Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Contemporary

High-performance features include a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system with revamped algorithms.

Sigma markets two 150-600mm super-telephoto zooms in its Global Vision line-up. The ‘Sport’ lens goes for all-out performance, while the ‘Contemporary’ edition aims to reduce the size and weight, with minimum impact on image quality. Even so, they’re both big, heavy lenses that weigh in at almost 3kg and 2kg respectively. As such, they’re heavy to carry around and feel even heavier when you get into extended periods of handheld shooting.

By stark contrast, Sigma’s newer 100-400mm Contemporary zoom is barely more than a kilogram, and literally takes a load off.

Features

  • Features four SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements
  • Ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system
  • New-generation optical stabilizer

As a direct competitor to Tamron’s recently launched 100-400mm lens, the Sigma is very similar in size, weight and aperture rating. However, despite being only marginally heavier, the Sigma has a more complex optical path, based on 21 rather than 17 elements. Of these, four are SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, aiming to maximize contrast and sharpness while minimizing colour fringing.

High-performance features include a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system with revamped algorithms to increase operational speed. Three switchable focus modes include manual focusing and both auto-priority and manual-priority autofocus modes.  In the latter, you can manually override autofocus without having to wait for it to lock onto a subject, as well as using manual override in continuous or ‘AI Servo’ autofocus mode. A three-position autofocus range limiter switch enables you to lock the range either side of six metres.

There’s a new-generation optical stabilizer that senses and corrects for movement in horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes. As usual for Global Vision lenses, Sigma’s optional USB Dock (£39 / $59) enables performance tweaks and firmware updates. In this case, you can set up two switchable ‘custom’ modes with different autofocus speeds and range limiter distances, as well as assigning alternative stabilization behaviours, for example making the effect of stabilization more or less noticeable in the viewfinder. The USB Dock also enables you to fine-tune autofocus distance accuracy.

Build quality and handling

  • Solid and robust construction
  • There’s no tripod mount collar available
  • Handling is assured with a smooth-action

Build quality feels good throughout, with a solid and robust construction. A weather-seal is fitted to the mounting plate but there are no other weather-seals in the lens. It’s similar to the Sigma 150-600mm|C lens in this respect.

There’s no tripod mount collar available for the lens, whereas Tamron sells one as an albeit expensive optional extra. Sigma’s stance is understandable, as the lens is marketed on its suitability for handheld shooting. Even so, balance is poor when using a tripod or monopod, especially in portrait orientation shooting, so it would be nice to have the choice of an optional ring.

An interesting bonus is that, as well as the regular twist-action zoom ring, the lens is also engineered for push-pull zooming

Overall, handling is assured with smooth-action zoom and focus rings, and useful autofocus and stabilizer modes available via good-quality switches. An interesting bonus is that, as well as the regular twist-action zoom ring, the lens is also engineered for push-pull zooming. Indeed, the supplied lens hood is specially shaped to enable a comfortable grip for this purpose. The downside is that zoom creep can be problematic and, unlike in both of Sigma’s 150-600mm lenses, the zoom lock only works at the lens’s shortest focal length. In the larger lenses, you can lock the zoom ring at any marked zoom distance, for example 150mm, 180mm, 200mm, 250mm and so on.

Performance

  • Optical stabilization is worth about four f/stops
  • Lens aperture is electromagnetically controlled
  • Image quality is very good on the whole

The autofocus system is very rapid consistently accurate. The manual-priority override option works particularly well, as does the similar M/A option in some Nikon lenses. Optical stabilization is worth about four f/stops in static mode and a little less in panning mode.

Like many new Sigma and Tamron lenses, the diaphragm for controlling the lens aperture is electromagnetically controlled. This has always been the case for Canon EF compatible lenses, but Nikon has historically used a mechanical lever for altering the aperture. Electromagnetic control enables greater accuracy and consistency in rapid continuous drive mode but, in some older Nikon DSLRs, you can only use these lenses at their widest aperture setting. The same is true of Nikon’s own ‘E’ type lenses.

Image quality is very good on the whole, with impressive contrast even when shooting wide-open. Centre-sharpness is pretty fair but not as as impressive as from the competing Tamron 100-400mm lens, at any focal length or aperture setting. However, sharpness from the Sigma lens is more consistent across the whole image frame, with less of a drop-off towards the corners. Colour fringing and pincushion distortion are both fairly minimal, and there’s good resistance to ghosting and flare.

Verdict

When a manageable size and weight are more important than outright telephoto reach, the Sigma 100-400mm offers a good compromise between budget 70-300mm lenses and whopping super-telephoto zooms. It’s well-built, handles nicely and boasts some useful up-market features, like dual-mode auto-priority and manual-priority autofocus modes, along with two customisable setups that are easily available from a switch on the lens barrel. However, you’ll need to buy Sigma’s optional USB Dock to initially set up the ‘Custom’ modes.

The Sigma is less expensive to buy than the competing Tamron lens and performs every bit as well in most respects, with a better degree of customisation. However, the Tamron steals a lead for sharpness in the central region of the frame, and has a more comprehensive set of weather-seals. Ultimately, it’s a tough choice between the two lenses but there’s no denying that the Sigma combines good performance and advanced features at a bargain price.