For those of you who have been following The Lightshop I’m sure you’ve stumbled upon the excellent review of the new Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens that Jay has written up. In talking with Jay I could tell how big a fan of this lens he has become and with good reason, it’s a beautiful lens with very fast focusing and great build quality. I have been shooting Nikon’s version of the 35mm f/1.4 since May of 2011 and while I love my Nikon lens I was anxious to try out this newcomer to the the fast aperture wide-angle lens category, and we thought it would be cool to have another opinion here at The Lightshop. If you want to get right to my final thoughts head right to the end.
I’d like to start by stating that this is by no means a technical review of the lens. I personally don’t care what all the numbers and statistics are with any particular lens. I’m primarily a wedding photographer and in the end I just need my gear to perform well, hold up to my abuse (I’m not easy on my gear) and deliver consistent sharp photos. Whatever helps me get those results tends to end up in my gear bag, which is why I’ve been happy using solely Nikon lenses for the past 5 years. Because focus is so important to me this review will center around that metric. To test out this new Sigma lens I did the same thing I always do, I put the lens on my Nikon D3s and met up with Jay and his lovely wife Sandi and we took some photos. A secondary benefit of this shoot was to give Jay & Sandi some photos of themselves for their website which allowed me to photograph a couple like I normally do. It was very important for me to test this lens out in my normal shooting conditions which are always on location and primarily couples.
When I met up with Jay and saw the lens the first thing I noticed were its looks. It is a very nice looking lens as Jay had mentioned and I completely agree with him about the nice feel to the lens. At first sight it is physically more narrow and appears to be longer than the Nikon 35mm which is not a big deal at all, just an observation. Both lenses have the same size filter threads which make for easy compatibility if you have already invested in filters.
I started out by micro-adjusting the Sigma lens the same exact way I do with all of my prime lenses. I do have a focus target but I don’t bother putting the camera on a tripod and lining everything up perfectly. I set the lens to its minimum aperture and photograph the target many times and adjust accordingly until I get consistently sharp results. When I’m working I don’t ever shoot with a tripod so my thinking is why should I calibrate it that way. I know this may not technically be the “best” way to do it but this method is what has worked for me in the past so it’s what I stick with. Once I had the lens calibrated we all took a ride to a nearby location to freeze our asses off and test out this lens.
When I use a 35mm I tend to do a lot of scenic photos with the subject heavily offset in the frame. When shooting with lower apertures I almost always focus by moving my focus point in the viewfinder because I find that focusing first and re-composing the frame tends to give me more out of focus photos. I also tried to get a lot of variety with the Sigma so I could really get a good test of what the lens was capable of. I don’t normally use a 35mm for close up portraits since I don’t like that look but for testing purposes I did just that. I took 179 photos with the Sigma 35mm using aperture settings ranging from wide open at f/1.4 through to f/5.6. My favorite aperture to use with my Nikon 35mm is f/2.0 which gives me a nice shallow depth of field while giving me a high enough percentage of sharp photos. I rarely use my Nikon 35mm wide open since I have never been able to get a high enough percentage of sharp photos for my taste. I did take the majority of the photos with the Sigma 35mm at f/2.0 as well. While not an exhaustive test, I think it is enough to get a decent idea of what this lens would do under my normal shooting conditions.
The results I found are below and I’ll start off by showing an example of what I consider acceptably sharp vs not. I know most times you can do some sharpening in post and salvage the photos I would consider not in focus but I tend to be stingy with sharpening so I if it doesn’t start out sharp it gets tossed. All example photos in this post were photographed on a Nikon D3s in RAW format and then imported into Adobe Lightroom 4 using my default sharpening settings which are amount=25, radius=1.0, detail=25, and masking=0. The photos were then exported from Lightroom as a JPEG with the quality set on 100 and no additional sharpening applied. On the indicated photos I did apply my normal color correction and contrast so they look good. You can click on each photo to view and download the full resolution photo to make your own judgments.
Using the Sigma lens is a joy. It is comfortable to hold when mounted to the camera with a good balance on a full size camera body. While shooting the focus seemed very fast and didn’t hesitate at all. The only time it was searching a bit was when I had the sun shining directly in the lens which every lens tends to struggle with so nothing special there. On the usability of this lens I give it a definite thumbs up and there is really no discernible difference between shooting the Sigma35mm compared to shooting the Nikon 35mm.
Once I had the photos imported into Lightroom was when the difference started to become apparent. Overall quality was great, color was nice, bokeh was nice, and contrast was great. The number of in focus photos was my issue. Below are the statistics that I found. Please remember this is just my personal opinion on what is in focus, yours may certainly vary. I’ll list the aperture setting and the number of photos in focus (IF) and out of focus (OOF) followed by the percentage of in focus photos.
- Set at f/1.4 − 16 IF / 16 OOF - %50 IF
- Set at f/2.0 − 45 IF / 36 OOF - %56 IF
- Set at f/2.5 − 4 IF / 5 OOF - %44 IF
- Set above f/2.8 − 57 IF / 0 OOF - %100 IF
As you can see the Sigma lens excels at any aperture setting above f/2.8 Every photo I took in that range was tack sharp and looked great. Once you drop below that however I started to see much less in focus. Keeping in mind I never get everything in focus on any given shoot and there is always going to be user error, the percentage of keepers for me was just a tad too low. For comparison I took a look at the last wedding I photographed and out of 133 photos taken with the Nikon 35mm at f/2.0 95 of them were in focus while 38 were not, yielding an in focus percentage of %71, much more acceptable for me.
Being a Nikon only lens shooter for over 5 years I have not had any experience with any other lenses and I had never really thought of giving a Sigma a try. After reading Jay’s review and talking to him I couldn’t pass up the chance to give this Sigma a shot. Overall I would say that the new Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is a really good lens with excellent build quality, great looks, fast focus speed, great color and contrast and an equally impressive price. The only downside I could find was with focus accuracy at apertures less than f/2.8. Even with that fault the lens is still a great shooter and I would still be able to get enough in focus photos with my style of shooting but for now the Nikon is going to stay in my gear bag.