Sigma broke new ground when it launched the world’s first 150-600mm zoom lens in 2014: the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Sport. As a writer and reviewer of camera gear, I was excited about this revolutionary new optic. It promised incredible reach compared to the classic 70-300mm telephoto focal range that most amateur and enthusiast photographers are accustomed to.
The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Sport didn’t break the bank, either; with 1,500 bucks, it was the promise of a 600mm lens into reach for many enthusiasts. To others might need to spend several thousand toes a mighty focal length of 600mm, you only; the Canon RF 600mm f/4L IS USM lens costs $13,000 / PS14,000 / AU$20,000, so I see can undoubtedly see the appealing pricetag of 150-600mm lenses. Sigma’s iteration was soon joined by Tamron’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC USD G1 and later G2 version. Sigma also brought out a 150-60mm Contemporary variant, so there are plenty of these long lenses – they’re trendy. But I’m here to explain why there are probably better options than this…
Let’s start with why you would need a 600mm lens, to begin with. Many photographers want a super-long telephoto lens to bring distant subjects closer to achieve a frame-filling image.
While 150-600mm lenses do make it possible to achieve a shot of a distant bird, for example, I believe that better pictures could be taken by improving your bushcraft skills and getting closer to your subject with a shorter focal length zoom (or setting up a wildlife hide and letting the nature come to you instead).
The issue with photographing an animal some distance away is that you may start to pick up haze, which reduces image quality. Also, the more zoom and reach your lens has, the worse the image quality typically is – that’s one of the reasons why 300mm, 400mm, and 600mm prime lenses (with a fixed focal length) demand such a high price.
Most of my favorite wildlife shots have been taken with a 70-200mm f/2.8 or a 300mm f/2.8 lens, so I’ve rarely needed a 600mm focal length. I can see them being useful for astrophotography shots of the moon, nebula, or galaxies where it’s impossible to move closer to the subject physically. They are also helpful for sports, where you need help to get closer to your topic physically.
The reaA0-200mm lens or a 300mm f/2.8 are my favorite for wildlife is beca of image quality, autofocus speed, and the super-wide f/2.8 aperture. Prime lenses, in particular, are the creme de la creme of camera optics; with no zoom mechanism, you have to “zoom” with your feet, but the advantage is that manufacturers can finesse and fine-tune the image quality and autofocusing so that they’re both razor-sharp and lightning-fast.
Finally, let’s talk about apertures. The vast majority of 150-600mm lenses have a variable aperture of f/5-6.3; this means at the widest focal length of 150mm, the maximum available aperture is f/5, closing down to f/6.3 at the 600mm mark. These top aperture options are considerably slower than a 70-200mm or 300mm f/2.8. F/5 is 1 2/3 of a stop slower than f/2.8, and f/6.3 is 2 1/3 slower.
While this is problematic on its own, as a smaller aperture with less light flow results in slower shutter speeds or boosting the ISO (which can degrade image quality), the main issue is the depth of field. A narrower aperture of f/5-6.3 makes it much more challenging to blur backgrounds into a diffused bokeh wall, which helps your subject stand out and makes your images look more professional.
I’d never be one to stifle innovation, and I can appreciate that these 150-600mm lenses have their merits: they’re great for astro work, shooting the moon, or telephoto landscapes where you don’t need a fast aperture.
But I’ve seen these lenses become popular with sports and wildlife photographers, and the money would be better put towards 70-200mm f/2.8 or a 300mm f/2.8 (or even f/4 versions if you’re on a tight budget). If you look at the second-hand market, they’re comparable in price, too, especially for older variants of these lenses for your specific camera mount.
Of course, you’re free to make up your mind and buy whatever kit works best for you – and if you love using your 150-600mm lens, please don’t let me stop you. However, if you own one and find the image quality not quite razor sharp, the autofocus not fast enough, or the narrow apertures and depth of field too restricting. Hopefully, now you understand why that is – and which lenses to consider upgrading.
One final thing to note: it’s worth remembering that you can extend your reach further by using a camera body with an APS-C or cropped sensor camera body, too. So a 300mm lens would become 450mm on a Nikon or Sony APS-C (with their 1.5x crop factor), 480mm on a Canon APS-C (as they have a 1.6x crop) or 600mm on an Olympus or Panasonic Micro Four Thirds camera (with their 2x produce). So changing your camera body is another way to add some crucial reach if needed.