The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 is the world’s first constant aperture f/1.8 zoom lens. In this review of the revolutionary Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 crop sensor lens, we’ll cover its real world performance, along with a number of sample photos, and a recommendation for the types of photographers for whom this lens might suit best. This lens is part of Sigma’s new “Art” line, which is one of Sigma’s upper end lines introduced as part of Sigma’s reinvention. The class-leading Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is also part of the “Art” line, so right from the get-go, the bar is high.
Before getting started with the review, I think it’s worth taking a step back. Starting the review with phrases like “world’s first” and “revolutionary” alone implies something about this lens. These buzzwords have been thrown around since the lens was announced, and obviously the hype machine is in full force with the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8.
First order of business: design and build. Much like the Sigma 35mm f/1.4, this lens is built incredibly well. The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 is built of “Thermally Stable Composite,” which is fancy Sigma-talk that essentially means plastic. However, it doesn’t feel like a plastic lens. Sigma states that this material has a “high affinity to metal parts,” and while this might just seem like marketing fluff, I think it’s true.
The lens has great heft to it, and if I didn’t know otherwise, I’d think it were a metal lens. The zoom and focus rings also move smoothly with just the right amount of resistance. In terms of design, everything about this lens is nice. I really hope Sigma sticks with this style, as I think it’s excellent. Those used to kit lenses might be taken aback at first, because this lens is significantly larger than those (and larger than its closest competitors).
In terms of performance, let’s start with autofocus. The autofocus here is lightning fast, quiet, and accurate. I was actually shocked by this at first, and there were a couple of occasions I thought my autofocus must have not been working because I didn’t hear it at work. In fairness, this was partly due to the exceptional autofocus on the Canon 7D I was using (I love Nikon, but that camera has better autofocus than any Nikon I’ve ever used), but a big part of the equation was the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8. The 11″ minimum focus distance is also a nice feature, and one I found myself using when it came to food photos.
Given Sigma’s past infamy with the issue, I think every review from now until the end of time concerning a Sigma lens will address whether it has front or back-focus issues. My copy of this lens did not, and I have not heard widespread reports of others having issues, either. Of course, even the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (and any lens ever made, for that matter), has had reports of focus issues.
As long as focus issues are the rare exception and not the rule, they shouldn’t be too concerning. Focus accuracy does not seem to be an issue with this lens (update: DPReview seems to disagree, but I didn’t have any such problems and I’ve read several other reviews, none of which mention the “issue”). Hopefully that’s a chapter of Sigma’s history that is forever closed.
In terms of sharpness, I was surprised by the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8. It’s very sharp at f/1.8 (not as sharp as a flagship prime lens, but still very sharp), and becomes tack sharp by f/2.8. It seemed sharp to me edge to edge at all apertures, but there is a slight amount of natural vignetting at f/1.8. Pretty normal for an f/1.8 lens, but worth mentioning.
In terms of real world performance, the lens is great. The colors and contrast are great, and images pop right out of the camera. More importantly, the bokeh is smooth and buttery at f/1.8, and has the same quality you’d expect from a nice prime lens. I was surprised by this, thinking it might be f/1.8, but not be able to deliver the out of focus area “quality” that other lenses can. Again, I was wrong.
As an additional plus, at f/16 it has a nice starburst, which is great for those like me who enjoy shooting into the sun. I shot with it in a number of challenging situations, namely at the Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, and it handled that deep lighting very well.
I found that f/1.8 in a zoom lens is a great thing to have, and I tried a lot of creative approaches to shallow depth of field shots. Many of these turned out to be duds, but it was nice to have a lens that made these duds possible in the first place. I suspect using the lens more will make me more comfortable with the f/1.8 zoom.
Now, what about real world application…is an 18-35mm f/1.8 lens really needed? It depends. For Disney photographers (the focus of this blog..apologies if you stumbled upon this from somewhere else and have no interest in Disney; scroll down about three paragraphs), it absolutely does.
The greatest benefit of this lens will be zooming on dark rides, which I found to be huge. For example, as I started getting closer to Jack Skellington, I simply zoomed out, rather than trying to scoot back in my DoomBuggy (I know I can’t be the only one who has done that).
In the parks, with the exception of times when I want to use an ultra-wide for dramatic architecture shots or a telephoto lens for whatever reason, this focal range covered me in most situations. It was great for fireworks, worked well for the Boo to You Parade (zooming here was very helpful!), and was generally excellent for night landscapes.
When photographing parades, there were times when I wanted a bit more zoom, but for all three of these big categories in terms of Disney photography, this lens pretty much hit the sweet spot. I could get by with only it and an ultra wide in my bag.
The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 also worked well for photographing food and in-park portraits. I lump these two categories together because the amount of “working room” can vary in Disney restaurants, queues, and other such places, and the combination of zoom (for “creating” distance) and f/1.8 (for subject separation) was great to have in that situation.
I still prefer using something more discreet for photographing food in the real world, but I don’t mind looking like a dorky tourist with my DSLR at Disney restaurants.
The big question for most photographers considering this lens will probably be whether 18-35mm is a useful focal range for them. Honestly, in my experience, this range seemed to have the most utility in the Disney theme parks. I also used it a bit around Indianapolis and when we visited Acadia National Park, and in both situations, I got a lot of use out of it, but I noticed that it was less useful.
I’m an ultra wide angle fiend, so in pretty much every situation I was wishing it were wider (an unrealistic wish), but in those places, I also found myself wishing it had just a tad more reach. Given the 17-50mm and 17-55mm lenses that the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens will undoubtedly be “competing” against, for lack of a better category, I think this is a realistic wish.
It thus becomes a question of whether the trade-off in gaining a constant f/1.8 is worth losing 15-20mm of zoom on the long end and 1mm on the wide end (the 1mm of widenss is more important to me than the 15mm of reach). This is a personal decision. For me, it unquestionably is worth it. I love buttery bokeh, but I’m not big on prime lenses, mostly because I don’t subscribe to the belief that they’re good because they force you to get creative with composition (or maybe I’m just not creative…who knows).
By giving me flexibility in focal range but still allowing me to have that buttery bokeh of f/1.8, this lens is a huge winner for me. The biggest disappointment (for me) is actually that it’s only for crop sensor cameras, which means I have to make a tough decision when it’s finally released for Nikon.
Image stabilization is also missing from this lens. Sigma has already stated that adding stabilization to this lens is its next goal, but it was too challenging at this time given the f/1.8 aperture. If present, stabilization would make this the ultimate low-light, handheld lens. As it stands, if you’re only looking at this “category” of lenses for use in low light, handheld situations (besides dark rides, where stabilization obviously does nothing since YOU are moving), the presence of stabilization in an f/2.8 lens would negate the f/1.8 in this lens. The true value here is in terms of depth of field, and stabilization plays no part in that.
With all of that said, if a constant f/1.8 aperture doesn’t matter to you, don’t get this lens. You can find cheaper lenses that offer more zoom and are just as sharp.
Overall, I think it is fair to call the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 is a game-changer. The f/1.8 aperture is not just a gimmick that Sigma managed to toss into a lens. When it was initially announced, I was really excited about its potential, but concerned that its constant f/1.8 aperture would mean sacrifice after sacrifice in other areas. I was shocked by how sharp and nice the bokeh looked, and at the lens’ overall construction and design. About the only sacrifice that Sigma made with this lens is its focal range, and given that the range is clearly marked on the box, it’s patently obvious, and shouldn’t surprise any buyers. The only surprises those who purchase this lens will be in store for are how good Sigma has made a first-of-its-kind lens. If this lens has the type of “growing pains” normally associated with first-gen tech, I can’t find them…and I really can’t wait to see the second-gen f/1.8 zoom!
For most photographers, this lens becomes our recommended DSLR “first upgrade” replacing the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 (read our review) and Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 (read our review) that previously occupied that position. It also replaces the recommended Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (read our review) for all but those who are super-serious about an f/1.4 aperture. Some may balk at the $800 MSRP on this lens, but it’s a very good deal relative to what it can do and considering that it should replace two lenses in your bag. Don’t expect a price drop on it anytime soon, as this lens remains a hot item in 2016, some 3 years after its release. If you really want it, we recommend just biting the bullet and placing a backorder-order on it now. Much like the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 that was difficult to find at MSRP for years after its release, this lens is going to be a hot commodity.
If you’re interested in improving your photography, check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
Do you think this lens will be a game-changer for your photography? Are you planning on buying this lens or do you think it won’t suit your style? Have you seen it in stock anywhere? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments!