A recent article on a popular Nature Photography forum about the new Nikon 600mm prime really drew my ire when he dismissed the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary and Sport (as well as the Tamron version) as “entry level” wildlife lenses. I have used the Canon prime 600mm so I can very easily compare the quality of these types of lenses…so here goes.
Let me first say that old version or new versions of the Canon & Nikon 600mm primes are extremely fast and sharp. How do I know this? When I was buying the Sigmonster…..aka the Sigma 300-800mm, I tested it against a Canon 600mm prime. That was about 10 years ago and Canon has since replaced that lens with a newer version that was 3 lbs. lighter, I chose the Sigmonster for its versatility. While the acquisition speed was a hair, and I do mean hair, slower than the prime 600mm I felt the sharpness was equal and as many of you who have seen my images can attest……very sharp. I can’t hide when my images are projected 12’ or bigger (They were on a movie screen at the Optics event) and not one person has ever come up to me and said they weren’t sharp. The Sigmonster cost $6,400 at the time and the Canon 600mm f/4 was $7,900, which is about 24% more.
Fast forward to late last Year when Sigma announced the two versions of a 150-600mm f/5- 6.3 lens. A Totally weather sealed Sport version for those who will be out in the elements for around $2,000 and a lighter Contemporary version that would be around $1,089. What’s the difference? The contemporary is only sealed at the front and back sections while the Sport is totally weatherproof. The contemporary is two pounds lighter at 4.3 lbs. as compared to 6.3 lbs. for the Sport. The sport has one extra high performance FLD glass element and the front element is 105mm compared to the 95mm of the contemporary. But how does that translate into performance? Big brother….aka the Sport is slightly faster than little brother…..aka the Contemporary. Not a huge difference but as someone who has used both extensively now, noticeable. Sharpness in the center was to my eye, identical, with the Sport having better sharpness at the edges. I have both lenses now but normally choose the Sport because as many of you can attest to, I treat my gear poorly leaving it on the ground, floor of the truck during tours, etc. I have no issues with the Contemporary and like using it when I know I will be hand holding for a long time and the weather isn’t threatening.
Many of you may not know, that I did 2 head to head lens tests for Sigma (actually 3 now J )…because of my belief that these lenses are as sharp or sharper than the offerings from Canon or Nikon. First, I put up the Contemporary versus the new Canon 100-400mm lens and you can see the results here. Next up was the Sport versus the Canon 200-400mm lens with the built in 1.4TC and you can see my blog here. Remember, in this one, I gave the speed and performance edge to the Canon. What was shocking and a bit disturbing given the $9,000 higher price point was that the sharpness test loss by the Canon “L” glass. How could this be? Marketing? I have a theory about zombies…but let’s get back to the fast prime offerings from both of the big boys.
I am now chomping at the bit to get my hands on the two new 600mm primes from canon and Nikon and put it up against the Sigmonster. This sounds like throwdown #6. The Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 currently costs around $8,000. This represents a 25% increase over the 10 years. Canon’s newer version 600mm f/4 prime is currently advertised at $11,499 (from a recent high of around $13,000) which still represents an almost 45% price increase in that same 10 year span. Nikon’s new 600mm f/4 prime is coming in at $12,300. I do not know the price it was 10 years ago but imagine it is up substantially percentage-wise as well. Are these lenses the only way to be a wildlife photographer? Can only the people who can afford to spend this much able to be “pros”? The simple answer is: not anymore! The introduction of these 2 new Sigma tele-zooms is fundamentally changing the accessibility of wildlife photography but for now, let’s compare the Sport to the 600mm prime offerings and why I am so excited about what this means to all of you.
Let’s first talk about speed and performance. I give that to both the 600mm f/4 primes…old or new (and I haven’t tested the new Nikon 600mm!) as well as the Sigmonster. How can I do that? Easy, they are… but not Mt. Everest faster… more like rolling hill faster. There is no doubt in my mind these are quality pieces of glass but the build quality of the Sport matches it or exceeds it in every way. 99% of the wildlife photographers out there will not be hand holding the new 600mm prime offerings even though they are substantially lighter than their predecessors. The Canon weighs in at 8.64 lbs. while the new Nikon comes in at 8.4 lbs. Impressive… but still not hand-holdable. At 6.3 lbs. the Sigma 150-600mm Sport weighs over two pounds less that the primes and I believe that about 50% of you will be able to hand hold it. Both of the 600mm primes are over 17 inches long. You think it’s easy to get on a plane or travel with those lenses? With the airlines getting much stricter in regards to carry on luggage, the Sigma’s 11.4-inch size would be a breeze to put into a small backpack and get onto even a small commuter jet. As always, it is also about the sharpness.
I am not going to go out and rent or borrow the two primes to do a throwdown. Why? As primes, I think they would be sharper. There…I said it. But by how much? When I look at my images from when I used the old and new Canon 600mm prime for comparison….not a whole heck of a lot!!! The images would have to be side by side and in a blind image comparison, I would bet that most people would be guessing and get it wrong. It would be like flipping a coin and calling heads or tails. How do I know this? Because when I have let my Canonite friends try the Sport, the phrase Holy S**t it is sharp has been uttered more than a few times and same with my Nikonian friends.
So why my ire with the author of the Naturescapes article? Simple. The travel friendly size, build quality, long reach, performance, combined with a price that most people could reasonable afford has opened up the world of wildlife photography to everyone…..pro or otherwise. The performance closely compares to that of the 600mm primes for a fraction of the cost. Try taking the primes on a kayak. Let’s not forget that you get one focal length for the approximately $10,000 more you will be spending on their primes! I am a fulltime working pro and would gladly put up the Sport up against the 600mm primes out in the field when it comes to image quality. Both of these lenses are game changers and I don’t consider either “entry level” gear. They are performance and optically competitive to the primes and will open up the doors to a new generation of wildlife photographers. You don’t need to spend a fortune today (unless you want to) to get into the game and the belief that the fast primes are the only way to go…. is antiquated. $10,000 is real money to most people all for a slight performance boost. Remember, a label or gear size doesn’t make you a better photographer and these aren’t your fathers’ zoom lenses!