This review is also published on my gear review blog: http://photobyrichard.com/reviewbyrichard
Third party lenses are usually associated with words like “cheap”, “cost effective” but rarely you would think about excellent image quality or build quality. That is unless the third party lens is from some certain company from Germany.
Sigma is one of the most popular Japanese third party lens manufacturer. Their lenses are famous for affordable price but not necessarily the best optical performance.
That is until year 2012.
Kazuto Yamaki became the new CEO of Sigma Cooperation that year, and soon after that, Sigma announced some major changes to their products. One of the new product line is the ART series lenses. While they have rebranded some of their existing lenses with the ART name, the 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART was the first real ART lens with a 100% new design. And that lens surprised everyone. It does not only give you great price / performance ratio, but it also has excellent image quality and a brand new look.
Sigma has recently released the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART. It also is a brand new design and it’s quite an extreme design as well .
Design and Build
I said extreme, but how extreme is the design?
How about it’s 815g weight? That’s almost the weight of three 50mm f/1.4 lens from either Canon or Nikon (which is around 280-290g each). It’s a very heavy 50mm lens. The lens optical formula consists of 13 elements, including 3 SLD glass elements and 1 aspherical element. That is double the number of elements from a typical 50mm f/1.4 lens. And the size? At 100mm length, it’s nearly identical to the Nikon AF-S 24-120 f/4 VR zoom lens. And it takes 77mm filter too.
So yes it’s a pretty crazy and complex design for a 50mm lens. The only 50mm lens that is bigger and more extreme is the Zeiss Optus 1.4/55. (ok that’s not a 50mm, but close enough) Even the Canon 50mm f/1.2L is smaller, shorter, lighter and has less lens elements than the Sigma. That’s how extreme this new Sigma lens is.
I LOVE the new Sigma ART design. To me, the previous Sigma lenses have a “I’m a good quality alternative for budget users” look. Not true anymore for the new ART lenses. The new ART lens looks elegant and reminds me of the Zeiss lenses, maybe just a bit plasticky. But when I say plasticky, it’s only if you compare it to a Zeiss lens. The construction and material used to build the Sigma 50 f/1.4 ART is every single bit as good as the first party professional lenses. The build quality of the lens is really good and feel extremely solid. The only disappointment is that it’s not a weather proof lens
While the focusing ring is quite smooth and well dampened, the short travel tells you it’s not really designed for manual focus.
The lens also comes with a reversible lens hood and lens pouch. The lens hood is made of plastic but has a nice finish and design that doesn’t feel cheap at all.
One common criticism for the Sigma prime lenses is it’s autofocus accuracy and consistency or the lack of them. For a fast prime lens that has a shallow depth of field, it doesn’t matter how sharp the lens is, if the autofocus is off, even just slightly, then the photo would be soft, or even unusable.
A couple of years ago, I bought a Nikon AFS 50mm f/1.4G instead of the Sigma 50 f/1.4 EX DG HSM purely because I found the Sigma couldn’t focus consistently with my camera. Otherwise I would had bought the Sigma instead. So the autofocus accuracy and consistenency are my biggest concerns I had with this lens.
So anyway, some early reviews suggested the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART’s autofocus accuracy and consistency are much better than their previous lens. Now after using the lens for about 3 months and took hundreds if not thosands of photos with this lens, I can say the autofocus accuracy is just as good and consistent as my Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. While there are some occasional photos that the focus was not quite right, they are usually user error (i.e. me) or just the limitation of the camera’s autofocus system.
Even when under very low light condition, the autofocus performance is still pretty good. Just remember to find a high contrast object as your AF target or your camera may struggle to figure out what you really want to focus on.
In terms of autofocus speed, its quite fast, faster than the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G but not the fastest autofocus lens ever. Unless you want to shoot some extremely fast action with it then you should be happy with the AF speed.
And if you do find your Sigma 50mm ART’s autofocus is slightly front or back focus, there is a special USB dock you can use (buy separately) to fine tune your autofocus settings. I haven’t use one myself as I’m pretty happy with my results. But this is definitely a good selling point as the USB dock give you a lot more flexible in adjustement than what you can do on your camera (which is just one single AF fine tune setting).
Look at the size of the lens, it’s pretty obvious this lens was created with one main purpose, image quality.
And have they achieve it?
The first thing you’ll notice is how sharp the photos are. Even with the most demanding camera like the 36MP Nikon D810, reviewing at 100%, everything is extremely sharp.
At maximum aperture, the sharpness is very good. And I’m not just talking about the center sharpness. Even the edges are pretty sharp at f/1.4. I had some problems in the past with my Nikon AFS 50mm f/1.4G when I want to shoot at wide open and put my main subject in the corner, and the image quality was just not good enough. It won’t be a problem with the Sigma 50 ART. And if you really want the corner to be very sharp, just stop down to f/2.
Colour and contrast from the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART are both very good. Sigma’s Super Multi-Layer coating may not sound as fancy as Nikon’s Nano Coating, but it is quite effective in reducing flare and maintaining contrast. I have to try really hard to get the lens to flare.
Coma is a common problem for most prime lenses, but it is controlled reasonably well with the Sigma. The Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G has better coma control but the Sigma is a lot better than most other prime lenses such as the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G or Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G. (A detailed 50mm comparison review will be coming soon…)
Chromatic aberration is not too bad with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART. At f/1.4, there is quite a bit of CA especially near the corner (LoCA) but it’s not really a concern or any worse than most prime lenses.
50mm lenses normally have very minimal barrel distortion and this is also true for the Sigma. Barrel distortion is minimal and shouldn’t be a concern at all.
Barrel Distortion? Yeah Nah, it’s just a little bit ….
At wide open, vignetting is pretty noticable. And it appears to be slightly worse when focus on close object. You have to stop down to f/2.8 to get rid of most vignetting.
Bokeh is quite an important character for a 50mm prime lens. The difference between a good and bad 50mm lens is quite often down to it’s bokeh, or the quality of the bokeh to be precise. So, how does the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART perform in this area?
Fairly good I would say. Under most situations, the bokeh is nice, round and pleasant. When your focus is at close distance, you can easily melt the background into creamy painting and everything look great. The problem happens when you shooting objects at medium distance say 10 meters away and the background is slightly blurred, quite often if the background has high contrast area then the bokeh could look quite nervous. It’s not terribly bad, but definitely not bokehlicious and is the major downside of this lens in terms of image quality
It’s obvious when Sigma was designing this new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART, the engineers were told not to worry about the size or weight of the lens and just focus on making the best 50mm lens possible. And they didn’t fail us as the result is an amazing lens. The image quality is just fantastic. While the bokeh could be a bit better, professional users or any photographer who want best image quality won’t be disappointed by this 50mm lens. Price wise, it’s not cheap, but consider the performance it still offers fantastic value. Autofocus used to be a problem for Sigma lenses, but I found this new ART lens focus accurately.
But before you go and buy one, make sure you go to a shop and try it on your camera. Hold it, have a walk and shoot a few photos with it.
Its extreme size and weight is really not for everyone. A lot of people like the 50mm prime because of it’s compact size, So if you want a small light weight lens that you can carry around easily, the Sigma is not what you want. It’s really a lot bigger than most 50mm prime lenses and heavier than some of the zoom lenses. But if weight and size doesn’t worry you much, then this is one excellent 50mm lens.
- It’s sharp!
- Build quality
- Autofocus is accurate
- It’s heavy and it’s huge!
- Bokeh could be a bit nervous
Nikon D800 + Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART – f/3.2 1/800s ISO 100
Nikon D800 + Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART – f/2 1/125s ISO 100
Nikon D800 + Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART – f/1.4 1/100s ISO 320
Notice the tree branches bokeh in background looks a bit nervous
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