120-400mm F4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM

120-400mm F4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM

Since launch in 2006, Sigma’s 120-400mm OS lens have proved a popular choice for enthusiast wildlife and sports photographers. Richard Kilpatrick looks at what this excellent value telephoto lens has to offer.

Weighing in at 1.75Kg, it’s no lightweight – but compares favourably with similar equivalent focal lengths for APS-C/DC format cameras. As with all Sigma EX DG lenses from this period, it lacks weathersealing but otherwise is built to a very high standard, with nicely textured zoom and focus rings and a solid tripod mount. The lens extends with zooming, allowing a compact 203mm length at the shortest 120mm end. Minimum focus is a useful 150cm, giving a magnification ratio of 1:4.2.
Sigma support using the lens with the 1.4 and 2x teleconverters, though few cameras will allow AF above F8 – at F6.3 wide open for 400mm, if you want the extra reach I’d opt for using the lens on a smaller sensor camera if you’re on full-frame – tested on Nikon, the optical stabilisation and 400mm length combine very well with the 1.5x crop of the D5000 and I still get 12Mp files!
There’s a comfortable 4 stop improvement for stabilisation – though this is not an absolute, as I know people that can shoot handheld for exposures that would be a mass of blur for me. One of the most useful applications of the 120-400 has been travel, where the consideration between the substantial and expensive 300-800mm and the 120-400 with a 2x convertor was rapidly resolved by stories of American TSA employees “losing” kit – if it fits in carry on that’s a huge bonus!
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No macro, but 400mm and a decent magnification ratio let me capture this lizard in the Everglades without getting too close…
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A Crested Heron in the Everglades – this image has had the clarity and saturation improved slightly to compensate for the low contrast of the 120-400; the lens’ only weakness.
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Sunset in the Everglades
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Cricket at the Sigma Lens Day, and a Fuji S5 giving me useful extra reach! In good light, the lens focuses fast and can be stopped down a touch – though it’s far from soft wide open.
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Low light can be something of a challenge, but paired with the high ISO of the D3 and occasionally manually focusing (the Nikon AF sensors need faster lenses to work well, as do most DSLRs currently).
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Freezing the action as performer Preacher helps with making a patio…
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…before indulging in a bit of gardening. The previous three images did not use flash, to avoid distracting the performers, and are hand-held from within the audience.
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For a lens ideal for wildlife, it’s the lack of contrast and bite in this sort of situation that surprises me – easily rectified with processing, but still notable given the competence with which the lens performs otherwise.
Even with the low contrast of the lens, it represents excellent value for the build, range and sharpness it delivers – for the price, it should be high on the list of essential everday lenses for full-frame photographers. For APS-C users Sigma’s 70-300 OS has a more vibrant character and is lighter & cheaper, whilst delivering the equivalent focal length.