Sigma 150 600 Comparison Essay

User5511277733 wrote:

I'm struggling to make a decision because I don't understand the point of the 100-400.

Perhaps this illustration will help, comparing the size of a 70-300mm VR, the 100-400mm, and an older 150-500mm.  The 100-400mm is about 60% of the weight of the 150-600mm "C" lens.

So, what is the 100 good for that the 150 cannot Do.

  • <obvious>Coverage from 100-150mm</obvious>
  • "f/8 and be there" -- The so-called IQ of a missed shot is exactly zero. The late Galen Rowell proved that "fast and light" can yield shots that other photographers missed out of unwillingness or inability to be in the right place at the right time.
  • "Stupid macro tricks" -- Here's a full frame shot of a dime (17.9mm diameter) done with a 100-400mm and a Marumi 330 DHG close-up lens:

While I used my 150-500mm for Sail Boston, and will haul it out again to photograph the upcoming eclipse, I'll probably replace my 70-300mm for more traditional tourism.  If Nikon or someone else coughs up a better 70-300mm, I'll take a hard look at it, but my current plan is to switch to the 100-400mm.

If you're stronger, younger, and more willing to deal with travel logistics than I am, it's likely not the lens for you.

-- hide signature --

Such commentary has become ubiquitous on the Internet and is widely perceived to carry no indicium of reliability and little weight. (Digital Media News v. Escape Media Group, May 2014).

I bought both the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport and the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary version and I've spent over 40 hours reviewing these lenses to provide this full and in-depth review for you guys.

The results of my testing have been extremely surprising.  When it comes right down to it, I would choose the Sigma 150-600 Contemporary (the one that is nearly half the cost) over the Sport version–even if the price isn't taken into consideration.  I know that seems a little crazy at first.  It did to me too, so I repeated some of my tests 3 and 4 and 5 times to be certain that the results were right.  Let's dive in to the testing and I'll show you how I got to that conclusion.

Sharpness

The lenses are so extremely close in terms of sharpness that it's really hard to pick a winner.  The following shots were all taken with identical camera settings and conditions while the camera was locked on a tripod.  I repeated the sharpness test at every focal length imaginable.  I took multiple photos with each lens at each focal length, and here I'm displaying the photo from each side that best represents the average result that I was getting at each focal length.

For my sharpness tests, I usually like to tape a piece of paper and a picture up against the fence and shoot it from a tripod.  Although I do own a very expensive lens testing software suite that I sometimes use for lens tests, I feel like the old “paper on the wall” test gives me the most “real world” result.  Sometimes a number and an MTF chart just can't quite communicate what seeing an actual resulting photo can.

Both shots taken at 600mm at f/6.3 while locked on a tripod.  You're viewing this at 300% to magnify the result.  At 100% and certainly when zoomed out, there is no perceptible difference.  The Sport version does have better contrast (acutance) which is one element of judging sharpness, but also remember the resolution.  When you zoom in even further in to look at the resolution, the sport MAY have the tiniest edge, but I'd probably put this at “too close to call.”  Any difference at 600mm wide open on these lenses is just splitting hairs.

The results at 600mm are extremely close, but the result at 500mm gives a significant edge to the contemporary version.

At this focal length, the contemporary version is significantly better than the Sport version. This photo is a 300% magnification for easy viewing, but even at 100% the winner is obvious. Zoomed out to have the photo fill the screen, the photos look identical in sharpness.

Now we're headed to 250mm, again with both lenses at f/6.3 and still locked on a tripod.

This one is a tough call.  The Contemporary has much better contrast at 250mm and f/6.3.  The Sport version MIGHT have just the tiniest little improvement in resolution.  Sharpness is made up of both acutance (edge contrast) and resolution (ability to show fine detail).  So it's really hard to call a winner on this one as well.  But it'd be tough to argue that the Sport version looks cleaner at 250mm, so I'd have to give the edge to the Contemporary.

Now I shot the lenses at the focal length where you're least likely to shoot them–150mm.  The results?  It's absolutely identical.  I started at these photos for quite some time seeing if I could pick a winner, but even zoomed in to absurd magnifications, the results are a dead heat.

All of these tests are shot at f/6.3.  The reason I'm showing the tests at f/6.3 is that it's the most common focal length you'd shoot this lens at.  But if you stop down to f/7.1 or higher and do the testing, the difference between these lenses is even tighter.

So when it comes right down to it, after hours of testing and reviewing many many many photos, the sharpness is almost identical between the two lenses.  If I had to pick a winner in the sharpness battle, it'd be the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary, which had better contrast at several focal lengths and better resolution at one focal length.  All the other tests were a tie.

When I bought these lenses for this review, I was certain that the Sport version would be sharper than the Contemporary given the better build quality, additional FLD element in the lens, and the significantly higher price.  What I learned from this test is that the price of the lens is NOT a good indicator of the performance of the lens–at least in this case.

I was so surprised by my results that even after testing and retesting, I read reviews from a few other reviewers who I respect and it looks like I'm not the only one who has found that these lenses have almost identical sharpness.  Some of the reviewers I found said they felt the Sport had an very slight edge in sharpness, and others felt, as I did, that the Contemporary was just barely sharper.  This isn't terribly surprising.  Each copy of a lens performs differently, so to see some slight variation is normal.

Are these lenses sharp enough for professional photography?

I think the answer to this question is a resounding “yes!”  I have tried many different inexpensive superzooms over the last 5 years that I have been reviewing lenses professionally here on ImprovePhotography.com.  They have always been underwhelming until Sigma and Tamron came out with their 150-600mm lenses.  For superzoom lenses, these lenses all perform remarkably well.

3 years ago I went and shot Yellowstone in Winter and used a Nikon 600mm f/4 beast.  That lens has good optics, but is so heavy that it's impossible to shoot without a tripod and gimbal head.  I missed countless shots that week when I'd pull over and see a fox in the snow that only gave me a few seconds to shoot it before it ran away.  It took so long to get out my gear and tripod and get set up that I kept getting only photos of footprints where the fox had stood.

This year I went on the same trip with 40 readers of Improve Photography.  I came back with a dozen or more publishable shots that I could never have got with the big heavy “professional” gear.  And the image quality?  I wish I had a 600mm f/4 here with me right now to show you the difference.  It's really not a huge deal.  These superzooms are performing really well.  For most wildlife photography, I PREFER these light superzooms to those heavy 600s.  But if you're shooting sports photography, then the faster aperture of a 600mm f/4 or a 400mm f/2.8 puts those lenses in a completely different class.

Build Quality

In terms of build quality, the Sigma 150-600mm Sport version takes the blue ribbon by a significant margin.  The lens is just better built, and there's little room to argue with that.

Weather sealing is a question mark.  Sigma advertises both version of this lens as being “dustproof and splashproof,” but if you read further into the technical specs of these lenses, some questions arise.  The Sport version is later described as having “dust and splashproof construction” while the Contemporary is only described as having a “dust and splashproof mount.”  Even more complex is the fact that this page on Sigma's site says the Contemporary has a water and oil resistant coating on the front element only, yet this page on Sigma's site says the coating is only on the rear element.  Maybe they need to get their specs straight.  Either way, it would appear from Sigma's marketing materials that there is at least some amount of better weather sealing than the contemporary version.

I shoot in pretty rough environments–especially when I'm shooting wildlife with a long lens like this one.  I'm often hiking, pushing through snow in Yellowstone, etc.  So weather sealing is an important factor.  But Sigma hasn't been super clear on exactly what weather sealing has been done on either of these lenses.  I'd like to see a couple tear downs to see how well sealed these lenses are, and what the difference is.

But I do have to point out that even without weather sealed lenses, I've only once had issues with a lens getting dirty inside.  It's very common for a camera to get ruined in rain or weather, but much less common for the lens.  Also, remember that the Contemporary lens is about half the cost of the Sport, so if something did ever happen…. you could just buy another and not be out any money from what you would have paid for one Sport lens.

One factor to consider, however, is that supertelephoto lenses are the most common type of lens to have issues with dust, humidity, or other elements getting in the lens.  When these lenses zoom in and out, they suck in a significant amount of air.  You can hear it.  That air is tough to keep from cycling through the elements over time.  So weather sealing could be important.

Ease of Use

I don't normally include “Ease of Use” in my lens reviews because generally, all lenses are easy to use.  But after spending a lot of time with both of these lenses, I found that ease of use was one of my biggest complaints with the Sport version of this lens.  Because the Sport is so much heavier, it takes a solid twist of the hand to zoom the lens. The zoom ring is very stiff, and needs to be to prevent the lens creep.

When shooting wildlife and sports photography, which would be the primary uses of this lens, having a very stiff zoom ring can easily cause you to miss shots.  That was definitely true in my testing.  I'd say there were 10 or 15 shots over the course of each day that I missed with the Sport because I couldn't zoom the lens quickly enough to capture the animal at the right moment.

The Contemporary version makes zooming much quicker.  The zoom ring itself is much larger and is in a more normal position on the lens, and the lens is lighter so the zoom ring twists much faster.

I will point out that Sigma advertises the Sport as having “twist and push-pull” functionality for zoom, but the Contemporary is advertised as only “twist.”  Frankly, that's marketing crap.  Any non-internal-zoom lens can be pushed and pulled.  All it means is that Sigma put a rubber ring around the end of the Sport version that you could grab and push/pull the lens in or out to zoom.  Realistically, this would be a horrible user experience to push/pull with this lens.  The lens zooms out so far that you'd pull a muscle trying to zoom out.  That's ridiculous.  Both of these are just twist-to-zoom lenses.

Weight & Size

The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3mm Sport lens weighs significantly more than the Contemporary version.  The Contemporary weighs 4.3 pounds (1.95 kilos) and the Sport weighs 6.3 pounds (2.86 kilos).  Just because I'm hungry right now, I'll put that in terms I can better relate to.  The Contemporary lens weighs the same as 8 Krispy Kreme Donuts, and the Sport weighs as much as a Chihuahua with 3 bananas on its back.  I don't eat dogs.

In a practical shooting situation, I have to say that the difference in weight is dramatic.  In wildlife photography situations where I was mostly driving around and pulling over for a quick shot of animals as I saw them, the weight of the Sport didn't bother me much.  However, when I had to walk any distance while carrying the lenses, the extra weight of the Chihuahua on my lens made it unbearable to carry around.  Worse, there were times when shooting birds in Florida that I didn't bring the heavier lens with me because it was too much of a nuisance.

Unless you're only shooting on a tripod and traveling with the lens in a car (not toting it around in a camera backpack), I highly recommend the Sigma Contemporary lens.  It's so lightweight that it makes wildlife photography a lot more fun.  #DitchTheChihuahua

The physical size of the Sport is longer than the Contemporary by 1.2 inches (3.5 cm).  It's always nice to have shorter lenses since they are more convenient as long as the focal length is the same, but I can't imagine 1.2 inches making much of a difference one way or the other.  However, this difference in the physical length also affects the way the lenses are engineered, and means that the Sport version has a larger front element which requires 105mm filters, while the Contemporary takes 95mm filters.  This, too, is rather inconsequential because it's unlikely that wildlife and sports photographers would use filters very frequently.  Sports photographers would probably never use them, but sometimes wildlife photographers use a polarizer to cut the reflections and glare off leaves.

Aperture

The specs of a lens rarely tell the full story, and that's definitely true with these lenses.  Although both lenses are 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lenses, they are not at all the same.  The question is, when does the lens switch from f/5 to f/5.6, and f/5.6 to f/6.3?  You may be surprised to see that these lenses don't at all change at the same focal lengths, meaning that one of the lenses is actually faster than the other.

Sport

  • f/6.3 from 600mm to 314mm
  • f/5.6 from 313mm to 185mm
  • f/5 from 184mm to 150mm

Contemporary

  • f/6.3 from 600mm to 390mm
  • f/5.6 from 389mm to 181mm
  • f/5 from 180mm to 150mm

As you can see, the Contemporary is actually faster than the Sport version from 313 to 389mm, which would be a pretty normal focal length to shoot with this lens.  It may not be a huge deal, but when we're already talking about a slow superzoom lens, having that extra 1/3 stop of light in that range can make a difference, and it's a surprise to see that coming from the less expensive of the two.

Reach

I'm always interested when testing lenses to see how the REAL focal length of a lens compares with the advertised focal length.  Focal length is actually kind of complicated to figure out without some serious scientific measuring, but I do like to compare lenses of the same marketed focal length and see which one has more reach.  Sometimes the lens manufacturers get very creative with this number.  An example of this is the Tamron 70-200, which doesn't reach nearly 200mm when compared to the Nikon and Canon version.

Having said that, I don't see any real difference in focal lengths between these lenses.  I am not set up to test to see if it's true to 600mm, but the focal length on all three lenses seems to have exactly the same reach.

Autofocus

When I looked at the specs for both of these lenses, it immediately made me wonder if the Contemporary would focus faster, since it is lighter weight.  The motor on the autofocus simply doesn't have to be as strong to push the lens more quickly.  As long as they have the same focus motor, my guess was that the contemporary would be a bit quicker.  I was right.

At shorter focal lengths, you really can't feel any difference between the autofocus speed of these lenses.  They both focus very quickly.

At the longer end, or rather when focusing from close to far, you start to see a noticeable lag in the focus speed–especially on the Sport version.  The difference isn't dramatic, but it's definitely there.  The Contemporary focuses just a hair faster, which is a big deal considering that this lens's primary purpose is for wildlife and sports photography.

This beautiful, beautiful piece of photographic genius was done by me, Jim Harmer. I call it “Light post in front of my house.”  Maybe it'll sell for $2 million like the potato photo?

Bokeh

I only did a basic bokeh test of these lenses, because they both have the same 9 blade rounded aperture, but the result was identical.  The rounded aperture produces a nice looking bokeh.  It's not like the bokeh you get from an f/2.8 or faster lens, but it's a smooth and creamy blur that doesn't distract from the image.

Price

The price on these lenses seems to be fluctuating a bit now that they have been out for a little while, so it's worth checking.  Check the price of the Sport on Amazon here, and then check the price of the Contemporary on Amazon here.  Both those links open in separate tabs so you won't lose your place here.  Generally, the Sport version costs $1,799 and the Contemporary costs $989.

One tip for saving a ton of money on these lenses is to buy used.  I know there are always concerns about buying a used lens, but I've had really good luck with buying the “like new” listings on Amazon.  This way you still get Amazon's excellent return policy, and you're likely saving $100 on a lens just because it was bought, someone opened the box, and decided to return it.  I think it's worth the savings.  If you haven't bought “like new” lenses on Amazon before, click the link above to the listing page, and then look on the right-hand side.  There's a little box where you'll see the lens available from “Other Sellers on Amazon.”  I save quite a bit of money by buying “like new.”

Except for the rare sale that could happen with these lenses, you really won't find the price fluctuating much between retailers.  Sigma uses MAP pricing (minimum advertised price), so it'd be very rare to see the price be any different between retailers.

I captured this shot of a coyote diving into the snow to catch a mouse in Yellowstone with the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport

Conclusion

When it comes right down to it, I prefer the Contemporary version of this lens.  The guys at the camera club may not give you “respect” for wielding a gigantic, overweight chihuahua on the end of your camera.  The build quality doesn't look as manly and tough, but after spending dozens of hours reviewing these lenses, I see far more benefits to the less expensive Contemporary version than the Sport, which is nearly twice the price.

I found myself missing shots from the slightly slower autofocus on the Sport, the sharpness of the lenses is either equal or gives a slight edge to the Contemporary version in my testing, the Contemporary focuses a little faster, and you'll be saving $900!  My suggestion?  Take the money you save to buy a flight to Iceland, then after you come home, go to a good pet store and buy yourself a chihuahua (Seriously.  WHAT is with the Chihuahua obsession in this review?  I gotta get to bed…)

Reasons to Buy the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary

  • Faster aperture in part of the zoom range
  • Much lighter
  • Almost half the cost
  • Zoom ring is much easier to adjust
  • Smaller and shorter
  • Focuses faster at the longer focal lengths
  • Tripod mount ring and foot are removable

Reasons to buy the Sigma 150-600mm Sport

  • Better build quality overall
  • Fully weather sealed instead of just a sealed mount
  • Built of metal instead of plastic
  • Includes a high quality lens hood

If you'll be buying either of these lenses, could you help me out by clicking one of the links below to see the Amazon listings for your lens?  Those are affiliate links that give us a 4% commission on your purchase.  It doesn't cost you an extra penny, but helps me to recoup the cost of buying both of these lenses and spending dozens of hours testing them for you.  You can click the links now and buy later and I'll still get the commission.  Thank you guys!

Get the Sigma 150-600mm Sport for Canon

Get the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary for Canon (recommended)

Get the Sigma 150-600mm Sport for Nikon 

Get the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary for Nikon (recommended)


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