Third Party Lenses Can Be Great, or a review of the Sigma 120-400mm and Sigma 10- 20mm

Day One Hundred Seventy-Three:  My New Lens

In the beginning was the kit lens. And it was OK. With it I learned how to use my DSLR. I had never even had a film SLR before, so there was a lot to learn. Eventually I wanted my lenses to reach further so I invested in the Tamron 55-200mm. I was ecstatic at all the subjects I would now capture which were previously beyond my grasp. Birds and squirrels were no longer just small blips in my images. But, there were some issues with the lens. It was very loud when it focused and it was slow to autofocus. I would often lose the shot I was looking for by the time it finished focusing.

After this I bought the Canon EF 28-105mm USM lens for a nice mid-range lens. It didn’t go as wide as the kit nor as telephoto as the Tamron, but it was great for walking around anywhere other than NYC (where the 1.6x crop factor and densely packed city make most of those focal lengths too long). This was my first USM lens (when I got the Rebel XT the kit lens was not available in USM) and I loved it! The focus was fast, accurate, and quiet! I resolved to never again buy anything worse than a USM lens. (An exception was made for the 50mm f/1.8 (because price was an important factor)

As I evaluated where I wanted to go with my photography, I came to the conclusion that it didn’t make sense to buy USM lenses if I eventually wanted to have L lenses in the same focal length range. I was better off just saving my money. There are two main reasons to lust after L lenses. 1) The engineering behind them is so amazing that they tend to have the best optical qualities – less chromatic aberration, better focusing, etc 2) Most of the zooms are constant aperture lenses. Cheaper lenses will have something like f/4-f/5.6 so that you can’t be sure your aperture remains the same as you zoom. Also, the aperture tends to be bigger f/2.8 rather than f/4. So I began to save money for L lenses. Because I really enjoyed wildlife photography, I decided I needed to extend my camera’s reach again. I set my eyes on the Canon EF 100-400mm L lens. While at a Canon event at B&H I got to handle one and it was great. But I didn’t like the push-pull method of zooming – especially with such a long lens. Also, the lens was $1700 – something I was struggling to convince the wife was worth the money. So I started to look around at other lenses in the same focal range.

Eventually I came across the Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM APO Autofocus Lens for $899. This was actually within my price range. But it was risky – should I go with a third party lens again? I had already been burned by Tamron. And while that was $150, this was $899! I scoured the net and there were reviews for many lenses in similar ranges from Sigma, but not too many of this particular lens. When I did find reviews of the lens, they were mostly positive with some people mentioning that Sigma makes good quality glass – the only problem is that they tend to have uneven quality. One of the things that tipped me toward the Sigma was the fact that it had Sigma’s version of USM. Perhaps this would be just as good as Canon’s offering. When I had enough money saved up, I placed my order.

Completely Unpacked
The contents of the Sigma 120-400mm box

The camera eventually arrived and in the box were the lens, a tripod collar, lens hood, and case. This is the first camera I’d ever bought that came with a case! Of course, I’ve read that Canon’s offering in this price range also comes with a case, but it was still awesome! Up until now I just kept my lenses in my travel bag and was wondering how I’d make room for the Sigma lens. I tested it as soon as I could on the birds in my backyard. The lens performed great!  As it was winter, the image stabilization (known in Sigma parlance as optical stabilization – OS) was required for any hand-held shooting. Since I was shooting birds flitting around all over the place and I didn’t want to stay outside too long because of the cold, I would often shoot handheld. The only negative involved in handheld shooting with this lens is that it weighs a lot. I’m no body builder, but I go to the gym every day and do bicep curls of 50 lbs (among other weight exercises) and I still find it tiring to handhold this sucker for too long. A monopod preserves most of the flexibility of handholding (although it’s still a pain when photographing birds) and a tripod takes it all off your hands.

180 degrees
Nuthatch Captured with Sigma 120-400mm

The only real negative with the lens is that it tends to lockup my Rebel XTi when I’m shooting in burst mode with image stabilization on. I haven’t had too much experience with that shooting situation with Canon’s image stabilization, so I don’t know if it’s a negative to using third party lenses or just that combination of activities on my camera. Image stabilization DOES use up a LOT of battery power. I can usually go for weeks without charging my batteries, but when I use OS I drain those puppies quick. (Of course, I was also shooting outside in the winter which exaggerates the effect)

Another Seagull on a Snowy Beach
Seagull Captured with Sigma 120-400mm

It is, of course, a nitpick to mention that this lens only zooms out to 120mm vs Canon’s 100mm. 99.99% of the time, if I have this lens on it’s because I want to shoot something far away. I’m not going to miss 20mm in the scheme of things. And, if it’s THAT important to get stuff moderately far away to very far away, then I can either throw the Canon 28-105mm or the Tamron 55-200mm on my second body to make sure I get that range. In real life usage, it’s probably not going to happen. In fact, if you find yourself pulling that far back on the lens often, you probably bought the wrong lens.

My confidence renewed in third party lenses, especially with respect to Sigma, made me feel more comfortable in my choice to go with the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6D EX DC HSM for my wide angle needs. I had already been put on this path before buying the Sigma 120-400mm by PhotoPlus Magazine who said it performed better than Canon’s offering in their tests. That and the fact that the Sigma was $400 to Canon’s $700 made it a no brainer once I knew that Sigma made good quality lenses.

Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC Lens and Case
Contents of Sigma 10-20mm lens box

What really makes the lens stand out for me is that it too comes with a storage case (something Canon does NOT do for non-L lenses) as well as a lens hood ($30+ extra for Canon lenses). I’d wanted a wide angle lens ever since I had read many articles in camera magazines describing the types of effects that could be achieved with wide angle lenses. I also played with the Canon lens at the same B&H event where I played with the 100-400mm and resolved to get the lens.

Day Two Hundred Eighty-Nine:  Stretching before a Run

Sigma’s lens is a very good offering. Again, some reviews warned of Sigma’s uneven quality on the production of the lenses, but I got a nice sharp one. In fact, the lens is often sharper than many of my other lenses. It has Sigma’s USM and it’s very nice to use. My only nitpick with the lens is the placement of the zoom ring SO close to the part where the lens attaches to the camera, that I sometimes end up turning the zoom ring instead of mounting the lens.

Stretch Armstrong or Mr Fantastic
This is what happens when I hold the Sigma 120-400mm too long. Takes forever to get my arms back to normal length.

I’d like to step back, for a moment, to my cousin’s wedding last year. I used Canon’s 24- 70mm f/2.8 L lens . This puppy is Canon’s signature lens and it deserves the title. It was pure joy to use that lens. Everything about it was perfect. The images were crisp; the colours were perfect. It is the best lens I’ve ever used. It is also $1200. Its companion is the 70-200mm IS f/2.8L lens. It costs around $1400 although the latest iteration is said to cost closer to $2400. The Sigma 70-200mm OS f/2.8 is $800.

I guess what I’m getting at is that my lust for the red ring (L lenses have a red ring around the barrel) is coming to an end because Canon is pricing me out of the market. It would one thing if Canon’s L lenses were significantly better than Sigma’s top glass. Then the price difference would be justified. But I think part of the reason why Sigma lenses are so cheap is not because they are worse quality and not even because they are third party lenses (although that’s a big part of it). I think Sigma just gets to reap the rewards of economies of scale. Sigma makes the same lens (with slight modifications) for Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Olympus, and other companies’ cameras. So, while Canon can only sell its lenses to Canon users and needs that money to recoup engineering costs, Sigma gets to spread that cost over the prosumer/enthusiast crowd of many different camera brands.

Don’t get me wrong – Canon is often the lead innovator in new lens technologies. (While Nikon tends to excel in near noise-less chips) The new IS they came up with for their 100mm Macro L lens (B&H link) sounds amazing! And, for some reason, Sigma is always coming up with weird focal lengths. The 120-400mm, for example. Or the 105mm macro lens .

Of course, you might dismiss me as a nobody. But over at the This Week in Photography they mentioned that they went for the Sigma 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses because they are great quality and they couldn’t afford Canon lenses – and the host who said that is a professional photographer. When even the professional as eschewing the red ring, who am I to insist that I need it?

A couple dubious pros and cons that I often hear repeated on the net and will repeat here for completion’s sake. Pro to third party high end lenses: if you shoot in developing countries, that red ring, grey Canon lens is a target for muggers/thieves who know that lens is big money. Con to third part lenses of all types: Sigma, et al are reverse engineering the communications between the camera and the lens. It’s possible that the lens may not work on future Canon cameras while Canon would [almost] never do that to its own customers. Slim, Slim chances of that happening, but I figured it would be best to have my readers fully informed.

So, in my quest to replace my EF-S lenses with EF lenses in preparation for finally buying a 5D Mark II or Mark III if that’s out by the time I’m ready to buy, I think I’m going with Sigmas. It’ll allow me to buy the lenses more quickly because they’ll be less of a financial burden and therefore get to the 5D more quickly.

As far as the lenses I reviewed here – they are, without a doubt, specialty lenses. Many people will not need, or even want, these lenses. If you’re shooting wildlife and you don’t want to spend the money for the Canon 100-400mm, you will definitely love the Sigma 120-400mm . If you have a crop sensor body (Canon Rebel series), you will absolutely love the Sigma 10-20 .

So Red Against the White

5 responses to “Third Party Lenses Can Be Great, or a review of the Sigma 120-400mm and Sigma 10- 20mm”

  1. Pretty nice review, i have both the lenses you mention and love them both.

    The 120-400mm i purchased for similar reasons to you, it felt like a gamble at the time but i havent looked back since even thugh i have only owned it a short while. It seems best around the f9 to f11 mark in my experience (especially at the 400mm end). I just up the ISO if i need extrra speed as it does have a slow max aperture



    • Thanks. Yeah, as with most lenses, f8-f11 seems to be the best sharpness and it’s even more exaggerated on such a long focal length. I’ve successfully taken some at f/5.6, but it’s a lot harder as you barely have any depth of field to work with.

  2. I’ve just purchased the 120-400mm myself, it’s a really nice lens. I already had the Sigma 30mm and 50mm 1.4 and was really happy with them so I didn’t think twice.

    Sure Canon L lenses are top notch but Canon still make some real dogs amongst the normal EF & EF-S lens range.

  3. I had not been to It’s A Binary World 2.0 » Third Party Lenses Can Be Great, or a review of the Sigma 120-400mm and Sigma 10- 20mm before but I am glad I did now! Keep up the good work!