David Cardinal: New Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS HSM – The Ultimate Safari Lens?
Aug 2013 27

The original Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 was a favorite safari lens for many pros. It fell behind with the introduction of the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in Vibration Reduction. It’s subsequent model – including Optical Stabilization — regained it respect, but left it a bit behind the Nikon in usability and build quality. That has changed dramatically with the new version – the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS HSM Lens. Every bit the equal of the Nikon in both optical and build quality at a fraction of the cost, the Sigma is again likely to become the favorite safari lens of many pros and enthusiastic amateurs alike.

This image – even with a 1.4x TC – is plenty sharp at f/6.7 on my Nikon D600.
You can’t see it that well here, but if you open the image samples gallery at the end of the article you can see a larger version.

I took the lens with me to Alaska where I led my annual Grizzly Bear and Puffin photo safaris. Having shot in the same location for many years with a variety of cameras, including a review of the previous version of the Sigma 120-300mm, this was a great opportunity for me to compare the lens under some tough conditions. It passed with flying colors. In short, I loved both it and the images it produced. Focus was faster than the Nikon 200-400mm, image quality was excellent — with tack sharp images the norm, even with teleconverters.

To put first things first, the new version of the 120-300 is absolutely beautiful. It is sleek, and machined with care. It is also heavily weather sealed, feeling solid and capable of operating in harsh conditions. It features two stabilization modes and extremely fast focus – even without using the optional software focus-tweaking capability.

With the sharp images this lens produces with a 1.4x TC like this one at 420mm, I didn’t miss the nominally longer range of my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 Lens. 420mm on my Nikon D600, f/6.7 @ 1/750s.

The f/2.8 Advantage

Because it is f/2.8 wide open, the Sigma provides the benefits of fast focus in all conditions, excellent low-light photography, and can use teleconverters up to 2x to get to an effective 600mm focal length – 900mm on an APS-C (DX) sensor camera body.

If you view the larger version of this image in the sample gallery, you can make out our reflection in its eye. That’s impressively sharp. Image at 290mm, 1/500s @ f/4, +.5 EV. 560 ISO, Nikon D600.

Major Industrial Upgrade

The new Sigma 120-300mm lens is as slick-looking a lens as I’ve ever seen. The industrial design and build quality is second to none. It feels completely solid and the machining well-worthy of the Sigma Global Vision moniker – the first “sports” lens to be so branded. This new build quality and improved optics do come at a cost. The lens is a full pound heavier, at 7.5 pounds, almost as much as the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens. It is also more expensive, $3599 at B&H for either the Nikon version or the Canon version of the lens.

Only Slight Light Fall-off: Lots of Tuning Options

There is some slight light fall-off when shooting with a full-frame camera, especially at short focal lengths. You can see the measured response in the charts below, provided by Sigma. It is mild enough to be ignored on many images, and quickly fixed when converting your raw images for any where it is bothersome. Of course a number of images benefit from this slight effect as it draws attention to the subject in the image.

I did a double-take when reviewing this image and realizing I’d taken it with a 2x TC on my Nikon D600.

It sure doesn’t look like it. You can see some small light falloff that I could have quickly corrected in Camera Raw or Lightroom if I’d thought it detracted from the image.

As with any new lens, this one is best used after calibrating with Datacolor’s excellent SpyderLENSCAL. Most modern camera bodies now let you tweak the AF that way, but this new Sigma lens goes a step further, by letting you adjust the focus over 16 different apertures and ranges using an optional USB dock and software. SpyderLENSCAL makes the process a snap.

Quickly going vertical can be important for capturing action, like these brown bear moms fighting with their reflections in the water. Tripod collars are an important tool for making that happen.

Sample Images

Of course all this is moot if the images aren’t excellent. I’ve created a gallery of sample images so that you can see for yourself the results I obtained. Many of these images relied on both the ability of the lens to zoom out for close work as well as to take teleconverters for some of the longer-range portrait shots. The lens’s quick focus was crucial for the action scenes. Click to see a gallery of larger-size versions of the images. All the images were taken on our Alaska Grizzly Bear & Puffin photo safari this year. We hope you can join us next year when we’re back there again!

Summary: Is This Lens for You?

If you don’t already own a zoom telephoto for safaris and want to invest in a pro-quality solution, the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS HSM Lens is our “Editor’s Choice” for its combination of functionality and value. It is about 1/2 the price of the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens and less than 1/3 the price of the new Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens, while providing the advantage of a fast-focusing, low-light-friendly, f/2.8 maximum aperture. Aside from a quirky tripod collar, the lens hasn’t shown any drawbacks.

Learn More About This Lens and Safari Photography

This lens was featured during the Datacolor & Sigma’s Webinar on Safari Photography I hosted on July 30th. The webinar was recorded and is available to view online.

The complete version of this review, including some charts & tech specs for the lens is available on our Cardinal Photo website, which also features plenty of additional reviews.

is a veteran travel and nature photographer who specializes in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia as well as North American mammals and birds. His images of creatures in the wild help communicate the importance of our natural heritage and our responsibility to preserve it. You can learn more about David on our Friends with Vision page, or on his own website, Cardinal Photo, and its sister site, Nikon Digital, which are both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and tips. Or you can follow David on Facebook or join him on one of his Photo Tours and Safaris for plenty of experience