Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM - real world review

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM - "Art"

I finally had a chance to pick up Sigma's highly anticipated ultra-fast wide-angle prime the 35mm f/1.4 HSM. Sigma has recently revamped their product line in an apparent attempt to create a line of third-party lenses that can compete with pro lenses from the manufacturers. They have split their lenses into 3 categories.

  • A - Art. Presumably this line will feature mostly exotic prime lenses. Fast apertures, sharp glass, and smooth bokeh. These lenses are for the niche market of fine-art and wedding photographers as well as photographers with discerning tastes. 
  • C - Contemporary. This line seems to be directed to good high-quality all-around lenses that can compete with and out-perform standard kit lenses.
  • S - Sports. These are the fast long zooms for sports, wedding, and wildlife photographers. 
So far Sigma has announced three lenses, one for each category. These lenses will all be able to be connected to your computer via a USB dock for firmware updates, focus adjustments, and other lens customizations using Sigma's proprietary software. This is a huge leap in lens technology and could really pave a revolutionary path for lenses if it works well. 

Anyway, I digress. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is the first lens to be available and it's been out for a few weeks now and it's been getting great reviews. There are charts and graphs all over the internet showing MTF curves and discussions on all the technical aspects full of jargon and rhetoric. I'll leave all of the debating on Sigma vs. Nikon vs. Canon, etc. to the forums. Being a professional photographer I'm not concerned about poring over the graphs or spending hours on the internet discussing the merits of buying first-party vs. third party. 

I like to take photographs. What really matters to me is how a lens performs in real life not what it looks like on a chart, or what 100 people on a forum who've never even used the lens think about it. I want empirical evidence, so here's my review. The tests aren't done in a controlled environment in controlled lighting with controlled subjects. How often do you shoot in situations like that? Rarely if ever for me.

I'll start you off with a tasty cupcake shot at f/1.4.


The only thing I can say is that this lens is sharp. It's good wide open and just gets better as it's stopped down. The sweet spot for this lens is from f/2.8-f/5.6. At these apertures the center sharpness is about equal across the board and the edge sharpness peaks at f/4. Having a sweet spot at f/2.8 is pretty amazing. This lens will kill a fast zoom in sharpness at f/2.8. If you need a good sharp image across the frame with a relatively wide aperture of f/2.8 this lens will get you there.

All in all this lens is very sharp at all apertures, from f/1.4-f/16. The weak spots are where you would expect them; at f/1.4 the edges are slightly fuzzy and at f/16 the center sharpness falls off due to diffraction, but it's still pretty sharp.

Ok, so I lied. I did one shot of a test target. You can see at f/1.4 it's slightly fuzzy, but at f/2.8 it's sharp as a tack and at f/5.6 it's slightly sharper. The insets are 100% zooms. Click on it to see it full-size.

This next series of shots is like comparing apples to oranges. I happened to pick up my Sigma 17-35mm f/2.8-4 DG HSM from the repair shop at the same time I bought the 35mm so I figured I'd throw in a couple of comparisons. Once again, I'm not trying to show a direct comparison because these lenses are on opposite spectrums, but it's fun to look at.

Both lenses are set to f/4, but keep in mind that f/4 is wide open for the 17-35mm at 35 which will be it's weakest setting. (I will say at this point I do love my cheap 17-35mm f/2.8-4. It's small and light, fast at the wide end where I do most of my shooting with it. I find it to be an awesome lens for shooting concerts where absolute sharpness isn't my top priority). It's pretty obvious which lens is which so I'll let you guess.

center @ f/4

edge @ f/4

detail @ f/4

Other stuff...

As you can see in the edge shot above even in super high contrast situations Lateral Chromatic Aberration is well controlled. There's a tiny bit in FX if you go pixel peeping for it, but for real life pics it's negligible. 

There's a bit of vignetting wide open, about 2 stops in FX (maybe 1 stop in DX), but that's typical of any fast prime. At f/2.8 it's pretty much non-existent. Personally I like a little vignette as it helps frame the subject. It's super easy to fix in post so it's not really a concern in my book. You can see in the image below how much brighter the exposure looks without the vignette.

left @ f/1.4 and right @ f/4
As always there's the question of bokeh. This is pretty subjective so I'm not going to make any judgement calls. I've heard people call the bokeh nervous, but to me it looks pretty good. 

The highlight bokeh is pretty smooth.

Generally a desirable bokeh doesn't render points of light with a sharp delineation, but with a smooth transition. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 has a 9 rounded aperture blades which really help to smooth the out of focus areas. While I admit I've seen smoother bokeh, it hasn't been on a wide-angle lens. I'd say the bokeh is on par with Nikon's 35mm f/1.4G.

You're not going to get an extremely smooth out of focus area like you would with a longer lens, but for a wide-angle this is pretty good. At close range the depth of focus is razor thin, so keep that in mind.

Typically portraits are shot with longer focal lengths, but the 35mm focal length is great for environmental portraiture when you're trying to show background as well as the subject. The fast f/1.4 aperture allows you to get a nice out of focus effect without losing too much detail. 

As far as distortion goes, on FX this lens has almost none, and on DX it has absolutely none. I purposely went looking for it and straight lines pretty much stay straight. Not much to report on here. 

As usual the Sigma HSM focus motor is fast and quiet. It seems faster and quieter than any of my other Sigma lenses and I've owned a lot of them. The fast aperture and fast focusing make shooting action in low-light much easier. I generally shy away from using primes when shooting concerts, but I made an exception last night to test out the lens shooting my good friends the Riverboat Gamblers. This was a good chance to try out the low-light capabilities of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 because the Mohawk has notoriously bad lighting. Very strong LED spotlights, which means you get overly saturated colors with very bright and very dark areas with no in-between. Add that to highly energetic constantly moving performers, standing in a mosh-pit with hundreds of sweaty flailing rockers and you have a pretty tough shooting situation. 

The 35mm performed remarkably well. The bright aperture and fast focus motor allowed the camera to lock focus quickly to grab those fleeting rock and roll moments.

The 35mm focal length is great for walking around and general photography for me. I think the 35mm focal length comes closer to approximating my normal vision than 50mm does (this may or may not be true for everyone). So far I prefer this lens over my much used Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. I'm actually contemplating selling off the 50mm since I can actually crop down to a 50mm equivalent using the D800 and D600 and still come out with a higher resolution than the 50mm on the D700. So that's something to think about as well. If you're shooting a high-res camera this lens can really take the place of two lenses if you don't mind shooting in DX mode. 

So far, I have not noticed any back/front focus issues. The lens focuses perfectly on my D800, D600, D700, and D5200. I assume should there be any issues with focusing the user will be able to fix it (or make it worse) using the USB dock and Sigma Optimization Pro software.


This is one of the best lenses I've ever owned. The only lens that tops it all-around in my book is the Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G VR. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM is very sharp, very well-built, and very affordable (in comparison to the competition). If you're looking for a good, fast, sharp moderate wide-angle lens that won't break the bank this is it. If you're still shooting DX, but expect to upgrade to FX this lens will make the change with you. 

It works great on FX in crop mode as a normal focal length as well (I actually like it better than my 50mm f/1.4G because it focuses closer which is nice for food shots like the cupcake shot at the top). 

All images in this review were shot with a Nikon D700 / JPEG Normal / SD Picture Control / straight from camera, no sharpening, no noise reduction, no post production. 

This lens is about as close to perfect as any lens I've ever owned.

fine print: This isn't meant to be a technical review in any way shape or form. This review is based upon my real world experiences shooting with this lens. All images were taken within 8 hours of buying the lens. 

for the record this is the crowd I was standing in while shooting the band. Here you see singer Mike falling backwards into the crowd from a 20 foot ledge. Pretty Crazy. Riverboat Gamblers. Look 'em up. 


Anonymous said...

Just a question: why are you testing an APS-C lens on a FX camera?

J. Dennis Thomas said...

The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM is a Full-Frame lens.

The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM is a APS-C lens.

DG = full-frame

Georgios said...

Thank you for this review!

Georgios said...

Thank you for this review!

Tim Roberst said...

Looks like a winner to me. I used to have the Nikon D700 with a Nikon AF 35mm f/2D lens. I think this was a nice combo, but I was not quite happy with the performance of the lens. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 on a D600 should be a dream and I'm picking up mine today.

However, I'm slightly put off by the horror stories about front and back focussing on so many cameras. I guess I'll learn about it soon enough.

J. Dennis Thomas said...

Don't pay attention to the horror stories. The people that complain the loudest are the ones that don't understand how to use their gear properly.

Shooting with a fast lens on a full frame camera requires more precision than most amateurs can achieve. What's more, is that just about everyone that complains about the lens "miraculously" get two or three bad copies. When people start looking for problems they inevitably find one.

Out of the thousands of lenses there are a handful of complaints. Most people agree that the lens is great.

In any case, it can't be any worse than the Nikon 35mm f/2. Even the 35mm f/1.8 DX on a FX camera was better than the f/2.

dimzPhoto said...

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.

Bill Allen said...

Very nice post Dennis.

However, this Sigma can be worse than the 35mm f/2 Nikkor. My copy of the Sigma 35 would focus well half the time, but the other half would back focus up to three feet at eleven. I noticed the problem trying to shoot dancers, when the lens repeatedly would focus on the dancer behind the dancer I was aiming for. Shooting at a test chart confirmed the problem. The problem repeated on another body.

I've also had focusing problems with Sigma's 70-200 (which I returned for the Nikon version) and 120-300 (which I returned for the 300 f/2.8, a magnificent lens that focuses flawlessly).

Never had a focus problem with any of the 12 AF-S Nikkors I've had. But the Sigmas? Three of the four had to be returned for out-of-the-box focus problems.

The Nikkor 35 f/2 might not be the sharpest pencil in the box, but is doesn't suffer from three-foot back focus.

On the other hand, the price of the Sigma 35 is so reasonable, and the lens is so magnificent when it does focus, I'm considering trying again.

It should also be noted that Sigma may be cherry picking the lenses going to reviewers:

Once again, thanks for the review. I've been browsing the web looking for excuses to try another copy.

J. Dennis Thomas said...

I think the Sigma 35mm having problems is the exception rather than the rule. I've heard more people praising the lens rather than complaining. Of course there are a number of complaints on the web, but you know how the internet is. People are quick to spout off when they think they have a problem I'd say about 80% of the time it's user error. (I'm not saying that is true in your case, just in general).

I've NEVER had a lens that had any real bad focus issues. Nikon, Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina all included. Some have needed fine-tuned, but in all my years I've never had to trade a lens in for focus defects. Lucky? Possibly. But highly unlikely.

I've seen the Pindelski reviews and I don't think he understands the system. Sigma can't just sell the loaners. The serial number is recorded and the lens must be kept. I assume this is a tax issue because if they were audited they have to document everything. They simply can't sell loaners.

Pindelski is reactionary and his "testing methods" are highly suspect. I think in a former review he claimed it was back-focusing, but also said he did "focus and recompose" which is not the best way to focus with wide-angle lenses due to the field curvature.

In any case, I can assure you Sigma did NOT cherry pick my copy of the lens. I bought it off the shelf from the gentleman in one of the above photos. It was a random pick from dozens of boxes on the shelf.

I do get loaners from Sigma from time to time, but this wasn't one of those times.

Sigma is stepping up their game lately and they are improving the quality control of their lenses. Yes, maybe Nikon has better QC, but their lenses are more than double the price. They had better come out of the box perfect.

Sigma doesn't pay me or give me free equipment (I wish that was the case), but they have always had higher quality lenses than any third-party lenses I've owned.

Anyway, all of my reviews are unbiased. I use tried and true methods of testing without resorting to shooting test charts and brick walls.

You can go to you local photo store and cherry pick your own Sigma 35 and then you don't have to worry about a thing.