Let’s face it — as an enthusiastic wildlife photographer I am always interested in learning more techniques and styles of the art; I view every photo taken as part of a greater learning curve. Using a range of equipment is even more educational, however, opportunities are hard to come by. As an avid Nikon user I had very limited experience with Sigma products but was interested to hear about the newer range of lenses containing a Nikon mount. The huge range of this particular lens, from 150 mm all the way to 600 mm, caught my eye immediately and I couldn’t wait to put it to the test.
Sean: The presence of this powerful lens is immediately felt when first handled. As the SPORT edition of this large range lens has been outfitted with a weather-sealed protection and a solid hold to guard against knocks and rattles, it makes its weight known from the outset. This creates an impression of quality and sturdiness which is well received in the testing scenarios often faced in wildlife photography.
In warm morning light, this distant but slow moving subject could be captured at a decent shutter speed without needing to push up the ISO at all. 1/800 at f/6.3; ISO 250 (at 600mm).
The reversible lens hood also carries lots of weight, which pleased me as this front area of the lens would face potentially more contact and would hold up strongly if an improvised dead rest on something other than a beanbag were necessary. This hood can also be quickly secured or removed which is hugely advantageous during shooting. Additionally, the revolving mount with click-in-place junctions at 90 degrees is a clever feature, making the process of mounting a camera straight very simple.
A brilliantly included zoom coil lock has been included, which at first I incorrectly assumed would not be helpful. It proved to be a very beneficial mechanism and certainly made all the difference on some occasions.
In even stronger morning light, a slight increase in ISO allowed me to get this sharp moment as this young male lion briefly glanced up. 1/1600 at f/6.3; ISO 500 (at 600mm).
Again at full zoom, and even against harshly reflecting sunlight, a low ISO allowed for a high shutter speed, perfectly freezing this hunting hamerkop. 1/1250 at f/6.3; ISO 320 (at 600mm).
TMP: Having to handhold a camera is a common occurrence during wildlife photography especially in those ”in the moment” shots. How did you manage with the weight and handling of the rather large 150 – 600mm Sports lens?
SC: Any lens anywhere near the 600mm range is going to be a heavy one, and all forms of suggested use would recommend shooting from some form of a dead rest for sharp images. This lens is no exception. Initially, the weight feels manageable for handheld shooting. However, like any large prime lens this action gets strenuous very quickly and camera shake becomes an issue. Although this was no surprise, I found that a short burst of handheld shooting was perfectly adequate in the moment, particularly with fast moving subjects like a running animal or a bird in flight.
I couldn’t believe how sharp this Hooded Vulture came out as he soared past us. The sunlight lit its front and a higher ISO and open aperture allowed for a very sharp capture. 1/2000 at f/6.3; ISO 500 (at 600mm)
Three mode switches of autofocus on the side of the lens provide a quick focal range selection, to keep the lens working within chosen distances. They offer focal ranges of 2.5-10m, 10m-infinity, and full range. This is often very helpful, either in situations with very close subjects and a distant background or when subjects are partially covered by unfavourable obstructions such as leaves or branches. A great tool for the task of capturing a moment.
From the driver’s seat of my safari vehicle I was more than capable of quickly resting the lens up on a loose beanbag atop either my steering wheel or front dash. This gave me sharp results as well as a comfortable shooting position in a stable sighting. A quick handheld series of shots for an overhead eagle or a displaying roller was manageable as well. However, for optimum results I would recommend a movable mount such as a Wimberley Arm, providing both a dead still rest and a wide range of smooth movement for tracking fast motion.
During this dark and gloomy morning there was hardly any light on offer. A large beanbag held my setup dead still while I was able to capture this dark subject in tough conditions. The result was better than I had expected at such a high zoom for the situation we were in. 1/640 at f/5.6; ISO 2000 (at 300mm).
Another example where low light was an issue. However, a stationary dead rest along my dash board allowed this slow shutter at full zoom to capture this Dwarf Mongoose. 1/60 at f/6.3; ISO 1000 (at 600mm).
I have always enjoyed showing more surroundings in my photographs but this lens allowed me to explore the close and tight perspectives. Without revealing height or scenario, this moment creates questioning. This descending Leopard photograph came out very sharp for another quickly improvised handheld shot. 1/2000 at f/6.0; ISO 1250 (at 350mm).
TMP: I can imagine the wide range of this lens must make it exciting to use as there are a variety of different shots you could take. Did you find the range and zoom effective?
SC: Although the large 600mm zoom was a huge attraction for me, the range was what I found most impressive. There could be times during low light when possibly a wider aperture at 150mm would be desired, but f/5.0 can still produce great results.. While at full zoom, the lens produces amazing results with a very manageable f/6.3 to challenge many prime lenses. Again, low light may affect shutter speed at this high zoom but to have the range as an option is something special. For somebody shooting with only one body, as I have been doing, the ability to photograph an unfolding scene at 150mm and then to immediately hone in on a specific feature and frame a detail at 600mm, this lens offers wonderful versatility.
A low angle of these mating Lions not too far away was still manageable at minimum zoom, with the female’s paws in blur but the slower sand grains on the left frozen in the air. 1/320 at f/5.0; ISO 500 (at 150mm).
Although full zoom here would’ve nicely detailed this Cheetah, a middle range zoom included most of his surroundings as well as the beautiful band of sunset orange. 1/250 at f/6.3; ISO 2500 (at 230mm).
An opportunity I had wished for for a long time. This leopard cub in (almost) clear view painted with golden light is comfortably framed. The mid-range zoom did not let me down and even as a handheld shot the result was pleasingly sharp. 1/500 at f/6.3; ISO 1250 (at 360mm).
TMP: There is always discussions about aperture when it comes to lenses and the impact they have on one’s images. How did you find the aperture with this lens and what was the depth of field like?
SC: As dealt with throughout this review, the aperture plays an important role in the final result and is under a lot of scrutiny with any long zoom lens, particularly one with a large range like this one.
I found that this handled the pressure sufficiently and only began raising questions in really low light conditions when most other lenses would battle too. The tradeoff one would consider would be whether a smaller zoom lens managing f/2.8 would produce equal results, be it with a smaller subject in the frame, than this lens would while getting much closer; this may come down to personal preference.
I did find, though, that in normal lighting conditions at full zoom the f/6.3 aperture produced a very tight depth of field and beautiful sharp-to-blur results were possible. In most instances, a much smaller aperture was used to include only a few centimetres extra in depth. At 600mm the control of focal depth is precise, and one can really begin experimenting.
As this Hippo bull filled the frame, it was only from the smaller aperture that both the eyes and the ears could be in focus, while still retaining the faded back covered in scars. 1/500 at f/9.0; ISO 1000 (at 600mm).
While this subject was not very distant, a smaller aperture increased the depth of field, keeping his whiskers, wrinkled nose and teeth sharp while blurring his mane. 1/500 at f/8.0; ISO 800 (at 600mm).
SC: There are always going to be trade-offs when selecting different products, each with their own draw card. The new SPORTS 150-600mm is undeniably a heavy piece of equipment with an arguably narrow aperture. However, not only is its clarity superb, its image stabilisation system fine-tuned and effective, and its auto-focus surprisingly quick, but it will also withstand the inherently rough and testing conditions faced in wildlife photography. Rattles during the journey, bumps and knocks which may occur in the heat of the rush to get ‘that one shot’ or even dusty or wet conditions are not likely to phase this armoured lens.
The price to pay for its invulnerability will have to be in its shooting platform. Any form of a dead rest will prove more than adequate and an mount secured by the lens mounting arm would be a best bet. Handheld shooting is possible, but limited.
The range that this lens offers is not easily found elsewhere and it gives the user a great variety of photographic options by allowing experimentation and precision control; all while never needed to put down or change to an alternative or additional setup. The minimum aperture of f/5.0 is not very limiting at 150mm and expectations can still be achieved. Only in very low light scenarios may a wider aperture be desired.
In my opinion, the absence of such a wide aperture is outweighed by the freedom the user receives in the zoom range and the variety of shots available between 150-600mm. The sharp images obtained out in the field exceeded expectations and the lens is a product to be taken seriously in the circles of wildlife photography, whatever one’s skill level.
From less that 3 meters away I was able to focus on this minute Bark Spider at full zoom. I enjoyed the spectrum of colours scattered across her small web. 1/500 at f/9.0; ISO 800 (at 600mm).
The iridescence of Starlings makes for difficult photography. Luckily, this gentle light limited the shimmer and allowed me to expose correctly during a preening session. 1/500 at f/6.3; ISO 250 (at 600mm).
Another experimental shot, where opportunity is available at 600mm. A male lion’s front paws sweep over the detailed terrain. 1/1600 at f/6.3; ISO 500 (at 600mm).
One of my favourites produced with the lens; one can still capture great detail while keeping a bit of distance. 1/320 at f/6.3; ISO 1600 (at 600mm).
Written by Trevor McCall-Peat and Sean Cresswell.
Photographed by Sean Cresswell