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Waiting for the Sun with the Sigma 85mm F/1.4 DG HSM Art

By Jeff Wignall   Friday February 3, 2017

Here Comes the Sun

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right

Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

            —Lennon/Harrison/McCartney

In Brief: Street Testing the very fast, very solid-feeling Sigma 85mm F/1.4 DG Art.


There's an interesting story for these two photos. I had originally shot this scene a few days before, but because of mechanical trouble with my main camera (thus the BorrowLenses rental), I stopped shooting. But I really liked the composition, so I went back a few days later and framed up the scene again, at the same time of day--just before twilight. The statue is of a young William Shakespeare on the grounds of the American Shakespeare Theatre. I was pretty psyched that a squirrel climbed out onto a branch just as I started shooting and sat there the entire time. I shot a bunch of exposures, playing with various settings, and was ready to pack up and leave when this little girl ran into the scene out of the blue and started interacting with the statue. She was singing to it, dancing and telling it stories and she was making my photographs! Both were shot at 1/125 second at f/11, ISO 250, on a Manfrotto tripod. Sometimes the photo gods reward you for trying again. The scene without the girl is at the bottom of this column--you'll see just how much she added to the shot.

Snapshot:

Name: Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM| Art
Minimum Aperture: f/16
Dimensions: 94.7mm x 126.2mm / 3.7in. x 5.0in.
Weight:  39.9 oz
Filter size: 86mm
Lens Construction: 14 Elements in 12 Groups
Angle of View: 28.6º
Mounts: Sigma, Nikon, Canon
Accessories included: lens hood, caps, excellent padded carrying case with shoulder strap
Full specs: Here.


The Sigma 85mm 1.4 DG HSM Art. A beast in terms of size and weight, but solid as a rock and it feels beautifully balanced handheld. A simple, sharp and elegant lens.

Rent Before You Buy…A Great Concept thanks to BorrowLenses.com!

A little preamble…During the my tests of the Sigma lens one of my older camera bodies started having problems and I knew it was going to give up the ghost soon. But since I wasn't sure which body I wanted to replace it with (that'll be the subject of an upcoming column), I decided to rent a Nikon D7200 body from BorrowLenses.com to test it out. Like everyone I read a ton of reviews online and watch a lot of video reviews on Youtube before I buy, but actually having the gear in your hand is the only way to really make a good buying decision. I’ve rented several times recently from BorrowLenses and I’ve found it to be an effortless transaction and the gear comes with a return shipping label (and in a super sturdy box) which is nice. They stock a huge variety of gear, from cameras and lenses to lighting and grip and video gear. I find myself going to the site just to ponder things I’d like to rent. Another nice thing about renting is that you can rent gear that you may only occasionally need for an assignment, or that you may never be able to actually afford, and in those situations rentals can save the day. Renting means that nothing is really out of your grasp if you only need it for a few days or a few weeks. BorrowLenses has a lot of discount deals too, so check out their site.


One of the things that I really like about prime lenses like the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art is that they force you to move your body if you want to change the composition. I think that zoom lenses have a way of making us a bit visually (and physically) lazy. I had to climb over several muddy ledges to change my perspective on this waterfall, but it was fun to see the different shots I could get with a single focal length. By the way, I shot these at the end of a very long cold and cloudy day! That f/1.4 viewfinder really helped because the scene was quite dark. The top shot was exposed at 1/10 second at f/13 and the bottom one at 1/10 second at f/9, both at ISO 1000. I experimented with a variety of faster and slower shutter speeds, but I had to adjust the ISO several times because the light was fading fast. The location is Southford Falls State Park in Southbury, Connecticut.

It’s February 12th, in Case You Forgot

Pity my poor father. He was surrounded by a wife and kids who apparently all suffered greatly from seasonal affective disorder—or SAD as they call it—and sad it was around our house starting right after the autumnal equinox. The minute that the leaves started falling from the trees he was surrounded by glum faces who apparently believed (as some ancient cultures did—and who could blame them?) that the sun had grown weary of our impertinence and simply was never going to return again. Ever.

But my father, being the eternal Brit optimist and a wonderful observer of nature, always managed to pull us all back from the brink of desperation each year with one hopeful fact. Just as we were all about to lay down and wait for the inevitable frozen end that was our fate, he’d say, “Don’t worry, by Lincoln’s birthday, it will be light out until six o’clock.” We were saved! It might have just been a thin thread of hope, but it felt like a lifeline.

In reality we’ve had a pretty mild winter here in Connecticut this year, but still…those dark short days. Over the past few weeks, however, I tried to keep my father’s encouraging thought in mind as I headed out to test the Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art-series lens, the latest and very highly anticipated entry in their Art-series lenses. Lincoln’s big day was still a few weeks away, but each time that I was out shooting I could actually see the days getting longer. One day I was sitting down by the river (where else) with my friend John watching the first of the migrating loons waiting to head farther north when I pointed out (to John, not the loon) that it was 5:30 p.m. and there was still a lot of daylight. Wow. The days were getting longer! And here I was with a very cool new Sigma lens sitting in my lap for testing. Life was worth living after all.


Winter is the best time to photograph the shapes of trees and I shoot a lot of them--almost every time that I go out shooting I look for interesting bare trees. Exposure for this shot was 1/125 second at f/9, ISO 250. The detail provided by the lens was impressive.

I Wanna Be Your Beast of Burden

One of the very first things you notice about this lens is its substantial size and weight. The very first time that I handled the lens at Photo Expo in New York in October, in fact, the first words out of my mouth were, “Wow, that’s a pretty heavy lens!” I was genuinely surprised at its heft. At just over 40 ounces (two-and-a-half pounds) this is easily the heaviest prime lens that I have ever used. It’s also big physically: the front element of the Sigma is 86mm which means that if you’re a filter user, you’ll be dipping into your camera budget a bit more than usual for filters.

Lens weight though is a pretty relative thing. Unless you’re traveling long distances by foot (and that is a legitimate consideration—if you’re a nature photographer and hike a lot, for example) or hauling bags through airports a lot, weight should probably not be that big a factor in whether or not you buy a lens. I use a tripod for about 90-percent of my work, so weight is more about carrying my camera bag to and from the car than it is a shooting or travel issue. This may not be the kind of lens you want to lug around all day shooting a wedding (though an excellent wedding lens it is, with that speed and the perfect portrait focal length) but again, I’m willing to do the work if the lens is worth the effort—and this one is surely worth it. I shot with the lens for about two weeks and I grew to love the solid feeling of the lens in my hands: rugged, simple and very fast to focus.


I've been driving past this now defunct bowling alley for years (I bowled there a lot as a kid) and noticed that during winter the setting sun really ignites the old neon sign. I shot this very late on a cold January afternoon just as the sun was about to set. Exposure for the top shot was 1/125 second at f/9 and for the lounge sign was 1/60 at f/5, both at ISO 100. This Sigma lens is so sharp in the middle range of f/stops that it's scary.

Here are some other key things to consider about this lens:

This is a superbly rugged lens. Weight and girth aside, this lens feels great when shooting handheld and it is among the most solid and rugged-feeling lenses I’ve ever shot with. The focusing ring (see below) is super wide and rather than fishing for it with your finger tips when you are trying to keep your eye to the viewfinder, as I do with so many other lenses, my hand just naturally landed right on the collar. I really love the feeling of the lens—it is a beast of burden in all good ways.

It’s a prime lens. I have long been a major fan of prime lenses because I like the idea that your feet and not just your wrist should be involved in composing your photographs. I sometimes purposely choose a prime lens to keep me from being lazy in the field. In the shots of the waterfall, for example, I had to climb over a lot of slippery rocks to change compositions and I honestly felt more like I earned those shots. Prime lenses keep you from falling into that zoom trap where you just stand in one place and change focal lengths and think that you’re changing the composition—you’re not. Also, prime lenses tend to be much sharper and faster to focus than a zoom lens because there are fewer elements to move and fewer glass surfaces to bounce light around internally.


If you want to test for optical distortion of a lens, one of the best things to shoot is a straight up-and-down piece of architecture. Every line in this shot is perfect and again, the sharpness is incredible. I shot this tower in a late-afternoon sun--and you can see from the clock just how early "late" afternoon comes in January! Exposure was 1/320 second at f/11, ISO 125. 

A good lens for FX and DX bodies. While this lens was designed for covering the larger sensors of full-frame cameras, I used it on a Nikon D7200 FX body and while it functions as roughly a 127mm lens in that format, it’s a great lens for portraits, landscapes and it’s an excellent lens for architectural detail which is a lot of what I like to shoot.

It’s a very fast lens. Most DSLR photographers prefer fast lenses because, for one, it makes the viewfinder brighter even in dim situations. That particular advantage has pretty much disappeared with mirrorless cameras because the EVFs (electronic viewfinders) are always bright. But with SLR photography it is still a factor. And while you may not shoot very often at the widest aperture, the light-gathering factor cannot be denied. And, of course, wider apertures mean faster focusing in dim lighting.

It’s a very sharp lens. Like all of the Sigma Art series lenses, this one is very sharp. I tend to work in the middle of the range (f/8 or f/11) most of the time unless I want to restrict depth of field because that is where most lenses are at their best. But even when I shot at much wider apertures (the statue was shot at f/4.5), the sharpness didn’t falter. At every aperture the images are very sharp corner to corner, I noticed no fall-off, which is pretty rare, because that’s the first thing that I look for in any lens test. At very small apertures like f/16, where some lenses start to distort at the edges, the images were also sharp as nails. I have other lenses that are this sharp, yes, but I wouldn’t put this second in line to very many lenses.


In winter with so little color in the landscape you have to go look for color wherever you can find it--and architecture is a good place to look. I found these bright colors and sharp angles in the modern building that was built around the old bowling alley. It wasn't until I got out out of the car to shoot the bowling alley signs that I started to notice the great lines and colors in the building itself. Both were shot at ISO 100 and exposed for 1/200 at f/9.

It focuses fast. This is admittedly a low priority for me with a lens with this short a focal length (much more so with a longer lens), but this lens focuses pretty fast. Focus speed depends a lot on the amount of light and contrast, of course, but I really didn’t notice the lens balking at all even in pretty flat light. I plunked off a number of shots in my living room one afternoon with curtains mostly drawn and the lights off and focus was not an issue. There were a few times outdoors at dusk when I got a little bit of a slow grab as I focused, but in those situations I was shifting from a distant to a close subject or vice versa.

There is full-manual focus override. The lens also has full manual-focus override, so at any time you can tweak focus by simply turning the collar. That’s not something I do that often with a prime lens, but it’s nice to have.


Sunsets in winter are just as beautiful as ever, the trouble is they come way too early. I have to keep repeating my father's words of hope: By Lincoln's birthday, it's light until 6 p.m. His actual words were "there's light in the sky until 6 p.m." but I always stretch things a bit. Exposure for this was 1/125 second at f/7.1, ISO 500, handheld.

Oh My, What a Lovely Bokeh, Thank You


I couldn't find any human subjects willing to brave the January temps for me to test the lens' bokeh, so I used William Shakespeare. Not the best subject for the test, but at least he sits still and the background is nice and gentle. Exposure was 1/50 second at f/4.5, ISO 250. I wish I had found some human subjects, this is the perfect portrait lens!

There’s one more topic I’ll bring up here since whenever I mention lens bokeh in a review, I get questions about exactly what the word means. By the way, I’m using the word here to rhyme with “boquet,” but many photographers pronounce it “boh kah.” According to Wikipedia, “The term bokeh comes from the Japanese word boke ( or ), which means ‘blur' or ‘haze’…”

Basically lens bokeh is just the aesthetic quality, or prettiness, of the out-of-focus areas behind the main (sharp) subject. A pleasing bokeh has a gentle, romantic quality that diffuses sharp edges and contrast and sets off the main subject—and good bokeh is a quality that lens makers go to extraordinary lengths to enhance. For portrait and macro photographers, in particular, a lens’ bokeh is often the deciding factor in choosing a particular lens. While part of bokeh involves a combination of factors including the distance from the main subject to the lens and the distance from the main subject to the background—as well as the busyness of the background itself—much is also dependent on lens design.

This lens does have a really pleasant bokeh. Again, while I didn’t have any humanoids willing to pose for me (send me your headshot is your a model in Connecticut!) while I tested the lens, I did shoot the sculpture and a few other things at wide aperture and the background blur is very soft and smooth.

Conclusion

If you are, like me, a fan of prime lenses and if you do a lot of portrait work, I think you’ll love this lens. I simply can't think of a nicer medium-focal-length lens. If weight is a consideration, you definitely should go to a camera shop and try the lens in person before you buy. As I said, for me weight is not that big a concern since I’m not backpacking or shooting weddings where I have to move a lot and stay mobile. That said, I think that wedding and event photographers should give this lens serious consideration for the simple fact that it’s fast, it’s sharp and it’s nearly silent—and again, it’s rugged. This is not an inexpensive lens, but it’s also not the most expensive in its class; it retails (on Amazon) for $1199. By comparison the equivalent Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G sells for $1596.

Any downsides? Not really. I think that buying 86mm lens filters will get expensive, but personally I don't use filters that often. Keep it in mind though. Also, the lens wouldn't "talk" to one of my older bodies, a Nikon D90, but I am pretty sure that can be solved with a firmware update to the body.

Overall I’m very impressed with the lens and I have to say that I’ve been impressed with all of the Sigma lenses that I’ve shot with in the past year. You can see all of the Sigma Art lenses here.

By the way, thanks again to BorrowLenses.com for getting me a body quickly so that I could complete this test on time.


Here is my original shot, before the girl arrived. Nice shot, but it came to life when she ran into the frame. Notice the squirrel is in the exact same position! I hope he's not frozen there.

New Product News

Pentax KP Compact DSLR. Big news for Pentax fans, Ricoh Imaging has announced the Pentax KP and it’s billed as an ultra-compact DSLR with a 24-megapixels CMOS sensor with…are you ready for this…a top ISO speed of 819,200. I swear that’s correct, I checked the figure five times. It also has an electronic shutter with a top speed of 1/24000 second and the mechanical shutter has a top speed of 1/6000 second. Can you say "Stop action?" The KP is also the first PENTAX APS-C camera to incorporate Shake Reduction II (SR II), which features a five-axis mechanism to compensate for camera shake up to five steps. And here is something very cool: The camerra uses a shake reduction system to move the image sensor in single-pixel increments, to capture four images that are combined into a single, Hi-Res image capture. The camera, says Ricoh, will perform in temperatures as low as 14 degrees F (-10 degrees C) and it can capture Full HD at 60i, 50i, 30p, 25p and 24p. In still mode it will shoot continuously at up to 7 fps. The KP has built-in Wi-Fi. (By the way, I just received a Pentax K1 for testing—so keep an eye out for the full-length review.)

Fujifilm GFX 50S 51.4MPMirrorless Medium Format Camera. Fuji has announced the release of their GFX 50S 51.4MP mirrorless medium-format camera later this month—and it’s already on Amazon if you want to go take a look at it. The camera has a 43.8mm x 32.9mm, 51.4 MP CMOS sensor, boasting Approx. 1.7x the area of full frame sensors. The camera also features a large rear touchscreen 2.36M-dot LCD monitor measures 3.2 inches and provides 100% coverage. The touchscreen panel tilts in three directions (90° up, 45° down and 60° to the right) for easy framing and shooting from high or low angles.  The lightweight body, says Fujifilm, offers high rigidity due to the use of magnesium alloy.Next week I’ll tell you about some new lenses Fuji is introducing to go with the new body.

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