Sigma 150mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO Macro – Guest Review by Florian Breuer
There are a lot of macro lenses out there, what makes this one stand out from the crowd? Sharpness? Of course it’s sharp – tack sharp. But then again, pretty much all macro lenses are sharp, and my poor old 10 megapixel sensor won’t be able to distinguish between them. The focal length is a bit unusual – most macros are in one of three focal length ranges: 50-60mm (“normal lens” range), 90-105mm (short telephoto) and 180mm (telephoto). The longer lenses typically have the advantage of a longer working distance, which is important when photographing shy insects, for example, but they also blur out the background more effectively, which is just as important.
The downside is that longer macro lenses are heavier and more expensive. At 150mm this lens is a little shorter (and thus lighter) than the biggest ones, but the working distance is still pretty good, especially because the lens is physically relatively short (the working distance is measured from the sensor to the subject, so a physically smaller lens gives you a greater distance from the front element to the subject). This lens has the added benefit of internal focussing, so it doesn’t extend as you focus closer.
The handling is generally superb. It is not too heavy, but feels rock solid, and you can always use the focus ring for manual focussing without needing to switch to MF mode. This sounds trivial, but I often combine autofocus with manual focus adjustment, and I appreciate not having to fiddle with a switch. The autofocus is quick and silent.
The F/2.8 aperture is pretty impressive for such a long lens, and allows for a paper thin depth of field, especially at short focussing distances. Alternatively, this lens can come in handy during weddings or for portraits. This, combined, with a butter-smooth bokeh (i.e. smoothness of out of focus regions) makes for very pleasing images.
So the fundamentals are spot on, but the headline feature must be the optical stabilisation. This is quite hard to implement in a macro lens, since it must compensate not just for rotation but also translation movements. I found this to be extremely effective – it makes it possible to shoot macros hand-held in normal light. The precise adjustments needed in macro work take ages on a tripod, where one must constantly shift legs, adjust knobs or fiddle with complicated (and expensive) macro rails. Doing away with the tripod means that you get to try out far more angles and compositions, and macro photography becomes much more fun and productive.
So much for the features. How did I experience this lens in real use?
I was lucky enough to borrow this lens for this year’s Overberg photographic workshop, hosted by Wicus Leeuwner and JJ van Heerden. The Overberg is beautiful in spring, and the main attraction is the wheat fields before, during and after harvest. This, however, requires agreeable weather, which cannot be guaranteed in spring, so the organisers wisely added a special macro theme this year. So for one overcast day, the incomparable Nicole Palmer joined us to hone our macro skills.
An experienced teacher, Nicole infected us with her enthusiasm and encouraged us to experiment and break free from our usual habits. Soon, a dozen or so photographers got to work on a roomful of flower bouquets, sticking their lenses right into the flowers, deliberately vignetting parts of the image with washes of colour. There was much shifting of tripods, but thanks to the optical stabilisation, I did the entire shoot hand-held. It was a completely foreign experience for me, to get sharp macro shots at 1/20th of a second.
Over the next few days I kept going back to this lens, trying out different things. A visit to a graveyard in Hermanus depressed me, so I instead sat down next to some vygies and photographed the bees servicing the flowers. Here, the focal length turned out to be useful, giving a generous working distance so the bees could go about their work undisturbed.
Finally, remember that long lenses are also well suited for tight landscape compositions. And if you break the standard rule that says that in a landscape everything must be in focus, you can sometimes get surprising results. Of course, this could also have been shot with other long lenses, but I don’t have anything longer than 55mm with an F/2.8 aperture, so here the macro was the best choice for me.
Finally, I’d like to thank Sigma South Africa for loaning me this wonderful lens. Everything about it is right: the image quality, working distance, aperture, handling and, above all, the very effective optical stabiliser.
Have a look at Florian’s excellent blog where he discusses his photography and techniques.