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Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM Review

Reviewed by Ron Risman -- October 1, 2010




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Sigma 8-16mm Lens Review

Introduction

In March of this year Sigma announced all new lenses including one in particular that caught my eye, a new 8-16mm non-fisheye lens designed for DSLR's with smaller APS-C-sized sensors.  What's remarkable about this focal length is that, for the first time, it provides users of APS-C cameras a true ultra wide-angle option that was previously unavailable to them. Sigma has had a 10-20mm lens in their lineup for a couple of years, but this new lens gets another 20% wider, which is a first that I know of for small sensor cameras. That's a huge difference for those shooting real estate or who want to exaggerate the depth in a scene. The actual focal range of the Sigma 8-16mm is 12-24mm for cameras with a 1.5x crop factor (Nikon, Sony) or 12.8 to 25.6mm for cameras with a 1.6x crop factor (Canon).

Since I shoot both stills and video my interest in this Sigma 8-16mm lens was for use within both mediums. In the right situations this type of lens provides nearly infinite depth-of-field, a valuable tool to have when filming on a Steadicam rig or for shooting up close and personal.   Since today's DSLR's do not auto focus in video mode (a couple do, but not well), the ability for the lens to make everything look in focus is incredibly important when shooting on a Steadicam style rig. If you're a realtor this lens will help show off rooms that would normally be too small to get into one photo, though the exaggerated size of a room may disappoint people once they visit the property.

The Sigma 8-16mm lens is not a fish-eye meaning the lens keeps straight lines straight, whereas a fish-eye lens purposely bends lines. The fact that the 8-16mm is not a fish eyes means that you won't get the purposeful distorted fish-eye effect that, while creative, isn't ideal in many situations.  At the ultra-wide 8mm focal length of the Sigma lens, objects will get stretched near the sides of the frame as the lens distorts reality by making objects near the lens appear even closer and things away from the lens seem even further than they really are.

While the lens is specifically designed for smaller APS-C sensors, it is worth noting that for Canon users, the lens has a standard EF mount (vs. EF-S), which means it will physically fit on a full frame DSLR (Canon 5D, 5D Mark II). Despite this you should know that because the image circle of the lens was designed for smaller sensors, a larger full-frame sensor will record a circle of black around the image when used at virtually all focal lengths, except for one. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could use the lens at 16mm on the full-frame EOS 5D Mark II without problem. In theory, if you owned both a Canon EOS 7D (or other APS-C camera) as well as a full-frame model like the 5D Mark II you could use it with both models.  On the full-frame it will act as a true 16mm lens and on the APS-C model it will act as a 12.8-25.6mm zoom lens. Not a bad deal.

There is also a big difference in where and why you would use an ultra-wide lens compared to a more normal wide-angle lens.   A typical wide-angle focal length ranges from about 24mm to 28mm. Those lenses are ideal for trying to squeeze more into your photos without exaggerating the differences between near and far objects. Family portraits, architecture, and landscape shots are all ideal uses for normal wide-angle lenses.   But with an ultra-wide angle lens, your best images will not be landscapes or even family portraits. Instead they will be the more creative shots where you get super close to the action in order to give the feeling that you are right there in the middle of it all.  An Ultra-wide lens causes anything in the corners to be stretched or pulled 'closer,' while objects in the middle of the frame will appear to be much further away.   Just as a telephoto lens helps to compress the distance between objects in a photo, an ultra-wide lens does the opposite - creating more apparent space between objects in a photograph.

One of the great benefits of the Sigma 8-16mm is that you are not forced to always shoot at 8mm. When you do, you should work on getting very close to your subject and to shoot from low or high angles in order to exaggerate the relationships between walls, floors and ceilings.  However, when you want a more traditional wide angle 'look' to your image, the Sigma allows you to zoom to any other focal length up to 16mm, which on an camera with an APS-C sensor gives you a more traditional 24 - 26mm wide-angle focal length. Ken Rockwell wrote a great article titled " How to Use Ultra Wide Lenses." The article was written in 2008 but all the information applies to today's ultra wide lenses.   The article is a must read if you think that an ultra-wide lens is "for fitting more into the frame."

Earlier I mentioned that my interest in the Sigma 8-16mm was for use with video as well as stills. For stills the lens provides me the ability to capture images with a unique perspective. The ultra wide focal length is amazing for shooting tall buildings and skyscrapers or for capturing moving cloud time-lapse sequences for use with video (see video demo below).  The video below was made from 408 still images taken 21 seconds apart. Each still image was captured with the Sigma lens at the 11mm focal length, which with the 1.6x crop factor is the equivalent of 17.6mm.  The wide-zoom capability of the lens gave me the ability to crop the scene in camera.

The camera was set to manual exposure where I then dialed in a 15 second exposure, manual white balance, ISO 640, and an aperture of f/5.0. These settings allowed me to balance the amount of exposures per minute (approx. 3) while capturing the light I needed before sunrise. As the sun began to rise the settings were no longer appropriate, which is why the end of the time-lapse sequence is too bright (and blue). Of course I only needed a few seconds for a film I was working on, so the end of the time-lapse was never scene (until now).

Flying the Sigma 8-16mm on a Steadicam Merlin with the EOS 7D

Another huge benefit of the 8mm focal length is for use on a Steadicam. A Steadicam is a video stabilization device that allows the operator to follow a subject or just walk or run with the camera without getting the nasty, headache inducing, camera shake that you would get when shooting hand held. Since most current video DSLR's do not auto focus while recording video, the videographer benefits greatly from the great depth-of-field that an ultra-wide angle lens provides.  This wide depth-of-field will help to make everything look in focus whether you're 3 feet from the subject or 20 feet from the subject.   The ultra-wide angle distortion, seen as the stretching of objects near the corners of the lens also helps to give a more 3-dimensional effect to movement when flying on a Steadicam. The biggest drawback of this lens for Steadicam use is its rather slow f/4.5 aperture when shooting ultra wide.  This prevents the lens from being a great Steadicam lens for wedding or event videographer's hoping to move around the usually dim dance floor during a bride & groom's first dance.  For that I recommend Sigma's fast f/1.8 20mm lens that I reviewed late last year.

Here are a few Steadicam clips that I recorded with the Canon EOS 7D and the Sigma 8-16mm ultra wide lens. The video was shot at the 8mm (12.8mm equivalent) settings.

Steadicam Merlin and the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 Lens

Performance

When I review lenses I like to test them in real life situations and then base my opinions on the resulting images.  I am not one to aim a lens at test charts to look at resolution, distortion, aberrations, or vignetting. However, when analyzing my photographs I do look for all of these attributes in order to discuss them within the review. Since the vignetting on this lens was very well controlled I decided to photograph a white wall in order to make the effect easier to see. I also wanted to make sure that you could see the difference between vignetting caused by the lens vs. light fall-off in a scene caused by such a wide field-of-view.

Resolution / Sharpness
The Sigma 8-16mm lens has the ability to produce images with good to very good sharpness across the entire field of view. Images are their sharpest between f/4.5 and f/11 and get progressively softer as the aperture closes to its minimum setting of f/22. Since the maximum aperture of the lens is only f/4.5 you will find that under cloudy conditions or when shooting indoors you'll be forced to either slow down the shutter speed or increase the ISO sensitivity of the camera to maintain an acceptable exposure, both of which can affect image detail. When the shutter speed falls below 1/30th of a second it becomes very important to stabilize the camera on a table or tripod in order to prevent camera shake or subject movement from affecting overall sharpness - though subject movement will also cause blur in the photo.  When increasing the ISO sensitivity of your camera (in order to keep a higher shutter speed and proper exposure) additional noise will be recorded in the image, which also has a negative effect on image sharpness.  So while the lens is capable of producing sharp images, its rather slow f/4.5 maximum aperture will force users to choose camera settings that may not allow for the best image quality.

Auto Focus
Sigma has added HSM (Hyper-Sonic Motor) technology to the 8-16mm lens and it definitely paid off.  Using the lens in combination with the Canon EOS 7D proved to be an excellent combination with the lens locking focus within 1/4 second each and every time, even in very dim lighting. I needed to go into an almost pitch black room in order to fool the focusing system.  The ultra wide field-of-view also helps to keep objects from near to far looking pretty sharp.

Chromatic Aberration
The new Sigma 8-16mm lens features four "F" Low Dispersion (FLD) glass elements. Sigma's press release for the 8-16mm lens states "FLD glass is the highest level low dispersion glass available with extremely high light transmission. This optical glass has a performance equal to fluorite glass which has a low refractive index and low dispersion compared to current optical glass. It also benefits from high anomalous dispersion. Using these characteristics gives excellent correction for residual chromatic aberration (secondary spectrum) which cannot be corrected by ordinary optical glass and ensures high definition and high contrast images." The other new sigma lenses that use FLD glass elements include the new 70-200mm and 17-50mm lenses.

I snapped over 1400 pictures using this lens during the review period and can confirm that the lens exhibits very low chromatic aberration levels in the center of the frame and low levels in the extreme edges of the frame, which are only visible along high contrast boundaries.  In blown out areas I could find some slight purple fringing while in normal high-contrast situations some red fringing was noticeable. Chromatic aberrations were lower on this lens than with any other lenses that I own with the exception of the Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS lens.

The image below is a 100% crop from the far right-side of one of my images. It shows very minor chromatic aberration along the white slanted vertical post and along the edge of the tree. The chromatic aberrations seen here is so slight that the full 18-megapixel still image would have to be enlarged quite a bit before this small amount of aberration was visible to the naked eye.



Click for larger view

Vignette
One of the most common traits of wide-angle lenses is corner vignetting. A lot of photographers like a slight corner vignette as it helps to direct the eye toward the center of frame. Personally I prefer a vignette-free image since I can always add a vignette if I feel the image calls for it, but the reality is most lenses at full telephoto and very wide-angle will exhibit some vignetting. Luckily the Sigma 8-16mm handles vignetting very well.  At the 8mm focal length there is a soft vignette regardless of aperture, while at the 16mm focal length vignetting is all but nonexistent in actual photographs and only slightly unnoticeable when photographing a solid white wall.

In the test below I photographed a white wall at different aperture settings at both the 8mm and 16mm focal length. An all white image should represent a worst-case scenario where vignette is easily noticed and as you will see below, even at the 8mm focal length vignette is very well controlled. These images were captured as JPEG files right from the camera and no post processing has been done to them aside from reducing them in size for display.  In actual photographs vignetting is even less noticeable.


On a full-frame camera like the Canon 5D Mark II corner vignetting is a bit more pronounced since the sensor sees further into the corners of the lens, but still easily adjusted for in software.

Light Fall-off
Due to the wide focal lengths of the lens, a natural vignette can often be seen in the sky portion of the photos due to the fall-off of sunlight across the wide horizon. The photo below is a good illustration of this effect. In this sunflower shot the sun was positioned to my upper left. Due to the wide field-of-view provided by the 16mm focal length in this photo (25mm equivalent), the light from the sun will fall-off toward the right side of the frame.  This is a natural vignette and not one caused by the lens.


Click for larger view

Lens Flare
Flare is inevitable when it comes to shooting with wide-angle lenses as the field of view is so great that keeping the sun or other bright light sources out of the lens just isn't all that easy. The lens ships with a petal-style hood, but unless the sun is directly overhead (or behind you) the hood doesn't stand a chance.  What's important then is how well the lens handles flare. Sigma uses a Super Multi-Layer Coating on the lens to help reduce the effects of flare and ghosting while also providing improved edge-to-edge brightness that helps ensure high-contrast images.

The six images below were all shot with the goal of creating lens flare. With each photo I positioned the sun so that it would hit the lens at different angles. While flare is definitely prevalent, it is very well controlled especially considering the extra elements of glass needed for a zoom lens.
Note: the first five images were all shot at f/22, which creates that star burst effect on the sun.  The last image (softball) was captured at f/8.0 using a faster shutter speed.   Unless you need an extremely wide depth-of-field or the sunburst effect you will almost always get sharper images if you keep the aperture between f/8 and f/11, using a higher-shutter speed to compensate for exposure.

Click any photo for a larger view

Other Sample / Test Images

The images below are not raw images directly from the camera. Instead they have been processed as I would do to any photo before showing it publicly. These images should give you a good idea of the type of photos and looks you can achieve using this lens. These images were captured over a five week period in a variety of situations from star trails at midnight to shots taken with the midday sun overhead.  I tried to choose images that help to highlight the benefit of the ultra wide effect that this lens gives.

Any image alterations were done in Lightroom 3. The last two images were converted into an HDR image by combining three bracketed RAW exposures using HDR software (Oloneo PhotoEngine).

11mm
11mm focal length, f/5.0, 20 sec. exposure, ISO 640
This image was shot at around 4:00 a.m. before sunrise. I framed the scene at 11mm in order to crop out distractions off the left side of the image.   This slight 'zoom' also helped to reduce the stretching of the corners that I didn't want for this image. This is a great example of why having an ultra-wide zoom can be beneficial over an ultra wide PRIME.
16mm
16mm focal length, f/7.1, 1/30th sec. exposure, ISO 1000
This 'portrait' image was captured while dining outside in downtown Portsmouth, NH. I used long end of the lens (16mm) to get a more natural perspective. Of course the 16mm focal length translates to a 25.6mm wide angle, perfect for showing the surroundings of where we were.
8mm
8mm focal length, f/6.3, 1/6 sec. exposure, ISO 2000
Here is a similar image shot from the same distance but this time at the wide end of the lens (8mm), which not only provides an ultra-wide view but also exaggerates the distance be taking objects close to the edges of the frame and pulling them in closer for a more interesting and dramatic perspective shot.
8mm
8mm focal length, f/4.5, 1/40 sec. exposure, ISO 3200
Get in CLOSE!
This photo is a classic example of how to best utilize an ultra wide lens. Here is a photo of my Westie with his nose about 1-2" from the lens. The ultra wide field-of-view helps to make this image look almost like a cartoon and really can create beautiful pet portraits.  This same effect is not flattering with human subjects.
8mm
8mm focal length, f/4.5, 1/13th sec. exposure, ISO 200
This image illustrates how to use forced perspective to create a leading line into your subject. With a normal lens you are told not to place a subject in the center of the frame, but with an ultra-wide it's the only place to put them. The center portion of the frame is untouched while the sides are pulled out toward the edges.

8mm focal length, f/4.5, 1/640th sec. exposure, ISO 100
An ultra wide field-of-view is great for creating a 3D effect with buildings as it enhances perspective and creates a leading line for your eye to follow. Some love this look because it's different, others can't stand it. Either way, it's another way to tell a story. See the 'corrected' version below.
corrected
Same as above but with vertical lines "normalized" in Lightroom 3
Here is the same photo after correcting the vertical distortion using the new controls in Lightroom 3. You do give up a little bit of the ultra wide view, in exchange for lines that stand tall. You sill retain the leading line since the street itself and not the lens was responsible for this effect.
sharpness
8mm focal length, f/10, 1/160th sec. exposure, ISO 100
This rather uninteresting image is here to help illustrate the sharpness of the lens. It was taken at the 8mm focal length with no additional processing done to the image aside from converting it from RAW to JPEG.  The camera was set to ISO 100, so the image is the cleanest you can get out of the Canon EOS 7D. You can view the full size image here.
sharpness
8mm focal length, f/5, 10:45 second exposure, ISO 400
This image was shot using the widest angle of the lens, which allowed me to capture an ultra wide view of the sky. I kept the exposure open for over 10 minutes in order to allow the stars to move through the scene a bit. Noise reduction and color enhancements were done in Lightroom 3.

HDR Photography

Ultra wide lenses are often great for creating high dynamic-range images (HDR). The forced 3D perspective is ideal for enhancing clouds, while the wide field-of-view is often great for capturing both light and dark parts of a scene in a single image.  Here are a few HDR examples that I captured using the Sigma 8-16mm lens. Each of these were originally captured using 3 bracketed exposures. One at 2-stops under, one normal, and one at 2-stop over exposed. They were then combined to create a single HDR image.
HDR This is a highly edited and stylized HDR. Color was boosted to give it a cartoon feel, since I felt the elongated vertical height of the building called for it. I also did some cloning in Photoshop to help reduce people blur in the image. This is definitely one of those over the top HDR images you often hear about.
HDR Combing HDR with the ultra wide view gave me the ability to capture my mini parked in the dark garage while also exposing for the building and cloud dotted sky outside of the garage. The ultra wide distortion made the cars parked in front of the building look like stretch station wagons.

Conclusion

Up until the introduction of the Sigma 8-16mm lens a couple of months ago, digital SLR's with cropped sensors just didn't have the ability to go wider than 15mm or 16mm (equivalent), at least without jumping over to a fish-eye lens.  Sigma's 10-20mm lens was the widest available, providing a 35mm equivalent focal length of 15mm (Nikon 1.5x) or 16mm (Canon 1.6x). With the introduction of the new Sigma 8-16mm, digital SLR owners now have the ability to shoot as wide as 12mm (12.8mm w/Canon) without fish-eye distortion.  Whether or not that extra 3mm is important to you will determine the value of this lens.

For me, the biggest drawback of this lens is its f/4.5 maximum aperture at. In comparison, Tokina's 11-16mm offers a fixed aperture throughout the zoom range of f/2.8, letting in more than twice as much light. However, the Tokina's widest focal length equivalent is 16mm vs 12mm on the Sigma. A 16mm wide focal length may be fine for some, but not to those who crave an ultra wide view.

The design of the Sigma 8-16mm does not allow the user to attach filters. With such a wide field-of-view you would most likely not want to put a filter on even if you could as it would inevitably cause severe vignetting and additional flare.  Most ultra wide lenses do not have filter ability, although Sigma's 8mm fish-eye lens does feature rear filter capabilities.

Aside from the f/4.5 maximum aperture the lens is a real winner. It's very sharp from f/4.5 to f/11 and only gets really soft at f/22, it's minimum aperture. The focusing system is very quiet and virtually foolproof. The lens was able to quickly lock focus, without hunting, in very dim lighting conditions. I actually needed an almost pitch black room before it couldn't find focus. With such a wide field-of-view (121° with a 1.5x crop) it's important to remember that the focus sensor of the camera may not always focus on what you're looking at in a scene. When focus is critical I would recommend using your DSLR's live view 'magnify' feature, then manually focus on the item in the frame - or - just shoot with an f/8 to f/11 aperture and the depth-of-field will be so great it shouldn't matter.

This is the widest rectilinear lens available for DSLR's with APS-C sensors. As a rectilinear lens the optics were designed to keep straight lines straight. When the image is then projected onto a flat plane (sensor) a 3D effect is created as the edges of the frame are forced outward (to keep straight lines straight). The alternative to a rectilinear lens is a fish-eye lens where the optics take straight lines and bend them around the barrel in order to offer a wider field-of-view for any given focal length. Both have their advantages, but for most wide-angle shooting I prefer a rectilinear lens.

The minimum focusing distance of the Sigma 8-16mm is 9.4", which doesn't seem all that close for an ultra wide lens, but the focusing distance is not measured from the front of the lens. In testing I was able to place the front of the lens hood within 4" of my subject while still locking focus.  I was then able to zoom in to 16mm, making this a very usable focusing distance.

For outdoor 'flying' on the Steadicam Merlin this lens is incredible. The 3D perspective you get at 8mm (12.8 on Canon's EOS 7D) helps to make motion that much more dramatic, while the ultra-wide view and a mid-range aperture setting will eleviate any need to focus, regardless of how close or far you are from your subject.

If you own a DSLR with a crop sensor and are looking for a true ultra-wide angle lens then Sigma has come to the rescue. While every lens has their advantages and disadvantages there is just no other lens on the market that offers such a wide focal length for your camera. If low-light performance isn't critical in an ultra-wide lens then I would definitely put the new Sigma 8-16mm on your short list to consider.

Pricing
The Sigma 8-16mm lens retails for $1,100 but can be found for much less. Check prices today at: Amazon.com and B&H Photo.

When you purchase a product from either retailer using our links we get a small referral credit for the sale. This helps to keep our site running and doesn't effect your purchase price.

Specifications:
Lens Construction 15 Elements in 11 Groups
Angle of View 114.5 - 75.7
Number of Diaphragm Blades 7
Mininum Aperture f22
Minimum Focusing Distance 24 cm / 9.4 in
Maximum Magnifications 1:7.8
Dimensions
(Diameter x Length)
75 x 105.7 mm / 3.0 x 4.2 in
Weight 555g / 19.6oz.
Corresponding Mounts
Sigma 
Nikon 
Canon 
Sony/Minolta 
Pentax 

* Vignetting will occur if the lens is used with digital cameras with image sensors larger than APS-C size or 35mm SLR cameras.

* AF will not function with Pentax ist* series and K100D DSLR cameras that do not support HSM.

* Filters cannot be attached to this lens.

*The appearance, specifications, and the like of the product may be subject to change for improvement.

Additional Reviews / Information

Disclosure Statement
The Sigma 8-16mm lens was loaned to us by Sigma for the purpose of this review. The unit has been in-house for approximately six weeks. The views and opinions in our reviews are based solely on findings made during our testing of the product and are never based on whether or not the manufacturer sent us the product to review.

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