Recently, Sigma made some revisions to their already high-quality and widely popular lens, the 180mm Macro. The updated lens, specifically an APO Macro 180mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM (we’ll dissect that name later), includes the addition of Sigma’s Optically Stabilized (OS) system, a wider aperture (formerly an f3.5) and the incorporation of Sigma’s high quality FLD glass to correct for color aberrations. It will be available for Sigma, Nikon, Canon and Sony/Minolta mounts (though as of this writing, only the Nikon and Canon are readily available, but the Sigma and Sony/Minolta iterations are available for pre-order). The company was kind enough to loan us the lens for our hands-on exploration of the lens.
Before I go on, I would like to briefly outline our approach. We will not be putting the lens through a barrage of lab tests to scrutinize details barely noticeable to the human eye. Such data is telling of a lens’s capabilities, but we find that it’s much like splitting hairs. Of course we will take a loop to the photographs and we will note any problems that we find. But we would like to focus more on how the lens performs: How it feels, how it functions and of course the overall quality of the photos that will result. This, in our opinion, are the most important aspects of any lens.
What Is In A Name
Like any lens on the market, the 180mm Macro’s formal name is quite long and features an array of letters. The letters help to classify the lens and its features, but that doesn’t make it any easier to understand for those unfamiliar with Sigma’s labeling. And so before we go on, I thought I’d take a moment to dissect the name:
APO Macro 180mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM
- APO = Apochromatic, which means that it is made with Sigma’s special low-dispersion (SLD) glass. Sigma’s APO lenses have greater contrast, greater color definition and greater sharpness than non-APO lenses.
- Macro simply means that the lens is capable of focusing at a reasonably close distances so that the resulting image on the sensor (or on the film) is larger than the subject itself.
- EX = Sigma has a special finishing process for the exterior of the lens. This is mostly for the benefit of build quality, but it also enhances the look and feel of the lens.
- DG = DG for Digital, which means that the lens is optimized for a full-framed sensor. The lens works well with cropped (APS-C) sensors as well, but a larger portion of the image circle will get cropped out.
- OS = Optical Stabilization, which is Sigma’s image stabilization technology, which permits the use of shutter speeds approximately four stops slower than normal hand-held operation would allow.
- HSM = Hyper-Sonic Motor, an internal, super-quiet focusing mechanism that does not require the use of a screw-drive on the camera body.
The Sigma 180mm F2.8 Macro is a solid, well-built lens. I had absolutely no doubt of that fact during my time with the lens. Of course it’s hard to think of the lens as anything but sturdy as it weighs in just under four pounds ( 58.8 ounces or 1,638 grams). Even for it’s size, 3.7″ x 8.0″ (95 mm x 203.9 mm), it is a pretty heavy lens. The weight suggests how the lens is built: Very solid, packed full of class and there are so many other features built into this lens. The Optical Stabilization system is probably the most abundant feature built into the lens, especially at 180mm where hand-holding is more within reach for longer range shots. This lens features a two-level Optical Stablizaton system. You can choose between level 1 OS, a level 2 OS, or you can choose to turn it off entirely. Level one is a more traditional stabilization in that it corrects for instability in all directions: A vertical or horizontal jitter when hand-holding. Level 2, on the other hand, only corrects for vertical shake. The idea of the level 2 OS is that it allows you to use panning techniques, which would otherwise be hindered by optical stabilization. When you affix the lens to a tripod, it is recommended that the OS is turned off.
Let’s take a moment and discuss the lens’s special focus limiting feature. Under normal circumstances for close-up shots, a macro lens of this focal length tends to hunt for focus. This isn’t a flaw of the lens, it’s merely a side-effect of the physics that allow the lens to focus to perform it’s magical feats. In order to focus, a lens must move one or more of its elements through the lens barrel. The longer the focal length, the more those elements need to move. At a distance and when there is good separation between the subject and the background, the lens has very little trouble finding the ideal focus point. Up close with little separation, a lens may have more trouble focusing, and it may try the entire focusing range. That’s where the focusing limiter comes into place. By flipping a switch, you can limit the automatic focusing range, thereby telling the lens that it can ignore a vast majority of the range that it probably won’t need. Focusing will be much faster, but you may have to use the manual focusing ring to get it within range if you’re way out of focus.
As with most heavy lenses, the Sigma 180mm Macro has a built-in tripod mount ring. Let’s face it, this lens is probably heavier than your camera. Mounting a heavy lens like this to a tripod-mounted camera would put risky and unnecessary stress on your lens mount. The ring has a quick, quarter-turn knob so that you can lock down the rotation of the lens, and the ring is marked at both the horizontal and vertical positions so that you can change the camera orientation on the fly.
The lens comes with a few accessories worth mentioning. It comes with two lens hoods. Well, technically, it comes with just one lens hood that is appropriate for full-framed sensors. But then it also comes with a hood extension for cropped sensor cameras. The lens also comes with a very nice soft-sided lens case. It’s quite an impressive case, though it’s a bit over-sized It’s a few inches longer than the lens, but it is much wider than the lens and has a square in profile. The case is padded far better than you would find among other manufacturer’s lenses. And it can accommodate the lens hood as well, though not mounted. The case is impressive, but you’ll only use it when the lens is in storage. It’s much too large to fit into your gear bag, and it’s doubtful that you would ever carry a lens separate from your gear.
Sure, it’s a macro lens…but that doesn’t mean it needs to be used as such all the time. 180mm is actually a pretty good reach, and I was using it as a telephoto more often than I would have thought. Being a fixed focal length, it was really clear and sharp from edge to edge, and the image stabilization really made a big difference for my clumsy hands. I do believe the 4-stop improvement claim about the Optical Stabilization will be a stretch for many people. It may truly be the case for those of you with very steady hands, but I was only able to get a bit more than a few stops out of this heavy lens. To be fair, even a single stop improvement can more than save a shaky image. Two stops is a dream. So while I would consider the four-stop improvement to be a bit optimistic, I still think the OS system is a more-than-welcome addition to the revision of this lens. I couldn’t imagine using this lens without it.
Used for macro, the lens is top notch. If you’ve never used a long macro lens, you may be in for a bit of a surprise. The minimum focusing distance is 18.5 inches (47 cm) which doesn’t seem all that close. But bear in mind that “close” is a relative term: A normal 180mm lens might require five feet (1.524 meters) or more. Thanks to it’s magnification (1:1), you are still able to create some impressive close-up shots. The advantage a long focal length macro has over wider macros is perspective. At 180mm, you can really get some good separation between objects even in such a tight space. So you can really make your subjects pop and you can take full advantage of the bokeh. With most of my macro-setups, I really appreciated the autofocus limiter. When shooting close, my camera has a tough time verifying the focus and so the lens tends to hunt across it’s entire focusing depth. The autofocus limiter is just one way to keep it all under control as you eliminate a large portion of the focusing depth that you aren’t using. In practice, I found myself getting close enough to the focus, and then turned on the limiter and it was able to figure out the rest. Alternatively, you could also let the autofocus cycle through it’s depth one time and turn the limiter on, and it will be much faster moving forward. Operating in bright light at the appropriate distances, the lens was always able to find focus with or without the limiter, so it was really a time saving option. But I was glad to have it for macro setups. In some rare cases when light was bright enough, I was even able to focus closer than the published minimum focusing distance. Not that I’d recommend that, but it’s nice to know Sigma’s publications are conservative.
In the field, I was able to get some really impressive shots hand-held, focusing close, thanks to the OS system. The weight of the lens has a disadvantage that you have to carry it around. And if you’re holding it up to take a shot for a long while, you’re arm is going to get tired quickly. This is where I am thankful for the OS system. Hand held, I use the level 1 OS, and it helps to alleviate shake in all directions. On a chilly fall day, I was able to capture many signs of the season, from leaves fallen on the ground to leaves changing colors on their branches. I was even able to capture some shots of the kids at play – photos that don’t exhibit the lens’s macro capabilities, but surely demonstrates the lens’s versatility and clean results in many situations. As for the autofocus limiter, it served no purpose in the field. Maybe it was the greater distance between subjects, maybe it was the abundance of light. But the lens was able to find focus pretty quickly in the field.
There’s no better way to review the quality of a lens than to look at the photographs that it can produce. With exception of the photos of the lens itself, all of the photos attached to this article were created with the Sigma APO Macro 180mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM lens. I have not altered the photographs in any way in post-processing – so they are essentially direct from camera. What you see is what you get.
As you would expect, I took hundreds of photographs with this lens. Many of the shots were strictly for the sake of testing specific aspects: Edge clarity, focus accuracy, focusing distance and so on. After analyzing all of my photos taken, I must say that I am quite impressed. Chromatic aberrations – which allegedly plagued the earlier version of this lens – seems to be a thing of the past with this refresh. Sigma’s FLD glass really seems to do the trick there. As for clarity, I found edge-to-edge sharpness and accuracy from f/2.8 through f/22. The sweet spot appears to be at around f/4, but I was still impressed with the image quality at f/2.8, it’s widest aperture. We have grown to expect some quality loss wide-open, so much so that many of us habitually shoot a stop more closed than the widest aperture. But that wasn’t the case here, and I did shoot a number of shots wide open and didn’t find myself wanting for more quality. Of course at 180mm and f/2.8, you can imagine that the real issue is dialing in a shallow depth of field, so I was shooting a little more open for that reason alone. Now bear in mind that I am shooting on a Nikon D80, which has a cropped sensor. If you have a full-framed sensor, you may find slightly varying results – but in my research, I didn’t find any complaints for even full-framed sensors.
The advantage of a macro lens is that you can get close enough to pick up a lot of detail. This lens exposed a bit of the flaws in my macro process…even the dust on the board worked it’s way into my shots (I do many of my setups with plain white foam core). I guess when shooting with a quality lens like this, you really should have an air can – or at least a lot of patience in post-processing. I didn’t do any such editing in post-processing, though, so you can clearly see some of the dust in the shot. That’s a nod of admiration to the merits of the lens.
All in all, I was able to create a lot of fantastic photos with this lens. I feel I was able to push the lens a little beyond it’s intent, and I was able to take full advantage of its feature set. I can’t say enough about the FLD glass, which clearly shows some improved image quality over other lenses in its class. I also cannot say enough about the OS system, which was essential – in my opinion – to having great photos while in the field without my tripod. The quality of the images were pretty impressive optically, and I am pretty happy with the results.
It’s pretty hard to truly pin down our thoughts about a specialty lens like this. Obviously, Close-up and Macro shots are well within the lens’s wheelhouse, and in that regard the lens truly excels. It especially excels out in the field when you’re hand-holding, thanks to Sigma’s OS system. To be fair, a serious close-up/macro shooter is likely carrying around their tripod anyhow, in which case the OS doesn’t really matter. But it’s a great feature to have when you’re just out for a casual walk and you’re not looking for something specific to shoot. Now in my opinion, the area where this lens truly stands on its own is within the areas that the lens wasn’t necessarily designed for. For capturing subjects from long distances or for landscape shots, you wouldn’t typically think of a 180mm Macro, not with it’s 13.7° angle of view. But the Sigma lens holds its own in those areas as well. I consider myself pleasantly surprised at the quality you can push out of this lens in non-Macro type situations.
As of this writing, the lens is still fairly new to market. What that means is that you will be able to find it in the camera shops like B&H Photo. You can also find it on Amazon.com. but the outlets like Amazon don’t yet have it in stock. Furthermore, Canon and Nikon mounts are readily available at this time, but it will be a while before you’ll see it for Sigma or for Sony/Minolta. As of this writing, the street value for this lens – regardless of the mount – is about $1,600 USD [updated April 3, 2013].
Now this is a specialty lens, and so I will break it down as to who should be interested in this lens. If you’re a close-up or macro photographer, it’s a no brainer: You’ll want to add this lens to your wish list. If you’re a landscape photographer, you will also have some use for this lens as well, especially for some detailed shots of leaves and the like. The rest of you may not have much use for the lens on a regular basis, and so it may not be something that you buy. But it may be something to keep in mind if you have a specific assignment or project that might take full advantage. If you’re comfortable with renting lenses for such specific scenarios, both LensRentals.com and BorrowLenses.com have the lens both for Nikon and Canon mounts.
If you’re interested in this lens, please be very careful with what you’re buying. The Sigma 180mm F2.8 EX DG OS, HSM Macro lens is a refresh of a pre-existing lens. Make sure you see the OS in the description. If you don’t, you will have the older lens that lacks the Optical Stabilization and it won’t have the newer FLD glass. Even if you don’t need the OS, it’s the FLD glass that you really want.
Bottom line: It’s a great lens that will certainly find it’s place in the kit of close-up and macro photographers as well as landscape photographers. It performs well in a great number of situations, even outside of it’s comfort zone within the close-up photography genre. If you have need for such a lens, this is a lens you will want to consider for yourself.
Things We Liked
- Sigma’s Optical Stabilizaton (OS) is very effective and easy to use.
- Sigma’s FLD glass really stands out in this lens as the color aberrations were well controlled.
- Edge-to-edge sharpness for all apertures.
- Quality of the bokeh was top notch.
- Lines around the mount collar indicating 90 and 180 degree (portrait and landscape) orientation. Seems like a little thing, but Nikon – and sometimes Canon – lenses often lack this minor detail.
Things We Didn’t Like
- The lens is on the heavy side at just over 3 1/2 pounds (1638 grams). There’s a reason for it, but it will tire out your arm after longer periods of time.