Sigma 55-200mm f/4-5.6 DC HSM Review


A moderate telephoto alternative to the Nikkor 55-200mm

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan
Sigma (left), Tamron (middle), Nikkor VR (right) 55-200mm lenses

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

Lens Formula
12 elements in 9 groups
Other Features
55mm filter size. Comes with hood, 8-blade aperture. Focuses to 3.6' (1.1m).
Size & Weight
About 3.3 " (83mm) long from mount (7.25" extended with hood), 10.9 ounces (310g).
Price
US$134 street

The Basics
The Sigma 55-200mm is the most distinct of the three 55-200mm lenses I've reviewed, with a more robust build and a clear, wide focus ring at the front.

This 55-200mm is still light, small, and mostly plastic, though it does feature a metal lens mount, unusual in this price range. The longer hood than the Tamron makes the Sigma look more substantial mounted on the camera, but they're close enough in size not to quibble at the difference.

The 55-200mm focal range gives you angle of views from 6.75 to 24 degrees across the long axis. On a DX body this angle of view is basically the equivalent to a 80-300mm lens on an FX body. For many users, this is "the standard telephoto zoom" focal length range. There's no denying that this is a popular and much-asked for focal length range. The primary disappointment is the slow maximum aperture. Still, coupled with a Nikkor 18-55mm (or any other shorter DX zoom), you would have a pretty full range of focal lengths available in just two lenses.

This is a two ring design; the zoom ring is a large ring nearest the camera, while the focusing ring is slightly smaller in width, but still easily found at the front of the lens. The lens has a distance scale, but no depth of field or infrared markings. There is an easily found manual/autofocus switch on the left side (from the back of the camera as you hold it).

The unmarked lens hood is the bayonet type and can reverse mount on the lens. The lens itself uses 55mm filters, a slightly unusual size and one not shared with any of Nikon's current DX lenses. The supplied lens cap is the old style side press, which makes it near impossible to remove when the lens hood is on.

The lens is made in Japan.

Handling
Handling is not a strong point of this lens, but unlike the Tamron 55-200mm, things are slightly better.

The zoom ring is not stiff and jerky, but it's not smooth either, and has a very short throw from 55 to 200mm (less than a quarter turn). The lens extends as you zoom, with the lens being fully collapsed at 55mm and fully extended at 200mm. The lens rotates during focus but not zoom, so you sometimes have to manually tweak polarizing and other filters that depend upon position.

The focus ring is quite usable. Again, not stiff and jerky, but also not perfectly smooth, either. You cannot override autofocus with the focus ring without flipping the switch on the lens to M. Focus goes from near to far in a bit less than a quarter turn of the ring, which makes precision manual focusing a little tough, but doable.

The bayonet hood takes a bit of getting used to. There are no markings to help you align it, and it doesn't snap into alignment as cleanly as some other bayonet hoods. It also is very stiff going on, so it feels almost as if you're forcing it on. The old-style edge pinch lens cap pretty much requires you to take the hood off in order to put the lens cap on or off, a silly design flaw.

The 55-200mm is small and light and balances on the front of most Nikon consumer DSLRs very nicely. On bigger DX cameras, such as the D2h or D2x, the long lens hood keeps it from disappearing, but it's still a smallish lens compared to the camera body. Either way, the size and weight of this lens is not a factor.

The maximum aperture changes with focal length about as follows:

  • 55mm = f/4
  • 70mm = f/4.2
  • 85mm = f/4.5
  • 105mm = f/4.8
  • 135mm = f/5
  • 200mm = f/5.6

Performance
What do you expect from a budget telephoto zoom? Not much, probably. And that's what you'll receive with this lens.

Autofocus: While the 55-200mm has an HSM motor that allows it to work on a D40, D40x, D60, and D5000, this is not your father's HSM. Autofocus performance was what I would call leisurely. If focus needs to be racked over a large portion of the range (from near to far, or far to near) the lens proceeds with a stately focus pace. When it only needs to go a short distance, it usually did a duh-dah-duh recheck before locking. (That duh-dah-duh is my attempt to turn the sound into words--the sounds the lens makes while focusing are somewhat subdued, not the whine or screech sometimes associated with low-cost lenses.) On the good side, the lens seems pretty sure of itself when it does reach focus--it doesn't tend to provoke second guesses or hunt as muchas the Tamron. Still, I'd put the focus performance below that of the Nikon 55-200mm VR.

Sharpness: Center sharpness is decent at all apertures, but needs closing down more than a stop at the longest focal lengths to achieve best results. The lens is weakest in the center at 200mm, but overall adequate if you close down at least a stop. Unfortunately, edge performance had lots of issues. First, edges didn't come fully into their best performance until two stops down from maximum aperture, decidedly worse than the competitive lenses. Second, there were clear edge-to-edge issues with the sample lens. The lens appears to have been assembled with an alignment issue, and that problem doesn't fully go away with stopping down (though it is helped quite a bit, enough to the point to be usable two stops down at most focal lengths). Overall, this is the worst optical performance of any consumer 55-200mm I've tested to date (the original Nikkor, the VR Nikkor, the Tamron, and this Sigma). Given that on the 12mp DSLRs we'd be getting into clear diffraction impacts at the apertures needed to correct for the corner performance, this clearly isn't the lens for the highest megapixel count cameras.

f/8 and 135mm center: Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

f/8 and 135mm top left: Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

Light falloff: on the DX bodies some vignetting is present wide open, but not in objectionable levels, and lower in visual impact than I'd expect from a low-cost lens. Stop down one stop and vignetting is well down into the ignorable range (half of a stop or less). For a telephoto zoom lens, the vignetting performance was actually on the good side.

f/5.6 and 200mm (exaggerated): Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan
(Because a small image normally rendered would not tend to show much, I now use a routine that compresses the overall vignetting into a visible range so as to clearly show the pattern Actual vignetting at these settings is barely visible on a plain surface like this.)

Chromatic aberration: Chromatic aberration is low and pretty much ignorable on this lens. The Tamron is a little better in this department, but the Sigma didn't produce any color fringing that immediately called attention to itself. If I were nit-picking an image, I might--emphasis on might--take the time to correct the low levels of chromatic aberration I saw with this lens in real world shots.

Flare: flare performance is very good except for direct into the sun. Unless light is hitting directly on the front element, I've not seen any visible contrast degradation. The hood does a very good job of keeping light from the front element.

Distortion: linear distortion is reasonably corrected. There's a slight, noticeable barrel distortion at 55mm, which flips to a slight pincushion distortion that's also noticeable at 200mm. Throughout the range the distortion is tolerable, though, and it all seems to be simple distortion that is easily corrected by software.

Bokeh: I see nothing exceptional in any way about the bokeh.

Drawbacks

  • Cutting corners. Having to stop down two stops to get corner performance up to snuff is too much, in my opinion. The side-to-side corner difference did not inspire confidence in the build quality.
  • Doesn't top the Nikkor. While competent, the VR and better optical aspects of the Nikkor 55-200mm make it the choice.

Positives

  • Build mostly exceeds expectation. If the Tamron had the Sigma external build quality and features, it would have been recommended.
 
Quick Evaluation


Not recommended


The lens is not recommended due to corner optical performance, and because the competitive Nikkor 55-200mm VR is a better choice, even though it is more expensive.

features
focus speed
optical quality
build quality
value

Limitations


The 55-200mm lens has limitations you need to be aware of:

Converters: No converters are recommended for this lens, and any converter would put you past the point necessary for autofocus, anyway.

No aperture ring: Since this is a DX lens, it's not likely that you'd mount it on an older 35mm body that can't handle the lack of aperture ring or makes restrictions because it is missing.

Coverage Area: covers the FX frame fully from about 105mm onward, but with vignetting.

Version of Review:
4/20/09: initial post.




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