This Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art review covers the strengths and weaknesses of this new lens based on my real world use, with sample photos that I’ve shot with it in the field. Once again, Sigma pushed the envelope with this lens…at least on paper, as there is nothing else like it. In this review, we’ll take a look at whether its real life performance lives up to that “on paper” spec sheet, or if it’s just unique for the sake of being unique.
If you’re new to my photography reviews, it’s worth stressing up front that this is a real world review, not some in-depth analysis of charts shot in a sterile lab. To be sure, sterile lab reviews have their place in scientifically evaluating a lens (particularly in apples to apples scenarios); so too do reviews like this, I think, because they offer insight into that which you cannot necessarily quantify about a lens.
As a landscape photographer, I test all lenses while traveling, meaning that I put them through their paces alongside in regular scenarios, and alongside the normal assortment of lenses in my bag. (By the way, if you’re not a regular reader, here’s why there is an in-depth photography post on a Disney blog.) In the case of the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art, I tested the lens during the normal course of a visit to Japan.
I’ll be honest: when this lens was first announced, I did not really care. I had just tested the Sigma 24-35mm f/2 lens (read my review of this lens), and was concerned that Sigma was focusing too much on the wide end of the spectrum. Moreover, I found that highly-touted lens didn’t bring the unique qualities to the table as many reviewers claimed. I was a bit apprehensive I’d feel the same way about the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art, wondering if this lens would be able to sufficiently distinguish itself from two other lenses in my bag, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8.
Then, late one night while I was trolling photography forums, anonymously mocking Canon shooters (as one does), I inadvertently stumbled onto this gallery of wedding photos, all shot with the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art. Wedding photography isn’t my “thing,” but I was wowed by the quality and unique look of this set of photos. That was the moment that this lens came onto my radar as something I knew I needed to try out.
Even in that excitement, I remained a little concerned about how the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art would distinguish itself from the rest of my camera bag. I focus on “real world” equipment reviews, and I think part of that means assuming that this lens does not exist in a vacuum.
Even if you don’t own the exact lenses that I do, there’s a good chance you already have a camera bag with an ultra wide angle lens and a standard field of view prime lens, so I think it’s worth exploring the uniqueness of the lens.
Let’s start with a comparison to my Sigma 35mm f/1.4 (read my review of this lens). This is an easy one, and using the lens more or less confirmed what I expected. With an 84° field of view on the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 versus a 54° field of view on the Sigma 35mm f/1.4, there’s a 30° difference.
For the sake of comparison, that’s almost the exact difference between a 35mm lens and an 85mm one. Suffice to say, in using the lenses side by side, it was pretty clear that the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 brought enough to the table to complement the Sigma 35mm f/1.4. Unlike the Sigma 50mm f/1.4, which I felt was “too close” to the 35mm to justify purchasing, there’s no practical overlap between these two lenses.
The next concern was my bigger one, and that’s how the lens would distinguish itself from my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (read my review of this lens). Ostensibly, these lenses seem very different. The Nikon 14-24mm is a landscape lens through and through, and does not purport to be suitable for portraiture or that sort of thing. However, the f/2.8 aperture means it could (theoretically) be put to some of the same uses.
Given how little I actually use it in scenarios that produce bokeh, my concern here was that there wouldn’t be enough practical applications for such a wide “bokehlicious” lens to justify owning it–that such scenarios could be handled “in a pinch” with my Nikon 14-24mm.
My expectations here proved incorrect. As is normally the case, the difference between f/1.4 and f/2.8 is dramatic even in a wide angle lens. You don’t have to be super-close to your subject to produce excellent bokeh at f/1.4 here (as you would with my Nikon 14-24mm, and with that lens, the bokeh can hardly be described as “excellent”). Subject isolation is quite possible when using the lens wide open, demonstrating just how distinct these lenses are.
I know seeing a noticeable difference between an f/1.4 and f/2.8 lens would normally elicit a “duh” response, but on such a wide lens I didn’t think it was a sure thing. (I guess that’s why it’s important to actually use lenses before reviewing them, Mr. Rockwell.) Suffice to say, this lens is probably unlike any lenses that you’re going to find in a typical camera bag.
With this threshold concern knocked out, let’s take a look at the actual quality of the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art…
Let’s start with the outside of the lens, with its build quality. The first thing to note here is the large size and bulbous front element. All of the Sigma Art lenses have been on the large side, and this continues that trend. No surprise or complaint there.
I’ve praised the Sigma Art line in the past for its industrial design, and that remains true here. The Sigma 20mm f/1.4 has a nice heft to it, and its brushed aluminum finish feels good in the hands. It’s sort of amazing that the build quality on a third party lens line is superior to first party options, but that is the case. Your move, Nikon and Canon.
“The Sigma Art lenses are not sharp.” ~Said no one ever who didn’t need their eyes checked.
The Sigma 20mm f/14 Art keeps the sharpness train rolling for Sigma with another tack sharp offering. Even wide open, this lens flat out performs. I don’t review lab charts, so I can’t say which of the Sigma Art lenses is sharpest, but even at 100% on my 5K iMac display, the photos here look great.
In addition to sharpness, the photos have punch, plus nice contrast and color straight out of camera, which is probably why this lens has quickly become an unexpected favorite among wedding and portraiture photographers.
This keeps up the distinct “look” of the Sigma Art lenses (punchy subject, buttery background, and natural vignette) and offers it in a wider focal length. That’s a recipe for success.
If I had one complaint about this lens, it would be the autofocus. Since basically relaunching itself with the Art (and other) lines, Sigma has basically reinvented itself, and left behind the past complaints about front/back-focusing and other quality control issues.
Well, for whatever reason, I found that the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 I tested missed focus and locked onto an area in front of or behind the area I was selecting on occasion. This was neither a front nor back focus issue with the lens, and was still fairly isolated (<20% of shots), but it was enough to note.
This would happen when shooting stationary in perfect lighting, and the lens would grab perfect focus while moving through dark rides, so I’m not really sure what this was about.
Okay, now let’s circle back. I ended the first section of this review by stating that the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art is unlike any lens in the average camera bag.
Now let’s take a look whether its uniqueness is meaningful, and whether it will fill a void in the average camera bag…or is just different.
This is not quite as easy of a question to answer, and I think it depends in large part upon your style. Now, that’s true to some extent with every lens, but I think there are some that have more universal utility than others. The Sigma 20mm f/1.4 falls somewhere between being a novel, niche lens and a universally useful one.
For the vast majority of photographers, this will not be a workhorse lens. However, I think for many shooters, it will be useful enough to justify buying it.
I already called this an unexpected favorite among wedding and portraiture photographers. Although I know literally zilch about these types of photography, that’s where I see the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art having the most appeal.
The way it merges the worlds of landscapes and portraiture makes it incredibly appealing for environmental portraiture. If you’re this type of photographer wanting to brand yourself with a distinct look or style, look no further than this lens.
For Disney photography, I think the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art lens holds a lot of appeal. Again, environmental portraiture is where it’ll present the most creative opportunities, primarily in capturing photos of your loved ones that also draw you into the beautiful backdrops of Disney.
I find these types of “hybrid” portraiture/landscapes really engaging, and the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art works really well for this type of photography. The above photo is my favorite that I shot with this lens, and I wish I had a better chance to test out the lens in this type of scenario. (By far, I’m most excited to use this way in the future.)
It’s great for dark rides, particularly Fantasyland style ones that place you really close to show scenes (by contrast, it’s not as great for something like Pirates of the Caribbean, with more distance between the boats and the sets).
It’s also really nice for shooting handheld at night; with the f/1.4 aperture and 20mm focal length, you can landscape night shooting without having to reach for your tripod. It’s also intriguing for astro-photography, if you’re into that.
My ultimate conclusion on the last Sigma Art lens (the Sigma 24-35mm f/2) that I reviewed was that it didn’t do enough to distinguish itself from other lenses in the Art lineup and in a typical camera bag to justify owning it.
That does not apply with the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art: it’s significantly wider than the incredible Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art (still my pick for the flagship lens of this lineup) while being significantly faster and with a better out of focus area ‘look’ than my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8.
My original plan was to purchase this lens for this holiday season (Mmmm…Christmas light bokeh), but Sigma has thrown a monkey wrench into those plans with its newly-announced 85mm f/1.4 Art and 12-24mm f/4 Art lenses. Even without having used it yet, I’m betting the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art will be my next purchase. I’m less certain on the Sigma 12-24mm f/4 Art. I think it will have a tough time dethroning the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, but the extra 2mm on the wide end certainly gives it a fighting chance.
If I do end up buying the 12-24mm, I think the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art becomes even more useful to me, as that ultra wide angle lens is even slower than what I currently own. Not that you care about any of my long-term plans for my camera bag, but whatever…
Overall, the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 is an excellent lens that offers meaningful differences from other lenses due to its combination of focal length and aperture. It does not offer the range of utility as most mainstays of the average camera bag, so it’s not for everyone. However, those who do feel like they can put this lens to use will not be disappointed. Even if you find yourself reaching for it less than normal (and you probably will), the creative doors that it opens will more than make up for that.
Want to learn more about photography to take great photos in the Disney theme parks and beyond? The best place to start is Tom’s Ultimate Disney Parks Photography Guide, which covers a variety of topics from links to tutorials, tips, and tricks to recommendations for point & shoots, DSLRs, lenses, and more!
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Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts on the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art? If you use this lens, what do you think of it? Are you considering adding it to your camera bag? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments!