New Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 HSM Review Compared with Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S Lens

The Sigma 70-200 performs well at any aperture making it possible to take images in low light at a distance like this one of the awards podium at a First LEGO League competition held at Google's headquarters.For action photography no lens gets more work than the venerable 70-200mm f/2.8. With the addition of built-in focus motors over the last decade (called USM by Canon, AF-S by Nikon and HSM by Sigma) as well as support for Teleconverters for extra reach it is a great "go-to" lens for action indoors and out. Show up with one at your kid's soccer game or swim meet and you're guaranteed to get jealous looks and more than a couple questions. And of course you'll get plenty of images that others with their slower kit lenses will miss out on….

Unfortunately all this power comes at a price, both literally in dollars and in size and weight. The latest models from Nikon and Canon with image stabilization and top of the line image quality price out at about $2200 and weigh over 3 pounds, nearly triple the cost of the lower tech versions a decade ago.

Sigma is trying to help with their introduction of a newly re-designed version of their 70-200mm f/2.8 lens including focusing motors (HSM), new multi-coated elements and 4-stop Optical image stabilization (OS). The lens is over 20% cheaper than its Nikon and Canon competitors although not much smaller. So should you save your pennies and go for the Sigma version? My answer after shooting in the field with one for over a month now is "quite possibly" depending on your budget and shooting needs. Here is what I've found:

Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Overview

689577The lens looks a lot like other similar "pro class" zoom lenses. Long, thin and solid feeling taking it out of the box you definitely know you've gotten a well made product. Less expensive Sigma lenses get dinged for build quality but their "EX" line is solid and well-built. On paper it lacks the weather sealing of the pro Nikon and Canon lenses although no modern lens and digital camera should be used more than necessary in the rain without a proper rain cover.

The lens controls are simple and fairly standard with a switch for Manual and Auto-Focus modes and one for the Optical Stabilizer which can be turned Off or set to a normal mode (Mode 1) or to a panning friendly mode (Mode 2) which ignores horizontal movement. The zoom ring is wide and easy to use. The focus ring is fairly narrow--presumably in recognition of the importance of zooming and the heavy reliance of most photographers on Auto-Focus instead of the focus ring.

The tripod collar can be rotated or easily removed. Mine spends very little time on the camera since I'm normally using the lens for action and it isn't long or heavy enough for me to bother with a tripod or monopod in that case. One nice feature is Sigma's trademark inclusion of a depth of field scale on the lens barrel, something that few other vendors bother with any more.

Auto-Focus Operation

sp_ah_usta_35m_sr_0210The AF is quick to lock on, as befits a lens with ultrasonic motors inside. Shot side by side with my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR I version it seems directly comparable. One difference is that the Sigma does not have a range limiter (the Nikon can be limited to focus just from 2.5 meters to infinity for example) so that if you are "racking" focus all the way in and out trying to acquire distant subjects you don't have the option to speed things up by limiting the focus range.

You can see from this tennis image that the lens had no trouble snapping into focus in daylight. At f/5.6 you can also see in the sky area that there is no issue with vignetting either.

Wide open (f/2.8) there is definitely some vignetting when used with a full frame camera, but nothing that can’t easily be fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom or left in the image for artistic effect (often the light falloff helps focus the viewers’ interest on the subject which may be desirable).


Image Quality and Vignetting

Shot side by side with the Nikon (VR I version) equivalent the Sigma meets or exceeds it in image quality across the board. Sharpness is almost identical at various apertures and color contrast is slightly better. I've included some highly zoomed in sections of my test images to give you a sense for the image detail available from both lenses. (You can also download the original Raw files from the test images here for the Nikon image and here for the Sigma image).

nikon v. sigma close-up

Vignetting is also a concern for any zoom lens and fortunately for those with smaller "crop" format sensors (like all the Nikon DX cameras) the Sigma measures up here and has nice even light across the frame. But one issue which caught Nikon shooters unaware was the light fall-off in the 70-200 VR I when they switched to full frame. The Sigma has slightly better performance than the VR I version of the Nikon lense but there is still noticeable light fall-off in the corners when shot "wide open" at f/2.8 (see the sample images below). This can be corrected either by stopping down to f/4 or better yet f/5.6 or smaller or in the Camera Raw module of Photoshop or Lightroom but if you want the best corner to corner performance full-frame you'll find it in the latest (and priciest) Nikon and Canon versions.

nikon v. sigma light fall off comparison, Nikon is on the left Sigma on the right

ev_iceskating1110_0052The ability of the Sigma 70-200 to open up to f/2.8 is essential for serious action photography. For this shot f/2.8 accomplishes two things. First it helps blur out the skaters and the background behind the subject and second it allowed me to shoot a 1/1000s to get a tack sharp subject on a dark day even though it is an action scene. Smaller and lighter zoom lenses or super-zooms, while convenient, just can’t accomplish the same thing. Having a lens which opens to f/2.8 also does a third important and “invisible” thing which is that since lenses focus wide open (no matter what you have set for the actual photo) an f/2.8 lens will allow the camera to auto-focus more quickly than a similar lens with a smaller maximum aperture.


Image Stabilization (aka OS, IS, VR)

Whether you call it OS (Optical Stabilization), IS (Image Stabilization) or VR (Vibration Reduction) all the flagship telephoto zooms now offer it. It is debatable how much it helps at high shutter speeds but for low light photography it can be a life saver. Sigma advertises its new 70-200 as having a "4-stop" OS system. That means you should be able to shoot an image at a 4-stop slower shutter speed (16 times longer exposure) and get the same sharpness. In other words you should be able to shoot an image at 1/10s that is just as sharp as one taken at 1/160s with OS turned off. This of course assumes that your subject isn't moving.

At f/2.8 the Sigma allows you to put critical focus on your subject while blurring the background.Like with most specifications this one should be taken with a grain of salt. Similar to Nikon and Canon real life performance of the stabilizer is not quite as good as in the lab. When measured the Sigma OS on the 70-200 on average delivers a very respectable 3-stops of stabilization, very similar to the Nikon 70-200 VR I but slightly behind the approximately 3.5 stops of the Nikon VR II version.

The Sigma (like the Nikon and Canon) works very well with a 1.4x Teleconverter (either the Sigma or Kenko Teleplus) and acceptably with a 2x converter.

What do you Lose?

UPDATED: Feb. 1, 2011--B&H has cut the price on the Sigma lens to $1,399 making it a very serious savings over the more than $2K for Nikon and Canon versions!

Okay, for the $800 you save by buying this lens instead of the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S VR II Lens or $1,000 over the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens  what else do you give up? I found two things that might or might not matter to you. First this Sigma lens is not fully weather sealed the way the new top pro lenses from Nikon and Canon are. Second, while it has a manual focus over-ride similar to Nikon's M/A mode it only works in Single-focus mode. In continuous AF mode you can't use the focus ring to over-ride the lens motors. That may not be an issue for you but I do like the flexibility of M/A mode.

Summary

In summary if you are shooting only on smaller sensor cameras and are on a limited budget then the Sigma will save you about $800 over the Nikon and Canon models while delivering nearly identical handling and image quality. But if you are shooting full frame and need performance wide-open or have the money for the top of the line Nikon or Canon versions then they are still the kings of the action photo market.

Ready to Buy?

B&H sells the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM for $1399 for Nikon. Don’t be confused by the lower priced version (you can tell the difference because the older one does not feature Optical Stabilization (OS)).

You can also get the Canon Version for $1399 or the Sony Version for $1399 as well—all with Free Shipping.

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Is this Sigma lens much more
Is this Sigma lens much more affordable than Nikon or Canon lenses? I have a dlsr and I would like to try this sigma lenses. ~Krista A. Clark DUI lawyer Tampa thetampaduiattorneys.com/protect_your_license.html
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Krista--Yes, the Sigma is

Krista--Yes, the Sigma is much less expensive than the Nikon or Canon equivalent. There are some links in the article where you can purchase it for a competitive price.

 

--David Cardinal Cardinal Photo

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Joined: 2006-02-02
New Sigma 70-200

I thinks it's an excellent alternative to Nikon lens, at a time that Sigma reduce price of the 70-200 from 25%.

i had wait a long to buy my own, the lastest Sigma was unstabilized and optic formulae not so good, but this new is still closer to Nikon quality for a decent price.

Wedding photographer France

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