The long and the short of it – From 8 to 600mm by Florian Breuer
I had the good fortune of being able to borrow three wonderful Sigma lenses while I co-presented a photographic workshop at Klein-Aus Vista, Namibia, together with Wicus Leeuwner and JJ van Heerden in June 2016. All photos shown here were shot with my Canon 40D, which has a 1.6x crop sensor.
Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM
This is the widest rectilinear lens available for crop-frame sensors, and it can be used to produce wonderfully exaggerated perspectives:
I found the lens a joy to use, as it is relatively small and light, but the bulbous front element requires a bit of care and doesn’t allow filters (at least at it widest settings). The image quality is superb, being sharp across the frame (ok, my tired old 10MP sensor probably doesn’t do justice to modern lenses), and distortion is also quite well-controlled (and easily fixed in post).
This lens is also ideal for landscapes showing big skies, enlarged foreground objects or in tight spaces, such as indoors. I imagine real estate agents must use it, too.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM | Art
This is the first Sigma “Art” lens I have ever used and I was impressed. A solid build makes the lens feel good in the hand, and as expected, the image quality is sensational. On the crop sensor it gives the field of view of a normal lens (ca. 56mm equivalent), so it is very versatile. It can be used, for example, for environmental portraits or street photography, as well as for landscapes, but I was using my other zoom lenses during most of the workshop, so I only really used this lens at night.
One of the main themes of our workshop was night sky photography. As the low light levels stress the equipment to the max it is essential to have a lens which is sharp right across the frame at fully open aperture. I was delighted to find that, with the Sigma 35mm, the stars were pinprick sharp, even at the edges of the frame, at f/1.4.
This shows the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. Due to the long exposure (15 seconds), the stars make little streaks when this is viewed at 100%.
To really bring out the full glory of the Milky Way requires a wider angle of view, so I stitched together 12 exposures into a larger panorama of the Milky Way rising over the mountains:
That extremely bright “star” near the top of the image is actually Mars. In principle I could have gotten a similar view using a single exposure with a wide-angle lens, but what lens can do this at f/1.4? Besides, panoramic stitching allows a much higher resolution than a single exposure – the above image has 48 megapixels, while my poor old sensor only has 10. Of course, megapixels don’t matter if all you do is post on Facebook and print the odd photobook, but the moment you want to print large, stitching together a number of exposures taken with a high-quality lens like the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is a very useful technique. Perhaps next time I’ll try the 20mm f/1.4 lens for this.
Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Contemporary
I won’t deny that I secretly wanted the “Sport” version of this lens, but that wasn’t available and since I ended up shooting this lens handheld in a hurry on many occasions, I was quite glad of its lighter weight.
This lens handles very well and I found the image stabilizer to be very useful, not just when shooting hand-held, but also on a tripod in high wind. My only complaint is minor: the foot of the tripod mount is a bit short, that makes carrying the lens by its tripod collar uncomfortable, unless you have a long tripod plate attached.
Another goal at our workshop was to photograph the feral horses that live on the Garub Plain. This lens was perfect for this. The old saying about wildlife photography is that your longest lens is just a little bit too short. I indeed found this to be the case, even with the generous 600mm, so many of the images below are cropped to varying degrees. When cropping, the sharpness of the lens becomes even more critical, and I was not disappointed.
The above portrait has little artistic merit (sorry!) but shows well the performance of this lens at 600mm and wide open aperture. I have included a 100% crop below to prove my point:
This is really excellent for a “budget” lens. In fact, I am extremely grateful to Sigma for bringing out extremely impressive yet affordable telephoto lenses. This will force Canikon and others to up their game and we all win.
One day we drove to the Koichab River, which forms the Southern boundary of the Namib’s legendary red dunes. The Gemsbok here are occasionally hunted (poached, really), so they are quite skittish, and we never got particularly close. No matter, 600mm goes a long way, especially after the 1.6x crop factor, and we got some nice environmental portraits of these graceful animals.
But 600mm is not the only useful focal length. The big primes might produce the best image quality (at the price of a used car), but zooms give you great versatility to get just the right framing.
Of course, long lenses are useful not only for wildlife, but also for tight landscape compositions and celestial objects, such as the setting sun…
…or the moon.
For fun, I even got a recognisable shot of Saturn with its magnificent rings, though it was barely 20 pixels across, so I won’t show it here.
In conclusion, I am very grateful to Sigma South Africa for lending me these wonderful lenses. I was very impressed by their image quality, solid build and value for money.