PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


Sigma’s 70-200mm f/2.8 OS, an early MTF analysis

Several years ago I spent some time shooting with a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. It had poor contrast a full aperture, quite soft at 200mm, and obviously the absence of VR limited its usefulness at indoors venues. I disliked it enough that it convinced me only the Nikkor VR lens (back then, version 1) would do for me. That Sigma lens is probably 10 years old now, but to this day it still sets how I perceive Sigma’s medium telephoto lenses.

Zoom to today, so to speak, and enters the new lens.

Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 OS.

Associated charts.

Looking at them by themselves and ignoring the competition, these charts look pretty good. There is more weakness at 70mm than I would like to see, with a pretty sharp drop to minimal contrast at the corner, but the performance at 200mm looks simply excellent. Possibly this means that there is significant light fall-off at 70mm and that drives down contrast.

If I compare with the previous Sigma version (not shown here) there has been a exchange between lowering performance at 70mm and improving performance at 200mm. This is probably the right choice, not only because this lens is most likely to be used at longer focal lengths, but also because it was done in such a way that DX shooters (or teleconverter users) will never notice. This new lens looks very strong for those photographers.

Compared to the latest Nikkor lens

The obvious, somewhat unfair contender for the Sigma is the $2399 lens from Nikon, also a new design from the last few months.

Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR version 2.

This lens is the reigning champ, but it also shows some weakness towards the border and corner. What is impressive with this lens however is how even the performance is across the zoom range.

Let’s see how the Sigma compares:

At the wider end of the zoom range the Sigma is beat by an absolute 10% edge in favor of the Nikkor, widening to a 20% edge and relatively twice the contrast at the corner. There’s no doubt the Nikkor is the better lens at shorter focal lengths. Now zoom towards 200mm and the picture changes, the Sigma roughly matches the Nikon but improves upon it significantly towards the corner.

It’s clear that the Sigma is a serious contender. If money is no object to you then you should just get the Nikkor and never look back, but everyone else should give the Sigma some thought. Price is going to be crucial to the success of the Sigma lens.

Compared to the previous Nikkor lens

The old version of the Nikkor is still around and is a spectacular performer on DX and teleconverters. This lens is still a contender for many, even if it has severe issues with FX sensors.

Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR version 1.

You’ll notice immediately that this lens also has very weak corners at 70mm so this should be a close comparison.

Let’s see:

Across the range the two lenses are very close, with one important improvement to the Sigma. At 70mm the Sigma is only very slightly behind – this is a focal length where I thought the Nikkor excelled and seeing the Sigma meet that is exciting. At 200mm the Sigma lags the Nikkor in the center but completely outclasses it at the far border and corner, where the Nikkor is very weak.

This new lens is – in my opinion – most easily described as an improved version of Nikon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 VR version 1. This summarizes the reason for this lens to me. Sigma is caught up to just one step behind Nikon now.

Comments (21) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Thank you for posting MTF for this Sigma OS lens. I have been looking for them for a while. What have you heard about the focus speed/accuracy vs the VR 1 version ?

    I really cannot justify the $500 difference to get to VR 2.

    A used VR 1 is about what the new OS is. One would have a warranty, one would not. I worry about the hidden problem in a used lens that pushed the final price up several hundred for repairs.

    • I think I would worry more about Sigma’s spotty record for actually delivering the goods than I would about a Nikkor VR 1’s warranty. Personally. If you’re shooting APS-C, the VR 1 is the lens for you.

  2. Thanks for the fast reply. I will weigh that in my final decision.

  3. Sample variations occur at all manufacturers. The focus has been on Sigma because it is third party and its lenses are cheaper. The lower price is a consequence of economies of scale not poor QC. When test of sample variation among Nikon and Canon lenses were performed, the results were quite sobering.

    • There is more to delivering the goods than just sample variations. Even a perfect sample of a Sigma lens often does not compare to the closest Nikkor. You’re talking to a guy who is completely comitted to switching to Leica because even a perfect Nikkor can’t stand comparison to a Leica… so I don’t think I’m anywhere near Sigma’s target market.

      On this subject I can only speak to the sampling I have performed myself, I have used one sample from each of these three Sigma lenses :
      *) A 70-200/2.8, three versions ago. It was very soft until f/5.6 while the closest Nikkor was tack sharp wide open. This single sample has done the most to damage Sigma’s value in my mind.
      *) A 10-20/4.5-5.6, one version ago. This one had very substantial chromatic aberrations but was otherwise fairly sharp, particularly on-axis. The Nikkor competitor was unimpeachable however, it was a really great balance of quality.
      *) A 30/1.4. It was a very *enjoyable* lens but it was never really able to draw anything off-axis. Of the three this is the one I could have kept but at the same time I was testing a Zeiss Distagon and that turned out to be a bloodbath of a comparison. I returned the Sigma and kept the Zeiss.

      Bottom line: I’ve given Sigma three chances, I always preferred the non-Sigma choice each time, apparently lower cost doesn’t appeal to me as much as higher quality. Your mileage may vary.

      • My concern is paying ~$1500 for a used Nikon VR 1 then finding out that this used lens has a problem. Paying additonal money to have it repaired could push the cost nearer a new VR 2 lens (what is the average repair cost to a VR 1 I wonder).

        A faulty new sigma I could send back and request another to try to get a “good” one. If I chose to send it in for repair it should be fully covered.

        I sure would kick myself if I paid ~$1500 for a used lens then had to pay several hundred more for repairs.

        Decisions decisons. Football season is about to begin and I have been granted permission to shoot from the sidelines at my sons HS.

        I am half tempted to get either the last generation of the Sigma or an 80-200 (MTF scores for those two are close as I recall from my searches). This would be about half the cost of the other two choices.

        I could then spend more on a 24-70 range lens for basketball season, which would also be a more used lens by me for general shooting.

        I’m not arguing with anyone here, just trying to make myself make a decision before I end up shooting with my 50-150 again this season. A fine lens, though just shorter than optimal.

  4. Thanks Oliver … while not new it is a factory refurb lens so should be in fine working order. It does have a 90 day warranty and i would shoot the daylights out of it the first 60 to see if something was hinky. I wonder if refurbs take care of any scratches/imperfections on the glass. I may call to ask Adorama about that.

    They also have a “demo” one for a couple dollars less. Is demo better than refurb when it comes to the glass and body looking new, who knows. I would be disappointed if the lens looked beaten up, even if it worked perfectly. I take care of my stuff. ;- )

    I am just hinky on spending that much on a lens that is being purchased for HS football. On a D90 it is a little long for general use in my mind. I don’t shoot birds, I have been to the zoo once to shoot and am only slightly likely to do it again. On a FF camera it would work for me for basketball, though I am thinking of a 24-70 for this season’s basketball games over my 50-150.

    While I can afford the VR2, I am having problems justifying it for the limited use that I am purchasing this lenght lens for. It’s a left brain/right brain fight in my head. LOL

    I have considered just getting a 1.4 TC for the 50-150, however bumping to F4 on my D90 makes me uncertain.

    Checking the 1 night game I shot I was at F2.8 1/400th and ISO 1600. I do not like the idea of 1/200 or iso 3200 by going to F4. If I had a D700, then probably would be ok with iso 3200.

    I have to get something very soon as the season will be starting and need to have time to send whatever I get back if there is a problem.

    I have appreciated your insight, comments and suggestions on this issue my friend.

  5. @Grenwood_Geoff

    If you email me: I can have pictures of the demo sent to you. BTW that also comes with a 90-day warranty.

    The refurbs sold by Adorama Camera can have simply been pulled from the production line if something appears faulty, or if it hasn’t passed the final inspection. Most of the time it is a very minor issue that needs correcting, nevertheless, once it is pulled from the normal flow of production, it gets flagged as a refurbished model, so you may get a unit straight from the factory that has never been used.

    I have never been made aware that we’ve had issues with scratched lenses – don’t forget that all refurbished items will have been checked over by the manufacturer by hand, and inspected very thoroughly.

    Helen Oster
    Adorama Camera Customer Service Ambassador

  6. Thank you for the offer Helen. I am still going back and forth on cost/performace in my head.

    It was not my intent to infer that Adorama sold lenses with scratches, was just uncertain if a refurb (from anyone) would take care of any glass belmishes. I have purchased from your company in the past and have been very satisfied.

  7. Just wanted to stop in and say that I took Helen up on the refurb Nikon. I am glad that I posted in here. She was very patient with my emails.

    Thanks again for the review. I have bookmarked your page for future reading.

    • Opps, I guess Oliver mentioned it first. thank you to you also for that link.

      Though Helen had to put up with all my emails. ;- )

  8. My pleasure, Geoff.

    Thanks so much for the feedback

  9. @Geoff, I’m in exactly the same situation you are, only my Sigma 50-150 is a Canon mount. I put both on my 30D today, that is, the new Sigma and the new Canon Mk II. The canon is somewhat, but noticeably faster to focus, and quieter, too. Also the OS on the sigma is noisier and a little clunkier, but seemed to do just as good a job. As I tried out the lenses in store, I couldn’t do any significant IQ comparisons. But once I decide, I’ll discount this new lens by selling my excellent and very sharp 50-150.

  10. Stephen, I opted for the refurb nikon vr1. I hope it is at least as sharp as my 50-150, because like you think that is a nicely sharp lens. I do not have the version 2 of the sigma though.

    I just hope for no front/back focus. No adjust on my D90, so will not be happy.

    I returned the sigma 70-200 the same day i bought it for front focusing 1-2 inches. I use a straight on shot, not the 45 degree test. I find that one to be less accurate for me since if I look a little high in the viewfinder or a little low it can throw things off.

    3 staggered targets straight on is hard to mess up and is really how i shoot – stright on not looking down at. ;- )

    I tested it against my 50-150 and that one was dead on at 50 and 100 but was just a tad front focusing at 150.

  11. I returned my siggie for the same reason. Since then it’s been dead on. Since I plan to get the 5D Mk II or its replacement, I’ll be able to adjust it, just in case. I’m still considering the Canon lens, but I’m not sure I want to fork out the money. I think the main advantage would be in Servo AI. Otherwise I’m pretty sure the IQ will be indistinguishable under real world circumstance.

  12. By the way, did you sell your 50-150?

  13. Not until I get the nikon in and test that it is working properly on my camera. Need the fallback to the sigma in case.

    Once I see that is is good to go, then time to clean it up and take some photo’s of it to post for sale.

  14. Great write up. I just reviewed this lens myself. Would it be ok to use your lens diagram and MTF charts as I cannot locate them on sigmas site. I would credit your article and link to it. Let me know!

    • Thanks. It’s perfectly ok. They are Sigma’s own charts and diagrams – they were available from the UK website briefly after launch. It’s a shame that Sigma doesn’t leave them be public.

    • Also Mike I read your review, good stuff.

      If you want to talk about Bokeh, I’d be happy to indulge. It can be a bit frustrating to discuss this topic because the internet reverberates with poor quality (or useless) information pertaining to Bokeh.

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