review: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART lens
I have to admit upfront that I am a lens snob. Not so much for a lens being esoteric or collectible, but rather that I have a particularly strong preference for the name brand lenses. When I shot with Pentax way way back, I only used Pentax lenses. Similarly, I only have Canon lenses for my Canon bodies, and Nikon lenses for my Nikon cameras.
Part of it is that the styling of the lens and camera is more consistent. Yes, I do like my cameras to have a certain aesthetic appeal. I know, I know … how pretty a lens looks has no real correlation to how spectacularly it performs. But actually, there is a correlation of sorts. The spendier equipment (which performs well), tend to be designed to look good. But I digress.
The main reason though why I keep within a certain brand, is that the top names tend to have the top lenses. Generally, staying with the big camera brands is a decision that can be made with confidence.
My interest was piqued though by the news that Sigma is releasing new lines of lenses, and tightening up their quality control. From Sigma’s website: “all newly produced interchangeable lenses from Sigma will be designed for and organized into one of three product categories: Contemporary, Art and Sports. Each line has a clearly defined concept to guide shooters in the selection of the right lens for their photographic interests”.
One of the first lenses to be released, is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM wide-angle lens:
The lens has a noticeably different look than Sigma lenses in the past, and actually looks quite sleek and modern, but this all wouldn’t mean much, if the lens didn’t perform spectacularly, and was at a more affordable price point than the Canon and Nikon equivalents:
I mean, this lens really looks good. It also feels like it was crafted with precision, and it has a nice heft in your hand. It feels solid.
Prices for 35mm f/1.4 lenses
The Canon lens has an excellent reputation, and is $1480
The Nikon is a also an excellent optic, and is priced around $1700
- Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G – (B&H / Amazon)
The Sigma comes in at a very favorable $900 in comparison.
Optical performance of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG lens
This lens is sharp. In comparison to the Nikon lens, I couldn’t really distinguish a difference. If you were to mix the files, (for each aperture), it would be difficult to tell them apart in terms of center and edge sharpness.
I added a folder with a sequence shot with the Sigma lens, from where the high-res RAW files can be downloaded. The images where shot with the Nikon D4. The images are obviously not proper test images with calibrated charts shot under controlled conditions. But they will give you and idea of what to expect.
At f/1.4 there is the expected reduction in contrast compared to the other images. The very edges have a slight image softness compared to the center, but it looks really good for a fast prime. There is also the expected vignetting when shot wide open, but this is quite mild. Anyway, vignetting is rarely a bother. We know this happens, and most often, it enhances the look of the photograph’s wafer-thin depth-of-field. I never lose sleep over the fact that lenses show vignetting wide open. It’s just another characteristic we embrace … or at least accept.
This lens, like most (or all?) wide-aperture primes, lose some light at widest aperture. Meaning, there is about 1/2 stop less light at f/1.4 than you might expect.
Keep in mind that f/1.4 isn’t really f/1.4 for most (all?) wide-aperture primes.
This means you very well might not get that extra shutter speed / ISO setting you desire when you open up.
For example, with these wide primes, if you have: 1/125 @ f/2.8
it doesn’t directly translate to: 1/500 @ f/1.4
when you look at the brightness of the image, or the histogram.
You lose about 1/2 stop. This is true for this lens as well.
Regarding the bokeh – it is surprisingly smooth for a wide-angle prime. I really liked how this lens rendered busy backgrounds.
Using the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART lens during a photo session
I had the pleasure again of photographing Nicole Jolly, a model I met during some of the After Dark photography events where I taught classes.
Nicole and I took photos in and around Jersey City and Hoboken. This image with the blue background was shot at f/1.4 and the high-res file is super-crisp. As much detail as you could want. Of course, even with the background so close to her, it starts melting away with the shallow depth-of-field that the wide aperture allows.
This image was shot at f/1.4 as well, but with off-camera speedlight in a small Lastolite 8.75″ speedlight softbox (affiliate). Again, the super-shallow depth-of-field should be noticeable … even for these photos scaled down to web-size. That minimal DoF definitely adds a certain look to photographs that f/5.6 just can’t. For this flash-lit portrait, I had to go into high-speed flash sync.
more details: off-camera flash with a small softbox
This photograph, also shown at the top, was shot at f/1.4 in very bright light. Of course, the shutter speed had to be 1/8000 (at 100 ISO) to allow such shallow depth-of-field. The light on Nicole is from the metallic sundial below her, reflecting light upwards.
Checking the sharpness of this lens continually during the shoot, by zooming in to 100% magnification on the camera’s preview, it was reassuring to see how sharp the photos were. You could count eye-lashes. It’s that kind of sharp, even with the aperture wide open. The lens’ focusing is also fast and confident.
With numerous test images I shot with this lens, and in using it on a photo-session with a model, this lens was stellar. I’d easily recommend it. And that is saying something coming from a name-brand lens snob.
You can purchase this lens through these affiliate links:
27 Comments, Add Your Own
1Colin Cruickshank says
I couldn’t agree more with you, I recently purchased one for my D4 mainly for bridal prep and ceremony shots. Love the sharpness and contrast and way cheeper than the Nikon.
Great review. Good to see a brand snob like this lens. It has gotten some great press and I hope that sigma continues in this fashion of quality as it might make Nikon and Canon bring their pricing structure down a bit to realistic levels. I really want this lens.
Beautiful images! I absolutely love the brick shot. And it’s amazing how much fill light is coming up from the sundial.
3Dan Levesque says
The key words in this post are “quality control”. In the past, Sigma has demonstrated poor adherence to sound quality practices as I’m sure many of your readers can attest. To paraphrase Forest Gump: “Sigma lenses are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’ll get.”
Let’s hope these new products live up to their billing for ALL copies of a lens and not just a select few.
4Neil vN says
Dan .. a while back I bought a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 for my Canon bodies (to shoot HD video), and I had heard about the poor quality control regarding focusing accuracy. And true enough, the lens I bought back-focused noticeably. So I returned it and vowed never to bother with Sigma again.
But then the superb feedback about the 35mm f/1.4 started to filter through, and I was curious enough to check it out. And this lens really is superb. We’ll have to hope that there is consistency in the samples, in that they are all of the same quality.
Did you gel your flash in any of these amazing pictures?
6Neil vN says
Only the photo with the brick wall was shot with flash. And no gel was used there. The other two images were ambient-only.
7Andrea Hughes says
Fantastic pictures Neil. WOW..that one at the top and bottom is STELLAR!
Thanks for the write up Neil, I have been looking at the sigma 35 and I think you have tipped me over!
9Tim Richardson says
Thanks for the review. I am really wanting this lens. I would like to ask how you avoid distorted subjects when shooting portraits with this lens. Especially the image above with the blue background. I have always heard that you should avoid any focal lengths < 85mm when shooting portraits with a FF camera.
10Neil vN says
The spatial distortion will be noticeable if you compared it to a photograph shot with a 100mm lens (on a full-frame camera). So that’s part of the reason you don’t quite notice it here.
Also, the advice not to use a wide-angle lens (or even a 50mm lens), with portraits, has to do with the subject-to-camera distance … and whether you’re filling the frame with the subject’s face. In this case, the photos are more environmental portraits than headshots. Therefore the distortion is not pronounced.
But had I moved much closer, you’d get that crazy wide-angle distortion of facial features.
11Neil vN says
Here is a photograph that I liked, especially since it shows the smooth bokeh of this lens (used at f/1.4), but I felt it showed too much distortion. And I also didn’t like the way the patch of sunlight on Nicole’s neck appeared. So I nixed it for inclusion in this review article.
But I think you’d notice the distortion here.
12Calin Botez says
Hi Neil, wonderful (and worrying for my pocket…) review! One question: what was the camera-subject distance and subject-background distance in the photo with the brick background? Thank you in advance
“For example, with these wide primes, if you have: 1/125 @ f/2.8
it doesn’t directly translate to: 1/500 @ f/1.4”
Nor it should do, technically. f-stop is purely a geometric parameter, it doesn’t “guarantee” any light-gathering ability.
IMO, lens manufacturers should’ve moved to “T-stop” scale long ago.
Neil – you’d recommend it, but would you recommend it over and above the Canon/Nikon own lens? I’m in the market for a 35mm prime and I could stretch to either so it’d be interesting to know the answer to this question…
15Neil vN says
Stacey, personally, I would still buy the Nikon lens, even though it’s more spendy with no discernible improvement in quality. But there isn’t a rational explanation for that, other than I really prefer the brand name. However, anyone that chooses the Sigma lens won’t be losing out on something.
I just bought this lens, and it is truly amazing and sharp!! But unfortunately, the auto-focus does NOT work on my model, I will be sending it back though, as the shots I got through manual focusing were super sharp and produced beautiful bokeh!
I have used this lens as well and it performed! The quality was up to par/expectations and so is the IQ…only reason not to buy it vs Canon or Nikon is future compatibility. Will it work with the future D5 or the 5D Mk IV, etc? Most likely yes but we are taking a chance since the AF algorithms are reverse engineered. Chromatic aberrations are well controlled on this lens and much better wide open than some of my Canon primes stopped down (85mm f/1.8 for example).
Neil, the first photo is just stunning! Hope to see it in 500px soon.
18Vijay Jhanak says
Hi Neil … love your work. The first image is stunning ! I have a quick question on one of the images ( Second one from the top ) . If portraits are all about the eyes, why have hair that blocks the eyes ? Appreciate your thoughts on this.
19Neil vN says
It wasn’t a specific decision. This photograph was one of a series, as I worked with different compositions, and positioning Nicole differently against the background.
Of all the images, I liked this one the best. Mostly because of her expression, and partly because of the way the wind blew that lock of hair over her eye. It just helped accentuate the air of mystery … and disconnect? I found it added that tiny bit of intrigue to a straight-forward portrait.
Ultimately, it was an instinctive reaction on my part that this was the best image. I just liked it, without rationalizing why at the time.
Would you recommend this for. Nikon D7100? I hope to upgrade to a d800 this next year, but would love a high quality fast prime that would not go to waste by upgrading from DX to FX
21Neil vN says
Jokim .. I’d definitely recommend this lens.
This Sigma became essentially welded on my D3s ever since I got it. Another thing about this lens apart from excellent IQ is the build quality… nice, chunky and tactile quality feel, think Zeiss here.
Great photos, great review ;-) Greetings from Poland.
I absolutely love this lens !!!!!!!!!
Just go get it worth every cent
Well, I did purchase this lens over the Nikon. HUGE MISTAKE.
Out of the box this lens front focused. When I did some in camera microajustment, it was ok up close, and way out further back. SO I went and then purchased the USB Dock. If I use anything other than the centre Focus point, it’s out of focus. So NEVER AGAIN with Sigma. Definitely staying with Nikon. Why oh why did I not stay with Nikon!! UGH.
25.1Brian Choong says
This remind me with my purchase of sigma 50 art last year
When it mount with my D700, super sharp, no problem at all
But, when I mount to my D3s, I am having front or back focus issue
My D3s do not have any focusing problem with all my Nikon lens (24-70, 50 1.4D, 80-200, 16-35)
I am quite curious, why my D700 do not have any problem but only at my D3s?
I send my D3s back to Nikon to check on the focusing (without pass them my sigma 50 art)
After I get my D3s back from Nikon, miracle happen, no more front or back focus issue at all.
And also, my D3s still working very well with all my existing Nikon lens
Well, I not sure what the technical guy did on my D3s, but obvious this is not the Sigma lens problem
Now, my new D750 is working happily with my Sigma 50 art too
I would suggest, if facing front or back focus on Sigma art, can give a try on other camera body
It may not be the lens problem but the camera it self.
26Ronnie Chan says
Many complain about bad focusing issue with sigma 35mm F/1.4 art.Yes I agreed,I did encounter a few copy have this issue when I tested at the shop before I purchased it.I got my self a very good copy after a couple of copy I tested.The result of the good copy is just amazing.Super sharp even at further distance subjects.I even use with my outer focus point on my 5Dmark 3.