Friday, July 17, 2009

Lens Test: Nikon 70-300VR vs Sigma 70-300 APO Macro

Update June 2017: I have sold all of my m4/3 bodies except the GX85 (which is part of my international travel kit) and jumped back into Nikon dSLRs. I wanted another 70-300VR for the D90 (which I have since replaced by the D7200) and found that all 4 copies I tried were either broken (constant chatter of AF or very loud VR) or unsharp, even at f/8. I finally tried a Tamron 70-300 USD VC and have found it to be magnificent. It's usable wide open, but at f/8 it is tack sharp. The viewfinder is steadier with VC that it is with VR, so all in all I am a very happy camper. I plan on shooting a similar set of images at some point to compare with my original VR, which I thought was a great lens.

I was quite vocal this week on the Nikon SLR Lens Forum at DPReview regarding the spectacular performance of the Nikon 70-300VR and my misgivings regarding the Sigma 70-300 APO Macro lens. I own both of these, although my Sigma is admittedly an older copy, but this tends to mean nothing anyway.

Sigma and Tamron have a mediocre record where sample variation is concerned in their cheap consumer lenses, so you never quite know what you are going to get when you buy one. That caveat hangs over this test, but then again it hangs over every buyer. So take what you will from this work.

Now ... I am a fan of Tamron and Sigma ... I own several items from each, and some of these are excellent (Sigma 10-20, Sigma 18-200 1st gen, Sigma 105mm 2.8 Macro, Tamron 180mm 3.5 Macro, Tamron 1.4x teleconverter), so these results are not tainted by lens snobbery.

I have already looked over several of my zooms with long range tests, and the 70-300VR did very well at 200mm. In fact, it slaughtered the field. Including the Tamron 180mm. Here are the crops from that test.

Center crops at 200mm

Corner crops at 200mm

Center crops at 300mm

Corner crops at 300mm

Obviously, the 70-300VR is a very good long distance shooter at 200mm ... not quite so good at 300mm, but then this prime is stunning at distance.

Since I have these tests already, I decided that this should be a close range test. That would also help me determine whether I would be shooting the Nikon 70-300VR at the next Crombie McNeill workshop, or three separate primes -- Nikon 300mm F4 AFS, Nikon 105mm f2.5 AIS and Tamron 180mm f3.5 Macro. The primes might be fun, but dreadfully inconvenient. Zooms are made for location shooting.

I decided also to use these three primes as benchmarks in my crop images ... although I had no stomach for a fourth round of tests, so I shot at 300mm against the 300mm prime from about 10 to 12 feet, 105mm against the manual focus prime from about 4-5 feet, and macro against the Tamron 180 from about 2 to 3 feet. I figured that this would give me what I need ...

And it did. I'll summarize the results right now so you know what to look for in the crops. The Nikon 70-300VR beat the Sigma quite handily in most of the tests. The only place where the Sigma was better was at 105mm in the corners. But it was so bad in the center that no one could possibly care.

The Sigma is not very good ... plain and simple. At least, not when compared against the Nikon 70-300VR. And I shot the Nikon from tripod while forgetting to switch VR off (I just realized ... duh.) This actually puts the Nikon at a slight disadvantage, although I lit all images with flash, so maybe this is irrelevant. Still ... something to ponder.

These results are good enough that I have no qualms about shooting the models with this lens, and I may even choose to leave the tripod at home this time. We'll see.

The first set of crops I'll show is at 105mm ... both center and upper right corner. I did my best to frame the same, but I could only get close. You will need to click on these to see the full sized version, as there is no way you can judge anything from the embedded thumbnails.

What you see in these crops is the manual focus prime (I focused it using magnified live view and that was *awesome*) being sharp from f2.5 right through f11. It is a legendary lens, and this is why.

What amazed me is that the Nikon zoom was even sharper in the center through its range, mainly due to slightly higher contrast. What a wonderful lense for a zoom. The corners are reasonably sharp, but lack contrast until f11. Still, they can be processed for adequate sharpness in my opinion. And when I shoot people, the center is what matters and it is stunning.

The Sigma is a bit of a mutant ... working exactly in reverse. A shockingly good result in the corner, but loathsome blur in the center. This renders the lens utterly useless for short range shooting. And I wouldn't bet on it being any good at long range either. There is simply no contrast.

Moving on to 300mm, where the Nikon is much weaker.

Or is it? In fact, in this close range test, the results have reversed from my long range tests ... the 70-300VR crushes the Sigma and defeats the prime. Wow! The Sigma never properly resolves the background and never resolves the individual ink dots in the word DAVE. The prime resolves the dots, but slightly blurs them into a line until F8, when contrast improves nad the dots show clearly. But the Nikon zoom resolves them perfectly at *all* its apertures. Unbelievable.

The corners for both the Nikon and Sigma are aided dramatically by vignetting at 5.6, but at f8 and above the prime asserts supremacy in the corner as you would expect. The Sigma is about on par with the Nikon in the corners at 300mm.

Note that there was a failure in my Sigma lens at f8 at 300mm ... this is caused by a sticky aperture. I'd never use the lens anyway, but this issue is fatal.

Now, finally, we shift to the macro range. Perhaps here the Sigma can regain some dignity.

Alas, no. It has blur and massive chromatic abberations ... it is just not to be. A clean sweep for the Nikon, and the Nikon actually looks as good as the Tamron for macro. And that with an extra pair of air to glass interfaces with the Canon 500D achromat (2-element, corrected) close up filter attached to the front. Wow again. I even shot the Nikon at both 300mm and 200mm to equalize sizes with the Sigma. And again, the Nikon beat it half to death.

So ... I was right. More right than I could have imagined. The Nikon 70-300VR at close range is far superior to my copy of the Sigma 70-300 APO Macro. And if you think that my caveat there (my copy of...) means that you might have a superior copy, then enjoy your lens. But I'd try to trade that sucker for the 70-300VR ... it's just sooooo good!

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