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Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM Review

I am a full time commercial photographer who specializes in live performance as well as publicity photography for theatre, dance and music. I originally purchased the Canon 300 to give me extra reach beyond my normal workhorse the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS L II lens. What I found is that without zoom capabilities I used the 300 less often than I had anticipated. At a 4300.00 purchase price the ROI on the lens was very low.

I opted to rent the lens first from LensRentals which has an arrangement with SuperDigitalCity to credit three day rentals toward the purchase of the lens. This “try to buy” program worked best for me since I was contemplating replacing my beloved Canon EF300mm f2.8 IS L lens with the Sigma.

I had NEVER considered a third party lens simply because my livelihood and reputation depends on accurate focus, great color and my images are utilized to promote performances on billboards, magazines and other marketing collateral. My trust has always been with Canon L glass. I had read The Digital Picture‘s review of the Sigma and decided to rent the unit. I have always trusted Bryan’s assessment of gear and it seemed wise to rent to buy before I sold my beloved Canon 300.

I rented the Sigma for five days to cover three separate out of town live performance production sessions. I should note that I did NOT rent the USB dock, but used the lens as it was configured from the rental company.

The primary reason I use a 300mm focal length is to be able to be far enough back in the theatre to ensure that my elevation level is even with the stage. High impact live theatre imagery is achieved by immersing the viewer into the frame and the angle is very important. For some shots I want the viewer to feel as if they are actually on stage watching the performance. I always use two camera bodies when shooting live theatre. One is a Canon 5DIII and the other is a Canon 1DX. I usually have the 70-200 on the 5DIII and the 300 on the 1DX. Since I seldom get to view a performance before I shoot it, being able to quickly switch focal lengths is of utmost importance to me. I am always looking for shots that can be used by a Marketing team as well as for PR. Each has very specific imagery needs.

The first production was for the stage play of Oliver which involves a large cast and lots of dance, a perfect test for the Sigma. I took a few test shots when the stage crew was rehearsing a fight scene to see how the Sigma would track the action. I was shooting wirelessly tethered to my iPad while using my 1DX with a WFT-E6A sending small JPGs to the iPad through Shuttersnich. I was literally shocked at the keeper rate from the Sigma combined with the fantastic image quality. I had also brought my 300 in the event the Sigma didn’t perform as I had hoped. Based on my preliminary shots there was no need to worry or drag the Canon 300 out of my bag.

What I noticed is that Sigma was just a tad soft at the 120mm focal length. Keep in mind I was shooting wide open most of the time, f2.8 in order to keep my ISO below 12800. If you’re thinking ‘wow that’s pretty high’ the 1DX is remarkable even at 12800 AND my subject matter is DANCING both forward and back as well as laterally, not static so a shutter speed of 320 is necessary to freeze action. During times when the talent was not dancing I got as low as 1/60th with the OS enabled and the shots were fantastic. It should be noted I was using a monopod because the Sigma is actually heavier than the Canon 300.

Once I returned to my hotel room and loaded the CR2 files onto my laptop I was in awe. The color saturation, clarity and sharpness of the images was fantastic. Were they as clear as my Canon 300? I’m not a pixel peeper, but yes they were as good and certainly good enough for commercial work. In some cases the Sigma is sharper than my 70-200 Mark II which is saying quite a bit since I opted to buy the Mark II unit to replace my 70-200 Mark I due to its increase in sharpness. There are plenty of reviews online that will show you peepers a side by side comparison, but for my money and work, I can’t tell the difference.

What was SO fantastic was being able to zoom OUT from 300mm. I found myself NOT using my other body with the 70-200 much at all during the session. For very wide, entire stage shots I would use the lens/camera, but MUCH less than I had when only using the 300. What did I HATE? Well the rental unit I had made me wish for the Canon whenever I needed to rotate the lens in the tripod collar. It was as if someone put sand between the collar and lens barrel. It was horrid. More on this later.

Each of the three session I rented the lens for were the same, excellent image quality and range. I decided after the third session that once I returned home I would sell the Canon and purchase the Sigma. Several of my colleagues actually gasped when I told them I’d be selling my beloved 300, but once they looked over the Sigma results they agreed, it’s that good.

I did purchase the lens from SuperDigitalCity and received credit from my rental toward the purchase price. Their units ship directly from Sigma and I also ordered the USB dock, a small purchase at 59.00 for so much flexibility. I had mentioned earlier in this review that at 120mm the Sigma seemed a bit soft with the rental unit. I opted to use the USB dock to adjust my lens at all four levels before I took it out to another client’s session. I am delighted to report that the Sigma is NOT soft at any focal length. Being able to adjust the lens through a computer is genius. The Custom settings 1 and 2 allow me to set for Focus or Speed Priority and I love that feature.

A huge surprise was the tripod collar. As I reluctantly began to rotate my camera from landscape to portrait mode, fully prepared for the ‘sand in my underwear feeling’ and to my SHOCK it rotated as smoothly as my Canon 300! I almost fell over because I had braced myself while turning the camera based on my previous experience with the rental unit. I had removed the tripod collar from the rental unit to see if there was anything I could do to improve the binding, but what I didn’t notice is if the collar had a center section similar to my new unit. The unit I now own has what appears to be a Teflon coating in the middle of the collar which may be the reason it turns so smoothly now. I’m not sure if Sigma made a change to the collar, but I will simply say I am extremely happy that the only gripe I had with their new 120-300 is no longer a gripe!

I will update this review as I see fit and did sell my Canon 300 without any hesitation. I was previously ‘brand conscious’ about lenses and in a way I still am, it now just includes Sigma’s Art level lenses.

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