Review- Sigma 100-300 f/4 EX IF HSM APO

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Review- Sigma 100-300 f/4 EX IF HSM APO

Post by bgorum » July 5th, 2014, 2:37 pm

Review- Sigma 100-300mm f/4 EX IF HSM APO

Some people might call me a bit of a Nikon snob. For many years I only purchased Nikon lenses. In reality my preference for my camera makers own lenses was based on my (bad) experiences with independent brand lenses in the past. However, some of the independent manufacturers, (Sigma especially), have been begun producing higher end lenses that sometimes have specs that are not matched by anything in Nikon’s arsenal. Such is the case with the Sigma 100-300 f4. This lens consistently receives praise from users for both optical and mechanical quality. Unfortunately it is now discontinued, and is only available used.

For the last few years now my longest lens had been a Nikon 300mm f4 AF-s, which you can find reviewed here- viewtopic.php?f=15&t=10960 I like the 300mm f4 focal length and aperture because I think it makes for the best compromise between reach, size, and weight for a lens you are going to hike with. Anything longer or faster is going to end up being a “car lens”. The f4 maximum aperture is fast enough to allow for the use of a short teleconverter (1.4x or 1.7x) in bright light, something that really isn’t an option with the popular 70-300 f4-5.6 zooms. The Nikon 300 f4 AF-s was a near perfect lens optically. The only shortcoming I ever found with it was that it performed poorly on the Nikon TC-17e with subjects further than about 30 feet away, (closer subjects were nice and sharp though). I took a lot of good pictures with that lens, but for my way of working it had one flaw- it was not a zoom! I really do prefer working with zoom lenses. I like the ability to compose precisely from a particular vantage point, so I took a leap of faith and replaced my Nikon 300mm /f4 with the Sigma 100-300 f/4. This meant the Sigma had some mighty big shoes to fill!


The Sigma lens is almost exactly the same length and weight as the Nikon lens was- about 9 inches and a little over three pounds. It is just a little larger in diameter, taking 82mm filters as opposed to the Nikon’s 77mm. Unfortunately the Sigma lens does not focus quite as close as the Nikon did. The Sigma focuses to about 6 feet for a reproduction ratio of 1/5 life size, whereas the Nikon achieved a little better than ¼ life size at a distance of just under 5 feet. I find that to be a real issue from time to time while working with small lizards. The Sigma 100-300 f4 features an internal focusing motor which Sigma calls HSM and which is basically the equivalent of Nikon’s AF-S motors. The Sigma motor is quiet, maybe even quieter than the motor in the Nikon lens was, but seems just a touch slower. I mentioned earlier that I had shied away from non-Nikon lenses in the past because of previous bad experiences with independent lenses and unfortunately I’m having some of those now with this Sigma lens in regards to focusing.

ImageGorum_140525_2490 by bgorum, on Flickr
(Male Side-blotched Lizard, Sigma 100-300 f4 + Sigma 1.4x + Kenko 36mm extension tube, 360mm, 1/250th second @ f/11)

The first issue I had was that I was getting pictures that were not as sharp as I had hoped for and so I immediately suspected back or front focusing. These types of focusing errors are really not that big a deal, some of my Nikon lenses have them as well and recent cameras (like my D7000) allow for corrections to be set for individual lenses. The first step I take when trying to diagnose focusing errors is to auto-focus the lens in live-view mode. Live-view uses a different kind of auto-focus (called contrast detection) which is not susceptible to back or front focus like the phase-detection AF used when we shoot using the viewfinder and mirror to view the image. When I went to test the Sigma I found that it would not auto-focus in live-view mode! I have a second Sigma lens (150 macro), and when I tried it I found that it also will not AF in live-view. I was able to test the Sigma lens by focusing manually in magnified live-view, but I would like to occasionally shoot some video with this lens and I’ll have to do that without benefit of auto-focus, which really kind of sucks. I did a little research and found that this problem seems to be limited to newer Nikon bodies. People using D300s, (a camera produced at about the same time as the lens), report no problems with live-view AF. Just one of the hazards of buying a lens that has been backwards engineered to work on your camera I guess. It’s rumored that a firmware update may be available to address this problem, but I’ve not tried sending my lens in yet.

When I bought my 100-300 f/4 I also purchased a Sigma 1.4X Teleconverter EX APO DG. I tested for focusing errors with the lens used alone and for the lens/teleconverter combination. Both cases required adjustment and each case required a different amount of adjustment. Again this is not unusual- my Nikon 300 alone required no adjustment, while the 300 plus 1.7x combo did require adjustment. The issue is that for some reason my D7000 can’t tell the difference between the zoom used alone and used with the converter. That means I can’t store different offsets for the lens alone and the lens with converter and have the camera automatically apply those offsets. With my Nikon 300 and converter the camera recognized the lens alone as a 300mm f/4 and the lens/teleconverter combo as a 500mm f/6.7 and would automatically apply the required offsets. Not sure if the rumored firmware update will deal with that or not. It’s worth noting the most recent Sigma lenses can now be connected to a USB dock that allows the user to adjust for focusing errors at several different focal lengths and focusing distances. That seems like a really useful and sensible feature to me, but unfortunately is not an option with this lens.

The final focusing issue I’m having with this lens is that it occasionally just refuses to AF at all. Sometimes turning the camera on and off will restore AF, sometimes removing the lens and remounting it will restore AF, and sometimes I’ll just have to spend a day focusing manually, only to have the lens AF perfectly the next time I take it out.

The Sigma 100-300 f/4 comes with a removable tripod collar (model number TS-21) that has a nice low profile and is quite steady when locked down tight. One of the coolest things about the tripod collar is that it is the exact same collar used by my 150 macro and several other Sigma lenses. Other collars are available for the lens as well if you want something with a hand grip or more clearance between the bottom of the lens and the tripod head. Personally, I prefer the lower profile designs like the TS-21. The only down side to the collar is that the lens does not rotate smoothly within it. In fact the rotation is downright stiff! All in all though, I think Sigma could teach Nikon a thing or two about designing tripod collars.

However, Nikon could teach Sigma a thing or two about designing lens caps! The supplied front lens cap is a center pinch design like recent Nikon and Tamron caps, but the tension on the lens cap is so light that it easily pops off inside of my camera backpack. If you should happen to drop the lens cap in the dirt then good luck, the mechanism is easily jammed by even a bit of grit. Similar caps from Nikon and Tamron that I’ve used are much more robust and stay on the lens much better. The rear cap is equally frustrating. Unlike rear caps from Nikon or any of the third party suppliers which can be quickly and easily put on without even looking, the Sigma cap will only mount to the back of the lens in one position, (when you line up an indented dot on the cap with a red dot on the mount of Sigma lenses or a white dot on the back of Nikon lenses). Nitpicking? Not really, fumbling with the rear cap while trying to change lenses in the field can cost you picture opportunities or even result in damaged equipment. Of course the solution is easy, replace the lens caps. (Tamron makes a very good center pinch cap in 82mm size for about $10).

The lens comes with a very nice and long bayonet lens hood, which can be mounted in reverse for storage. Both focus and zooming are internal, so the lens never changes its physical length. There is no focus range limit switch on the lens, which is fine with me since I never use that sort of switch on my lenses that do have it. The focus ring is at the front of the lens and when you focusing manually nearer is to the right, while farther is to the left. Both of these movements are opposite of my Nikon lenses, which is a minor frustration at times. The lens seems to be very solidly built, easily on a par with higher end Nikon lenses. It has an aperture ring, so it will work with manual focus Nikon film cameras.

ImageGorum_140215_0307 by bgorum, on Flickr
(Black-tailed and Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes layin out at a den, Sigma 100-300 f/4, 250mm, 1/250 second @ f/8)

Used on its own, (no teleconverter), the lens is sharp. Unlike the popular 70-300 f4-5.6 lenses this lens is just about as sharp at 300mm as it is at shorter focal lengths. It’s even sharp wide open at 300mm! If you pixel peep then the Sigma 100-300 wide open at 300mm is not quite as sharp as the Nikon 300 f/4 AF-s wide open, but its sharp enough. Stop it down to f/5.6 and it’s hard to see any difference between the two lenses as far as resolution goes. The contrast is lower than that of the Nikon lens however. I find the same thing with my Sigma 150 macro. Resolution is outstanding, but contrast is flatter than with Nikon macros I’ve used. Fortunately the lack of contrast can be compensated for by using the clarity slider in Lightroom or by using unsharp mask with a very small amount and very large radius in Photoshop or other image editing program. The lens seems very resistant to flare. The long lens hood no doubt helps, but even shooting pictures of the sun has produced no ghost or veiling flare.

ImageGorum_140520_2407_8_9 by bgorum, on Flickr
(Sunset, Sigma 100-300 f4, 125mm, f/5.6)

Adding the 1.4x converter changes things a bit. Wide open at f/5.6 or even stopped down to f/8 the sharpness of the Sigma 100-300 and Sigma 1.4x never quite matches what I got with the Nikon 300 and Nikon TC17e. That’s not to say that the quality is terrible, but if you pixel peep it is clearly not as good as I was used to getting. By f/11 the Sigma 100-00 plus 1.4x is pretty dam good, but then again, most lenses are pretty dam good by f/11! It is entirely possible I am still experiencing some focusing errors with the converter. I also get considerable amounts of chromatic aberration with the converter. Lightroom does a nice job of eliminating much of the color fringing, but I suspect CA may be responsible for some of the lack of sharpness I’m seeing with the converter. I should also note that my lens is an older one that does not have the “DG” designation. Sigma claims that DG lenses have special coatings designed to optimize them for use on digital cameras. Perhaps a DG version would have less CA than mine does.

ImageGorum_140609_2849 by bgorum, on Flickr
(Prairie Rattlesnake, Sigma 100-300 f/4 + Sigma 1.4x, 420mm, 1/20th second @ f/11)

So what’s the final verdict? As a 100-300mm f/4 the lens is hard to fault optically. It appears very well made and the focusing issues I’m experiencing may not apply to other camera models. It will certainly outperform the more common 70-300 f4-5.6 zooms and can even hold its own against fixed focal length 300mm f/4s. With the 1.4x, as a 140-420 f/5.6, it’s usable, but not great. I think zoom lenses may be optically too complex to really work well with converters in most cases. While I’ve never used one myself, it’s hard for me to imagine that an 80-400 or similar zoom wouldn’t be at least as good as the 100-300 plus 1.4x.

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Re: Review- Sigma 100-300 f/4 EX IF HSM APO

Post by chrish » July 5th, 2014, 8:04 pm

Excellent review once again Bill. Thanks.

I might mention that the non-HSM versions of this lens are also quite good and can be found quite cheaply.

The Tokina 100-300 f/4 is a similarly good off-brand lens.

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