror-up shooting. While I photographed many of the lanterns, one of my favorites was “Birdland.” With birds and snails and insects and other critters, all inhabiting a silky land of colorful trees, the nature photographer in me fell in love with this tableaux. I captured images at different shutter speeds and then, back in my studio, combined them in Photomatix Pro using the Exposure Fusion setting to accurately re-create my nighttime experience.
The Sigma 18-300mm is equipped with the latest optical stabilization (OS) technology. This allows photographers working without tripods to produce sharp images even at low shutter speeds. I decided to test just how effective the OS is.
My test parameters involved photographing a detailed subject—in this case, the ends of seasoned cherry firewood—from 12 feet away with the lens set at 300mm and the camera set at ISO 100. Without OS, the standard rule of thumb would be to shoot with a shutter speed of 1-over-the focal length of the lens at ISO 100. That would mean that for this 300mm shot, which is actually 450mm in 35mm terms, you would need to shoot at 1/500 second.
I decided to see how well the lens would do at 1/10 second, more than five stops faster than recommended without OS. For both the OS-Off shots and the OS-On shots, I set my camera to high speed, continuous shutter mode. I kept the image centered on the same spot. And I fired off 25 shots in rapid succession.
The OS performance results were impressive. First of all, I should note that, with the OS off, none of the 25 shots taken at 1/10 second were acceptable; with the OS on, however, 28% of the shots taken at 1/10 second were acceptable, with these images showing fine detail.
To push matters further, I turned the shutter speed down to 1/5 second, over six stops faster than recommended without OS. Again, none of the images were acceptable with the OS off, but with the OS on, 12% of the images were acceptable. When I halved the shutter speed again, we hit the limit. None of the OS-Off or OS-On shots were acceptable. What I found is that you can get up to 5 or 6 stops of additional speed with the OS on this lens at 300mm. Pretty impressive!
Whether photographing people, nature, travel, architecture, or just about any other subject, the Sigma 18-300mm lens is the ideal multi-purpose lens. With an extreme range, sharp and contrasty images, and great macro capability, all in a super-compact, lightweight package, this lens is one impressive piece of glass. In my tests and extensive field testing, I’ve found this to be an unbelievable addition to my photo bag.
If you’ve tried multi-purpose lenses and been underwhelmed, you are in for a real treat. I think you’ll find that you will love the Sigma 18-300mm 3.5-6.3 DC HSM OS Macro way better than any other multi-purpose lens you’ve ever tried before.
|Lens Construction||17 Elements in 13 Groups|
|Angle of View||76.5º-5.4º|
|Number of Diaphragm Blades||7|
|Minimum Focusing Distance||39 cm / 15.3 in|
|Filter Size (mm)||72mm|
|Dimensions (Diameter x Length)||79×101.5mm/ 3.1×4.0 in|
|Weight||585g / 20.6oz.|
|Corresponding Mount||Sigma, Nikon, Canon, Sony/Minolta, Pentax|
|Sony/Minolta and Penax do not Optical Stabilization|