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Review: Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG EX HSM


Dallas

Introduction

The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG EX HSM is a super fast aperture, short telephoto lens. This is a new design for full-frame (and DX) sensors from Sigma, incorporating the Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) found in the rest of their EX range of lenses.

Application

There is a lot of debate amongst photographers these days as to whether there is a real need for a fast f/1.4 aperture lens in modern photography.

On the one hand people are saying that with modern sensors like those found in top end Nikon bodies such as the D3-series, D700 and now D7000, you’re able to shoot at ISO values that were previously unworkable, such as 3200 and even 12,800 in the case of the D3S. Why then would you need to claw back 2 stops in aperture terms and lose massively on depth of field? Not to mention the huge premium you will be paying for glass that does that?

On the other hand those photographers who use fast aperture lenses are saying that the super fast 1.4 apertures bring something visually unique to the table – total subject isolation and smooth out of focus areas. Not to mention the fact that in low light situations these kinds of lenses really do bring about a whole new dimension to photography because now not only do you have the extra stops on your sensor, but you also have them on your lens, and when used in conjunction with one another they make for compelling photography in difficult lighting situations.

I tend to agree with the latter argument, but at the same time I look at each lens I own as being something that has to carry a fair share of the workload to justify its existence in my line up. I don’t want to spend a lot of money on a lens that I am seldom going to use.

For me the super fast lenses are all about depth of field and how you can use that creatively, so if I am going to carry a lens like this, I want to be able to use it for its ability to shorten the d.o.f. in generous dollops. This 85mm 1.4 does that pretty handily.

This is very much a specialist lens and finding work for it is going to depend to a large degree of the kind of photographic intent you have. Personally I find this focal length difficult to work with because it doesn’t quite fit my style of working. The minimum focusing distance of 0.85m is a bit too long to get in close to smaller subjects, such as food and small products where its shallow depth of field would work well. However, on a DX frame that might not be as much of a problem and DX shooters might very well consider this lens for use in food photography, especially where your only light is ambient and you’re doing selective focus on parts of the dish. It will work very well there.

Conventional thinkers all agree that 85mm on FX is the beginning of classic portraiture focal length. If I am shooting head and shoulders type portraits using this lens I find I am standing a little bit too close to the subject for my liking (like 1 to 1.2m from their faces). It’s not that I have halitosis or bad BO or anything, but getting that close to somebody’s face for a photograph puts me on the inside of their personal space where I will run the risk of unsettling them, something that always comes through in the pictures.

Having said that, if you are using this lens to make that kind of portrait, you must understand two things:

1.This is a very sharp lens at any aperture so every line and wrinkle in that person’s face is going to stand out.

2.If you open this lens wider than 2.8 your depth of field is going to be so shallow that you may find only a small section of the subject’s face will be in focus. It’s quite possible to have the tip of a nose sharp and the eyes out of focus when using the lens at f/2 or wider, especially when you’re working up close with the subject. Make sure you focus on the right part of the face if you’re aiming for a shallow depth of field!

The shot of a ruler below (this is a significant crop, btw) shows just how limited your depth of field is when shooting at f/1.4 and the minimum focusing distance of 85cm with this lens.

gallery_2_30_91235.jpg

I wouldn’t recommend a lens like this for portraiture simply on the basis of the working distance on FX format, as well as the sharpness issue. It’s too sharp for flattery, which in most cases is what you get asked to do when making portraits. This might be fine if you’re doing some kind of reportage journalism and you don’t have to explain yourself to the subject later, but trust me, if you’re formally photographing women of a more mature age, you’re going to pick up flak!

Anyway, you’re not reading this review to make a decision on what type of photography you should be doing with an 85mm f/1.4, so on the next page I will get into the performance aspects that will help you decide whether or not to buy this lens.

Aesthetics & Handling

This is a good-looking lens from Sigma. Of all the Sigma’s I have reviewed in recent times this one is hands down the prettiest of them all. The notorious Sigma matt grey paint is completely gone, replaced with a silky looking poly-carbonate black finish.

It feels good and solid in the hand and is significantly heavier than Nikon’s 85mm 1.4 AF-S equivalent. This lens tips the scales at 725g (25.6oz) as opposed to the Nikon’s 595g (21oz). It does have an extra element and one fewer element group compared to the Nikon, which probably accounts for this difference.

Focus Ring

The manual focus ring just above the focus distance window is nice and wide. It allows for manual focus over-ride when in AF mode. The overall feel of the manual focus is OK but obviously a way off the feel of a proper manual focus lens. It has a very short throw too, only taking a quarter of a turn to get from the closest focus distance of 0.85m to infinity.

Lens Hood

As is the case with their new 70-200mm 2.8 OS, Sigma has included a 2-piece, petal shaped lens hood that bayonets together. If you are shooting with a DX sensor you are supposed to add the extension piece, thus offering more protection from extraneous light.

What happens when you add this piece is that the external length of the lens appears twice as long, compared to when the hood is not mounted. I tried shooting in FX mode using this hood extension and there is some significant vignetting of the corners, gradually decreasing as you stop the lens down to its minimum aperture of f/16, but still definitely apparent.

Without the lens hood it looks short and very chunky on my D700. With it on, it looks more like a 24-70mm 2.8 lens.

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Autofocus Performance

If you search the web for consumer reviews of this lens you will encounter a fair amount of complaining about the inability of the lens to autofocus accurately, countered by a fair amount of people saying they have had not experienced the same thing. I’m one of those in the latter camp.

I have had the lens with me for about 2 months now and I have used it in a number of situations during that time. What I have found is that the autofocus is very responsive provided you’re focusing on something with a fair amount of contrast and you’re not using one of the focus points on the extremity of your camera’s auto-focus zone.

Something that critics of the AF fail to disclose when making their claims is exactly what camera they are using and in what situation they are shooting. Obviously if you’re in near pitch darkness and you’re trying to AF on a subject that doesn’t have a lot of discernable contrast with one of the outer focus points, you’re going to be met with the limits of your camera’s AF system. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the AF performance on this lens and I put it to a good test when photographing a corporate breakfast presentation in a very darkened hotel function room when I first received it. The results speak for themselves and were one of the reasons why I am now a big fan of 1.4 aperture lenses.

Some reviewers have said that the Sigma 85mm 1.4 HSM is faster than the new Nikon 85mm 1.4 AF-S. I can’t corroborate that because Nikon don’t send me their new lenses to try, but what I can say is that the Sigma’s AF is no slouch.

Image Quality

In a word? Great!

I use cameras to take images of real things and I expect my gear to deliver in areas where I need it to perform. This is the type of lens that you can use in a dimly lit room at its widest aperture and get pretty darn good results. If you shoot it at 1.4 you will be happy with the sharpness, but as I mentioned earlier, be forewarned about the limited depth of field. Don’t mistake out of focus areas of your photograph for optical softness – that’s bokeh, people! Choose your point of focus carefully and you will be rewarded with excellent sharpness (provided you’re not suffering from delirium tremors or some equally undesirable personal condition).

Bokeh

This is stunning mostly all the way down the aperture range and that’s really the greatest strong point of a lens like this. The subject isolation you get with it is complemented with smooth specular highlights in the background (see sample pics).

Fringing

Chromatic aberrations are there and you will need to deal with those, as you would with any other lens when shot at very wide apertures, but the fringing is not as bad as you would expect.

Colour

I found that this lens produces a very natural colour, which I suppose is to be expected if it's going to be used primarily as a portraiture lens. You don't want to be wrestling with colour balance when you're trying to reproduce exact skin tones.

Sharpness

Oh yes, this lens is plenty sharp. And then some. As I mentioned earlier on, shooting 85mm at a close range and at wide open apertures is kind of like a hit and miss affair because of the incredibly shallow depth of field you'll get from this lens. As an experiment I took a 30 centimetre steel ruler and lay it down on my floor, put my D700 on a tripod and began shooting the ruler at the main aperture stops, from f/1.4 to f/16, with an angle of about 45 degrees (see the image earlier in the review). Even at f/16 I couldn't get the whole ruler in sharp focus from end to end.

Obviously this depth of field increases as you approach infinity focus, so subjects that are not as close will fall into the sharp zone if you are practising the right shooting techniques.

Other Stuff

Distortion and other things that make you sit bolt upright in bed in the dead of night, clutching your chest and gasping for breath? Slightly darker corners in your frame? You might want to Google that – I don’t deliberately photograph brick walls or resolution charts on the wall. I just make pictures and pass comment on the things that really matter and I definitely didn't notice anything untoward in this regard that would make me shake my head or a stick at Sigma.

Overall Opinion

This is a great lens from Sigma, if you are comfortable with the working distances and limited d.o.f. As I said in the beginning of the review it is a specialist lens and depending on your typical application you might well find yourself using it a lot or a little of the time. For me it’s not a focal length I tend to use much, but on DX I would be a lot more comfortable with it. Where I see this lens really shining is in the darkened room shooting situation where you have sufficient contrast to acquire auto-focus.

Price-wise you are looking at $970 as opposed to the $1700 you’ll pay for the Nikon equivalent. $730 is a lot of extra change to cough up for a specialist lens that may or may not find itself being used all that often (professionally speaking). Your opinion may differ, of course, but $730 puts other stuff besides badge pride in my camera bag.

My verdict is to go for it if this focal length is something you like to shoot at. It’s a very good lens at a very good price.

Some sample images:

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This one was shot at 1.4 in near darkness. The main light in the room was coming from the projector that was showing a presentation to this group of people, with a little bit also arriving from the breakfast buffet behind me.

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Same location, this one shot at f/2.8

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Here's an indication of the kind of smooth bokeh this lens offers. Shot at f/2.

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This is a 100% crop of the above image. You can even see little strands of spider webs have been resolved. Also visible is some of the purple fringing, seen on the edges of the fern leaves. Not too bad.

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Another image shot at f/1.4.

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And the 100% crop of the in focus part.

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