Lens Guides

Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Contemporary: Alaska Field Report

The new Sigma 100-400 Contemporary lens specs really look great but how does this lens perform out in the field actually making images of wildlife in their natural environment? Earlier this month I headed out to the coast of Katmai Alaska with the 100-400 to find out for myself. Would the lens be a good choice for a wildlife safari to Alaska and could it deliver the images I was hoping for? I’ve shot Bears in Alaska many times with my longer  Sigma 150-600  Sport and Sigma 300-800mm zoom,  so the question for me was how this brand new compact lightweight lens was going to perform in real world conditions?    In many cases you really don’t need extreme focal lengths as the conditions will allow a close approach to the animals,  but your main consideration becomes how you are going to carry and shoot with a lens for a full day shoot? I will take you through some situations I encountered on my trip and talk about the images I was able to capture to answer these questions and more.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 100mm Nikon D500 1/640 sec f/16, ISO 360 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.3 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

Moments like this can be over in seconds so you need to be prepared. Having a zoom with a wide range is always a big help when the pressure is on and you are not even sure if you have time to change lenses. Luckily I just happened to have the 100-400 C lens on a body to make this image so I was able to start shooting with hesitating before the image was history.

Capturing the bear looking up was just as important to me as the reflections in the pool and at the same time I wanted to see detail in the mountain and on the bear’s face. The 100-400 C gave me all the crisp detail that I was looking for without any problem.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 400mm Nikon D500 1/1600 sec f/8, ISO 720 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.7 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

Sleep, eat and play. Repeat that over and over all day and you have the life of a brown bear cub. Each bear and each family have their own personalities. With this pair, playtime took up more of the day than anything else. So when shooting these two, the sheer amount of memory you burned through, was sometimes ridiculous. Some of my tour people that were with me when I took this photo were filling 64GB cards in one session.

In this kind of situation where there is non-stop shooting for long periods, you need to have either a good tripod, or a light compact lens, like the 100-400 C. Otherwise be prepared for fatigue and sore arms the next day! The lens is so light and quick the 100-400 C lens made this kind of image easy.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 400mm Nikon D500 1/2000 sec f/7.1, ISO 1800 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.7 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

If you have never had the pleasure of photographing puffins in flight, they are like air-to-air missiles, only faster and more erratic so shooting these birds is not the easiest. Filling the frame with them flying against anything other than an overcast sky is even more difficult.

From experience I can tell you that the 100-400 C lens can do a pretty good job of tracking puffins in 153 point 3D AF mode. This is especially true when you consider the lenses relatively modest maximum aperture. So it’s safe to say that the lens can probably track any bird in flight you are thinking about shooting. If you have any issues with anything slower than a puffin, which is almost everything in the sky, it’s safe to assume its probably not the lens.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 400mm Nikon D500 1/800 sec f/8, ISO 640 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.7 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

Harbor seals colors are really variable, from a light grey to a tan to a dark brown to almost black as seen here. They love to haul out onto their favorite rock pile to sunbathe and take a nap. When they are out of the water they are not very quick but underwater they are quick and efficient hunters that are move like rockets and can easily catch a salmon at full speed.

Seals at haul outs are very wary of humans so the key to getting the shot is to be quiet as possible and to stay low without any quick movements. For this type of situation a zoom like the 100-400 C is ideal because you frame and compose as needed quickly and silently without any need to change lenses or change shooting positions.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 280mm Nikon D500 1/800 sec f/8, ISO 450 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.3 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

Bears aren’t really the vicious blood thirsty killing machines that people think they are, well unless you happen to be a salmon, or a fat seal. But seriously humans really don’t have a lot to worry about if you give the bears the proper space and respect.

Cubs spend lots of time play fighting. The skills they practice will be used the rest of their lives. Sometimes you will see adults of similar size wrestle playfully for an hour or more. They so seem to really enjoy it.

Bears sparring is always fun to photograph. Here the 100-400 lens was perfect tool for the job, in fact I  needed only 280mm to almost fill the frame with an APS-C sensor body.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 220mm Nikon D500 1/1000 sec f/8, ISO 320 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.7 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

Look closely at the two cubs and you can see a faint cream colored collar. This is the easiest way to tell that this is the bear’s first summer.

These two spring cubs are on the lookout for something in the distance, probably a strange bear causing a problem, and are only sticking close to mom just in case she needs some protection.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 340mm Nikon D500 1/800 sec f/8, ISO 640 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.3 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

These two look like a pair but it’s actually a mother and a cub on its third and last year with the mother.

In situations like this you better have a lot of experience and a good guide, because cubs this size just love nothing more than to test your limits. This kind of confrontation is usually not dangerous but it can be a unscheduled cardiac stress test for the inexperienced.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 220mm Nikon D500 1/800 sec f/8, ISO 640 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.7 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

The fine detail and texture over the whole frame of this image shows how well corrected this lens really is. This week was my first chance to spend any real time with the 100-400 C and I have to admit that the sharpness and resolution of this lens is actually pretty impressive.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 400mm Nikon D500 1/2000 sec f/7.1, ISO 280 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.3 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

At least 1/2000th of a second, focus limit switch on limited, OS off, AF tracking on long or slow and back button focus is the way to go for puffins and any other supersonic subjects in flight.

The black tufted puffin are little easier to autofocus and track than the white and black horned puffin. By easier I mean just over the line on this side of impossible.

Seriously though the 100-400 Contemporary lens on the D500 really an excellent combination for birds in flight, even for quick and unpredictable birds like puffins. This lenses ability to be zoomed with the ring and by a push pull action, just like the 150-600 sports lens, really works in the field.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 230mm Nikon D500 1/800 sec f/8, ISO 220 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.3 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

Always strive to get eye contact with your wildlife subjects. Most brown bears in Katmai NP are habituated and oblivious to humans so getting them to look up can be tough so patience is important but it’s always worth the wait. This image would be an instant delete for me with the heads down.

Cloudy or overcast conditions like these are perfect for bear photography. The cooler temperatures keep the bears cool and active. When the sun is out in full force the bears will seek out a river or stream so they can nap, usually belly down to keep cool.

Sigma 100-400 contemporary lens @ 280mm Nikon D500 1/800 sec f/8, ISO 640 manual mode with auto-ISO EV -0.7 handheld. © Robert O’Toole | 2017

Photographers generally judge a lens by the sharpness of the image and then it’s usually only in the center of the image. Lack of chromatic aberrations, or CAs, is just as important as sharpness, and with this lens CAs were never a problem at all. In fact I don’t think I was able to see any CAs in any of the images I made with this lens!

This is a 100% crop of the seal image above. The pixel level detail in the fine hairs, pores, white spots, around the seal’s nose is very impressive for a lens in this class.

What I like about the 100-400 C lens

High level build quality

Excellent for handheld photography, like birds in flight.

Excellent center sharpness at all focal lengths.

Ability to use both push pull and ring type zoom techniques.

Good image quality for full frame sensor bodies.

Great corner image quality on an APS-C sensor, like the Nikon D500.

Very low CAs (chromatic aberration) correction for both lateral and longitudinal CAs.

Very good image stabilization.

Final thoughts on the 100-400C

This lens was a pleasant surprise. This is perfect lens in situations where size and weight is really important like hiking or on a trip where weight is severely restricted, like a tour in Alaska. In combination with an APS-C body like the Nikon D500, it would be a the perfect entry level handheld lens for birds in flight.





Comments (1)
  1. Dennis says:

    I also like the new Sigma 100-400mm on my Nikon D800e. After 3 weeks with it at home, I decided this would be my main wildlife lens for my African safari trip. Since my trip involved traveling to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe keeping all my luggage as light and compact was a high priority. I handheld all my shots and got sharp images. I enjoy the light weight, compactness of the lens. Autofocus was spot on and love the push-pull zooming. I used a Sony A6500 with 18-105mm zoom lens for my wide shots. I also have the heavy Sigma 150-600mm sport and I would not use it handheld at my age, so it stayed at home.

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