Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM Wide Angle Zoom Lens Hands-On Review

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Of all the gear in a photographer’s bag, none is more coveted than the lens collection.  A lens can empower you to achieve your vision – the ultimate liaison to your creative mind.  It is also among the most significant limiting factors:  If you don’t have the right lens, you can’t achieve your goals.  And so I would like to introduce you to a lens that is capable of helping you achieve your goals.  It’s a lens from Sigma, the widely acclaimed and well respected innovator and manufacturer of fine interchangeable lenses.  The lens is the wide and beautiful Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM Wide Angle Zoom.  It is available with mounts for your Nikon, Canon, Sony/Minolta and Pentax camera bodies.  There is much to be said about this lens, but right off the bat I will admit to you that I am sorry that I had to send the review sample back to Sigma.  After spending the better part of a month with the lens, I know for certain that it will be my next lens and it is now resting at the top of a very long wish-list of lenses.  Of course I hope to explain my warm feelings for lens through this hands-on review.

Before I go on, I want to briefly outline our approach.  We will not put the lens through lab tests to scrutinize statistics so precise that they can only be measured with a computer.  Such data is telling of a lens’s capabilities, but in my experience, the differences are like splitting hairs.  If you’re interested in splitting such hairs, there are far better sites for that.  Instead, we’d like to focus on the overall experience that is to be had with such a lens.  We’re interested in the way it handles and of course what makes it unique.  This review is based on personal hands-on experience over the course of a month.  I literally took hundreds of photos, most of which in an environment and of subjects that I am very familiar.  And so I can confidently say that I have a really good feel for the lens.

Overall Design (Unique Among Its Peers)

This fountain is massive and very difficult to capture without a wide angle lens. (9mm, f/22, 1/200s, color adjusted)

The more astute of you will have already noticed a rather unique focal range.  There are other 8mm lenses on the market and there are 16mm lenses, but you will not find a wider zoom lens with such a specialized range.  The lens features a number of Sigma’s signature components designed to improve image quality and usage, such as their internal and ultra-quiet Hyper-Sonic Motor (HSM) for fast focusing or their FLD low-dispersion glass to combat chromatic aberrations.  The glass is treated with Super Multi-Layer Coating to reduce glare, flare and ghosting which ultimately means more accurate color rendering and contrast.

The build quality is quite good and it feels durable and well made.  The zoom and focusing rings felt sturdy and locked fast on position; I didn’t notice any play in the rings.  The lens isn’t light, weighing in at 19.6 ounces (1.23 pounds or 555 grams) which seems like a lot for it’s physical size.  That’s also evidence to the amount of glass inside this thing, which is never a bad thing if the glass does it’s job in correcting the image (which it does well, more on that later).  As the front element curves far out of the lens body, the petal-style lens hood is actually built-in.  This of course helps to combat glare and sun flare – though with a wide angle, it’s almost unavoidable –  but it also serves to protect the glass.

Glare: This test shot was deliberate, but glare can be difficult to avoid such a wide lens. Note the shape of the flare spots and the color shift at the glare spot.

There are a few limitations of the lens that should be noted.  These are not flaws, but design restrictions that you should be aware of.  The 8-16mm lens is designed specifically for use with digital APS-C sensors.  While it can be used on full-framed sensors, vignetting will occur.  Of course your findings with other camera bodies may differ.  It should also be noted that the auto-focusing system of the Pentax *ist or the K100D camera bodies do not support Sigma’s internal HSM focusing driver.  Lens filters are not an option for the lens as the front element has an exaggerated curvature to it and it does not have a rear filter cartridge like some other (albeit much more expensive) lenses on the market.  One could, in theory, use the included adapter to add a filter, but it eliminates a significant amount of the view angle.  Suffice to say, the adapter is really intended for the lens cap, and not much else.

In Use

I used the lens over the course of a month under a wide array of situations and settings.  The camera body I used for testing is a Nikon D80, and so the lens is very well suited for my camera.  Sigma’s lenses closely resemble Nikon’s lenses in terms of operation – the way you focus, zoom and so on.  So if you’re a Nikon shooter, switching between lenses will feel very natural.  Canon shooters will find the zoom ring to be a bit backwards, but that is a minor difference and not seriously worth consideration.  Knowing I only had the lens a short time, it pretty much remained on my camera at all times and I shot with it exclusively during the course of the month with very few exceptions.  Even so, I did enough lens changes to note that it’s attachment was clean and smooth, thanks to the accuracy of the machined parts.  Furthermore, I never once noticed any electronic connection issues or errors reported to the camera body at any time.  And yes, I do have a few lenses that can cause troubles when mounting and I have one older 50mm lens that doesn’t always link up to the body correctly, reporting errors in my viewfinder.  None of that was an issue with the Sigma 8-16mm.

A poor light situation with a high ceiling (11.5mm, f/22, 0.6s)

Here’s an interesting behavior that I developed:  When I was shooting wide at 8mm, I discovered that I had a tendency to rotate the camera and shoot in portrait.  I have an appreciation for the barrel distortion in my photographs, and the long axis serves well to capitalize on that.  The lens has a pretty reasonable focusing distance – 9.4 inches at the nearest point, according to the literature – that helps you to really get close to your subjects.  A focusing distance like this paired with it’s wide angle of view – 114.5 degrees at 8mm, 75.7 degrees at 16mm – allows you to really tell a story and offer all the context imaginable.  A good wide angle lens like this is ultimately your story telling conduit.  You can introduce the viewer to the architecture of a building and still clearly show the texture of the brick underfoot.  And so I really tried to take advantage of that as often as possible when I was shooting.

The lens is definitely not a “fast lens”:  It’s widest aperture is an underwhelming f/4.5 at 8mm and this decreases as you zoom in to an aperture of f/5.6 at 16mm.  However, I didn’t find the light to be a terrible issue.  Sure, when working indoors, you felt the relatively small aperture more often than not.  But lets face it, you’d have similar trouble with almost any lens – even my 50mm f/1.2 doesn’t let me handhold indoors all the time.  The 8-16mm zoom isn’t designed as a shallow depth of field type lens.  It’s really intended to take it all in like any good context lens.  So while I occasionally longed for a wider aperture, I didn’t find f/4.5 to be too limiting in what I used the lens for.

One curiosity that I found when using the lens was its tendency to hunt for focus when I was using a point other than the center.  The further I got from the center point, the more it seemed to hunt.  Most often, it would eventually find focus but only after burning a second or two off the clock.  At the center point, I never had the issue except when in poor lighting, which is to be expected for any lens.  Now I’m not sure if this is a result of the lens’s barrel distortion (or it’s mechanics to reduce them), nor am I sure if this is characteristic to such wide angle lenses in general.  But it was something that I noticed, and so regardless of the cause, I wanted to point it out.

Lastly, the only other difficulty has to do with the use of built-in on-camera flash.  The lens is of a size that it may partially block your built-in flash resulting in a shadow a the lower edge of the frame when using built-in flash.  The petal shaped hood seems to be the culprit, which is of course not removable.  And so there’s really no way to correct for this except to use an after market flash.  Now this is such a minor issue that I’m not actually going to list it in the dislikes list at the end of this article.  I, for one, don’t believe the built-in flash should be used for anything other than triggering off-camera flashes.  So I’ll chalk this up as something you should be aware of, but probably shouldn’t affect you.

Visual Results

I’ve been after this shot for years, but finally got it thanks to the 8-16mm zoom (8mm, f/8 1/200s, color adjusted)

So this is really what it’s all about.  As I found very little to hinder my use of the lens, it really comes down to the visual quality of the lens and of course the images that are produced with it.  By the time I had to send the lens back, I had taken hundreds of photos.  Going through them and analyzing them has been quite a chore and has possibly been the most time consuming aspect of this review.  All of the photos attached to this article – with exception of the photo of the lens itself, of course – were taken with the Sigma 8-16mm lens.  In no case did I alter these photos in post to correct for aberrations or distortion.  Some color and contrast adjustments were made in some cases, but I will note accordingly.

While the lens isn’t ideal for bokeh, it can be achieved with enough distance between subjects (16mm, f/10, 1/2000s)

In general, I am quite happy with the image quality delivered by the Sigma 8-16mm.  It yielded nothing that was unexpected, and really wowed me with the edge-to-edge sharpness and clarity.  I am a bit surprised by that, actually, as I would expect this to be a stumbling block for any wide angle lens, especially a zoom.  At 8mm, I was quite surprised at how controlled the distortion was right out of the camera.  With an angle of view of 114.5 degrees (75.7 degrees at 16mm), a distinct barrel distortion is to be expected and you will find the same with the 8-16mm zoom.  However, the distortion isn’t nearly as drastic as one would expect for such an angle of view.  The lens contains a number of corrective elements – a hybrid aspherical lens and two glass mold elements – to help correct the distortion.  Even at 8mm, I found that the distortion was only really noticeable in the outer third of the frame.  One could easily correct for such distortions in post using software adjustments.  Personally, I find the distortion to be appealing in my photographs, and so I rarely correct (and again, I didn’t correct the distortion in any photo attached to this article).  Instead, I’m interested in the quality of the distortion.  Sometimes barrel distortion can have an unevenness or a wave to it, but I observed only a smooth curvature at the edges.  Beyond the 12mm mark on the zoom ring, the distortion, if any, became almost undetectable.  As for chromatic aberrations, they were well under control, even at the edges, throughout the entire focal range.  This is thanks to Sigma’s FLD low-dispersion glass.

Because of the built-in petal style lens hood, vignetting wasn’t an issue throughout the entire focal range.  On the other hand, glare can be a problem.  This is a design constraint with a lens of such a wide angle of view.  The petal hood is cut-away to avoid vignetting, but the result is that it can’t shield too much of the lens.  It is therefore nearly impossible to control lens flare through a physical design element.  The multi-coated glass helps to reduce the effect. But the only effective solution, if you want to avoid flare, is to be aware of it and be aware of the light sources.

A 1:1 crop of the cherry blossoms. The bokeh quality is pretty silky smooth.

With a maximum aperture at f/4.5 at 8mm (f/5.6 at 16mm), it’s safe to say that at these focal lengths, the blur is not going to be a key aspect of your photographs.  But you can get some good bokeh if you get enough distance between subjects.  As is the case with the cherry blossom photo (and the 1:1 crop), you can see the quality of the bokeh.  For the record, the distance between the lens and the cherry blossoms were about 12 inches and the distance between the blossoms and Independence Hall was about 400 feet.  Suffice to say that a similar situation could provide similar results, but bokeh may not be an option in a studio environment.  Generally, that’s okay because wide angle lenses often want to be used at smaller apertures to promote larger depths of field.  But I will admit that I occasionally wanted a shallower depth of field.

Final Thoughts

As you can see from my examples here in this article, you can truly create some mesmerizing and sometimes surreal compositions.  Our human eyes aren’t accustomed to looking at the world with such a wide angle of view and certainly not with the amount of clarity that this lens can provide.  The distortion – which, as I mentioned, is something I favor in my own works – adds to the surrealism.  The end result can be quite captivating if you use it to your advantage.  And so I would rank this lens as a must-have lens from an artistic perspective.  From an image quality perspective, I have only great things to say about the lens.  It really performed above all expectations and my photos clearly demonstrate that.  In fact, the only minor complaints that I have are usability:  The Auto Focus hunting in the periphery focus points and the inability to support on-lens filters (and I don’t consider the filters to be a major concern).

So in short summary, this is a must-have lens that would be appropriate for nearly any type of photographer.  I of course had to return the review sample, and I was sad about that, but I quickly bumped the Sigma 8-16mm lens to the top of my gear list and it will be mine as soon as I have the expendable cash to do so.  I really love the lens that much.  Therefore, it goes without saying that the Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM Wide Angle Zoom has earned its place among the very short list of Shutter Photo Recommended Products.

As of this writing, the Sigma 8-16mm lens can be yours (amazon.com) for about $700 USD.  It is available with Nikon, Canon, Sony/Minolta, Sigma and Pentax camera mounts.

 

Things We Liked

  • It is the widest angle zoom lens on the market (as of this writing)
  • Designed for APS-C lenses
  • Good response to available light
  • Surprisingly low distortion considering the angle of view (note, distortion is present and expected on any wide angle lens)

Things We Didn’t Like

  • Filters aren’t feasible, and there is no rear filter cartridge.
  • Auto focus hunting when using any point other than the center.

Sample Photo Gallery

 

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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