The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM lens is the first in Sigma’s new “Art” line. And given that it’s superior to the Nikon 35mm f/1.4, what a first effort it is! This review will cover the strengths and weaknesses of the lens, with sample photos along the way that I’ve taken with the lens. I’ll warn you from the outset–this is my new favorite prime lens, so if you don’t want to drop $900 today, you might want to stop reading now and look at these GIFs of cats and shoes. (You probably should check that out regardless–you’re welcome for it, America.)
Before getting to the performance of the lens, it’s important to note that this lens is designed for full frame cameras. If you’re using a crop sensor camera, you’re definitely better off purchasing a cheaper crop lens, like the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (read my review of that lens), unless you are planning lens purchases about a future upgrade to full frame. If you don’t know what “full frame” and “crop sensor camera” mean, there’s a 99% chance you’re using a crop sensor camera, in which case this lens isn’t for you. It also won’t work with point & shoot cameras or iPhones, just in case there’s any confusion.
As soon as the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is unboxed, it’s clear that it’s part of a reinvention of the Sigma brand. Quite simply, it doesn’t look like a Sigma lens. It’s sleek, well built, and has a beautiful industrial design. The lens looks less like something you’d expect from Sigma and more like something you might expect from Apple, if they made lenses. The lens has considerable heft to it, and its brushed aluminum construction just feels good in the hands. Everything from its large build to its lens hood to even the cap just reeks of high quality. It’s really not just a matter of excellent build quality, this lens truly feels and looks nice.
Given that Sigma has been plagued by issues of quality control among other issues in the past, I think this stylistic reinvention was a good move. Here’s hoping Sigma builds on this momentum with the new Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens.
Since pretty lenses are nothing but expensive paperweights if they can’t produce excellent image quality, let’s move on to what really matters: performance. In a word, performance is spectacular. When I moved from crop to full frame, one of the lenses I lamented losing was the Sigma 30mm f/1.4. While not exactly comparable to that lens, in terms of performance (and moreso quality), this new lens makes my old Sigma 30 look like a toy. It’s like comparing King Kong to Dr. Zaius. Dr. Zaius is smart and all, but he’s no King Kong.
Starting with the auto-focus, I was incredibly happy to find that focus locked quickly and accurately, with no front or back focus issues. Based upon what I’ve read online, there aren’t focus issues with this lens. No more problems exchanging your first copy because it had a front or back focus issue.
As far as sharpness goes, this lens is ridiculously sharp. I shot with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 two weeks before I bought the Sigma, and I think the Sigma is a tad sharper than the Nikon. I won’t go as far as to say its considerably better (as some have claim), but it is noticeably better. I actually can’t think of any lens I’ve ever used that has been sharper.
Even at f/1.4, it’s incredibly sharp (albeit in a very shallow area), and at around f/8, you have front to back sharpness (in most cases), that make this lens very suitable for field of vision landscapes.
Its other strengths include contrast and color rendition, both of which it delivers beautifully. Although all of the photos in this article have been post-processed to various degrees, they all looked great right out of the camera. The lens produces images that pop, that have a polished, almost glossy look to them. As important, or perhaps more important, to “the look” of the images coming out of this lens is the bokeh quality. The bokeh is smooth and creamy wide open, and creates a serious sense of separation between subject and background.
I am big on shooting into the sun and other bright light sources, so performance in those conditions is important to me. Wide open into the sun, the Sigma has a soft quality with minimal flare, giving photos an almost ethereal look. Stopped down, it (star)bursts like a champ, delivering starburst-filter like results. These things won’t matter to most, but they’re important to me for my style of photography.
This is all not to say that the Sigma is perfect. It has minor vignetting at f/1.4, and I did notice a bit of chromatic aberration in a couple of shots. However, CA was minimal (and in situations where just about any lens would have it) and vignetting at f/1.4 is far from uncommon. Other than that, I can’t really think of any weaknesses this lens has.
All things considered, what type of photographers would benefit most from this lens? Obviously, as mentioned above, full frame shooters. It might seem like an odd pick because it’s not really a portrait lens (too short) and it’s not really a landscape lens (too long). However, it falls right in between these two ranges, making it suitable for both, as well as normal walk-around, everyday photography. It’s a bit wider than your field of view, which I found to be nice.
In fact, I found myself carrying it on a few occasions as my only lens when we’d walk around Japan. On that trip, it ended up being my second-most used lens, with only the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (read my review of this lens). I’m primarily a wide angle photographer, so no prime ever sees as much use as the Nikon 14-24mm.
Photographers already using the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 or the Canon 35mm f/1.4 should also consider selling off their lenses and getting this. I can’t speak specifically to the Canon, but I can’t imagine it being better than this, and it is more expensive. As for the Nikon, I’ve used that lens a number of times (I’ll have a full review of it at some point), and it’s at best only as good as this lens.
It might trump the Sigma ever so slightly in terms of bokeh quality, but I think the Sigma trumps the Nikon in terms of sharpness, so call it a draw. The one way it isn’t a draw, though, is price. The Sigma costs less than half as much as the Nikon. So sell that Nikon, buy this, and pocket the savings.
For Disney photography specifically, I think it offers a lot of versatility. There, it becomes a great portrait lens since you can’t always put distance between you and your subjects, and also is a solid lens for use on dark rides (although I found it to be a bit too wide in a few situations).
It performs well delivering sharp landscapes, and although I haven’t had a chance to test it yet for fireworks, I think it would be an excellent focal length for those. Something like a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens is going to deliver more versatility, but I think this will deliver better results, making you want to keep it on the camera more (I find myself using this lens over my new Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC–which I also really like).
Overall, this lens is a King Kong of lenses. It looks and feels great, and performs exceptionally well. It’s incredibly fun to use, moreso than even my old Sigma 30mm f/1.4. Although I’m not huge on prime lenses, I love this one and have left it on my camera for hours on end. At $900 it’s an inexpensive full frame alternative to the first party 35mm lenses made by Canon and Nikon, and it certainly doesn’t have any of the typical characteristics of a budget lens. I highly recommend the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens as a go-to, fast prime lens.
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