Earlier this year I had a chance to go on a safari to the Serengeti to see the Great Migration and other wonders. After reading Gord Aker’s excellent article about his trip to Africa I thought it could be interesting to make a field report and share my experience with the brand new Sigma 150-600mm Sport which accompanied me during the trip.
The premise of the article is that this lens will appeal mostly to amateurs/serious beginners, so this will be my primary target audience. I’m assuming pros/experienced enthusiasts will not trade their primes for a zoom lens, albeit a good one – or will they? We’ll get back to that later on, in the conclusion of the article.
As a short disclaimer, please notice that the shots throughout the article were chosen to illustrate particular points, not necessarily because they were the best of the bunch. If anyone prefers to skip the (long!) reading and just check the actual pictures, there is a Sample section at the end.
1) Image quality
Let’s start with what matters the most: image quality was excellent. I have no scientific data to back it up so take my opinion for what it’s worth, but I really like what I see from this lens. It was better than I expected for a zoom lens, and certainly better than I expected for a 600mm full frame zoom lens.
I didn’t bother experimenting with aperture much, since I believe 99% of the time the lens will be used at f/8 with occasional switches to f/6.3 and f/11. At 600mm f/6.3, depth of field is pretty shallow, whereas f/11 and above usually require too high an ISO for my taste. Test charts sometimes ignore how the lens will actually be used, so if the lens is at its best at say f/16, this can be irrelevant for practical use.
As most readers and contributors of this website, I believe that the quality of an image has far, far more to do with the photographer than with his gear bag, but truth is I managed to pull out shots that were simply impossible in my previous safaris with the Nikon 70-200 f/4G VR I was using. So, gear is not that important, but it is important nevertheless, as in any craft the proper tools should restrict your creativity less.
I think, and can’t be 100% positive on this, that image quality is at its peak around 400-500mm, but 600mm still looked better to me than a 500mm cropped.
This lens has more vignetting than I would like if perfection (at an affordable price) was possible. A brief note on vignetting. I hear people saying all the time “vignetting is not an issue, it’s easy to fix in post etc”. I dare to disagree. It can be an issue when editing, specially when you need to slightly crop/reframe the image (so that vignetting is no longer “round”). It can also be pretty annoying to enhance contrast and/or darken blacks as it can worsen vignetting quite a bit. Since this lens will always be used in less-than-ideal conditions, cropping and contrast work will often be required.
That being said, it can be fixed, it will just require some extra work.
3) Handling and built quality
Handling these heavy, clumsy beasts is quite different from anything you can handhold for a long time, like the 70-200mm lenses. It can be handheld for a short time, but it’s tiresome and shaky. I brought with me a monopod, a tripod and a big bracket, but barely used any of them. I just preferred the flexibility of moving around, shooting from the open roof, shooting from the windows (for a lower level perspective) and moving back and forth inside the car.
The lifesaver was a beanbag I borrowed from a friend, which worked perfectly for this style of shooting. Even if you’re used to tripods, I would still highly recommend taking a small beanbag with you and filling it if necessary.
Everything about the lens felt very solid and precise. The tripod collar is just great, it moves around effortlessly and clicks every 90 degrees, so it was very easy to change position from horizontal to vertical shots. It can also be used as a sturdy handle to carry the lens around (as can be seen in the previous picture).
The options they offer in terms of control are good enough: it’s very easy to access manual focusing, image stabilization, focus range and personal adjustments buttons. With a day of practice, I didn’t need to take my eye of the viewfinder to change any of these anymore.
4) Weather sealing
Weather sealing was absolutely essential to me. In fact, it was the reason why I bought this lens instead of the much cheaper Tamron version. When on the field – and the “field” here means dust everywhere you can possibly think of – the constant zooming in and out is bound to suck in tons of dust. After a few trips I would expect a non-sealed version (such as 150-600mm Contemporary or the Tamron) to have problems with that. The verdict on how effective the sealing really is will only come in time, but one would expect that for the huge premium you pay for the sealed version, it should make a difference.
Speaking of zooming, this was a very useful feature. In some parks the drivers are allowed to go off-road and get as close to the animals as your framing requires; in others, such as the Serengeti (to many the best park in the world for safaris) you have to stay in the main roads. This has major implications in terms of framing: you either i) have to travel with three bodies and three primes (wide, medium and long); ii) give up on one range and focus on what you can shoot instead; or iii) resort to the flexibility of zoom lenses.
No right or wrong here, it’s just a matter of being aware of the challenges and choosing the option that suits you better. Personally, I really liked the ability to just rotate the zoom ring and change drastically my framing, either with the same subject or with something else that would eventually show up close to the car, such as in the following scenes:
Just to illustrate how not all shots go as planned and not everyone is a NatGeo photographer in the making, in the following case, 150mm was not wide enough and on top of that there was a car in the way blocking my view. I missed what could have been a pretty nice shot:
Still regarding the zoom, for a Nikon user the Canon style / counter-clockwise rotating system of this lens felt terrible. As far as I know, most places use the “right hand rule” to guide screw/unscrew directions, and Sigma, emulating Canon, requires you to rotate the zoom ring contrary to that direction in order to extend the barrel (“zoom in”). I’m left handed and still it was not intuitive at all. Not a deal breaker, but every time I wanted to change framing I had to think about it first, so the ring orientation did get in the way. It did not ruin my shots but I felt at times it took my concentration away.
6) Focusing and Responsiveness
The lens focuses pretty fast, although it does get confused sometimes when your initial focus is far off from the intended one. By using the focus range button you could improve that if it ever becomes a problem, but it never really got in the way for me. What I found to be more problematic were the camera auto-focusing limitations: both the D610 and the D5100 are not exactly stellar in this department.
During a safari most of the times you only deal with relatively static animals, which is why I used Single/Central point most of the time to acquire focus and then just recomposed. When you feel action is on the way, quickly switching to Continuous is essential. Trying to track a running animal is hard enough in itself, so one should not waste the very few seconds you have to take the shot when they’re on the move:
7) Image Stabilization
Sigma did a great job with image stabilization. I’m kind of spoiled by the Nikon 70-200 f/4 which has a marvelous stabilization system, but I have to say I was pretty impressed with the Sigma. Not an easy task to stabilize a lens at the 600mm end. Without a tripod even framing can get tricky when you switch the stabilization off, so I believe the difference Sigma’s system makes is pretty noticeable.
8) A Lens That Can See Far Away
Now, here’s a test I ran just for fun. We were in a lodge that provides this view of Ngorongoro crater – a massive volcano that collapsed and left a huge crater which has water year round and is home to thousands of animals:
The previous picture was obviously taken during the day, but the actual test happened the day before at around 18:30. The light was pretty bad, hence the noisy image. Also notice the nasty dirt spot I had on my sensor, in the lower half of the picture. I didn’t remove it in post just to illustrate how bad it can be. Luckily the air blower was enough to remove the dust later on (which reminds me: always bring an air blower to dusty environments!):
The side by side comparison between the wide shot and the 600mm image was pretty impressive to me:
Still regarding distances, keep in mind that during the day heat accumulates and starts irradiating from the ground, causing blurry images. If you can afford to do a long safari and only shoot at dawn/dusk, that’s great; if you’re a regular guy/girl like me, you’ll end up shooting during the “bad” hours too. This means that having much more than 600mm of reach would not necessarily be a good thing or, in other words, that a 600mm lens should be long enough for the vast majority of us. A long lens definitely does not replace the need for good light and proper positioning:
Another issue with the time of the day you will be shooting is that, as Gord mentioned in his article, during the day most predators just lay in the shade and sleep. Even you find something interesting in decent light, odds are you’ll still get this pose:
When shooting early in the morning/late afternoon not only you avoid the heat problem, but you also get better light and improve your chances of seeing some action:
In short, I found the lens to be excellent for a safari. As mentioned before, image quality is pretty good and the ability to zoom was invaluable. The shots I see from primes are clearly better than mine, but then two factors come into mind: i) they were taken by far more experienced photographers who actually know what they are doing; and ii) they cost a LOT more. My feeling is that the Sigma should be good enough for 99% of us. Zoom ring apart (dammit, Canon!) the one and only situation I felt the lens “got in the way” was when 150mm was not wide enough, which says a lot about how good it is.
It’s not an easy call to decide between a prime and this zoom lens, and even some friends who already own good, long primes are considering purchasing the Sigma S. One could argue that the new Nikon 300mm f/4G VR could also reach 600mm with a teleconverter, probably with similar image quality. In this case, you’d get better image quality at 300mm, probably similar results at 600mm and then miss the zooming ability entirely. Other lenses also have their own shortcomings, so I can’t see a clear winner in this range.
My final verdict about the 150-600mm Sport as a safari lens: I’m happy enough with the pictures and just had a great time with it!
10) Sample Images
This guest post was contributed by Pedro Simões, a photography enthusiast from Rio de Janeiro, who is currently based in Tanzania. His main interests are wildlife and underwater photography, and he has been a big fan of Photography Life for over two years now.