I was invited to shoot the annual NAS Pensacola Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show couple of months ago. I normally specialize in Landscape and Wildlife photography; but Aviation has always been a fascination and the opportunity to get up close and personal with a variety of military and civilian Aircraft including the Blue Angels got my blood moving!
I have been a big fan of Sigma lenses since getting my first DSLR in 2012. I normally use my trusty Sigma 150-500 for my Wildlife, Sunsets and Aviation but knowing I would have some unique access to this show I got my hands on the new Sigma 150-600 Sport for this special occasion.
Before I left I got a chance to get acquainted with the lens and paired it with a Nikon D750 full frame. First things first: this is a serious lens and is built like a tank. This lens is built to be weather and dustproof and it looks the part. On the way home that night I stopped by a local duck pond to give it a run and noticed a Cooper’s hawk soaring well above the trees. Autofocus and was fast and locked on the bird with ease. The difference between 500 and 600mm doesn’t sound like much but it made a huge difference looking through the camera. Once I got home to look at the images another thing stood out. The originally uncropped image looked nice but I was shocked how sharp and detailed the cropped image was! I see a lot of parallels between wildlife and aviation so I knew I would have a blast shooting a world class air show with the Sigma 150-600 Sport.
A couple of other features also stood out. The lens hood is made of metal and has a stout locking mechanism to clamp it either extended or reversed for travel. The tripod collar is also stout and easily adjustable. I planned on testing the Optical Stabilizer but got caught up in the high-speed action and simply left it on the entire weekend. I didn’t notice any noise or lens adjustments with it on so I assume it works as advertised!
Upon arrival in Pensacola I headed right through airbase security and onto the Airfield. The typical weather for the panhandle in November is clear without the normal excessive heat and humidity usually associated with Florida. Unfortunately, the forecast was for low clouds, high humidity and record setting temperatures, not really ideal for getting sharp images at a distance.
I didn’t have to wait long for action as the Blue Angels were ready for practice. Knowing that this is their home base and final show weekend of the year, I knew they wouldn’t hold anything back. Since I was a guest of another air team, my shooting location was near their area near the hangars, about a mile from show center. This was not a problem as I was closest to where a lot of the performers would be taxiing out. The Blue Angels utilize a huge C -130 for support and logistics and starts every show with a demonstration of max-effort climb, simulating a hostile environment takeoff.
The main challenge with propeller powered aircraft is finding the balance between a sharp image while using a slow enough shutter to capture prop blur. The key is to get the shutter speed slow enough to get some decent prop blur but fast enough to keep the image itself on the sharp side.
After the Fat Albert demonstration it was time for the Blue Angels. Here my strategy was to get the shutter speed as fast as possible while panning to freeze the action. I relied mostly on either Aperture or Shutter priority when the planes were in formation. Since we had a low cloud deck over parts of the airfield with patches of blue sky I chose to use Auto ISO with an upper threshold of 500.
About halfway through the practice I was really getting used to the lens and honestly blown away by the ability to lock on and stay focused on jets moving at speeds up to 700 mph. This next series is an example. These three shots were taken within one second. You can clearly see the flaps moving down and the instant reaction of the plane. The lens was locked on target and stayed locked as long as I panned with the aircraft and held down the back button focus. I had very few shots that were tossed due to lost focus. I had several sequences where I filled the buffer and every single shot was focused.
On the second day, we ended up with much clearer skies, allowing the Blue Angels to do more High altitude flight. Normally this is a time to rest and wait for a closer opportunity but since I was able to still lock focus and see the aircraft clearly in my viewfinder I kept shooting. These were some of my favorite shots of the weekend and shots and I wouldn’t have bothered to take with a lesser lens.
The final day started out with a very thick fog and the weather called for a front to move through with heavy rain by early afternoon. We ended up with a very small window to get the show in and the decision was made to move the show up several hours to make sure no one went home disappointed. The fog gradually burned off but we were still left with a fairly low overcast as the Blue Angels started up the engines once again. Not having a lot of experience shooting Air shows I wasn’t encouraged and expected to have a tough time getting sharp shots with the poor light. With the low cloud deck, the Blue Angels changed up the show and kept things much closer to ground and gave me the opportunity to get some close up high speed passes.
In summary, I was thrilled with the performance of the Sigma 150-600 Sport. Everything from build quality, autofocus, and image quality exceeded my expectations. I have always been happy with my 150-500mm but after returning the 150-600mm Sport I realize they are really in different categories. The only downside that might be a problem for some would be the weight of the lens. I was able to hand hold it for three days straight for hours at a time but I definitely felt it at the end of the day. Perhaps since my style of photography needs the freedom to hand hold for long periods of time I should take a serious look at the lighter-weight 150-600mm Contemporary version and see if that is a better fit for me. Regardless, one of the two new amazing lenses will be added permanently to my kit shortly!
See more of Mike Busch’s work here!
And do you want to see just how tough Sigma’s new Ceramic Protector filters are? This video demonstrates the incredible impact resistance of these exclusive filters for DSLR camera lenses in thread sizes from 67mm up to 105mm. These are the new go-to protectors for photographers in the most demanding conditions!