Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sport Review

I was drawn to this lens because it is truly unique and was a combination and replacement for other lenses. It was a 300/2.8 prime while maybe replacing a 70-200 with benefits. I have had really bad experience with 3rd party lenses, but was told by many that there is a new Sigma with a dedication to quality.

So I went for it. Buying new with a Sigma USB dock and Sigma's TC-1401 teleconverter brings the price close to what a good condition Nikon 300/2.8 VR goes for - with the benefit of the zoom. I spent a day tuning the lens with the dock (note: a focus tool is really necessary, I used the Datacolor  SpyderLENSCAL). It was a pain in the neck putting the body on, take it off, hook up the dock, then take it off. In the end I was happy I did it.

The Good:

  • f2.8 tele zoom with nice, pleasing bokeh
  • can be sharp at most focal lengths
  • decent AF speed and accuracy with fast AF (auto focus) bodies
  • OS (VR in Nikon speak)
  • customizable (with the Sigma USB dock)

The Bad:

  • bad balance (makes lens feel heavier and awkward to use)
  • CA (purple and green fringe on the wide end)
  • lens collar
  • reverse zoom rotation (for Nikon users)
  • slow AF with certain bodies
  • flimsy case

I've got to admit, the zoom range is pretty useable. I showed up to a tiny polo field expecting to use the TC-1401 with this lens, only to find out the field was about the size of a basketball court - no problem, pop off the TC and I had all the range I needed. It's a decent 300/2.8, but not as sharp as Nikon or Canon's prime offerings (but close) and a little slower AF with my D500 (I never understood why people would buy a f2.8 zoom and talk about how sharp the lens is when stopped down - you pay for 2.8 to use 2.8). However, the AF on the lens without the TC on the D500 was definitely useable for fast action sports. This is difficult to objectively gauge. The first reason being that practically any zoom is going to have a slower AF compared to a prime comparable. Secondly, there isn't another zoom lens in the same focal ranges to compare to. Nikon's 70-200/2.8 VRII is a very fast focusing lens, but the Sigma has a much different range. Furthermore, it is slower with the TC (Sigma's TC1401), but that's a given with any lens and TC combo.

I don't use any OS/VR/IS when shooting sports, but it the optical stabilization was great for shooting stills or wildlife handheld. I loved being able to set the focus limiter for whatever I wanted. I set mine for a custom setting in a range for shooting tennis from courtside. This was an improvement for speeding up the AF.

© 2016
I read other reviews that talked about the balance issue, but I thought it wasn't a big deal. I was wrong. The lens was awkward to use on a monopod because of the shift in weight when zooming in and out. It doesn't sound like much of a problem, but in real world usage, it was for me. This was exacerbated by the reverse zoom direction. I have to wonder why, if making a Nikon compatible lens, with a different mount and AF system, they didn't go "all the way" and make this a Nikon standard zoom direction.

The purple fringe was removable, but I sold some images "off the card" in jpg to clients and the fringe was unacceptable for that. I also read comments about the lens collar. To rotate between vertical and horizontal, there are no "clicks" or stops that let you know when you're parallel. It also is really unsmooth and the collar feels loose when it's open enough to rotate. It's not a good feeling. Shooting sports, I like to be able to swing the lens around quickly, and to do so, felt like the lens might slip out or I was putting a lot of stress on my camera's lens mount.

©2016 Valerie Shoaps
The deal breaker for me, came when I put my D750 on it. The AF was slow, hunting increased and accuracy dropped off. It was so bad, I thought I had done something to the lens. I put the D500 and it was fine again. I tried this several times and in different situations, and it kept repeating. I don't know if this is an testament to the D500's AF, but it just wasn't going to useable for low light sports. One of my intended uses was to have a 400/2.8 prime on my D500 with a monopod, and the Sigma 120-300/2.8 on my D750 slung around my shoulder. This wasn't going to happen. To be fair, I'm trying to come up with a way to turn my D750 into a D5, and I don't think the AF would be an issue then.

My last issue was the case. I expect more from a lens in this range, but the case didn't offer a lot of protection and doesn't stay put when slung over the shoulder. A third party option like the Think Tank Glass Taxi would be a good option.

My conclusion is that this is a good special occasion lens. It's not the magical answer to fill in gaps that I thought it would be. The range on a full frame camera is similar to a 70-200/2.8 on a DX or ASP-C sensor. It definitely has a place, but for me, it's not a primary part of my sports kit at this time. Some people swear by the Sigma 120-300/2.8 Sport, so it's downsides for me, are overcome by others.

Sigma is redefining themselves as is evident with this lens, as well as their Art series of lenses. On the bench and lab, this lens looks great, but in real world sports shooting, it could use a few tweaks. It's an admirable effort on Sigma's part to make such a lens, but it could be so much more with just a few improvements or tweaks. As is, if I find one on the second hand market at a price competitive to Nikon's 70-200/2.8 zoom, I'll be very tempted to buy one again.

I really hope they release another version of this lens as it could be (and currently is for many) a really strong tool in the pro sports shooter's arsenal. Sigma's CEO Kazuto Yamaki has stated that they are committed to developing innovative products (such as their 50-100/f1.8) and this lens, and I think that's going to do great things for them and I'm looking forward to what they create next.


  1. Yeh I'll post a comment. Very different experience with the same camera bodies. On my d750 the lens is very reliable for focus and sharpness and I'm happy to use with both TC1401 and as long as the subject is fairly static(I mainly shoot wildlife/birds) with the TC2001. On my d500 nothing like so reliable. Lots of focus hunting and nice details one shot and soft on the next.
    I also just read another review that had the lens doing well on a Canon 1DX and not well on a 1D Mark IV. Previously to that I viewed some awesome shots with the lens taken at Lodolozi Private Game Reserve in Sth Africa mounted on the 1D Mark IV.
    I should add that I have far less variation with the lighter Sigma 150-600mm C mounted on the D500 than the 120-300mm S.
    My thoughts would be that with the reverse engineering involved in making 3rd party lenses compatible with various camera bodies that it can mean some extra calibrating to make a certain individual lens sharp and focusing accurately with a certain camera body.
    I've got to admit I would love every lens 3rd party or even proprietary straight out of the box to be perfect but alas, this is not the case.
    Even with my d750 I would say if I spent enough time micro adjusting on the Sigma dock there would be improvements.

  2. I spent a whole day tuning the 120-300 with the Sigma dock. I had read tat the proper way to do it, was to finish the calibration at each focal length before moving to the next.

    Nikon hasn't provided an 3rd party lenses with their AFmethods, so Sigma and other companies rely on reverse engineering. It seems like Canon and Sigma play better with each other, but I can't attest myself.