Review - SIGMA 500/4.5 EX HSM
For a long time I worked with a couple of Sigma long lenses most of them were Zoom lenses, such as the Sigma 100-300/4 HSM (which I still have) and the Sigma 50-500/4-6.3 EX DG HSM. The lenses were good , but I always had the feeling that I needed more reach. So I did some research and it was clear that I would need a fixed-focal Lens. There was not much choice for my kind of budget ( <3.000 Euro). So I ended up with a used Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM for my Canon camera bodies. Meanwhile I shot thousands of images with this Lens and I decided to make a short review of it, as I received quite some questions regarding the lens and its performance.
2. Some facts
The lens weighs around 3.2kg and is 35cm long without the lens-hood attached to it, which makes it very compact and lightweight compared to similiar lenses such as the Canon 500/4L. It fits perfectly into airplane travel-bag, as the ThinkTank Accelarition, and the weight of just 3.2 kg makes it the perfect companion for traveling by air. In the past I traveled with this Lens to the US,Egypt and other countrie within the EU and I never had a problem taking this Lens with me. Another advantage of this Lens is its short focus distance of 4m. This is very helpful for birdphotographers photograhing small songbirds. The Lens has 3 options for focus-limitation:
- 4m - 8m
- 8m - infinity
The Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM also has a 46mm drop-in Filter, which contains a standard clear filter and can also be equipped with a polarizer, which is also shipped with this lens. Recently Sigma introduced a newer DG-Version of this Lens.
3. Image quality
In the last years I shot thousands of images with this lens and I'm still pretty happy with its performance. Iamge quality wide-open at f4.5 is already very good and there is only little improvement when stopped down. In low situations I often use this lens wide open to get a fast shutter speed and a nice and soft background. If there is enough light i mostly end up using this lens at f5.6 to get a little more depth-of-field.
400D - Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM - f.4.5 - 1/125s - ISO400 - Gitzo G410 - Wimberley II - RAW - 100% Crop: no sharpening applied
The bokeh of the Sigma 500/4.5 is very nice. I did quite some shots of shorebirds this year and even there I couldn't notice any problems with the bokeh.
The Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM is equipped with HSM motor, which allows for fast and silent focusing. The Autofocus performs real fast and in combination with my 1D Mark IIn I have had some great results. AF-Acquisation is fast and accurate, even in low light situations. With the help of the AF limitations, AF performance can even be improved. If I photograph a subject at a fixed distance, for example bird on a perch from a hide, I use the focus switch quite often. 4m-8m limitations is the way to go for small songbirds from a hide. Then if I go for bigger birds, such as goose,herons or birds of prey, I use the 8m-infinty most of the time. However, there are sometimes situations where I would have wished for a 6m-20m limitation. For example, I was photographing a Kingfisher from a hider. Its perch was about 7m away, so I set my focus-limitation to 4m-8m which worked perfect, as the AF was blocked to go to infinity. But then there you have a goshawk flying directly towards the hide and you are trying to put get him into focus, but it won't work, as I was limited to 8m. I missed a really nice shot of a goshawk there.
5. Converters and the Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM
Here in Europe 500mm is most of the time still not long enough for birdphotographers. So I end up using the lens 90% of the time with a 1.4x or 1.7x Converter. I have 3 different converters. I have the Kenko 1.4x PRO DG, the Soligor 1.7x DG and the Sigma 1.4x EX APO. When using converters with the Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM, there seems to be a little problem with the AF. Canon camera bodies will have AF until f5.6 and the pro bodies 1Dx until f8. I used with this lens a EOS 40D, 400d and 1D Mark IIn. The lens won't autofocus with neither of this bodies, when a converter is attached, even with my 1D Mark IIn. I read on internet forums that the lens will shut down AF when it recognizes that a converter is attached to it. Why this "feature" is included by Sigma will ever be a mystery to me.
But luckily there are some solutions to this "problem". The first solution would be to use a converter, which doesn't report infos to the camera/body, such as the Soligor 1.7x TC. When the Soligor teleconverter is attached to the lens, the camera will show f4.5 as widest aperture, where it actually should be f7.1 . The second solution is to tap3 the 3 outermost pins on the converter with tape. The image below illustrates how it is done.
I tried this method with the Sigma 1.4x EX APO as well but the performance of the Autofocus was very bad. It took the AF to long and too many attempts until it finally found the desired object. So from my experience I don't recommend to use the Sigma 1.4x TC with the Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM, if you still want to have AF.
AF performance with both solutions is very good. You will notice a small decrease of AF performance when you attach a teleconverter, but overall it sitll works very good. I use the customized Kenko 1.4x all the time and I got some nice flight and action shots with it. When use a converter with the Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM I usually stop down 1/3-2/3 steps to f7.1 or f8. Most of the time I use it at f8 (or f.5.6 as the Exifs will show it with the taped pins). I found the image quality very good when used with converters. Wide open it is a little softm but stopped down a bit overall sharpness will increase. I use it wide open only if there is not enough light to stop down a bit. The image below of the Kingfisher was made wide-open with the Kenko 1.4x PRO 300 DG. I added a 100% crp to the original image to illustrate the sharpness wide open with this converter.
1D Mark IIn - Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM + Kenko 1.4x - f6.3 - 1/250s - ISO800 - MLU - cable release - beanbag
1D Mark IIn - Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM + Kenko 1.4x - f8 - 1/320s - ISO400 - Gitzo - Wimberley II
I just got the Soligor 1.7x and only used it for a couple of times. I haven't really tested the lens with the Soligor 1.7x TC. My first impressions is, that the AF performance is good. I was able to track Short-eared owls in flight with my 1D Mark IIn, the Sigma 500/4.5 and the Soligor 1.7x TC. I will post some images later, when I have tested the converter a bit more.
In the past days I finally had some chance to test the Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM in combination with the Soligor 1.7x TC. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of this combination.
After a couple of "save shots" I tried the combination wide open and when I came home and saw the results on my screen I was really surprised that it performed that well. One thing that I noticed with that combination is, that it takes a very good "long lens technique" to get sharp images. At 850mm you really should go up a little with the ISO to maintain a good shutter speed to be on the safe side. However even with a slow shutter speed at around 1/30s I managed to get sharp images, but my keeper rate was around 10%, which resulted in 5 sharp images.
The shots of the Short-eared Owls were taken from the car and I used my Burzynski window mount in combination with the Wimberley Head. Now that I know that the combiantion of the Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM and the Soligor 1.7x TC performs that well, I will definetely use it more often. With the Soligor 1.7x TC the trick with the taped pins to maintain AF has not to be done. The Soligor 1.7x converter works very well on my 1DIIn and my 400D. AF is a little slower compared to the Kenko 1.4x, but still good enough to get some nice flight shots of short eared-owls.
Then there is another thing with this lens and converters, which quite surprised me. One time when photographing a kingfisher from a hide with 2 friends I got a little bored after 6 hours of shooting and I noticed there were about 7 different converters from us 3 lying around at the hide. So just out of fun and curiosity I put a Canon 2x II, a Kenko 1.4x Pro and another Kenko 1.4x Pro in front of my Sigma 500/4.5 and tried to get some portraits of the Kingfisher which was about 8m away from me. The results really surprised me considering that I used 3!! converters.
1D Mark IIn - Sigma 500/4.5 + 2xTC + 1.4xTC + 1.4xTC - 1/100s - ISO800 - MLU - cable release - beanbag
After reviewing my shots with the 3 converters I was amazed to see the image quality. For close subjects which don't move too much or too quickly I will definetly use my 3 converter combination more often to get some nice portraits or close-ups. I also tried the 3 converter combination with subjects at far distance. The image quality was not amazing but with post-processing I found the shots still usuable considering the circumstances. The shot of the snowy owl was made at a distance of around 400m and the image shows the original frame. To get the bird so close in the frame I had to use a Kenko 1.4x, a Sigma 1.4x and a Soligor 1.7x and with the 1.6 Crop of my 400D I ended up with 2.666mm of KB-equivalent focal lenght, which is quite impressive and with this combination I can keep up with some digiscopers :-).
400D - Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM + 1.4x + 1.4x + 1.7x - 1/25s - ISO400 - MLU - cable release - tripod
The funny thing with this combination is that the lens still will "focus", but it is not usuable. The AF is just bumping back and forth. So manual focus is the way to go here, which is really difficult for a subject so far away like the snowy owl. In those kind of situations I would have wished for a camera with Live-view. The live image with 10x magnification would improve manual focusing a lot here. I think it is slowly getting time to upgrade my 400D.
I will also give short overview of how I handle this lens when shoting. I haven't handheld this lens a lot so far, but the lens is handholdable also for a longer time, at least that is my experience. With the 1D IIn the lens is well balanced and can therefore be handheld quite good. The reason why I don't handhold this lens a lot is the Wimberley WH-200 ,which I use with this lens primarily. The Wimberley Head makes this lens move so smooth and precise that it is really a pleasure to use it.
When working from a car I used to prefer the solution shown above. A beanbag, which is filled with beans or rice, and put on the window of the car. It is a cheap and simple solution and works fine for most of the time. In the last months with extensive photographing from the car I found the Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM not to be perfect for this kind of situation. For stationary and slow moving subjects it works fine but with faster moving subject, such as birds in flight, it es very difficult to get decent shots with the Sigma lens on a beanbag. The reason for this is that the manual focus ring is placed at the center of the lens. So if the lens is put on beanbag the focus ring lies also on the beanbag. Then if you want to follow birds in flight you try to move the lens on the beanbag with the result that the manual focus rings also moves, which directly affects AF and I missed some flight shots because of this in the past, as the focus was always just a little behing or in front of the bird.
The solution to my problem was a special car window mount from Rainer Burzynski, a german offering special solutions for nature photographers. I found his window mount to be perfect as it is the only one on the market which has a level base on it (there is also a cheaper version without the level-base). now I'm able to put my Wimberley Head on the window mount and have all the advantage of the Wimberley when shoting from the car. If I have to drive for a short distance to relocate my car I can just leave the lens in the mount and don't have to put it off, which can be really useful for approaching birds with the car. The window mount made by Burzynski is not cheap it is sold for new at a price between 300-400 Euros, but with a little patience and look on the second-hand market you can find some real bargains. Another possibility would to make something like the window mount from Burzynski yourself. I already thought of making one myself, but I don't have the equipment to do this at the moment, so I made my choice for the Burzynski window mount.
I'm really happy with my decision to purchase the Sigma 500/4.5 EX HSM lens. I think there is no better solution for this price range. The results I get with this lens and also in combination with a teleconverter are great. The reach and performance of this lens have improved my shooting a lot. Sometimes in low-light situation I would have wished for image stabilization to also be able to handhold the lens and be more flexible, but this feature would of course increase the price of this lens.
Review by Sebastian Erras
Images are copyrighted © Sebastian Erras