There is a lot to like about a 35mm prime lens, being one of the most versatile focal lengths, and yielding a natural and pleasant perspective. This flexibility is supported by the fast aperture such a lens usually sports, so it can effectively be used for just about anything, from street photography to some kind of portraits, wedding, landscape and even “semi macro”, provided that the optical quality is up to the requirements of these disciplines.
Every major manufacturer has its own 35mm lens, so Sigma couldn’t contend against them in the high-end market without showing their expertise in designing their own. Here comes the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM, announced in late 2012, along with the reorganization of their lens lineup in three new categories : Contemporary, Sports and Art.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM falls in the latter.
At an unbeatable price – as far as f/1.4 AF 35mm lenses go – of $899, and lots of promises regarding build and image quality, the first word that comes to mind is indeed “promising”.
Build quality and autofocus used to be a concern with Sigma lenses, but lately the company has put lots of efforts to change this reputation.
When I first looked at the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM, I found it somewhat intricate, quite the opposite of the recent trend promoting refined and straightforward lens barrels.
The base of the lens, just above the metal mount, bears a mysterious sleek ring. Going up, one finds a plastic casing, with a ribbed portion going from the right side to the bottom, when holding the lens in shooting position. This part houses the distance scale under a plastic window, a shiny silvery “A” (for “Art”) pastille, and the AF-MF switch (hard and recessed enough not to be pressed accidentally). Up again there is the focusing ring, protruding from the rest of the lens barrel. It is large, metal-made, but covered with a thick, deeply ribbed rubber coating. At the top, the lens hood thread and 67mm filter thread are plastic.
Overall, I have a mixed feeling about it. Maybe this feeling is accentuated due to Sigma lenses having exhibited very different housings over the years – and this lens being the first to showcase the latest look to date – as if the company was confused about how their optics should look like.Anyway, I usually prefer straight designs and assemblies with no cosmetic eccentricities (think Zeiss), so I don’t feel something could wear off or some parts could get some play over time. I don’t say that will happen with this lens, and fortunately it feels rather sturdy, and as long as nothing gets in the way of shooting, there is not reason to complain. Besides, Sigma states each part of the lens was carefully thought to offer the best comfort and feel.
The diaphragm, with its nine, slightly rounded blades, is nice to see from the rear of the lens…
…So is the large metal mount. In hand, the lens feels dense but not too heavy (665 grams, nominally), and the touch is rather pleasant. The focusing ring is nicely damped. I would have preferred a metal ring (like on Zeiss’ lenses) because rubber always bleaches and wears out over time, whereas metal means durability and steadiness. Nevertheless, I would not list that point as a con either, as some users may prefer the smoothness of rubber under their fingers, over the hardness and coldness of metal.
The petal-shaped lens hood is plastic, and feels rather cheap with nothing to prevent from scratching it. No big deal, but worth mentioning, as other manufacturers have all added a nice touch to the hoods of their recent lenses. it is always nice to notice, and sometimes valuable in the field. Last, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM is not weather-sealed. One cares more or less about this, but it is always a plus.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM is a no hassle autofocus lens. There are scattered reports of focus inaccuracy and/or hunting around the web (scarcer than with previous Sigma lenses), a phenomenon I did not observe with any of my two samples of the lens, on both the Nikon D600 and the Nikon D800E. At wider apertures, focus will hit the spot more precisely and accurately with the center focus point, but this is true for just about any lens. AF operation is quiet, with only very mild purring from the “hypersonic” autofocus motor.
Manual focus is something you may resort to more often than usual, depending on your type of shooting of course. As previsouly said, the focusing ring is wide and comfortable to operate, but that is not the only reason. The high correction for chromatic aberrations and other color errors affords a nice, clear sight in the viewfinder, offering easier focus adjustment by eye than with many other less well corrected lenses. I found myself very often manually focusing for close subjects, and suceeding doing so. This is very attractive when focus is done away from the center, and when you don’t want to AF+reframe lest you lose your focus due to the shallow depth of field.
In some low light or confusing lighting situations, autofocus is a hit and miss with any camera, so you better use a manual focus bracketing approach to get the shot, as was done here. A longer focusing course would have made this even better, but presumably at the price of slower AF speed.
Sigma generously supplies numerous graphs related to the optical behavior of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM.
Sigma provides a measured modulation transfer function chart for the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM at the aperture of f/1.4.
What looks unusual for a lens of this kind is the very high micro-contrast in the 1/2 area of the frame, yet with mild astigmatism close to the center already. Contrast for coarse structures is also high in a good center portion of the frame, with astigmatism taking its toll middle way to the corners. The steep falloff in the extreme corners indicates field curvature. This is a very usual behavior with wide-angle lenses, but most often field curvature emerges earlier in the frame, so Sigma managed to control it very well with this lens.
Among the thirteen elements, the optical scheme shows no less than five elements of special glass (four Super-Low Dispersion glass and one Fluorite-like Low Dispersion glass) to control optical aberrations of all kinds, and two elements of aspherical glass to keep distortion and field curvature at low levels, which is consistent with the MTF chart. For the price of the lens, this is to be praised.
The Sigma lens exhibits a very moderate and typical barrel distortion. Thanks to its linear nature, it will not cause any headache to correct if needed, without impeding the image quality at the pixel level.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM shows a substantial but typical amount of vignetting wide open, decreasing significantly when stopped down at f/2.8 and with a much more even illumination across the frame. Unfortunately, the f/2 curve is not provided. At f/5.6, the very slight lingering vignetting will not be noticeable on most scenes.
Overall, one can have high expectations from the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM by the looks of its MFT graph and optical formula, so let’s see if field experience substantiates this.
The first thing you want to do with a f/1.4 aperture lens is to try and shoot it wide open, hoping for a “wow” effect. With the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM, it surely comes. Image quality leaves absolutely nothing to be desired, being sharp and contrasty enough even at f/1.4.
I did not detect any centering defect – a defect you may encounter with any lens from any brand – on any of the two tested samples.
Other optical aberrations, such as axial and longitudinal chromatic errors, are superbly well under control, and are barely noticeable on the 36-MP Nikon D800.
Distortion is well controlled. The photo below was not corrected for distortion and is perfectly acceptable as such. One needs to make a straight line on the image to see there is actually little barrel distortion, as indicated by the Sigma graph above.
What about bokeh ? The diaphragm boasts 9 aperture blades for smoother bokeh and rounder highlights. I am not a bokeh-peeper, and to me the out-of-focus areas produced with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM just look good. It may have more defined edges than on less well corrected lenses, but it is a good compromise, as you really get clean, true-to-life images thanks to that level of correction.
What is so good about a super bright lens is not only the light gathering capabilities, but also the separation of the subjectif from the background and foreground you can get, especially when paired with a full-frame sensor. The resulting image is given a nice dimensionality, with a strong sense of presence.
However, large aperture is not enough – sharpness, contrast, and the way the lens renders transitions between in-focus and out-of-focus areas are just as important. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM is particularly well-suited to the task because it performs impressively well wide open, at any distance, which is not a given even with a high-end lens ! While many exhibit low contrast wide open, often referred to an impression of haze or veil, the Sigma is absolutely free of such effect. This alone indicates a very high-performing lens and certainly opens up possibilities. I have shot the Distagon 35mm f/1.4 from Zeiss and although I have no direct comparison as I don’t own the lens anymore, I can definitely say the Distagon does not yield such a high contrast wide open, with more color errors to deal with.
Here is what it looks like wide open at minimum focusing distance (1:5.2 magnification, or 0.19x) and a bit off-center.
The high contrast on the focused area at any distance, combined with the graceful fade-out to out of focus areas with almost no chromatic errors, are rare characteristics, and definitely contribute to the superb value of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM.
I will try to be as fair as possible here, not listing personal preferences discussed earlier but only things that I think matter to the majority of users, with different levels of importance. To emphasize that, the more + and -, the more important the point is, to my point of view, when the question “should I buy it or not ?” arises.
- Superb optical design delivering satisfactorily in all respects straight from the max aperture, with no flaw to deal with (+++)
- Price tag about 30-40% lower than the competition, but with no sacrifice on glass quality (+++)
- Swift, effective and almost silent autofocus (+++)
- Solid construction, up to high-end lenses from Canon and Nikon, making the user confident about using the lens extensively (++)
- Usable manual focus thanks to a large and smooth focusing ring (+)
- Somewhat cheap lens hood with no inner coating to absorb light and an outer surface prone to scratches (-)
- No weather-sealing (-)
Overall, the lens is not built like a Zeiss, but it is definitely at the level of L lenses or pro lenses from Nikon (maybe even better?). The first impressions and months of shooting are very positive.
There has been no hidden gremlins with autofocus yet. Long-term reliability is unknown at this time, but you can buy two Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM for the price of a single Nikon 35mm f/1.4 or Canon 35mm f/1.4, so it is fair to consider it a good investment.
As a new, finely tuned design for modern high-resolution DSLRs, the Sigma f/1.4 DG HSM offers tremendous value for anyone looking for a superb all around lens.
It can be used very effectively for a wide variety of situations as long as the 35mm focal length is suited for them, because it is simply very good optically with no real compromise.
A few facts about the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM
- As of mid-2013, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM is the sharpest lens when used on the highest resolution DSLR available at that time (Nikon D800) according to DxO Mark. They state : The lens sets a new benchmark for optical performance for a retro-focus lens in this focal length and it’s a feat that’s even more remarkable given the price is well-below that of any of the big name brands. Read their measurements here.
- Regarding build quality, us users cannot access the internal parts (electronics, assembly, etc…) but Roger Cicala, from Lensrentals.com, gladly took it apart for us. And he is quite positive about it as you can see from this snippet : The PCB board in this lens is quite different from anything we’ve seen from Sigma before: cleaner with more chips and few other electronic components. Much different. Read more at LensRentals.
- Sigma was given several awards from various renowned websites and associations, testifying the quality of the lens, among which the TIPA award for “Best Expert DSLR lens” in 2013.
Post-processing consisted of exposure and white balance adjustements only, so as not to alter the original rendering style of the lens. Some of the pictures presented here can be found in much larger size on Flickr. The use of a colorspace-aware web browser like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or Apple Safari is recommended.
All pictures are copyright Sigma Rumors.