Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Sigma 70-300 f4 - 5.6, or Why I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Crappy Zoom

One the few purchases was the Sigma 70-300mm f4 - 5.6 Macro. I was still a naive, wet-behind-the-ears photographer, and I thought that a 'zoom lens', even one worth less than €200, would enable me to take stunning photos of hummingbirds in flight, across continents. At night. In the fog. Sitting on the shoulders of a Parkinson's patient. Sadly, it wasn't to be, and as my 'arsenal' of lenses grew modestly, I realised just what a dud this particular one is. It's soft, unless at f8 or above, and nowhere near the end of the zoom. It's slow, the whole way through, to the point where anything taken at speed in less than midday sun will more than likely be blurry. The below represents just about the best I have managed with this lens from a wildlife point of view (the reason I bought it). It was taken at f8 - the only usable f-stop, in extremely bright sunlight, but even so I had to up my ISO to 400 to just barely freeze the action: the shutter speed was 1/320, the minimum needed to stop a bird in flight. It's also not very close: if I went in any closer than 220mm it would have been unusably soft. The fact that the photo is mildly underwhelming is testament to the poor quality of this lens for this type of photography.

Bird in Flight

So am I just whining, again? No, actually, I have a point, sort of. While this lens is essentially useless for wildlife or fast-moving photography, it does have other uses which I had didn't have in mind when I bought the lens, but have become hugely useful. A slow telephoto is perfect for capturing some slightly different landscape images. When you're sick of the same wide, sweeping shot, a lens like this is perfect for squashing together the perspective of a line of fields or the lines on a beach. It also allows you to isolate details in mountains, for example. For all my complaining about the lens, in fact, it has been on my camera for some of my favourite ever shots. Here are a couple:

This first is one of my all-time favourites. Notice the compressed lines on the beach:


Here's a wider shot taken at the same time. It's just a bit, meh...


Another shot that was boring as a wide-angle. The hedges are all compressed, creating interesting lines again.


Lastly, one of the Swiss Alps. This is that isolating detail business I was talking about...