Lens Review: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM “Art”

December 12, 2014  •  1 Comment

With ThornsWith ThornsA still life of leaves in Redmond, WA

It is really, really good.

Okay, okay, I’ll go into a little more detail. But suffice to say, I am very impressed with this offering from Sigma, and I’m very happy that Sigma has started to really up the quality of their offerings. More competition and higher quality will force the bigger players to step up their game as well, and we as photographers benefit (although the price does tend to increase as a result).

Pros:

  • Superb, even world-class sharpness even at f/1.4 in the center
  • Sharp to the corners by f/2.8
  • Pleasing bokeh (out of focus elements), ahead of and behind the focal point
  • Solid build quality with Sigma’s “Thermally Stable Composite” materials
  • Quick, quiet autofocus
  • USB dock lens-level adjustment available if you need/want it
  • Coatings reducing flare quite well
  • Very competitive pricing given the extremely high performance

Cons:

  • Third-party, and like all third-party lenses the “reverse engineered” autofocus could break/fail whenever Nikon or Canon issue a firmware update or release a new DSLR (at least until Sigma provides new firmware for the lens)
  • Lower resale value, in general, than a first-party lens (this could change as more people discover the quality of Sigma’s Art line)
  • Vignettes some wide open, but it feels artistic and is less severe than comparable 35mm f/1.4 primes
  • …That’s about it

Missing Summer - and AutumnMissing Summer - and AutumnIt's cold here right now. Not "Northern Wisconsin in February" cold, but cold for Washington State west of the Cascades. Here's a shot of nostalgia from warmer times, not too long ago.

I really love the 35mm focal length. For me it’s the perfect walk-around, all purpose lens – more so than a 50mm or a 28mm. I can use a 35mm to take landscape shots, do creative still-life work, make portraits, and use it as a workhorse focal length for weddings. As a result of my appreciation for 35mm lenses, I’ve owned and used several extensively, including:

  • Nikon 35mm f/1.4G AF-S
  • Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2
  • Sony Zeiss 35mm f/2 on the Sony RX1-R

And it should be no surprise that when I got my hands on a some Phase One systems for a day, my favorite and most-used lens ended up being the Schneider LS 55mm f/2.8, which has a 34mm equivalent focal length.

So, in short, I like ‘em and I’ve taken several thousand photos with ‘em over the years. Setting aside the Schneider LS, as I only had it for a day and it’s above my pay grade right now, my favorite before the Sigma 35mm Art was the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2, although the Sony Zeiss 35mm f/2 integrated into the Sony RX1-R was a close second.

Well, time to step down a bit, previous favorites. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art is the new king in town – for now, and with some caveats, of course.

Sigma 35mm Art ex 3Sigma 35mm Art ex 3

I want to be quick to point out that the Sigma is not superior to the Zeiss ZF.2 in every respect. In fact, I would say the Zeiss beats the Sigma on a few points, namely build quality (all metal, extremely solid, though the Sigma is no slouch there), bokeh (one of the main design points of the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 was quality bokeh), color reproduction (a Zeiss hallmark), and the sheer loveliness of that manual focus ring.

But for half the price the Sigma delivers a lens that is sharper at f/1.4 than the Zeiss, delivers 90% of the bokeh and color quality, and is darn well built to boot. And, most importantly, it has fast, quiet autofocus, where the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 is manual focus only. And for me, looking back at my old images taken with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, its clear the Sigma comes out on top there as well – by a significant margin, if you only look at image quality.

I used the Sigma as my primary lens for an entire wedding, mated to my D800E, and it worked flawlessly, delivering tack-sharp images even at f/1.4 time and again. This ability to use a lens wide open for critical applications really opens up your creative options (as I discussed in my Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 review). You just don’t have to worry about sharpness – use aperture based on availability of light and desired depth of field and that’s it. The lens will deliver. Perhaps 80% or more of my “keepers” from that wedding came from the Sigma.

Along the FenceAlong the FenceIn Redmond, Washington, at the dog park - taken with the really quite amazingly good Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART (a rental, but one I'm seriously considering buying)

The main drawback, as I see it, to the Sigma is that it *is* a third-party lens. As such resale value tends to be lower (this could change). And, more importantly, Nikon and Canon (especially Nikon) have a habit of “breaking” the autofocus of third-party lenses when they issue new camera firmware or release an entirely new camera. I don’t want to get into the argument about whether Canikon do this deliberately to make life harder for third-party lens manufacturers, but it is a reality right now because companies like Sigma and Tamron have to reverse-engineer the autofocus specs and mechanisms when they make their lenses. So you could update your DSLR and find your lovely Sigma no longer autofocuses, at least not until Sigma issues new firmware for your lens.

The firmware issue is something to be aware of, especially if you are a working pro dependent on having a lenses reliably work (then I’d recommend you don’t update your DSLR firmware until others across the Internet have reported all the problems – and especially not right before a big gig!). In my opinion, though, this should not stop you from considering this lens if you need a new 35mm for your system. The image quality is just too good not to put it on your shortlist.

Sigma 35mm Art ex 2Sigma 35mm Art ex 2

Personally, I think that if I didn’t need autofocus, and price was no object, I’d still prefer the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2. It has that lovely creamy bokeh, Zeiss colors and “pop” (microcontrast + bokeh) in its Zeiss-signature rendering that I just can’t get enough of, and the Sigma cannot quite match, even though the Sigma seems a touch sharper wide open. But, once you take into consideration both price and the need for autofocus, the Sigma comes out on top.

I hope Sigma makes more “Art” primes of similar or even greater quality. Rumor mills have suggested both a 24mm f/1.4 and a 135mm f/2 with image stabilization could be under development, and if they can keep the high performance of this 35mm f/1.4, then they would be fantastic additions to the Sigma lineup.

Highly recommended.

Sigma 35mm Art ex 1Sigma 35mm Art ex 1


Comments

1.nasser(non-registered)
Great review. Thanks. I would love to see some shots from that wedding you shot entirely with the sigma 35/1.4. Do you have a blog post of that wedding by any chance?
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