Sunday, 20 February 2011

Sigma 500mm f4.5 - one year on Review

With only two weekends so far this year when it hasn’t rained (so not getting out again this weekend) and it being a year since getting the Sigma lens, I thought I'd spend some time going through my thoughts of how it’s been so far.

Strangely, before buying this lens myself, I couldn’t find that much about it apart from the usual specs, there wasn’t many example images, especially any that convinced me it was what I wanted.  One place I did go to was Pbase Sigma 500mm f4.5 unfortunately, the images are as only good as the person taking them and the equipment review part of the site is a good example of this with good images on ‘lower’ equipment and poor images on newer ‘better’ equipment.

I was lucky that I got this second hand and before the hike in photographic lens prices, but it is still considerably cheaper than the Canon or Nikon equivalents.  The one thing that would probably put people off is that it has no image stabiliser, however, although it would be nice to have this, it would have meant it wouldn’t have been as cheaper lens and bigger and heavier.  I only have currently one lens with image stabilisation so I haven’t come to rely upon this in my photography.  I always carry around a monopod with this lens and if I’m not using this I will find something else to rest it on – my bag or knees or some other object that is around such as a fence.  I always try and follow the guide of having the same or faster shutter speed as the focal length of the lens you are using and so, as you can see from the photographs below, I often shoot wide open and at an ISO of 1600 as I’d rather have a grainer picture which I can improve during the processing than one that is blurred and can’t be fixed.

Shooting at F4.5

I was pleasantly surprised to find that shooting this wide open still produced very good images and find myself doing so for more than 50% of the time without concern. (See Great Tit below)  Just as well with the kind of dull, grey weather we get in this country and when I do shoot at narrower apertures, it’s usually to get a greater depth of field.

F4.5 1/800 sec ISO 1600


F5.6 1/800 sec ISO 1600


F5 1/5000 sec ISO 1600


I use this lens with two cameras – a Canon 30D and a Mk IIn.  With the latter it is noticeably faster obviously.  Speed of focusing hasn’t been a problem unless shooting birds in flight in which case I will use the Mk IIn or the Canon 400mm f5.6.  One of the reasons I don’t upgrade to the latest new camera releases, apart from the cost, is I feel I am more held back by my own ability and opportunities.  The sequence of Turn shots below were taken using the Sigma lens and Canon Mk IIn, but I had to spend a lot of trial and error watching the Turns movements and practicing keeping them in frame.
TBP_4339 TBP_4340 TBP_4341 TBP_4342


F5.6 1/1600 sec ISO 800


When I first got this lens I thought I would struggle carrying it around as I like to walk a lot and so be portable with any lens and equipment I have.  However, I straight away got a new bag for it – a Tamrac Expedition 7x – and this does a great job of taking away the weight of it and whatever else you are carrying on your back, so I can quite comfortably walk a couple of miles with it, I’m not sure I could do that with the Canon equivalent.  This bag is also great for using as a camera rest (see Starling below) I will also often attach it directly to my monopod and sling it over my shoulder.  One thing I have noticed, because it is a bigger lens and have missed opportunities that I might have otherwise go with the 400 or 300 lenses so the lens isn’t a walk around lens in that way and you really need to be in position, ready to take your photos with this.


Obviously I’ve only had this lens for a year so far although it was second hand, so I don’t know if it will have the lasting power of the Canon, but so far so good.  I have actually dropped it from a short height, luckily it fell onto its lens hood which dented it, but the lens was fine much to my relieve.  I have some covers on it so the complaints of the paint work chipping off hasn’t been an issue for me.  Hopefully I will be getting many years out of this yet as it has taken over my 400mm as the main lens I use.

F6.3 1/1600 sec ISO 1600 Taken lying down resting on my camera bag


F5 1/1000 sec ISO 1600


F4.5 1/6000 sec ISO 400


F5.6 1/1250 sec ISO 1600



Image Quality

I’m most definitely not a ‘pixel peeper’, as it seems you either like the photo or you don’t, but I’ve included an image (Mallard Duck) typical of the ones above, where it was  taken at ISO 1600, 1/1000 and f4.5.  It’s not been processed, so there has been no sharpening or noise reduction.

You can see that, despite being wide open and at ISO 1600 the sharpness isn’t bad and with a bit of sharpening, improves greatly.

Click on photograph below to see the same full size cropped image processed.
Clicking on the image of the Pheasant will give a larger image and shows the detail in the feathers, again at ISO 1600 but stopped down to f5.6 to get a bit more depth of field.

Regarding any other image related issues with this lens, I have not come across any, certainly none that I have noticed but then, as I have said I am not a pixel peeper.  I did feel the colours were a bit warmer but if you don’t like this it is easily changed if you shoot RAW.


x1.4 ConverterIMG_8198

Being able to use a converter on this lens and still get good quality images was a big selling point for me.  Researching online gave me contradicting, mixed opinions.  I don’t know if this is down to the user or the quality of the individual converter or lens so I can only speak from my own experiences. 
The Cormorant photograph right was taken using the Kenko pro x1.4 converter.  It’s also been cropped quite heavily,  as the original was in landscape.  This converter works great with the Sigma lens as it does with my Canon lenses.  It does slow it down, more noticeably when using my Canon 30D but it is perfectly useable, especially with the Mk IIn and even copes with larger birds in flight.  I don’t hesitate on using the converter if it helps and will shoot wide open with it on.
Photograph left – ISO 800, f5 and 1/3200


I’m certainly glad I got this, particularly when I did as it’s now getting out of the price range of many enthusiasts even second hand. 
It’s given me the chance to get that little bit closer to wildlife that I couldn’t with the 400mm lens even with the converter.  With the converter on this, it’s a bonus.  The extra amount of light it lets in at f4.5 makes a big difference compared to what I was used to at f5.6.
Since posting this, I have continued to successfully use this lens and have done a more in depth review here where I have also made some comparisons to the Canon 400mm f5.6 lens.


  1. Hi Frank, I'm glad to see a review of the Sigma 500mm - as you say reviews of, and images from, this lens are few and far between.
    I would like to get a longer lens (my longest is the Canon 400mm f5.6) but the Canon 500mm is well out of my price range and will be even more so once the Mk IIs appear, so I would probably get the Sigma instead. The Sigma's expensive but still more reasonably priced than its Canon counterpart.
    Your images are lovely and are a great advert for the Sigma.

  2. Cracking review sir. Very informative.

  3. Fay, Johnny, glad the review was interesting to you. Fay, you seem to be doing ok with your 400mm. If you find a second hand bargin as I did, it's worth considering.


  4. Hello Frank,

    What about hand holding? Is it any chance?

  5. Hi Dan, yes you can handhold the lens but I would recommend a fast shutter speed of at least 1/800 sec to prevent camera shake as it doesn’t have IS. I don’t use it with a tripod but do use a monopod or other various techniques to keep it steady and feel I can still get good sharp images this way.


  6. Hi Frank,
    I am a pro wildlife photographer living and working in the Brecon Beacons south Wales.
    Have the same set up as yourself mkIIn & 500mm f4.5 sigma. I get cracking and I mean cracking results with this set up using one shot mode but if I change to al servo have real problems with the lens hunting, have you suffered with the same problem at all ?
    Regards Dave

  7. Hi David
    Sorry to hear you've been having problems with your lens hunting but no, I haven't had that problem. I've tried various focusing options but always on servo and the focusing speed has never been a problem especially with the 1d MkIIn. (Works fine with my 30D as well) I've heard it does this with a converter on, but here too I seem to be lucky.

    My worry when I first got this lens was the inconsistancy I'd heard with Sigma lenses and this may be the situation here. I can only think trying it on a different body if you haven't already to see if that has any effect or have it sent to Sigma to be fixed as I don't think it should be happening to you.


  8. Hi Frank,
    Thanks for your reply, the results I get from this lens when set on one shot have been outstanding. I am going to buy the 1D mkIV body, as you say it might be ok on another body,if not might send it off to be looked at as loathed to buy another lens when I know that in every other respect except in al servo mode its excellent.
    I've been out today photographing kingfishers, using kenko converters, with pins taped up and in one shot mode I get good results, maybe I need a quick fix, now where is that hammer ?

  9. Good review. And good lens. I have it and the sigma 300mm 2.8 on Pentax mount. The only problem is the screw drive and Pentax cameras. Not a good professional combo. In my opinion. But the lens is a really good performer.
    Link to photos with 500mm 4.5 and 300mm 2.8 only.

  10. Just bought myself a new Sigma apo 500mm 4.5 and cant wait to get out there and use it, thanks for the review, great images also.

  11. Good lens but less OS system and f/4.5, not f/4. Dammage. Optical quality very good.

  12. Hi Frank, thanks for a great review! I have seen one advertised for £799 and was wondering how this price compared? Although more than I can really afford it might be worth the stretch if the results are so good!? Currently shooting with a Nikon d90 and my main choice of glass is a Nikon 300mm f4 which is superb but just lacks that extra reach!...

  13. You shouldn't be able to get a Sigma 500mm f4.5 for only £799 - it's just too good to be true! You would be lucky to get a used one for less than £2000 now. The 50-500 costs around £799. It's possible it's the much older, none digital 500mm one - check that it has letters such as APO, EX, DG and HSM which relate to the newer model. If it is genuine and you can either try it out and inspect it or it has a guarantee then this is an absolute bargain and too good to pass up, but I think there has to be a catch. Good luck.

  14. Anonymous - you're right, it doesn't have the OS and is f 4.5, but if it did it would be much bigger and heavier. To be honest, if money was no problem I would have the Canon 500mm as well as the Sigma because of its smaller size and weight. The thing about OS is that the kind of shutter speed I need to freeze my subject will probably be fast enough to prevent camera shake - ie shutter speed equal or above focal length. Having said that I would still like the OS.

  15. Great review Frank! I found this very useful and | shall certainly look out for a decent second hand version if I can find one!...

    Many thanks for posting this

    Best regards


  16. Glad you found the review useful Higgy, there's still a few bargains out there with this lens. Keep checking MPB which is where I got mine.

  17. Hi Frank,

    What sort of distance are you shooting these photos from?


  18. Hi Tony

    The distances vary from the Squirrel and smaller birds being within 5 metres to the Cormorant, shot with a converter and must have been 100+ metres or so.