Articles - Other Reviews
Review: Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro
Back at the beginning of this century when I became interested in photography, one of the first specialist lenses I bought was the original Sigma 105mm 2.8 EX Macro. I got it because at the time I had been pre-conditioned into believing that anything with a 2.8 maximum aperture was going to be "da bomb" for any pictures I took with it. This one had been purchased off an auction site and it was my intention to use it for portraiture.
The lens was very sharp, but it was a specialist lens that required a great deal of user knowledge in order to obtain the maximum output. For a start it was extremely slow to focus and it grew longer than Pinocchio’s nose the closer you focused it. I actually did my first paid product shoot with that lens in my bedroom when I was still tied into the Matrix (which is Dallas speak for “corporate rat race”). The shots were made with my F5 on Velvia 50 slide film and were super saturated. Boy, was I green when it came to choosing the right tools for the job back then. I had the right lens and camera, but Velvia 50 for products?
Fast-forward more than a decade to today and while things have certainly changed in the imaging world, product photography is still a big part of my life and I can at least boast that I have progressed to a point where I am able to convince some people that they should pay me to take pictures of their products. The lenses I am using have progressed too and the one I am reviewing for you here is the re-incarnation of that same Sigma 105mm 2.8 Macro I used to do my first ever product shoot, but this time with a little added refinement.
Why use a macro lens? What is the point in them? Optically they are designed to let you get closer and produce magnification that is at least 1:1 with real life in your camera’s sensor, or in some cases even closer (with accessories). This one does 1:1 on it’s own and let’s you work as close as 31.2cm from your subject.
I use macro lenses for my product photography because of this ability to work closer. Sometimes it’s a blessing and other times it’s a curse, because filling a frame with a small object, while possible on shorter focal length macro lenses, can change the perspective of the object you’re trying to shoot. I shoot a lot of books for one of my clients and I have found that with a 60mm macro lens I tend to use only half the frame because if I get any closer the book begins to look like a looming giant. This is why I began looking for a lens that would allow me to work a little bit further away, but still retain some sense of normalcy in perspective, all the while filling the FX frame with the product I am shooting.
I don’t shoot any flowers or insects, nor have I ever done any focus stacking, so please bear this in mind when reading this review. I’m reviewing the lens based on my typical applications, which are product shots, some close ups of stuff, and very occasionally a portrait or two.
The new Sigma 105mm 2.8 EX HSM has evolved from my first Sigma 105mm 2.8 macro lens dramatically. It’s a completely new lens.
We now have a lens that has super quick focusing, thanks to the built-in Hyper-sonic motor (HSM); has internally shifting elements, meaning that the lens doesn’t get longer, or have a rotating front element when it focuses closer; plus, the biggest change of all, it now has an optical stabiliser built in.
On paper it seems to be the perfect lens for what I do, so let’s find out if it is.
Aesthetics and handling
The first 105mm Sigma macro lens I had was finished in that horrible metallic paint that would always peel off and leave the lens looking like something straight out of a war movie. This new one is made of the same polycarbonate material that my sigma 70-200mm 2.8 OS is made from. It’s lightweight but it does seem a bit plasticky to the touch. Because of its smoothness it also tends to pick up fingerprints quite easily, which shouldn’t be a consideration in making a lens choice, but I thought I would point it out nonetheless.
I can’t help but think that this lens was modelled on the shape of a can of beer. Take off the lens hood and it has very similar dimensions! Don’t leave it on the table if you’re on a Nikongear workshop where Erik Lund is present because he’ll saw off the bottom, take out the gizzards and likely call it an improvement on the original!
Speaking of lens hoods, you can expect the usual Sigma two-part hood in the box, which you bayonet together depending on whether you are shooting FX or DX format cameras. I don’t know if this actually makes a difference - I don’t have a DX format camera to test it out on. Also there is a soft nylon clad padded case for it. In short it is a pretty nicely made lens.
The focusing ring is fairly close to the front end of the lens but in my opinion this is the perfect place to put it, because when you’re holding the camera properly (ie, with your left hand cradling the lens from underneath), it’s a short movement of forefinger and thumb to reach the focus ring, instead of having to hold the lens closer to the camera body if you are focusing manually.
The focus throw is pretty short when you’re doing this manually. I don’t have a protractor to measure it with, but a movement of only a few degrees (or notches on the rubber ring) when I am at the minimum focusing distance shifts the focus depth by more than 10 centimeters. This could be critical if you are engaged in focus stacking something like jewellery and only want to shift focus very slightly. You’re going to need a skillful touch to get that right unless of course you have the luxury of a focusing stage for your work.
Like most modern lens designs, the new Sigma 105mm Macro allows you to manually over-ride the autofocus without fighting against the HSM motor. I personally never do this, but many other photographers do.
The auto-focus speed is very decent on a D700. Nikon forgot to send me copies of the D4 and D800’s so I can’t comment on how this would work on those cameras, but as a man who is committed to his short-term photographic future with the D700, I have to say that this lens has great auto focus ability on that camera. I tested it out in very dim light using both the center and extreme focus points of the D700 and with even the slightest bit of detectible contrast the lens snapped into focus faster than I can say “where the ---- are you?”
Sigma advertise that the lens is compatible with their EX range of tele-converters. I have both the 1.4x and 2.0x converters on loan from them to test with the new 120-300mm 2.8 OS so I gave them a whirl on the 105mm too. Under the same conditions as using the lens bare, with the 1.4x tele-converter there is no perceptible degradation in the auto-focus speed as far as I can tell. It’s still pretty darn fast. The 2x tele-converter is a different story: no auto-focus at all. You have to focus manually, which given the short focus throw already mentioned leaves you with limited applications for that combo. On the plus side the optical stabiliser still works with both these TC’s.