Cyberborean Chronicles

Zoom zoom zoom

After a thousand of shots I made with new Canon EOS 600D and its kit 18-55mm IS lens, I’ve got an itch to extend my focal length limits – specifically, at the longer end. So, I needed a telephoto zoom lens.

Until recently, good long-focus lenses (those huge telescope tubes) were the property of professional photographers and few consumer-oriented models available at the market suffered from average-to-poor image quality. Fortunately, the progress in technologies in last few years changed this situation. Now, it’s not a problem for even an amateur photographer to get an affordable, relatively compact telephoto zoom providing pretty decent performance in a focal range up to 300mm at a reasonable price.

70-300mm

Rambling across Andorra la Vella, I stumbled upon a small but amazingly rich photo store where I picked up a Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS lens. The lens offers a good telephoto range (equivalent to 110-470mm on APS-C DSLR) and features the Sigma’s Optical Stabiliser (OS) technology which, of course, is a must-have at those levels of magnification.

Max magnification of Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS (88mm APS-C)

Max magnification of Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS (470mm APS-C)

The lens initially was meant to be an auxiliary add-on to complement my basic Canon kit for distant shooting. However, Sigma 70-300mm demonstrated some interesting features beyond its long-zoom capabilities and I had a lot of fun playing around with it as with my main lens. Though not being a true macro, it delivers attractive close-ups with impressive bokeh and amusing effects of shallow depth of field:

IMG_1322
Sand

Also I found that at the wide angle end (70mm), it performs well like a portrait lens.

18-250mm

I realized very soon that what I really wanted is one universal lens to cover as much as possible. I understand that this is a disputable point that would likely cause criticism from serious photographers, but an advantage of ability to capture everything without having to swap lenses on the run matters a lot for me. Again, the technology progress in recent years has improved the mega-zoom area significantly and almost all major lens makers now can offer the quite well-made 10-15x zooming constructions featuring a wide focal length range with minimum of compromises in speed and image quality.

After reading some reviews and test reports, I ended up with another product of Sigma: a 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM model. The main advantage is, of course, its 13.9x zoom range that makes it a great general purpose and travel lens.

18mm (29mm APS-C)

50mm (80mm APS-C)

150mm (240mm APS-C)

250mm (400mm APS-C)

Like 70-300mm DG model, this Sigma lens features the image stabilizer which is very helpful for shooting in low light without a tripod (though the tests show that it’s effectiveness is somewhat overrated in specifications). The lens is also equipped with an ultrasonic (HSM) autofocus motor (that the 70-300mm model lacks) which makes focusing amazingly quiet, fast and accurate.

By the specs, the minimum focus distance is 45cm, but it seems like a limit for AF only. In manual focus mode, I can shoot as close as at 10cm for decent close-ups:

For a mid-level superzoom lens, Sigma 18-250mm exhibits outstanding image quality in terms of distortion and chromatic aberrations. Sharpness is another story, though: all tests I saw exposed inconsistency with sharpness across the frame area and focal length range; notably, soft corners and general softness at the telephoto end. But the same reviews suggest that if to stick to aperture size from f8 to f11 at those focal lengths, the image stays pretty sharp. So, this is something I can live with.

Conclusion

Well, if I would start right now, I were forget about the kit lens and get the camera body and a modern superzoom like Sigma 18-250mm (Canon 18-200mm, Tamron 18-270mm, name it…). The lesson I learnt about the modern consumer optics market is that in the low- to mid-level range there is absolutely no point to have a set of lenses only to extend your focal length possibilities. The advantages of having a single all-in-one lens are obvious and the difference of quality given the same price segment is negligible. And it saves money which is better to be spent for specialized tools – something like a super-wide angle or a good fixed portrait lens.

Now, the Sigma 18-250mm completely replaced the Canon’s kit EF-S 18-55mm IS as my main general-purpose lens. Together with EOS 600D, it is compact and light enough, making a handy combo (near 1kg total) I can carry everywhere and shoot without a feel of any limit.

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