Choosing which lenses to bring on an assignment is a constant back and forth between weight and versatility for me. As an adventure and travel photographer, I’m either hiking all my gear into a remote location or flying abroad for long periods with limited bag space. So when I got the opportunity to test out the Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens I was pretty excited.
I already own the Sigma 150-600mm Sports lens and couldn't be happier with it. I picked it up for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil and it performed flawlessly even in the dimly lit indoor arenas. As amazing of a lens as it is, it does have its downsides. Most notably for me is its overall size and weight coming in at around 12 inches and 6.3 pounds. As a result, I often just can't bring the lens with me unless weight and number of bags just isn't an issue.
By comparison, Sigma's 100-400mm f/5-6.3 is closer in size to a 70-200mm at just over 7 inches and a super light 2.55 pounds. That's a huge increase in reach over the 70-200mm for about the same or less weight. Meaning, paired up with a nice mid-range zoom like a 24-70mm or 24-105mm, you’ll get a pretty insane range with just two lenses. And that’s exactly what I needed for the test shoot I had planned for this lens.
It was a cold New England day right before a nor’easter was about to hit. We hiked out along the beaches to a nice secret spot in hopes of some great winter swell. The perfect conditions to put the 100-400mm through its paces. The beach was covered in snow and ice. It was snowing on and off and we needed to hike a good distance to where there was a great point break. Although the wind and swell did not produce the right conditions for surfing this time, the snow and storm did make for an excellent backdrop I just couldn't pass up.
Design, Build, and Handling
The lens shares the same design aesthetic as most of the new Art and Sports lenses Sigma has been putting out recently. As I've stated before in my other Sigma lens reviews, I am a big fan of this new modern design. Sigma does a great job creating a stylish look letting a variety of curves and textures break up the all-black body. The switches feel well made and click into place letting you know without looking what setting you're in. There are some dust and splash sealing at the mount but unlike the more robust Sports series of lenses, true weather sealing was left out to help cut down the weight and cost. This is a big negative for me as I often like during this test shoot, work in poor weather conditions. The snowing was on and off while I was testing the lens and I didn't shy away from the ocean spray of the waves. At no point did I really worry about damaging the lens and unless you're in constant rainfall unprotected the lens should hold up just fine.
The lens hood has an unusual cup-shaped design which is there to help with zooming the lens with the push-pull method. This is a nice feature as this way is much faster once you get used to it for high-speed action shots. Both the focus ring and zoom ring move quite smoothly while giving you a feeling of precision. The focus ring will work manually in both autofocus and manual focus modes.
Autofocus and Stabilization
I've had good luck with Sigmas compatibility with Canon’s autofocus system and this lens seemed to continue that streak. It was quick to lock focus wide open in various modes not missing a single shot. However, it did slow down a bit at 400mm and occasionally search for focus. Tracking in AF Servo mode performed excellently throughout the range with occasional misfires but no worse than I would get from my Canon 70-200mm so that was an excellent surprise.
Stabilization is almost a requirement for any lens in the 400mm-plus range, especially since this lens doesn't come with a tripod collar. So it's great to see that Sigma included their two-mode OS system. If I’m comparing it to the performance of the Sports-series optical stabilization I would say it is not quite as good. You won't be handholding it at 400mm to shoot video. That being said, considering the low cost and weight of the lens, the images were more than acceptably sharp when shooting at slow shutter speeds. With the lens' variable aperture of f/5-6.3, unless you are shooting in bright light you are going to have to bump your ISO up. Most cameras these days have no issue shooting at ISO 3,200 or above so I don't really see that as much of an issue.
I’m not going to go too deep into image quality as this is more of a real-world review and not a pixel peeping one, but I was really surprised by just how well the images looked. Most notably the edge sharpness throughout its range was far better than I would imagine of a lens only costing $699. Sharpness and image contrast are definitely not somewhere Sigma cheaped out on to get this lens at that price. In side by side tests I think the average photographer would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an image shot on this Sigma versus Canon’s comparable 100-400mm lens. Very low chromatic aberration is another quality I was surprised to see as this often is lost on more budget-friendly lenses.
Who Is It For?
Sigma describes this lens as ideal for travel, nature, and wildlife. However, I would add anyone looking to shoot action and sports should be looking at this lens too. At this price point, it’s both a great entry-level lens as well as a lightweight supplement or replacement for any pro needing 400mm reach in a 200mm lens package. Paired up with an APS-C body like the 7D Mark II will give you an even better 160-640mm equivalent focal length. This really is a great travel lens for anyone looking to shoot wildlife. I would love to take this on a safari. The incredibly low weight is also great for anyone who just has trouble holding a heavy kit for long periods.
What I Liked
- Overall build quality
- Optical quality
- Low chromatic aberration
What I Didn’t Like
- No tripod collar
- No true weather sealing
- Variable aperture
Sigma nailed it with the 100-400mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary lens as far as I’m concerned. The overall price to quality performance is unparalleled compared to Canon or Nikon’s offering. There is always a reason to buy one lens over another even if they are close in performance, but If price, size, and weight are important or high on your list then this is definitely the lens for you. My final thoughts on this are I would love to see a Sports version of this lens with real weather sealing, improved tracking capabilities, and an included tripod collar for around $1,000.