Review – Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
Sigma has caused an unprecedented stir in the Canon Rumors community (at least for a third party manufacturer) since the introduction of the 35mm f/1.4 ART and Sigma’s new “Global Vision” design philosophy. At some point the brain trust in the corporation realized that being a third party manufacturer didn’t mean always having to produce a cheaper, inferior products. It has become common for working professionals to have a Sigma prime in their kit now, and that lens might even have been chosen over an equivalent L series lens.
Some of you may have read my musings on the quest for the “holy grail” of 50mm primes. All three of Canon’s mainstream 50mm primes have their strengths and weaknesses, but none of them is universally exceptional. The new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART series lens slots between the EF 50mm f/1.4 and the EF 50mm f/1.2 in price if not size, and in many ways puts them on notice. Opinion on this lens has vacillated a bit around here, with some of you lauding it amongst Canon’s best optics and others exasperated over inconsistent focus. Let’s take a closer look and see what we find. (If you would like to read the more thorough review along with a comparison to some of the competition, click here: http://bit.ly/1pkiriO)
Sigma adopted a completely new company philosophy and design ethos a couple of years ago with its three pronged approach of “Art”, “Contemporary”, and “Sport” lines. A few of these categories are admittedly vague (what exactly makes a lens “Contemporary”?), but there is no arguing with the direction the design team has taken. Sigma not only dramatically improved upon their older design them (which frankly I was not a huge fan of), they have designed some of the best looking modern lenses, period. This is one classy bit of kit!
I will confess to having spent some minutes just looking at this lens and admiring it. There is a very pleasing blend of glossy, matte, and ribbed surfaces that has both a modern yet elegant design. The “flocked” finish is a thing of the past (good riddance, I say), as is the gold ring that seems almost garish now when presented with this sleek, understated new design. Yes, the lens is essentially all black with some small white print in a few points, but the blend of textures keeps the lens from being at all monochromatic or boring. The lens has small white text on one side that says, “Made in Japan”, an understated SIGMA brand on the top, and then the lens designation and filter thread size near the distance window of the top of the barrel. Less obvious is a very small sized serial number in a grey text that is only obvious under close examination. An elegant little silver circle with the letter A (for ART) rests next the focus distance window. On the bottom of the barrel is an 014 which clearly and obviously states the year of manufacture (bravo for simplicity!)
The lens has four distinct bevels that flow into a wider section as you move towards the front element. The first bevel flares from the lens mount section into the area of the distance window and the single switch that controls focus (Auto/Manual). The HSM (Hypersonic Motor) allows for full time manual override. The next bevel moves into the slightly wider focus ring. It has a nicely ribbed, slightly rubberized texture. The movement isn’t as smooth as the manual focus only Zeiss lenses I was reviewing at the same time, but it is better than all of the other 50mm AF lenses that I can compare it to. I find the damping a little on the heavy/stiff side, but on the plus side it doesn’t feel “gritty” at all. Manually focusing the lens is also limited by a very short “throw” distance, particularly between about 10 feet and infinity. Making a fine adjustment is somewhat difficult in that range, although this can be adjusted somewhat using the Sigma USB dock (more on that in a moment). The final flare is to the front of the lens where the lens hood bayonet attaches. The only real missing element is weather sealing. This is a very classy approach to lens design that borrows a page from Zeiss more than any other design.
This is my favorite lens hood to date. It’s not the shape (a fairly standard petal design), but the fine little details. There is a narrow ribbed section on the hood that both echoes the design of the lens barrel (and looks very complimentary) but also has practical value for providing grip when mounting or removing the lens hood. But my favorite part is the rubberized surface on the transition to the lens barrel. It has a great textile feel as you go to mount the hood that I immediately noticed and fell in love with. It really feels like Sigma’s designers spent some time coming up a lens hood the truly compliments the lens. This was NOT an afterthought. The lens reverses for storage in a typical fashion.
At the front of the lens is a 77mm filter thread. This is on the larger side, but it is both the same size as Sigma’s previous 50mm lens and is a very common filter size shared by many other lenses. Sigma is kind enough to include a nicely padded and zippered lens case that actually has protection value, unlike the “sock” that Canon provides and the nothing that Tamron and Zeiss include. The inclusion of that case gives me a very good feeling “right out of the box”, and that, to me, is positive marketing for Sigma. I find that Sigma lenses make some of the best impressions out of the box.
Now for the bad news.
This isn’t a small lens. Remember when 50mm lenses could be brought along in your pocket? You had better get some bigger pants, because this lens is closer in size to a standard f/2.8 zoom than it is to the 50mm lenses that most of us are accustomed to. It isn’t that it is a big lens, per se (3.36″/85.4mm x 3.93″/99.9mm), but it is large when compared with other 50mm lenses, up to and including Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.2L USM Lens. It weighs 1.79 lbs/815g, which makes it both longer and heavier than Sigma’s 24-70mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens. Look at it compared to the Zeiss Planar T* 1.4/50mm:
This is one of my few reservations about this design. Not everyone is going to want such a large lens (of course the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* is larger still). Part of the reason that I elected to go with the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM Lens over the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART was the difference in size. This lens is twice as long as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 and weighs three times as much.
It also costs well more than twice as much. (Canon = $399; Sigma = $949 at the moment)
But when you start to use the lens and see the images, you realize why the lens is as large and as expensive as it is. Sigma wasn’t even using Canon or Nikon as their benchmark, they were setting their sights much higher. The Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* was the target, and that lens costs around $4000. The Sigma suddenly seems reasonably priced when you consider that it brings an “almost” as good image quality (the Otus is still in a class of its own) along with AF ability at 1/4th of the price.
This lens is optically very, very good. It is a big step forward from the optical performance of the earlier Sigma 50mm f/1.4 that it replaces. It provides great image quality even wide open. It is sharp and has excellent contrast, rendering a nice amount of detail wide open and improving a bit more when stopped down a bit. It blows every other 50mm lens (save the mighty Otus) out of the water at wide apertures. Check out the near 100% crop from the image below (handheld).
Chromatic aberrations are much, much better controlled (though not non-existent), and the lens has excellent micro-contrast that eliminates that hazy, dreamy look that many wide aperture primes have wide open. Here is a small gallery of samples:
It is an excellent optical match for some of the better portrait lenses like the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM Lens (though it’s rendering/drawing is not as special as that lens). I don’t buy large aperture primes to shoot them at f/5.6 (although I certainly will when the situation calls for it!); I buy them to shoot at wide apertures to create the narrow depth of field look so unique to such lenses. The sharpness and contrast of the Sigma wide open allows me to do that. I should note that the lens is devastatingly sharp when stopped down, however.
Another plus for the Sigma is that it has a slightly better minimum focus distance and resulting magnification (.17x) than most of the competition (.15x).
How’s the Bokeh?
Bokeh is a somewhat subjective topic, but is very important when discussing a wide aperture prime. I personally wasn’t blown away by the “drawing” of the 35mm f/1.4 ART lens, finding it a little clinical due to the focus on sharpness. The 50mm ART doesn’t quite have the magical drawing of the 50mm f/1.2L or the new Rokinon 50mm f/1.4 (or the even better drawing of the 55mm Zeiss Otus), but I think it does a very good (if not exceptional) job here. The larger aperture definitely makes out of focus areas melt away at closer focusing distances and gives a nicely three dimensional look to shots at wide aperture. The 9 curved blades of the aperture iris continue to produce round highlights when stepped own.
At the same time, however, the Sigma blows the its major 50mm f/1.4 competitors out of the water in the sharpness and contrast departments. It’s not even close. The Sigma is somewhat average in the flare department. It will produce some ghosting, as this sample shows, but the contrast holds up reasonably well.
Sigma deserves a great deal of praise for their excellent work in the optical department. This is the best of the bunch amongst autofocusing 50mm lenses (though the far more expensive manual focus only Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 is still in a league of its own). For most ordinary mortals at the moment, however, this is the best 50mm prime that money can buy.
The Fly in the Ointment
The brilliant optics are somewhat held back by Sigma’s old nemesis: AF accuracy. This issue has caused a few of you to pull your hair out and give up on the lens despite its great optics and beautiful design. I personally would have to call my experience with the 50ART as inconsistent. Occasionally I would get a BADLY missed shot that is well outside my usual experience with modern lenses, but for the most part my focus accuracy was quite good.
As I have noted a few times, Sigma has released a USB dock that allows advanced calibration of their newer lenses. This allows the user to optimize the lens for both their camera body and also for the style of shooting they most often do. If you are going to use some of the modern Sigma lenses professionally or as a demanding amateur it is probably a sound investment that allows you to go beyond the typical AFMA adjustment.
On the positive side, the AF is actually very quick; it is quick enough that I didn’t notice a difference between using it, my 35mm f/2 IS, and the 135mm f/2L in portrait work (a very nice, reasonably inexpensive holy trinity of primes, by the way!). I felt that my focus accuracy with the lens improved over the course of my review period and by the end I felt that it was a lens that I could live with despite the occasional miss.
There is some anecdotal evidence that Sigma has improved the AF performance in more recent batches of the lens, so it might be worth giving the lens a shot even if the AF issues had previously scared you off. I’ve recently reviewed a few other Sigma lenses with no hint of an AF issue, so I’m encouraged that they might be making progress on this front.
All in all, Sigma has made a major breakthrough in creating a large aperture prime with world class optics that is in a price range that most professional and many amateur photographers can afford. While the stated “target” is the Zeiss Otus, there will actually be fairly few photographers that are cross-shopping these two lenses. The Otus is still the optical king (and this goes beyond chart testing) and enjoys a certain cache that Sigma can’t touch. But the Sigma is a far more practical lens for most photographers, as most photographers need autofocus for their work. The inconsistency in the AF performance is a concern, but the truth of the matter is that there are a variety of focus concerns with other 50mm lenses, too. The AF in the 50mm ART is snappy and (most of the time) accurate. I have already used the lens in professional settings and have been mostly pleased with the results. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it professionally in the future. This is an excellent lens that sets a new benchmark for autofocusing 50mm lenses.
Its greatest weaknesses beside the occasional AF inconsistency are price and size. It is not that the price is out of line; it is just that 50mm f/1.4 lenses have historically been much cheaper. It is expensive (and large) enough to give some photographers pause and make them cross-shop a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom instead. It is certainly NOT a lens that one throws into a jacket pocket and brings along, but I’m not aware of a better option at the moment. If I were to buy a 50mm wide aperture lens right now it would be this Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART lens. It is beautifully designed, classy, and takes great pictures. I know of no higher a compliment to give.
- Beautifully designed lens with great build quality
- Exceptional optics
- Better than average minimum focus distance
- Excellent contrast, even wide open
- Good bokeh without any overly distracting tendencies
- Autofocus is fast and quiet
- Great lens hood and nice case included
- Lens completely usable wide open (unlike most 50mm primes)
- Lens is very large and heavy for a 50mm prime
- Autofocus can be inconsistent (YMMV)
- Price is considerably higher than Sigma’s previous 50mm
- Lens will exhibit some ghosting when bright light is in the frame