The new Sigma 17-70 f2.8-4.0 OS C

Now, the concept of this Siggy is not new. There’ve been several iterations, most received quite well. That’s not always true with Sigma lenses.

Sigma as a lens maker has had, with the photo community at least, a quality control problem. Is it as widespread as made out to be (or should I say ‘was’)? I’d love to say no, that guys with GAS shooting brick walls and proclaiming their lens was descentered or missed focus by – and then listing their +/- micro focus correction – were all just jumping on the bandwagon like those kooky citizens of Salem and their witches. There are, however, enough well known and well run testing sites that use standardized testing systems that got “bad samples” or “bad copies” that it appears the reputation was deserved.

Sigma decided to change that. They already made some highly rated lenses that seemed free of the “bad copy” syndrome: the 150 2.8 macro and 300-800 both spring to mind. The former is a perennial top performer in the bugs made large field and the latter, well, most folks hesitate to condemn something they spent many thousands to acquire, so that plays in, but it too seemed a stellar piece of glass.

Recently, Sigma introduced the concept of “lines” to their lens lineup. Along with their standard line, they brought the Contemporary (designated with a “C” in the lens alphabet name) and the top of the line Art (designated with an “A”) line. The Art line has made quite the impression on the industry with the acclaimed 35/1.4 and 50/1.4 offerings plus the incredible 18-35/1.8 and 24-105/4. Along with stellar optics and build, they come with high price tags for what still is a third party maker.

It’s the mid line lens that interests us today – the variable aperture 17-70 f2.8-4.0 OS C. A little longer than the constant aperture 17-50/2.8, and sporting that C designation, this crop-only HSM powered lens combines both terrific performance with a laundry list of compromises and still comes out smelling good.

Using the new white lettering and the improved build quality of the new lineups, the 17-70 both performs good and looks good. HSM provides fast and silent focusing while OS promises (and for the most part delivers) 3-4 stop stabilization. A potent combo.

My tests show a lens that resists flare and gives very good to excellent edge-to-edge sharpness. When it hits the focus. I’m unable to deliberately produce the conditions that will cause the focus issues, so there’s the chance it’s me and not the lens, but I see reports of this hit-or-miss issue in virtually every review I read of the model.

Which brings me to the next point. This issue is reported on every one of the new models. The old ‘bad copy’ claim gave you a lens that was consistent but bad. This new issue gives you a lens that seldom is bad in the standard way (descentered or simply blurred), which is a major improvement. But it’s replaced it with a far more frustrating condition – the random unfocused shot. Often in these, I can’t find anything in focus. What is even more aggravating is it will happen in the middle of a set of terrific captures.

Fortunately, Sigma also has introduced a first in the industry – the USB lens dock. This not only gives the user the opportunity to upgrade, at home, the lens firmware, but also make numerous fine adjustments. Nikon lets users do the microfine adjustment but Sigma takes that a couple steps further and lets users make multiple microfine adjustments at user chosen focal distances. Nice.

The other “new” issue is one that experts and even Ken Rockwell have been warning users about forever – 3rd party lenses aren’t officially supported. 3rd party makers reverse engineer and then replicate body software to construct their own software. Up until now, that worked. Now, on the latest bodies from Nikon, the D5300 and D7100 specifically, weird things happen. OS stays on, some say always, some say for a specific time period following the last shot. The review window stays open too, potentially draining the battery. Plus scrolling through shots while the OS remains on is slowed to a crawl.

Of course, these are new designs and that dock, for $60!, offers a way to update the lens when Sigma figures out the fix. Strangely, they are saying that lenses exhibiting this behavior are performing as designed.

Is Nikon threatened and producing harder to reverse engineer firmware for the bodies? After all, no pros used to shoot Sigma. The Art lineup is changing that. The 18-35 and 35/50 1.4’s are considered better than the top Nikkor offerings. That’s a first. Sure, there were high priced German manual focus lenses before that killed the Nikkors, but the users were not your average photog. The Sigma offerings are auto focus and competitively priced – or worse for Nikon – not even offered by the dark lords. Perhaps the working relationship is more competitive.

Back to the lens in question though. I own and plan to keep it. Further and despite the caveats mentioned, I intend to expand my Sigma lineup. From the 10-20 and 17-70 I now own, I am planning on the 18-35/1.8 and the 50-150/2.8. Plus the 150/2.8 macro. That will leave me shooting Sigma glass exclusively. I will borrow the 70-300VR from the wife, but that is a great lens.

So do the issues mentioned bother me? Immensely. I hate workarounds. I’ll keep hoping Sigma decides to fix them in a firmware update. Or maybe Nikon works with them and licenses the firmware. At least that gives them a piece of a pie that for now is totally in a different cooler.

In the end, it’s the image that counts. And right now, for my budget, that image is best supplied by Sigma.

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