Why this old and slow Sigma 180mm/5.6 APO Macro lens ?
When i bought a Fuji X-E1 it was to have a smaller and lighter system, so i try to keep the lenses small and light as well without compromising the IQ. The Fuji short registration distance is an advantage when you want to adapt older lenses. I already own a Tamron 90mm/2.8 Macro (1:1 ratio), so i wanted a longer Macro lens for photographing frogs or subjects that are difficult to get close. Then i remembered that Sigma did produced a 180mm/5.6 APO Macro in the film days. I was lucky to find a MF version in Olympus OM mount in good condition but without the lens hood, so i bought a rubber hood for it. I paid around 170$ Canadian for it, a good price for a Macro lens that long.
Sigma didn’t produced many of these probably due to the slow maximum aperture which was not that useful in film days when slow films were the norm to obtain better IQ, the f/2.8 version was probably more popular. But now with digital sensors a slow lens is more manageable, especially for a 180mm Macro lens that will be stopped down anyway to gain some DOF.
At only 435 gr. and a filter size of 52mm it’s a surprisingly small lens, if you compare it to my Tamron 90mm/2.8 Macro (model 72E) which is a 1:1 repro ratio lens and weights 403 gr. with a filter size of 55mm.
Here is the specifications of both lenses:
Sigma 180mm/5.6 APO Macro:
Tamron 90mm/2.8 Macro model 72E:
Handling and built quality
It’s clear that in those years Sigma lenses were not the best made lenses, i’ve owned other Sigma lenses made in the same years as this one and they all felt like this one. Good but not as well made as Pentax, Fuji or Canon that i’ve used. The aperture ring is not smooth in operation, but i can live with it, if i drop that lens i think it would not survive unlike some of my older Pentax lenses especially the Takumar M42 lenses !
The positive thing is that the focusing ring is large, which i like to have on my lenses, i hate those tiny small focusing rings that some AF lenses have. On my lens the focusing ring is not constant, when i turn it it goes from smooth to some tension and then back to smooth, maybe it would need some tune-up of the focusing system inside. In general it’s easy to use with the OM adapter on my X-E1 because it’s a lightweight lens, if i would have bought the newer 180mm f/3.5 version the combo would have been bigger and heavier.
Usually Macro lenses are sharp and choosing from one or another one is a matter of functionality but also of focal length. This Sigma certainly can deliver images with very good details when stopped down. At f/5.6 i think it’s the weakest aperture of that lens, but from f/8 to f/16 the lens produce very good images. Being an older lens that was design before the digital era, the contrast is lower than modern Macro lenses but it’s easily corrected in PP.
Just for fun i decided to take some test shots with this Sigma 180mm and my Tamron 90mm/2.8 Macro (model 72E) to really see how good it really is. I found dead leaves in my backyard as my subject and started at f/5.6 then f/8, f/11 and finally f/16. I was not surprised to see that the Tamron was the winner at f/5.6 since it was already stopped down 2 stops and the Sigma was W/O, if needed the Sigma can be used at f/5.6 since it’s good but not as good as the Tamron here. From f/8 to f/16 the Sigma closed the gap but i think the Tamron can still produce a little more details, but the Tamron 90mm Macro is one of the best Macro lens, in any of it’s versions that was made. Even then i think that the Sigma is more than sharp enough from f/8 to f/16 to be used without any problem, you just need a little more PP to bring some contrast in the photos.
As for the color reproduction, the Sigma has a colder rendering than the Tamron but again now with PP it’s easily corrected to your preferences. The Sigma can produce images with beautiful rendering and the Bokeh is not too bad either probably due to it’s 8 blades diaphragm.
That’s it for now, they are my first impressions after some weeks of using it in the field, i will post more photos in future articles. So, if you need more reach in your Macro work but don’t want to break the Bank, give this lens a serious look. The Sigma 180mm/5.6 APO Macro might not be the best in any department but certainly can deliver sharp and beautiful images when you have learned how to use it at it’s best settings. Sure the newer f/3.5 and f/2.8 versions from Sigma would certainly get you sharper photos but at a big cost in size, weight and price (especially the new f/2.8 version). So if you’re on a tight budget or don’t want a heavy 180mm Macro lens this f/5.6 version can be a very good option.
Macro and Close-up photography is a lot of fun and it can open a whole new world of opportunities for a photographer. You don’t necessarily need to buy a dedicated Macro lens, there is other options, we will look at that later.
A true Macro lens can go to a reproduction ratio of 1:1 but some lenses (often older manual lenses) can be found that only goes to a 1:2 repro ratio and needs an extension tube to go to 1:1. Many zoom lenses have a Macro position but at best they will go down to a 1:3 ratio. Some wide angle lenses have a Macro position, i have an old Clubman 24mm/2.8 Macro that can go down to 1:4 repro ratio. Currently on the market you can find many Macro lenses in different focal lengths ranging from 35mm up to 200mm, some are stabilized and some rely on the image stabilisation in the cameras (IBIS). If you really want to get close with excellent IQ Canon makes the MP-E 65mm 1-5X which can go from 1:1 to 5:1 repro ratio. Macro lenses are the best way to go because they are easier to use in the field, you just turn the focusing ring as you get closer and the IQ is excellent, but they are not cheap unless you can buy old ones are some newer models on the used market.
From left to right: Pentax DA 35mm/2.8 Macro Limited, SMC Macro-Takumar 50mm/4 and Pentax DFA 100mm/2.8 Macro WR. As a side note you can see the big difference here between the lenses from the old manual focus Takumar to the modern Macro lenses when you look at the distance scale, the focus throw of AF lenses is so short that those scale are pretty much useless compared to the old time.
Here is my Clubman 24mm Macro, you can see the reproduction ratio on the front of the barrel.
A small Macro lens like the Pentax DA 35mm Macro is easy to carry around and can give effect that a longer Macro lens can’t. Here i was so close that the lens was touching the flower and the result is that we feel like we are in the flower with the insect.
A longer Macro lens gives you more working distance which can be useful for insects or potentially dangerous animals like this snapping turtle. Here i was using my 100mm Macro lens handheld but a 200mm lens would have been even better to be safer.
Here is a comparison between 2 Macro lenses to show how the focal length affect the background. The photo above was taken with the Pentax DA 35mm Macro Ltd.
Now, this one i tried to kept the same subject’s size with a Vivitar 90-180mm Flat Field at 180mm at the same f-stop. Also notice the different color cast of the 2 lenses.
Reversing rings are a cheap way to get into Macro photography, you just screw the reversing ring into the filter thread of the lens and then mount it to the camera (BTW they came in different sizes, like filters). You need a lens with an aperture ring to do that if you want to control the aperture ring of the lens even if you don’t gain much DOF by doing so. The wider the lens the closer you can go and gain more magnification but you will be very close and the rear of the lens is exposed to the elements. You can’t vary magnification much by focusing the lens, so if you want a different magnification you need to use another lens. Another advantage is that you can mount whatever brand of lens you want.
A reversing ring is a cheap way to get into Macro photography, you can use it on your kit lens or a small prime like a 28mm, 35mm or 50mm.
Here i used it with my SMC Takumar 35mm/3.5 to photograph this lady bug.
Close-up lenses are like filters and when used on any lens they make it focus closer. They come in different strengths, size and quality. I have a Nikon close-up 6T, but Canon makes very good ones also, you will pay more for those 2 brands but the IQ is worth it. The advantage is that you don’t loose light when you use them but depending on the lens the IQ can suffer. You can still use them on a Macro lens for more magnification.
Even if you have a Macro lens extension tubes are worth having in your camera bag, i use them with my Macro lens and also with my longer lenses to make them focus closer. There are many choices on the internet, you don’t need to pay for the ones from your camera brand since this is only tubes without any glass elements in them. They come in a set of tree but you can also buy them separately (Canon does that). I use Aputure extension tube set (13mm, 21mm and 31mm) for my Canon gear and they work very well with my lenses and AF works very well also even on my 400mm lens when needed.
Extension tubes uses the same mount as your camera brand (if you use Pentax you need to buy K mount tubes, Canon EF mount for Canon ….) and you mount them between the camera and the lens. So if you want to use your 50mm/1.8 lens with extension tubes you need to add 50mm of extension tubes to get to a reproduction ratio of 1:1. So here comes the biggest drawback of extension tubes,as you add extension tubes you loose more and more light and you quickly loose 1 or 2 stop of light which results in a longer exposure time. I like to use extension tubes with a zoom lens because the magnification varies as you zoom, so if you add about 50mm of extension tubes to a 70-200mm lens you will gain more magnification as you zoom from 200mm to 70mm.
Here is a photo taken with a 70-300mm lens with 64mm of extension tubes, not in the Macro range but we can call it Close-up.
Another photo taken with extension tubes added to a lens, this time it was to my Tele-Takumar 200mm/5.6.
Yes they can be useful, i use my TC 1.4X with my 100mm Macro lens when i need more magnification but want to keep the same working distance and don’t want to disturb my subject. You can add a Teleconverter between your camera and the extension tubes to gain more magnification or to your lens alone. A good teleconverter is not cheap but the older Tamron 1.4X AF for my Pentax was working very well with my DFA 100mm Macro WR. The TC also cost you light, 1 stop for the 1.4X and 2 stops for a TC 2X.
Sometimes a TC 1.4X is needed even with a 100mm Macro lens.
There is also bellows that acts like a variable extension tube but they are not very practical to use in the field, too big and easy to damage. You can also reverse a 50mm on a 200mm lens but i’ve never tried it myself. I will post another article soon that will talk more on the use of the options above and techniques for using them.
I take a lot of close-up and Macro photos in bad weather because it gives a different feeling to the photos but it can be tricky to protect your gear when it’s raining. So when Pentax announced that lens i bought it as soon as it was available… i knew it would be a great lens for a nature photographer !
The DFA 100 Macro WR in it’s natural habitat during a rainy morning.
After 2 years with that lens i decided to share my experience of how it performs in the field. Over the years i have used and owned several Macro lenses, presently i have a kit of 3 Macro lenses:
– Pentax DA 35mm/2.8 Macro Limited
– SMC Macro-Takumar 50mm/4
– Pentax DFA 100mm/2.8 Macro WR
Each have their use and reason to be in my camera bag, when i don’t have enough space to back-up or want a “wider” Macro lens i use the DA35mm Macro Ltd or the Takumar 50mm/4. The DFA 100mm WR is useful when i need more distance from my subjects like insects and frogs or if i want to isolate the subject to eliminate a distracting background. So for me the 100mm Macro is the one that reach for in general when i need a macro lens since it’s the most versatile of the 3.
I use the DFA 100mm Macro WR most of the time on a solid tripod to get as much details as possible in my photos but when i need a view from the ground i use it handheld on my K20D. Since it’s not too big it balances quite well and with the help of shake reduction (SR) i can get sharp photos with a relatively slow shutter speed.
The image quality is a big point when you buy a lens and a Macro lens should deliver excellent photos at most F-stop and this one certainly can, i use it from f/2.8 to f/16 regularly with confidence and if i need more DOF i stop it down to around f/20 and the photos are still good.
When i got it i was a little concerned about the distances scale window that is open without any glass or plastic to stop water… but after over 2 years of hard use in the field in bad weather (rain, freezing rain, snow and around muddy pond shore looking for frogs), the WR seals never failed and i have no fear of using that lens in the same conditions as my DA*50-135.
The lens hood is attached to the body of the lens, the lens extends inside the lens hood as you focus closer and i think it’s a good thing since it offers more protection from the rain on that part of the lens. When you’re at the minimum focusing distance the hood doesn’t protect much the front of the lens from the sun rays and the rain. I’ve never had problem with flare but had some rain on the front lens elements on some occasions but easily cleaned in the field. Pentax probably made that compromise because they know how good is their SP and SMC coatings are ?
The focusing ring is large enough (i would have liked a little larger) and have a good feeling so it’s easy to obtain exact focus and with 8 rounded aperture blades the bokeh is more pleasing and so far the lens delivers beautiful background. The lens also delivers great colors and contrast so even when shooting in RAW the post processing is minimal.
Here is an example of the “bokeh”, taken at the minimum focusing distance of the lens at f/6.3.
The DFA 100mm Macro WR is also very good for taking photos at normal distances, the resulting photos are as good as when used at the Macro settings. I don’t use it often outside close-up and macro but i know that it will give me great results as well.
Old garage taken with the DFA 100 WR at around f/11.
Some last points about that lens:
Some photographer will miss that there is no focus limiter on that lens but for me it’s not a big deal since i don’t use AF very often, and if i need it, the lens have quick shift focus. Another thing is that the lens hood is made of plastic, since the lens is made of metal i would have liked a metal lens hood… sure it would look like a Limited lens with it !
I prefer to use metal built lenses because they feel so good and the built quality is a plus when you use your lenses a lot in bad weather and they can be knocked, sure plastic lenses can also be very tough and durable but those metal one or just pure joy. There is something that is not fun about metal lenses, in winter they are colder than a plastic lens and you can froze your fingers faster when using it, so be careful.
I certainly hope Pentax will update the DFA 50mm Macro to be like the DFA 100mm Macro WR and maybe do a longer lens like a 150mm or a 200mm. If you need a great Macro lens that will give you superb photos and can take abuse and never let you down in bad weather… the DFA 100mm Macro WR is for you.
Some photos taken with that lens for you to enjoy .
ISO 500, 1/15sec. at f/11.
ISO 800, 1/4 sec at f/16.
ISO 100, 0.5 sec. at f/16.
Over the years i can say that i developed “my photographic Eye” for finding small subjects in the natural world. When i walk in a forest my eyes are always scanning for something interesting on the ground or the trees, even when i don’t have a camera with me i’m looking at the world around me to see what i can find. Having a Macro lens or a lens that can do “close-up” is very useful for that kind of photography, i use all my Macro lenses (35mm, 50mm and 100mm) or sometimes i will use extension tubes with a 150mm or 200mm lens.
When the light is not so good you can always photograph small subjects, you can block the sun with your body or shirt if necessary. Rain is great since it adds raindrops to your subjects and the colors are more saturated. In autumn cold nights can bring frost on the ground and you suddenly have a lot of great new opportunities but you have to shoot fast before the sun melt the frost!
The advantage of that kind of photography is that you don’t have to travel to an exotic country to find inspiration, it can be done at your local Park, a nearby forest or even in your own backyard. Take your Macro lens and go outside to find new subjects and experiment some new compositions.
When i’m going to work i often take with me a camera and i stop to a local Park that i can find different subjects depending on the temperature or season. This shot was taken on my way to work, the day before it was raining and during the night the temperature dropped quickly and the raindrops were all frozen on the leaves that were on the ground.
Taken with my Sony NEX-3, SMC Macro-Takumar 50mm/4, ISO 200, at f/16,Tripod.
I found this interesting ice on the shore of a beaver pond on a cold morning at sunrise. I tried different angles but this one is my favorite.
Taken with a Pentax K20D, DFA100mm Macro WR, ISO 100 at f/16, Tripod.