Bokeh and Beer - Sigma 35mm f1.4 Review
There’s a hackneyed phrase in the photography world that buying gear won’t make you more fulfilled as a photographer. By and large, I agree with that. Passion for photography takes more than a selection of fast lenses and exotic lighting gear. Every now and then, though, a piece of kit comes along that very nearly challenges that adage. The Sigma 35mm is just that – barring some annoying foibles, this lens is nothing short of inspirational.
Now that all of the sappy bullshit is out of the way, I can get down to a proper review. Let’s get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first. Like many other Sigma lenses, this 35mm suffered from some severe front-focusing out of the box, which means that the camera reported perfect autofocus but the actual focus point was closer to me than reported. At a very wide aperture of f1.4, this often kills the shot since your depth of field is so narrow. Other copies aren’t so consistently quirky – some people are plagued with Sigma lenses that front-focus at 10 feet or closer, and back-focus at further distances. Or vice versa. Point being, it can sometimes be a lottery with Sigma lenses; yours will focus perfectly, or it will require tuning. While certainly off-target, my copy was constantly focusing toward the front – a bit of testing and in-camera focus tuning with the Nikon D750 effectively eradicated the problem.
Next, this lens likes to hunt for focus in dark places when the lighting is just right – or not right. Most of these photos were taken in dim tavern lighting, and very occasionally this lens was befuddled. While it focused correctly almost every time after a second of chattering, there were the one or two odd instances in which it scanned through its focus range and shrugged at me. This time around, I let it slip since I wasn’t being paid to take these shots. When it really matters, though, I may need more than available light to ensure this lens actually lands on a target while focusing.
Finally, what the hell was Sigma thinking when they decided against putting a weather-sealing gasket on the lens mount? Surely the price of this lens couldn’t climb much higher if Sigma added a miniscule rubber ring to protect your hard-earned camera body from the volatililty of nature around it. Their excuse seems to be that this lens falls in the ‘fine art’ category of lenses, which to them must mean, “this lens will rarely, if ever, be subjected to fog, dust or snow”. By that logic, no one from Sigma has ever met a fine art photographer.
I have no segue from here. I ranted a bit, sure – but the blustering is well and truly done. Beneath the oddities of the Sigma 35mm f1.4 lies the best lens I have ever owned. Once the trademark Sigma quirks are ironed out, this quickly becomes a trusted piece.
The construction is brilliant and tasteful – everything from the typeface of the focus meter to the ridged grips on the barrel is thoughtfully executed. It’s minimalistic, but it’s also (dare I say it) stylish – Sigma did some homework over their break from making crap plastic lenses. It’s got some heft, too – the lens barrel is mostly metal, and it shows with a confident balance of weight against the D750 camera body. Still, the lack of a weather-seal is perturbing. Come on, Sigma! I’d have gladly paid $15 extra for a measly strip of silicone or rubber where the lens meets the camera. If you want me to cover your beautifully-crafted lens with plastic wrap when the skies open, well, that’s your call.
None of that matters if the image quality is crap. Which it isn’t. Even wide-open at f1.4 (where most lenses begin to get soft), the Sigma remains crisp. Stopping down to f2 only makes it better, but there really isn’t much of a gain except perhaps in the corners of the frame. Indeed, there’s a good deal of vignetting at f1.4 in certain lighting conditions, but it’s easily ironed out with two mouse clicks in Adobe Lightroom. I’m partial to vignetting myself, so it’s not exactly a huge concern.
This is also the first lens I’ve used that offers truly great bokeh. The Nikon 50mm f1.8D is also a great little piece of glass, but its bokeh points are often geometric-looking and slightly distracting. As a (primarily) landscape photographer, I’ve never really concerned myself with bokeh until I picked this up; I didn’t realize how important it is until I finally used a lens that could produce it well enough. Bonus points for the Sigma!
As I’m not a pixel-peeper by any stretch, color rendition and element performance seems fine. If I had to draw any negative conclusion here, it’s that this lens might be tricking my D750 into using warmer white balance than it ordinarly would. Of course, using RAW format eliminates that as an issue, but I did find myself dialing the WB back to a cooler temperature quite a bit after looking at these test shots.
Hopefully these images will speak for themselves. Practically, this may not be a lens I reach for every time (the excellent -- and weatherproofed -- Nikon 24-70 f2.8 is probably my go-to for the most part), but when the situation calls for it, I have the utmost confidence that I’ll walk away with some keepers. Bravo, Sigma. I’m just echoing what hundreds of other photographers have said, but the game has been officially stepped up.
This is #29 of my 52 Week Project, which I began in January of 2015 and am continuing until it's done. It's easier to drop the "52" in my blog post titles!