Sigma 150-600mm | C Pairs Performance with Portability

As you probably know by now, there are two 150-600mm F5-6.3 zoom lenses in the Sigma lens lineup, the Sports, and Contemporary. The Contemporary is the lighter of the two lenses at just over four pounds, compared to 6.3 pounds for the Sports version. The lighter weight of this lens, both in the bag, and in the hands, makes the Contemporary version perfect for on the go nature and outdoor photography. True, you do trade some of the weatherproofing and the totally ruggedized build of the Sports version; but for me, in all but squall-like conditions, it is a tradeoff I am usually willing to make.

A Semi-Palmated Sand Piper hunts for sand crabs along the shore line on a recent foggy morning. Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Contemporary lens. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm on a Canon EOS 6D.
A Semi-Palmated Sand Piper hunts for sand crabs along the shore line on a recent foggy morning. Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Contemporary lens. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm on a Canon EOS 6D.

I have used both the Sports and Contemporary 150-600mm zoom lens over the past year, and with both lenses, I am very pleased with the focal plane sharpness at all focal lengths—even wide open. The shared DNA and exclusive Sigma features of these lenses—much of which is exclusive to the two Sigma lenses in this category—including the zoom lock switch at all marked focal lengths, the Autofocus speed tuning with the USB dock, custom focus limiters with the USB Dock, 16 zone microfocus tuning with the (wait for it…) USB dock, and the orientation detection panning mode with the Optical Stabilizer place both of these lenses at the head of the pack among long-reach telephoto zoom lenses.

A Red Wing Blackbird loudly defends its territory. 1/1250 F6.3 ISO 1250 at 600mm on a Canon EOS 6D.

The compact design of the Contemporary version makes it my new go-to lens for outdoor photography. For me and my ways of photographing, the total performance, portability and versatility almost always outweigh the advantages of the more ruggedized build of its Sports sibling.

A herring gull plucks a clam from the surfline. The ability to hand-hold this long-reach lens makes it perfect for my outdoor adventures, which usually involve several miles of hiking with my camera at the ready. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm on a Canon EOS 6D.
A juvenile double-crested cormorant hunts for a snack in a tidal pond as seen through the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 | C at 600mm. 1/1250 F6.3 ISO 640 on the 6D.

I am not the sort of photographer that prefers to squat in one spot on the sidelines with a monopod; and I am not the sort of photographer who prefers to sit on a fold-up chair inside a bird blind for hours on end with a gargantuan lens on a gimbal-head tripod.

The sun rises over the Atlantic as a Cruise Ship heads for port. 1/50 F/10 ISO 100 at 600mm on a 6D. a llightweight Gitzo Traveller Carbon Fiber tripod worked for the pre-dawn segment of a photo hike.; but once the light got brighter, I was hand-holding the 150-600mm C for the next five hours and nine miles I walked that morning.

For me, wildlife and outdoor photography has always been an active pursuit. I hike with my lenses. My favorite outdoor photography days are days when I can cover a lot of ground with a lens slung over my shoulder—at the ready when an opportunity presents itself. (In fact, my single-biggest issue with time lapse photography is the sendentary nature of it, once the cameras are set up!)

A gull flies over the ocean against a bright morning sun and pastel skies and sea. 1/400 F6.3 ISO 500 at 600mm on a 6D.
A minimalist variation on silhouetted gulls against the morning sky and sun at 600mm, wide open. The long reach and light weight of this lens makes it easy to handhold and track birds in flight. 1/2500 F6.3 ISO 400.
Another variation, same tech specs as above. Which of these three do you prefer?

The long reach, sharpness, light weight, and lens feature set on the 150-600mm | C make it perfect for me, without ever having a feeling that I am making too great a compromise in terms of reach, range, image quality, and total performance.

A snowy egret reacts to repeated pesters from a persistent red winged black bird. 1/1250 F6.3 ISO 800 at 600mm on the 6D. This lens is super-sharp, even wide open at 600mm!
A juvenile least tern turns its beak away from a shrimp from a parent at an endangered shore bird nesting site just south of the Shark River Inlet on Belmar Beach at 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 320 at 600mm. I first visited this site for a news story back in 2000 with a giant 400mm F2.8 and 2x teleconverter paired with a 1.3 megapixel camera, and, of course, a sturdy tripod. There were only about fifteen nesting pairs of least terns at that time. Upon my return visit this summer, with the much lighter and more easily manageable 150-600mm | C, there were easily 100 nesting pairs of least terns, along with black skimmers, oyster catchers, and common terns!

The fact that this lens is so portable and easy to hand-hold for hours at a time, and offers such high-quality sharpness, even wide open at 600mm has allowed me to make so many shots that I just would not have been able to make with a bigger, bulkier lens–even with a responsive gimbal tripod head.

I was focused on a warbler in a nearby tree at 600mm when I heard the honking and saw this swan flying in a path that would take it directly overhead. Having the lens in my hands, and not bolted to a tripod, allowed me to quickly zoom out and grab a frame as it was directly above me. 1/800 F6.3 ISO 500 at 275mm on a 6D.
A semi-palmated sand piper skitters across the surfline. Being able to hand hold the 150-600mm | C allows me to get down low at the edge of the water and chase these swift little critters wherever they move next. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm on the 6D.
A trio of the pipers, again at 600mm. These little birds travel in groups, and scamper up and down the beach at the shoreline, requiring quick reflexes and an agile camera and lens combo to keep up. Same tech specs as above.
A piper hops up onto a rock at water’s edge. Notice the shallow depth of field at 600mm when wide open. Being able to get down low helps make shots like this, and being able to hop up quickly should a bigger wave come crashing is really helpful. 1/2500 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm.
A piper rests on one leg a few paces back from the waterline. I was able to slowly approach this subject and kneel down for a nice low angle, thanks to the compact weight and design of the 150-600mm | C. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 400 on the 6D.
I was right at water’s edge while chasing these pipers, and the surf had some action to it. Being able to hand-hold the lens let me be much more maneuverable, to avoid some of the higher waves. 1/2500 F6.3 ISO 500 at 600mm on the 6D.

I’m just not a gimbal guy. I understand them and can appreciate their value in manipulating big, bulky lenses; but I feel like I’m swimming in wet concrete when I’ve got a lens mounted to a gimbal. My camera and I can’t move as fast and as freely as I want when we’re tethered to a gimbal. I can’t drop down to the ground when a plover skitters right in front of me then pivot to tracking a gull across the morning sun and up and over my head when I’m anchored to a gimbal.

A gull in flight in the early morning light. I am a native of the Jersey Shore, and I know gulls very well, and they are very tough to ID as they go through seasonal changes, molts, juvenile variations and natural variations. I am guessing this is a ring-billed juvenile. I really love the golden light on the textures and patterns on the wings. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 800 at 600mm on a 6D.
Buoy 14 is just about a half-mile offshore from the fishing beach at Sandy Hook. The Verrazanno Bridge in the background is just about seven miles across the bay. For the most part, I’ve got the lens locked at 600mm, treating it like a long-reach portable prime. 1/800 F6.3 ISO 800 at 600mm on the 6D.
But the ability to zoom in and out and lock focus at different lengths, can be very helpful; which adds to the versatility. Here’s the same boat, bridge, and buoy at the shortest focal length. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 800 at 150mm on the 6D.
Piping plover chicks are rocket-fueled, beach-camouflaged, marshmallows. The Autofocus speed on the 150-600mm in both out-of-the-box, and AF speed priority customized via the USB Dock, helped me keep up with these sand and stone toned beach babies. 1/800 F6.3 ISO 800 at 600mm on the 6D.
An adult piping plover hunts for food along the shoreline. These little birds are fast-fast-fast, but were easily trackable with the 150-600mm at 600mm. 1/800 F6.3 ISO 500 on the 6D.
Moments later, a female red wing black bird hunted along the same stretch of shoreline. This lens is so sharp, and so portable! 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 800 at 600mm.

I was a big fan of the 150-500mm lens, but there were a few things on my wish list for an upgrade; and the 150-600mm | C isn’t just an iterative update, it is a sea change. For example the 150-600mm Contemporary lens has a focus limiter (which the 150-500mm lacked); which is so helpful in speeding autofocus response times depending on known subject distances. And the shared DNA and exclusive feature sets of the two Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 zoom lenses activated through the USB Dock, such as AF speed enhancements, custom focus limiters, manual focus override, OS preview, and sixteen zone focus tuning, and the unique zoom lock at all marked focal lengths make both 150-600mm lenses incredible updates from the last generation.

An eastern willet eyes me as I hike the edge of a salt marsh. The long reach, and wide-open sharpness helps the subject pop from the background reeds. 1/250 F6.3 ISO 640 at 600mm on the 6D.
I have seen this bird both in Florida and New Jersey, and I cannot recall its name. If you know, please post it as a comment. Thanks! 1/1250 F6.3 ISO 640 at 600mm. Nice and sharp wide open!
I was looking through the lens at the willet above when I heard a scuttling on the path nearby, which was this big eastern diamondback terrapin wandering down the path. 1/800 F6.3 ISO 800 at 600mm.

And in both out-of-the-box autofocus speed, and with AF-speed priority selected as the custom setting via the USB Dock and Sigma Optimization Pro; the AF response time of the Sports and Contemporary versions is comparable in all my field and controlled situation observations.

When I am out and about making wildlife photos with a long lens, I am always also looking out for an “establishing shot” that puts the area where the photos were made into context. Many of the photos in this post were made on the beaches and bays and backwaters of Sandy Hook, NJ. Here’s a lifeguard stand and the iconic lighthouse. 1/50 F8 ISO 100 at 600mm. It is one half mile from my position to the lighthouse. I used a custom function to slow AF speed for focus priority for this shot.
The protected nesting area on Belmar Beach is wedged between the inlet, which is very popular with fishermen, and the swimming beaches. A walking path allows access past the nesting area. 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 320 at 293mm.
Looking south, across the nesting area at 468mm, you can see the terns and black skimmers, the event tents at the pier of the Belmar Fishing Club, and the umbrellas and blankets of beachgoers beyond. 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 320.
A Cape May surf rescue boat and the Sea Mist mansion behind. Extreme low tide thanks to the full moon gave enough dry land to get a low angle from water’s edge to frame these two symbols of the southernmost town in New Jersey. 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 250.

I used a high-contrast black and white target at a distance of fifteen feet illuminated with bright, broad, direct light (which was reading around 1/30 F6.3 at ISO 100), and set a Canon 6D to single shot AF, and threw the lens to closest focus distance before engaging AF and again from infinity and repeated both steps ten times. Both the Sports and Contemporary lenses emitted the focus beep to report target lock from close focus and infinity in very similar times. A hard-wired system tying stopwatch start time to AF activation and stopwatch stop time to the focus beep may show some minor variations in the hundredths or thousands of a seconds columns; but in my casual run-through, any variations between the two was negligible.

I saw this banded American Oyster Catcher after making this photo off Madison Ave Beach in Cape May, NJ. 1/1000 F6.3 ISO 100.

You can see this bird’s full tracking history here.

If you happen to spot a banded bird, try to make a number of photos to get a variety of angles of its legs, to report high and low bands and make sure you’ve got a couple views of the numbers.
A great many least terns fly above the Shark River inlet, hunting for food for their chicks, chirping and squawking all the while. 1/1250 F6.3 ISO 320 at 283mm on the 6D. These birds were so close, and so fast that switching to the middle of focal range helped portray their synchronized flight better than a looser or tighter framing. Being able to quickly recompose is a key advantage of a tele zoom lens over a prime.
When out and about on a nature walk, always be mindful of the quiet things that can make an interesting photo. While I was walking on a causeway over salt marsh at low tide out to an obervation deck, I caught a glimpse of these raccoon tracks. 1/400 F6.3 ISO 640 at 600mm.

When I am out and about with the 150-600mm Contemporary; I never feel like I am making an unhappy compromise in terms of total lens performance and image quality. Instead, I feel like I am hiking a couple of miles with a great, lightweight, long-reach lens always at the ready. And over the course of several hours, and a couple hundred or thousand photos in a session, that lighter weight helps limit fatigue and keeps me with eye through the viewfinder for longer spells.

A few days ago, as a rainstorm was winding down, I walked outside to warm up my car, and saw feathers falling from the sky. Looking up, I spied a Merlin perched atop the telephone pole. I grabbed my 6D and 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C and opened the top half of a second floor window to get an eye-level view of the drenched merlin and its unfortunate prey. I had to crop in a little bit to tighten up the frame. It is razor-sharp, even wide open, cropped in a bit, at ISO 800. The 150-600mm | C has rapidly become my new favorite outdoor lens.

As much as I do love the rugged build of the Sports lens—and will choose this version in rougher weather—the feel of that extra weight does add up over time.  Unless there’s pelting sideways rain in the forecast all day, it’s the 150-600mm Contemporary lens I’ve got slung on my shoulder for my wildlife photography outings these days.

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