Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

December 2003

Tip of the Month

Sigma's 120-300 f2.8 APO HSM
Zoom Telephoto


Since I switched from Nikon to the Canon system I have only owned and used Canon lenses. When I was a Nikon shooter I had at various times owned secondary-market lenses but for the most part I wasn't especially impressed with them. There were exceptions, but none worth mentioning right now.

A friend of mine introduced me to the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 and I thought it would be a handy lens to use for a mountain gorilla photography trip Mary and I'd be doing. Our Canon arsenal included 2 70-200mm f2.8s and 1 300mm f2.8, and we figured we'd use the two zooms for most of our shooting, with the 300 for portraits if necessary. I'd shot gorillas before and found that switching lenses in the thick cover, steep slopes, and excitement-charged atmosphere of a gorilla shoot wasn't easy. In fact, on my previous shoots I ended up using the 300mm almost exclusively, resigning myself to the fact that I'd only get portraits if the gorillas were close when I used that big lens.

This past fall I experimented with the Sigma lens on our two Yellowstone Photo Tours and our one Triple D Game Ranch captive animal shoot. I loved it, and found that it focused extremely fast - certainly it felt as fast as any of my Canon lenses, and it was extremely sharp. The lens matched up perfectly with my Canon 1.4X and 2X tele-converters, so I didn't need a new set of those to carry, and also mated with my Canon 25mm extension tube. The lens has a HSM motor built in so it's fast, and the lens is built soundly. It has a great feel to it - sturdy, and it zooms by rotating the zoom collar just like my 70-200 Canon.


Virtually all of my gorilla shots made on our Rwanda Mountain Gorilla Scouting Trip were made with this lens. Digitally, I could zoom in on an area the size of the two eyes of the gorilla pictured to the left and at that magnification -- perhaps 1/20th of the entire picture -- I could count the eyelashes or the wrinkles on the gray skin. Digital's resolution is incredible -- far superior to film, and the Sigma's resolution was more than up to the task. While that last sentence sounds like the BS one would read in a product review, it is nonetheless true -- the lens is sharp, fast, and sturdy. In the rain in Rwanda I used a plastic garbage bagas a cover, so the lens was protected but it did not fog up in the steamy conditions. My Canon 28-135, which is not an L lens and is fairly inexpensive, certainly did fog up when the rain struck it. So ... the Sigma proved reliable, too.


With this lens I'm losing the 70-120 range of my Canon zoom, but I'm certainly gaining on the far end where I feel I need it most. Also, I'm not using my 100-400mm f5.6 Canon lens now, since I can use a 1.4X tele-converter and get 420mm at f4. Although I did use a 1.4X tele-converter on the 100-400, the lens was now an f8 at 560mm, while with the Sigma 120-300 and a 2X tele-converter I now had 600mm at f5.6!

At around $1,900 or so, the Sigma lens is a heck of a lot less expensive than the Canon 300mm f2.8 and, in my opinion, the Sigma has completely eliminated my need for buying another one (Mary uses one, or did, anyway). At any rate, I loved the lens, so much so that after we returned from Yellowstone I called up Allen's Camera and ordered a second one for Mary. This fall, in Africa on both our Kenya photo safaris and on our gorilla treks, we both used that lens and Mary, like me, just loved it.

If you're shopping for a fast zoom, or a 300mm f2.8 lens, seriously consider this Sigma lens!

Drawbacks - the lens hood is rather short - I'd prefer to have a longer hood, and the leather lens cap best fits when the hood is reversed for packing, not for use. In fact, I'd be afraid I'd lose the cap if I carried it attached when the lens hood was attached for shooting. The lens is not Image Stabilized, so in high wind areas like the Falklands where IS is very handy this could be a problem but for normal shooting, and for Mary and me that's always off a tripod or a beanbag, not having IS is NOT a problem.

Our Past Photo Tips of the Month:


  DIGITAL- Digital Birding

 DIGITAL -Shoot for the Future

DIGITAL-Shoot for the Future, Part II

 DIGITAL Photographing scenes with extreme exposure values

 NPN- Nature Photography Network - a digital forum for nature photography

 Digital Pro Image Management Software

 Protecting your long lens from SAND, the pleasures of beach photography

 How do we protect our gear from dust, and carry our gear when on safari

 The Ultimate Flash Bracket
Padding Your Wimberley
Tripod Head

  Specular highlights and the flashing frog
 Using TTL flash with Hummingbirds  Testing your Flash's Aim
Maximum Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance - they're not neccessrily the same thing!  If you see it, it's too late -- a lesson in anticipation  How do you shoot the Moon?
  Low level tripod work  A great depth of field guide  Wimberley 400 and 600mm IS plate

 Using the Wimberley Gimbal head with a camera body
  Take a Workshop First   Luck, what is it?  Don't take in baby wild animals

  Airline Carry-On Luggage -Let your concerns be heard!

 Disconnect -- travel precautions

The Nature Photography Network - a super website for images and information
 Wildlife Portraiture

 Obey the Rules
The Ti Chi Stalk
Photographing Critically Endangered Sites Busnell Night Vision Optics  Adobe Photoshop 7 for $300

 The Sibley Bird Guides

 Removing Cactus Spines

 Drying out boots with newspaper

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