Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO Telemacro HSM Overview

I would love to make this a grand post with lots of pictures and links and great information.

Sadly, I don't have an hour or two to write a blog post at this point. So I'm just going to dash this off and then fill in some blanks later. I figure that is better than to write a post about my decision making on buying a certain lens after I receive it (and my concerns and/or suspicions are faded into history).

A while ago I decided that I wanted a super-telephoto in the 400mm range but compromised with a Sigma 600mm f/8 mirror lens. Since then, while the Sigma has worked pretty well, it has left me wanting a refractive lens so I could actually use more of the shots for stock. Out of boredom (or procrastination) I started monitoring eBay for appropriate lenses.

The first thing I realized was just how many versions there are out there. For instance, these are the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 lenses I know of:

  • Non-Apo. Generally not well reviewed, and not very common. <$150 used, but probably not even worth it unless you can get it really cheap. I haven't seen a lot of them in EOS mount. Suffers from Err 99 (more on that later).
  • APO, but not telemacro. Quite common on eBay, with maybe 6-10 lenses posted a month. Generally seen as a decent performer, but not as good as the telemacro lenses. Easily distinguished by a smaller focus wheel. $150-$250 used. Suffers from Err 99.
  • APO Telemacro. A little less common on eBay -- maybe 3-5 lenses month. The telemacro lenses are very well reviewed and in some cases they've been given better marks than the Canon 400mm f/5.6 USM. A good lens with good optics, but a little on the heavy side. Easily recognized by the monster focus wheel. Most suffer from Err 99. $200-$300 used.
  • APO Telemacro HSM. Pretty rare -- I've seen two this month, but previous months I didn't see any. Optically identical to the non-HSM telemacro and physically only differs slightly, but includes the HSM motor (high speed manual?), a USM equivalent. The most recent version, and only released in EOS mount and (some other mount I can't remember). Some suffer from Err99, but many don't. $250-$400 used.
I've also been keeping an eye out for the Tokina 400mm f/5.6 AT-X SD but that lens is quite rare and does not show up much. Maybe 1-2 a month if you are lucky (beware the manual focus FD version).

For obvious reasons, I've only been looking at the Canon EOS mount since I want autofocus to work on my camera. The big issue with Canon versions of the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO lenses is that most were released before the 20D/350D and newer cameras, when Canon tweaked their lens communication code and caused older Sigma lenses to not work. As a result, most 400mm f/5.6 lenses cause an Err 99 code on newer Canon cameras, locking up the camera.

All is not lost though, since the glitch is something to do with aperture communication when the lens stops down. So, if you keep the lens at f/5.6 (in A or M mode) it does not glitch as much. The down-side of that is you are always shooting wide-open, which makes good lens performance important (which is why the telemacro version is much preferable). Of course, I haven't been able to test one of these lenses, so this is speculation on my part. From a recent eBay auction, the problem is described as:
It works on all Canon EOS cameras, film and digital. However, on a recent digital body like 450D, 30D or the 5D, it must be used at full aperture f/5.6. Auto focus works well and automatic metering can be used in aperture priority mode on these cameras. Manual Focus works always well at any aperture.
The fix for the Err 99 problem is called 're-chipping' the lens, which Sigma used to do for free, but now no longer does it. From what I've heard, 're-chipping' is simply reprogramming the communication chip without even opening the lens up but they call it 're-chipping' out of habit.

Of course, on mounts other than Canon, I've seen no mention of incompatibility problems.

In other auctions, I've seen lenses with the Err 99 incompatibility marked as Not for digital (including the seller adorwin, who I got my lens from, the eBay branch of Adorama). Either way, it is worth asking the seller about the problem. Some have no clue about the glitch though, so beware if you get a strange answer.

In my case, I asked about the problem and got a relatively clear answer but am still not entirely convinced. This was the conversation:
Me: "Does this lens work on a 20D?"
Them: "Yes, it is compatible with Canon 20D."
Me: "So, to be completely clear, this lens does not have the Sigma incompatibility that causes Err 99s on a 20D, 30D, etc.
It has been rechipped (or didn't need the rechip) and works perfectly on newer cameras?"
Them: "It should work fine."
So, I'm 80% sure I'm getting a newer version with no incompatibility. I've definitely heard of the HSM version having the problem and not having the problem. Given the chance of a re-chipped lens, my lens is easily worth the $305 I paid (including shipping). The re-chipped lenses can definitely command a price premium on eBay.

Even without the chip, I was still after a Sigma 400mm f/5.6 telemacro since they are reputed to be quite sharp wide open, and most of the time you'll be shooting wide open with a super-telephoto anyway. It is a nice option to stop down to get a little extra sharpness, but not a deal-breaker.

Watching eBay for a protracted amount of time I noticed a few things that I found odd. For instance, on the lens I won, about half-way through the 10 day auction time two guys got into a bidding war and drove the price over $350. Then, a few days later I checked the price on a whim and found that both bidders were gone! Apparently they both had their bids retracted, which I've never seen before. That seemed a bit odd to me.

Another funny thing was I bid a few times (already in the lead each time) including a final bid raising my max from $283 to $293. Since I wouldn't be around when the auction closed, I wanted to make sure I had the best chance of winning it, but I didn't want to spend more than $300. Well, as it turned out, the guy who was the second place bidder made a final bid of $285. If I hadn't raised my bid by that $10 I would have lost the lens!

Another odd thing I've noticed is the same buyer going after many of these Sigma 400mm f/5.6 lenses even after he's already won one of them. I've also noticed the same seller placing at least two of these lenses up for auction at relatively high prices. I have to wonder if someone is trying to turn a quick buck by flipping these Sigma 400mm lenses. I'll keep watching and try to figure it out!

I have more to say (including the fact that I'm going to sell off a bunch of stuff to pay for this lens), but I'm out of time tonight and I need to get to bed. I should get the lens in the next week or so and I'll at least post an image or two to whet your appetite while I wait until after my defense to get some real time using the lens.

Sigma 400mm Reviews:
Photography Review

1 comment:

Scott said...

You are right on with the Err 99 on any aperture setting besides f/5.6. I have tried an XTi, 30D & T1i.

Is the rechipping something camera shops can do?