150-600mm zoom lenses compared
Many years ago Canon had an FD 150-600/5.6 lens which was very large, very heavy and very expensive. It has been out of production for over 25 years now and in that time, as far as I know, no other 150-600mm zoom lenses have been available until quite recently. In November 2013 Tamron announced the Tamron SP 150-600/5-6.3 Di VC USD. Less than a year later (September 2014) Sigma announced the Sigma 150-600/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C (Contemporary) and 150-600/5-6.3 DG OS HSM S (Sports) lenses.
Left to right: Tamron 150-600, Sigma 150-600 “Contemporary”, Sigma 150-600 “Sports”
The Tamron and Sigma Contemporary lenses are very similar in size, weight and cost, while the Sigma Sports lens is slightly larger, significantly heavier and twice the cost. The difference between the Sigma sports and contemporary lenses is that the sports lens is built for hard professional use, with more extensive weather sealing and the use of more metal components in place of composite plastics. Optically the major difference is that the Sports lens uses two large diameter FLD elements at the front of the lens, while the Contemporary version (like the Tamron lens) uses two large SLD elements. While both are low dispersion glasses, the FLD is closer to the performance of fluorite “glass” (with anomalous dispersion characteristics) and so should better suppress chromatic aberration. Both the Tamron and Sigma contemporary lenses are aimed more at the advanced amateur market. They make greater use of plastic composite materials in place of metal, which results in less weight, and less expensive optics which makes them more affordable.
Lens Specifications Compared
Tamron SP 150-600/5-6.3 Di VC USD Sigma 150-600/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Sigma 150-600/5-6.3 DG OS HSM
Lens Construction 20 elements in 13 groups 20 Elements in 14 Groups 24 Elements in 16 Groups Special elements 2 large low dispersion
1 small low dispersion
2 large low dispersion
1 small FLD
1 small low dispersion
2 large FLD
3 small low dispersion
diaphragm blades 9 9 9 minimum aperture f32-40 f22 f22 Min Focus Dist 270cm/106.3in 280 cm / 110.2 in 260cm/ 102.4 in Max Mag 0.2x 0.2x 0.2x Diameter x Length 105.6×257.8mm
105×260.1mm 4.1×10.2in 121×290.2mm 4.8×11.4in Weight 1951g (4.3 lb) 1930g (4.25 lb) 2860g (6.3 lb) Filter Size 95mm 95mm 105mm Focus zones 2 3 3 IS modes 1 2 2 Physically Compatible with Canon TCs No Yes Yes Programmable No Yes (with USB Dock) Yes (with USB Dock) Mount Conversion possible No Yes (by Sigma) Yes (by Sigma) Street Price (B&H 09/15) $1069 ($999 after rebate until 12/31/15) $1089 $1999 Warranty (USA lenses only1) 6 years 4 years 4 years Available Mounts Canon, Nikon
Sony (No VR)
Canon, Nikon, Sigma Canon, Nikon, Sigma
1 These warranties only apply to USA lenses purchased in the USA by US residents from US Authorized Dealers. They do not apply to “grey market” lenses unofficially imported into the US.
A unique feature of the Sigma lenses is that they can be reprogrammed by the user using the Sigma USB Dock. This is a device which connects the lens to a computer via a USB interface. Software from Sigma allows the firmware of the lens to be updated, the AF of the lens to be adjusted (to compensate for any observed front of back focus) and two “custom” settings to be stored in the lens. These custom settings (enabled by a switch on the lens) allow two sets of focus speed, image stabilization characteristics and focus range to be stored. Since this is a review of the lenses, not the USB Dock, I won’t go into the details of the USB Dock system but you can read about it on the Sigma website.
The Tamron lens is available in mounts for Canon, Nikon and Sony. The Sony mount version does not have VR because in the Sony system stabilization is accomplished via sensor shift in the camera body rather than optically in the lens. The Sigma lenses are not available in a Sony mount but are available in Canon, Nikon and Sigma mount versions. Uniquely, Sigma offer a service to change the mount on the lens if you change camera systems. This has to be done by Sigma themselves (it takes from 2 to 4 weeks) and there is a charge for the service, which I believe is $250 for these lenses. Options are Canon, Nikon or Sigma for the 150-600 zooms.
All three lenses have a rotating ring tripod mount. The entire mount is removable on the Tamron and Sigma Contemporary lenses (which can make them easier to hand hold), but not on the Sigma Sports lens. However the tripod foot is removable on the Sigma Sports lens and can be replaced with the Sigma TS-81, which is an extended tripod foot with a built in Arca-Swiss style quick release plate ($284). In order to make the lens easier to handhold, the Sigma Contemporary lens is supplied with a thick rubber band which fits in the gap left when the tripod ring is removed.
The Tamron and Sigma contemporary lenses do not have any click stops for horizontal/vertical positions but the Sigma sports lens does (4 positions at 90 degree intervals). Lens rotation within the tripod ring was smoothest on the Sigma Sports lens, and was quite good with the less expensive Tamron lens. Rotation of the Sigma contemporary lens was a little less smooth.The tripod foot for the Tamron lens is larger then that on the Sigma contemporary and it also has “finger grips” molded in, making it easier to carry the lens. The foot on the Sigma Sports lens was the longest of all (with three tripod mounting positions) and a little closer to the lens body. Of the three lenses, the Tamron was most comfortable to carry by the tripod foot.
All three lenses can be operated in an autofocus mode on all Canon, Nikon and Sony (Tamron) or Sigma (Sigma) bodies despite their maximum aperture of f6.3 in the 400-600mm focal length range. Many cameras have an AF limit of f5.6 and if the camera body detects a lens with a smaller maximum aperture, AF is disabled. By some sort of electronic trickery, these lenses all autofocus without problems at f5.6 on such bodies, report the true aperture of f6.3 and have no exposure issues. Whether focus is as accurate as an f5.6 lens and whether it focus accuracy degrades faster in low light is something that would be very difficult to measure (and made even more difficult by the lack of any native prime 600mm f5.6 lenses). The 1/3 stop slower aperture certainly isn’t going to help AF and 1 1/3 stop faster lenses like the 500mm and 600mm f4 primes will certainly allow better AF in low light situations.
Full time manual focus is supported by all three lenses, which means the MF ring is active at all times and can be used to “touch up” the results of AF without having to switch the lens into manual focus mode.
Manual focus ring on Sigma Contemporary lens
All three lenses can be operated in a manual focus only mode. The Tamron SP 150-600/5-6.3 Di VC USD has a 1" wide rubberized focusing ring which has a very smooth action and very small adjustments in focus are quite easy to make. The Sigma 150-600/5-6.3 DG OS HSM “C” has a 3/4" wide focusing ring with a 1/2" rubberized section of which about 1/4" is textured (see image above). The focusing is stiffer than the Tamron lens which makes it significantly more difficult to make very fine focus adjustments than with the Tamron lens. The Sigma 150-600/5-6.3 DG OS HSM “S” has a very smooth and easy to adjust manual focusing ring, much closer to the feel of the Tamron lens than the Sigma Contemporary.
The Sigma lenses also have a “manual override” focus mode in which manual focus takes precedence over autofocus at all times, even during the autofocus process and during high speed continuous shooting.
Many lenses, especially 3rd party lenses, are marked with their “nominal” focal length. Most correspond to standard focal lengths such as 300, 400, 500 and 600mm. The usual standard applied to these markings is that the actual focal length should be within 5% of the marked focal length. At 600mm the focal length should therefore be somewhere between 570mm and 630mm.
Measuring actual focal length is a somewhat tricky and involved process, but it’s easy to compare the focal length of two lenses by looking at the scale of the recorded image. I have previously calibrated my EF Canon 500/4.5L at 500.1mm, so using this as a standard I compared the size of the image of a target taken with the Canon 500mm to the size taken with the other lenses set to 600mm. In all cases focus was set to infinity. I found the following:
- Tamron 150-600/5-6.3 Di VC USD @ nominal 600mm – actual 590mm
- Sigma 150-600/5-6.3 DG OS HSM “C” @ nominal 600mm – actual 583mm
- Sigma 150-600/5-6.3 DG OS HSM “S” @ nominal 600mm – actual 591mm
These numbers are within the 5% standard. It’s pretty much universally true that actual focal lengths of telephoto lenses are always equal to or shorter then the marked focal length. In fact I’ve never seen a telephoto lens that was significantly longer in focal length than it was marked. I’ve seen a lot that were shorter though!
All three of these lenses effectively shorten the focal length when close focused. A very rough “back of the envelope” calculation suggests that at minimum focus distance (around 2.7m for all these lenses) the effective focal length of all of these lenses drops to something in the 350-400mm range.
This change in focal length typically isn’t of much practical importance. However it does mean that the magnification you get at closer focus distances at 600mm is slightly less than you might expect from a 600mm lens that didn’t change focal length.
The zoom rings on the Tamron and Sigma lenses operate in opposite directions. For the Sigma lenses, to zoom from wide to telephoto the zoom ring is rotated to the left (anti-clockwise as seen from the rear of the lens), while for the Tamron lens it is rotated to the right (clockwise as seen from the rear of the lens).
Left: Sigma lens Right: Tamron lens. Note different zoom ring rotation directions
Canon lenses zoom in the same direction as the Sigma lenses, Nikon lenses zoom in the same direction as the Tamron lens.
Note that these lenses can be used in a push-pull more. In doing so it causes the zoom ring to spin. On the Tamron 150-600 and Sigma 150-600 contemporary, the push-pull action isn’t very smooth and precise focal length setting is much easier using the rotating zoom ring. I’m not sure if either lens was intended to be used in a push-pull mode, but the Sigma Contemporary has a rubberized section at the front of the lens, suggesting it might be intended as a push-pull grip. The Sigma Sports lens has a very smooth push-pull action.
However the problem with making a lens zoom via both push-pull and rotation mechanism is that if you make the push-pull action to smooth and easy, you’ll get zoom creep where the lens will extend to full zoom if pointed down or retract if pointed up. This is exemplified by the Sigma 150-600 Sports which has a very smooth push-pull action, but which fairly easily changed focal length when pointed up or down, spinning the focusing ring as it slid back and forth. Even at an angle of 45 degrees up or down the focal length would change
The Tamron and Sigma contemporary lenses were stiff enough that there was no zoom creep, even with the lens held vertically.
Both Sigma lenses can be locked at any of the marked focal length positions. The Tamron can only be locked at 150mm. At any position other than 150mm, the lock on the Sigma lenses was a soft lock, meaning that the zoom ring can still be turned and the lens slips out of lock mode if a little force is applied. At 150mm the lock must be released before the zoom ring will turn.
All three lenses are f5 @ 150mm and f6.3 at 600mm, but they differ very slightly in the focal length ranges at which the maximum aperture changes. The number below give the approximate focal length ranges which correspond to the apertures listed with the lenses mounted on a Canon EOS 6D, which reads out aperture to the nearest 1/3 stop
Maximum Aperture f5.0 f5.6 f6.3 Tamron 150-225mm 226-427mm 428-600mm Sigma Comtemporary 150-179mm 180-387mm 388-600mm Sigma Sports 150-184mm 185-320mm 321-600mm
It’s interesting that according to the aperture indicated on the camera and recorded in the EXIF image data, the Tamron lens changes aperture at slightly longer focal lengths than either Sigma lens and that Sigma Contemporary lens changes aperture at slightly longer focal lengths than the more expensive Sigma Sports lens. However the difference in actual aperture at any given focal length is probably very small, certainly less than 1/3 stop and of no practical consequence.
I measured the time taken to go from infinity to close focus of each of the lenses in bright light using an EOS 6D body. This is the maximum time it could take to find focus (or fail to find focus), under the worst possible conditions. These were the results:
- Tamron @ 600mm – Inf to CF 0.6s
- Tamron @ 150mm – Inf to CF 0.3s
- Sigma “C” @ 600mm – Inf to CF 1s
- Sigma “C” @ 150mm – Inf to CF 0.65s
- Sigma “S” @ 600mm – inf to CF 0.925s
- Sigma “S” @ 150mm – inf to CF 0.5s
Note that focusing times are a function of both the lens AF speed and the signals it gets from the camera body. AF speeds may differ on different camera bodies and in different lighting conditions. AF speeds are often slower in low light and may be faster on camera bodies with more advanced AF systems. The results reported here are only valid for these lenses when mounted on a Canon EOS 6D and focusing is done in bright light.
All three lenses have the option to reduce the focusing range to speed up focus acquisition if you know the approximate distance your subject is likely to be at. The Sigma lenses focus range can be set to 2.6m to infinity, 10m to infinity or 2.6m to 10m. The Tamron can be set to 2.6m to infinity or 15m to infinity.
In actual use, where focus movement is typically fairly small, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of difference between the lenses. Focus was accurate, with no systematic front or back focusing seen with any of the lenses. There were a few very small shot to shot differences in focus from all the lenses, but these differences were very small and only detectable when looking at 100% crops of static targets. Focus appeared to be within the specifications for the Canon cameras used for the testing (using phase detection AF and f5.6 lenses the stated focus accuracy is “within the depth of focus”).
All three lenses have optical stabilization. Sigma use their “OS” (optical stabilization) system, while Tamron use their “VC” (vibration control) system. Both have sensors in the lens which detect motion and a set of elements which can be physically moved to compensate for the motion of the lens and keep the image steady on the sensor.
Both Sigma lenses have two settings. One optimized for static subjects and one for when the lens is panned to follow a moving subject. The Tamron lens has a single setting.
Testing the effectiveness of stabilization is difficult. I shot several sequences of 10 images at each setting on each lens at two focal lengths (200mm and 600mm). I visually examined the resulting images and made a subjective sharpness estimate.
At 200mm the three lenses showed similar levels of stabilization. In each case I could get a significant fraction (>75%) of the images sharp at a shutter speed of 1/30s. I was shooting using a full frame camera and the “rule of thumb” is that you’d need a shutter speed of at least 1/200s for sharp images, so 1/30s would represent 2.66 stops of stabilization. At a shutter speed of 1/15s the number of sharp images was significantly lower, at about 20%.
At 600mm stabilization was a little less effective. The Sigma lenses produced 75% of the images sharp at 1/125s and a lower percentage (~20%) of sharp images at 1/60s. I’d rate this at about 2 stops of stabilization. The Tamron lens was similar, but gave a slightly lower probability of a sharp shot than the Sigma lenses at the same shutter speed.
The Sigma and Tamron systems gave different viewfinder effects. The Tamron lens gave a visually more stable image than the Sigma lenses. With the Tamron it was quite clear when the stabilization was active. The Sigma lenses gave a viewfinder image that was more fluid. The image didn’t look as stable as the image from the Tamron lens, but the actual recorded image showed at least as much stabilization as the Tamron lens, possibly a little more.
As mentioned above, the Sigma lenses also have a setting for use when the lens is being panned to follow a subject. While I didn’t explicitly test this mode of operation, I did notice that if you accidentally have the switch in mode 2 (panning) and you shoot a static subject, results are not as good as they are in mode 1 (static subject). I did try customizing the Sigma OS system using the USB dock. This allows a setting which makes the viewfinder image more stable (similar to that of the Tamron lens). According to Sigma this shouldn’t affect the actual stabilization, only the viewfinder image. I don’t know how this is supposed to work, but in fact I found that with the visually more stable image, actual stabilization was reduced.
Note that the shutter speeds that I needed for sharp images may not be the same as you would need. If your hands are steadier than mine you might well get sharp images at even lower speeds.
The Tamron and Sigma Contemporary lenses are somewhat similar in optical design in that they both have two large low dispersion elements at the front, with smaller special elements deeper in the barrel. Both have one additional low dispersion element and the Sigma ads a fluorite-like glass element at the rear. The Sigma Sports lens has two large low/anomalous dispersion fluorite-like elements at the front of the lens and three smaller low dispersion elements deeper in the barrel. The large fluorite-like elements of the Sports lens should theoretically lower overall chromatic aberration and increase image sharpness more than regular low dispersion elements, especially towards the edges and corners of the full frame image.
While I expected the Sigma Sports lens to show better performance (it’s more expensive with more elements, including two large ED-F elements), I really didn’t see much evidence of that. Center and edge sharpness wide open were perhaps slightly better at 600mm, but again the difference was so small even shooting test targets that in practice I’m not sure it would be of much significance.
When results are so similar, you have to consider the fact that I’m testing one sample of each. While good QC produces lenses whose performance falls within a narrow range, there are nevertheless likely to be small differences between any two nominally identical lenses if you look closely enough.
The bottom line is that most of the small observed optical differences between the Tamron lens and the Sigma Contemporary and Sports lenses are probably close the margins of error of measurement and statistical variations between lenses. The differences that are large enough to be real are in the corners of the frame. The Tamron lens does have better full frame corner sharpness than either Sigma lens, for example – at least for the individual lenses I compared.
First, here’s a shot taken with the Sigma 150-600/5-6.3 Contemporary lens at 196mm on a full frame camera (EOS 6D)
Sigma 150-600 Contemporary, 196mm @ f6.3. Left: full frame image (EOS 6D), Right: 100% crop from center
The whole frame is shown on the left, with a 100% crop from the image shown on the right.
Next is a shot taken with the same Sigma 150-600/5-6.3 Contemporary lens on an EOS 6D full frame camera, this time at 600mm, with a small insert showing a 100% crop.
Sigma 150-600 Contemporary, 600mm @ f6.3. Full frame image (EOS 6D)
Next is a shot taken at 150mm and f5.6 using the Sigma 150-600 Sports lens
Sigma 150-600 Sports, 150mm @ f5.6. Full frame image (EOS 6D)
The inset image is a 100% crop from close to the center of the frame.
Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm f6.3, EOS 6D, 1/400s, ISO 3200
No matter how long a lens is, there will be times when it isn’t long enough. Thoughts then naturally turn to the use of teleconverters (TCs). The question then is can you use a TC with these lenses?. TCs are normally used with the lens at its maximum focal length. For these lenses that means 600 mm and the maximum aperture at 600mm is f6.3. Adding a 1.4x TC makes this 840mm and f9 and adding a 2x TC makes this 1200mm and f13.
Most lenses have an f5.6 limit for the normal phase sensitive autofocus using the dedicated AF sensors in reflec viewing mode. Some lenses extend this to f8, but even with these lenses, both a 1.4x and 2x TC will push the lens aperture outside the range of operation of the phase sensitive AF system of any DSLR.
With TCs that “hide” from the camera and don’t report their presence, the camera may still think the attached lens has an aperture of f6.3 (or in the case of these lenses, f5.6 for purposes of allowing the AF system to operate). In this case the camera will try to autofocus. With some lenses and some cameras it may succeed, but with many it will fail. However AF can often be achieved, even at fairly small apertures using contrast detection AF in Live View mode.
With TCs that convey their presence to the camera, two things happen. First the camera sees the true aperture of the lens + TC combination, so it shuts down normal AF if that aperture is outside its limits (typically f5.6 or f8). Second it may modify (slow) the AF speed in order to enable accurate AF at the longer focal length.
It’s not possible (at least for me) to test all three lenses with every possible TC on every possible camera. However I did have three TCs and three cameras available, so I tested those combinations. The TCs were a Tamron 1.4x C-AF MC4, a Canon EF 1.4x (Mk I) and a Canon EF 2x (Mk I). All three date back to the 1990s! The three cameras were a Canon EOS 6D, EOS 70D and EOS 7D.
Note protruding front element of Canon TC (left) compared with Tamron TC (right)
With the Tamron 150-600, only the Tamron 1.4x could be mounted on the lens. The Canon TCs have a protruding front element which is too large to fit into the Tamron lens. As expected, the Tamron 150-600 tried to AF with the Tamron 1.4x, but failed to find focus with all three lenses. Not really surprising since all three cameras are designed only to AF with lenses faster than f5.6 and with the 1.4x TC added, the Tamron lens was at f9. Live View contrast detection also failed with all three lenses. The cameras would attempt to focus, but fail to lock onto the subject. Manual focus was possible of course, and the Tamron 150-600 has a very smooth manual focus action which makes it easy to make small, precise, adjustments to the focus setting.
With the Sigma 156-600 Contemporary lens again, as expected, the lens would not autofocus using phase detection AF using either the Tamron 1.4x TC or the Canon 1.4x TC. At f9 this is not a surprise. With contrast detection AF in live view modes however, AF worked It’s slow and I still have a question about it’s accuracy. I hope to report more on that in a future article when I’ve had time to do more testing.
The Sigma 150-600 Sports was a surprise. It actually autofocused in phase detection mode (normal AF) with the Tamron 1.4x attached. The EOS 70D seemed to need a little more light than the 7D and 6D, but focus could be achieved with all three lenses in good daylight. No AF in phase detection mode with the Canon TCs of course (these report the true aperture of the lens and so cut off any attempt at AF). However again contrast detection AF in live view was possible with both the 1.4x and 2x TCs.
So you can use TCs with these lenses – but how good are the results. Well, in the center of the frame, shots with the 1.4x showed more detail than shots made with the lens at 600mm and enlarged by a factor of 1.4×. Resolution with the TC was worse than without them, but the larger image scale compensated for that. Performance was better stopped down by 2/3 stop (i.e. 840mm @ f11 and 1200mm @ f16) Away from the center of the frame the image with TCs degraded faster than without them, showing increased levels of chromatic aberration and lower sharpness. With the 2x TC it was a toss up whether the central image showed any more detail than the enlarged image, and the edges and corners were certainly worse.
The bottom line is though the use of TCs is possible, it’s not recommended. The lenses become very slow (especially if stopped down for better sharpness) and focus using Live View is slow and much easier if a tripod is used. Using TCs (especially a 2x TC) with any of these lenses is something that should be reserved for situations in which there’s no alternative, and even then I’m not sure the 2x TC will actually be worth using.
The above image shows crops from the Sigma 150-600 Sports lens mounted on an EOS 70D. The leftmost image shows a 100% crop from a shot taken with the lens at 600mm (f6.3). The center 100% crop was taken with a Canon 1.4x TC added to the lens and the distance of the target increased by a factor of 1.4 so that the image scale remained the same. The rightmost crop shows a section of the image taken again at 600mm, but this time at the same distance as the center crop. This crop was enlarged by a factor of 1.4 (i.e. a 140% crop), showing the effect of enlarging the image rather than using a TC.
Results with a the Canon EF 2x on either of these lenses it will fit (the Sigma lenses) aren’t great, even in the center of the image. The lenses needs to be stopped down to f16 for best results, and at f16 there’s significant diffraction softening. I really don’t think there’s much point in using a 2x TC on these lenses. However if you want a large image scale and you’re prepared to so some post exposure correction of chromatic aberration and experiment with sharpening, you can get acceptable images.
Sigma 150-600 Contemporary @ 600mm f8 + Canon 2x TC (= 1200mm f16). EOS 70D 1/100s, ISO 400
Both Tamron and Sigma have their own lines of TCs. It’s probably fair to assume that each would recommend the use of their own TCs on their lenses for best results.
NOTE: If you intend to use contrast detection AF when using TCs, test it. Make sure focus is good when the lens approaches the focus point from further way or closer. If you have any doubts about tthe accuracy of the live view AF, you should consider using manual focus. test before you shoot!
All three of these lenses are capable of yielding sharp images at all focal lengths and at maximum aperture. While the images may get a little sharper if they are stopped down a stop, they still have good results wide open (a significant fact for a lens that’s already f6.3 when zoomed out). Manufacturers f4 prime lenses in the 500-600mm range (and their 200-400/4 lenses) can cost in excess of $10,000. Yes, they are sharper, faster focusing, better built, work well with TCs and are more weather sealed,but that’s of no use if you can’t afford the lens in the first place. A price of around $1000 for the Tamron and Sigma “C” lenses and close to $2000 for the Sigma “S” lens makes these lenses affordable to many photographers and they represent very good value and a level of price/performance that would would not have found 10 years ago (or even 5 years ago).
Taking each lens in turn I’d say these are the most important characteristics:
Making a decision on which lens to buy (or which is “best”) is difficult. For professional field use, the more rugged construction, smoother operation (of manual focus and rotation) and better weather-sealing of the
For normal amateur use the choice between the
If you look at comparably priced lenses, that pretty much rules out all the long telephoto prime lenses from Canon and Nikon (except for the
The closest lens in the Canon lineup to these three 150-600mm zooms is probably the
Nikon have their
Sigma have the