This is an in-depth review of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art prime lens that was announced on January 6, 2014 for Sigma SA, Canon EF, Nikon F and Sony A mounts. Ever since Sigma announced its new “Art” lens line, it has been releasing superb new lenses and updates. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art received the highest praise from us at Photography Life, especially after we compared it to the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G and other 35mm lenses in our extensive review. So when I first found out that Sigma had plans to update its existing Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, I got really excited, since I knew that the new Art-series lens would not disappoint. It has been too long since both Nikon and Canon updated their 50mm f/1.4 primes. In the case with Nikon, its newer 50mm f/1.8G yields better sharpness than the bigger and heavier 50mm f/1.4G. In short, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G is just not good enough for modern high resolution sensors and its performance at maximum aperture is rather disappointing (and the Canon 50mm f/1.4 is quite similar in that regard). The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art announcement was very timely, because it hits a sweet spot between the sub-par 50mm f/1.4 Nikon and Canon lenses, and the exotic manual focus Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4.
Sigma wanted to be upfront about its intentions with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art – it wanted the photography world to know that the lens was not to compete with all other 50mm f/1.4 DSLR lenses. Instead, Sigma was to compete head to head with the now legendary Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, known to be the sharpest standard lens on the market. When the pricing of the 50mm f/1.4 Art was finally revealed at $950 MSRP, it became clear that Sigma’s strategy was to capture the pro market that wanted superior performance without the hefty price of the Otus. I shared my initial thoughts on the 50mm f/1.4 Art back in April, with pretty high expectations after seeing the MTF performance and the price of the lens. Since the Canon EF version of the lens was released first, I was able to get a copy along with the Canon 6D about a month ago. Since then, I have taken over a thousand pictures with the lens and was able to use it extensively during my trip to London. In this review, I will focus on my experience with the lens and what I think of it so far.
My biggest concern with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art was its wide open performance at f/1.4. Since I am not comfortable with shooting the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G wide open, I wondered how the Sigma would do in comparison. As you will see from this review, most of the sample images were taken at f/1.4 to demonstrate the sharpness of the lens, its subject isolation capabilities and bokeh. Some scenes were specifically shot at very wide apertures in the f/1.4 – f/2 range.
1) Lens Specifications
- Designed for use with full frame and APS-C sensor digital cameras
- Designed with SLD and aspherical glass elements to reduce lens 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 and Sony
- Focal Length: 50mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/1.4
- Minimum Aperture: f/16
- Lens Construction: 13 Elements in 8 Groups
- Angle of View: 46.8º
- Number of Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Minimum Focusing Distance: 40cm/15.7in
- Filter Size: 77mm
- Maximum Magnification: 1:5.6
- Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 85.4×99.9mm/3.4×3.9in
- Weight: 815g/28.7oz.
- A lens hood, front & rear lens caps are included with the lens
2) Lens Handling and Build
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM is built very differently compared to previous generation Sigma lenses – it has a very nice all-metal barrel instead of a plastic barrel like on the older Sigma 50mm f/1.4. The lens feels very solid in hands and it has a far better feel to it than the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, which feels and handles platicky in comparison. At 815 grams, the lens is a beast! And it had better be, with its complex optical design featuring 13 elements in 8 groups, 3 low-dispersion (SLD) elements and an aspherical lens element. Almost three times heavier than the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G and only 155 grams lighter than the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, it definitely lets itself know when mounted on a camera. It will surely make a lightweight DSLR front-heavy, although it does balance out quite well on pro-level DSLRs. Built like a tank with an all metal exterior and a metal mount, it feels like a Zeiss-class lens that will last a lifetime.
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art features a 77mm filter thread, which makes it easy to use common clear, polarizing and ND filters without having to purchase different filters or resorting to using adapter rings. The LH830-02 petal-shaped plastic hood is pretty large and does a nice job in both protecting the front element and reducing ghosting / flare. If you like using manual focus or shooting video, you will find the focus ring to be large and very smooth. Similar to all modern Nikkor lenses, the focus ring gives a bit more resistance when you get to minimum focus distance and infinity marks, and rotates past those. From my quick measurements, the distance scale seems pretty accurate and is marked for both feet and meters on top of the lens. 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. Right next to the “Made in Japan” text on the side of the lens, there is a switch that can be used to switch from Autofocus to Manual Focus.
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 on 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, so I recommend to try to keep the rear metal mount area clean at all times.
3) Autofocus Performance and Accuracy
The Sigma 50mm 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 seems to be excellent on Canon DSLRs. I ran a number of different AF accuracy tests with the LensAlign lens calibration tool, as well as regular “real world” tests, and the lens was spot on most of the time. Here is an example of a bubble that I captured in mid air while it was moving:
The above image is a tight crop and you can see that the bubble is in perfect focus. And here is an image of my son that I captured as he was circling around himself in fast motion while making those bubbles:
And here is a sample image of a young woman riding a bike in London:
Throughout this review you will find a number of images of moving people similar to the above, where the lens was able to focus quickly and accurately, producing very sharp results. Autofocus accuracy in low light conditions was fairly good for a fast prime, but the number of keepers went down, especially in indoor environments.
On Nikon DSLRs, the AF speed was the same, but AF accuracy seemed to be worse when compared to Nikkor primes. When shooting a wedding with my wife Lola, I noticed that her Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G was nailing almost every shot, while the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 seemed to struggle a bit in comparison. This was especially true in low light indoor environments, where the lens would miss focus more. Sometimes focus would be off by a little bit and in other cases it resulted in noticeably blurry photos.
4) Lens sharpness, contrast and color rendition
Although I am still waiting for the Nikon version of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art to carefully analyze the lens using the high resolution Nikon D800E, judging from the images I got out of the Canon 6D, I can say that the lens is very sharp wide open at f/1.4 – much sharper than the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G for sure! Center performance is excellent and peaks at the f/4 mark, while the corners start out a little weaker, but get pretty solid when stopped down to f/5.6. You can see lens performance comparisons to Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, the older Sigma 50mm f/1.4, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G and Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G in the lens comparisons section of the review, while the Imatest figures for the lens are shown below.
5) Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art MTF Performance
Below is the result of our lab measurements using Imatest software:
The lens already starts strong at f/1.4, with impressive center and mid-frame performance. Corners are a bit weak, but that’s expected from a fast prime lens. Stopping down the lens improves sharpness significantly, with amazing sharpness levels reached in the f/4-f/5.6 range. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art is one of the few lenses that could reach sharpness levels above the 3,000 mark, making it one of the best performing prime lenses we have tested so far. If you want to see how impressive this lens is to other 50mm primes, take a look at the Lens Comparisons section of the review.
Here is a glimpse of the lens performance wide open:
As you can see, the detail level at f/1.4 is very high. I shot many images between f/1.4 and f/2.8 in this review, specifically to demonstrate the sharpness capabilities of this lens.
The bokeh rendering capability of the lens is quite pleasing for a 50mm prime. Highlight shapes do show defined transitions, but they do not look distracting as on some lenses. The dreaded onion-shaped bokeh that I showed on the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art is barely visible when photographing extremely bright points of light. Below are two comparisons that illustrate bokeh rendering capabilities of the following lenses: Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, Nikon 50mm f/1.4G and Nikon 58mm f/1.4G. Here is the first comparison that shows bright highlights:
Based on my subjective opinion and preference, I would rank the above lenses in bokeh performance in the following order, from best to last: Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G clearly shows the least defined borders and very smooth transitions everywhere, so it is my #1 choice here.
What about background transitions? Let’s take a look at another example:
Once again, the smoothest of the bunch is the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, followed by the older Sigma 50mm f/1.4, then the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art and the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G.
Looks like the older Sigma 50mm f/1.4 has a superior bokeh construction, although its sharpness is nowhere as good as the new 50mm f/1.4 Art.
Here is a sample image shot with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art at f/1.4 that demonstrates the bokeh rendering capability of the lens:
Here is another shot that demonstrates both sharpness and bokeh of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art:
Most prime lenses heavily vignette when shot wide open, especially on a full-frame body. As expected, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens vignettes a bit wide open, with vignetting levels falling sharply when stopped down. Vignetting levels vary by focus distance – at close focus the lens vignettes much less than at infinity, as measured by Imatest:
Here is the worst case scenario at f/1.4 with focus set to infinity, as illustrated by Imatest:
8) Ghosting and Flare
When it comes to handling high-contrast situations with a bright source behind the subject, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art seems to yield quite pleasing results, keeping the contrast levels high and introducing very little ghosting and flare into images. Here is a sample image taken with the sun on the top right corner of the frame:
The particles in the air you see in the above image are dust, pollen and other debris flying all over due to windy conditions and cars passing by.
If you remove the lens hood, stop the lens down beyond f/11 and shoot against a very bright source of light, you might see a little bit of ghosting and flare, but it is still barely noticeable and not too damaging to the image:
Please note that the above images were shot without filters. Using UV and other filters can potentially introduce more flares and ghosting to your images.
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art exhibits a very slight amount of barrel distortion at close distances. Imatest measured -0.36% barrel distortion, which is insignificant. In comparison, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G has much more pronounced barrel distortion at approximately -1.50%, which needs to be corrected in post for lines to appear straight. Even the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G suffers from some barrel distortion at around -1.12%.
10) Chromatic Aberration
Lateral chromatic aberration levels are pretty good, starting out at around a pixel, then coming down to close to half a pixel when stopped down beyond f/2.8. None of the images in this review were corrected in post-production for lateral CA. And even if you do notice CA in some situations, that’s pretty easy to fix in both Lightroom and Photoshop, so it is not a concern.
Here are the chromatic aberration levels measured by Imatest:
Longitudinal chromatic aberration also seems to be under control, although you might see a bit of it in some situations when shooting at f/1.4.
11) Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art vs Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
How different is the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art compared to the older Sigma 50mm f/1.4 version? Let’s take a quick look at the performance benchmarks:
Looking at the above charts, it is immediately clear that the older Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM simply does not stand a chance against the new 50mm f/1.4 Art. The older version is much worse at the maximum aperture and does not have near as good of sharpness when stopped down. This is expected, since the optical formula is very different between these lenses.
12) Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art vs Nikon 50mm f/1.4G
What about the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens? Let’s compare the two:
The performance of the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G is nowhere close to what the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art is capable of, even stopped down to f/8.0!
13) Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art vs Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4
Here is how the amazing Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 compares to the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art:
Interestingly, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art was actually a bit sharper than the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 at wide apertures in the center. However, take a close look at the mid-frame and corner performance of the Zeiss and you will quickly realize that the Zeiss Otus has very impressive sharpness across the frame at maximum aperture, which is something you would rarely see on prime lenses. And when stopped down to f/5.6, the Zeiss Otus reached the most impressive score over 3200, which is a record-breaking result in our lens testing experience. In fact, no other lens has been able to even get to the 3200 mark! As both lenses are stopped down beyond f/4, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art takes over in the mid-frame and the corners, giving more even performance across the frame than the Zeiss Otus.
14) Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art vs Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
Lastly, let’s take a look at how the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art fares against the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G:
As we have pointed out in our Nikon 58mm f/1.4G review, the lens is not about sharpness and the above chart reflects that. Not only is the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G noticeably softer wide open, it also has quite poor mid-frame and corner performance due to its wavy / sombrero field curvature. Its corner performance stays poor even when stopped down. Clearly, if you are looking for ultimate sharpness, you should just skip the 58mm f/1.4G…
Similar to the excellent Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art that I have numerously praised here at Photography Life in the past, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art definitely deserves the high praises. Unlike its predecessor that fell short in a number of ways when I put it against other 50mm primes, the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM is a totally different, much more optically improved lens. As can be seen from the Lens Comparisons section of this review, the lens is optically superior compared to other fast aperture prime lenses with similar focal lengths, except for the amazing Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 that has no equivalent when stopped down. Sigma did a great job at optically correcting various lens aberrations including distortion, field curvature and chromatic aberration as well, so you could use images “as is” without having to worry about lens corrections in post-processing. Unless you shoot the lens near infinity, vignetting is also controlled very well. This lens will be a pleasure to use in high contrast situations with the sun on the back of your subjects, thanks to its superb handling of both ghosting and flare.
Yes, it is an expensive lens at $950 when compared to the Nikon 50mm lenses and Canon 50mm f/1.4, but when compared to the 4x more expensive Otus or the hard to focus Canon 50mm f/1.2L (which is by no means sharp at the f/1.2-f/1.4 range), the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art is a bargain and a good value. While the bokeh rendering characteristics of the lens might not be on the same level as what the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G and Canon 50mm f/1.2L can do, keep in mind that neither lens is optimized for sharpness, especially away from the center of the frame. So if you do not care about sharpness and long for aesthetically beautiful images, the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G and Canon 50mm f/1.2L might still be the lenses to go for.
Overall, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art has a good balance of optical performance, features and price in my opinion. The only real disadvantage that I can think of is its large size and weight, but at the same time, I also understand that it would not be possible to produce such a lens without all the elements that correct so many optical aberrations, adding to the weight and bulk. The same goes for the exotic Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, which is even larger and heavier in comparison. For some, the ability to shoot wide open at f/1.4 without having to worry about compromising sharpness and contrast is a big deal, and that’s where the Sigma shines. Although 50mm is not the best focal length for portraiture, many photographers love the “nifty fifty“, because it is not too short or too long when used on a full-frame camera body. If you are one of them, I would highly encourage you to check out the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art.
16) Where to buy and availability
17) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating