Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In-Depth Review: Sigma 100-300 f4 HSM DG APO

The Sigma 100-300 f4 DG HSM APO

Tech Specs
Focal Length: 100-300mm
Dimensions: 8.9 x 3.6 in.
Weight: 51oz.
Maximum Aperture: f4
Minimum Aperture: f32
Diaphragm Blades: 9
Front Element: non-rotating, non-extending
Optical arrangement: 16 elements in 14 groups
Autofocus Mechanism: HSM
Closest Focus: 70.9 inches
Maximum magnification: 1:5
Filter Size: 82mm


Traditionally, serious photographers have had two choices when it comes to telephoto zoom lenses: the short fast ones (70-200 2.8) and the long slow ones (100-400 f4-5.6). Obviously, there is a trade off with these optics in terms of focal lengths and speed. This in mind, it's really a wonder that no one but Sigma has taken a shot at splitting the difference between the two. So, if 200 f2.8 is too short but 400 and f5.6 too slow, well, the Sigma 100-300 f4 may be just your thing, but is it any good? Read on!

The lens stays the same size no matter what you do with it.
Build Quality 5/5

The Sigma 100-300 f4 is targeted toward professionals and is built for all the rigors of pro use. To start with, the lens is all metal, a good thing that increases weight, but also confidence. Adding to the pro-grade feel is the fact that the lens is both internal zoom and focus, which means that the lens stays at a single physical length no matter what you're doing with it. Needless to say, with such construction, it'll be hard for any dust to get inside your lens. In terms of the rings, the focus is the larger, outer one while the zoom is the smaller, inner ring. Both are rubberized and highly textured to provide ample grip. In addition, this being a sonic drive lens, the focus ring doesn't spin during AF. As a last nice touch, the tripod collar is removable, too. About the only thing this lens is missing is a weather seal at the mount. However, thanks to its non-changing dimensions, it is still better than most when it comes to dust/moisture resistance because there is simply no way for junk to get inside.

AF Performance 5/5

Being a sonic drive (HSM in Sigma lingo) lens, focus is fast and silent. On my copy, unfortunately, focus was a bit spotty, with the only reliable result coming at 300mm. However, I have no doubt in my mind that I got a lemon given all of the positive takes on this lens. Unfortunately, having an old, pre AF microadjust camera, I was out of luck and, having only one dSLR, wasn't going to be sending it back for calibration, either. Like I said, though, with all of the positive takes on this lens out there, I have no doubt that it is a great lens when the AF works as it should. Being a sonic-drive lens, there is always the option for full time manual override, simply leave the lens in AF, grab and turn the focus ring, and then go about autofocusing, no need to flip switches. The only problem with this lens is that, thanks to the huge focus ring, I found it easy to actually bump the focus ring when holding the lens. In reality, the AF/MF switch can be thought of as more of an AF/AFdisable switch.
There's a lot of glass in this Sigma, note how the inner barrel drops when zoomed to 300mm.

Optics: 5/5
A lot goes into optical quality, so let's examine various charcateristics individually.
Lens at 100mm
At its shortest focal length, the Sigma 100-300 f4 is tack sharp from wide open across the entire frame on the sub-frame Canon 30D. Blowing up to 100%, one has a pretty hard time telling whether the crop comes from the center or the extreme corner, it's just that good!

Lens at 200mm
See the 100mm report.

Lens at 300mm
For center and mid frame, the lens is still really good, actually, about as good as is possible. Unfortunately, the corners are a different story here: they're soft, really soft, and stopping down really doesn't help. The good news is that such lenses are typically used to shoot specific subjects, which will rarely enter the extreme corner of the frame.

Throughout the focal range, there is slight vignetting wide open, which is somewhat disappointing considering that this is a lens designed full format cameras. Good news, by f5.6, the vignetting is gone at all focal lengths

There isn't any.

Chromatic Aberration
This lens is marketed as an “apo” and it certainly lives up to that reputation. The above shots are 100% crops of a much larger original, to boot. *80mm is left, 300mm is right.

A monster hood (on an already big lens) is sure to minimize any tendency for flare/ghosting. As an added convenience, the tripod collar is removable, too.
For the few days I had this lens, I was stuck in a run of cloudy days (those vignetting shots were of breaks in the clouds) and didn't get a chance to shoot this thing into/around the Sun. However, thanks to the monster hood that comes with this lens, I don't think flare/ghosting would be a problem if you decide to use it.

Value: 5/5

Well, a $1,200 lens is not cheap by any means, so it had better perform, and in the case of the Sigma 100-300 f4, it certainly does. The build is top-notch, as is AF. The optics are good right from the f4 get-go, too. In all, if you choose to buy this lens new, this is $1,200 well-spent as the lens performs admirably in every respect. This lens has a well deserved reputation for being Sigma's best telephoto. Personally, I think this is better than the original Canon 70-200 f2.8L IS that I rented awhile back, which should say a lot right there!


In a toe-to-toe match-up, the Sigma 100-300 f4 has no direct competition unless one counts the ancient Tokina 100-300 f4 from way back in the early days of AF. Never having used this particular Tokina but having used old lenses, I have no doubt that the Sigma clobbers the Tokina 100-300 in terms of optics and AF. Build? Well, knowing Tokina, the Sigma probably takes second place there. The real, practical competition for the Sigma comes in the form of shorter, faster f2.8 zooms (ex. your 70-200s everyone makes) and the longer, slower lenses (the familiar xx-400 f4-5.6 ones). Both can run in the same price range as the Sigma and are very different in that one sacrifices speed or range. The Sigma, with its 100-300mm focal range and constant f4 focal ratio, is a bit of a compromise lens in that it splits the difference between the other two, far more common designs.

Conclusion: 5/5
The Sigma 100-300 f4 is a great lens and it really stinks that I have an old camera and can't adjust the focus. Build quality is excellent and the sonic-drive AF mechanism means instant, silent, and accurate focus every time with the option for full manual override without the need to flip any switches. Optics, well, they're top-notch, better than the Canon 70-200L I used awhile back. Price? Well, it's expensive but it's money well spent. About the only drawback on this lens is the corner softness at 300mm. As a last bit, this lens could be the perfect thing for anyone fretting over the “do I go for a fast, short f2.8 zoom or a slow, long one in the 400+mm range?” In every respect, the Sigma splits the difference, making itself the perfect lens for anyone who just can't make up his/her mind. Recommendation? A definite “yes,” hopefully, you'll have better luck than me or a camera that can compensate for mis-focusing!

The Sigma 100-300f4 DG HSM APO: a great lens that, unfortunately, didn't like my camera!

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)