Hands-On: Sigma 100-400mm offers Pro Quality Images At A Budget Price

Shooting on a budget. It’s a tall order, but it isn’t impossible. Take the Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C lens. Pair that with Sony’s Alpha series body and you have an instant solution for shooting distant subjects. Take the image below: Fast-moving subjects in low light captured in hand-held panning with a single object selected for the focus point can frustrate even the most experienced shooter. The fact that I was shooting in silent shutter mode only made the situation more difficult for me because I didn’t know exactly which moments I was capturing.

Tuesday Worlds with Eye-AF.

Challenges aside, this setup handled it with the steady grace of Ginger Rogers. Take a closer look. There’s a cyclist looking into the camera; subject-wise, I hate when this happens as I want to be invisible to the action, but on this occasion, it actually helped. He’s so sharp because the Eye-AF locked onto his face. Pair the camera set up in one of its native functions (like AF-S) with an MC-11 adaptor and I nearly forgot I was shooting a third-party lens.

Sigma 100-400 Tuesday Worlds

It’s easy to drop $5,000, $6,000 or more on a sports shooting setup. And sometimes it seems like all the really good shots are captured with a pro setup. The Sony Alpha paired with this Sigma 100-400mm | C is proof that you can spend less than $3k (A7 III + MC-11 + this lens) and you’ll never again be able to blame your setup for preventing you from getting the shot.

As proof that this lens is meant to perform, it was designed to work with full-frame cameras. Those working with APS-C gear will realize an equivalent focal length of 160-640mm.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been using the 100-400mm | C with an a7R III. I’ve shot everything from bike races to Seattle landscapes, as well as wildlife images like the bald eagles that nest in my neighborhood. Sigma bills the lens as ideal for “travel, wildlife, nature photography and bird photography” because it is both lightweight and compact, making it that much less likely you’ll bang it against something. It’s proven to be very adept and while the affordable price is terrific, because I shoot sports so much, what I most liked about it was how the well-balanced the camera felt with this lens on it, and that made it much easier to follow the action.

The eagle above my house.

Autofocus

Nothing will test the autofocus of a camera as well as a bike race. Tiny figures on even tinier machines moving at the speed of cars will cause many AF systems to go on strike. What I discovered in post with this Sigma was that I had a vanishingly small number of out-of-focus shots. I was shocked by how strong my take was.

To get a bit more insight into how the lens works with Sony, check this video I posted to Instagram.

The promise of Sony’s AF is that it will lock onto a face while continuously focusing and shooting. No pauses while the AF tries to decide what to do with a subject speeding toward the lens. Sure, the Sony 100-400mm G Master is faster, but it’s also significantly more expensive.

With a cheap lens image stabilization can be jerky and can also balk at dramatic movements at slow shutter speeds or in low light. Sure, the Sigma didn’t perform like a lens costing twice as much, but it performed well enough to make the image stabilization strong enough to be a worthwhile feature.

One tiny issue is that the lens doesn’t come with a tripod collar or mount, so any support you use will have to support the camera body instead.

Seattle at night.

Focal Length

The 100-400mm | C has proven to be remarkably versatile relative to my needs. Day-to-day I shoot a lot of landscapes, travel work and cycling/sports. I don’t tend to shoot flying aircraft or distant wildlife. It would be too short for those endeavors. Big ferry in Elliott Bay? No worries. A buck in trees at 200 yards? Not so much. With a 400 percent range, I can choose to shoot an entire group in a bike race, or just zoom in on a single face of one rider. I could bring only this lens to a race and get everything I need. Even for shooting a cityscape, the maximum aperature of F5 gives me all the speed I need.

Shot from above the port with steam from the steel plant.

Build Quality

In a blind test, I suspect many photographers would confuse it with a much more expensive lens. A poorly balanced lens can make a camera hard to handle, causing you to miss a shot. Even the switchgear for the AF modes, stabilizations and custom settings have the feel of a lens costing much more. Barrel movement is smooth; zooming from 100mm to 300mm feels very consistent, but that final 100mm zoom from 300 to 400 is a short distance, making getting that last frame as the subject slips away more likely.

Cherry blossoms in West Seattle.

Image Quality

This lens is at its best in bright sunlight. No surprise there, huh? Arguably the lens’ only tell is that while image quality is exemplary for something in this price range, on overcast days or at great distances a softness will make some images look less than sharp. That falloff in sharpness isn’t huge. In working with RAW files I was able to sharpen each enough to publish them.

As a value proposition, this lens is excellent. When I shot with the fixed focal-length Sigma 135mm | A, the images were astonishingly good, but then that lens cost $1,299. This lens is nearly as high in quality but is less expensive and more versatile.

Sigma 100-400 Shoot

Recommended

This is an outstanding all-around lens for people who like to shoot sports, wildlife or travel. The compromises that allow Sigma to bring this lens in at $700 are so slight as to allow most shooters to feel like they got more than their money’s worth.

If you’re considering moving to mirrorless, this is an excellent lens to pair with the third-gen. Alpha series from Sony.

You can find the Sigma 100-400mm | C at a retailer near you (like Glazer’s, here in Seattle) or online with B&H or Amazon.

The a7 III starting shipping today.

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