Sigma F1.4 DG HSM - Aperture

Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | A Lens Review

April 03, 2013 / by / 0 Comment
REVIEW OVERVIEW
Build Quality
Image Quality
Usability
8.67

Sigma's new 35mm F1.4 sets a new standard

Sigma really raised the bar when they designed this lens, not only for themselves but for the industry. In our opinion, Sigma's 35mm F1.4 not only rivals the competition but exceeds the quality of other lenses at this focal length & aperture.

SP Recommended

Available at Amazon.com
($900 USD)

Sigma announced a new direction in their lens design and categorization back in the fall which they refer as the Sigma Global Vision. When they announced the Global Vision, they also announced three new lenses to fit in each of their new categories. Falling into their “Art” (A) classification was the 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | A, a fixed focal length standard “prime” lens. Well, there are a lot of 35mm lenses out there on the market. So we wanted to get our hands on one to see how it stacked up. Of course Sigma was kind enough to loan us the new lens for our review.

As always when reviewing lenses, I like to outline our approach: We won’t be putting this lens through a series of lab tests to scrutinize details barely noticeable to the human eye. Such data is telling of a lens’s capabilities, but we feel that such an approach is like splitting hairs. Of course I will take a loop to the photographs with my expert eye and note any problems that can be found. But the focus of this review is going to be how the lens performs: How it feels, how it functions and of course the overall quality of the photos that will result. In the end, you’ll have a great idea of how this lens would fair in real-world use, which is far more important than how it performs in a lab.

What Is In A Name

Lens designations for any brand are a bit like alphabet soup. While the letters contained within a lens designation are basically branding – each manufacturer has its own designation for common features, like optical stabilization – it gives a clear understanding of the lens’s capabilities. As the letters are specific to a brand, lets break it down before we go on. Here’s the formal name for the lens:

35mm F1.4 DG HSM | A

Since it’s a prime lens in the standard focal range, the designation is actually pretty short. The lens has no use for stabilization nor does it need any of the corrective elements to combat distortion. So here’s what’s left:

  • DG = Digital, which means that the lens is optimized for a full-famed sensor. Of course the lens works equally as well with cropped (APS-C) sensors, but a larger portion of the image gets cropped out. Note that we are reviewing with an APS-C sensor.
  • HSM = Hyper-Sonic Motor. It’s an internal, super-quiet focusing mechanism that does not require the use of a screw-drive on the camera body. In other words, if it can be mounted physically to your camera, autofocus will work, even if you don’t have the legacy focusing mechanism (most entry-level cameras do not, these
    days).
  • A = Art. This is part of the Sigma Global Vision. It is simply a categorization for the lens. I spoke more broadly about it back in September, but here’s the nutshell: The lens was designed with the
    intent to be used as an artistic lens. Most notably, it has a wide aperture with a few extra blades to get silky smooth bokeh. It’s not just marketing. Knowing the intent of the lens will help to understand it’s limitations. Of course as an artist, you’ll probably use lenses for purposes other than they were intended. But so be it, at least we
    know what kind of thought was put into the lens.

Overall Design

Sigma F1.4 DG HSMThe Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | A is a prime lens and so it’s design is fairly simple. Unlike other 35mm lenses on the market, this one seems to be quite long at 3.7″ (94mm) in length with a diameter of 3″ (77mm). It takes a 67mm diameter filter. It’s also fairly heavy at just shy of 2 pounds. But all that is a bit necessary to get it’s aperture as wide as F/1.4. Though it’s size might intimidate, it’s really not unreasonable and it’s not long enough or heavy enough to send your camera off-balance when in use.

The lens has a pretty typical 35mm angle of view at 63.4 degrees. It also has a comfortable focusing distance at 11.8″ (30 cm). It’s maximum aperture sits at f/1.4 while its minimum sits at f/16, which is pretty typical for a lens of this caliper. And it has it’s nine aperture blades to give you that silky smooth bokeh I mentioned. So it’s everything you would expect of a 35mm lens. From a strict design perspective, it looks like it would stack up against the competition.

Looking deeper, it has a few nice features. It has a focusing distance window which isn’t uncommon – many of the higher end lenses have this – but with Sigma’s newest lenses, it is a very simple design with very few markings around it. It’s very clean and easy to read. It also has a really wide focusing ring, which I really appreciate because I still use manual focus pretty often. And I don’t like having to find a thin focusing ring with my fingers. Working out in the sunlight? The 35mm f1.4 DG HSM comes with an accessory petal style lens hood that bayonet mounts to the front of the lens. And finally, the lens comes with a custom fit soft case. The case is well padded and a nice square shape with a bit of a structure to it; not too hard, not too soft. You may not carry the case around with you on assignment, but the case makes it easy to store the lens safely between jobs.

As an optional accessory, this lens – as with all of the new Global Vision lenses – is compatible with Sigma’s new USB Dock. I haven’t had a chance to try one out as of yet, but it will allegedly allow you to provide firmware updates for your lenses without having to send it back to the factory. It will also allow you to fine tune the autofocus so that it is always focusing tack sharp. Or, I suppose, you may be able to purposely de-tune the autofocus so your focus is always soft. I’m speculating, but if that’s possible, I’m sure someone out there would want to do just that. Bottom line, the dock gives you a lot more control over the inner workings of your lens than you have with any other lens.

In Use

Sigma F1.4 DG HSM - ApertureRight out of the package, the lens feels durable and well made. I don’t find the extra heft (again, just shy of two pounds) to be an issue at all. In fact, it makes the lens seem more stable, somehow, and it balances well when mounted to my camera. As I mentioned, I really like the large focusing ring. If you’ve ever had a lens with a tiny focusing ring, you know where I’m coming from: Large is much easier to use. There’s no searching for the ring, you can grab it with your full fist, twist and get a precise focus. The ring has good resistance throughout its focusing. But it’s not perfect. The focusing ring is free-floating (continuously rotating even after the focusing element stops). This is a basic design principal for any auto-focus lens, but most of the time the ring feels smooth, offering little more than a bit more resistance once you hit the end.  In this case, I felt the ring skip once you got to the end. This is not something I’ve experienced on Sigma’s other lenses. This has no adverse impact on the performance of the lens, but it does pose a mark against the lens from a feel point of view.

Autofocus was top notch. It was fast and responsive – much faster than Sigma’s older lenses – and I didn’t notice any focus hunting.  Compared to Nikon’s 35mm f/1.4, Sigma’s lens keeps up at all focusing points. In fact, I daresay that it performs better in lower light or in low-contrast focusing.

Sigma 35mm F1.4 Sample Photo:

The lens performs so well in low-light that I could capture jellyfish even in a dark aquarium.

Speaking of focus, I’d like to talk about that focus distance window. It may seem like a useless feature, considering the quality of its autofocus and the sophistication of the camera bodies these days, but it’s really quite useful. The focusing window basically demarcates expected focusing distances (from the lens to the subject) on a nice, easy-to-read scale. In manual focus, this helps you to figure out how to focus if the subject is at a known distance. This can be a checks-and-balance tool if you’re working under poor lighting conditions and you want to make doubly sure your autofocus is working properly. But it’s also a benefit when you’re not going to be in place to focus manually or you simply don’t want to use autofocus because conditions could change. One example would be for a self portrait: Flip to manual, focus at a known distance, go to the spot and trigger your camera to snap a shot. If you’re at the right distance, you’re in focus. Another example would be for sports photographers who like to set up a shot before hand, such as for a bike race. Doing so shaves milliseconds off of the response time and it makes it much easier to deal with a subject that would be difficult to focus on. Other higher end cameras have the focus distance window on their lenses (and older lenses have the distances marked on the non-floating focusing ring). But Sigma’s new window design is high-contrast, simple and easy to read. So I’ve really grown to appreciate it, especially for the work that I tend to do.

In use, the lens was easy to carry, it worked well in low light and it was pretty responsive. When I needed to be fast, I wasn’t bogged down by focus-hunting. I found its focus to be spot on accurate. So the only minor issue I had with the use of the lens was that manual focus “skip” once I hit the limit of the focusing element.

Visual Results

Taken direct from camera, this 1:1 crop shows just how sharp and clean this lens is. (click to enlarge)

Taken direct from camera, this 1:1 crop shows just how sharp and clean this lens is. (click to enlarge)

You simply cannot argue with the finished product produced by this lens. Check out the 1:1 crop to the right taken direct from camera, no processing.  Photos are tack-sharp with sharp focus edge-to-edge.  With most lenses, there’s usually a sweet spot at which the lens is at it’s sharpest.  Even at its widest aperture – where many lenses lose sharpness – I found subjects to be quite sharp.  Though, I found the lens to be at its sharpest at f/2 or f/2.8.  Sharpness started to soften slightly again as that aperture got much smaller, but it held strong through f/16 which is its smallest aperture.

Chromatic Aberrations:  These are those ghosts that appear at the edges of contrast transitions.  They often appear as though color is separating at those edges and you may see a blue, yellow, cyan or red outlines.  They’re present even in the best of lenses under the right conditions.  At f/1.4, I was able to find a few traces, but they were quite narrow; almost impossible to see.  With an aperture of f/2 and smaller, the chromatic aberrations all but disappear – or at least I wasn’t able to create a situation where they were popping up.

f/1.4 - note the blown-out highlights in the foreground which are almost perfectly round.

f/1.4 – note the blown-out highlights in the foreground which are almost perfectly round.

Vignetting, the darkening at the edges and corners of the frame, is a common on fast lenses.  With the aperture at f/1.4, I was expecting to see a great deal.  On the cropped sensor, I saw only slight traces.  On a full-framed sensor (borrowed), vignetting was a bit more pronounced, but it fell off quickly as the aperture was stepped down.  Even so, the vignetting was not significant, so it won’t be ruining any photos.

The bokeh of this lens is about as silky smooth as I expect would be possible for this focal length. Aside from that buttery background, I like to look for the highlights, which tend to blow way out of proportion when out of focus leaving big white dots all over.  The shape on this lens was almost perfectly circle showing no noticeable angles.  The shape is dictated by the aperture’s shape.  In my opinion, the rounder, the better.  Clearly, this lens meets that criteria.  This is the root of that silky smooth goodness in the mid tones far beyond the depth of field.

As for distortion, I didn’t see any.  At this focal length, you can expect to see only a slight amount of barrel distortion but Sigma’s entry just doesn’t seem to introduce anything noticeable.  Even Nikon’s 35mm f/1.4 introduces a certain amount of distortion.

Final Thoughts

In short, the Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | A is impressive.  The only flaw that I found with the lens was that skipping on the focus ring, but that is just a feel thing and certainly doesn’t impact image quality nor is it indicative of build quality.  It’s minor, at best.  35mm is a tricky lens for most manufacturers, there usually seems to be some flaw.  Nikon’s lens introduces some distortion and an unreasonable amount of vignetting at f/1.4 and chromatic aberrations.  Canon’s entry is quite good, but it still exhibits some distortion and its bokeh leaves something to be desired.  Dare I say that I believe that Sigma’s lens bests both of them.  That alone would be enough for me to recommend this product.  But then you take price into consideration, and you get get the Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | A for about $900 USD at Amazon.com.  That may sound like a lot, but not for a 35mm f/1.4, and certainly not compared to it’s competition.  You’ll save at least $200 USD over Canon’s entry and nearly $600 USD over Nikon’s.  So if you’re in the market for a lens of this caliper and at this focal length, the only question I have is why consider anything else?

It goes without saying that the Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM is going to be a Shutter Photo Recommended Product.

Things We Liked

  • Clean and durable design.
  • Superior image quality.
  • A large focusing ring; no hunting for focus when using manual.
  • Focusing distance window is clean and easy to read.

Things We Didn’t Like

  • That focusing ring tends to skip once it reaches the end of it’s rotation.

More Sample Photos

All of these photos are taken direct from camera, correcting only for exposure.

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About the Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.