Announced in 2010, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM came amongst a bunch of long-time, well-regarded lenses: Canon and Nikon currently produce two 85mm lenses each. Yet, Sigma found how to insert their own.
At $894, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM is substantially more affordable than its direct competitors, but Sigma did not sacrifice on key features: large aperture, good build quality, special glass, 9 rounded aperture blades, HSM autofocus… This should arouse curiosity of many photographers lusting for a premium portraiture lens.
While not shooting portraits everyday, I found the focal length convenient for many other types of shooting, and the large aperture very pleasant to have. So I took the plunge.
The following is a report of about 8 months of shooting with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM, back in 2011.
The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM is from the pre-Sigma Global Vision generation of lenses, boasting the EX designation and its smooth finish.
At 725 g, the lens is hefty, but not too much. The finish of the barrel is smooth to the fingers, contrasting with the ribbed, rubber-coated focusing ring. The mount is metal-made, and the rest is solid polycarbonate up to the filter thread. It feels a bit less sturdy than the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II, but this is only feel – I have not tested the actual toughness! – but it certainly does not feel cheap or flimsy at all.
The lens hood is classic plastic. As usual with Sigma’s post-2010 lenses, it can be expanded thanks to an included extension, to better shade the front element when the lens is mated to an APS-C camera.
I have been shooting the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM extensively in a variety of conditions, from snowy weather to hot and humid greenhouse atmosphere. It has performed flawlessly.
Overall, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM is pleasant to carry, not too fat or heavy, balancing well on a large DSLR.
Speed-wise, I never found the autofocus to be a limiting factor. I never told myself “it was too slow for this scene”. Your mileage may vary, but unless you intend to shoot fast-paced action in dim light, you are likely to have the same impression. Autofocus is even a little faster than on the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II. To be fair, this is due to the Canon lens having bigger glass elements (larger aperture).
Autofocus precision/accuracy is another story, and depends on various factors. Here again, I have no complaints, and I found no pattern to the out-of-focus shots I got with this lens, so every focus miss could be put on behalf of user error.
From the various reports, autofocus is reliable overall with this lens (low sample-to-sample variation) but the camera body plays its role for both speed and precision/accuracy.
Various technical graphs showing the character of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM are available for preliminary insight.
Here, the MTF chart of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM is compared to the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G’s.
Of course, it should not be granted as a definitive image quality comparison – there is a lot more in an image than what an MTF chart can tell. Yet it’s a good starting point to get the overall behavior of a lens. Both charts show theoretical results.
I ommitted the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II MTF chart on purpose, because it shows the performance at f/1.2 only (which is a lot more stressing setting than f/1.4) so a direct comparison would be unfair.
Looking at the charts, the Sigma lens shows a similar contrast performance to its Nikon sibling, and this is good news, considering how highly regarded the latter is. The astigmatism behavior is slightly different, but nothing to work about – it is low.
Field curvature seems to be all but absent. Focus shift cannot be assessed as Sigma does not supply the measurements for the other apertures.
Overall, this is a very fine performance considering the aperture of f/1.4, and such results sure bode well with all kinds of shooting scenes.
The lens features eleven elements in eight groups, with one aspherical glass and one Super Low Dispersion element to maintain chromatic errors at a low level. Performance at close range should be no slouch either, as the lens features a floating element.
Dealing with distortion in post-processing is usually quite easy, but it’s always good to break free from it. This is what happens with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DH HSM, whose distortion is absolutely negligible.
The lens has typical vignetting characteristics – moderate wide open with a linear and steady decrease to the corners, and almost completely eliminated upon stopping down to f/2.8.
Supplementing the graph and anticipating on the next part, field shooting at f/2 has shown a substantial improvement in field illumination already.
I picked up a few pictures showing the good and the less good of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM.
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All assessments were made using the original TIFF files.
North American pitcher plants with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
Shooting wide open at close distance and with a remote background always affords smooth pictures, yet with good overall contrast.
Vertical stabilizer with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
A daylight shot at f/8 and mid-distance should not put any lens in trouble. But it shows the consistent rendering of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM across the frame, with no lingering lateral chromatic aberrations and a credible metallic texture. Saturated colors are a hallmark of this lens. A circular polarizer may have been used for this shot.
Helicopter with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
Separation at distance. This little, deep blue helicopter was about 15 meters away, yet it got sufficiently isolated to pop from the far-from-ideal background. Vignetting is noticeable at f/1.4 but not too much, and I usually like the effect.
Jumping in the snow with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
Continuous shooting and f/1.8 were used here. I failed at focusing on the head, but most of the body is in sharp focus. Unavoidable mild secondary chromatic aberration is present in the out-of-focus areas. And it is kept under acceptable levels, especially for a non-apochromatic lens.
Warming up with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
The autofocus locked on the eyelashes (I cannot blame the camera or the lens for that), which is sure to deliver an unsharp eye on a headshot, near wide open at f/1.8. Local contrast is a tad low, but very acceptable considering the aperture, the close focusing distance, and the dull light. Luckily, it suits the scene and the subject.
Air plant with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
Details do not suffer at close range, near the minimum focusing distance. Depth of field is the only limiting factor here. An aperture of f/4.5 at close range ensures high resolving power, while keeping the background blurred enough to avoid distractions.
Statue with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
Examining rear bokeh from the point of focus. Traces of secondary longitunal chromatic aberrations can be spotted, but it’s well controlled for f/1.4, and can be removed easily.
Dancing girl with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
Very good sharpness where desired at f/1.4, although the light was dim. Bokeh is not distracting while being defined enough to give a bit more insight about the context.
Orchid with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
Colors errors in the secondary spectrum can be noticed, but they are not distracting, and can be corrected in seconds. Focusing on the closest flower would have probably been better from an artistic point of view, but the picture is interesting as such as it shows a bit of front bokeh at f/1.4.
Flowers with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
Depth of field covers a very thin zone over the leading flower – the rest is a more-or-less-defined blur (f/1.4). Contrast can be enhanced, but the overall gentle look is rather pleasant.
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 value: high image quality at every aperture setting, at a relatively low cost (+++)
- No compromise on image quality regardless of focusing distance, so the lens can be used with confidence in various scenarios (+++)
- Suitable autofocus (++)
- Zero distortion (+)
- Very good control of optical aberrations, affording a mostly clean look to the images (+)
- Usable manual focus thanks to a large and smooth focusing ring (+)
- Lacks the mechanical care of the newest Sigma lenses, but it’s more than “good enough” nonetheless (-)
- Somewhat cheap lens hood with no inner coating to absorb light and an outer surface prone to scratches (-)
- No weather-sealing (-)
The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM is one of Sigma’s gems. The optical design is sufficiently advanced to offer a very satisfying sharpness and contrast wide open, with a low level of aberrations.
I can see two situations where one would eschew it (providing there is a need for a lens of this focal length).
– Money is absolutely not a concern. Then you will naturally go for your camera manufacturer’s best 85mm lens.
– You are a Canon shooter and the f/1.2 aperture is an object of desire. You know you actually want the Canon f/1.2 for this reason. Thus, the f/1.4 aperture of the Sigma is an inherent hurdle.
If you are not in any of these cases, you will not be disappointed by the Sigma 85mm f/1.4. I highly recommend it.
A few facts about the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM
- Having one more glass element, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 is 65 g heavier than Nikon’s own 85mm f/1.4 lens (725 g vs 660 g). The Canon, despite having less lens elements than both the Nikon and the Sigma, weighs over a kilogram – even half a stop of light gathering power requires much larger glass.
- Using the the Canon 500D 77mm Close-up lens with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 makes it a nice semi-macro lens, offering very fine performance. Close-up optics are convenient and nicely extend the versatility of a high-quality lens.
- Many users hope Sigma will make an updated, f/1.2 version. Unfortunately, the Nikon F bayonet mount has a comparatively narrow 44mm throat, precluding the use of such a large aperture at this focal length.
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