Sigma EX 105 mm f/2.8 DG Macro

I’ve always wanted to be able to take macro shots with my DSLR and it’s always angered me that P&S cameras can do it naturally. Rubbing it in worse, seeing foo-bar-baz’s pictures with his AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED I felt I had to have one. My reverse mounted AF Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8D just wasn’t cutting it. So I took the plunge…

For a considerable amount of time now I’ve tried to find a way to justify buying the same lens foo-bar-baz uses, but at $880 CAD + taxes I just couldn’t do it, not when other manufacturers offer similar products at greatly reduced price points. I understand that they may not be as good but what would the difference actually be compared to the price difference. While Nikon wanted $880 CAD, Sigma wanted $650 CAD, Tokina wanted $600 CAD for their 100 mm and Tamron wanted $550 CAD for their 90 mm. All of them are comparable in focal length for the most part and would likely net me similar results in that regard though Nikon’s had vibration reduction giving it an advantage. But quality of the optics? This was mostly unknown to me and really still is.

I knew that I didn’t want Tamron, I’ve always been steered away from them for one reason or another and it’s my understanding that they’re inferior to other brands in terms of the build quality and materials used, as well as their optics. Would I have noticed? It’s hard to be sure, but I can say that over the few years of using my AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lens and my AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D side by side, the 50mm prime while dirt cheap at $160 CAD or so is by far superior in every way to the 18-70. It’s clarity is absolute where the 18-70s feels soft in comparison. So I felt it safe to assume that while immediately I wouldn’t necessarily notice the inferior optics of the Tamron lenses, later on I might and would likely regret it.

Sigma and Tokina were pretty much unknowns to me however. I’d heard of their names but never much more and I’m still unsure as to whether my choice to buy Sigma over Tokina or over Nikkor was the best idea, at least in terms of quality. As Sigma and Tokina were both similarly priced at similar focal lengths it seemed a bit of a crap shoot as to which to pick. I asked around to people of varying degrees of experience and really didn’t get too much, though I’d heard from a few people who actually owned Sigmas and felt they were pretty good and based on their testimony I went Sigma as well.

Finally choosing the lens I wanted I headed to my local Henry’s store to take a look at it in person and ask them some questions and bounce those off my brain for a bit. It turns out they didn’t have one in stock but could order one from their warehouse and it would arrive later that week. Visiting them a second time after the lens arrived to check it out for real this time, I was pretty happy with the results and learned something I didn’t know at the same time. While this Sigma claims f/2.8 it’s sorta not, in fact I’m going to simple say that it isn’t f/2.8 at all, you have to be probably greater than 30 feet away to actually use f/2.8 as it’s only available at or very near to infinity. What happens is, as you focus closer and closer the minimum f-stop changes from f/2.8 down to f/5.6 at the closest focus distance of 31.3 cm. This makes some sense when viewed with regards to macro shooting, if f/2.8 were used at the closest focus distance, only a sliver of the object would be in focus. But as a portrait lens used indoors this is really disappointing. This however was not my intended use so I was willing to overlook this pitfall, additionally the sales person assured me that the Nikkor lens did the same. Though I have not confirmed the truth behind his statement and have taken his word on it.

Deciding I wanted the lens a head of time I’d taken $700 CAD with me in cash with the assumption in my mind that the cost would not exceed this price point, forgetting that it was a $650 lens and thinking it was $600. The sales person proceeded to process the item for check out and said “That’ll be $$734.44” Oops. I told him I only had $700 cash and asked if I could buy the lens with that, he was willing to budge a piddly $16 or so down to the $718 mark which still meant I couldn’t buy the lens with what I had thus a useless amount to tell me. As he was unwilling to negotiate and I unwilling to pay more at this point I left the store. Immediately upon exiting the door I pulled out my new work provided Blackberry Bold 9700 with actual internet (unlike my old one from the dark ages of 4 MB data plans), and did a simple Google search with the terms “Sigma 105 Canada”. The first hit led me to B&H Photo in the US where the same lens was being sold for $479 USD. Doing the currency exchange that worked out to $488.53 CAD earlier this week ($500.50 CAD as of writing), a savings of $161.42 CAD in base price alone. Immediately I went home to look into this matter further and decide my course of action.

Calculating out the shipping, duty and taxes I would have to pay to ship it across the border I came to the conclusion I’d save $91.30 CAD a huge savings and totally worth it, especially because that was even with next day shipping. The lens arrived enormously quickly, 36 hours from the start of it’s travels to my door. But I’d miscalculated, the taxes I thought I’d be paying were wrong, the HST tax that I thought would have to be paid doesn’t go into affect until July 1st. This meant I only had to pay GST and duties, saving me even more money. In the end I saved $134.93 CAD by ordering from the US. The funnier part of this whole story is when I calculated what I was asking Henry’s to discount the lens, it was only 4.7%, a tiny amount that would have allowed me to purchase it for $700 CAD even. Instead, due to their unwavering opinion of worth, I went elsewhere and saved an enormous amount of money. I suppose I should be thanking them for this, but I wont instead I’ll just be happy that in the end I was a smart consumer and willing to wait a day or two for my item to arrive instead of immediately gratification.

One of the biggest reasons and advantages for my getting a proper macro lens has to do with control. My cheap attempt at macro photography using a reverse mount coupling ring with my 50mm prime worked, but it lacked all the control you would normal have with a proper lens. Control like focus, the reverse mounted 50mm would only focus at one distance and one distance alone. This terribly limited the angles with which you could shoot and the amount of an item you could have in frame at any one time. Some of you may have even wondered why all my macro shots were always so close and of limited areas when a nicer shot could have been had by moving the camera back 5 cm, but unfortunately that would have netted me an entirely out of focus shot. This proper macro lens will allow me to focus anywhere I want between the distances of infinity and 31.3 cm from the object at which the object is 1:1 scale with the sensor, allowing me entire control over the shot and allowing me to frame each shot how I actually want, maybe even getting artistic.

To provide a little perspective of the differences between the lenses here are some comparison shots from very similar positions and settings. Both sets are entirely unprocessed beyond my white balance preset in Lightroom which was applied to all pictures equally.

The key differences between the left and right side revolve around 3 things you should pay attention to, and probably others I’m not even aware of. These 3 things are, distortion, contrast and colour. Take Horo for example, on the left her face is distorted, not noticeably so on it’s own as I never noticed this until these comparisons, but looking at the picture on the right it’s immediately apparent that her face was distorted as it’s properly shaped on the right. Compare the contrast, the Sigma has far better reproduction of the actual contrast from the scene over the reverse mounted 50mm, this is most apparent in the Black Rock Shooter pictures. The last difference is a little more subtle but the colour is something I’ve always had issue with when using the reverse mounted 50mm, it always always differed from when it was properly mounted. For a while I tried to fix every picture so that they’d be uniform throughout each set but eventually gave up and stuck with my presets, even if that meant the macro shots would have slightly differing colour. Now that the Sigma will match my presets perfectly like the 50mm does when mounted in it’s proper configuration this should speed up my photoshoots considerably as I wont have to fiddle as much in post-processing and just blanket process across the board as I did with non-macro shots.

One thing the viewer wont notice about the differences between the two lenses though is exposure time. If you read the descriptions under those pictures when viewed in full (javascript enabled), you’ll notice that between the two Horo shots, both are shot at f/22, however one took 1.6 seconds to shoot and the other only 0.5 seconds yet they yielded quite similar results. Looking at Black Rock Shooter, one was shot at 1 second and f/22, and the other was shot at 2 seconds and f/57. The speed of the proper lens is invaluable and a definite benefit even when mounted on a tripod. Of course, since the aperture is located in the “wrong” place on the 50mm when mounted in reverse, I have no idea if this affects the f-stop value or not. This could mean that f/22 on the reverse mounted 50mm is actually an entire different f-stop all together, but until I’m told otherwise I have to assume it’s not.

In the short time I’ve had this lens I’ve been pretty impressed with it. It seems quite sharp and it’s build quality feels pretty decent. I love how finely I’m able to adjust focus through the macro range of the lens and the limit switch which stops the lens from seeking too long. I think the money was well invested and I hope to get some good use out of ‘er. The less I have to use my 18-70mm the better. Of course there’s still that one downside of the f-stop in relation to focus, I really do wonder if the Nikkor 105mm lens suffers from this as well as f/2.8 at ‘normal’ distances would be pretty great, but I suppose my 50mm @ f/1.8 is better suited for those situations.

Now I can get all the pantsu shots I always wanted…



  1. Blowfish says:

    Great to know that the Sigma delivers satisfying results!
    My Sigma Lens is of the EX Series which is basically their “Pro” Line and the build feels and handles great.
    How about this lense? Does it feel good?

    This looks like a serious contender for my first Macro lense ^^

    Anyways I am looking forward to your pictures.

    • Blowfish says:

      Forget it I am an Idiot….I somehow must have overseen the EX part in your Title.Now im pretty sure that the build is compareable to mine ^^;;;;

      • Aka says:

        What Macro lens of theirs do you have? Not the 150mm right? heh I played with one of those in the store, very nice, also part of their EX line.

  2. Rajura says:

    Way to make Horo look even better!!!

  3. Tier says:

    Hooray for new gear! I buy pretty much all my camera stuff from B&H … a lot of computer stuff too, since their prices are often competitive with Newegg. I’ve heard good things about some Tamron lenses, or at least I recall reading some praise for the 90mm macro on the Ars A/V board. I would’ve taken a look at their 17-50mm lens back when I was shopping for a zoom had I known about it, since Canon’s 17-55mm lens is wacky expensive.

    I tried using some close-up lenses screwed onto a 50mm lens, and while the results weren’t that bad, I’m a lot more satisfied with a macro lens. Even a technical newbie like me can see an enormous difference in image quality.

    • Aka says:

      I’d heard about B&H before and been there before. But usually the thought of importing expensive gear like this doesn’t make sense, between exchange rates, taxes, duty and shipping it’s usually thought to be more expensive.

      After writing this post, I read Arstechnica’s review of Adobe Lightroom 3, and the writer used Tamron’s 17-50mm I believe, along with reading some posts about how some Tamron lenses are excellent for the price. So I guess some research would have helped.

      I knew the reverse mounted 50mm was a hack of solution, but it was a $20 solution vs for example, this $600 solution. So I opted for that originally thinking it would be good enough. It wasn’t, but I remained cheap until recently when I got two raises, a bonus and some birthday money. I no longer really had an excuse.

      I hope I can find a deal on a new camera body in August/September…

      • soulstaker says:

        What body do you have in mind?

        I’m struggling to get good shots with my D3000 + Kit lens. Shooting handheld without any auxiliary illumination is too hard. Will buy some things from DealExtreme and do a DIY lightbox soon to get over it.

        • Aka says:

          Well I’m hoping Nikon releases some new stuff this year. It’s been a few years since the D90 and D300 were released, so I was hoping for replacements for those. And I’d try and pick one of them up. Ideally the replacement for the D90 would likely be what I buy.

          I just use some $7 lamps from Home Depot with 100 watt bulbs, or rather 23 watt CFLs. All the same bulb so the lighting is uniform in colour. Along with a $5 roll of poster paper from Staples.

          The biggest upgrade I can say to you however is TRIPOD. If it’s feasible for the shots you’re doing, it’s the most important item you can have, more important than a lightbox. With a tripod you can have any exposure settings you want assuming your subject is not moving. This was the very first accessory I bought for my camera, in fact, I bought it when I bought my camera years ago.

  4. Congrats on the new lens! Shouldn’t have any problem with the Sigma, they usually do pretty well from what I’ve seen. I don’t have any Sigma though, I tend to stick to the Canon lenses.

    It was interesting to read you were using f/22 for those shots, are you using strobes or just plain lighting with reflectors/softboxes? I usually take my pics in the basement and don’t bother using the strobes, I just use some desktop lamps and shoot at f/8. lol

    Didn’t know the Sigma lens changes the aperture depending on the distance – but I guess that’s not a bad thing either, depending on how you shoot. With f/2.8 on my Canon macro lens, the focal point is insanely limited and everything surrounding it pretty much blurred out. The problem with this lens is that it’s so slow to focus and don’t have an IS – it would be so much more helpful to have IS on a macro lens.

    • Aka says:

      I can’t use Canon lenses on my Nikon 😛

      I shot those at f/22 because those were the settings I used in my macro shots previously with the reverse 50mm. Using the aperture ring on that lens I had a limited selection and it was just easiest to go to the max.

      I use four desk lamps with 100 watt equiv CFL bulbs. They get the job done, they’re bright but I still have to go with long exposures such as 1 second to 2 seconds with macro at times. For most of my shots I use f/11, when doing full figure type shots, but for extreme closeups like of Horo or BRS’s face, I use f/22 and likely higher now that I have the option with the Sigma to get as much of it in focus as possible.

      The change in aperture is a bad thing when using the lens as a portrait lens, otherwise it’s totally cool.

      As for focus and IS, well I manually focus so autofocus isn’t really a care for me in this situation. And IS isn’t useful to me on a tripod, but would be very useful otherwise.

  5. Adam says:

    Nice product review, Aka! I’m always curious to see what gear other bloggers are using. I currently have a macro lens (60mm AF-S NIKKOR) and a kit lens (18-55mm) and I’m hoping to add a prime lens sooner or later. Kind of the reverse of your situation. I’m not sure what focal length I need, though, so I’ve been putting that purchase off.

    Ouch! @ those shipping costs. I’m not familiar with Canadian import rules and regulations, but based on this post and several other comments you’ve made it sounds like you guys really get screwed when you order abroad. I don’t recall ever having to pay anything beyond base shipping costs when having stuff shipped into the US, although admittedly I rarely order from anywhere other than Japan.

    • Aka says:

      Thanks! I considered getting that 60mm but I kept thinking I wanted to be further away from the figure so I could get proper lighting. Still haven’t messed about too much though so it’s hard to really say. With your 18-55mm it may seem a bit redundant to buy a 50mm prime, and while I’ve never used that lens, I can assure you that my 50mm prime is every bit worth it despite having the overlap of my 18-70mm.

      It depends… I rarely pay tax or duty on items from Japan, unless they exceed a certain value which most figures seem not to, or if they’re shipped via EMS or UPS etc… then I paid some additional charges. Ordering $500 items from the US however, you’ll get all the tax you’d get on a normal purchase in Canada, plus a duty fee based on the country of origin for the item shipped.

      The majority of the reason our prices are high is artificial. When the US Dollar vs Canadian Dollar differed greatly, it made sense to have more expensive items in Canada as in reality they were ‘even’ with the US. Now that the dollars are almost par, they never readjusted things in Canada, so they just make more money on us. Cars and everything. A Toyota Yaris there costs a base price of $12,600, here it’s $14,700. If you do the exchange $12,600 becomes about $13,000, so they make $1,700 on us on a cheap car. Imagine expensive items?

  6. Ashlotte says:

    Thanks for reminding me why I’m taking a step back from photography for abit…Damned expensive hobby… T_T

    Look forward to more shots from it though eh!

  7. lovelyduckie says:

    “in the end I was a smart consumer and willing to wait a day or two for my item to arrive instead of immediately gratification”

    It’s hard to do but I take a lot of pride in the fact that I can usually manage to hold off on taking something home right away in favor of saving some money.

    Also I really love your photos, I didn’t notice the difference on Horo as much as I noticed in BRS. It really looks great. At some point I’d like to take my photos to a higher level too, although I’m a long way off from where you are now.

    • Aka says:

      It is a hard thing to do, but with all these pre-orders taking so long it’s becoming easier and easier.

      Thanks, the difference in the Horo shot is mostly visible distortion, though the biggest difference for me is noticeable more in the settings I have to use. The new lens is tons faster and less distorted.

  8. keyChAin says:

    Looks like a good lens. I’m pretty sure the Micro Nikkor 105mm VR stops down to something like f4.8 at 1:1. I use an old screw drive Tamron 90mm f2.8 Macro sometimes and it stops down as well inside of about 10 feet. Gotta love the sharpness of a macro lens though. If these things weren’t so bad at autofocus I’d probably get a 55mm and the sigma 150mm. I guess the limit switches help speed things up but that’s just one more switch to worry about.

    Have you ever thought of buying used lenses? I got a refurbished lens from Adorama and my Tamron 90mm from KEH and both were good experiences and I saved a bunch of money. I guess there’s always the risk of getting a bad sample though, but KEH seems to test their lenses and their grading system seems fairly accurate.

    • Aka says:

      Ah so it does stop down as well, just not as far. Good to know.

      The Sigma is pretty bad at autofocus as well, the switch helps but like you said, just more to worry about.

      I bought my body and first lens used, and may buy my replacement body used as well depending on what all happens over the summer. I’ve looked around for used lenses but I don’t like buying anything used unless I either know the person, or get to handle the item in person. Buying used via eBay and online stores doesn’t sit well with me.

      I’ll look into Adorama and KEH in the future though. At least I have one persons testimony to go on.


  9. super rats says:

    I’ve been thinking of getting the same lens, but for the Olympus mount. Never bought a sigma lens before. Always afraid of the images not being sharp. Unfortunately, Olympus doesn’t make a 105 macro and I want something to compliment my 35mm macro. The 105 sigma actually has a larger coverage area than the 4:3 system, so it’s actually going to be a longer equivalent length. I think your review makes me less afraid of getting an secondary manufacturer’s lens.

    • Aka says:

      I too was a bit shaky on the idea, but having played with one in a store I felt pretty confident. I’ve used the lens in every review since this post as well and I’m quite happy with the results. One thing I do find is you do tend to have to be pretty precise with the focus, but it does allow that quite easily and smoothly. As for it’s use with 1/8th scale figures and ~1/10 scale figmas, I don’t think I’d need anything more than 105 mm, it gets pretty close.

      I’m not sure how the 4/3rds system will change the DOF on the lens if the lens has to be closer or further from the sensor as well as the additional coverage. But I think since the lens goes down to f/64 (depending on focus distance) it should offer fine control. Generally I get f/3.2 as the widest the aperture will open at the focus distances I use for figures.

      Some examples:
      Rina’s Shoes (and 2)

      Additionally, since the review I’ve heard good things about Tamron, though usually related to specific lenses or model lines.

      Glad you found my review helpful 🙂

  10. nathij says:

    i own a nikon 105 macro and just wanted to point out that it too stops down when focused at close distances. but not to 5.6. if i’m not wrong, the fastest aperture available at the closest focusing distance is 4.8. which is not bad at all.

    i don’t know how well the sigma would be in some tricky weather conditions. the nikon 105 is very well sealed. i’ve shot with it in light rain even. also, one other thing i noticed from the photos of the sigma lens that you have posted was that the lens extends – the nikon 105 does not do this, which i think is a good thing since dust and moisture can enter through the gap between the moving parts.

    i have not used any 3rd party macro lens yet. the nikon 105 can be so sharp that it could cut your eyes sometimes, hehe.
    it and the nikkor 50mm 1.4 are the best investments i have made 🙂

    • Aka says:

      Excellent information nathij. I think the most interesting bit is that it doesn’t extend like my Sigma. However given it’s entire life so far has been an indoor lens, the weather considerations haven’t been an issue and not something I even thought of. So thank you for pointing that out.

      Sometimes I wish I spent the extra money on the Nikon, but it was soo much more expensive and the Sigma does everything I need it to. I really do wish though that the hood would mount on backwards like Nikon hoods do. Having it rattle away in my backpack worries me.

      I never bothered to go up to the 1.4, just got the 1.8 and it’s a great little lens. Bit noisy though since it uses the cameras internal motor, unlike yours which I think has the silent wave internal motor. I wish more of my lenses were capable of such narrow DOF. Oh well.

      • nathij says:

        i wasn’t planning on getting the nikon 105 but i just came across a great deal that was just too good to pass out.

        the hood does not mount backwards? i didn’t know that earlier. this is good info, i could use them if i am thinking to buy new lenses.

        ah, i have the 1.4 but it’s the D version, not the G – thus no SWM (Silent Wave Motor). it’s not that noisy as to be any sort of distraction. plus i love the fact that the 1.4D has the manual aperture ring. that way i can be sure that it would work on any old nikon i throw at it. i say this because, i’m slowly starting to get interested in 35mm film.

        and yes, the 1.8 is a marvelous lens, no question about it. if anyone asks me to recommend them a lens the 50mm 1.8 would be the first thing they would hear 🙂

        • Aka says:

          The noise was never an issue for me either until I upgraded from my D100 to a D7000 and started shooting video. Then the focus seeking became unbearably noisy.

          Up until this week I would have agreed with you and recommended a 50mm 1.8, however I think my opinion has changed somewhat. I always found the field of view on the 50mm too narrow on my crop sensor camera, I think a 35mm would work better for most people. Though I think the 50 would help them learn to frame their shots better. I just remember certain shots with people, I’d have to walk away from them quite a distance to get the shot I wanted with the 50.