Last month, I gave a favorable review to the Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD, a quality lens from a so-called “third-party manufacturer.” I noted in the review that Tamron had “really been on a roll” lately when it came to creating excellent, pro-level glass for Canon, Nikon, Sony and other DSLR camera mounts at less expensive price points. This month, I got a chance to look at a new pro lens by one of Tamron’s main competitors, Sigma, and it’s also a welcome surprise.
The first of several new pro lenses announced by Sigma at the photokina show in Germany last year, the Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM is also the first to utilize Sigma’s new Global Vision system for differentiating its lenses. In this case, the Sigma 35mm F1.4 falls into the Art category. (Sigma’s two other new lens categories are Contemporary and Sports.)
While, I suppose, you could use this prime lens to shoot “arty” photos with extremely shallow depth of field and significant background blur, thanks to its f/1.4 maximum aperture, for me this lens is ideal for portraits. When used with a full-frame camera, such as the Canon EOS 6D that I tested the lens on, you get that classic 35mm focal length, allowing you to capture a more generous area around your subject for an environmental portrait. In my case, I used the lens to shoot a publicity photo for a children’s book author/illustrator, which she could use on her book jackets or to promote herself in print or online.
Along with featuring a new design, which I’ll get to in the next section, the Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM works with the company’s new USB Dock, which lets users customize features in the lens via software on their computer. I saw a demo of the USB Dock and it’s a pretty forward-thinking product, allowing you to apply firmware updates or tweak specific features, such as micro focus adjustments, in Sigma’s latest lenses.
One example I saw was a way to slow down a lens’s autofocus speed for smoother transitions when shooting video. That’s a great idea, but the USB Dock wasn’t available by the time we went to press and no pricing had been announced. According to Sigma the USB Dock should ship in April, at the latest. In the mean time, let’s take a look at this solid little portrait lens, which is impressive in its own right.
One of the first things you may notice about the Sigma 35mm F1.4 is that it has a small, silver badge slightly inset on the barrel with the letter “A” emblazoned on it. This is to denote it’s part of the new Art category of lenses from Sigma. That A badge might be the only bling-y thing about this stout, utilitarian-looking lens.
Overall, I like the serious design of the nearly all-black 35mm F1.4. There’s no gratuitous metallic ring around it to look like you know who, nor is there an excess of rubber on the barrel, as has been the case with some of Sigma’s lenses in the past. There’s a sturdy feel to the lens but it is noticeably heavier than the competition, weighing in at nearly 1.5 pounds. At 3.7 inches, it’s also slightly longer than prime lenses with similar specs from Canon, Nikon and Sony. Attach the petal-shaped lens hood, which adds up to two inches on the front of the lens, and this Sigma prime is equal in length to some standard zoom lenses. Despite the bigger, heavier build, the Sigma 35mm F1.4 isn’t weather sealed like Nikon’s comparable prime.
That’s not a huge deal because, as I said, it’s made for portrait photographers, not sports shooters who are more prone to working in inclement weather. If you take a lot of outdoor portraits, however, you might want some extra protection. While testing the lens, I spent time shooting portraits on a rooftop in Manhattan under threatening, winter skies. A little extra sealing would have been reassuring.
But it’s easy to forget that this Sigma prime is a “budget” lens, retailing for approximately $400 less than comparable glass from Canon and Nikon. Eschewing the mostly rubberized finish on previous high-end Sigma lenses, the 35mm F1.4 has a matte-black polycarbonate barrel with ridges on the bottom to help you get a grip. A half-inch section on the end facing the lens mount is slightly flanged and has a shiny black finish. The front of the lens has a ridged, rubber ring if you want to manually focus it (a switch on the side lets you change from autofocus to manual focus). It’s all pretty simple and effective.
Internally, the lens is comprised of 13 glass elements in 11 groups, and includes one piece of Sigma’s “F” Low Dispersion (FLD) glass, which isn’t actually fluorite, as its name suggests, but operates similarly to prevent ghosting and flare while reducing chromatic aberrations (i.e. purple fringing) in shots with high contrast. The 35mm F1.4 also has four Special Low Dispersion (SLD) glass elements, which also help reduce chromatic aberrations in photos.
To help create background blur (aka bokeh), the lens has a rounded 9-blade diaphragm and when the 35mm is shot wide open, the effect can be quite dramatic. (More about that later.) The lens is powered by Sigma’s Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) autofocus (AF) technology that’s designed to be quiet, accurate and quick.
In most shooting circumstances, Sigma’s HSM AF in the 35mm lens lived up to its billing. I was able to quickly lock in focus on my subject for portraits, recompose to include some of the background to create an off-center rule-of-thirds effect, and then fire off a quick photo when I saw the expression I wanted. The HSM AF was also quiet, letting me shoot without drawing too much attention. (While shooting video with the Sigma 35mm F1.4, I could slightly pick up the sound of the AF on the 6D’s built-in mic.)
In low-contrast shooting situations and, occasionally, in otherwise normal-to-good outdoor and indoor lighting, however, the Sigma 35mm F1.4 would sometimes take over a second to go from infinity to close focus. I also noticed that the lens tended to hunt for focus, even during the course of a sequence of portraits captured from the same distance. On the plus side, I liked that the lens’s focus ring stayed put when it zeroed in on a subject. (On some lower quality lenses, the focus ring moves during AF, which can be noisy and distracting.) To override AF and go to manual focusing, simply turn the focus ring slightly with your hand.
While you can get the most out of this lens at its true focal length on a full-frame camera like the 6D, it’s also compatible with APS-C-sensor-based DSLRs, such as a Canon EOS 7D, where the 35mm magnifies to a 56mm lens but maintains that brilliant f/1.4 aperture.
If you find you want a much broader depth of field to capture sharp background detail for an environmental portrait or even for a landscape photo, you can stop this lens down all the way to f/16. And, while it’s not really designed for macro photography, the intense bokeh you get when shooting with it wide open can create dramatic close-up photography. The minimum focusing distance of 12 inches, however, is not ideal for getting detail in flowers and insects.
The Sigma 35mm F1.4 was a great lens for my portrait session, producing exquisite center sharpness while completely obliterating the background for a striking effect that made my subject pop. But while many photographers will be drawn to this lens for its f/1.4 aperture, the intense bokeh it produces at that setting might be too intense for some assignments. And while it did a good job keeping our subject sharp at f/1.4, the lens gets even sharper as you stop down.
Most of my straight portraits were shot at f/2 or f/2.8, giving me just enough background blur to draw out my subject but not so much that it looked surreal. For environmental portraits, I stopped down to f/5.6 to pick up the background and that’s when this lens achieved its best sharpness.
There was some vignetting when shot wide open—as is to be expected from a fast prime on a full-frame camera—but you can easily remove it in Photoshop, if you’d like. Personally, I think a little vignetting adds a nice framing effect, helping your subject stand out.
I shot a series of my portraits backlit at f/1.4 to see how the lens would handle chromatic aberrations and lens flare. The results were exceptional. So even while this 35mm f/1.4 has no actual fluorite, Sigma’s FLD glass did its job.
The Bottom Line
Sigma had been relatively quiet in 2012 in terms of new professional-grade lenses, but the 35mm F1.4 DG HSM shows that the company is back with a bang this year. While this 35mm prime had a few issues with slow focusing, especially when going from infinity to close focus, it wasn’t so noticeable to be a deal-breaker for me. In fact, this solid portrait lens is quite a deal, retailing for approximately $400 less than the name-brand competition. It excelled during my portrait sessions, keeping my subject tack sharp while blowing out the background at f/1.4 for a pleasing effect. Stop down to f/2 or f/2.8, and you’ll get even sharper images with noticeable-but-less-dramatic bokeh that isolates your subject for a professional look. Meanwhile, the special glass elements in this solidly built lens did a good job of keeping chromatic aberrations and flare under control. As the first of three new pro lenses from Sigma, the 35mm F1.4 DG HSM proves that 2013 could be a big year for the company.
Pros: High-quality portrait lens at a great price; solid, functional build with an unpretentious design; maximum f/1.4 aperture creates a shallow depth of field and pleasing background blur for an intense effect; tack sharpness, especially when you stop down a bit
Cons: In low-contrast shooting conditions, the lens can take over a second to focus from infinity to close up; lens sometimes hunted for focus during portrait sessions in low light; autofocus sound can be picked up when shooting video; no weather sealing
Price: $899; www.sigmaphoto.com
Read all of our lens reviews at www.pdnonline.com/lenses.