The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens has a bit of a cult following (especially for Disney photography), with many people contending that it outperforms its Canon and Nikon counterparts. It has been so popular that Sigma re-released the lens as part of its new “Art” line in 2013. I haven’t owned the “Art” version (nor do I intend to), so this review concerns the original version and all sample photos in it were taken by me with this version, which is now available at a discount. Early reports on the Art version suggest that it’s a tad sharper than the original version.
While a lot of people drink the Kool-Aid for the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (or “Dirty Thirty” as its fans call it), nearly as many people have dismissed the lens, citing its quality control issues as making it not worth the hassle. While quality control is a real issue with this lens (making it a very poor candidate for purchase on the resale market since it’ll be difficult to return a copy you buy there), its performance is so spectacular that it absolutely is worth the “hassle.”
The big issue with this lens is focusing–that it front or back focuses. If the copy of this lens you get has a problem with that, it should be easy to spot, as whatever you focused on won’t be in focus, and something in front of or behind it will be instead. It’s important to do several test shots with this lens as soon as it arrives; if there’s a problem with it, any authorized retailer will exchange it.
I haven’t had problems with either copy of the lens I’ve had, but the reports of this problem are widespread enough that I know it is a real problem. Difficult to say how prevalent (as those who have problems are more likely to speak up than those who don’t), but it wouldn’t surprise me if 5-10% of the copies of this lens have an issue.
This lens is exclusively for crop sensor cameras, so if you shoot full frame, you’re out of luck. I actually loved this lens so much in my that I purchased a second copy after my first was dropped and busted! Here’s why…
Assuming you do end up with a copy of this lens that doesn’t have a focus issue, you will find yourself with an absolutely fantastic lens. This lens is sharp wide open, and incredibly sharp between f/2.8 and f/10. No lens is going to be tack sharp at f/1.4, and this lens is no exception, but it’s still very sharp–sharp enough that most of my non-landscape shots with this lens have been taken wide open.
As for auto-focus, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 performs like a champ. It has a built-in Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM), so it can auto-focus with even entry level Nikon DSLRs, and the auto-focus is fast, quiet and, accurate. It grabs focus quickly and holds it in a death grip like a genetically modified giant anaconda constricting a medium-size elephant. Or something like that. The only time I’ve had an issue with this lens’ focus is in dimly-lit or low contrast situations where every lens has issues.
In addition to sharpness and auto-focus, the lens has great contrast and color rendition straight out of camera, and the bokeh is fantastic (more on the bokeh below in the comparisons to other lenses). I’m not the kind of guy who spends his days shooting charts in labs at various apertures to test Chromatic Aberration and that sort of junk (I’m one of those photographers who gets out there and…actually photographs things), and I’ve never noticed an issue with any halos, artificats, or miscellaneous “stuff” in my shots. This review focuses on “real world” results, as I think they are more important than how equipment performs when manipulated in a lab. I don’t know many photographers (besides reviewers) who spend their days photographing charts in labs.
Now that it’s settled that this lens performs well, let’s look at who this lens would suit best. Most of you reading this are probably Disney photographers (if you’re not, bear with me for a couple sentences). This lens is a beast for dark rides. The big reason for this is its focal length. While the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 and Canon 50mm f/1.8 seem to be universally adored by all, they are an awkward focal length for dark rides given the distance of the guest to the show scene. In most situations, those 50mm lenses will be too tight for a scenic shot and too loose for a close-up of details. You’re in no man’s land with those lenses. In terms of both focal length and performance, it’s also an amazing lens for night parades, such as Main Street Electrical Parade, Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, and the Boo To You Parade.
Actually, I think this sentiment could be extended to non-Disney situations; the 50mm lens was designed in the film era, and it’s a natural focal length to what your eye would see on film or on a full frame camera. I love using it on my Nikon D600 (read my review), but I rarely used it on crop cameras, so I sold off my Sigma 30mm f/1.4 when I made the full leap to full frame. (The 50mm lenses are great for full frame shooters, so if you shoot full frame and didn’t stop reading after the last sentence of the first paragraph, you’re in luck, because the 50mm is a great and cheap option for you!)
The lenses to which the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is more appropriately compared are the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 and the Canon 35mm f/2 lens. In both cases, the Sigma is faster and wider. This makes it better in low light situations and for shallow depth of field, and for capturing wider scenic shots. The other big difference, and this is sort of an intangible, is the quality of the bokeh the Sigma lens produces. It’s often described as “buttery” or “creamy.” I’m not so sure what butter or cream has to do with photography, but as the great (fake) Nicholas Cage says, “that’s high praise!”
Assuming that these adjectives are slang for smooth bokeh, I agree. The bokeh this lens produces is smooth and creates clear separation from the subject and the background without distracting artifacts or hard edges. The smooth or fuzzy out of focus areas that the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 produces are generally considered to be “good” bokeh amongst professional photographers. Some photographers do prefer bokeh with hard edges, but the clear consensus is that buttery bokeh=good. The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 produces better bokeh wide open than any of the Nikon or Canon lenses discussed in this article.
The differences between the Nikon and Canon 35mm lenses and the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 might seem insignificant, but I think they’re pretty important. If you disagree and are set on either of these 35mm lenses or a 50mm prime, I highly recommend making less of a mistake and going for the 35mm. My ultimate recommendation is the Sigma 30mm f/1.4, which I think is the better long-term. This is especially true while the original, discontinued Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is available for less money. Once it sells out and only the $500 Sigma 30mm f/1.4 “Art” Lens is available, it might be more difficult to justify the added cost.
For a prime lens, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is surprisingly versatile. In addition to dark rides and shallow depth of field shooting, it’s also good for landscapes. Since its focal length is that of normal human vision, it’s easy to photograph a lot of scenes that you see with this lens. For me, that means this lens works well for normal landscape shots when I don’t want to use a wide angle lens. I especially like it for this purpose at night, because at apertures of around f/16, it produces some dynamite starbursts. Starbursts so strong that it almost looks like you might be using a star filter (although not quite that over the top).
Finally, build quality on this lens is excellent. It’s built like a tank and feels substantial in your hands. Definitely better build quality than the Nikon and Canon counterparts. It also includes a nice carrying case. I’ve never used mine, but if you like carrying cases, I guess it’s a nice bonus…
Overall, this lens has always ranked very highly for me (it was the second lens I ever owned after a Nikon 18-200mm!), and it’s the first prime I’d recommend crop sensor shooters add to their bag. Whether you should get this before upgrading your walk-around lens (my recommendation there would be the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8) or before adding an ultra wide angle lens (like the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8) is a personal decision. I’m inclined to recommend upgrading/adding the other two lenses first, but that’s just me. For a prime lens, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is surprisingly versatile, especially for Disney photographers who can use it for landscapes, dark rides, creative shallow depth of field stuff, and even portraits. All of these uses plus incredible performance give it tremendous upside. The only real downside to this lens is the issues with quality control, but most photographers won’t encounter those. Even if you do end up having that problem and have to exchange your first copy, it will be well worth the hassle to acquire an excellent lens at an amazing price now that it has been discontinued!
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