Sigma APO Macro 180mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM review – Introduction

Sneaking up on insects isn’t easy, as anyone who has attempted a macro shot of one will attest. With reactions many times faster than humans, trying to get close to a fly, wasp, bee or even a butterfly is often an exercise in frustration.

The key is to move slowly, and to remain as far from the subject as possible, but when you are using a 60mm or even a 105mm macro lens, it can be tricky to get the shot you want. However, help is at hand in the form of Sigma’s APO Macro 180mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM optic, which offers 1:1 macro reproduction at a minimum focus distance of 47cm. Compare this to the 18.9cm minimum focus distance of the Sigma 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens and the advantage of the longer 180mm focal length becomes clear.

There are other benefits to being further from the subject. For example, the shorter the minimum focus distance, the more likely it is that the photographer will cast a shadow over the subject. The extra space therefore allows the photographer to light the subject more easily.

The 180mm focal length also creates a narrow angle of view. This helps photographers avoid distracting backgrounds, and makes sure the viewer’s attention is drawn to the subject.

There are compromises to be made, though. The long 180mm focal length, combined with the large f/2.8 aperture, means that this lens is large and heavy. I was interested to see how well a lens with this range of features would perform, both optically and with the practicalities of shooting macro images.


Optically, the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 macro lens is quite complex, comprising 19 elements in 14 groups. Three of these are ‘F’ low dispersion (FLD) with a performance claimed to equal fluorite, which can be used instead of glass due to its low dispersion characteristics. This drastically reduces the dispersal of colour wavelengths, which helps cut down on chromatic aberrations. All the lenses have Sigma’s Super Multi Layer Coating, which reduces flare and ghosting while maintaining contrast.

The maximum f/2.8 aperture should ensure that the lens reaches its optimum aperture at around f/8-f/11, while also ensuring that it can let in enough light for handheld shooting. However, the lens is not just for macro images, as a 180mm f/2.8 is also useful for sports events and portraits. On a camera with an APS-C-sized sensor, the 270mm equivalent will also make it useful for some wildlife, particularly with the minimum focus distance of just 47cm.

Sigma states that this is the first 180mm macro lens in the world with image stabilisation, and claims that the stabilisation will help correct camera shake by up to 4 stops. However, the firm does note that the stabilisation becomes less effective as the focus distance decreases.

A Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) focuses the lens. When paired with a Canon EOS-1D X, the lens snapped quickly into focus when shooting at distances over a metre. For closer subjects, though, it was best to use the focus-range switch on the side of the lens to restrict the focus range. There are three settings on this switch: full AF range; 67cm to infinity; and 47cm to 67cm, for macro images. Importantly, the Hyper Sonic AF is quiet so shouldn’t disturb insects or wildlife too much.

Image: Taken handheld with image stabilisation of the lens switched on, a staggering amount of detail can be resolved in this 1:1 image 

Build and handling

With its large number of elements, the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 macro lens is heavy, weighing a substantial 1,640g. As a comparison, the new Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens weighs 1,490g, which is itself a fair weight to be carrying around for long periods of time. Handheld shooting for longer than around a minute is therefore an issue. I pride myself on being able to hold a camera and lens very still, but camera shake did become more noticeable as I started to tire.

Thankfully, switching on the Optical Stabiliser, via the switch on the side of the lens, helps to reduce camera shake. Being an optical system, one of its benefits is that the stabilisation effect can be seen through the viewfinder, which instantly shows how well it is working. In general use, the stabilisation offers around 3EV improvement compared to when it is switched off, although I would still recommend shooting at no less than 1/125sec for the best handheld image quality.

The stabilisation has much less effect when shooting 1:1 macro images, due to the magnification exaggerating any camera shake. I found that it really only made the difference of about 1EV in terms of the shutter speeds at which I was able to shoot handheld. Of course, for best results a tripod should be used, especially as the shallow depth of field means front and back focus shift is an obvious issue.

A collar for supporting the lens on a tripod is included. This locks tightly onto the lens in just half a turn of the locking screw, and it is removed completely by pulling the spring-mounted screw away from the lens. It is extremely quick and simple, and well designed.

The ability to focus manually is critical when shooting macro images. I prefer a slightly firmer focusing ring on a macro lens so there is a definite certainty that the point of focus can be found and will remain in position. Thankfully, the focusing ring on this lens is extremely large and comfortable to grip, and I had no trouble with accuracy when manually focusing, having as it does a very smooth and precise action.

With a street price of almost £1,500, I would expect the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 macro lens to be of high quality and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Image quality

Image: Shooting so close gives a very shallow depth of field, but thankfully the out-of-focus bokeh is soft and smooth

For our resolution chart images, the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 macro lens was paired with a 21-million-pixel Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III. Its performance was very impressive, resolving up to around 30 on our chart.

As you would expect, the results are sharpest at around f/8-f/11, but even at f/2.8 the lens still resolves plenty of detail and it is more a loss of contrast that gives the impression that detail has lessened. At f/16 and f/22 there is a slight drop in both resolution and contrast. This is common in all lenses, as refraction starts to take effect. However, it is particularly significant with
a macro lens as the depth of field is so important. At the 47cm minimum focus distance, and using a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, the depth of field is around 40mm at f/16 and 57mm when at f/22.

As this is a fixed telephoto lens, barrel distortion is not an issue, although there is a slight pincushion effect. As a lens of this focal length will not be used to photograph architecture, the slight distortion should be of no concern and it is very easily corrected.

It is a similar story with vignetting: unless really looked for, or photographing a completely solid background, it shouldn’t be too noticeable, and certainly nothing that would degrade a macro or wildlife image.

The lens does produce red/cyan chromatic aberrations, but these are very slight and only really visible on close inspection of the image at 100%. As usual, such distortions are easily removed in Adobe Camera Raw.

Overall, the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 lens is a very good macro optic, on a par with the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lens we use for all our camera resolution tests.

The images below show a small section of our resolution chart. All the images in this test were taken with the Sigma APO Macro 180mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM lens and a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, which has a full-frame, 21-million-pixel sensor. The results are on par with the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro lens, which is our standard lens for testing camera sensor resolution.

To see a large resolution chart, click here

Our verdict

The 180mm focal length of this Sigma optic provides both the best and worst of lens qualities. Such a focal length gives a good working distance from the subject and a great narrow field of view, but it also means the lens is bulky and heavy. To an extent, this is offset by the inclusion of image stabilisation, but in practice it provides a benefit of only around 1EV when shooting macro images.

Optically, the lens is excellent, resolving a lot of detail with a high level of contrast. For those serious about their macro images, the Sigma APO Macro 180mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM is a great lens, especially as it has the dual purpose of being a mid-range telephoto.