Monday, March 16, 2009

Comparison: Sigma 400mm f/5.6 HSM vs Sigma 600mm f/8 Mirror

I sold my Sigma 600mm this week, but before I shipped it out I did a head to head comparison between the Sigma 600mm f/8 Mirror (Reflex) and the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO Tele-Macro HSM. The result was interesting, but not very surprising.

I tested three lens combinations:
  1. Sigma 400mm alone
  2. Sigma 400mm with 1.4x Tamron-F teleconverter
  3. Sigma 600mm alone (well, using FD-EF adapter without the optical element)
In terms of setup, I shot across my living room and kitchen to a (mostly) flat Costco ad posted on a cupboard door. A single Sunpak 383 at 1/16 power illuminated it to add more light and to avoid any camera shake (the flash effectively makes the shutter speed 1/1000th second or faster). All shots were taken at 1/200 sec, wide open (f/5.6 for the 400mm alone, f/8 for 400mm w/ tele and 600mm), and ISO 100 for f/5.6, ISO 200 for f/8. All shots were manual focus and I took at least five for each, choosing the best to display below to avoid focus issues.

Here are the full frame shots (downsampled, click to see larger... but not full-res):

Overview: Sigma 400mm f/5.6 Telemacro HSM

Overview: Sigma 400mm f/5.6 with 1.4x teleconverter

Overview: Sigma 600mm f/8 Mirror

These shots don't really show anything notable for full frame. Yes, the 600mm has less contrast, but we expect that from a mirror lens. The 600mm seems to have more vignetting too, but again, that's expected.

One thing I noticed was that both lenses performed about the same in terms of focusing -- as in, it was a pain in the a**, but in this static situation I had over 50% accuracy on nailing focus. Obviously, the f/5.6 of the 400mm wide open makes the viewfinder brighter, but in this case I didn't find that a brighter viewfinder made focusing any easier.

Next up, a comparison of 100% crops. All were from the center of the shot. These were converted from RAW with 100% sharpening in Bibble and all other settings off.

100% Crop: Sigma 400mm f/5.6 Telemacro HSM

100% Crop: Sigma 400mm f/5.6 with 1.4x teleconverter

100% Crop: Sigma 600mm f/8 Mirror

As expected, the 400mm alone is the sharpest, followed by the 400mm with TC, and the 600mm decently behind. I'd also say the 400mm alone has the best contrast and color; again, this was expected. So, if you don't need 600mm of reach, the 400mm will definitely be your best option.

But what if you do need 600mm of reach? For instance, if you shoot birds, you pretty much need whatever reach you can get. Which lens combination will give you the best reach if you want to see something really tiny or really far away?

I tested this by taking larger portions of each of the images above and upsampling them to all be at the same resolution as the 600mm image. The image below is the composite of these three images (click to see it at 100% crop):

Comparison: All upsampled to resolution of 600mm
Top: 400mm, Middle: 400mm w/ TC, Bottom: 600mm

This is where things get interesting.

In terms of best reach, the 400mm with 1.4x teleconverter gives the sharpest image. Not by a lot, but you can definitely tell in areas of fine text (like the "invent" in the HP logo). But, on the other hand, the 600mm does slightly outperform the upsampled 400mm. Again, not by a lot, and the 400mm has much better contrast, but I can definitely see more detail on the 600mm image.

Of course, these results are the lower end of 400mm image quality. Although Tamron-Fs aren't that bad, they are a lower-end teleconverter, and a Pro TC should be at least marginally better on a super telephoto. Also, these were shot wide-open; if I could have stopped down the 400mm, it would have sharpened up even more. I'm not exactly sure how much more it would have sharpened up, but I suspect it would be noticeable.

So, in the end, yes, you are much better off with the 400mm lens than the 600mm mirror lens. This was my original hypothesis back when I got the 600mm. Plus, the 400mm lens gives better contrast, bokeh that isn't donut shaped, and autofocus. It seems like the 400mm would be a no-brainer compared to the Sigma 600mm.

Until you look at cost.

The 400mm (without TC) goes for $250+. The 600mm goes for right around $100 if you have to purchase the adapter with it. In fact, mine just sold for $70 including shipping without the adapter. Ultimately, it comes down to how much money you can spend and if you are willing to tolerate the quirks of the 600mm.

Personally, I'm happy to have the 400mm, but the 600mm was a great stepping stone until I could afford it.


Steve Hanzek said...

I also purchased a Sigma 600mm f8 mirror last summer on E-bay, for my Olympus E-500 digital camera. I already had an OM to 4/3 converter. My lens also has a few spots of fungus on the interior, but nothing that has affected the photos. I used it last summer for some outdoor band photos, attempted birding, and miscellaneous shots. Loved the length, but like you, had a bear of a time getting consistent results with it. I use a monopod whenever possible.

This spring, I was at a local photo shop, checking out their used olympus lens selection, when I stumbled upon a 600mm f8 Vivitar Solid Cat lens! I had used one of these about 25 years ago, and loved it. But the price had always been an issue. But they wanted only $200 - the lens only, no filters or case. I snapped it up, and love it.

I haven't had the nerve to do a head to head showdown with the two lenses, because in my heart I want the Vivitar more than the Sigma. But if the test shows the Sigma is better, I'd feel real bad getting rid of the Solid Cat...

I've noticed the Vivitar is very susceptible to temperature changes - if it gets cold, I can have a problem getting a good focus. But once it acclimates to the temperature, seems to work fine.


Sean said...

That's all very good info, Steve! I've been curious about the solid cat's myself.

Jeroen said...

Hi there Sean,

Very nice review you've got here. I'm a proud owner of the sigma 400 5.6 as well and I was wondering how a 1.4tc would work along with it... Can you tell something about the AF? does it work in good conditions?

gr Jeroen

Sean said...

Hi Jeroen,

It has been a while since I've used the 400mm w/ TC, but I don't remember it giving me big problems. Yes, a f/5.6 lens with TC is f/8 and right at the limit of where most cameras will autofocus. If I remember correctly, I could still get my 20D to focus in bright sunlight. It hunted more, obviously, but it did work.

That's where the HSM comes in really handy -- get the main focus with auto-focus, then tweak it a little with the HSM. And a tripod is a must when using the TC unless you've got the ISO way up (1600+)...

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