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On tour with the Sigma 150-500mm APO


Blesbuck and Sunset - 1/4000s – f6.3 – ISO800 @ 500mm Forgot to change the ISO for this one which is why the shutter speed is so high. Still a great image (handheld) Kichaka.

Furthering my quest for a decent #telephoto lens suitable for travelling without compromising the weight restrictions of hand luggage for most airlines, I recently took the 150-500mm APO f5-6.3 to capture my #safari holiday in #South #Africa.


It’s widely assumed that for this type of photography, a 600mm lens is more suited, particularly when paired with a 1.4 or 2x teleconverter. A problem arises when carrying a dedicated 600mm lens which is the #weight. The dedicated Nikon 600mm f4 weighs in at a whopping 5kg and measures 17.5” in length. At around £6000, it’s a little beyond my #budget for a lens that would only be used in a limited number of situations.


Having been impressed with #Sigma lenses in the past (I still use a 14mm f2.8 regularly), a lighter alternative would be the Sigma 150-600mm APO, at just over half the weight, 11.5” in length and only £1300. Currently, however, this lens is as rare as hen’s teeth. Waiting lists of around 3 months have been quoted, so I chose the older but still quality optic of a 150-500mm f5-6.3 APO, weighing a more #reasonable 1.7kg, 10” in length (at 150mm) and costing a mere £600.


So how does a £600 Sigma compare with a £6000 Nikkor – the answer is ‘it doesn’t’. Lenses at this focal length have a severely restricted use and are rarely used in portrait photography (unless you are in the ‘paparazzi’ line of work). Shelling out £6000 for a lens which isn’t going to give much #financial return is an expensive toy indeed, regardless of it’s quality. I was looking from a purely #practical viewpoint and deciding if it was fit for purpose at a reasonable cost.


My shortlist of requirements were not extensive, but I believe would be important to anyone looking to stretch the budget for an occasional lens.

· Low in weight.

· Not excessively large.

· Reasonable price (By this I don’t mean cheap!).

· Good build quality.

· Good performance.


Weight and Size

One of the biggest problems with air travel is what to do with your camera gear – do you take a chance and pack it in the hold baggage and pray the Neanderthals chucking it on the plane don’t damage it?, or do you pack it in the hand luggage and pray it will fit into the minuscule baggage they allow you in the overhead locker or break the 10kg allowance, and hope they don’t weigh it during check-in? Most professional landscape and Nature photographers like Thomas Mangelsen (www.mangelsen.com) will double pack their gear that has to go in the hold, and still hope it arrives when they do or is not held in customs because they think they stole it…..


Even attached to my #Nikon D4, the weight is just over 3kg allowing for a further 7kg of other essential lenses, flash, batteries etc. I would normally travel with my CSC Fuji XT1 Pro and 3 lenses which total this amount exactly – Perfect! I decided to mix and match on this trip and only took the XT1 and short 18-55mm lens (24-70 full frame equivalent), leaving plenty of space for my Infrared camera and two Go-Pro’s. All this gear fitted neatly into my #Lowepro backpack and within (just) the 10kg limit for overhead baggage.

Lowepro Backpack - Travel cameras prior to cushioning to prevent damage in transit. Nikon D4, Sigma 150-500 f5-6.3 APO, Nikon V1 (infrared converted), Fuji XT1 Pro, 18-55, f2.8-4 Gopro 2, Gopro 4. Tripod in main hold baggage.

The one concession I made was for the tripod to go in the hold baggage, as it’s a little more robust and can take some rough handling.


Pricing

I’m a great believer in having the right tools for the job, whatever the cost. In most cases, when working on professional assignments this means that eventually it’s your clients that pay for your equipment, but as this was for mainly personal use I wanted the purchase to not only give me the performance but should be good value for money.


There are numerous makes on the market that will give you a long focal length, but this doesn’t mean you should buy ‘cheap’. At the top notch money no object end I could have shelled out on the 600mm Nikkor. Whilst this would assure me of the quality and performance I needed, it’s a hefty chunk out of my business for little gain financially. At the bottom end of the market I could trawl the internet and find myself a lesser make such as Opteka for around £150 or even go for the £190 Samyang 800mm mirror lens I tested in the Oct/Nov 2014 Imagemaker, however I know that performance would be an issue.


Given my previous experience of the Sigma stable of lenses I was pretty sure of the quality and performance I would get for a given price tag. My preferred lens, the 150-600mm f5-6.3 was unavailable (and at the time of writing was still unavailable due to demand) so I opted for a shorter focal length but a lens that had been around for a year or two and had been proven to deliver. At around £600 it appeared to fit well within my budget and I could afford a 2x teleconverter to go with it! This retails for around £200, but was unable to purchase on before my trip. You should be aware that only the Sigma #teleconverter will work with this lens.


Quality and Performance

It amazes me that some lesser reviewers will say ‘you can feel the quality of it just by the weight!’ Anyone with any sort of a pea for a brain will realise that the majority of the weight in a #lens is in the #glass. Mounting the glass in metal as opposed carbon fibre or other lightweight composite has no bearing on the quality of build – ever! What really matters is how it’s put together and materials used in construction, and one of the main purposes was to find a lens suitable for the job which was lightweight.


The body is solidly put together and has 21 glass #elements in 15 groups. Lenses of this focal length and complexity benefit from image stabilisation and this is no exception, particularly at the 500mm end. The rubber focussing and zooming rings were tight fitting and allowed for a smooth operation. The lens is also fitted with rotating tripod collar allowing for fast landscape to portrait shooting whilst still mounted on the tripod or monopod. The collar also doubles as a handy grip and ensures that the camera is well #balanced when carrying. The lens is also available in Sigma, Canon, Sony and Pentax mounts.


Prior to leaving for South Africa I wanted to test the lens to make sure that I wasn’t carrying a white elephant! I love photographing at #Chester Zoo and this was the perfect environment to check quality against my existing lens combinations. Normally for Zoo work I would take my 70-200 Nikkor f2.8 with a 2x teleconverter, which delivers very crisp images even with the teleconverter. I couldn’t have chosen a worse day for #testing, rainy, overcast and cold……I spent most of the day dodging showers and carrying the camera on my back.

Asian Elephants - 1/500s – f6.3 – ISO1600 @ 500mm Captured at Chester Zoo
Vulture - 1/125s – f6.3 – ISO1600 @ 170mm Captured at Chester Zoo through mesh fencing

So for the first test – how does it feel to carry? With my advancing years and a lifetime of carrying a ton of lenses at every wedding event, I hardly noticed the weight when it was in the backpack and was welcome relief for my weary shoulders.


Due to the weather, the camera was tripod mounted so I turned off the image stabilisation as it wasn’t needed, and used it wide open to keep depth of field to a minimum. Choosing a shooting distance that I thought was relevant to my upcoming trip, the only other obstacle was the fencing between me and the subject. From the very first shot I was amazed at the clarity, crispness and definition. It was half an hour later that I decided I should move on – I was having so much fun I forgot I was there to test the lens as well as get some great captive shots.


Kichaka

Even from my short visit to the Zoo I was convinced I had purchased wisely and couldn’t wait to try it for real in the environment it was bought for. #Kichaka is about an hour’s drive out of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. I didn’t have to wait long as I only had half an hour to check-in and then we were off on the first game drive of what was to become one of the best #experiences ever. I was hoping to deliver a masterclass at the 2016 Annual Convention in London, based around my trip and the differences between Zoo and Game Park photography, but this will have to wait for another occasion. I will however be delivering two separate Superclass and Masterclasses at next year’s gathering.


Getting close to the animals is the job of the highly experienced trackers and guides and will all depend on their #knowledge, skill and disposition of the wildlife. Your #safety is paramount so they will never put you in a position of danger. If this means keeping your distance – don’t question it. In this regard I was fortunate to come within 10m of most animals I photographed and this meant that at 500mm there was no need to get closer for some great portraits, even without a teleconverter.

Starling - 1/125s – f6.3 – ISO400 @ 500mm
Feeding Time - 1/250s – f6.3 – ISO800 @ 400mm Lioness after a morning kill, (handheld)

There isn’t much room in the Jeep/Landcruiser normally, and the use of tripods is out of the question, however we had the guide and transport to ourselves and I could choose any position I wanted. With a full Jeep, a monopod is possible when stuck between your legs, but I recommend the use of a beanbag placed over the frame of the vehicle. It’s quick and easy to manoeuvre in a crowded shooting position. Just remember to tie it down because if you lose it, there may not be an opportunity to retrieve it.

Camera Handheld - Even in low evening light camera can be handheld using the image stabilisation turned on.

For much of the day I was able to engage the image stabiliser function and shoot at reasonable ISO and handhold, negating the need for constant fidgeting with the beanbag. Again, I used the lens wide open to give me a crisp depth of field, isolating the animals. The HSM (hypersonic motor) works efficiently and is reasonably quiet, whilst focussing was precise and quick.


My Verdict

This lens has been around for a couple of years now but is still a great seller and it’s not hard to see why. It captures great quality in the images and for anyone not wanting to break the bank; it’s great value for money without sacrificing performance. With this type of holiday becoming more popular and affordable, it makes sense for any enthusiast or professional to take this little beauty with them. I’m already booking my next trip and this is a key part of the arsenal I’ll be taking with me.

Lioness - 1/800s – f6.3 – ISO400 @ 400mm Calling to the male for protection due to the threat from another pride, (handheld)
Useless - 1/1250s – f6.3 – ISO400 @ 500mm The male of the pride is called ‘Useless’ due to the fact he tends to mess up the hunt for the female. Fast shutter speed used as we were tracking the pride across the plain. (handheld)
Young African Elephant - 1/160s – f6.3 – ISO400 @ 500mm A month old baby being protected by the herd during feeding. Main herd feeding on acacia and the baby is suckling. (supported on beanbag)