Comparison of high-end tele zoom lenses

During my recent safari in Kenya, I got the occasion of seeing some of the best tele-zoom lenses in action (I was the one with the smallest photo equipement). This gave me a feeling about the advantages or inconveniences of these, and the idea to dig a little deeper into the issue of comparing. So, here are the candidates:

  • Nikon AF 80-400mm VR f/4.5-5.6 D ED
  • Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS UM
  • Sigma 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG EX OS

Stabilisation internal internal internal  
Aperture f/4.5-5.6 f/4.5-5.6 f/4.5-5.6  
Weight 1340g 1380g 1630g Sigma is the heaviest, by far!
Focus manual correction Yes Yes No HSM
(maybe a later HSM version)
Min focus length 2.3m 1.8m 0.2m Sigma nearly does macrophoto
Colour black white black  
Price (street) 2290€ 1990€ 1400€ Winner: Sigma

From this feature comparison (that is not including a lot of optical quality features), I would say that Sigma got the advantage. However, a few more elements must be taken into account before choosing.

The Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS UM has one common problem: it is a pump-type zoom. This means that is dusty environment, merely changing focal blows dust in and out of the lens (and this may become a liability for the body itself – Digital SLR are notoriously sensitive to dust sticking on the sensor).

I would add that my recent experience with a Sigma lens in Kenya may also prove interesting to some people. The Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO I used there ended with a badly damaged exterior paint (combination of heat, sweat and dust have proven too much for a lens that was not priced as high as some others). I admit this is no real problem for day-to-day use, but the paint has been flowing under my fingers and the lens looks so bad that it will never reach the second-hand market again. So, I’d say that quality of manufacturing of this series of tele-lenses from Sigma was not to a par with Canon white bodies (very neat color, by the way) or with Nikon black shiny bodies (very professional look).

The white color of the Canon pro lenses (like it was the case for Minolta G pro lenses), may be an advantage in sunny conditions where it will keep the lense slightly cooler that the more common black body (but what if you go to Northern Canada?). Anyway, this makes the Canon lens very recognizable. For afar, most people will identify you as a “pro” and sometimes it can be pleasant (showing off is sometimes appreciated by photographers). I am ready to admit that my white Minolta APO G 200mm f/2.8 lens gave me a way to blend into the pack of professional photographers in a concert a few years ago.

Some other aspect: Most people consider that the Sigma lens is rather noisy during the auto-focus (at least compared with the Nikon). This is compounded by the fact that auto-focus is longer to obtain with Sigma (less precise, a little slower).