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I'm planning on purchasing either a Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG APO Macro Telephoto or a Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM IF lens.

The first one has a narrower range and does not have optical stabilization, but it is cheaper. As I'm specifically looking for a telephoto lens, the narrow range in itself is not an issue for me.

I have an EOS 450D (that I basically only use with the cheap Canon 50mm prime lens to do portraits of my wife and son). I currently live in NYC in an apartment with a nice skyline view so I'd like to take pictures of e.g. Manhattan at dusk, etc. So I guess I'm looking to optimize the quality of the long range shots I can take, while also being happy if for about the same price I get a more versatile lens.

Is optical stabilization important for this kind of (inexpensive) telephoto lenses?

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    What type of photography do you primarily focus on or want to focus on with a telephoto lens? The usefulness of image stabilization can vary greatly depending on the subject so it is important to the question. – dpollitt Nov 26 '17 at 15:23
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    The second lens is not a "telephoto", it's a "superzoom". This category comes with it's own pros and cons (low light, huge distortion). Also, the first one is full-frame while the second is APS-C. Bottom line: you're comparing a Mack semi tractor to a Ferrari. They both cost about same and they both put out about same HP, but they're not even remotely alike. We don't even know what you need because we don't know if your camera is full frame or not. – Agent_L Nov 27 '17 at 9:10
  • Good points. I wanted to keep the question general, but I'll add some personal details/context here in the comments: I have an EOS 450D (that I basically only use with the cheap Canon 50mm prime lens to do portraits of my wife and son). I currently live in NYC in an apartment with a nice skyline view so I'd like to take pictures of e.g. Manhattan at dusk, etc. So I guess @J... I'm looking to optimize the quality of the long range shots I can take, while also being happy if for about the same price I get a more versatile lens. Hope this helps. – julien_c Nov 27 '17 at 15:00
  • @J... Please answer with answers, not comments. – mattdm Nov 27 '17 at 21:41
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If you're shooting with a tripod ­— a good, solid one, not a sub-$100 deal — image stabilization isn't very important. If you're shooting in a controlled environment with strobes, it's not very important either. Or, if you're shooting in very bright light where you can get good depth of field and a fast shutter speed (to today's standards of pickiness, much faster than ¹⁄focal length), not important.

But, for focal lengths over 100mm, if you're hand-holding, if you can't get to very fast shutter speeds, you'll need optical image stabilization to get sharp results. So, the question reduces to: are you shooting in those situations, and are sharp results important to you?

That last question part is somewhat mind-blowing because if you read camera forums you often encounter an almost religious focus on sharpness as the measure of success of a camera, lens, camera system, photograph, or photographer. That's... a fine cult, I guess, but isn't really the only way to go. There are plenty of other schools of thought on the matter. If you're willing to relax on that a little bit, you might be happier saving a bit of money.

Note that both of these lenses are super-budget lenses, a zoom and a "superzoom". They're amazing for what they are, but they have a lot of compromises in order to get to that price point with that zoom range. Stabilization will not change that — and in fact the lens with stabilization is also the one with greater zoom range, and in order to get that all in at that price point, there's likely (and reviews bear this out) even more compromise around distortion, sharpness, and aberrations. So... really it comes down to which compromises are more important to you.


In a comment, you add:

I have an EOS 450D (that I basically only use with the cheap Canon 50mm prime lens to do portraits of my wife and son). I currently live in NYC in an apartment with a nice skyline view so I'd like to take pictures of e.g. Manhattan at dusk, etc. So I guess [...] I'm looking to optimize the quality of the long range shots I can take, while also being happy if for about the same price I get a more versatile lens.

... and in this specific situation, we can give specific advice. Particularly, presumably you have room to set up in your apartment or on your balcony. Get a tripod (see this Q&A for advice — budget around $200) and don't worry about image stabilization. You'll probably want to be working at f/8 (on whatever lens you get), and if you're looking to shoot at dusk, you don't have good light, so you'll need long shutter speeds.

Reviews of the Sigma 18-250 indicate that its OIS is good for three stops, so if we assume ¹⁄₄₀₀th as a rule of thumb requirement for handholding, that'll buy you down to ¹⁄₅₀th (one stop faster: ¹⁄₂₀₀th, two stops faster: ¹⁄₁₀₀th...). That's not going to be fast enough at dusk even wide open at f/6.3, so you'll want a tripod anyway.

  • Finally: if your subject is moving in a non-uniform manner, image stabilization won't be able to help you. – Eric Duminil Nov 26 '17 at 20:36
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    @EricDuminil If your subject is moving at all IS won't help you (unless you are using an IS lens with a panning mode while panning with the subject). – Michael C Nov 26 '17 at 21:22
  • @MichaelClark That's a pretty big "unless" - plenty of lenses (most, even?) with IS have both modes available. – J... Nov 27 '17 at 12:31
  • @J... the "unless" also includes the use case of a panning shot. Many IS/VC/OS/etc. lenses do have a panning mode. But many others do not. – Michael C Nov 27 '17 at 20:57
  • @MichaelClark I'd say more do than don't - this ultra-cheap lens of OP's, for example, doesn't have a panning mode switch, but it does have automatic panning detection for the OS - and that's about as budget as a lens gets. – J... Nov 27 '17 at 21:28
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Is Optical Image Stabilization Important?

It depends. What it depends on is the photographer's goals and values and and technique and budget. Every decision in photography is a decision that trades off one set of advantages and deficits for another.

  • Budget: Often, the decision a photographer faces is not between a more expensive more technically sophisticated lens and a less expensive lens with less technology. Often the decision is between the less expensive lens with less technology and no lens. Or to put it another way, it is between a lens that can in theory capture a particular type of shot and no lens at all.
  • Technique: Often a less sophisticated lens will require better technique. Better technique will require practice to maintain. Practicing may be seen as a chore. Practicing may be seen as an excuse to go out and take pictures without fretting over the results.
  • Values: One photographer may find more value in the combination of a lens without image stabilization and the savings spent on travel. Another photographer may find more value in the more expensive lens and shooting at home.
  • Goals: For some photographers, one great shot is what matters. For others, one hundred better than the average snapshots shots are more important. Neither is wrong. Neither is right. The same photographer may hold each value at different times or under different circumstances.

Is Optical Image Stabilization Useful?

The important thing to remember is that image stabilization doesn't change the necessary exposure. It is useful when the subject can be captured at slower shutter speeds. Scenes that require high shutter speeds (e.g. fast moving objects or people) still require fast shutter speed.

Optical image stabilization is particularly useful when shooting slow or static scenes hand held by mitigating the need for a tripod. This provides the photographer with more flexibility in choice of subject and position. It allows the photographer to be more spontaneous.

Advice

For most photographers, image stabilization tends to be useful. For most photographers it is not necessary for producing pleasing images. Most of producing pleasing images is dependent on going out with a camera and taking images. Processing those images on the computer and learning from the results is the most important factor in improving. If the gear sits in the bag, it doesn't matter how good it is (except when expounding on the internet).

No piece of technology changes the value of a photographer exploring the limitations of their equipment and applying their understanding to capture a scene in the way that they want. Process and understanding and judgment can't be bought.

  • Taing wildlife as an example, OS is great for static subjects, but then you've often got time to adjust a tripod; for moving subjects it doesn't help much. Overall it's still nice to have (+1) – Chris H Nov 27 '17 at 10:35
  • @ChrisH I'll beg to differ here - most good tele lenses with IS/OS have a panning mode for following moving subjects and it definitely works and it definitely helps. Wildlife and sports photograhpy are both places where this is very handy to have. – J... Nov 27 '17 at 12:33
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    @J... they do. But many subjects don't move as a single solid, so I've had cases of sharp heads, slightly blurred bodies and heavily blurred wings, where a faster lens could have frozen the motion better. For something like a car, or a soaring raptor, panning mode is great – Chris H Nov 27 '17 at 13:50
  • @ChrisH Ah, ok - different thing altogether. Moving with respect to self vs moving with respect to the background. Agreed, IS won't stop a hummingbird's wings, certainly! That said, trying to shoot a hummingbird at F/6.3... ouch. – J... Nov 27 '17 at 14:05
  • @J... Often the choice is not between "good lenses" with a panning mode and lenses without. Instead it is between lenses without and no lens. It is between a picture of a hummingbird at f6.3 and no picture at all. To push the platitude: The best lens is the one you have with you. – user50888 Nov 27 '17 at 16:24
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Telephoto, by definition translates to a magnified view. The more powerful the magnification the more difficult it will be to hand-hold the camera. Most authorizes recommend that when hand-holding the camera the minimum shutter speed should be the inverse of the focal length in millimeters. Thus if a 250mm lens is mounted, the minimum shutter speed for a hand-held shot is 1/250 of a second. Let me add that with practice and due diligence, you can hand-hold much slower. Anyway, a stabilized lens compensates, to some extent allowing you to hand-hold 1 or 2 f-stops worth. Each stop is the equivalent of halving the usual shutter speed. Thus the 250mm could be worked at 1/125 or perhaps 1/60 of a second. All that may be true but a tripod remains unsurpassed when it comes to camera motion blur.

P.S. I often tell newbies to practice “dry-fire”. Tape a small mirror over the lens. Double stick tape on the lens cap works. Now place a flash-light on the mantel of book case. Aim the flash-light at the camera so a small circle of light is reflected on a nearby wall. With this set-up, you dry-fire the camera and perfect your technique. When you press the shutter release, watch the bounce of the reflected spot of light. Practice your shutter press and breathing and you can work with slower and slower shutter settings.

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    Actually, the definition of a telephoto lens is one whose physical length is less than its focal length. – David Richerby Nov 26 '17 at 20:52
  • @DavidRicherby: ...measured from the focal plane to the optical center of the front element, when focused at infinity. Something like an externally focused macro lens can extend to substantially more than its focal length when focused at 1:1, even though it's a telephoto design. – Jerry Coffin Nov 26 '17 at 21:02
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    @ David Richerby - You are of course right - A long lens, about 200% greater than "normal" yields magnified views. A true telephoto is one whereby the rear nodal is shifted forward. This is a retro-focus design that shortens the length of the lens barrel. The retro-focus design is a true telephoto by definition. A tip of the hat to David. – Alan Marcus Nov 26 '17 at 21:15
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    The 1/focal length was from the days before IS and I violated it back then by a stop or so. My Nikon P900 claims the IS is worth five stops. I have handheld (sitting down) the 2000mm effective at 1/80 second with good detail. As one who shoots usually stationary birds from a long ways off, I wouldn't be without it. It does go back to what you want to shoot. – Ross Millikan Nov 27 '17 at 1:40
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If you are mainly looking to use the lens for taking pictures of the skyline from your Manhattan apartment you don't really need image stabilization. A good tripod is more effective at stabilizing your camera/lens than any implementation of IS/VR/OS/VC/etc. ever has been. Of course, IS may be useful for other use cases for which you may occasionally want to use the lens. But for your primary stated use case it should not be much of a consideration with regard to which lens to buy.

Keep in mind that from an absolute optical image quality perspective, there are optical effects from the movement of an IS unit. The movement of the IS unit in a lens is basically a change in the lens' optical alignment. This can minutely affect things like tilt, astigmatism, edge sharpness, etc. It's usually not noticeable at all, but it can be seen at the pixel peeping level when using lenses with very high quality optics. There will also be times when the IS unit is actively moving during an exposure that will cause the entire image to be blurry. Optical image stabilization has tremendous benefits at times, but those benefits also come with a few caveats as well.

I'm looking to optimize the quality of the long range shots I can take, while also being happy if for about the same price I get a more versatile lens.

Here's the thing: in terms of focal length range quality and versatility are usually diametrically opposed. This is true both in the lower end of the price spectrum and at the upper end. Most 70-300mm consumer grade lenses are better optically than just about any 18-250, 18-270, or 18-300 consumer grade lens, even though the "super zoom" will likely cost a bit more. The differences can be more subtle on the other end of the price range, but they are still there.

Why prefer the 18-55mm and 55-250mm lenses vs 18-200mm? discusses this in more detail from a lower price range perspective. But that comparison looks at two fairly contemporary lens designs. In the case of the two lenses you are looking at, the 70-300mm is a much older design. (I have the Canon version of it that I bought in the mid-1990s.) Even so, the older 70-300mm is still optically better than the newer 18-250mm. At this comparison from DxO Labs¹ of the Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM vs. the newer Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS vs. the older Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO-M DG Macro we see that neither of these lenses is anything to write home about. They are cheap for a reason. But within that context both the older and newer versions of the 70-300 perform a little better optically than the 18-250mm at all focal length and aperture combinations beyond 70mm. The 18-250mm obviously performs better at focal lengths less than 70mm, since the others can't even go there. The newer version of the 70-300 is marginally better than the older 70-300 at most focal lengths and apertures, but the copy-to-copy difference between examples of either one may well be greater than the tested differences shown at DxO. The Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II also performs in the same general range, although it pulls away from the two Sigmas² a bit at the longer focal lengths when all lenses are used wide open. It's an APS-C only lens while the others may also be used with 35mm film and FF digital cameras. (I'm not sure anyone willing to pay for a FF camera would be happy with using any of these lenses with a FF camera, though.)

¹ Click on 'Measurements' and then various optical qualities to see comparisons of actual performance between the lenses at various focal lengths and aperture. If you get a 'loading error' when you select a different focal length or aperture, I've discovered that alternating between 'field maps' and 'profiles' will enable the updated parameters to be loaded. I find the 'profiles' more useful than the 'field maps' when comparing the differences between lenses with regard to a specific optical quality, but others may prefer the field maps. YMMV.
² These Sigma lenses should not be confused with some of the newer 'Global Vision' lenses Sigma has released in the past few years. The 'Global Vision' lenses include the 'Art', 'Sports', and 'Contemporary' series that are on an entirely different level of quality than the Sigma lenses being considered here.

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