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Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 II EX DG MACRO HSM Review

Reviewed by Ron Risman -- June 2009




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Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 II EX DG MACRO HSM Lens Review

Introduction

The Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 II EX DG MACRO HSM lens was introduced in 2008 and had replaced the Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG MACRO HSM lens. While the two lenses look virtually identical in spec, the new "II" version of the lens adds a third ELD glass element to provide for enhanced correction of all types of aberrations as well as other optical improvements. The new lens is also available for virtually all DSLR mounts including Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Four-Thirds format, Sony, and Pentax models that support the KAF-3 mount. Pentax camera's that do not support SDM lenses will still work, however the HSM auto focus system will not.

The lens is compatible with all digital SLR sensor sizes including full-frame. When shooting full-frame the lens will perform as advertised with a 70-200mm zoom ratio. When used on DSLR's that feature an APS-C size sensor you have to factor in the crop factor which for Canon is 1.6x and 1.5x for Nikon. This means the lens will perform as a 112-320mm on those Canon models and a 105mm-300mm on those Nikon models.

Lens manufacturers love to include a bunch of letter abbreviations in their product names so I have created a brief Sigma dictionary of terms used for this particular lens.
  • APO: APO Lenses from Sigma have been made using special low-dispersion (SLD) glass designed to reduce color aberrations.

  • EX: Sigma EX lenses have a black matte finish to them and is supposed to "denote a superior build and optical quality, and to enhance its appearance." Canon's all white lenses definitely standout and say "professional" since they don't match the typical black of most consumer lenses, but I happen to like the matte finish of the Sigma EX lenses. I have read that it shows more dirt (as black usually does), but I never had that problem in the 6 weeks that I used the lens.

  • DG: Sigma DG lenses offer large-apertures, wide angles and short minimum focusing distances. They also feature a lot of peripheral illumination making them ideal for both Digital SLR's nd traditional film SLR's.

  • HSM: (Hyper-Sonic Motor) - Denotes that the focusing motor in this lens uses ultrasonic waves to provide a quiet, high speed Auto focus.

  • MACRO: This lens was designed for close-up or macro photography

For macro photography, the Sigma lens features a minimum focusing distance of 39.4" (1 meter) and when used at full zoom offers a 1:35 magnification (for macro this basically means an object that is 1" wide will appear .3" wide at the minimum focusing distance). This is compared to the 51" minimum focusing distance of Canon's EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Lens and the 54 (M) - 57" (AF) minimum focusing distance of the Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED lens, which consequently has a 1:6.1 (objects appear 6x smaller than life size). Of course, the Nikon and Canon models do not have a macro feature so the magnification is only mentioned for comparison purposes.

Ever since purchasing the Canon 5D Mark II I have been on a search for a couple of high-quality lenses that would supplement the 24-105mm that I purchased along with the camera. A few of the lenses that I already own were either not compatible with the 5D's full-frame sensor (Sigma 10-20mm) or just weren't up to the image-quality standards that I wanted to use on this 21.1-megapixel camera (Canon 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6). This search for a new lens has been incredibly challenging since technically no lens is great at all focal lengths and/or apertures, and each lens review I read spends so much time pointing out these flaws that I inevitably put my credit-card away until I can spend even more time researching the 'perfect' lens. After giving this last line more thought I have realized that what I really want is the perfect lens for MY needs, and that comes down to how the images actually look on screen and, more importantly, in print. Bar graphs and resolution charts really serve to confuse and tend to divert our attention away from the actual image quality. It would be like buying a TV, sight unseen, based solely on the specifications.

After talking to Sigma, they kindly sent their new 70-200mm f/2.8 for me to test out for a few weeks. The lens seems to have quite a large user base and a lot of favorable user reviews. I have also used Sigma lenses in the past and have been very happy with their product and service and, more importantly, the lens sells for about $500-$600 less than the comparable lens from Canon. I am all for saving money, but the savings is really only a value if the image quality matches what I expect to get from the lens - and my expectations are pretty high.

In this review I will be posting both small versions of images that I've shot with the lens, along with both a full-size 100% crop of a section of the image as well my thoughts on how the image looked on screen vs. how the image looked in print. All prints will be judged based on an 11x14" image size as I found this to be just slightly larger than the most popular size for enlargements, which is the 8x10". If a print looks great at 11x14" it will look as good or better at smaller sizes.

If I can stray from the review for a second I'd like to comment on something that I found myself doing quite a bit and I know a lot of you do as well. We visit other photographer's website's, see their relatively small on screen images and then start to compare our work against how fantastic their work looks. All their photos look sharp, vibrant, and properly exposed - then we look at our images out of the camera and start to wonder what we're doing wrong. Do they look soft, over- or under-exposed, and/or grainy? Well here is something to keep in mind: their out-of-camera pictures often do as well.

Many of the images you see online work BECAUSE their small. Taking a 13-megapixel (4400x2954) image and resizing it to 640x480 helps to hide a lot of its flaws. On top of that many photographers will tweak the image a bit (or a lot) to enhance contrast, color, and to reduce low-light grain or noise. Even an image that is somewhat blurred can still look great on a web page. Take a look at the image below. It was shot handheld at only 1/40th sec. @ f/2.8 with a 135mm focal length using the Sigma 70-200mm lens. The ISO was set fairly high at 2500, which allowed me to use the 1/40th shutter. Full size this image has a lot of motion blur due to the slow shutter speed, but when reduced for this page it looks very good. Take a look and compare for yourself.




Compare to the larger 13-megapixel version


First Hands-on Experience

I first started testing the Sigma lens during a model shoot in Vermont, where I photographed five models in a variety of locations and lighting. The Sigma 70-200mm stayed on the camera most of the day and the overall results were pretty good. Colors were rich, background blur (bokeh) had a pleasing look, and details were fairly sharp - though not always in the areas that I thought I had locked focus on. I wrote it off at the time as user error, assuming that I had likely locked focus in a different part of the scene and then re-framed the shot before pressing the shutter button. With portraits I need the face area, especially the eyes to be crisp and sharp as well as the hair around the face. I just wasn't getting that in many of my shots. I was also shooting wide open (f/2.8) which meant the focus area ( from front to back) was going to be very shallow, leaving little room for error.

It dawned on me that the lens might be front or back focusing, which would explain why many of the images were not in focus in the areas I expected. I decided to do a focus test to see whether it was me or the lens that was causing this soft focus problem. After doing a google search I discovered Jeffrey Friedl's Blog that had great instructions on testing your lens. Since the instructions are on his blog I won't go into detail here, but ultimately I discovered that the lens was definitely front focusing - which means when using auto focus the lens was actually focusing in front of the intended focus point.. In the past this would have meant sending the lens into the manufacturer to have them service the lens, but today many of the newer DSLR models offer a way to compensate for this front or back focusing issue.

On the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 50D there is a custom function (AF Micro adjustment) which allows you to micro adjust the focus up to 20 stops backwards (+20) or 20 steps forward (-20). Through trial and error I discovered that the lens needed a +18 adjustment (the max. is +20) and after being satisfied with the results I was ready to continue with capturing images for review.

    Camera's that allow micro-adjustments for lens focus Canon 1DIII, 1DsMkIII, 5DII, 50D, Nikon D3, D3x, D300, D700, Sony A900, Pentax K20


Vermont Photo Shoot:

The 100% cropped images below are un-retouched from the original RAW files. The reduced-sized images on top are there to provide you some context as to where the 100% cropped areas came from. I have the sharpening feature on the Canon 5D Mark II turned off (0) which is why they might appear a tad soft, however bumping up sharpness either in the camera or in your photo editing package would really help define the fine lines in the image (Roll over image to view sharpened version).

ROLLOVER images to see the same image after adding some sharpening in Photoshop CS4.



Both of the images above looked great when printed as an 11x14". The photo on the right was a bit soft when viewed at 100% on screen but still looked great as an 11x14". The softness looks to be caused by subject movement A little bit of sharpening in Lightroom 2.0 brought back these fine details and the overall results were quite good.

Photo on left
  • Metadata: Focal Length: 200, f/3.5, ISO 100, 1/1600th Shutter Speed, +1/3 EV
  • View full-screen (unsharpened)
  • View 13-megapixel version (unsharpened)
  • Notes: This image looked crisp and sharp both on screen and when printed. Chromatic Aberration was well controlled in this shot mainly due to the shallow depth-of-field. CA only shows up along sharp, high-contrast, edges.
Photo on right
  • Metadata: Focal Length: 178mm, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/200th Shutter Speed
  • View full-screen (unsharpened)
  • View 13-megapixel version (unsharpened)
  • Notes: On screen there was very slight softness around the eyes, but looked great when printed. When viewing the image on screen there is visible chromatic aberration along high-contrast areas in this image - especially visible along her hand and arm. When printed the CA was very slight and only visible near her elbow and on the top side of her hand. I could have quickly corrected for this in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.
N.H. Bridal Photo Shoot:

About a week after the Vermont shoot I was off to Shaker Village in NH to test the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 II at a bridal shoot. It was a cloudy afternoon and the fast f/2.8 aperture would allow me to shoot at faster shutter speeds while keeping the ISO of the camera down - and helped me to capture some beautiful bridal portraits. Again, when shooting wide-open the details of the in-focus area are not as crisp as they would be at f/8, however they proved perfect for these portraits. The illustration below shows 100% crops from the original 21-Megapixel RAW file (saved as a JPEG at the maximum setting of 12). If you roll your mouse over this image you can view a sharpened version of these images. Please also keep in mind that images direct from my 5D Mark II are not sharpened in the camera as I prefer to have the option to sharpen them later, if necessary.

Photo on left
  • Metadata: Focal Length: 154mm, f/6.3, ISO 100, 1/200th Shutter Speed
  • View full-screen (unsharpened)
  • View 13-megapixel version (unsharpened)
  • Notes: There is slight CA on the top strands of her hair and again near the bottom 1/5 of the image, most visible in the bottom right corner. There is an overall softness when viewed straight from the camera (view larger sizes using the links above), but adding some sharpening in post-production really added crispness to her eyes and hair (roll over image).
Photo on right
  • Metadata: Focal Length: 200mm, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/200th Shutter Speed
  • View full-screen (unsharpened)
  • View 13-megapixel version (unsharpened)
  • Notes: This shot was taken at full zoom (200mm) so chromatic aberration is at its worst, but still not terrible. It is most visible around the strands of her hair and high contrast areas of her dress and even in the out of focus area of her bracelet.


Canadian Geese

I also had the opportunity to shoot some Canadian Geese that I discovered walking along a side road near a pond. My camera gear was in the back of the car so I quickly put the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 II on the camera and starting capturing shots at different angles as they started to migrate toward the pond and away from me. The shot below is one of my favorites. I got down to ground level to get this shot as the goose walked across the frame.

You can roll over this image to see an enhanced version of the image after adjusting the contrast and sharpness in Photoshop CS4 for the top image and just the sharpness a bit for the 100% crops. You can see a hint of vignetting in the top image. It is a bit more prevalent in the enhanced version of the image and really helps to focus the eye toward the subject.

  • Metadata: Focal Length: 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/1250th Shutter Speed
  • View full-screen (unsharpened)
  • View 13-megapixel version (unsharpened)
  • Notes: This image was softer (out of the camera) than the others since it was shot wide-open with an f/2.8 aperture. You can see this softness on the 100% crop of the feathers. It still sharpens up nicely and looks great both on screen and in print.


Four more images of the Canadian Geese.
Roll mouse over right/left edges of the image to navigate to the next image.


Compensating for Handheld Camera Shake

As this is not an image-stabilized lens it's a good idea to keep the shutter speed of the camera equal to or greater than than the focal length of the lens (200mm = 200th/sec. shutter). A higher shutter speed helps to reduce or prevent camera shake from showing up in your images, however the subject you're shooting may require an even faster shutter speed since a 1/200th shutter may not be fast enough to completely freeze the swing of a bat, golf club, or a car whizzing across the scene.

Vignetting

Lens vignetting is a typical occurrence using a telephoto zoom lens and is an often desired effect in portrait photography, but one you'll have to work around if you mainly shoot sports or wildlife. This effect can easily be corrected using programs like Adobe Photoshop CS4 or Lightroom 2.0, DxO Optics Pro, and others. For Window PC users there is also a free program called "Vignetting ' Reducer 1.0" by Marek Jablonski that was designed for this sole purpose, though I have not tested it.

At the 70mm "wide" end of the lens, the strongest vignetting occurs with a wide-open f/2.8 aperture and diminishes in effect as the aperture is reduced to f/4, f/5.6, and f/6.3 and virtually disappears at f/7.1 and smaller. This is ideal in portrait photography as it helps to draw the eye inward toward the subject (our eyes tend to be drawn toward the brightest part of a scene). At the long end of the lens (200mm) the strongest vignetting is still at f/2.8 but something interesting happens when the aperture is between f/6.1 - f/8.0 - the vignetting actually reverses itself so that the inner circle of the vignette is actually slightly darker than the corners. This characteristic is less ideal in portraits as it would help to pull the eye toward the corners of the image, rather to toward the subject. For me this is not a deal breaker as I try to shoot most of my portraits toward the wider apertures in order to keep a shallow depth-of-field (DOF). The effect is very slight and might go unnoticed unless you compare the same image shot at varying aperture settings.

Macro Capability

While the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 II lens may not be a true macro in the sense of offering a 1:1 magnification ratio, many users will find it more than adequate for some basic macro work. From test shots taken in macro territory I discovered if you keep the aperture at f/6.3 or smaller you can get some very sharp images, but with wider aperture settings (f/2.8 or 3.5) the results are just way too soft to be useful.

In the macro shot below I was located about at or even a few inches closer than the minimum focal distance of the lens. The camera's aperture was set to f/6.3 to allow for some depth-of-field, the shutter speed at 1/200th second to help reduce camera shake, and a low ISO of 100. While there is some very slight camera shake visible when you view the larger 13-megapixel file, overall the image came out very sharp in the area right around the focus point. When shooting at such a close distance even f/6.3 has a pretty narrow depth-of-field.

Macro Image: 200mm, 1/200th shutter, f/6.3 aperture, 100 ISO

Click to view / download 13-Megapixel version


Image Quality

Once you have had the opportunity to shoot portraits or sports with an f/2.8 long zoom lens, in this case a 70-200mm, you really never want to go back to what you were using. The overall tonality of images shot with the Sigma 70-200mm is outstanding. Colors are accurate, details are especially sharp in the middle range of apertures (f/6.3 - f/11) but a bit softer when shooting wide open (f/2.8 or f/3.5). The shallow depth-of-field created at f/2.8 is perfect for portraits, nature, and sports photography and the quality of the out of focus area, often called the 'Bokeh' of the lens, was very pleasing to my eye.

Chromatic Aberration

Another lens attribute that usually stands out like a sore thumb in images is chromatic aberration "CA". Chromatic aberration happens when the lens is unable to focus all colors to the same point, and as a result red/purple or blue/cyan color fringing can appear in an image, especially along high-contrast areas and in the corner of a photo.

The Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 II lens does an excellent job keeping CA to a bare minimum at the wide end of the lens, but as expected it does increase as you move toward the long end of the zoom. At the long end of the zoom (165-200mm) chromatic aberration is fairly prevalent throughout the outer circle of the photo and in the corners, but the effects can still be easily corrected during post-processing in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw 5.3, or other image editing programs.

200mm Example:
The photo below helps to demonstrate the effects of chromatic aberration when shooting with the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 II at 200mm. The top illustration includes two red boxes to help you see where the two 100% cropped images were taken from. The cropped images are from the original 21-megapixel file and represent a 100% full-size crop. The left image was taken from the upper left corner while the right crop was taken from the center of the original image. Notice that even when shooting at 200mm chromatic aberrations only show up around the edges of the photo.

Roll your mouse over the image to see the
same crops after removing them with sliders in Lightroom 2.0.



One thing to keep in mind is that while chromatic aberration isn't affected by the aperture setting, you'll still see less of it when shooting at the wider apertures. The reason for this is that chromatic aberration only shows up against sharp, high-contrast edges, but when you shoot with a wider aperture the resulting shallow depth-of-field helps to throw sharp edges especially those behind or in front of your subject out of focus.

I have outlined below the different levels of chromatic aberration you can expect within different zoom ranges. In the list below you will notice that CA is a function of longer zoom ratio's, with the worst cases appearing near the 200mm focal length.
  • Virtually none from 70-100mm
  • Light CA from 101-144mm
  • Mild CA from 145-165mm
  • Strong CA from 166-200mm

Build Quality

The Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM II Macro lens is a very well made lens and definitely has some heft to it. It's a smidgen wider and shorter than the Canon equivalent and offers similar specifications with the exception of offering a much closer focus distance, which give the lens a 1:35 magnification for superior close-up capabilities. Most consider true macro as being a 1:1 magnification so Sigma is using the term Macro a bit loosely here, but the point is it does focus from just 39.4" at full zoom. Combine this with a high-megapixel camera and you have decent macro ability after cropping the image even tighter.

The lens includes a heavy-duty tripod ring and can easily be removed to help reduce the overall size of the lens. A tripod ring is used on longer, heavier lenses in order to make sure the camera lens mount doesn't have to support the full weight of the lens. The exterior of the lens is finished in gray and has a flat matte finish, which helps to keep it clean of fingerprints. In the 6 weeks that I have been using the lens I have found it a joy to use. The zoom ring turns in the opposite direction of the Canon lenses I am used to, but for some reason I never actually noticed it during use. When the camera is up to my eye I guess if one direction brings it wide then the other direction brings it in closer.

Operational wise, the lens is fairly heavy, but nothing out of the ordinary for a 70-200mm f/2.8. The zoom and auto focus are as smooth as butter and all the focusing and zooming takes place within the lens itself so the lens doesn't get longer/shorter or rotate as you zoom or focus . This helps to keep reliability high, prevents zoom creep where a lens barrel held upside down would slowly zoom out, and allows the use of stationary filters on the end of the lens.

The Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM II Macro Lens also includes a heavy duty tripod ring designed to mount to a tripod or monopod. The ring adds about 4.8 ounces to the lens and can quickly and easily be removed when not shooting with a tripod. When properly installed, the knob to loosen or tighten the ring ends up on the left side of the lens.

Note: When shooting with a long or heavy lens on your camera you never want to connect the tripod directly to the camera since this forces the lens mount of the camera to bear the weight of the lens when held parallel to the ground. Connecting the tripod to the lens mount instead reduces this strain on the camera.

The lens that Sigma sent for me to review didn't come in its original box and didn't include a lens shade or case, but when purchasing the lens at retail it will include both a nylon case with shoulder strap as well as a lens shade to help prevent lens flare. From the thousands of shots that I captured with the Sigma lens without the lens hood I can only remember one instance, when I was shooting a model with the sun coming down over her shoulder, that I had lens flare.


Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM II Lens with Tripod Ring


Review Conclusion

When considering a high-quality lens to add to your camera bag there is a lot more than just price to be considered. While you may change camera bodies every couple of years, your best lenses will stay in your bag for many years to come. Glass doesn't often become obsolete and it retains its value very well. Since I didn't have them side-by-side I cannot answer the inevitable question of whether the Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 II EX DG MACRO HSM Lens is as good as the Canon or Nikon version for $600 less. I can say that the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 II lens is an outstanding value and represents a big savings for anyone interested in shooting better portraits, nature, landscapes, or outdoor daylight sports.

For indoor or low-light sports photography I feel the Sigma is a bit too soft when shooting wide-open at 200mm to capture fast action while retaining crisp details. Low-light sports photography requires higher ISO settings that tends to soften and add noise to an image, a fast aperture that also softens the image, and a steady hand. Since the Sigma doesn't offer image stabilization you'll be solely responsible for keeping the camera steady while tracking subjects in motion. In fast light just bump up the shutter speed, but in low-light you don't have that luxury.

The Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 II lens focuses very quickly and very quietly, especially in normal light. It does slow down just a bit in lower light conditions, however I never had a problem with the lens not locking focus. When focusing or zooming the lens doesn't rotate, allowing you to easily add filters to the front of the lens and preventing the lens from extending when swaying vertically at your side. The Sigma lens also offers full-time manual focus, which allows you to manually adjust the focus while the lens is still in AF mode and the shutter is pressed halfway.

Sigma offers a long 3 year warranty, great build quality, and excellent customer support. It was unfortunate that they sent me a lens that had a front focusing issue, especially since it was for review, however I was lucky enough to have a camera that allowed me to adjust for it. Sigma was also very fast at responding and offered to correct or exchange the lens. As a consumer you could also send in your lens anytime during the warranty period to have it re-adjusted if necessary. Getting a lens that front or back focuses isn't limited to Sigma. While I was testing the Sigma lens I decided to check my Canon 24-105mm lens as well and discovered that it too was front-focusing though to a lesser degree. It must be quite prevalent nowadays in lenses since most of the semi to pro DSLR bodies now have built-in AF micro adjustments to help correct for this misalignments.

Gallery Slideshow

I would like to end this review with a slideshow that contains images I shot with this lens over the past few weeks. Most of these images have been edited to some degree or another, meaning they're not straight out of the camera. I have included them here because I want to give you an idea of what I was able to create when shooting with this lens. I personally believe that the capture of the image is just step one. Enhancing them, whether adjusting the contrast, saturation, sharpness or adding some additional effects, for me is step two. Step three is the final output, whether it is online or in print and step four is backing up your images either to a CD, DVD, online service, or to a second drive.

Click on the right/left side of the image to move forward or back through the slideshow.

Specifications VS. Competition

Model Diameter Length Weight Closest Focusing Distance Lens Construction Street
Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 II EX DG MACRO HSM Lens 3.4" 7.3" 3.3 lbs 40.08 inches (3.34 ft) 18 elements, 15 groups $749-$799
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM Lens 3.3" 7.6" 2.9 lbs 58.8 inches (4.9ft) 18 elements, 15 groups $1200
Nikon AF Zoom-NIKKOR 80-200mm f/2.8D ED Lens 3.4" 7.4" 2.87 lbs 58.8 inches (4.9ft) 16 elements, 11 groups $1099
Tamron AF70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD (IF) Macro Lens 3.5" 7.6" 2.86 lbs 37.4 inches (3.11ft) 18 elements, 13 groups $650-$699
* All four of lenses use 77mm filters
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