This is an in-depth review of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art prime lens that was announced at one of the largest photo shows in the industry, at Photokina in Germany on September 17, 2012 for Sigma, Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony mounts. The announcement came on the same day with Sigma’s new restructuring of its lens lineup, with three new categories that would differentiate different types of lenses: “Contemporary” for small and lightweight consumer lenses, “Art” for professional zoom and prime lenses and “Sports” for long lenses targeted at sport and wildlife photography. Being a professional-level lens targeted at a variety of photography needs, including portraiture, landscapes and travel, the 35mm f/1.4 is the first Sigma lens that falls into the “Art” category.
Thanks to its large aperture of f/1.4, the lens is not only great for low-light photography, but it also can effectively isolate subjects from the background due to shallow depth of field, beautifully rendering background highlights, also known as “bokeh“. Unlike cheaper cropped-sensor lenses, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is designed to work on both APS-C / DX and full-frame / FX sensors. The lens rivals other fast 35mm primes from Nikon, Canon and Sony, and unlike the branded versions that are in the $1500 range price-wise, the Sigma is actually the cheapest of the group at $899 MSRP.
In the past, Sigma lenses were mostly regarded as “second grade” when compared to the big brands. This had to do with a number of factors, one of which was poor quality control that resulted in a lot of variance. During the recent years, Sigma has taken steps to not only tighten its quality assurance processes, but it has also been spending a lot of resources on R&D. This resulted in new optical designs like Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 APO EX DG and Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM that have no equivalents on the market. In fact, the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 was world’s first fast aperture DSLR zoom lens. In addition, starting from the new line of lenses, Sigma is now allowing photographers to update firmware on lenses and adjust lens parameters such as focus, which again, no other manufacturer currently offers. Typically, when there is a heavy back/front focus deviation, you have to send the lens to the manufacturer.
Is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 better than other Nikon 35mm primes? How does it perform wide open and when stopped down? How does it handle? In this review, I will do my best to answer these and other questions and will show you samples from the lens, with comparisons against the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, Samyang 35mm f/1.4 and Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 lenses.
1) Lens Specifications
- Designed for use with full frame and APS-C sensor digital cameras
- Designed with SLD and FLD glass elements, which are equal to fluorite to help correct both axial and chromatic aberrations
- HSM (Hyper-Sonic Motor) ensures a quiet & high-speed autofocus
- 9 blade diaphragm creates a pleasant out-of-focus effect on backgrounds
- Compatible with the Sigma USB dock and Optimization Pro software to adjust and fine tune focusing parameters
- Mount Type: Sigma, Nikon, Canon, Sony and Pentax
- Focal Length: 35mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/1.4
- Minimum Aperture: f/16
- Lens Construction: 13 Elements in 11 Groups
- Angle of View: 63.4º
- Number of Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Minimum Focusing Distance: 30cm/11.8in
- Filter Size: 67mm
- Maximum Magnification: 1:5.2
- Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 77x94mm/3×3.7in
- Weight: 665g/23.5oz.
- A lens hood, front & rear lens caps and carrying case are included with the lens
2) Lens Handling and Build
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM is built very differently compared to previous Sigma lenses – it has a very nice all-metal barrel instead of a plastic barrel like on the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 and a metal mount. The lens feels very solid in hands and it has a better feel to it than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G – I would say it is similar to the high quality Zeiss lenses in terms of handling. Not quite as heavy and bulky as the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 though, which is built like a tank with its thick metal exterior. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 features a 67mm filter thread, which is the same as the one on the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G (the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 is the only lens in the group that has a 77mm filter thread). Also, the small plate with the letter “A” shows that the lens belongs to the “Art” category of lenses that I mentioned earlier in the review.
Here is how the Sigma compares to other 35mm lenses (From left to right: Sigma 35mm f/1.4, Nikon 35mm f/1.4, Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 and Samyang 35mm f/1.4):
As you can see, most of these 35mm lenses are of about the same size, except for the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 that is visibly taller than the rest of the group. The Samyang 35mm f/1.4 and the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 also feature aperture rings, while neither the Sigma or the Nikon have them. Here is how the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 compares to the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G:
Interestingly, both lenses have a very similar construction from top to bottom. The focus ring of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is large and very smooth to rotate, which makes it easy to use the lens for manual focusing. If you have been shooting with Nikon lenses, however, keep in mind that the Sigma lenses rotate in the opposite direction like Canon lenses do. Not an issue for most people, but can take some time to get used to, especially because Nikon viewfinders show the opposite direction of rotation when looking at the focus assist indicators.
There is a switch on the side of the lens to move between Autofocus and Manual Focus, similar to the switches found on Nikkor lenses. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 comes with a plastic petal type hood that stays securely locked once mounted on the front of the lens.
There is really nothing to complain about in terms of the lens build except one area – weather sealing. While the lens itself probably can take plenty of abuse, the lens mount is not sealed with a rubber gasket like the new Nikon lenses. This means that you have to watch out for dust between the lens and the camera mount or it will easily make it into the camera and potentially even into the lens. As I explained in my “what to do with dust inside lenses” article, it is quite normal for lenses to suck air in and out when focusing or zooming in/out, so I recommend to try to keep the rear metal mount area clean at all times.
3) Autofocus Performance and Accuracy
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 features the same high quality “HSM” hyper-sonic motor found on other recent Sigma lenses, which provides fast and quiet autofocus operation. Autofocus accuracy is also excellent and I used the lens on a variety of Nikon DSLR camera bodies, including the high-resolution Nikon D800E – none of them had any front or back focus issues. I ran a number of different AF accuracy tests with the LensAlign lens calibration tool and the lens was spot on at all times. I have also been receiving reports from our team members and readers that highly regard the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 for its AF accuracy. This speaks for the new QA controls at the Sigma plants and their high standards, which Sigma deserves to be praised for.