Sigma’s APO MACRO 150mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM; It’s A Macro Lens—Wait—It’s A Portrait Lens!

While searching for a new portrait lens I saw Sigma's APO MACRO 150mm f/2.8 on their website. But wait, you say, this is a macro lens, not a portrait lens! Here's my thinking: Any portrait photographer out there worth his light meter will gladly extol the virtues of a long, fast lens for portraiture. The reasons are simple--limited angle of view to get rid of distracting backgrounds; wide aperture to throw said backgrounds way out of focus; pleasing perspective; and the telephoto compression effect caused by substantial distance from the subject. It's a combination that's hard to beat. And when combined with all the other variables that make up a good image (lighting, posing, exposure, brightness range, etc.) the resulting images can be quite impressive. With that in mind I decided that the Sigma APO MACRO 150mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM ($810, MSRP; $600, street price) was worth a shot. But first some explanation of all those impressive abbreviated terms might be in order.

Just to be sure I didn't miss anything, I checked out the specs at: To dissect things, APO means it uses special low-dispersion glass to minimize color aberration. If you're reading this, you know what 150mm and f/2.8 mean, so let's move on. EX means it has a fancy finish and pro build quality. DG means it can be used on film, full frame, and other digital cameras. HSM is the fast and quiet Hyper Sonic Motor. Got all that? Great, now let's see how it all works and why I find this lens so appealing.

This is a full frame lens (coverage on 35mm and cropped image circle on most digital cameras) so on my Nikon D200 it became, effectively, a 225mm lens. Hold off, you might say, isn't that a little long for day-to-day portrait work? True, but I've been itching for a long, fast lens to give me that great compression effect, narrow angle of view, and backgrounds as soft as marshmallows. This one does the trick. Throw in the fact that it's a macro and comes with a tripod collar (which I immediately removed) and you've got a little bonus. Let's see how things worked in the field.

(Left): To show the difference a long lens makes, this comparison image was taken with a 75mm lens at f/2.8. (Right): This is the look I get with the Sigma 150mm lens. I moved back to get about the same image size, but look at the difference in the background! (Model: Alecia Johnson.)
All Photos © 2006, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

Outdoor Shooting
I took outdoor portraits. I shot flowers. I photographed at noon, at dusk--all over the place. I never went over an ISO of 200. I never closed the lens down past f/4 in outdoor shooting. The lens delivered beautiful, sharp images with the obliterated backgrounds I love. The lens has a wonderful kind of "fuzzy" finish that is very comfortable and has a wonderful tactile feel to it. The HSM focusing is fast, quiet, and deadly--the Hyper Sonic Motor is really fast, almost silent, and very accurate. At 31.6 oz, the lens is not a lightweight but is still small enough so I can carry it on my camera all day without complaint.

It also has three settings for focusing--a "full" setting that uses the entire range from 1:1 to infinity, and two other settings that limit the focusing range as you get closer so the lens isn't wasting travel time trying to find accurate focus. This is a common feature in AF macro lenses.

I don't know what this flower is, but it sure is pretty! Who says flowers must be taken at f/16? This was taken handheld at ISO 200 at 1/180 sec at f/2.8, no adjustment to file.

I used the lens on several outdoor sessions with high school seniors. With an effective focal length of 225mm, getting the look I desired was not a problem. The only drawback with my APS-C sensor size D200 was the working distance, which also precluded using this lens in the studio for anything other than a tight headshot. Of course, to get the soft background look the distance is a requirement, so after a while I became quite proficient at hollering at my subjects and it became fun directing from a distance. A plus is the fact that you can take really tight headshots without getting in your subject's face.