Review – Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM
Sigma is arguably one of the more recognizable of the third party lens manufacturers. It is known for providing inexpensive alternatives to many of Canon’s own zoom lens offerings, or filling niche gaps left in Canon’s lineup. This applied to their limited selection of prime lenses as well; I briefly owned their 30mm f/1.4 EX DC and was happy with it on a consumer level, though the optics didn’t hold up to some of the more pressing work I did and a move to full-frame (it’s a “DC” lens, denoting it’s for Digital Camera’s only, and specifically crop sensors) meant I wouldn’t be able to use it anyway. They released a 50mm f/1.4 EX DG that retailed for MORE than the Canon equivalent; their stance was that it performed better optically and had better build, both of which may very well be true. But pervasive issues of quality control, of batch variance where you never know for sure if the lens you get will be anywhere close to being as good as it can be, or as it is advertised, and a stigma (pun?) attached to owning something “inferior” than a first party “L” lens kept many consumers away.
I can’t claim to know what Sigma was thinking when they produced the 35 f/1.4, but I like to think it was an evolution to their approach with the 50mm f/1.4, and a reaction to the (potentially unfounded) general opinion of their brand. It’s no secret new Canon lens prices have been particularly high as new technology, coating, and build methods are integrated. Maybe this gave Sigma some more leverage to manufacture a product that they could put a bit more money into, something that would still be competitive in price while appealing to everyone who’s always been on the fence about buying something from anyone but Canon with great optics as well.
Whatever the process was, it clearly has worked. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG (I’m gonna leave the “DG” off from now on) was released with a simplified industrial design that would appeal to an Apple enthusiast. With the promise of better quality control and optical performance that could outperform Canon’s more expensive and more-than 10-year-old 35mm f/1.4 L is there any surprise that this lens has already been a roaring success?
It’s not always necessary, or warranted, to comment on a lens’ looks, it is a tool and the optics are what really make the difference, but it’s hard not to remark on the cool industrial design the Sigma 35m f/1.4 offers. Simple, sleek and smooth, it appeals to the eye as much as to the touch, it features an all metal outer body and thick and smooth front rubber focusing ring. The lens has a great weight to it too, often an indicator of quality parts. Ridges carved into the body along the side help extend the design, as well as give a bit of grip. A firm AF/MF switch adorns the side of the lens which, when pressed, will click into place with an authoritative “snap”; I don’t see anyone switching it by accident. A nice touch is that the panel behind the switch changes from white in AF to black in MF as a visual cue.
A smoothed out base truly polishes out the look of the lens and provides a variance of texture from the slight matte finish of the body. All these features help give the lens a transcendental experience. It becomes more than just a tool you slap onto the front of the camera. From the moment you look at it, when you touch and handle it, you’re appreciating it in its own right as a work of art in itself.
Speaking of art, this lens has a rounded “A” slapped onto the side, denoting it as part of Sigma’s ?Art? series (I’m assuming they’re transitioning from the EX nomenclature that defined a lens with exceptional build quality or whatever…). I sort of find this misleading: while the art of the lens itself is clearly visible in its craftsmanship, it’s presumptuous and potentially misleading to say a lens is for “art” as much as it is to say another lens? S is for “Sport” or C for “Contemporary”. (What the heck does contemporary mean!?) As a slightly OCD guy, I understand the need to classify things, but this is a clear oversimplification that has little bearing on real-world photography. It’s actually kind of silly, but their corporate “Rethink Lenses” philosophy reads well enough. You can check it out here: http://www.sigma-global.com/en/lenses/cas/concept/index.html
Sigma has always been great at providing extra elements with their lenses that are optional add-on’s (read: cost money), on Canon glass. A petal-shaped lens hood is included and its design acts as a lovely extension of the design of the body. A newly designed centre-pinch lens cap is provided which I find a bit easier to manoeuvre than Canon’s own newly released centre-pinch caps. Finally, a small padded belt-pouch is included. While I doubt I’ll use the latter, I find this more desirable than Canon’s useless sacks that they include with the L series.
Fast apertures bring all the photographers to the yard. We all love and drool over fast apertures. We talk about “creamy” bokeh like it’s a rich French pastry, sweet and sublime in both taste and texture. Well the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 has that to spare. A 9 blade aperture ensures your background blur is, in fact, soft and creamy. Bokeh renders beautifully and is pleasing to the eye. I can confirm that the lens reproduces images with stark colours and contrast as well as a reasonably sharp image when it is wide open. Vignetting is incredibly prevalent on this lens, enough so that you may have to adjust your metering accordingly. I don’t really know a prime lens that doesn’t, but you’ll have to stop down well past f/2.8 to get rid of it in-camera. Of course this can be corrected simply in software.
I admit I have an affinity for 35mm lenses: there’s something about this focal length that I just get. Having used the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L, my expectations for Sigma’s release were pretty high. They had to be. If it didn’t beat out the Sigma 30mm I wouldn’t buy it and if it didn’t come close to Canon’s 35mm I wouldn’t want it. And while I’ll say right here and now that I still like the “feel” and look of the images I took with the Canon lens, the Sigma is absolutely no slouch and it definitely out-performs the Canon on some, if not all, technical levels. For one, chromatic aberration, including fringing, is very well controlled. On the Canon I felt that there was a big purple moss growing on all my back-lit subjects. With the Sigma, there’s sometimes only a feint greenish/blue hue, and just a slight touch of purple or magenta. Obviously, situations will vary, but this was very impressive.
A specific issue I had with Sigma’s 30mm lens was that the optics were not well suited to getting hit by direct light. Shooting into a light-source was the optical equivalent of a demolished building: nothing worthwhile was left over. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 has none of these flaws; it handles light-flare well, retaining much of the image’s fidelity. The visible optical flare may not be as dramatic or pretty as you’ve seen in some of Canon’s primes, but it’s still there for those who like to add that creative flair (pun!).
As we all know, I’m shallow-depth of field challenged, and have a pretty tough time gaining focus wide open. Somehow I don’t have the same issue with the Sigma. This may very well be that it’s auto-focus system performs excellently. Silent and fast, I had no problem achieving focus with my 5DMKIII straight out of the box. Has Sigma squashed their bad quality control rep? One lens doesn’t tell the whole story, but for me it’s a very good sign.
Who’s it for?
For most people, if they could have one fast lens in their bag it would likely be a “nifty fifty.” 35mm is my jam. I love the middling optic, not quite telephoto enough to be great at tight portraits, not wide-angle enough to capture a whole room. It serves a great purpose of being able to photograph people and objects but show a selective amount of their surroundings.
Wedding photographers will surely want this lens in their kit: it is perfect for candids and low-light situations. The fast aperture and shallow depth of field will capture special moments with amazing clarity while isolating distracting backgrounds.
If you can work the focal length, portrait photographers have a lot to gain by showing off a bit more than just the face of their subject. Context can be achieved by showing some of the surrounding location; being able to blur out that background will help to isolate your subjects.
If I could travel with just one lens, right now, it would probably be the Sigma 35mm f/1.4. I love the versatility its aperture and focal length get me, and knowing I could get creative with my compositions while still maintaining excellent image fidelity makes it a no-brainer. While it’s not particularly light, the trade-off for a unique image is certainly worth it. That’s just me, though, but you may benefit from having this as part of a more varied kit.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is the finest lens I’ve ever used from the company. It has impressed me more than many of Canon’s own primes. Perhaps some of that is a bias because my expectations were slightly lower or I was at least cautiously optimistic about this offering. Either way, I have been thoroughly sold on the lens and have given up my quest for a Canon 35mm f/1.4L, even if Canon does replace their lens soon (which they should). It will likely retail for close to $2,000, putting the Sigma at half that. Canon would have to offer a significant amount of value for anyone to want to consider that over the Sigma, except possibly the most die-hard of Canon fans.
Caveat emptor: Sigma reverse engineers their lenses, which means they “figure out” Canon’s focus system and electronics. I haven’t heard of this being a problem for anyone yet, but it’s important to note that your lens may have an issue with future cameras. To hedge this, Sigma (Canada) offers a 10-year warranty to help with firmware upgrades and repairs. Their warranties are not global, though, so I recommend you buy your lens from a retailer in your own country and check on what is offered. To my knowledge, this is also the first lens that Sigma has released that will be compatible with their USB dock and optimization software for consumers to do their own lens calibrations and firmware updates.
Did Sigma beat Canon on this lens? When you factor in the cost, the look, the optics and the images (that’s all that matters in the end), then yes, absolutely. There is nothing that the Canon offers that would make me want the Sigma any less, especially the extra bit of cash left over after you buy it.
- f/1.4 shallow-depth of field and fast aperture
- Sharpness & superb optical quality
- Quick and accurate auto-focus
- Affordable compared to the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L
- It just looks and feels great
- Not weather sealed (but neither is the Canon)
- Potential future compatibility issues
- Lack of red ring will make Canon fanboys sad?