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Sigma 300-800mm f5.6 EX IF APO HSM

300_800_1_
Review Date: Mar 23, 2004 Recommend? yes | Price paid: $4,500.00 | Rating: 10 

 
Pros: Zoom super-telephoto, superb optics, professional build quality, will manual focus when camera set to AF-S (focus priority), fast AF (HSM), drop-in 46mm MC and CPL filters included, relatively fast in the 500-600 range, fast for 700-800 range
Cons:
Heavy, large, cumbersome. Needs big tripod and Gimbel head. Will not manual focus when in AF-C servo (shutter priority).

This massive lens [21.3 inches and 12.9 lbs] at first glance would seem to be limited in its use under field conditions, but the ability to quickly change composition in the supertelephoto range of 400 to 800mm makes it quickly become a lens which allows LESS running around to get the best composition with moving subjects, particularly wildlife (which I do), or sports (which I don't do). Previously, with the Nikkor 600 F4, I frequently would need to move back and keep moving back with approaching subjects, or would find myself backing into bushes or water or whatever in order to get the whole subject in the FOV. With this lens, many more good shots happen because of the ability to quickly adjust composition between 300 and 800mm. This is the reason to consider this lens.
The lens is all metal (including the suede lined hood), and the build look and feel is superb. The zoom ring and focus ring both have a smooth, fluid feel, with just the right amount of resistance. The lens can be manually focused when the camera is in 'focus priority', but will not if it is in 'shutter priority'. This is a significant missing feature, since most action photography is done in shutter priority, particularly when shooting 8 fps such as my D2H and F5 do. However, with some sacrifice to ideal technique, I have found that it probably hasn't lost me that many shots, and have adapted to certain situations by quickly switching the D2H to AF-S or (remember this?) manual focus.
Optical quality is superb. I have not found any significant unexpected issues with CA or with flare, and the sharpness at all apertures from f/16 to f/5.6 are crisp, including at its widest f/5.6 aperture, which action photography needs. I have occasionally used the sigma 1.4 TC with it (@ 800 this gives a FL of 1120 which on the D2H is an effective FL of 1680mm !), and have obtained an acceptable number of sharp photos. With the TC, the aperture becomes f/8, and it always has been manual-only focus for me (I would sometimes be able to get the 600 f/4 to AF with a TC 2.0 on it, which makes it also an f/8 lens).
Last, but not least with this lens (did I mention it is a massive lens?), is the support needed. The largest tripod with a Gimbel-type head is absolutely mandatory with this lens. I use the Gitzo 1548 with the Wimberly sidekick on an Arca-Swiss B1G ballhead (the B1G is twice the size of the B1E) since I can quickly remove the Sidekick to mount the camera for landscapes , etc. The Wimberly Gimbel head or Kirk Cobra head will also work well, but this lens should not be mounted on a ballhead of any kind alone (without the Sidekick).
The lens comes with a custom padded cordura case which works well, but for those who travel with lots of gear, the case is not practical (it hardly passes as your 'one personal item' along with a carry-on). I have to this date found only the Wildlife Research Photography MP-1 photo bag to fit this lens (without camera attached), and it is a tight (but workable) fit, and I can get my camera bodies and other lenses in it also to carry-on the airplane.
This lens definitely fits a unique niche, but it has been a welcome solution for my photography.