Sigma 500mm f4.5 review
The official name of the lens is Sigma 500mm 1:4.5 EX DG APO HSM
This is a super telephoto lens mostly used in bird/wildlife or open air sport photography. The field of view is very narrow even on a Full frame camera, from 10 meters only 0.72m on Canon Aps-C cameras 0.45m. It is perfect for bird photography, but needed many distance if we want to photograph people bigger animals or landscape. Other perhaps more serious drawback is the very narrow depth of field. Of course it is very nice for nice blurred background, but if we want more items in focus especially in closer distances can be problematic. See in detail below.
Depth of the field FF m/inch at f/4.5
Depth of the field Aps-C m/inch at f/4.5
The above table shows wide open dof datas. You may say it possible to stop down the lens than the dof is bigger. Yes but for such a lens in my book at least 1/1000s need to stop action, more 1/1600s, and for these shutter speeds lots of light or high iso. But let’s see at f/5.6 (I probably would like to keep the aperture under f/5.6) how the dof table is looking. Now I stop at 100m.
Depth of the field FF m/inch at f/5.6
Depth of the field Aps-C m/inch at f/5.6
This lens certanly not falling in the entry level category, for example if we think about price. The 500mm focal length allows us to make pictures of distant subjects, or fill the frame with little birds. The 4m min. focus distance certainly can be disturbing for someone who haven’t own a supertelephoto yet. It is not a macro lens, the max magnification is only 0.13x. It can be increased with extention tubes and teleconverters though. Perhaps it is possible to stack converters as well to add more magnification.
The lens has two versions (until 2015), I tested the newer version.
Sigma 500mm 4.5 EX DG APO build quality
The lens has a nice build quality with black finish, the weight has a nice balance all along, the lens is not overly front heavy. It is a huge and heavy lens for a usual photographer, but there are heavier lenses out there as well. I am not a small person and perfectly can handhold this lens, but it is not fun especially in longer periods, more like a training or exercise. A monopod is a good idea I think, or we can use the lens from
the car window with a bracket, or with a tripod. The lens has a nice big tripod mount and a separate lens hood. The hood must turn on first, after we can fix with a knob (most such lenses not need to turn on the hood, just place and fix). The tripod mount is very useful handholding the lens. The ultrasonic af is fast, and relatively silent. The manual focus is very nice and can be operated with one finger easily. The focal length feels longer, than 500mm, perhaps because zooms cheating with focal lenths, but I use many long primes as well very often with different converters.
Sigma 500mm 4.5 EX DG APO optical quality
The lens produce sharp, detailed pictures with good contrast even wide open. Usual with lenses that wide open the contrast is reduced, but this is not the case here. I would say the lens fully usable wide open. Stopping down the lens improve sharpness a little. The depth of field is extremely shallow wide open. The level of chromatic aberration is low. To evaluate the sample pictures please consider it were made in an overcast winter afternoon with slower shutter speeds and lots of noise because of too high iso numbers.
Original little cropped both sides Sigma 500mm f/4.5 at f/6.3 overcast weather late winter afternoon in ISO 1600 Canon 30d 1/1000s originally 3504×2336 pixel jpg target is the rooftop mobile antenna about 30-40m distance from the camera.
In my book this is an extremely sharp lens with lots of detail providing potential
3504 pixel resized to 1086
Click to see in 1752 pixel size f/5 500mm
The bright aperture and long focal length creates beautiful bokeh or out of focus blur. Not just at close distances (4m is the closest) but longer distances as well.
Click to see in 1090 pixel f/8 1/640s
Click to see in 1000 pixel Sigma 500mm f/4.5 at 500mm f/4.5 1/800s ISO 3200 Canon 30D
The lens an ultrasonic autofocus which Sigma calls HSM. Unfortunately my Canon 30d has some problem with af function so I make all pictures using manual focusing. It was an interesting experiment. Without magnificated live view it is impossible to see in the viewfinder that the image sharp or not. The manual focus is a joy to use with one finger. With one hand I grab the camera, with the other hand I hold the lens by the tripod mount, and with the same hand I adjust manual focus. My hit rate with manual focusing was under 50%. It showed that autofocus is essential with these lenses especially we want to quickly respond. Otherwise I tested other Sigma lenses with HSM autofocus for example the Sigma 50-500mm and I think practically similar to Canon’s USM.
MTF curve and lens construction
The MTF curve shows contrast and resolution, the higher numbers are better. The highest the performance at the center of the lens after falling down. Best lenses can produce almost horizontal curves which means the performance is the same high level towards the borders of the frame.
I would add a 1.4 TC without hesitation, or omit and go closer. In case you need you can add a TC, it is a very sharp lens.
Alternatives / rivals
The main rival is the Canon 500m f/4 here which is better in many ways but more expensive and more heavy as well.
It represents the ultimate quality in this focal length, and the newer second version is even better (tack sharp at f/4, lighter but more expensive), than the already excellent first version.
The newer more affordable candidates are the Tamron 150-600mm Sigma 150-600mm Sport and Contemporary versions. The Tamron and the Sigma Contemporary
versions are significantly lighter as well (both around 2kg/4 lbs.), than the Sigma 500mm 4.5. The Sigma 500mm big plus is the brightness which is
f/4.5 vs f/6.3 which is appr 1 stop. For an amateur an a budget I definitely recommend the zooms, because price/perfermance wise much better choice.
The Canon 300mm f/2.8 versions are the next option. Sharpest Canon lenses, very good even with the 2x TC.
The weight of the bare lens is around the same or little less, than the Sigma 500mm. Much more versatile, but more expensive as well. Looks for me
a better choice for versatility (300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/4, 600mm f/5.6).
Canon 400mm f/5.6 is also a very strong candidate the absolute best seller in wildlife/bird photography I think. Light, excellent bild, super af, brilliant contrast and colors. Very good with a 1.4 TC as well, but very dark at 560mm, only useful at bright sunlight.
In Nikon mount the Nikon 500mm is also better both versions are very sharp but more expensive and heavy as well.
The Tamron/Sigma 150-600mm is still an option.
The Nikon 300mm with an 1.7 TC is next candidate, which is a wonderful lens but sinificantly shorter. With the 1.7 Nikon TC it is 510mm f/6.7.
Sigma 500mm 4.5 Pros
-Sharp even wide open at f/4.5
-Beautiful colors and contrast
-Lighter than the Canon or Nikon
-HSM ultrasonic drive
-cheaper than the Canon or Nikon
Sigma 500mm 4.5 Cons
-Heavy (nothing to do with it it comes from the focal length and aperture, you can choose a less bright lens which is not as heavy)
-Big (nothing to do, the weight is nicely distributed)
-4m minimum focusing distance
-not so versatile only for birds or wildlife
Bottom line / recommendation
The Sigma 500mm 4.5 EX APO is certainly a very desirable lens, but the competition is very strong in this pricey segment. If you want to have a lens for work I suggest the Canon 500m f4 is instead (both versions). It is more expensive, and more heavy but better in many ways: better build quality, better af, stabilizer, f/4, better with converters, better image quality, and long term compatibility is more safe with Canon cameras. The second version
is pin sharp at f/4. The Canon 300mm f/2.8 and the Tamron/Sigma 150-600mm are also very interesting alternatives. But back to the Sigma 500 f4.5 it is a fantastic lens, with very nice features, dreamy bokeh, nice colors and contrast, the decision is hard because it is not cheap. I think it is little too expensive at least for my wallet. Hard to decide between this or the Canon version which is even more desirable or the 300mm f/2.8 which is more versatile. For many people the Canon 400 f/5.6 is enough on the other hand.
Sigma 500mm 4.5 EX DG APO detailed specification
Focal length: 500mm
Stabilizer: no stabilizer
Personal thoughts: it is more of a tripod lens, because 3 kg is too heavy even with a tiny Aps-c camera to carry it all day. Hand holding a lens is better until 2kg (Tamron 150-600 is exactly on this limit or the Sigma contemporary version, the Canon 400 is lighter). If you move a lot it can be extremely tiring. From a car window it is ok. A monopod is also an awkward thing but helps you not get so tired after several hours of shooting.