The build of this lens is outstanding. It feels every bit as solid and robust as the comparable Canon 500 f4. It is very contrasty and rugged. All of the reviews that I have personally read about this lens give it excellent marks. And they are deserved. I simply could not be more pleased with my pics with this lens. The thing is optically superb! The price is great, but don't misunderstand me here, because the lens isn't just a great lens for the price, it is a great lens period. Sigma has stepped up their game. If the prices stay low on these EX lenses (especially the telephotos [300 2.8, 800 5.6 etc.], then I am sure that Canon will be feeling the pressure sooner rather than later. I am confident that if you buy this lens you will not be disappointed. I sure am not.
The 500 f4.5 “Showdown”: Canon L vs. Sigma EX
A little history: I purchased the Sigma about 6 months ago, and have really enjoyed having a “big” lens. When the opportunity presented itself to purchase a well-priced and excellent condition Canon 500 f4.5, I jumped at the opportunity. (Thanks Hatam!) I reasoned that I would conduct a serious comparison of both lenses and then decide if the Canon was worth nearly $1000 more. Following my comparison I would then sell one of the lenses. I have now had the Canon for about a month. I just finished a two-week trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in which I was able put the Canon “through the paces”. Something I had already done with the Sigma. So here I am posting the results of both my direct “scientific” comparison and my general impression of both lenses. Please read on.
Why a 500 f4.5? The answer is: Excellent reach plus excellent weight and handling. The new Canon 500 f4 weighs 8.5 lbs, while the Sigma 500 f4.5 weighs 6.8 lbs. In essence you are lugging nearly two more pounds for one-half stop of light. Too, the length of the Canon 500 f4 is 15.2 inches; the length of the Sigma 500 f4.5 is 13.8, a difference of approximately 1 1/2 inches. Admittedly, the f4 allows you to retain AF with the 1.4X teleconverter, but the question is Does this advantage merit paying an additional $2000-$2500? For me, the answer was: no. Plus, the lighter weight and smaller size are strong selling points to boot! Especially for someone, like myself, who frequently takes their gear into the “backcountry”. So then, which one is the one to buy? A used Canon 500 f4.5 (since they are no longer manufactured), or a new (or used) Sigma 500 f4.5? The answer is: it depends.
Direct Comparison: The Minors
Carrying case: Canon is the clear victor here. The Sigma case is adequate and functional but cannot hold a candle to the lens case of the Canon. (See pictures)
Lens cover: Tie; both do the job.
Lens hood: Canon’s is nearly twice as long. Is this necessary? It is difficult to say. The Sigma feels more “manageable” and “handy” with the lens hood on. The Canon definitely feels bigger and clumsier, though this somewhat illusory, as the lens hood does not add significantly to the weight. Another point here: I prefer the Sigma lens hood attachment. It is a better design than the Canon and certainly feels more solid. The Canon lens hood wiggles a bit, even when tightened. The Sigma, with its “twisting and locking” action, doesn’t. Again, it is a better design.
Tripod collar and foot: Sigma wins here. The Sigma’s foot is beefier and their tripod collar is, I think, a better design. The Canon foot looks inadequate when compared to the Sigma. Too, the Sigma has “finger moldings” on the foot for hand holding in a pinch. This is actually a great feature, and really works (for short periods of time at high shutter speeds)! The Canon design does not lend itself to hand holding.
Coating and Color: Tie; I actually prefer the black to the “Canon beige”, but this is just a matter of preference. The Canon coating and the Sigma coating, though very different in texture, both appear to be very durable.
Weight and Size: Sigma wins here. The Canon is longer, by about 1 1/2 inches without the lens hood. The Canon is also a little heavier, but I don’t know by exactly how much, as I don’t have a scale that would work well for this kind of measurement. The difference is not very significant. I must add, though, that the overall impression I get with the Sigma, as stated above, is that it is definitely more “manageable” and “handy”. It just “seems” smaller.
Direct Comparison: The Majors
AF speed: Canon by a nose. Both are very fast. I cannot tell much of a difference, but the Canon seems to be just a tad faster, maybe 5-10% faster. Both are almost never guilty of the egregious sin of “focus search”.
AF accuracy: Tie; the camera body plays a major role here as well, of course. With the 10D I couldn’t tell a difference in AF accuracy.
Close focus: Sigma edges Canon out here. Sigma is 13.5 feet. Canon is 15 feet.
Build: Canon by a hair. Both are very well built indeed. The lens housings are actually a tie in build, but the Canon switches feel slightly more robust and solid.
Color saturation: Canon wins here. The colors of the Sigma are excellent, to be sure, but the Canon colors are a bit more saturated. Sometimes this is hardly noticeable; for example, in really good light where both lenses perform similarly, almost identically. Too, certain colors appear to manifest this “saturation difference” more than others. Blues appear nearly identical. Reds are a little richer with the Canon; so are greens. (See photos below) The Canon lens seems a little “warmer”, that is, more yellow. If I had to plot it, I would say the color reproduction on the Canon is a 9.9 out of ten and the Sigma is a 9.5, but this is hardly a “scientific” statement. Look especially at the “Tangerine” photos below. Notice that the red clay pot appears a little richer with the Canon. Too, the oranges are a little (a very little) more saturated with the Canon. In the “Pool” pictures it is very difficult (impossible?) to see any real difference.
Sharpness: Canon wins. This seems to be the area where the Canon “pulls away”. It resolves more detail and retains better sharpness that the Sigma. This is “across the board”, but shows up especially when shooting parallel lines (for example with architecture). Note the “Building” photos below; the Canon is noticeably sharper. The same is true with the “Text” photos, but you have to look a little closer to see it there. Now when it comes to wildlife or sports photography the ability to resolve minute detail such as very small parallel lines is not nearly as important or noticeable. Nevertheless, the Canon does have the edge here for sure. Again, if I were to plot it I would say that the Canon is a 9.9 and the Sigma is an 8.5 or a 9, depending on the subject. With some subjects the Canon’s superior resolving power will not be readily noticeable, and both lenses would appear equally sharp. And when the Sigma’s mild deficiency in this area rears its head (very rarely), the USM filter in Photoshop comes galloping to the rescue. Voila!
Teleconverter compatibility: Tie; both shoot very well with the 1.4X (remember, no AF unless you tape the pins, which does work in good light), so as to be virtually indistinguishable from shots without the teleconverter. Shots with the 2X TC are not, as you would expect, as sharp as the 1.4X. Yet, both lenses seem to be equally “sharp” with the addition of either the 1.4X or the 2X TC. This is interesting, as it appears that the Canon loses most of its “resolving power” and “sharpness” edge (pun intended) when a TC is added. Again, this is not perfectly “scientific”, but it appears to be the case nonetheless.
So which is the lens for you? Again, it depends. Both are excellent lenses, as said before. The Canon costs about $1000 more for a used lens. And the prices are pretty compatible if you purchase a new Sigma (B&H $3299), versus a used Canon (going rate for a “mint” lens is between $2900 and $3100). Overall, if money were not an object, the Canon would probably be the lens to buy, but I hasten to add that some people will feel more comfortable purchasing a new Sigma (with warranty), rather than a used Canon. Canon stopped manufacturing the 500 f4.5 in (I believe) early 1998, so the very “youngest” lens you could find would be at least six years old. A lens, like a car, can receive a lot of abuse in six years, so you do have to be sure that you are getting a “mint” or “excellent” condition lens. If well taken care of, this lens could easily last 25 years. A used Sigma is potentially not as risky of an investment, as it could be very “young”. I purchased mine used when it was just a year old, and this takes the edge off of the nervousness to be sure.
If cost is an object, especially a significant object, then I must confess that I would feel exceedingly comfortable recommending the Sigma. It is a stellar lens and at $2000-$2200 for a “mint” used one it is a downright bargain! I have no reservations in recommending the Sigma. It is, based on my analysis, 95-97% as good as the Canon overall, and in some areas, like size, weight, close focus distance, and “handholdabilty”, it is the better lens. Yes better. Nevertheless, the Canon is the overall better lens. In a sense the superiority of the Canon lens boils down to something that is a little intangible. This is hardly qualifiable or “scientific” in the strictest sense, to be sure. Yet, it just “seems” to have “something about it”—mystique maybe—that makes it the better of the two lenses.
So there you have it: two excellent lenses, both “reasonably” priced to get YOU into the “big glass game”. You will not be disappointed with either lens. I own both of them (for a little while longer anyway) and would love to keep them both! Ha! Violeta (my wife) says, “no way”. I Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Please note the photos and comments below. Have a great day and feel free to send comments and/or questions. I plan to post the text of this comparison under the Sigma 500 f4.5 EX in the reviews section here at FM.
Finally, I have included two beautiful photographs at the end of the comparison photos. One was taken with the Canon and the other with the Sigma. Different days. Different exposures. Different birds. But at least you get an idea of what each of the lenses is capable of. I am purposely not telling which lens took which photo. See if you can guess! Have a great day, and keep looking up!