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.
4) Lens sharpness, contrast and color rendition
As I reveal in the subsequent sections of this review, the sharpness performance of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is absolutely stunning. To date, I have not seen many lenses yield such impressive sharpness figures on the Nikon D800E (breaking above 3600 in Imatest MTF figures). Center sharpness is amazing, even at the largest aperture, and I am extremely impressed by the mid and corner frame performance of the lens as well. Microcontrast is superb and color rendition is very similar to what you would get from exotic Nikkor and Zeiss lenses.
Some Technical Info:
- Camera: Nikon D800E
- Focus Method: Live View Contrast Detect + Manual Focus
- Image Format: 14-bit RAW
- Workflow: Import RAW into Lightroom 4 with default settings, Export in JPEG format, 100% Quality
- Analysis Software: Imatest 3.9, Master Edition
- Testing was performed at f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11 and f/16 apertures
5) Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art MTF Performance
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 so far is the sharpest 35mm lens I have tested. Its center performance reaches extremely high levels at the largest aperture of f/1.4, as seen below:
Mid-frame and corners start weaker, but still at impressive levels. Here is a sample image taken at f/1.4:
The above is almost a 100% crop from the Nikon D5200. I specifically cropped this heavy to show what you could expect from this lens.
If you want to see how the lens compares to its competitors, check out the lens comparisons section of the review, where I compare it to the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 and the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 lenses.
Unfortunately, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 exhibits a similar, onion-shaped bokeh as the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 when rendering highlights. So far this has been my biggest source of complaint in Sigma lenses. It would be great if Sigma engineers found a way to make this a little less pronounced, as on Nikkor lenses. The Nikon 35mm f/1.4 also has slight definitions inside the highlights, but they are barely visible. Take a look at the bokeh comparison between the four lenses:
Although the above image shows “Rokinon 35mm f/1.4”, the image was taken with a Samyang 35mm f/1.4 branded version of the same lens. Note that Samyang sells identical lenses with different names such as Vivitar, Samyang, Rokinon, Bower, Polar, Opteka and Falcon.
On the other hand, when compared to other 35mm lenses, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is really the only lens that does not have the same defined “rings” that shape background highlights. Bokeh is a matter of personal preference though, so if you prefer the onion-shaped bokeh without rings to cleaner highlights with rings, then the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 would probably be your top choice. Personally, I like the cleaner bokeh of the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 and I do not mind the visible rings.
The Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 is the worst in the group, in my opinion, since it has both very defined onion-shaped bokeh and sharp rings that can make bokeh look rather distracting. The Samyang is an oddball here – it does not have the strong rings, but its highlights look rather dirty with directional wavy dots.
I have a number of sample images shot at f/1.4 that I provided in this review. I would recommend to check out those samples and decide if bokeh looks acceptable to you or not. In my opinion, unless you look at images at 100%, the onion-shaped bokeh is not very noticeable or distracting on images. Plus, if an out of focus area does not contain specular highlights, the background will generally look very smooth and creamy.
Most prime lenses heavily vignette when shot wide open, especially on a full-frame body. As expected, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens vignettes quite a bit wide open, with vignetting levels falling sharply when stopped down beyond f/2. Here are the vignetting levels measured by Imatest:
When compared to other lenses, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 vignettes more than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 and the Samyang 35mm f/1.4, but definitely less than the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4, which is the worst in the group.
Here is the worst case scenario at f/1.4, as illustrated by Imatest:
8) Ghosting and Flare
In most cases, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 handles flares and ghosting very well. When shot against the sun, with the sun in the corners, there is some flare and ghosting visible. When compared to other lenses, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G clearly performs better thanks to its advanced Nano-coating technology, which produces very little ghosting and flares. The Sigma takes the second spot, while the Zeiss and the Samyang are the worst. Take a look at the below images:
Please note that the above were shot without lens hoods or filters. Using UV and other filters can potentially introduce more flares and ghosting to your images.
When it comes to distortion, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 easily beats its competition. It has very little barrel distortion, which is almost invisible when compared to its competition. Here are some more Imatest results that show the distortion levels of the lens when compared to other 35mm lenses:
The Zeiss and the Nikon lenses seem to be at about the same level, with some visible distortion, while the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 is the worst of the group.
10) Chromatic Aberration
Lateral chromatic aberration levels are pretty light, staying under 1 pixel on average. In comparison to other 35mm f/1.4 lenses, the Sigma is the second best after the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 lens. The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G shows the most pronounced amount of chromatic aberrations when compared to its competition:
I would not worry about lateral chromatic aberrations though, since those can be easily fixed in Lightroom and Photoshop.
As expected on fast aperture prime lenses, there is a visible amount of longitudinal chromatic aberration.
11) Sigma 35mm f/1.4 vs Nikon 35mm f/1.4G
Let’s take a look at how the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 compares to the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G:
As you can see, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is much sharper than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 at the maximum aperture of f/1.4. The difference is significant and something you will easily see in pictures, whether looking at the center or corners. The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G catches up when stopped down to f/2 in the center, but its corners are still rather weak in comparison to the Sigma. When stopped down to f/2.8, however, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G catches up and shows very similar performance across the frame. The sharpness difference is rather small from f/2.8 onwards, but the Sigma clearly has better mid-frame performance and its resolution is extremely high at f/5.6.
In addition, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G suffers from some field curvature when stopped down, since its corners actually outperform the mid-frame starting from f/2.8. The Sigma did not show evidence of heavy field curvature, which is definitely good news.
12) Sigma 35mm f/1.4 vs Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4
Let’s compare the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 to the manual focus Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4:
The Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 has rather poor performance, when compared to the Sigma 35mm f/1.4. MTF performance is weak at the maximum aperture and slightly improves at f/2. The center performance improves drastically when the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 is stopped down to f/2.8, but its corners still stay weak in comparison. Only at f/8 the Zeiss more or less gets close in performance. Overall, it is pretty clear that the Sigma is much sharper when compared to the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4.
13) Sigma 35mm f/1.4 vs Samyang 35mm f/1.4
Lastly, let’s take a look at how the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 compares to the manual focus Samyang 35mm f/1.4:
Surprisingly, the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 shows very impressive performance when compared to other lenses (especially the much more expensive Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4!). It is weaker than the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 at the largest aperture, but gets very strong at f/2.8. At f/5.6 and smaller, there is practically no difference in performance between the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 and the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lenses! Given its price tag of $500, the Samyang is certainly of superb value (compare that to the $1850 Zeiss). The biggest drawback is lack of autofocus, but if you are a landscape photographer and you do not shoot much against the sun, the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 seems to be a great choice.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is unlike any of the Sigma lenses we have seen in the past. I must applaud Sigma for stepping up and challenging the big brands, by spending their resources on engineering new generation lenses with amazing optics – all at a great value. As you can see from this review, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is optically astonishing. Its center performance at the maximum aperture of f/1.4 reaches such high numbers that many other lenses cannot even get to when stopped down to f/8! It has very fast and accurate autofocus, practically no distortion, little chromatic aberration and has superb color rendition that seriously rivals expensive and exotic lenses. On top of that, it is built extremely well with its metal construction and it handles similarly to the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G (which was my favorite 35mm lens before the Sigma). Is it perfect? No, it has a couple of weaknesses such as lack of a rubber gasket on the lens mount to keep dust and debris away from the mount, and it exhibits onion-shaped bokeh when rendering background highlights (bokeh is a matter of personal taste though, as I have explained earlier). However, these are not deal breakers by any means, especially when you weigh in all the positives, the biggest of which is price – the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is almost twice cheaper than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G.
I absolutely love the fact that the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is so sharp wide open. Yes, I feel that I must repeat this again. When shooting prime lenses, photographers often have to stop down to get better sharpness, since most prime lenses do not do very well at their largest apertures. That’s not the case with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4. Set the lens to f/1.4, shoot away, and only stop it down when you need more depth of field. Autofocus precision is excellent and my sample did not have to be adjusted at all on my D800E and other Nikon DSLRs (and if there is a need to adjust autofocus, you can get one of those new USB docks from Sigma and perform the adjustment yourself). With such impressive performance characteristics, this lens is a no-brainer for low-light photography. I have no doubt that street photographers and anyone shooting in low-light conditions will absolutely love this lens.
Simply put, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is the best 35mm lens for the Nikon mount on the market today. Bravo Sigma! Very well deserved. I very much hope to see more works of art like this.
15) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens for $899 (as of 07/14/2013).
16) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating