Help us keep the lights on:
Join this years fundraising campaign and get a limited edition supporter's cap.
Read more about our plans and needs for 2024 and beyond.


Sign up Login
Home Forums Articles Galleries Members Galleries Master Your Vision Galleries 5Contest Categories 5Winners Galleries 5ANPAT Galleries 5 The Winners Editor's Choice Portfolios Recent Photos Search Contest Info Help News Newsletter Join us Renew Membership About us Retrieve password Contact us Contests Vouchers Wiki Apps THE NIKONIAN™ For the press Fundraising Search Help!

Lens Reviews

Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX HSM Review

Jason Odell (DrJay32)

Keywords: sigma, lenses, non_nikon

I'll admit, spending twice as much as my camera for a lens was an intimidating feeling. Talk about credit card anxiety! But “big glass” doesn’t come cheaply, and I really wanted to get closer to wildlife, especially small birds. I carefully did my homework to decide on a lens that would get the job done, would be of professional caliber, and wouldn’t completely bankrupt me. When the dust settled, I got the Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX HSM.

Why the Sigma? Well, for my needs, it seemed to fit the bill. Now that I’ve had many opportunities to put this lens to the test, I feel I can give an honest review.


Click for enlargement

Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX HSM


The Sigma 500mm prime lens is big. If you’re used to handling a 300mm f/4 or compact zoom, get ready for a shock; it will dwarf smaller film bodies or the N70. Such is the norm with big glass.

Physically, this lens measures 350mm long by 123mm wide (13.8x4.8 in), and weighs in at over three kilograms (that’s over six pounds). You won’t want to use this lens without a good support, but I’ll discuss that later. Despite the size of this lens, I can still fit it into the main compartment of my LowePro Nature Trekker AW II with a pro body attached. In general, the build quality of this lens is excellent, and the textured finish adds a professional look to the lens overall.

The lens has a three-position focus limiter switch which allows you to choose between the full range (4mm-infinity), 8m-infinity, and 4-8m. This is useful for those situations where you know your subject will be a certain distance away and you can speed up the focusing performance by limiting its range.


The manual focus ring is large and very smooth. Because this is an HSM (hypersonic motor) design lens, full-time MF override is possible without changing any settings on the body or lens. Do note that HSM lenses share the same body compatibility for AF functionality as Nikon's AF-S lenses.

The lens has a large tripod foot that has finger-grips machined into it, which makes carrying the lens a little more comfortable. The included hood has a bayonet mount with a knurled locking knob. There are no markings on the hood to help with aligning it for mounting, which can be a minor annoyance. The hood itself is quite short for a lens of this focal length. While this helps keep the packed lens compact, there may be situations where lens flare could be a problem.

Lastly, this lens uses 46mm drop-in filters. Sigma includes a 46mm polarizer in addition to the clear element with this lens. I think that’s a nice bonus. The lens also includes a soft-sided (but well-padded) case and a carrying strap.  

Click for enlargement



The Sigma 500mm f/4.5 HSM has 12 elements in 9 groups. The lens incorporates apochromatic elements and two ELD (“Extraordinary Low Dispersion”) elements to reduce chromatic aberration. The lens has a nine-bladed aperture, and a minimum focus distance of 400cm (about 13.1 feet). Sigma's 1.4x and 2x teleconverters are usable with this lens, but AF functions are disabled. I found that AF functionality was spotty with my Tamron SP 1.4x converter. However, by modifying a TC-14E (or TC14-EII) by removing the metal tab in the bayonet mount (not for the faint of heart), you can get fairly reasonable AF performance with an effective aperture of f/6.3.


Focal length 500mm
Maximum aperture f/4.5
Minimum aperture f/32
Angle of view
Lens construction 12 elements in 9 groups
MOD (minimum object distance) 0.29m / 11.4"
Magnification ratio 1:7.7
Filter size 46mm (Drop-in type)
Overall length 350mm / 13.78"
Maximum diameter 123mm / 4.84"
Weight 3,150g / 6.93 lbs
Number of diaphragm blades 9
Minimum focusing distance 4m / 13.1 ft
Standard accessory included Hood



I use this lens on a tripod 99% of the time. You’ll definitely want to consider one of the bigger tripods (I use a Gitzo G1325) and a pro ball head, as vibrations are magnified tremendously when using big glass. Personally, I use an Arca-Swiss type quick-release plate from Wimberley and their “Sidekick” gimbal arm mounted on a Kirk BH-1 head. When I am not with a tripod, I'm usually using this lens from a beanbag. Hand-holding is possible for very short periods, or longer if you have a hydraulic left arm.

Tamron 90mm Di macro

Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX HSM on a Gitzo G1325 tripod with Kirk Flash X-Tender



The Sigma 500mm f/4.5 lens produces images as sharp as any I’ve seen. The images have good color and contrast. Image quality is decent wide-open, but best around f/8, as you might expect.

One thing to keep in mind is that with any new lens, there is a learning curve. The miniscule depth of field, even at small apertures means that you have a lot less margin for focus error compared to shorter lenses. You may think that the lens is not sharp at first, until you realize that you weren’t actually focused on what you thought you were! Light fall-off in the corners is minor, and virtually nonexistent on a digital body.

AF performance without a TC is good in most conditions with a CAM 1300 or CAM 2000 body. AF performance with a TC is ok when there is ample light. I often use MF override with my TC. One thing to consider is that there is no AF-lock button on the lens. That means if you have AF tied to your shutter-release button and are in AF-C mode, expect the lens to try to “fix” your adjustment.


Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX HSM compared with the Nikkor 500mm f4D ED-IF AF-S II

The only alternative to this lens (500mm focal length) is the Nikkor 500mm f/4.0 AF-S II, or a mirror lens. Mirror lenses have inherent image qualities that many people find unpleasant, like low contrast, and are slow (f/8 or more).

The Nikkor 500mm lens is first-class; you can’t go wrong with it, in my opinion. Nevertheless, here’s my feature comparison chart that will outline some of the major differences between these two “big boys”.


Sigma 500 f/4.5 EX HSM
500mm f/4D ED-IF AF-S II Nikkor
Length x Max Diameter
3.1kg - 6.8lbs
3.4kg - 7.5lbs
Aperture range
f/4.5 - f/32
f/4 - f/22
Minimum focusing
46mm drop-in
Polarizer included
52mm drop-in
Sold separately
AF lock button on lens
Focus motor
Internal. HSM.
Internal. AF-S.
Diaphragm blades
AF with TC
Yes (TC14E)
USA street price
* Sigma’s TC’s mount properly but disable AF with this lens. AF is possible with other TC’s, as mentioned in the review.
** A newer “DG” version of this lens has just been announced, with coating improvements for digital SLR users. All other specifications appear the same.


The Sigma 500mm f/4.5 HSM EX lens is a nature photographer's dream. It handles well, is fairly compact for a lens of this focal length, and focuses a bit closer than it’s Nikkor counterpart.


Click for enlargement

Long-tailed weasel with Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX HSM



House Finch



Image quality is as good as any lens I've used, even with a teleconverter. With my D2x, I effectively have a 700mm prime, or a 1000 prime in HSC mode. Aside from being 1/3 stop slower than its Nikkor counterpart, this lens offers great performance at a price that isn't over the top. Nikonians looking to get “supersized” without taking out a second mortgage on their home should consider this lens.


All of our Sigma articles

We have several resources specific to Sigma and suggest you have a look at the Sigma index.


Got a question about Sigma?

You have a question regarding your Sigma lens? No problem - just ask in our Sigma forum.


Post a Speedlight Question



(1 Vote )

Originally written on May 20, 2010

Last updated on January 24, 2021

Jason Odell Jason Odell (DrJay32)

Awarded for his multiple written contributions for the Resources and eZine

Colorado Springs, USA
Silver, 3450 posts


User on September 21, 2013

Hi Michael, I've modded Nikon TCs in the past. It's a fairly straight forward process. There are 4 screws on the lens mounting ring on the TC to undo - be careful not to lose the spring on the locking pin when you take the ring off. Once you've got the ring off it's easy to mod. There's a tab on the ring which prevents mounting on the non-approved Nikon lenses or third party lenses. This is easily machined off using a fine metal file or a Dremel or similar rotary tool. Once you've filed/Dremeled off the tab, reattach the ring to the TC with the 4 screws and it'll now fit the Sigma 500 :-D.

michael mason (memason) on September 12, 2013

I am very interested in purchasing this lens. Could you be more specific about the Nikon teleconverter mod? What does removing the "tab" accomplish and does the modified teleconverter become dedicated to just the Sigma lens?

User on April 5, 2013

Hi Chris, I haven't used the Nikon, but have owned and used the Sigma for around 18 months, mostly with a D7000. Many say the Sigma is 'soft' wide open, but that's simply not true. It's maximum sharpness is achieved at f/5.6, but at f/4.5 it's still very sharp indeed. By the time a moderate amount of output sharpening is applied in post, it's nigh on impossible to tell the difference between the two aperture settings. If I've got the light available, or I'm using fill flash I'll use f/5.6, otherwise, I have no hesitation in shooting at f/4.5 - over half my images are shot at f/4.5. The Nikon is a third of a stop faster and sports image stabilisation, but it's also bigger and heavier. The Sigma is hand holdable at sensible shutter speeds and is great at tracking birds in flight. I had the option of going with the Nikon, but couldn't justify the difference in price, given how well the Sigma performs. My website has a number of images shot with the Sigma and a Nikon D7000. The deer shots and most of the birds were shot with this combo: I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Sigma as a serious super-telephoto. If I can be of any further help, just shoot me an e-mail. The address is on my website. Graeme

Chris Mussachio (cmussachio) on March 5, 2013

I am comparing this lens to Nikon's 500mm f/4 lens. Is Nikon's lens worth $3400 more? Any help is appreciated.