At long last they’re all out, in stock and making every aspiring wildlife photographer on a budget scratch their head and wonder which one they should own? Of course I’m talking about the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC, the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG Contemporary and the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E VR. These three budget super telephoto zoom lenses compete with each other directly at their price points, reach and heft; but the big question remains – how do they stack up optically? This was my quest when looking at the three lenses: I wanted to find out which of the three deserves the crown as the best budget-friendly super telephoto zoom. Let’s take a look at the lenses in more detail.
Two years ago, getting through the wildlife photography door required a five-figure cover charge. That all changed when Tamron introduced their 150-600mm f/5-6.3 zoom for the ridiculously low price. 600mm at a thousand bucks? It had to suck. But it didn’t. While not as razor sharp as the Nikon or Canon 500/600mm primes, it was still a lot sharper than anyone imagined such an affordable lens could be. And at just over a grand it let a lot more people experience the joys of wildlife photography. Tami became my go to lens when I would scout a new wildlife location – I could move fast covering more ground and if something amazing presented itself, say a bobcat peeking through the woods, I had a capable lens to capture the moment.
Now Tami, as I affectionately call her, has company – both Sigma and Nikon have produced competitors in the budget super tele zoom market. Sigma introduced not one, but two 150-600mm zooms. One, their budget Contemporary model is $1089, the other is the Sport model at twice the price and a lot more weight. It’s the former we’ll be comparing today – let’s call her Sigi. Not to be outdone, Nikon answered the challenge and has recently released the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ($1399). Canon so far hasn’t answered the bell – the closest they come is their 100-400mm zoom, which is over 2K and really doesn’t have the reach to join the Tamron/Sigma/Nikon super tele zoom group we’re comparing. Note that both Tamron and Sigma versions are available in both Nikon and Canon mounts. The Nikkor, AKA Niki, is Nikon mount only.
1) General Considerations
When you start getting out into the 500-600mm range you’re shooting at 10-12x magnification – more than a standard 8x pair of binoculars. There aren’t many photo subjects other than wildlife that require such reach. Perhaps a few sports where you can’t get close to the participants – like motorsports – or taking photos of the moon. If you’re not shooting small, shy critters, then you probably can get by with a lighter, more compact zoom like a 70-300mm or an 80-400mm/100-400mm. 400mm is generally long enough for larger wildlife like deer, elephants, lions and the like.
Most zoom owners shoot mostly at the far or near end of the lenses zoom range and less frequently at the intermediate focal lengths. With these supertelephoto zooms, users will most likely be spending a lot of time at the far (500/600mm) end. I’ve been shooting the Tamron 150-600mm for over a year now and when I check my usage stats 63% of my shots were at 600mm and 5% at 150mm, leaving a third of the shots at the intermediate focal lengths. Why lug such a big, cumbersome lens about if you don’t need 500-600 millimeters of reach? For birds you can use all the reach you can get.
As these lenses will likely be used more at the far than medium or near end, performance at the far end will be more important for most folks.
In general, most wildlife shots feature the animal somewhere around the center of the frame, not in the corners. Hence for wildlife I would tend to favor a lens with superior sharpness in the center of the frame over one with less sharpness in the center but better corner-to-corner sharpness.
On the flip side, when shooting landscapes, corner-to-corner sharpness is more important.
Sharpness is not the paramount consideration when it comes to wildlife lens performance. Did I just say that on Photography Life? Let me state this another way. I could give a s#!+ about how sharp all the shots are that I miss. Paramount in wildlife photography is the ability to capture the moment. You usually don’t get a second chance when an animal does something unique.
Therefore attributes like autofocus speed and accuracy, focus-tracking ability, effective image stabilization, convenient zooming and the like become just as important as sharpness. Heck, even the ease of removing the lens cap with the lens hood on could be the difference between getting the shot or cursing yourself (Tamron wins the lens cap challenge, with Nikon second and Sigma a distant third). These attributes are hard to quantify, but I’ll try my best to give every lens a good workout and find out which one performs best in the field.
2) Fixed Versus Variable Aperture
Sigi and Tami both have a variable maximum aperture while Niki has a fixed maximum aperture. Historically, fixed aperture zooms have been faster, sharper and more expensive than variable aperture lenses. But that pretty much applies to the f/2.8 zooms. Those were made for the professional market and built to higher standards than the slower variable zooms of yesteryear. At a fixed f/5.6 the Nikon 200-500 is not a fast lens and only 1/3 stop faster than Sigi and Tami at maximum zoom. Is there an advantage to a fixed aperture? Very little it turns out. The two cases are: 1) when shooting manual wide open, setting your exposure, then zooming and forgetting to reset your exposure; and 2) when zooming wide open when shooting video. In case one this is pretty inconsequential given how much exposure latitude modern sensors give us. In case 2, DSLR videos are usually shot at 1/50 sec, hence it would have to be real low light to shoot wide open even at base ISO. Add to that that zooming is out of fashion these days (get a boom dude) and any advantage of fixed over variable won’t come into play for 98% of consumers. With Sigi and Tami, once you stop down to f/6.3 (only 1/3 stop slower than f/5.6) the lenses will stay at the same aperture when zooming. If shooting video with the aperture wide open then you can’t zoom without altering your exposure (because you’ll probably be at 1/50 sec you’ll only be able to shoot wide open in very low light or with a neutral density filter attached [95mm ND filters start around $300]).
So there’s little advantage to a fixed aperture in this case and Sigi and Tami are faster at their wide ends than Niki. Bottom line – I wouldn’t worry at all about one being fixed and the other two not.
3) Why Not Primes?
If most of one’s time will be spent shooting at the long end of these zooms, why not just buy a prime lens? After-all, it should be much easier to design a fixed focal length lens than a zoom as less is being asked of it. The reason is because the latest Nikon and Canon 600mm primes cost over ten grand. For that price, why not just buy a pet tiger and shoot the kitty with your iPhone?
The reason those big primes cost so much is because at f/4 they are fast. Faster lenses let in more light, improving AF performance and allowing one to work in dimmer conditions – conditions under which many animals are most active. The faster the lens is (given the same focal length) the bigger diameter the elements need to be to let in that much light. Bigger elements are more expensive to make than smaller ones, so much so that these monster primes end up with equally monstrous price tags. If your goal is to shoot quetzals in the rainforest, start saving up now. But if you’re shooting in brighter conditions (say on safari), you should be able to get by with f/5.6. Bear in mind too that as sensor technology continues to improve, cameras are getting better and better at shooting in low light. To me, the biggest advantage of the f/4 lenses over the f/5.6-f/6.3 lenses is in AF-performance. Camera AF modules simply work better when they get more light. When you get to 500/600mm, your depth of field wide open is wafer thin, so if you want to get both eyes of your subject in focus, but the subject isn’t perfectly aligned to your camera, then you’ll be stopping down to f/8 or so anyway. f/4 might give a bit nicer out of focus background, but the difference between that and f/5.6 isn’t really much.
All of this makes me wish Nikon and Canon or other manufacturers would produce 600mm f/5.6 primes that would be far less expensive than the f/4 primes, and a whole lot lighter too. But let’s stop daydreaming and look at the affordable lenses available now. We’ll break this down into the various significant attributes and compare each lens against the others in terms of sharpness, AF and manual focus performance and tracking, image stabilization, build quality, and general handling.