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by Russell McMahon

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I'm getting started with wedding photography, and was looking for a fast telephoto zoom to compliment my Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 (on a Canon 500D/T1i).

After extensive online research, the 70-200 f/2.8 came out as the clear winner.

The problem is, there are a number of variants available from different manufacturers and I'm finding it difficult to pick the best one for my use. The options are:

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM ($2100)

This is undoubtedly the big daddy and a clear winner with amazing quality and performance. However it is also very expensive which is why I'm looking for equivalent lenses from third party manufacturers.

Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 APO HSM OS ($1300)

This is a fairly new lens but has some really good reviews. More importantly, it has 3-stop stabilization and is much cheaper than the stabilized Canon.


Update: Based on the comments, I have narrowed it down to the two contenders above featuring Image Stabilization. While the non-IS Canon below is an excellent lens, it seems to be less useful when handholding is required in low light conditions.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM ($1200)

This is another amazing L series glass and is available at a much lower price but it lacks Image Stabilization.

Tamron AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD ($700)

The cheapest one of the lot, This one is said to have good optical quality, but lacks stabilization and supposedly has autofocus issues.


Based on these available choices, I have a few related questions.

  • Given that most of my photos will be indoor or at night, how important is stabilization in such a lens?
  • If stabilization is indeed a must have, how much better is the stabilized Canon from the Sigma? And is the price difference justified?

Note: I eventually plan to get a full frame body, possibly the Canon 5D Mark II

share|improve this question
    
The reviews of the lenses at the-digital-picture are a great source of comparison between the different models if you haven't stumbled upon those yet. –  dpollitt Dec 2 '11 at 14:14
    
I frequent the site, but surprisingly, they don't have a review of the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 OS yet. –  Abhimanyu Dec 2 '11 at 14:40
    
What kind of shutter speeds do you find yourself using at f/2.8 with the Tamron you have? If it's longer than about 1/300-1/400 second, IS will be useful to you. You cannot expect to keep a non-IS lens steady for more than ca 1/(2 x focal lenght) seconds, as a rule of thumb. Against that you must consider the slowest shutter speed you can use before subject movement becomes a problem, I'd expect this to be in the 1/50-1/200 second area somewhere, depending on motive. All the IS in the world won't help you with subject movement. –  Staale S Dec 2 '11 at 15:16
    
I find that with the Tamron, 1/50-1/100 is normally sufficient to photograph slow moving subjects. Also I'm restricted by the mediocre ISO performance of the Canon 500D, so anything beyond ISO 800 gets pretty noisy. Based on this, it looks like I definitely need IS to handhold in the 1/50-1/100 range with 70-200. –  Abhimanyu Dec 2 '11 at 15:23
    
Yes, it sounds like IS is the way to go for you. –  Staale S Dec 2 '11 at 15:42

7 Answers 7

up vote 13 down vote accepted
+50

Comparing the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM against the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 APO EX DG HSM OS FLD you will find that the Canon excels in almost every aspect, and the price reflects that.

Sharpness

The Sigma lens provides a very compelling option on a crop sensor camera. It performs well when stopped down to f/4.0 and beyond. The issue is that in wedding photography especially, shooting at f/2.8 or wider is almost always a requirement, especially with the high ISO performance of most crop sensor cameras today. You can shoot a wedding with a f/4.0 lens, especially with IS, but you will find a lower amount of keeper shots, and you will have to really stretch to get some of the images worthy of a wedding album.

On full frame, the lens falls apart at the edges of the aperture and focal length range. Below you will find the full frame comparisons on the Canon 5D Mk II, a camera body that is very much the bread and butter camera body for wedding and portrait photographers. The results at f/2.8 are not very good at all, at either 70mm or 200mm. You will have to stop down to f/5.6 to get excellent results, and f/5.6 in my opinion is not going to be an option for most indoor available light shots.

On a crop sensor camera(7D):

On a full frame camera(5D Mk II):

Bokeh

I am not very happy with the bokeh of the Sigma lens. It gives an almost smeared effect to the bokeh, and I think you will find the same. This page has a comparison of the bokeh on full frame as compared to the Canon lens. Bokeh is very important to wedding photography and portrait images. The fact that you are already using a crop sensor camera, means that you will achieve less bokeh at the same focal lengths and apertures. Less bokeh, and less pleasing bokeh and not really a great combination. You surely will have to supplement this lens with a wider aperture lens such as a f/1.4 to get the amount of bokeh that most professional wedding photographers are achieving commonly. The amount of bokeh is not a disadvantage to the Sigma over the Canon, it should be very similar on both on the same body, but the quality of the bokeh is the concern here. Of note, is that the less then optimal bokeh is more apparent at longer focal lengths.

Other Considerations

The image stabilization is one of the main reasons why one would consider the Sigma lens. As far as its performance as compared to the Canon lens, at least one account considers the Sigma to provide about 3 stops of IS, while many accounts I have read give Canon the full benefit of the 4 stops that they list in the specs. Another user here on Stack exchange in this answer also thinks that the IS is about a stop less in the Sigma implementation as compared to the Canon. Three stops of IS is not a bad thing, and in real world use the difference between the two is not very important.

The Canon lens offers full weather sealing, and the Sigma does not. Weather sealing is a huge deal when you are a wedding photographer. Your current camera body does not offer weather sealing, but this should be a consideration. Do you plan on having an assistant with you whenever the weather turns foul as to protect you and your gear so you can continue shooting? I have had to shoot wedding shots in the rain on many occasions and having gear that is not weather sealed really complicates the situation.

The Canon lens offers better maximum magnifcication and a better minimum focusing distance. The Sigma's minimum focus distance is 1.4m, and the maximum magnification is only 0.13x, compared to Canons 1.2m and .21x. The Canon is not going to be considered a macro lens by any account, but it is better in a pinch. Paired with an extension tube the Canon can achieve .36x which is quite nice if you don't have a macro lens in your bag.

Conclusion

Overall, either lens is generally considered a great lens overall. The Canon provides weather sealing, an added stop of IS, better macro capabilities, more pleasing bokeh, a larger focusing ring, and a focus limiter switch. The Canon also excels in corner sharpness, * especially* on a full frame camera body, and especially at f/4.0 and larger. This in my opinion is the biggest reason that the Canon is better fit for professional wedding photography.

The Sigma is a great value, especially at its current price as compared to its price at introduction. If wedding photography was taken out of the equation, I would almost fully endorse this lens, with the caution around the weather sealing. The fact is, that wedding photography requires in many cases the best equipment, to shoot in very demanding low light situations or wet environments with moving subjects, who will then require images to be printed on canvases and on display at home. With that said, I would either recommend for you the Mark I version of the Canon lens, or the non-IS f/2.8 version.

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Great links to dpreview. really helpful. thanks :) –  AJ Finch Dec 6 '11 at 16:34
    
@Abhimanyu - Super happy that this provided what you were looking for! I hope others find it useful too. Just keep in mind, we don't shoot test charts in the real world, and money isn't infinite, get out and shoot with whatever equipment you can and enjoy it! You will love either lens! –  dpollitt Dec 10 '11 at 20:58

I would recommend renting each one of the lenses you are considering for a wedding and see what works well for you. We are going to have a hard time telling you what to buy, it is your money, and only you know what is the best value and compromises for your photography.

As far as direct recommendations, you couldn't go wrong with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L I IS USM either. I've shot weddings with the 70-200mm f/4 Non IS, all the way up to the 70-200mm f/2.8 II IS. They each have their own place, and it depends a lot on how much you want to push your ISO limits of your camera. Are you comfortable shooting all of the ceremony shots at ISO 1600? Are you comfortable setting up a tripod to get some of the ceremony shots? Those are the kind of trade offs you have to consider.

You probably won't see too many professional wedding photographers with a Sigma zoom. In my experience, it just isn't worth the trade off for the focus speed. I do not have any experience with this newer lens though.

I have done extensive research, and thought long and hard about the same questions you are considering right now, but in the end, nothing is going to tell you better then actually shooting a few weddings with each lens in hand. You may even find out that you would rather have a 100mm macro and or 135mm prime instead of even picking up a 70-200mm lens! I have wedding photographer friends who do that too!

Overall, I think your best bet is to rent a few of them, if you start with the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, you are going to love that one the most, trust me! It is very reasonable to even rent this for 10 weekends if you are shooting a summer of weddings, before purchasing it.

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I'm based in India, so renting options are very limited. But I understand what you mean. I might be able to get my hands on the Canon, but I was looking for some accounts of people's experience with the Sigma, given similar technical specs and a $800 difference. –  Abhimanyu Dec 2 '11 at 14:35
3  
Business opportunity! Open up a rental shop! –  dpollitt Dec 2 '11 at 15:00

I can't answer your questions about IS or comparing Canon to Sigma; however, I wanted to add another choice to your list.

Depending on the photography community where you live, getting the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Mark I is not difficult. While it is not sold new anymore, I found it on Craigslist here in Austin for about $1675 used, giving a $500 savings off the Mark II while still being an excellent lens.

Even if there are not a lot of photographers on your local Craigslist, you maybe able to find the lens used in a camera store or on eBay. Lensrentals.com also has a selection of used gear as do many other stores.

I also echo dpollitt's advice about renting lenses until you find the one/combination you like.

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He is in India, so I am guessing craigslist is out of the question :) –  dpollitt Dec 4 '11 at 23:07
1  
CL operates in several Indian cities. They're all listed at craigslist.org/about/sites. –  Ryan Pollack Dec 5 '11 at 21:04
    
Nice! Did not know that, sounds like a good idea then! –  dpollitt Dec 5 '11 at 22:37

Short Answer - buy the high-end Canon lens. If you're actually working and making money shooting, then the amortization works out to be negligible difference in costs. This isn't an opinion, it's a fact based on experience.

A few decades ago - when zoom lenses were rare and prime lenses ruled I did some airplane to airplane photography. the relatively worn and used Nikon lens I borrowed gave a great performance. the additional non-Nikon zoom I used screwed me. the motor was working at a massive (for the day) 4 FPS - the first frame had perfect exposure but every frame after was sightly overexposed than the frame before it. We surmised that the aperture on the aftermarket brand lens didn't close down fast enough at high speed use.

Now - who would have though of testing a lens in motor drive mode?

Ever since then I've used the best equipment I could get my hands on.

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1  
I agree 100% with that first paragraph. The difference in cost is very little if you are shooting Weddings with any regularity. If you aren't shooting in a professional capacity, then don't worry about it, save some $$$! –  dpollitt Dec 4 '11 at 22:58

I have shot with the Canon EF70-200mm and the Sigma 70-200mm. I've included a 100% screenshot of an image made a couple of weeks ago with the Sigma lens:

enter image description here

The image was made at f/13 under studio lighting, but as you can see, it's sharp as a tack, and I was using the autofocus.

My impression of the lenses are these:

  • Canon is a touch faster to autofocus
  • Sigma is lighter to carry
  • Both are sharp enough and have few enough edge defects for any usage you might have. Really.

Here is a list of decision points I would consider if in your position:

  • If cost is not an issue, and you won't find the extra weight of the Canon lens a problem, it's the safest choice because it autofocuses more quickly. Apples to apples on a 1Ds Mark III.
  • If cost is an issue, the Sigma is an easy choice, as you sacrifice very little in exchange for a significant cost reduction.
  • If weight is an issue, you may be well served to consider the Sigma lens.
  • If "appearance" is an issue, you will look more professional with a Canon pro lens. Ok, now that you've all stopped laughing, people actually do look at your gear and they may evaluate your relative professionalism/stature by whether you have top-end stuff by their estimation. Mamiya made a huge marketing campaign lasting several years suggesting that clients (wedding clients) would choose someone holding a medium-format camera over someone with a 35mm footprint camera. True or not, I don't know. It's just an evaluation point.

Full disclosure: I own Canon lenses.

For reference, the following is the same model under natural lighting, cloudy sky, f/1.8 Canon 85mm 1.2L lens. As can readily be seen, the focus dropoff shooting that wide open is dramatic. If you like this style of shooting (and I do), lenses with wide apertures are great. I know this is not one of the lenses under discussion, but the point I'm attempting to illustrate is that when you get into shooting shallow depth of field, you get onto shifting sands -- particularly when it comes to wedding shots. If the wedding party expects sharp, shooting a fast lens won't usually deliver that from edge to edge when even moderately wide open. Finally, for those of you who have observed the purple around the eyelashes, it's not CA -- she had purple-tinted mascara on (I never thought I'd have to learn what that was!).

Canon 85mm 1.2 example

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Thanks Steve. This is very useful. Do you have any experiences with the stabilization systems on both? –  Abhimanyu Dec 4 '11 at 19:38
    
Canon stabilization is very good. It's not a substitute for getting enough light to shoot at a speed you really can hand-hold. That said, I do get about .5 to 1 stop better results most of the time with Canon. I can't speak to the Sigma issue as I have only used the lenses in a studio setting. There is a broader base of users who have had good experience with the top-end Canon lenses than the new Sigma gear. I know few top pros who shoot Sigma. That doesn't mean they are inferior; it means the Canon lenses get the job done. –  Steve Ross Dec 4 '11 at 22:03
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Don't I wish :) I shot with it for only a short time, so this image would only emulate the conditions for the formal portraits. However, I did test the autofocus in a shaded area outdoors on Av at f/3.5 and it seemed snappy to me. My two go-to lenses for that particular shoot were the Canon 85mm f/1.2L (fast lens, kind of slow autofocus) and the "Swiss Army Knife" Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L (fast autofocus). When I put the Sigma on the camera, it was not noticeably slower than the 24-70, but I was working with models, not rebellious relatives. –  Steve Ross Dec 5 '11 at 2:45
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Just by coincidence, this article showed up in email today: adorama.com/alc/article/…. The results are germane to the conversation because they really show where the less expensive lens will be a lower performer. Too bad they didn't do tests among different manufacturers. –  Steve Ross Dec 5 '11 at 16:55
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Sorry, I do not see how images shot at f/13 are going to apply to a wedding lens, almost all lenses will perform well in this range especially in a studio. The Canon 85mm 1.2L shot is a great example of a wedding lens, but does not really relate to the original question. –  dpollitt Dec 7 '11 at 16:51

My advice is stick with Canon, whatever you do. My first lens was a Sigma, used on my Canon 40D and the quality was not good enough for professional use, even after a firmware upgrade. I want to specialise in wedding and portrait photography. I wasted time and money going the more affordable route, so it cost me in the long run. I am now using my first Canon lens and have not looked back. Good luck!

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What Sigma lens did you have? –  dpollitt Dec 6 '11 at 19:21
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Its not right to disregard an entire brand based on your experience with one lens (which doesn't seem to be the model in question). –  Abhimanyu Dec 7 '11 at 8:54

Also, worth considering is the second hand value of the lense. I would say that it is much easier to get good money for a Canon lens than for example a Sigma lens if you would find yourself trying to sell it. This is of course not the only factor to take into account but nevertheless it might be something to think of, at least for some people.

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