Putting the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | Sports Lens to the Test

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No truer statement could epitomize wildlife photography than the one by Ralph Waldo Emerson below. The review of the Sigma lens below features Trevor McCall-Peat who has spent the past two weeks testing it out and here are his thoughts.

“Adopt the pace of nature:  Her secret is patience.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Trevor: I am working with the Sigma Team to bring two aspects of gear testing together: A range of new lenses and the most testing conditions in the wild. Our challenge was to put them to work. I took some time to read up on these Sigma products and the reviews available on various sites. My excitement to try them out for myself grew with each review. Over the coming months I will be heading out into the field, armed with a variety of Sigma lenses and sharing some of my thoughts. 

I have read nothing but exceptional reviews and comments about the new range of Sigma lenses, and it certainly seems as though they have done an outstanding job in accommodating a photographer’s every need when investing in a lens. Having said this, I look forward to putting all of what I’ve read about these lenses to the test. I have a Canon 1D Mark IV and will be using the Sigma lenses with this body – the first of which was the  120-300mm F/2.8 DG OS HSM | SPORTS

Amanda: What was your first impression of the lens?

TMP: Taking this lens out of its case for the first time and attaching it to my camera, I was immediately struck by the sleek look of the new set-up. It is an impressively sized lens but has a very smooth and slick look to it. I have to say it is definitely a lens that is pleasing to the eye.

Sigma-120-300mm-f2.8-DG-OS-HSM

The Sigma for Canon 120-300mm F/2.8 is a sleek looking lens

moon

This was the first picture I took using the new set-up. I was so excited to use the lens I simply could not wait to get out into the field. I have been trying to get this image for quite some time, which has now become a reality when I attached a 1.4x converter to the lens. From a dead rest, I was able to capture the moon rising. ISO 100, F/4, 1/200 at 420mm

AR: The 120-300 lens can be quite a hefty piece of equipment to carry around. How did you find the weight and handling?

TMP: Being a rather large lens, I expected that it would be a heavy one too, weighing in at about 3.9 kilograms. Even so, I found it manageable, even when hand-held, and over time (using it on a daily basis) the weight soon becomes less noticeable.

Working in the conditions that I do – whether it’s the bumpy roads or the potential of knocking it against the vehicle in the excitement of getting the shot – I always worry about protecting my equipment, but this lens has a solid, hardy feel which erased any concerns about its ability to withstand tougher conditions.

mashaba cub

Beautiful light and a great photographic opportunity allowed me to hand hold my camera for a good ten minutes waiting to get this shot of the Mashaba female’s cub as he locked eyes with us after repositioning and feeding. Running on sheer adrenaline from an incredible sighting of this cub I didn’t even notice the weight of the lens. ISO 640, F/4, 1/800 at 300mm

waterbuck_

Sitting with a herd of waterbuck, this young female stood rigidly right beside us. Normally, before I can even take my camera out of my bag, waterbuck change position or move off but on this occasion she stayed still. ISO 640, F/4, 1/1000 at 300mm

AR: With a longer telephoto lens, stability can often be a problem. How did this lens perform?

TMP: Being a larger lens, stabilisation is crucial and the two OS (optical stabiliser) modes come in very handy. OS 1 being vertical and horizontal stabilisation and OS 2 being better suited for panning(vertical). One really notices these modes on cooler cloudy days when light is limited and when shooting difficult angles where handheld is the only option.

piva fallen tree

Photographing in very poor light can be tricky at times in terms of quality of your image. On this afternoon there was thick cloud cover, but by using a bean bag to rest my camera and lens on I was afforded the stability to capture this image. ISO 1000, F/4, 1/200 at 300mm

matsaphiri

Using OS1 mode gave me an advantage in capturing this beautiful backlit male lion. This male was marching towards his brother who was lying down behind us. In the heat of the moment (and with no dead rest) I turned my body and took the shot hand-held. In dark conditions I found myself extremely impressed with the lens’ capability. ISO 1000 F/2.8 1/200 at 250mm

AR: We often get so close to the wildlife here, what did you think of the range of the lens?

TMP: I have had issues in the past (while not major, but certainly noticeable) where other lenses on the market to date have been limiting at times. I have had to either change lenses depending on subject, distance and light or have two camera bodies and constantly switch between the two in sightings which can, and has, resulted in a good photographic opportunity being missed. Having the range of the 120 – 300mm I have had no such issues and I feel that in the moment of action, I have the ability to get the composition I am looking for and do so without battling to switch my lenses or equipment.

piva backlight2

With a hyena moving around in the area and the remains of a kill hanging in a tree close by, the Piva male was very aware of his surroundings and was constantly changing position. The distance would have been just too far for a 200mm lens, but instead of having to crop an image or change lenses, the 300mm was the perfect fit for this shot. ISO 800 F/2.8 1/500 at 300mm

AR: Sharpness is always a huge consideration when using a telephoto lens. How did you find the sharpness and focus?

TMP: The focusing mechanism is smooth and fast, I was surprised at how quickly the focus locks onto its target. Not once have I struggled in terms of focusing. The focusing mechanism is also internal which, for someone who works out in the field every day, is a bonus as there is minimal space for dust to gather and potentially affect the working parts.

baby hyena2

It is always entertaining to spend time at a hyena den and this time it was no different. This little hyena had us in stitches as it was still very young and shy but very inquisitive. With the help of the sharp, fast zoom I was able to snap this shot of the youngster as it popped its head out of the burrow to have a brief look at us. ISO 800, F/4, 1/500 at 300mm

AR: Here’s the big question: we have spoken about range, but how is the zoom on this lens?

TMP: The versatility and speed of this lens is incredible, focusing at 120mm from just 1.5 meters (5 feet) and at 2.5 meters (close to nine feet) for 300mm which is essential when photographing in a dynamic environment where your subject can be moving and shooting conditions are constantly changing. The ease at which you can go from 120mm to 300mm is great and when combined with the extremely fast focus, shooting moving targets becomes a breeze.

styx male3

The beauty of having a long zoom lens with the luxury of shooting with an F-stop of 2.8 is that it creates a shallow depth of field which I used in this image. I wanted to emphasis the eye and by focusing only on the eye it creates blur in the surrounding areas. You can almost feel the intensity in his gaze. ISO 1000, F/2.8, 1/1600 at 300mm

mashaba female

A close up of the Mashaba female shows great detail but also adds emotion to the image, especially converted into black and white. ISO 800 F/2.8 1/640 at 300mm

AR: With an aperture of F/2.8, you would expect great things from the performance of this lens. What was your experience?

TMP: Even before my first shot with this lens the one thing that stood out to me was the aperture. Whether you are at minimal or maximum zoom, the aperture (ranging from F/2.8 to F/22) can remain the same. I found this incredibly beneficial when out in the bush and, with conditions being as unpredictable as they are, it meant that I had the freedom to change it accordingly and be one hundred percent confident that I would get the shot.

I was very interested to see how this lens would perform in low light – whether it be on a gloomy, cloudy day or using a spotlight in the cover of night. The results I achieved were phenomenal. Previously when lighting was tricky I would never be confident of capturing the photograph perfectly, and often on my return to the lodge, when downloading my images my concerns would be confirmed. I often found images soft or even slightly grainy even when using a low ISO. Using this lens I was confident that my image would be the standard I expect it to be without an element of doubt in my mind.

matsaphiri male

In tough light the lens still performs at a high tempo. The eye contact from this Matshiphiri male is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine. ISO 800, F/2.8, 1/160 at 300mm

cheetah2

With overcast conditions photography can be tough, but I love the challenge. Wildlife photography is always unpredictable and so many outside factors control your image. A male cheetah stands tall, scanning the area for any potential prey. ISO 1000, F4, 1/320 at 180mm

AR: Your final verdict?

TMP: Having used this lens over the past couple of weeks, and really paying attention to its capabilities and handling in certain situations, I have been amazed time and time again. Sigma have done a phenomenal job in creating a truly remarkable lens and one that I have thoroughly enjoyed using. I realise this is a big statement to make but based on my recent experience, if I had one choice of lens when out in the field, it would be the Sigma 120 – 300mm F2.8.

Take a look at the rest of the images that Trevor has captured during his lens test:

piva fallen tree2

The Piva male gave us great photographic opportunities to capture different angles. Once again the light was tough but the result is one that I’m very happy with. ISO 800, F/4, 1/400 at 300mm

styx male

Using the rule of thirds and a very tight angle I tried to capture a tight intimate feel with this beautiful Styx male. ISO 800, F/2.8, 1/160 at 300mm

nyala

Playing around in my garden one afternoon I had fun photographing this nyala as she groomed herself. It is a very unusual image with the focus being off centre, with rich contrasting colours. ISO 640, F/2.8, 1/1250 at 300mm

matimba2

This was my first time seeing the Matimba males. They have been seen on our property over the past two weeks and I am in awe of their size. This male had just fed and his discomfort was noticeable as he constantly rolled around trying to keep weight off his full stomach. ISO 800, F/4, 1/400 at 300mm

cheetah

Being able to shoot 300mm at F/2.8 allows for the same feeling and effect you would have with a fixed lens. I was able to take a close up image of this male cheetah smelling the tree for any past scents that may have been left by other cheetahs or animals. Iso 1000, F/2.8, 1/320 at 300mm

matimba

The second brother of the Matimba coalition. This male was passed out sleeping for a lengthy period of time and was awakened by a nearby vulture repositioning in the tree. The presence this male created with a single stare was instantly felt by all. ISO 800, F/4, 1/320 at 250mm

elephant

Positioning ourselves in the Sand River, we had a great low angle view while we watched a breeding herd of elephants move through the waterway. This young elephant separated itself from the herd temporarily to feed on the luscious vegetation growing in the riverbed. ISO 400, F/5, 1/3200 at 200mm

tsalala female

A lioness listens to distant nyala alarm call, possibly indicating the position of the rest of her pride. At 300mm this lens creates a fair amount of blur behind the subject which adds emphasis to the lioness’s face. ISO 800, F/2.8, 1/1000 at 300mm

piva fallen tree3

With dark surroundings contrasting with the lighter golden colour of the Piva male’s coat, a black and white conversion really makes the leopard stand out. ISO 800, F/4, 1/320 at 235mm

buffalo

This old buffalo bull stood dead still and gazed at us for a long time, and I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind, what he thought of us and what he must have seen in his life. ISO 800, F/2.8, 1/2500 at 300mm

styx male4

Leaving camp one morning we found the Styx males resting almost on our doorstep. They had been calling throughout the evening and the dry conditions remaining from winter aided in creating a clear image. ISO, 1000 F/2.8, 1/320 at 300mm

baby hyena

This young hyena was just looking for affection from its mother, who was just interested in catching a late morning sleep. Iso 800, F/2.8, 1/400 at 260mm

mashaba female cub

It is always a privilege to be able to spend time with these animals and to share intimate moments like this with them. ISO 800, F/2.8, 1/500 at 300mm

piva backlight

This is probably one of my favourite images that I have ever taken. What looks like a growl is the tail-end of a yawn by the Piva male – the backlighting of his teeth makes this image for me. ISO 1000, F/2.8, 1/500 at 300mm

 

 

 

Written by Trevor McCall-Peat and Amanda Ritchie and Photographed by Trevor McCall-Peat, 

Disclosure: Lens provided by SIGMA.  

Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
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