UPDATE: Part 2 of this review has been posted here.
If you’re a wedding or portrait client you might want to scroll down past this camera nerd stuff. This article is being written for the photographers out there considering this lens. Of course, you’re more than welcome to keep reading…..but you’ve been warned!
When SIGMA USA first announced production of the 85mm/f1.4 EX DG HSM lens, I knew this was something I just had to have. Having already fallen in love with Sigma’s 50mm/f1.4 EX DG HSM model (which happens to be my most used lens), I had hopes that this 85mm/1.4 would offer more of the same qualities at a longer focal length. Since 85mm is a focal length I use a lot and I’m pretty happy with my current lens (the Canon 85mm/1.8), I needed this lens to be even better in order to make its way into my kit.
Sigma did not disappoint!
Not only does the 85/1.4 appear to be just as good at the 50/1.4, it might be even better than its little brother.
Since I was among the first people in the U.S. to get my hands on this lens, I felt it was my duty to pass on as much info as I could gather. I’ve only had it for a short while now, but I’ve seen enough to share my thoughts on it. Now, if you’re expecting a highly technical review with brick wall tests, focus charts, and things of that nature, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. I’m sure there will be more than enough pixel-peeping, uber-analytical tests done by guys in white lab coats with graphs, charts, and images blown up 1000%. Well, that’s not me and it that’s definitely not how I test my lenses. I test them by actually taking them out and shooting real stuff in real world conditions. I didn’t use a tripod because I typically don’t shoot with one. My photography relies on me being mobile and being able to set up and shoot quickly…..so that’s what I did. I put the lens on the camera and just started shooting.
Opening the Box
The appearance of the lens inspires confidence right out of the box. It basically looks like a longer, slightly wider version of its smaller sibling. The build quality is excellent, which is something I’ve come to expect from the EX series of lenses. Included in the box are the lens, lens pouch, hood, hood extender (for APS-C models), front and rear caps, along with the warranty card and user’s manual. Like the smaller 50mm, the 85mm/1.4 has a huge front element which sports a 77mm filter size, making for a pretty hefty piece of glass. I could definitely feel the difference in weight between this lens and the Sigma 50mm/1.4. Although it’s noticably heavier than the 50mm, the 85mm feels really well balanced on both my Canon 5D MK1 and 1D MK2 bodies. (Note: All images in this review were taken with the Canon 5D Mark 1). One rather significant change is the texture of the finish on the lens body. Sigma appears to be moving away from the “crinkle” finish in favor of a smooth black finish. The new finish should be more durable and less prone to peeling. It also gives the lens a rather sleek look.
Sigma 85mm/f1.4/ EX DG HSM
- Big Brother, Little Brother
As I mentioned above, I test lenses by shooting with it under normal conditions, uploading the images to the computer, and taking a closer look at the images on the monitor. I also tend to test lenses wide open (F1.4 in the case) since that is where most lenses are at their worst. If I’m happy with it wide open, then I’m most likely going to be happy when the lens is stopped down to smaller apertures.
Test #1: Focus Accuracy at Minimum Focus Distance (MFD)
The 85/1.4 passed this test with flying colors. If a lens is going to mis-focus, it’s most likely going to be either at very close distances or close to infinity. This test is of particular importance to me because neither of my bodies has the ability to micro-adjust for focus accuracy. Sigma has had some problems in this area in the past and this was something I definitely wanted to test right off the bat. Fortunately my copy was “spot on” right out of the box. Images are sharp at F1.4, perhaps even sharper than my 50/1.4 wide open. That’s really saying a lot because I have no problem shooting the 50mm @ 1.4. This also proved to be the case when shooting at or near infinity. Focus was perfect at any distance.
Test #2: Focus Speed
This is another area of concern for many photographers, particularly Canon shooters who may have avoided the 85mm/1.2L dues to its knack for slow focusing. For sports shooters, wedding shooters, or anyone else shooting moving objects, focus speed can be the difference between getting that shot….or just missing it. Well, the 85/1.4 does not disappoint. I’m not about to pull out a stopwatch and start measuring in tenths of a second, but I didn’t notice any difference in focusing this lens vs. any of my other lens. It doesn’t appear to be overly quick, but it doesn’t appear to be slow either. The main thing for me is being able to shoot with without having to wait for the lens. to lock focus. That certainly won’t be the case with this lens.
Test #3: Low Light Focus Speed/Accuracy
This particular test is more a function of the camera body itself and how it uses the algorithms and sensors to acquire focus. Again, there was nothing different about this lens in comparison to the others in my kit. It acquired focus in pretty low light time after time, which will come in handy in those dark churches and reception halls.
Test #4: Purple Fringing (PF) and Chromatic Aberration (CA)
I gotta admit, just using the word “aberration” in a sentence makes me feel like a pretty smart guy. Maybe I’ll get one of those white lab coats afterall! Haha! Yeah right…
Actually, this is the one area where I feel the Sigma 50mm is better than the Sigma 85mm. A lot has to do with the focal length. In my experience PF in particuar seems to be more of a problem at longer focal lengths. Even so, the 85mm exhibits a moderate amount of PF at the focus point, while exhibiting an equal amount of longitudinal CA behind the focus point. This is something exhibited by just about all wide aperture lenses when shot wide open, but it seemed to jump out at me more with this lens. Of course, it could be due to the fact that I was actually looking for it.
Test #5: ‘Bokeh’
I came very very close to just leaving this part out. Bokeh is so subjective, that it’s something you really have to judge for yourself. Camera to subject distance and busyness of the background have a lot to do with how those areas are rendered. From what I’ve seen, the bokeh is pretty much what you would expect from a lens of this quality. It’s pleasing to my eye and the out of focus highlights are very similar to that of the Sigma 50. No real surprises here one way or the other. I suggest taking a peek at some of the samples posted below and some of the samples already posted online and make your judgement based on that.
The Sigma 85mm/1.4 EX DG is definitely a keeper. Since this lens is targeted to compete with Canon’s 85mm/1.2L, it’s almost unfair to compare it head to head with the Canon 85mm/1.8. Forget the almost….it is unfair to compare the two. It’s just a no contest. The Sigma focuses just as quickly, just as accurately, and is much sharper at f1.4 than the Canon is at f1.8. The fuzziness you get with the Canon is non-existent in the images shot with the Sigma. With both lenses at f1.8, it’s not even close…..I’m talking about a Mike Tyson style 1st round TKO! That’s pretty much it. The Sigma didn’t even work up a sweat and the Canon 85/1.8 is laying there looking like Michael Spinks.
Bottom Line: Does it work like it’s supposed to? Yes. Do the pictures look pretty? Yes, especially the ones of my wife!
Although I didn’t have a Canon 85/1.2L at my disposal, I’m pretty confident that the Sigma 85 could hold its own. Which lens is better? Who knows? I’m sure there will subsequent reviews and forum comments backing one or the other. That’s not for me to decide. What I have decided is that the Sigma 85mm/1.4 is the perfect lens for what I do and is a welcome addition to my lens kit.
There will be additional reviews posted here as I spend more time with this lens. For now, I leave you with a few more sample images…
UPDATE: Part 2 of this review has been posted here.