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Review: Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 is One Sexy Beast

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When Sigma announced a new version of the much loved 120-300 f/2.8 I immediately kicked myself for buying a much pricier 300mm Nikon about 6 months earlier. The reasons why may not be readily apparent, but we’ll get to that. First let’s discuss the aesthetics and specs.

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The weight of this thing is impressive, yes it’s heavy but it’s manageable even handheld. If you frequently shoot this handheld you’ll likely develop massive biceps and soon enough you’ll be that guy who skipped leg day.

Thanks to two steps of Optical Stabilization it really is capable of being shot support free, as long as your arms can handle at least. But it is doable.

I shot support free as much as I could muster and once I became accustomed to the mass it wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to unless it would be for an extended period of time. For the record, everything in this review was shot hand held.

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The included hood feels like it could withstand an airmail trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When it’s mounted the locking screw grips like a mother grasps her newborn, it will never come off. It does add roughly 5 inches to the overall length of the lens but that extra depth at the front might be appreciated when you’re shooting track side with debris coming your way.

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The front accepts a 105mm filter. Sigma’s own brand of UV filters run near the $100 mark but there is pricier protection available by way of B+W and Heliopan. The front element is pretty well protected by the long hood on the front but like a night out on the town I’d always roll with some protection if I were you.

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Keeping in line with all of Sigma’s new lenses, this beast is a sexy one. In fact let’s just agree to call it “The Sexy 123″ from now on. Slap a hood to the front and I dare you not to drool just a little. It’s aesthetically exquisite. It’ll bring all the boys to your yard and if that yard happens to be a 10 acre farm you’ll be able to use the Sigma 120-300mm to snap their portraits from a quarter mile out.

Working from the front to the back I can’t help but feel like declaring that this is one of the more eye pleasing lenses I’ve ever held. It’s matte black but there’s a hint of sheen about the body. The focus and zoom rings felt very comfortable in my left hand. The tripod foot is large with three holes to accommodate any style of plate you own and feels very, very firm in the hand: no rattles, shakes or shimmies to be found.

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Sigma puts this in the “Sports” category of their newly revamped lens line up and though I shoot a lot of sports, in my opinion it was a foregone conclusion that a $3599 “sports” lens is going to be absolutely golden for sports coverage.

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And it I was right.

The ability to zip from 120 to 300 was amazing for things like hockey and other indoor sports like basketball or volleyball. The standard lens for these affairs being the 70-200mm — commonly found to be a little too wide at 70 and not quite tight enough at 200 — was now a bench warmer to the Sigma 120-300.

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With that extra 100mm I was suddenly able to push tight without having to grab the second body with a fixed 300mm mounted. It was liberating and now I had a body I could commit to more artistic avenues like the fisheye or tilt/shift while the 120-300 ruled for normal action shots.

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The speed of focus tracking was snappy and no less should be expected. I locked focus on players as they sped past and had absolutely no problem maintaining focus as I snapped at 9 frames a second.

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300mm at 100% crop.

Oh and by the way, it’s sharp. No surprises and it’s probably not worth getting into it but shooting at f/2.8 without the available adjustments Sigma offer via it’s new dock tool, the 120-300 is incredibly sharp, even when attaching a teleconverter as you’ll see.

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The two levels of OS mentioned earlier go a long way to helping diminish handshake that becomes especially apparent at 200mm and up, aiding in maintaining sharpness and compositional choices.

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But it gets better. Sigma has done something amazing with this lens by providing not one but two user customizable settings to modify tracking, focusing speed, Optical Stabilization and even the focal range. So cool.

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The Sigma dock is small enough to toss in your bag and forget. Nimble and simple enough to modify in the field too.

So lets say every baseball game you’re anticipating a play at home plate. You know that home plate is about 100-125 feet from your shooting position. You could set a custom distance for auto focus to trap within. When there is a runner on third and a chance of a play at home, quickly flip the switch with your left supporting hand and compose on home plate with no fear that your lens will suddenly decide it’s a good time to go hunting to minimum focus distance.

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The software couldn’t be simpler either and it’s quite nice to see they’ve done such a great job on this. The only thing that could make it better would be the ability to make these changes with the dock via an Android or iPhone, leaving the laptop at home while on the job.

The fact you can customize this to your own hearts content is amazing and something every sports photographer is going to love.

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Shot with Sigma’s 1.4x teleconverter attached and hand held.

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The 100% crop of the above photo. Keeping in mind this was the 120-300 plus Sigma’s 1.4 teleconverter.

“Hey that’s not sports, that’s a dog and he’s not even moving!” you’re shouting at your computer screen right now in rage.

You’re right, it isn’t.

When this Sigma showed up on my doorstep I’d decided that while there is a shiny S adorning the lens barrel, it doesn’t have to be strictly for sports. So I was determined to use it for things other then pure sports and fast action subjects.

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For portraiture it is just dreamy. What some might not be obvious to some is that on a full frame camera the wide end of this 120-300 happens to start smack dab in the middle of “portrait zone” (85mm to 150mm). It’s close enough to the tight end of my 24-70, that after bridging the gap with a fast 85mm I didn’t even bother to bring my 70-200 anymore, I just didn’t need it.

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So that is sports and portraiture ticked off the list. What about landscape? Yep. It does that too.

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We spent a few days hiking Gros Morne National Park on Canada’s east coast. Usually when I hike I tend to flip flop from one extreme to the other: bring everything I own or bring the most minimal kit I can manage.

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As I’ve already alluded to, the 120-300 has rid me of the 70-200 and certainly it’s freed me of the similarly sized fixed focal length telephoto in Nikon livery that weighs not much less.

Already by dropping the 70-200+300mm combo in favor of just the Sigma 120-300mm I’ve shed almost a pound in the difference and gained some much needed space in my pack.

And the crazy part is that optically I feel I’m better off.

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Vignetting becomes a little apparent after 200mm, even stopped down to f/5.6. It’s nothing that can’t be squashed in post and isn’t something that should turn you away from a purchase. If you’re anything like me and everyone else on Instagram you’re adding a hint of vignetting to half your photos anyway.

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While there is a little flaring it’s important to note that I was pointed directly at the setting sun for this photo. It couldn’t of been a more inappropriate and expected composition to provoke flaring on this lens, minor as it were.

Conclusion

First and foremost is the convenience factor of the focal range. As mentioned above it’s glorious to go from the 70-200 to 120-300. The 120-300mm is joyfully practical on a level that’s not quite comparable to any other lens I own.

But let’s try.

You know how your 14-24 is so great you never say “I wish this was a 14-35″… wait, err… well, I may have said that once, or twice. Well, you know how you’re shooting a wedding, full rack on the 24-70 and you think “am I ever happy this does not go to 85mm, what an absolute pain that would be”… I know I say that every time. Right?

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OK so maybe it isn’t comparable.

The thing is, I own a 300mm and it’s Nikon’s lightest f/2.8 300mm AF they have ever made. It doesn’t have VR, but that’s OK by me. I’d rather be able to handhold it along the sideboards all night during a hockey game then not. The various forms of lens stabilization all add weight and I made a decision to avoid the weight, in the interest of my back. But what can be annoying is the inability to zoom, even just a little.

Being backed into a fixed focal length corner at that range is tough. In fantasy land if Nikon made a 200-300 f/2.8 I’d be all over it. With a fixed 300mm you’re committed to being super tight on every shot, swapping lenses or grabbing the other body when or just after something has happened perhaps missing it. It becomes a trade off, weight vs. range and Sigma’s done an amazing job of tempting me to fully switch my featherweight 300mm to this heavyweight 120-300mm.

Which wasn’t unexpected. What the boys and girls at Sigma have been doing lately — reinventing their entire line up of glass and maintaining their price points while doing so — has been amazing, especially for budget photographers, and these days who isn’t a budget photographer?

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I gave Sigma’s new Art Series 35mm f/1.4 a little bit of flack for a squeak issue no doubt caused by shipping, but I own that lens now and it flew right to the top of my very short list of favorite lenses. This says a lot for someone who years ago wouldn’t buy a Sigma lens to save his life, avoiding them like a cat fighting a bathtub.

Like their new 35mm, the 120-300 is exceptional in every way and though Sigma tells us it’s in their Sports lineup, I’m more inclined to put it in the Superb line.