Choosing a Zoom Lens

I bought my Nikon D3300 from Currys as it came bundled with a zoom lens and I knew I’d need one, my main hobby being motorsports, which generally requires a zoom lens to get close enough to the action.

The camera came with a 18-50mm “kit” lens, which was OK but 55mm isn’t much of a zoom. The zoom lens bundled was a Sigma 70-300mm lens, giving me much more reach. Even better, my camera has a “crop” sensor, whereas the Sigma was intended for a “full-frame” sensor, meaning the effective focal length (or rather field of view) is 1.5x the stated length, so a 70-300 zoom on a crop-sensor camera is the equivalent of a 105-450mm zoom on a full-frame camera.

However, the Sigma has a number of weaknesses. Auto-focus is slow (and noisy). It produces soft images at it’s widest aperture (f5.6 at the long end) so needs to be stopped down to get better images, which means ISO (noise) has to go up to get the correct exposure. It also has no image stabilisation, so fast shutter speeds are essential to freeze the action (although that’s not always what you want to do with motorsports). I’ve taken some decent images with it, but nothing spectacular (example below):-

I also felt sometimes I needed more reach. At some racing circuits spectators are some considerable distance from the action, so I felt a longer zoom lens was needed.

I ended up going round in circles for quite some time before making a decision on what to buy. My first thought was to go for a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens, widely considered the go-to zoom for sports photographers, it’s biggest advantage being that f2.8 aperture. The more light a lens lets in, the faster it focuses (wide aperture lens are often described as “fast” rather than wide). It would also allow me to shoot in more challenging conditions (low light etc.). But at 70-200mm (or 105-300mm equivalent on my camera) it actually gave me less reach than my Sigma 70-300mm. By virtue of that fast aperture this lens is compatible with teleconverters, which extend the reach of a lens at the expense of increasing the minimum aperture, so I could put a x1.4 teleconverter on it to make it a 150-420mm f4, or a x2 teleconverter to make it a 210-600mm f5.6.

But this lens, even 2nd hand, is the best part of £1,000 (it’s well over £2,000 new), and the teleconverter would add another few £100. Could I really justify £1,200 – £1,400 for a lens + teleconverter combo?

I saw a lens advertised in the “Black Friday” sale at Wex Photographic (where I’d already purchased a 2nd hand lens and some other bits and pieces). This was a Sigma 150-600mm zoom, with Sigma’s HSM auto-focus system (supposedly quiet and fast) and built-in image stabilisation including a “panning” mode designed specifically for motorsports. And at £700 it was half the price, new, of the 70-200mm + teleconverter 2nd-hand. At 150-600mm it’s actually the equivalent of 225-900mm on my camera, so a huge reach for even the most demanding circuits, and although limited to a f5.6-6.3 aperture I figured I’d probably never use it in the kind of challenging conditions the f2.8 zooms are really designed for. So I bought it, a Christmas present to myself!

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