Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM: Possibly Great.

February 15, 2013  •  6 Comments

The buzz around this lens has been incredible. Based on early reviews and comments from the likes of Lloyd Chambers, LensRentalsDXOMark, ePhotozine and many others, it is (relatively) cheap, well built, and better than its peer group - including Zeiss. But. But but but. No one apart from Lloyd has reviewed this on a D800/E and, as we all know, you can't compare lens reviews across cameras other than pretty loosely. Lloyd's review so far is very positive but it is still in progress and hasn't yet covered use of the lens at mid and far distance. As we also know, a lens that scores really well on a near-field test bench can prove to be, well, meh on a distant hillside.

Ever happy to be the sacrificial lamb, I ordered myself one.

Let me rewind a little: aside from Streety-PJ-Urban Observational type work I never use this focal length. A 35 Lux on a Digital M is a lot of fun but for most of my work, I like the 20-24 range and the 80-200 range. But as regular readers will know I have reviewed the Sony RX-1 in detail and in the course of so doing, I realised that a) 35mm is more interesting than I thought for landscape and b) the 35mm Zeiss lens on the RX-1 is shockingly good, especially after 10 months of shooting the D800E, a camera on which almost no short lenses get sharp edges until they have crossed the border into diffraction land.


So my rationale for getting the Siggy was that I would like something wide that shoots sharp side-to-side on the D800, hopefully at least as good as the Zeiss on the Sony...

As usual I will deliver the bad news first: my copy has a slight decentering and in fact neither edge is satisfactorily sharp until F8 or smaller. But. But but but. The people at Sigma UK are absolutely delightful and extremely helpful and after sending them some sample images they have said that it should indeed produce sharper images at the edges. Even better, they were able to give this opinion quickly, by looking at shots I posted online for their review. Unlike engineers at Nikon UK who, I was shockingly told recently, 'don't have access to the internet...'

The upshot is that this will be a review that takes certain things on faith. Not completely: I have certified to my own satisfaction by focussing in Live View using the extreme edges that they can be very sharp, even on my copy. And better still, by careful iteration of focus using this technique I even got one (out of many) that was pretty sharp across the frame at F4, which is my yardstick here. But I take it on faith that a future copy will be able to do this without arcane focussing rituals and will allow a 36" un-cropped image that 'sings sharply to the sides'.

What I also did was to shoot the same scene at F4 on the Siggy/D800E and on the RX-1. And then I downsized the Nikon image to the same pixel dimensions as the RX-1 file and, bingo, on centre the greater sharpness of the Sigma/Nikon was evident. Now that really is saying something. You can see those files at full size by clicking here for the Sony and here for the Siggy/Nikon. Look at the word 'PRIDE' on the central red umbrella: you can read it clearly on the SiKon shot and not on the Sony shot. So at least on centre, the Sigma lens is mining the extra resolution of the D800E sensor. But it is also clear that the edges of the Sony file are far superior in this particular comparison. I will post again on this when I can test an optimal copy of the Siggy but in the meantime clicking here will give you a gallery with aperture series at both far-mid and close distances. Please note, the near series is focussed on the texture of the wall itself and not the plants growing up it.


That out of the way, and assuming that a good copy is nicely sharp to the edges at F4 and F5.6, then I can safely say that this is a damn nice lens. It is solidly and very nicely built. It has a lovely clean, smooth manual focussing action. It has low distortion (barrel, easily adjusted). I have found it pretty much impossible to make it ghost or flare. It has low aberrations. It is waaay cheaper than the equivalents in CaNikon/Zeiss world. In fact the only mild negatives are that it isn't fully weather sealed (rubber mount gasket only) and it is maybe a little heavy, courtesy of its build quality.

So let's look at some detail. And what detail! Wide open, this lens is very sharp and mine almost never misses focus using the central AF point. The scene was shot at F1.8, by hand with AF-S...

_DSC9588 Here is a 100% crop from the centre:

_DSC9588-2 and here's a 100% crop from the subsequent shot taken at F2.8

_DSC9589 Now that is frickin' sharp. I can see colour aliasing in the woodgrain. Frickin' sharp. And (see the gallery for examples) it retains very very good sharpness, despite diffraction, even to F16 - so DOF freaks will be happy.

Here's one of, sorry, my dog Scooter. It's at F1.4 and ISO 1800 and I have cropped it slightly:


Ahh, ain't she cute? And ain't her right eye sharp? This was underexposed and handheld at 1/80th in very dim evening window light and if you look at it at 50% zoom on screen, the ISO noise disappears and the extreme resolution pops nicely. You can almost see the rabbit she's staring at through the window...

Here's a 100% crop and it shows the worst aberration I have yet managed to provoke: easily clicked away in Lightroom.

_DSC9439-2 I have read some comments to the effect that 'there's no free lunch' and that what one is giving up by buying this lens is a certain quality of bokeh compared to the CaNikon and Zeiss alternatives. Well, bokeh is very much a matter of taste but there are a number of shots in the gallery that show it at different apertures and distances and I must say, I think it's pretty nice if sometimes a touch 'busy'. Here's a couple of examples: 

_DSC9370 _DSC9312

In fact, the first few shots I took on mine were inside at dusk wide open, and when I loaded them onto my Mac the first word that came into my mind was 'Leica'. That just about says it all.

I find this lens a joy to use: it is predictable, well-behaved, has a lovely rendering (including just the sexiest amount of natural vignetting wide open), damned sharp, well-priced and well-supported. It is both a 'look' lens (great character) and a 'technical' (great performance) lens. But is it a great lens? Possibly. Hell, I'd go for probably.

UPDATE MARCH 2103: unfortunately, after having tried three copies of the lens I have given up. Each one had sufficient decentering for me to want a repair or replacement and each copy also required what I regard as excessive positive AF Fine Tune (one copy more than the +20 maximum). So however much I like the look of this lens, its great control of aberrations and its extreme central sharpness even wide open, it isn't for me: if a 35mm lens can't get its edges equally sharp by F5.6 at the plane of focus after trying three copies, it really isn't for me....

UPDATE JUNE 2013: Finally got a good one, can't say if it was the fourth or fifth, I lost track... and it is not 100% absolutely perfect, there is still a very very slight asymmetry. But it is damn, damn good. Really damn good. Really.

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Tim Ashley Photography
I'm sorry to say that I wouldn't speculate - any given lens and any given camera/sensor combination can throw up unexpected results. A wild guess is that it would be very good indeed but without specific testing, that is nothing but a wild guess...
I've been unable to find reviews for this lens on an APS-C sensor camera, and in particular a Sony A57.
What would your speculation be as to its characteristics on the APS-C sensor?

Thanks a lot for review, Time!
I got my copy of Sigma A 35mm f1.4 DG HSM for Nikon couple of days ago.
I've been wondering if this lens with its "ED" and aspherical elements will be suitable for astrophoto.
Unfortunately, my copy of the lens suffers from strong coma due to decentering (of the back optical group?). Samples of the center and corners of the crop shot with artificial stars could be found on Flickr:
Chromatic aberration of this real sample is not controlled up to desired value also.

It's a pity that Sigma can't raise quality control even for "A" series lens up to needed level and tolerance, optical formula of the lens is really promissing :-/
Thanks Tim...24-70 Zoom...who would have thunk it?

Can't wait to read it!

Tim Ashley Photography
Thank you Scott!
For the moment, I would prefer to use the 24-70 zoom - I am about to publish a review of it. Mine allows for sharpness across the frame, if not to the extreme corners. But I suspect that when my replacement Sigma 35mm 1.4 comes back from repair, and assuming that it performs according to the ideal MTFs, it will be the best option and better than the Zeiss. Time will tell!
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