Brian's Photo Blog — Article 69
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A Tale of Three Lenses
Monday 2 April 2012   —   Category: Equipment
Last August I had rounded out my lens kit with a Sony DT 11-​18​mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens. At the time I wasn’t overly excited about the slowness of the lens (f/4.5-5.6), but since Sony didn’t make a similar lens with a larger aperture, I felt that I didn’t really have much choice. And because my camera was made by Sony, I figured the best and most compatible lenses were going to be from Sony too.

As I have been reading Photography Monthly magazine over the past year, I have been slowly developing a more open mind about third-party lenses. In a significant number of the articles, I've been discovering that many professional photographers uses lenses made by a company other than the manufacturer of the camera body. I started to reason that if they, as professionals, feel comfortable doing that, then why shouldn’t I?

Earlier this year I somehow or another ran across a lens with very appealing specifications: the Sigma 10-20 mm f/3.5 EX DC HSM. At 10-​20​mm, it has a slightly wider angle and zoom range than the Sony’s 11-​18​mm. And with a constant aperture of f/3.5 throughout the entire focal length — as opposed to f/4.5 at 11mm and a dismal f/5.6 at 18mm on the Sony lens — it is more in line with all of my other Sony lenses, which also have a constant aperture throughout the entire focal length.

Well, it all sounded good, so at the beginning of the month I decided to order one through my favorite store on the planet, Little did I know that my troubles were just beginning!

As usual, because I’m an Amazon Prime member, I received the lens just two days after my order. I immediately opened the box and mounted the lens on my Sony Alpha α77 camera body. After using it for a few minutes, I found that the autofocus was not working properly! Hmmmm ... not a good sign! The cold, clammy hands of disappointment were already starting to twist my guts!

After a bit of searching on Google, I finally found a page on Sigma’s web site that explained what was going on: Notice to Sony a77 and a65 owners using Sigma’s Sony fitting lenses. Dated October 14, 2011, it started off:
After thorough investigation, we have ascertained that auto focusing does not work properly when some Sony fitting Sigma lenses are used with Sony a77 and a65 interchangeable lens digital cameras.
Then there was a list of 17 Sigma lenses that have this compatibility problem, and wouldn’t you know, the lens I had just purchased was at the top of the list! The notice ended by saying that compatible lenses would have this sticker on the box. I looked on the box my lens had come in, and saw that it had an older sticker, saying that it was α33, α55 compatible. Strike one!

I contacted Sigma, because on their Web page explaining the problem, they had said that the lens could be made compatible with the α77 with a free firmware update. That sounded good! But they replied that I would have to send the lens in to one of their service centers, and they didn’t offer to pay the shipping! That was definitely disappointing customer service. I decided that since I had already spent $650 on the lens, I for sure didn’t want to go through the hassle and expense of sending them the lens, especially since it wasn’t my fault. Strike two!

Well, at least I knew what the problem was — now all I had to do was to figure out what to do about it! The correct lens was out there somewhere, but how was I to get it, and not an older one again?

I contacted Amazon, explained the problem, and asked them if they could get me the correct version the second time around. They replied that they could not guarantee that I would get the right lens, so they told me to return the lens for a refund. Strike three!

Because I had purchased camera equipment from Adorama in the past, I decided to contact them and see if they could guarantee me the correct lens. While I was waiting for their reply, I went to the Amazon page for this lens and wrote a review explaining the problem and my situation, as a warning to other potential buyers.

Within a short time, a couple of other people left comments about my review, and during the next few days I kept adding progress reports, and they kept adding replies. But I’m getting ahead of myself — back to the story....

I also took a look around various Web sites that sell this lens: Amazon, Adorama, B&H Photo, 47th Street Photo, and even eBay — NONE of these Web sites said ANYTHING about there being at least three different versions of this lens: the pre-α55 version(s); the α33, α55 compatible version; and the newest α65, α77 compatible version. I was starting to get the impression that the vendors were just as clueless as I had been up until recently.

Two days after receiving the wrong lens, I was getting fed up waiting for Adorama to answer. So I ordered the lens from 47th Street Photo via Amazon, since they apparently had about a dozen in stock. Then I sent them an e-mail, explaining the problem, and asked them to make sure that I was sent the newer version with the correct sticker on the box. They replied that ALL of their stock of this lens was the OLDER version, and so they cancelled my order! Strike four!

By this time I was starting to feel a bit desperate — how was I ever going to get my hands on the compatible version of this lens? I contacted B&H Photo, and they replied that all of their stock was the newest version. So I went ahead and placed my third order for this lens, eight days after I had first ordered it from Amazon. A short time later there was a new comment on my Amazon review — a guy had ordered this lens from B&H Photo recently, and he received the OLDER version! And I had just placed my order!

So I contacted B&H Photo again, and explained what I had just been told. They assured me that ALL of their stock was the new version. So all I could do was wait and see what would arrive.

Finally, ten days after I had placed my first order, UPS delivered my third attempt at purchasing the correct lens, after I paid $20 extra for two-day shipping. I opened the package, and guess what? Success! The box had the correct sticker on it! I mounted it to my camera, and the autofocus worked just fine! Hurray! B&H Photo to the rescue! But to this day, I have never heard back from Adorama — that’s very disappointing customer service. Maybe I’m better off sticking with B&H Photo.

For all of the decades that I've owned cameras, I've always made it a point to protect each lens from scratches and other damage with a UV filter. Now that I had my new lens, I realized that I didn’t have a UV filter that would fit it. And because it has a very wide angle of view, there is the danger that the filter will cause unwanted vignetting. The process I've gone through to find the correct filter is a whole nother story in itself, but not really worth going into.

Well, now that I have a proper-functioning lens, how do I like it? I've not had the opportunity to take many photos with it, and because it’s still the most-of-the-year-long rainy season in Oregon, it’s still too early to tell. It won’t be until I’m able to take it on some photo outings and really put it through its paces that I will be able to decide if I’m going to keep it and sell my Sony wide-angle lens, or keep the Sony and sell this one.

Besides the advantages over the Sony lens that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I will also say that the Sigma lens definitely feels like a more solid lens, and of a higher quality build. The Sigma is quite a bit heftier too — 18.3 oz (520g) vs. Sony’s 12.7 oz (360g) — and the focus and zoom rings feel a lot more solid, with more resistance, compared to the cheap feel of the Sony rings. Overall, the quality feel of the Sigma lens is along the same lines as the other Sony lenses I own — except for the Sony wide-angle lens that we are comparing with in this article.

Another reason to prefer the Sigma lens is that the Adobe Lightroom software I use to do the initial processing of my RAW images comes with a built-in Lens Correction Profile for this specific lens, which can correct lens problems like barrel distortion, vignetting, and chromatic aberration. These are defects that all lenses have to some extent or another, and are addressed specifically in a review of this Sigma lens.

In my limited trials, I have been very impressed by how Lightroom is able to use the lens profile to correct these problems and significantly improve the image quality of photos taken using the Sigma lens. Unfortunately, there are only four lens profiles for Sony lenses, and the Sony wide-angle lens I have is not one of them. It is still possible to make the corrections manually, but that is time consuming, and I don’t seem able to easily achieve the same results.

So, when you take into consideration all of the benefits of this Sigma lens...
  • Faster f/3.5 lens
  • Constant maximum aperture over the entire focal length
  • Wider-angle minimum focal length
  • Wider zoom range
  • Better quality feel
  • Better Lightroom support
...there are definitely a lot of reasons to like it. After more extensive usage, I’m really hoping that the quality of the photos will hold up well compared to the Sony lens, because I very much want to keep the Sigma. But in the end, it’s the image quality that counts more than any of these other advantages, so we’ll see. I’ll report back later in the year how things turn out.
UPDATE — 20 May 2012 — Well, I’m reporting back! Today I put these two lenses to the test, and there was definitely a clear winner! To read about the battle of the lenses and see the test photos for yourself, click over to the article Sony vs. Sigma Wide-Angle Lens Shootout.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 69
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