Back at the beginning of this century when I became interested in photography, one of the first specialist lenses I bought was the original Sigma 105mm 2.8 EX Macro. I got it because at the time I had been pre-conditioned into believing that anything with a 2.8 maximum aperture was going to be "da bomb" for any pictures I took with it. This one had been purchased off an auction site and it was my intention to use it for portraiture.
The lens was very sharp, but it was a specialist lens that required a great deal of user knowledge in order to obtain the maximum output. For a start it was extremely slow to focus and it grew longer than Pinocchio’s nose the closer you focused it. I actually did my first paid product shoot with that lens in my bedroom when I was still tied into the Matrix (which is Dallas speak for “corporate rat race”). The shots were made with my F5 on Velvia 50 slide film and were super saturated. Boy, was I green when it came to choosing the right tools for the job back then. I had the right lens and camera, but Velvia 50 for products?
Fast-forward more than a decade to today and while things have certainly changed in the imaging world, product photography is still a big part of my life and I can at least boast that I have progressed to a point where I am able to convince some people that they should pay me to take pictures of their products. The lenses I am using have progressed too and the one I am reviewing for you here is the re-incarnation of that same Sigma 105mm 2.8 Macro I used to do my first ever product shoot, but this time with a little added refinement.
Why use a macro lens? What is the point in them? Optically they are designed to let you get closer and produce magnification that is at least 1:1 with real life in your camera’s sensor, or in some cases even closer (with accessories). This one does 1:1 on it’s own and let’s you work as close as 31.2cm from your subject.
I use macro lenses for my product photography because of this ability to work closer. Sometimes it’s a blessing and other times it’s a curse, because filling a frame with a small object, while possible on shorter focal length macro lenses, can change the perspective of the object you’re trying to shoot. I shoot a lot of books for one of my clients and I have found that with a 60mm macro lens I tend to use only half the frame because if I get any closer the book begins to look like a looming giant. This is why I began looking for a lens that would allow me to work a little bit further away, but still retain some sense of normalcy in perspective, all the while filling the FX frame with the product I am shooting.
I don’t shoot any flowers or insects, nor have I ever done any focus stacking, so please bear this in mind when reading this review. I’m reviewing the lens based on my typical applications, which are product shots, some close ups of stuff, and very occasionally a portrait or two.
The new Sigma 105mm 2.8 EX HSM has evolved from my first Sigma 105mm 2.8 macro lens dramatically. It’s a completely new lens.
We now have a lens that has super quick focusing, thanks to the built-in Hyper-sonic motor (HSM); has internally shifting elements, meaning that the lens doesn’t get longer, or have a rotating front element when it focuses closer; plus, the biggest change of all, it now has an optical stabiliser built in.
On paper it seems to be the perfect lens for what I do, so let’s find out if it is.
Aesthetics and handling
The first 105mm Sigma macro lens I had was finished in that horrible metallic paint that would always peel off and leave the lens looking like something straight out of a war movie. This new one is made of the same polycarbonate material that my sigma 70-200mm 2.8 OS is made from. It’s lightweight but it does seem a bit plasticky to the touch. Because of its smoothness it also tends to pick up fingerprints quite easily, which shouldn’t be a consideration in making a lens choice, but I thought I would point it out nonetheless.
I can’t help but think that this lens was modelled on the shape of a can of beer. Take off the lens hood and it has very similar dimensions! Don’t leave it on the table if you’re on a Nikongear workshop where Erik Lund is present because he’ll saw off the bottom, take out the gizzards and likely call it an improvement on the original!
Speaking of lens hoods, you can expect the usual Sigma two-part hood in the box, which you bayonet together depending on whether you are shooting FX or DX format cameras. I don’t know if this actually makes a difference - I don’t have a DX format camera to test it out on. Also there is a soft nylon clad padded case for it. In short it is a pretty nicely made lens.
The focusing ring is fairly close to the front end of the lens but in my opinion this is the perfect place to put it, because when you’re holding the camera properly (ie, with your left hand cradling the lens from underneath), it’s a short movement of forefinger and thumb to reach the focus ring, instead of having to hold the lens closer to the camera body if you are focusing manually.
The focus throw is pretty short when you’re doing this manually. I don’t have a protractor to measure it with, but a movement of only a few degrees (or notches on the rubber ring) when I am at the minimum focusing distance shifts the focus depth by more than 10 centimeters. This could be critical if you are engaged in focus stacking something like jewellery and only want to shift focus very slightly. You’re going to need a skillful touch to get that right unless of course you have the luxury of a focusing stage for your work.
Like most modern lens designs, the new Sigma 105mm Macro allows you to manually over-ride the autofocus without fighting against the HSM motor. I personally never do this, but many other photographers do.
The auto-focus speed is very decent on a D700. Nikon forgot to send me copies of the D4 and D800’s so I can’t comment on how this would work on those cameras, but as a man who is committed to his short-term photographic future with the D700, I have to say that this lens has great auto focus ability on that camera. I tested it out in very dim light using both the center and extreme focus points of the D700 and with even the slightest bit of detectible contrast the lens snapped into focus faster than I can say “where the ---- are you?”
Sigma advertise that the lens is compatible with their EX range of tele-converters. I have both the 1.4x and 2.0x converters on loan from them to test with the new 120-300mm 2.8 OS so I gave them a whirl on the 105mm too. Under the same conditions as using the lens bare, with the 1.4x tele-converter there is no perceptible degradation in the auto-focus speed as far as I can tell. It’s still pretty darn fast. The 2x tele-converter is a different story: no auto-focus at all. You have to focus manually, which given the short focus throw already mentioned leaves you with limited applications for that combo. On the plus side the optical stabiliser still works with both these TC’s.
Macro lenses need to be sharp and they need to have the ability to make the subject literally “pop” from the background, which itself is hopefully rendered with creamy smooth bokeh.
Those are the most commonly desired characteristics in any lens, but in my case (where I am shooting product) I also need the lens to be sharp at minimum aperture with as little chromatic aberrations on the edges of shiny items as possible. You also don’t want the lens to give you any unnatural colour casts, particularly when you are shooting product, as this will make your post processing just that little bit more tiresome.
So, it’s those optical characteristics I set out to discover the virtues of for the purposes of this review.
Let’s begin with the most desirable characteristic of any lens. Is it sharp? Yes. I found that it is definitely sharp, to the point where I wouldn’t have any problems photographing product with it. I also have the Tamron 90mm 2.5, Nikon 60mm 2.8 and Nikon 105mm 2.8 VR macro lenses and short of trying to measure the actual sharpness of this Sigma compared to those others, what I can say is that I found it a bit sharper than the Tamron wide open, but not as sharp as the Nikons are wide open. When stopped down to values between f/8 and f/22 there’s nothing in it. They’re all as sharp as you could hope them to be and it’s these stopped down apertures where you will find yourself in macro work most of the time. Box ticked.
This is the kind of work I would be using this lens for
100% crop (Nikon D700)
Nearly every macro lens is optically engineered to give you the kind of defocused background that you need to separate your subject from distractions like chain link fences, or big bushes full of leaves with sunlight sprinkled on them.
The bokeh refers to the characteristics of how the out of focus highlights are rendered in your photograph. The softer circular highlights are the better the bokeh. Modern lenses mostly deploy curved aperture iris blades to improve this mystical quality of the optics and the Sigma also ticks this box. Out of focus highlights are acceptable to me.
This was photographed at fairly close range @f/3.5 with a palm in the background about 1.5m away
And here's the same set-up shot at f/8
If there are any, I’m not seeing them clearly enough for it to be an issue and I shot this lens at all apertures and under a variety of different situations. Box ticked.
It works as it is intended to and I found myself being in the familiar position of being able to use the lens hand held at fairly slow exposures. However, the OS on this lens seems to be very noisy. It makes a loud, indescribable noise on engagement as well as when it stops. I found it quite unsettling and am not sure if it is like this on all copies, or just this test one.
There are two modes for the OS; position 1 is for normal shooting and position 2 is for shooting objects that are moving horizontally to the camera. The lens information brochure advises that one should switch off the OS when you are attaching the lens to your camera. I always switch off my camera when I am changing lenses, so I guess that doesn’t really make a difference to me.
Compared to the Nikkor:
It’s going to be obvious to anybody that the alternative to this lens is the Nikon 105mm 2.8G VR, which I own. As I mentioned, I found the Nikon fractionally sharper at wider apertures than the Sigma, but to be honest, I really had to study the images long and hard to make that conclusion and the difference is so minor that it probably comes down to something like effective aperture at close distance, more than optical formula.
The Nikkor is shorter and fatter and has a much bigger lens hood than the Sigma, so looks wise it is a bit different. The handling on this count will also come down to personal preference.
One area that I did comparisons between the two lenses thoroughly was the autofocus. I found that the Sigma seems to be slightly quieter than the Nikkor, but when it travels the full length of the focus range it is somewhat slower end-to-end (probably because its optics literally have farther distance to cover).
An advantage it has over the Nikkor on AF is that it offers three distance settings for focus limitation. You can set it to cover the full focus range, 0.45m - infinity, or 0.312m to 0.45m. The Nikkor only offers full range and 0.5m to infinity.
Overall Opinion & Conclusion
Sigma is constantly evolving with their product offering and it’s great to see them giving photographers more options. This lens is like many of those you will find in their EX (pro) range. It’s solidly made, optically excellent and in my opinion you can’t go wrong with this one if you are looking for a good lens for macro purposes.
The deciding factor between this lens and that of Nikon’s own 105mm VR for Nikon shooters is probably going to come down to personal preference, because price-wise there isn’t a whole lot of difference between them. The Sigma sells for $769 on both Amazon.com and B&H, whereas the Nikon sells for between $899 and $999 at those same outlets. So if you approach this option logically, the $130 savings that can be had on the Sigma will give you enough to add the 50mm f/1.8D Nikkor to your basket, or a nice new camera bag, or dinner for your SO, or … [fill in your own $130 value].
If you're the kind of photographer who likes to shoot close-ups, or even perhaps extremely sharp portraits on FX frames, I would wholeheartedly suggest looking at this option. It's a great lens. While I still have the sample lens with me I will be adding more sample images to the dedicated sample image gallery for it. If you have images of your own to add to the gallery, please use the link below to get them up there.
Reviewed by Dallas Dahms