The Sigmonster. The Bigma. Green Machine. The Tank. This lens has many names; officially, it’s called the Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 / 400-1000mm f/5.6. The lens is ten years old, and yet there is very little information or sample footage out there - so I decided to try it out for myself.

This review is predominantly from the perspective of video use, though does touch on photography aspects a little. The written article below is also designed to be accompanied by the embedded video above. The article is a little more technical, whereas the video is more about what it’s like in use, though there is some overlap. Watching or reading just one may not give you a complete picture of what this lens is like.

Dimensions, rigging and mounting

It doesn’t need saying that this lens is big and heavy. It comes in its own Peli case - a 1780, one of their very largest. For the price of the lens I would have expected custom cut foam; instead, it’s still pick-n-pluck! (Though Sigma assure me, should you buy the lens, the case will come pre picked and plucked!)

Peculiarly also, it does not come with a lens cap and as such, the front element easily picks up specks of dirt. Yes, the front is massive, though a leather cover like those found on Canon super teles would have been nice.

The lens is 727mm long to the mount plane and 740mm including the rear cap. Add 52mm to either dimension when using the extender.

The lens is 292mm high from the thread plate to the top of the handle. Despite the instruction manual specifying x2 1/4” and x1 3/8” threads on the plate, I found the lens to have x3 3/8” threads. They’re spaced 35mm apart, with the centre thread being exactly 400mm to the mount.

The outer diameter of the front is 236mm, with the front element sitting approximately 13cm deep from the edge of the fixed metal hood. The optical centre to the thread plate is 127mm - already 7mm more than where the centre of a 19mm support rod should be if it were to conform to cine standards. This makes mounting the lens on a cinema camera rather tricky and involves some inventive rigging.

I had to ditch my Arri baseplate in favour of a slightly taller one from Vocas. As both baseplates were VCT compatible, I used the Arri Digi Cine baseplate to convert a VCT release to dovetail bridgeplate, and offers height adjustable 19mm rod clamps. Unfortunately this is only with a maximum of 6mm vertical adjustment. This wasn’t ideal as the rods were still a couple of millimetres shy of being low enough to be perfectly parallel to the optical axis, but was the best I could do. If you’re planning on using this lens with anything larger than a DSLR, be prepared to spend some time and effort getting it all to fit together.

To support the lens itself, Bright Tangerine kindly loaned me a pair of their brand new 18” Drumstix titanium support rods, along with the Leftfield quick release bridgeplate and Marr 19mm lens support. If you haven’t yet tried them, the Drumstix are a fraction of the weight of traditional steel rods. With a lens this heavy, any way I could save weight was welcome! The quick release bridgeplate was also invaluable, as it enabled me to mount and dismount the whole rig from the dovetail on the tripod by myself. With a rig this heavy, sliding it on from one end of the dovetail like usual is a difficult task that cannot be done with just one person.

Incidentally, the manual for this lens actually specifies to use ‘at least two’ people to mount to a tripod. When it is just the lens and a DSLR, it is possible (though not easy) to mount by yourself. A larger than usual tripod is necessary for photography; a Manfrotto 504HD fluid head will take the weight, though won’t counterbalance properly - and so the tilt must be locked when at an angle. When using with a larger camera and support rods, a more substantial tripod is required. We used a Sachtler 18P head which, again, took the weight well enough, though couldn’t quite counterbalance either. For a truly suitable head, I suspect something like an O’Connor 2575 would be necessary.

Rather than cart around the Peli 1780 case everywhere, I found the only practical way to transport the lens was in a 90 litre hiking backpack. As an aside, if you search for images of this lens, you’ll find an amusing photo of a chap in a black top with biceps the size of his head holding this lens up to his face to take a photo. I suspect this pose was only for the photo and only for a couple of seconds at best. Unless you’re a bodybuilder, you cannot handhold this lens. It simply isn’t possible.

Image Stabilisation

With such large elements it’s probably not possible (or financially reasonable) to implement image stabilisation. That said it has so much inertia that camera shake, whilst present, isn’t as bad as you might expect nor is it as bad as a lighter lens at comparable focal lengths.

With any lens of this focal length, rolling shutter is more pronounced however. Only slow pans will ensure this isn’t a problem in your footage.

Aperture

Using a Metabones can be a rather hit and miss affair whether it will communicate properly. Sometimes the camera will read f/45, sometimes f/9.9 and sometimes no f-stop at all. I’m sure this problem is down to the specific sequence of mounting the camera and switching it on - and whether the lens itself is on or off or what state of power it was in when the camera was last switched off or unmounted. The only consistent solution I found if I was having trouble controlling the aperture was to unmount the camera, switch both the camera and lens off, remount the camera and then switch everything back on. When the lens does communicate correctly and permits iris control however, it reveals something quite unexpected.

The lens’ maximum aperture is not f/2.8 as specified. It’s actually f/2.7. This extra fraction of a stop is only available when using a non-native camera with a Metabones; when using a native Canon camera, the lens is limited to f/2.8. This isn’t a miscommunication with the camera: the aperture blades can be seen to retract fully and the difference in exposure is registered in an image.

At f/2.7, the image does suffer and is rather mushy. This f/2.7 is available throughout the whole zoom range, even though the camera may not say so. Longer than 200mm, the aperture on screen may read 2.8 and yet will still ‘click’ open wider. With the extender attached, this does indeed become an f/5.4 lens and not just f/5.6.

When using the lens with a Metabones Speedbooster, the lens becomes a 142-355 f/2, or a 284-710 f/4. The extra fraction of a stop does not seem to carry over (ie it is not f/1.9 or f/3.8) - at least the numeric does not register on camera. Using a Speedbooster seems more temperamental than a regular Metabones, quite possibly because the software in the adapter was never designed for or expecting a 500 or 1000mm lens to be this fast! As such, the aperture won’t always read correctly - listing as f/5.6 instead of f/4 for instance.

Using the lens with a native camera such as a Canon DSLR proves far more reliable, though once or twice I did have similar communication issues.

Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8
Searching for ET with the Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8

Focus and Zoom

The lens is so large and heavy, both the focus and zoom are fly by wire and are motorised. This is self powered, with the lens having its own battery. There is no way to turn on or operate the lens without a camera attached however. Annoyingly, there is no dedicated on/off switch which, with communication issues, is problematic. It is necessary to remove the battery to power cycle the lens.

With an adapter, the autofocus is so slow and inaccurate as to be unusable. With a Canon DSLR however, it is much improved, though understandably cannot shift its glass elements as quickly as a smaller and lighter lens can! Most importantly, autofocus appears accurate.

Both the zoom and the manual focus speed are dictated by the speed at which you turn the respective rings. A quick focus pull from close focus to infinity can be achieved with a fraction of a turn, whereas turning the ring slowly will enable more precise focusing, at which the ring’s rotation from close focus to infinity can approach a full 360 degrees. For this reason, it isn’t possible to use a follow focus - or at least not with repeatable marks. Pulling focus manually is trickier than it should be because of the variable speed and slight delay. Several times, shots that could have been nailed with a mechanical focus were fluffed because of the focus was not responsive enough.

No matter how fast the zoom ring is spun, the lens takes a couple of seconds to zoom all the way from wide to tele. Therefore it isn’t possible to crash zoom in the event of something happening in the distance. The zoom motor also shakes the lens - it is not possible to zoom smoothly mid shot.

Both the zoom and focus are very noisy. You won’t be able to pull focus or zoom without being heard from at least the nearby vicinity.

The lens has an LCD display just above the focus and zoom rings. Whilst this is a fantastic idea, it isn’t utilised nearly as effectively as I feel it could have been. The screen is not backlit, and there is no LED illumination button - like those found on a tripod head bubble for instance - and so the screen cannot be seen in the dark. More disappointing however, is that being a digital scale, one would think it could provide precise focal length and focus distance data. Unfortunately that isn’t the case, as you can see below.

Displayed focal length: 200, 210, 220, 230, 240, 250, 260, 280, 290, 310, 330, 350, 380, 410, 450, 500

w/ extender: 400, 420, 440, 460, 480, 500, 530, 560, 590, 620, 660, 710, 760, 820, 900, 1000

Focus distance: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20, 24, 30, 40, 60, 120, inf

The focus distance is useable as a rough estimate, though beyond 300mm, the zoom integers are too broad to be of accurate use. Whilst in practical use it is less necessary to discern exact focal length, for testing it’s a nightmare! The lens is clearly capable of measuring and calculating the exact focal length, as it appears so in the metadata. So why couldn’t that same data be displayed on the LCD?

The lens has remarkably close focus considering its focal length. Below is a table of the minimum focus distances at their approximate focal lengths.

Close focus

Focal length (without extender)

Focal length (with extender)

2m

200mm

400mm

3m

~330mm

~660mm

4m

~410mm

~760mm

5m

500mm

~900mm

Conclusion

This lens is really meant to be used at 500mm f/2.8 or 1000 f/5.6. There is no advantage to using this lens for anything shorter or slower - there are other lenses significantly smaller, lighter and cheaper that achieve the same thing. Its size and weight also completely negate the advantages of a zoom - in this case, it is more practical to carry two or three (or more!) primes that cover the range of super-tele focal lengths, plus its slow, noisy and shaky zoom mean it cannot be used as a zoom for video but rather just a variable prime.

In 2013, Sigma refreshed and restructured their lens lineup, and starting with their famed 35mm f/1.4 Art, virtually everything the company has produced since has been of stellar quality, rivalling or even besting some of the top brands in the world. The Sigmonster however, introduced ten years ago, belongs to the past era of Sigma lenses and its optical quality is representative of this. Perfectly acceptable, though superior alternatives are available - including those of the same age.

If Sigma were to produce a mark II that featured their superb post-2013 optics, along with a few functional design changes such as a dedicated on/off switch, integrated 19mm rod clamps and improved zoom control, then this would be an absolutely fearsome lens, and one that would absolutely warrant the weight. However, I don’t think this is likely to happen. It just wouldn’t be financially viable. A 500mm f/2.8 or 1000mm f/5.6 prime lens would be be more likely and probably more practical. Advances in camera technology since this lens’ introduction raise the question of its necessity - high resolution and better ISO performance produce more functional solutions to long range and/or low light imaging.

Personally, if I were to buy a super telephoto lens, I can think of primes that, for the expense of one stop of light, I could save thirteen kilos and several grand in change. However - there is no question that this lens is one of a kind. The only lens that even comes close in similarity is the Canon 50-1000mm T5-8.9 which is longer and slower, almost three times as light and almost three times the price! There really is no lens like the Sigma 200-500 and unlikely to ever be. Until someone produces primes at these lengths and speeds, if you absolutely need the fastest 500mm or 1000mm lens on the planet, then this is the one.

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