Hardware Review – Sigma 50-500mm

A while back I teased about a forthcoming lens review (nearly 3 months ago actually, in the Teaser Alert), and after several project shoots, the holidays, and scheduling delays, I am finally getting my act together to bring you the latest gear review…that of the Sigma 50-500mm.  As a word of caution, you should be forewarned that the Sigma line-up of lenses that I have reviewed has become quite extensive.  Right away this should tell you two things:

  • Sigma has been quite generous with me in terms of making a variety of lenses available.  They likely are doing this for a number of reasons, but primarily because they know that I will give a fair, honest, and 9 times of out 10, a positive review of their equipment.
  • I like Sigma lenses!  It should be no secret by now that I do like their lenses.  They are optically on par with what one would expect from lens manufacturers by todays standards.  Heck, sometimes I think the optical quality even exceeds that of the main brands out there (of course here I mean Canon and Nikon).  The price is almost always right on – sometimes the price tag is a little high for my taste, but the advantage that Sigma has is that they are what is considered a “third party lens”, and because of that designation, their pricing is a notch below comparable lenses made by either Canon or Nikon for equivalent glass.

So, when Sigma came calling (actually I called Sigma), with the 50-500, the game face was put on.  Right off the bat, here Sigma has been more than generous because I have now had this lens in my possession for nearly 3 months!  I’ve posted a few photos from this lens over the past three months, so you may see some repeated images here, but they serve the purpose of demonstrating the various settings that I have used to shoot and test this glass.  Having set the stage, let’s get started with the review.  In the past, I’ve talked about things in terms of Pros and Cons, listing first the things I like, then the things I was not as much a fan of.  While it has worked to a degree, I am trying to make things more uniform in the review section, so will start adhering to some more concise points and then indicating whether it is a pro or a con.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the

Sigma 50-500mm f4.5-6.3 Review

Sigma 50-500mm

1.  Focal Range: The focal range is how lenses are most commonly identified, and this is the measure of how much “zoom” there is in the lens.  Here, the description says it all.  This lens ranges from a widest point of 50mm to an impressive “zoom” of 500mm.  On a crop sensor camera, that means you are looking at a range of 80 to 800mm!  By any standard, this is a pretty wide range, encompassing a difference of nearly 700mm in focal adjustments.  I am going to call this one a Pro.

2.  F-Stop Range: The f-stop range is the measure of the minimum (or maximum depending on your way of thinking) aperture the lens can handle at various lengths.  When dealing with a zoom lens, as you move further out, the elements have to compensate for the change in the length by increasing the size of the opening of the aperture, so you will see adjustments as the lens “zoom” increases.  The Sigma 50-500mm is dialed in to a minimum aperture opening of f4.5 to f6.3.  So, at the widest zoom of 50mm, the lowest aperture setting you can get is f4.5.  Likewise, if you zoom this all the way out to 500, the minimum aperture is f6.3.  So, don’t be misled by the numbers, shooting this lens at 500mm will not afford you the f4.5 that is capable at the widest setting any more than the f2.8 is available on a 70-200 at the longest zoom.  When you have zoom lenses, there is a compromise in aperture capabilities that must be met when zooming out, and such is the case here.  I did some experimenting at various focal lengths, and here are some apparent limits at different zooms:

Focal Length Minimum Aperture
50mm f 4.5
70mm f 5.0
100mm f 5.0
135mm f 5.6
200mm f 5.6
250mm f 6.3
300mm f 6.3
400mm f 6.3
500mm f 6.3

Given the technology of aperture limitations in zooms, I would say that the Sigma is on par with what the expectations would be for this range. To build this lens for any lower aperture settings would make the lens both heavier and longer.  I don’t even want to think about what it would do to the price either!  It’s not the greatest in aperture abilities, but it’s no slouch either.  I’m going to have to thrown an “Even” flag on this.

3.  Noise: I brought in the noise consideration based on my first Sigma lens I ever purchased, the 70mm Macro (f2.8) which did not have HSM.  The inclusion of HSM in almost every lens since has been a Godsend.  This holds true for the 50-500mm as well.  It’s super quiet and has convinced me that I will never stray off the Hyper Sonic Motor (or USM on Canon glass, ever gain!  ‘Nuff said.  Pro

4.  Size/Weight: My last big lens I reviewed here was the 18-250.  It was a respectable weight, but this is by far the heaviest lens I’ve ever tested.  Weighing in at a shade upder 4.5 lbs (that’s 1970 grams for you Metric folks), it can cause some serious arm strain after extensive shooting.  I would recommend using either a monopod or a tripod for this lens whenever possible.  It also bears mentioning here that due to the weight of the lens, you want to support it in the provided collar.  Supporting the rig by the camera can result in some serious shear force, which can rip the lens right off the camera.  Other size considerations involve the length of the lens both fully closed and fully extended.  This will draw some eyes at either end…whether it be the short side (8.5″) or the long side (12″)!  Here’s a comparison shot with it next to several other lenses so you can get an idea of its relative size:

Lens Size Comparison

Another consideration to take into account about this size is the filter required.  For those interested in using the ND filters to protect front elements, you will need a 95mm filter to cover this – not a cheap thing to purchase by any means.  Ultimately the size/weight considerations really will depend on your personal ability to handle it effectively.  For me, most of the time it was not a factor, so I’ll acquiesce and call it a Pro.

5.  Build Quality: In line with expectations, the Sigma quality showed here.  Their now easily recognizable textured exterior exudes professionalism, and just feels good in your hands.  Given the weight of the lens, you don’t want to hold this gingerly, but at the same time, if the body took a slight bump from another lens in your bag, the “other lens” would likely bear the brunt of it.  No questions here.  It’s a Pro.

6.  OS/IS/VR: Due to the limited aperture range, and the weight, the presence of OS is invaluable.  Using the OS allows you to keep your aperture value low, allowing for bother faster manipulation and shorter shutter speeds, as well as some nice bokeh in the background when your distances are good.  What was extra nice about this is the ability to toggle between the vertical and horizontal planes to control vibration in different circumstances.  When I was on a monopod, I switched to OS 2 to help control vertical (or up and down) vibration.  When shooting handheld, I was on OS 1 most of the time, under the premise that my own face, body and camera holding helped to minimize the vertical and thus needed more help with horizontal.  When I was on a tripod, I turned it off per normal procedures for when using OS/IS/VR.  In my book, having versus not having OS/IS/VR is definitely a Pro.

7.  Cost: The average retail market for this lens is approximately $1500.  Given the focal range, the aperture range, and other considerations thus far, it seems to be pretty competitive.  The Canon lens with the longest zoom range is their 100-400 and that factors in at $1800.  Nikonians can salivate over their 80-400 for $1850.  Both price in over the Sigma lens, and it still gives an extra 110-150mm of variable range.  For my own personal budget, that’s a tougher call because while I would love to own this lens – I would have to sell something else to do so, and am not sure I want to dispose of anything else in my camera bag at the moment…the jury is out on this for me personally, but for those interested in purchasing any time soon:  Pro

8.  Image Quality: Image quality is always subjective to the viewer/shooter, so here I will just let everyone defer to their own tastes by sharing a few sample images taken over the last few months:

The Sigma 50-500 at 50mm

The Sigma 50-500 at 50mm f8.0

The Sigma 50-500 at 500mm f8.0

The Sigma 50-500 at 244mm f6.3

The Sigma 50-500 at 50mm f9.0

The Sigma 50-500 at 144mm f9.0

The Sigma 50-500 at 450mm f9.0

The Sigma 50-500 at 500mm f6.3


The Sigma 50-500 at 500mm f6.3

Kissing Squirrels

The Sigma 50-500 at 113mm f5.6


The Sigma 50-500 at 113mm f5.6

Chopper Series

The Sigma 50-500 at 332mm f8.0

The Sigma 50-500 at 500mm f6.3

The Sigma 50-500 at 332mm f16


Other features that bear mentioning here include the locking mechanism and the focusing rings.  I thought about including the latter in the build quality, but decided to bring it in here for discussion.  First, the locking mechanism is a handy feature to have for keeping the lens locked in place to prevent lens creep.  The idea is a good one, but for this particular lens, it would not lock in the “zoomed” position, where I would have thought lens creep would be more of an impact, than in the “closed” position.  Having said that, from the lunar shots I did (as shown above), the fully extended lens did not experience much, if any, creep.  This could be because the lens was recently brought back from a service stop where knobs and buttons and toggles were all tightened and such.

This brings me to the focusing rings.  The rear focusing ring is the one used for fine tuning and the front ring is for zoom.  This was an adjustment for me as my other zoom lenses have these rings reversed (where the zoom is on the back ring and the focus is on the front ring).  it forced me to change my style of shooting a little, but since I was working off a lens-mounted setup most of the time rather than a camera-mounted setup, my shooting habits were already being adjusted anyway.  The last part is that the zoom ring did seem a bit tight to move.  Whether this is by design or because of the recent factory adjustments, I am not sure, but it was just a tad stiff to adjust.


All in all, the Sigma 50-500mm is a great lens.  It stood up for the challenges of both wildlife and aerial photography, as well as lunar and even a portrait shot of the canine companion.  The compression it exhibits at the far end (which is characteristic of these long zooms) is to be expected, but I would probably not be using this for landscapes unless I was in a pinch and had no other lens with me.  Still, it could be done, depending on what kind of landscape you are trying to capture.  The zoom really had no noticable effect on image quality without going into some serious pixel peeping, and thus, meets or exceeds all criteria that I can think of.  I would definitely make a positive recommendation on this lens for either a wildlife or sports shooter where distance from subjects is often greater than 10-15 feet.  (The minimum focusing distance at 500mm is something like 6 feet!)

That does it for today – I hope you enjoyed the review and photo gallery from the Sigma 50-500.  Here’s the final results/scores I give the lens:

Category Score
Focal Range 8
F-Stop Range 7.0
Lens Motor Noise 8.5
Size/Weight 7
Build Quality 9.5
Optical Stabilization 8.0
Cost 7.0
Image Quality 8

Have you shot with this lens?  Share your own thoughts in the comments or with me via email.  Likewise, if you have a lens you would be interested in having me review, feel free to drop me a line or share your requests through the comment area as well.  Special thanks to Sigma for giving me such an extended testing period to review the lens, and we’ll see you here again soon!  Happy shooting!


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12 comments for “Hardware Review – Sigma 50-500mm

  1. January 17, 2011 at 7:14 am

    So if you extended all the way out to 500mm and you were at f6.3, did you find that the depth of field was just about right? It seems like at that focal length you’d have to be careful about nailing the focus even at f6.3.

    I couldn’t really see us using this lens as wedding and portrait photographers. We need faster glass. I guess for wildlife photographers it might be a good fit though.

    • January 17, 2011 at 8:37 am

      At 500mm, the minimum focusing distance is about 6 feet (71 inches I think). When I focused on a subject, anything more than a foot or so behind the subject went out of focus rather quickly. (See picture #5 above of the dog.)

      As with DOF, the further you are from your subject, the more of the surrounding will be in focus, and the closer you are to your subject, the less of the background will be in focus. It’s all about positioning, and while this is likely not a good lens for weddings and standard portrait photographers in their normal routine, the opportunities presented by being able to catch a particular image without intruding or risk is pretty good. (This is why it’s so well suited to wildlife and sports.)

  2. January 17, 2011 at 8:31 am

    I find that you skipped a really important part,
    The image quality of the lens:
    And by that dont mean doing a dpreview super extensive charts and numbers overload test instead a simpler version test of which focal lengths are the strongest and weakest in sharpness considering how much of a compromise lens this is between zoom focal length and image quality.

    • January 17, 2011 at 8:38 am

      Part 8 spoke to IQ – and rather than give my own subjective thoughts on IQ, I demonstrated the types of images that I produced in normal use for people to make their own judgements on IQ. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  3. January 17, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Interesting review, Jason! I’ve had two concerns when thinking about this lens.
    First, I suspect that with a focal length range this long there will be significant distortion/image degradation at one or both extremities of the range. Maybe there’s not, but it seems that’s always part of the trade-off you get between image quality and convenience. Given the size of the sample photos you posted, I can’t really tell, but it’s kinda important if you’re doing decent-sized gallery prints. Thanks for the photos, by the way; they do really help me visualize the stunning range in focal length of this lens.
    The second concern is with Sigma; from what I’ve heard their quality control tolerances are set pretty high, meaning it can be somewhat of a crapshoot getting a good copy of a lens (which is partly why I’ve just stuck with Canon so far). Have you encountered that at all, or can you basically depend on being satisfied with the first copy of a lens you get?
    Note: I do realize that this can be an issue with any lens/camera duo, regardless of brand: they can both be within their manufacturer’s tolerances, but if they’re at opposite ends of the tolerance they won’t play well together.

    • January 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for the input, and you are right – there will always be distortion in lenses with any amount of variable zoom. The greater the difference between near and far ends, the more distortion there will be, it’s simply a matter of physics. For me generally, I will dial things back about 10% from the extreme ends to minimize this distortion effect. For the 50-500 that meant I typically will dial things into a range of about 55-450 in most situations.

      The reach is there when you need it though, and for wildlife and sports shooters, that extra reach can be the difference between getting and missing a shot. So, contending with distortion is just part of the game. Luckily, Lightroom does an admirable job of correcting for distortion in post production, so to the extent that it exists, the factor has never really been a concern for me.

      As far as the QC issues with Sigma, I have yet to experience any issue with the lenses I have tested. Whether the folks at Sigma like me and are only sending me “good glass” is not something I am equipped or aware of.

      Having said that, Sigma knows that I will give my honest opinion on a lens, and if something is lacking, I do not “hold back”. I’ve had issues with distortion and QC in several lenses in the past, but not so much with Sigma.

      To that end, I would venture to suggest that Sigma has made remarkable strides in their optical quality from even ten years ago. There is often a perception that third party glass is third party glass for a reason, and while the preconceptions are based on traditionally accurate assessments, I would content that those perceptions be re-assessed due to improvements in processes, technologies, and advances made on the part of all 3rd party manufacturers, Sigma being the one that has improved most markedly!

  4. Gary
    January 17, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    This compares pretty closely to the 150-500mm OS I have except for the missing 50-150 focal length, the much closer minimum focusing distance, and of course the $500 difference. I could see where maybe Sigma might look at this lens as a good “walking around” lens, but with bulk factor I don’t think you’ll get many people walking around with this Albatross around their neck (except nuts like me).

    Was wondering though, did you find much drop off in the corners at 50mm?

  5. January 17, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Hi Gary,

    Yes, I did notice a little drop-off in the corners at both ends. This actually is characteristic of most variable zooms. That drop-off can be attenuated more easily in fixed focal lengths, but due to the shifting nature of the lens elements, the physics really prevent elimination completely in variable zooms.

    DOes it drop off more or less compared to other glass in this range? Hard to say as I’ve not done a side-by-side and pixel-by-pixel analysis. The reviews here are really more of a “real world review” rather than a labratory review. I leave those detailed ones to the folks at Popular Photography, DXO Labs, Shutterbug, and others.

  6. January 18, 2011 at 9:55 am

    YIKES!!! The max aperture is f/6.3 at 250mm!?!?! That seals the deal for me. No way I’d buy that lens. Convenient focal range, but I’d much rather have a 200-400mm f/4. Why is it that Sigma makes so many slow lenses?

  7. Jared
    February 1, 2011 at 7:24 am

    Bought this lense last summer and have used it extensively. One of my first shots was at a concert, low light – long range, with no practice- one of the most tack sharp, striking photos I have ever taken. Guitarist picking the strings with his teeth. Next was in flight photos of Bald Eagles- one sequence a Bald Eagle was attacked by a hawk- again, tack sharp, and this took place and exceptionally high speed- it was a point and shoot- just let the shutter fire–again, amazing photos produced. Finally, tripod shot of a full moon, lowest ISO, decent speed, and the image produced makes you feel like you are holding the moon in your hands. I have taken probably two thousand shots with lense- you couldn’t pry this thing from my cold dead hands. Incredible.
    Downside—this baby is heavy- but seriously, did you think you would be carrying a lightweight with this much glass/range?
    Other downside- filters, not many too choose from, and I have been waiting 2 months on backorder for my first one!
    Overall; even with the expense, I have never looked back – great lense!

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