Sigma's 120-300mm f/2.8 APO HSM Zoom Lens
Killer Long Zoom At An Attractive Price

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The monster zoom in sheep's clothing. It looks more like an 80-200mm rather than a 120-300mm. The enormous rubber focusing rings are handy, as is the built-in tripod color. The lens ships with a large lens hood (not pictured).

Long, fast, good lenses are expensive. They're also worth it. Whether you shoot sports, live performances, wildlife, people, or just need to reach out into the distance for that perfect shot, a really good telephoto lens is a must.

Every working pro who I know owns a 300mm f/2.8 tele lens. While exotic glass like a 400mm f/2.8 and the monster 600mm f/4 are needed for most pro sports assignments, for general usage I like the 300mm f/2.8. Since I shoot Canon cameras I own their excellent 300mm f/2.8 L lens. It's one of those big white things, and it's sharp as a tack. Over the years I've tried long tele lenses from third-party lens manufacturers, but always found the Canon to be better. Recently I tried a lens that almost seemed too good to be true. It's the 120-300mm f/2.8 APO HSM zoom from Sigma, and it is the first pro-quality zoom lens with both a 300mm top end and a fast fixed f/2.8 aperture.

Pros And Cons Of A Long Lens
One of the great pitfalls of the long lens is when the action gets too close. Every 300mm shooter has thousands of images of large dark blobs in the foreground, when subjects get too close, fill up the frame, and ruin the shot. One solution would be to get a super-zoom, like a 28-300mm. I've always found those variable aperture mega-zoom lenses to be well below the sharpness and color standards that I'm accustomed to from the top pro glass, so I've avoided them. Something about this Sigma seemed very enticing. Decent medium tele, nice long 300mm, fast f/stop--but how good is it? I had Sigma send me one of the first lenses to hit America, and I immediately began using it on assignments.

Racked out to 300mm with the 2x tele-converter bolted on I had a monster 600mm f/5.6 lens in my hands. Aimed straight up into a brilliant sky the Sigma still returned this tack-sharp image.
Photos © 2003 Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

Smaller And Lighter
The most surprising thing about the Sigma is its size. I've used the nice Sigma 300mm f/2.8 APO HSM lens, and this amazing zoom is actually smaller and lighter. The lens is a diminutive 10.6" long without the hood and weighs in at under 6 lbs! How they manage to build this complicated lens (it has 18 elements in 16 groups!) and keep it this hand holdable is beyond me. The finish is Sigma's slick satin black finish, and the huge knurled rubber focus and zoom rings are a nice touch. This lens is equipped with Sigma's HSM (Hyper Sonic Motor) focusing, which is comparable to Canon's USM motor system. It works silently and very fast.

I took the lens out and immediately was troubled by one aspect. The zoom ring was very, very stiff. Stiff to the point that it was tough to turn, and certainly nothing like the ring on my other Sigma zooms. A quick call to Sigma confirmed my suspicion that the very early lenses were set up a bit too stiff by Sigma in Japan (concerned about zoom creep), and they assured me that the problem has been resolved. (I did check out a newer lens at a local pro shop and it felt quite good.) Bolted to a Canon EOS-1Ds digital camera I was greeted with that nice bright viewfinder image, just like my fixed 300mm f/2.8 L lens.

Autofocus was brilliant--the lens banged into focus when pointed in any direction--and focus speeds seemed very consistent with what I had been experiencing with my good older 300mm f/2.8 L lens.

In The Field
I took the 120-300mm with me on a couple of assignments. I used it as a long portrait lens when shooting an executive portrait, and was rewarded with incredibly crisp and sharp images. I took it outdoors and shot birds, and I shot some indoor sports. Frankly, at f/8 and f/11 I could tell no difference between this zoom lens and the best fixed focal length long glass I owned--absolutely no difference. Then again, most pro-oriented glass from any manufacturer will turn in a decent performance at f/8 and f/11.

The true test was wide-open. After all, why do you need a super-fast long lens if not to shoot stuff like indoor sports, rock concerts, and other low-light events?

Off to the arena I went with the Sigma 120-300mm bolted to a Bogen monopod, slung over my shoulder. In order to get great access I hooked up press credentials with a minor league hockey team, the Worcester, Massachusetts, Ice Cats. They're the farm club for the NHL's St. Louis Blues, and I've heard that the quality of hockey in the AHL (American Hockey League) is pretty good. Of course I also brought my Canon 300mm f/2.8 L glass and a few Canon tele-converters, along with an 8 fps EOS-1D digital camera.

The one area that the Sigma can't quite equal the Canon is in eye candy. When you show up at the press gate with a 300mm f/2.8 "L" on one shoulder and a 70-200mm f/2.8 L hanging on another body, you hardly need to flash credentials. There's something about those big white lenses that seems very intimidating. Once I had credentials to shoot an NFL game. When I arrived my name was suspiciously absent from the list. When the guy manning the credential window saw my 600mm f/4 "L" and 400mm f/2.8 over each shoulder he quickly added me to the log, handed off the badge and wristband and I was on my way.

The true torture test. Wide-open, ISO 1000, guys flying all over the ice. The Sigma produced results right up there with the big boys, and autofocus results second to none.

The Sports Arena
OK, so we've got a black lens here, but how good is it? Shooting fast-paced stuff like hockey is tough. Pro hockey shooters rely upon banks of Speedotron strobes hard wired into the arena's ceiling to create brilliant action-stopping images at ISO 100, but I had to resort to ISO 1000, f/2.8 at 1/320 sec. As with any sports shooting, you have to be ready to accept a certain amount of out of focus images, but I was pleasantly surprised at the number of "hits" that I got with the Sigma. I didn't feel that I was losing anything, focus-wise.

After a day of shooting hockey with both lenses it was time to examine the files. At first it was tough to figure out which images were shot with which lens. Eventually I figured out which lens shot which images, and the differences were incredibly small. Yes, the best fixed focal length lenses are sharper wide-open than this excellent zoom lens. How much sharper? Just a little bit. On a big file like the EOS-1Ds, the difference is noticeable. On the EOS-1D, probably not. The last time I did this test it was with the Sigma fixed 300mm f/2.8 APO lens. At that time I felt that the Canon, for my needs, was clearly a better lens, yet here a Sigma zoom was performing seemingly better. How could this be?

I called Tom Sobey at Sigma to report my findings. He confirmed what I had experienced. Sigma's optical engineers have produced a 120-300mm zoom lens that does in fact outperform their fixed 300mm lens. Wide-open I would say that it is noticeably sharper than the old 300mm f/2.8 fixed Sigma lens.

Of course all of this would be for naught if the lens cost upward of $4000. After all, the old Sigma 300mm f/2.8 routinely retailed for $2200-$2500 in America, a very competitive price given the big boys pricing for a new 300mm f/2.8 at well over $4000. Given the quality of this lens and its industry-leading specifications, my guesstimate at the 120-300mm's price was around $2800-$3200. Imagine my jaw dropping surprise when I found out that the lens would have a street price of well under $2000. Wow!

Over the couple of weeks that I used this lens I found that it grew on me. Unlike the big giant 300mm f/2.8 fixed lenses, this sleek, slick zoom lens had many uses, and worked like a champ. It's easily hand holdable, and the included tripod collar makes tripod or monopod shooting a breeze. With 1.4x and 2x dedicated APO tele-converters available you immediately have a 240-600mm f/5.6 mega-zoom available. Clearly this lens is not aimed at the working photojournalist market and is not, in my opinion, quite built to the robust standards of a modern Canon or Nikon 300mm f/2.8.

Then again, neither Nikon or Canon offer a 120-300mm f/2.8 zoom. (Nor does any other manufacturer, for that matter.) That said, I cannot imagine that any photographer, even a pro like myself, would be let down by this incredible bargain of a lens. Over the years I've seen a lot of pros using the Sigma 300mm f/2.8 lens. Now I'm keeping my eye out for the 120-300mm f/2.8.

For more information, contact Sigma Corporation of America by phone at (631) 585-1144 or by visiting their website at www.sigma-photo.com.

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