By John M. McBride
Nikon users looked on jealously in 1998 as Canon launched a new era of handheld photography with their 100-400mm optically stabilized telezoom lens. Suddenly photographers could capture handheld telephoto shots that previously demanded a tripod. Two years later Nikon countered with the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 ED VR AF Zoom-Nikkor stabilized lens. Not to be left behind, Sigma introduced its own stabilized 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 EX OS lens in 2002, matching Nikon’s specs while offering versions for Sigma, Nikon and Canon users.
All images ©2005 John M. McBride
With their strong similarities on paper, I was eager to see how the Nikon and Sigma stabilized lenses compared in the field. Their use in action and low-light photography is admittedly limited by their f/5.6 apertures and lack of fast, on-lens focusing motors. Nevertheless, they offer event photographers a tremendous leap in capability at a fraction of the weight and cost of subsequent stabilized f/2.8 and f/4 offerings. Over a one-month period I tested them side-by-side to evaluate how they compare in freeing the photographer from a tripod or monopod.
Given the flexibility offered by such a wide zoom range, I used a variety of shoots to evaluate the lenses, varying distance to subject, zoom range, and ambient and flash lighting. All shots with enough light for successful hand-held photography were eliminated (based on conventional wisdom of one-over-focal-length). The results were broken down into three groups:
1. Those falling within the manufacturers’ claims of a three-stop improvement in stabilization.
2. Those between three and four stops of improvement.
3. Those exceeding four stops of recommended handheld speeds.
Each shot was rated on a stabilization scale of one to three, with one representing acceptable quality, two signifying a photo with average 2-3 pixel blur that could be ‘cleaned up’ in Photoshop to a newspaper-quality image, and three representing a useless shot.
After tabulating the results, both Nikon and Sigma received excellent scores of over 94 percent stabilization success within the three-stop improvement claimed in product brochures. (Sigma edged out Nikon, but within statistical error limits.) In both cases, the small number of images not fully stabilized could potentially be corrected to newspaper-quality images with blur correction filters.
Over 90 percent of images captured with both lenses showed no motion blur within the three-stop advantage claim.
Pushing stabilization one stop beyond manufacturer claims, the Nikon scored an impressive 90-plus percent stabilization success, while the Sigma success rate dropped off to approximately 50 percent. This is still remarkable considering that it represents a handheld 200mm shot at 1/13 second!
When exceeding manufacturer stabilization claims, the Nikon (above)
fared slightly better than the Sigma (below).
At increments over four stops, the success rate plummeted for both lenses. Nikon again held an edge, making me wonder if it is built with higher sensitivity for lower-frequency vibration. Do not bet the bank on these shots without a flash to help define the subject, as you will likely need numerous exposures to produce a mediocre result. By five stops over handheld recommendations, neither lens captured a decent photo.
Particularly when matching or exceeding manufacturer claims, the use of a flash for fill or primary light had a dramatic effect on image acceptability. It can be argued that a flash’s virtual shutter speed often negates the need for a stabilized lens, however, stabilization still comes in handy by offering the greater sense of depth that comes with longer exposure in ambient lighting. The far reach of an 80-400mm lens poses a challenge even for today’s zooming flash heads. I find the Better Beamer flash extender handy: it can light the 300-400mm range, and with the fresnel lens removed the mounting brackets do not block peripheral light to the 80mm image’s border.
Even with flash shots, stabilization allows longer exposures to capture depth and background detail with ambient light.
THE FOCAL LIMITATIONS
As has been pointed out in numerous reviews, both lenses suffer from two focus issues. Action photographers pine for the near-instantaneous focus of an on-lens AF-S motor, though the 1 second needed for a Nikon D70 motor to drive a full traverse of the focus range is acceptable to most users. Switching to manual focus requires a sharp eye, as the telezoom’s inherent shallow depth of field can be a monster when combined with the lack of split-ring focus in Nikon DSLRs.
The second drawback is more significant: focus lock. Stabilization may offer the ability to shoot in lower light, but that does not magically solve the ambient light demands of focal detectors. In low-light settings, neither lens showed a significantly better ability to avoid repeated hunting before locking on focus. Nikon includes a limiter switch to reduce delay by restricting the focus search to half of the range, but in a key moment the wait with either lens can be maddening.
SIMILAR, BUT DIFFERENT
At first glance, the Nikon and Sigma lenses appear identical on paper, however there are a few significant differences.
As a D-series lens, the Nikon has an aperture ring that can either be manually set or slaved to the on-camera controls. The Sigma is a G-series lens with no aperture ring, requiring the use of on-camera controls. While some users may demand ring control, the ease of today’s dual thumb/index dial controls prevents me from missing the manual ring at all when using the Sigma on a Nikon body.
Auto/Manual Panning Mode:
When taking panned shots, Nikon’s lens automatically detects the horizontal lens sweep and stabilizes the shot in only the vertical direction. Sigma’s lens (as well as Canon’s) requires the shooter to manually select either full or panning stabilization mode with a switch on the side of the lens. While this would be significant to a nature or sports photographer, the need for panned shots rarely arises in event photography.
The Nikon lens is tighter than the Sigma in both zoom and focus. A locking switch on the Sigma prevents the lens from extending suddenly when not in use, and is well-advised if you wish to avoid the sickening ~THUNK~ of a $1,000 lens hitting the stop. This, as well as a manufacturer requirement to manually turn off stabilization before lens removal, poses a danger for the absent-minded. On the plus side for Sigma, the looser focus action was significantly easier for a Nikon D70’s smaller focus motor to handle.
The Sigma lens has extra switches for zoom lock and panning mode.
If you have not yet used stabilization, both lenses offer a joyful introduction to vaporizing image jitter with a half-press of the shutter. Both provide a high certainty of stabilization within the manufacturer's three-stop advantage claims, with Nikon offering better results in the long-shot realm of exposures beyond three stops.
Nikon appears to have put a bit more thought into detailed design, but the key price-setting differences are directed more toward nature and sports photographers as well as manual control freaks. Nikon purists are a hard-core lot, and will doubtless capitalize on these additional features to stay true to the brand name. For those wishing to break into stabilization at a lower cost, the Sigma is sure to please for about $400 less.
Critics with deep pockets cite both lenses for slow focusing motors, focus lock difficulties, and slower shutter speed subject motion blur that accompanies any f/5.6 lens. Despite these compromises, these 80-400mm lenses offer a fantastic range of magnification that dovetails nicely with a basic zoom like the 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED-F AF-S DX Zoom Nikkor. Odds are that either will displace two or more lenses from an advanced kit, and their advantages in weight, size, price and stabilization make them a powerful second lens for the beginner.
80-400mm: The Lens Killer?
Zoom lenses help avoid switching lenses or cameras mid-shoot. While a telezoom is built to cover distance, it can leave you cramped for close-up photography. Just how much flexibility does the 80-400mm offer? With the 1.5X magnification of Nikon’s digital SLRs, the 120-600mm effective zoom can capture these standard shots within the illustrated distance envelopes.
Near: 2.5 meters (80mm); Far: 10 meters (400mm)
Near: 2.5 meters (80mm); Far: 30 meters (400mm)
Near: 8 meters (80mm); Far: 50 meters (400mm)
Before pulling the 80-400 from your bag, you can use this framing trick: looking at your hand, held at arm’s length, the 80mm setting will cover the width of your hand with the thumb hidden, and the distance from you wrist to the tip of your pinkie. Give or take, the 400mm will fame the width of your index and middle finger by the last two joints of your index finger.
Hand technique for estimating 80-400mm lens coverage
Sigma has produced a fine lens, however, two small design oversights result in frequent irritation.
Lens caps: If you like to shield your lens without removing the lens hood, the Sigma front lens cap will drive you nuts with its rim-only locking tabs. On the other end of the lens, the Sigma rear cap is strangely incompatible with Nikon lenses, and while it will cover another lens it will not lock. If you choose the Sigma, toss the lens covers, use the rear cap that came with your Nikon lens, and order a Nikon front cap replacement for eighteen or so dollars. The finger and thumb tabs towards the center of the cover make it much easier to mount and well worth the price.
Carrying Case: Again the Nikon design reflects more thought. The Sigma case is slightly over-sized, uses an awkward wrap-around clamshell zipper, and has no belt loop. While the Nikon case does not offer as much of a protective seal, its Velcro top flap with a double-zipper front flap offers much easier access. Its snugger design and belt loop make it much easier to carry and mount in the field. Unfortunately, the Nikon case cannot be used with the Sigma lens due to the difference in lens size.