The Sigmonster for filming
Here is a short term review of the Sigma 300-800mm, I got my hands on one for three weeks to test out specifically for filming.
When it comes to filming equipment, unlike photography and the advent of mirrorless systems, sometimes you just can't shrink down your kit. This certainly applies to this set up. The Sigma 300-800mm is a beast of a lens, in fact a monster of a lens, hence its nickname the Sigmonster! This isn't a new lens, by modern lens systems this is a very old lens to still be in production. Offering a truly unique range, this super telephoto zoom is incredibly helpful for natural history filmmaking.
I have known about this lens for years, but now that the majority of my work is in film, this lens has become more and more intriguing. For filming, the lack of image stabilisation or lightning fast native system autofocus aren't important. The fact this lens offers a zoom range at a constant F5.6 aperture and has a large, smooth manual focus ring makes it ideal for filming. When set up on a large video tripod and securely mounted, its ready to shoot!
My long lens experience ranges from Canon super telephoto prime lenses, like the 400mm F2.8 (with and without teleconverters), to cine zoom lenses like the Fujinon 85-300mm Cabrio and Canon 50-1000mm (CN20x50), this Sigma offers a happy medium between the range. The Canon super telephotos are a delight to use, offering stunning crisp image quality, but the limitation of being a prime is often a problem for filming when you need to be able to get a variety of shots quickly, particular when scenarios are erratic and evolve quickly. The cine zooms answer this but you pay the price, the Fujinon weighing in at £29,000, while the CN20x50 comes in at £50,000!
For the past two years I have regularly used a Canon 400mm F2.8 IS L Mark i to film with, usually with a 2x teleconverter. Weighing in at 5.6kg it is actually surprisingly similar to the Sigma lens (sigma 5.9kg), offering three focal lengths 400mm, 560mm and 800mm via teleconverters with a big manual focus ring. The apparent benefits of having image stabilisation are short lived as it jumps when panning with a subject so has to be turned off. Shorter than the Sigmonster, the Canon is a shorter, fatter beast of a lens, whereas the Sigma is longer and more front heavy. The tripod foot on the Sigma was actually easier for me to mount to a support rig than the Canon.
Image quality between the two lenses is close, at 400mm you have to give it to the Canon 400mm F2.8, the benefits of having a crisp F2.8 to use is huge too. But when comparing both of the lenses at 800mm they both ideally benefit from being stopped down a stop. The fact that the Sigmonster is close to the legendary Canon 400mm is big praise indeed. Again though the zoom offering instant focal length options instead of having to add/remove teleconverters is incredibly important.
Filming Set Up
For this particular set up I was using a Sony FS7 with the XDCA-FS7 extension unit which allows me to power the system via V-Lock batteries. This adds a bit more weight to balance out the rig, as well as longer running time. The extension unit allowed for a RAW signal out to my Atomos Shogun Inferno external recorder for 200fps 2K.
A variety of SmallRig accessories were used to mount the system and the tripod is the Miller 3101 ArrowX 5 head and Sprinter II 2-Stage legs. My favourite tripod set up to date, using it from Russia and back on the Flight of The Swans expedition.
Life getting in the way of my loan period..! I used the lens to do some wetland filming which we'll discuss below, but shortly after that I had a tonsillectomy to remove my tonsils which put me out of action for a few weeks and prevented me from doing more personal project natural history filming. This was particularly frustrating as this also coincided with the turbulent winter weather we had earlier in the year.
So clearly there was one thing for it... head to the parents and film their spaniels in the snow! Unfortunately none of the wetland footage is available from the production to be shared so some cheesy music and slow mo dogs playing fetch will have to do..
Filming around wetlands is a challenge as you are often limited in where you can move to and generally you're out in the open. Here I used a dyke system to move along before slowly moving up the dyke and seeing over into the wetland below. This allowed me to get closer to roosting wildfowl without disturbing them.
One of the issues I always had with the Canon 400mm was finding birds already in flight. Sometimes I would be working with over 2000mm equivalent focal lengths (400mm, plus 2x teleconverter on super 35mm sensor and then a 2K centre crop on that sensor!). At the time of filming it was the middle of winter and the sky would often being a generic flat grey, meaning there were no clouds as references to determine if I was close to getting a flying bird in the frame or not. With the Sigma this was a breeze as I can zoom out get a wider shot and then crash in on the zoom for the closer shot. This allowed my hit rate to dramatically increase, invaluable when you're not sure how many opportunities you'll get.
Sigma Lens Combo
On this particular wetland filming trip, I was supplied with a Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 lens by the production company. Although an older model to the currently available version, it proved to be a fantastic match to the Sigmonster. Both unusual lenses in the focal ranges offered, but this made them very helpful for natural history filming. With the benefit of having a 300mm F2.8 telephoto lens for pre-dawn/post-dusk.
My only serious bugbear was the finish on the Sigmonster. With a matt black outer coating, that flakes ridiculously easily, the lens had to be handled with extreme care to minimise flaking, frankly a finish I can't understand made it to production. Thankfully I have been reliably informed that the most up to date version of the lens has a new finish ( I had an older demo version), in line with the rest of the Sigma line (the Art lens range looks brilliant, I've used some of the primes for filming and they are fantastic).
All in all this is a fantastic, unique and cost effective lens for serious natural history filming. Yes it is a big heavy beast, but what do you expect, its a 300-800mm F5.6! The slight issues which might move people away from this lens from a photography perspective, aren't important for filming. The zoom range actually allowed my backpack to be lighter as I only needed to carry one or two lenses to film a natural history sequence.
There are lenses which are somewhat similar or will be considered alongside the Sigmonster, from the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 Sport to the very interesting Canon 200-400mm F4. Both of these are at opposite ends of the price spectrum, all three offer zoom flexibility but neither of these lenses offer what the Sigmonster offers natively.
When it comes to longterm projects, a lens like this at £6,500 new will pretty quickly pay itself off via rental or instead of renting alternatives. The only thing I would want to test more is the one thing which is precarious to test, the weather sealing. It had no problem with the reasonable amount of snow it was subject to during my loan period. I wonder how it will fair in more extreme scenarios.
All in all I highly recommend this lens for filming.