The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM lens is the latest Sigma “Art” line, and it doesn’t disappoint. This review covers the strengths and weaknesses of the lens, with sample photos that I’ve shot with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens on my Nikon D810, plus a summary of why I won’t be purchasing the lens despite its very impressive performance. To put it succinctly, this lens is almost identical to the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 in terms of design and performance, except it offers a 50mm focal length. Since that lens was virtual perfection, this is most certainly a good thing.
It’s important to note from the outset that the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens is designed for full frame cameras. To be sure, it works with crop sensor cameras, but it’s going to be overkill for them. Crop sensor shooters looking for an effective field of view roughly equivalent to this should instead check out the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Art (read my review of that lens), which is the rough equivalent to this lens on a crop sensor body in terms of view. Another lens to consider as an alternative would be the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, although that lens is not a prime like this one.
The build of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens shouldn’t surprise anyone who has touched one of the other Art lenses. It continues the brand reinvention with a sleek look and beautiful industrial design. There’s 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. This might actually be concerning to those of you used to the 50mm f/1.8 lenses that weigh practically nothing and take up little space in your camera bags. This weighs much more and will take up a good amount of space.
As with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4, focus locks quickly and accurately, with no front or back focus issues. I did feel like there were times when the focus was locking on something in the frame other than what I intended (and I always select my focus point), but this happened seldom, and I can’t definitively attribute it to the lens.
Likewise, it should come as no surprise that this lens is tack sharp, and surprisingly sharp even when wide open, especially in the center of the frame. It is sharper at f/1.4 than the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 that I normally use is at f/1.8 and perhaps even a little above. This wide open performance is probably a big reason as to why you would want this lens.
Wide open, I noticed some natural vignetting, but couldn’t really discern whether the corners were actually soft. An aperture of f/1.4 means such a razor-thin focal plane as it is that it’s tough to tell what should and should not be out of focus once you get away from the main subject. That’s really the kind of thing you notice on lab charts, and not so much in real world shooting.
Other strengths include contrast and color rendition, with images having poppy color and contrast straight out of camera. Just like the Sigma 35 Art, photos from this lens have a polished, almost glossy look to them. Lens flare is reasonably well controlled; regular readers of this site know I love to shoot into the sun, and at f/1.4 it offers a pleasantly ‘blown’ look and at f/16 the starburst is nice and tight. Basically, exactly like the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 (are you sensing a common theme yet?).
Bokeh quality is also excellent here, and is so buttery that you would think it were churned by hand in an oak barrel. This really creates an interesting sense of separation between subject and background, and gives photos a very distinct “look.” Really, it delivers the type of smooth and creamy out of focus area rendition that justifies the price tag and size.
Since it replicates the field of view the human eye sees, it’s also said to be a good walk-around lens. Frankly, I prefer the looser look of the 35mm in a walk-around prime lens, but that’s just me.
Disney photographers will find this to be a great dark ride lens, with the 50mm field of view on a full frame camera better for most dark ride scenes than the 35mm lens. That’s mostly a matter of preference, though. (If I want wider or tighter, I opt for the 14-24 or 70-200, both f/2.8 lenses that can perform with today’s high ISO beasts of DSLRs.)
With all of this said, the benefit (?) of my reviews being real world reviews is that they tell you what the lab charts and sample shots can’t tell you. Well, this is a “benefit” assuming you value my opinion. If not…here’s an awesome ALF Fan Site that’s way better than this site (actually, do yourself a favor and check out that site regardless). On paper, yes, this lens is a beast. The performance is on par with–and possibly better than–the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 in just about every regard. So where’s the rub?
The problem for me is that quality 50mm lenses are the norm. The 50mm f/1.8 that Canon, Nikon, and others make is around $100, is small, and is very capable. It’s not the end-all, be-all of lenses as some make it out to be, but it arguably is the best value in all of photography. The 50mm f/1.4 lenses are basically the “designer’ versions of the standard 50mm, equally as capable, but adding their own aesthetic flare. Most of these lenses cost <$500, and are larger than the f/1.8 versions.
Then there’s the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art. It’s at least triple the size and weight of the basic 50mm lenses and is nine times the price. Now, in fairness, the law of diminishing returns has always applied to high end photography equipment (is my D810 really exponentially better than a D3200?), and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art is the best 50mm lens I have ever used in terms of all-around quality. If all you care about is getting the best of the best, stop reading there. This lens is for you. It’s worth the money.
However, if you’re like me, “the best” is not an absolute. Sure, quality is a big component, but there’s more thought involved, with factors like size, price, and how it stacks up against the competition in both regards also coming into play. So it thus becomes a question of whether the quality justifies the added cost, size, and weight.
Unfortunately for me (or fortunately for my wallet?), they do not. I love this lens, but I keep thinking back to its size, weight, and cost as compared to the Nikon 50mm f/1.8. Then I think about the fact that I already own the Sigma 35mm f/1.4, and that this is only 15mm away from that lens, with a very similar aesthetic. The lenses are so similar, in fact, that when I traveled through Asia recently, I rarely carried both lenses at the same time. Just too much added weight for similar performance.
I feel that the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is a better ‘real world’ option largely because in terms of size and price relative to its competition, it is a standout. Cheaper than the Nikon and Canon versions of that lens, better overall “statistical” image quality, roughly the same size, and better aesthetic flare than the Nikon (and the Canon, from what I’ve heard) 35mm f/1.4. Plus, I am comfortable carrying both the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 in my camera bag at the same time without concerns about the weight and size of them both. There’s no lightweight full frame 35mm alternative that I could pair with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4.
At the end of the day, all of my babbling about this relative real world stuff may not make a big difference to you. You very well might have opened this review because you’re looking for a 50mm lens, want the best, and don’t care about anything beyond its quality. The good news there is that the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art is the best 50mm lens I’ve ever used, in terms of sharpness, overall image quality, build quality, and aesthetic flare. It offers buttery bokeh and tack sharp subjects. It focuses quickly and accurately. It flat out performs. I guess I’m picky, because for me, in this case, that’s not enough. Personally, I’ll sit this one out and wait for that (hopefully!) upcoming 85mm f/1.4 Art lens…
What do you think of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art Lens? Does it sound like a lens you want thanks to that sharpness and sweet, sweet bokeh, or is it overkill? Share your thoughts about this lens and any questions you might have in the comments!