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Review: The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM is Solid, But Hope For a Purebred

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When I first began looking at the new Sigma 35mm f/1.4, I made judgements about its quality. “It’s plastic, yuck.” “I bet that focus control feels like a rusty zipper.” “The AF selector switch will tick me off.” “It won’t match the speed of my Nikon’s and my focusing tendencies.” My preconceived notions were that I was set for a so-so experience.

To begin with, the price point offers a nice trade-off for the professional concerned with the bottom line and an easy saver-upper for the am-hobbyist; Sigma’s bread and butter. This might not be the best 35mm you’re ever going to lay your paws on, but it’ll be close.

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For size, it’s not much bigger — even with the hood — then a can of fizzy drink.

This is a walkabout lens. For street, 35mm is superb, offering a perfect balance of tight and wide without being so bulky that you can’t pocket and swap when needed. Your street your kit is going to take a beating (unless you’re that guy who always puts his camera away after every picture) and at $899 some may be hesitant to street this, putting it through the normal abuse that’s commonly doled out during hobby and unpaid street or travel photography.

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I shot this and the rest of the pictures in this post at f/1.4.

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100% crop.

The question then becomes: should it be in your bag?

On the technical side of things, it’s unquestionably sharp. Sigma tends to do one thing quite well and that’s fast mid-range primes like this 35mm and the popular 50 f/1.4. There are a lot of reviews on other sites that pixel-peep this lens to death, comparing sharpness in corners, contrast, bokeh and light falloff. They all agree on one thing: despite the price, this is a big boy lens for all intents and purposes.

With similar characteristics to the other dogs in the yard, the problem for Sigma gear is you never know if it’s a purebred or a mutt, with no clear indication of what you actually have. Sigma’s refreshed lens design (read: Art Series) gives me hope that hiccups of the past may be forgotten. Fingers crossed.

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Some reviewers have gone so far as to call the 35mm “leagues ahead of the Zeiss and Nikon” in sharpness. This, above all else, is most important if you’re shopping with the future in mind.

If you’re planning to plop this lens on your 12-24MP camera now and on the 36-48 megapixel monsters down the road, fear not, you may be better off with this Sigma than a Nikon or Canon equivalent in terms of optical lens quality and how it will hold up on the higher megapixel cameras in the future.

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Tackling some of those judgements I’d made: the plastic… Ugh. No way through it. It is most definitely plastic. You’d think this would be horrible but you would be wrong. I do feel like the barrel can withstand quite a few knocks without showing any indication of the hardships endured, and the plastic body is much better than Sigmas of the past.

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A 35mm f/1.4 can only be so light, and this Sigma is tolerable. I wouldn’t call it perfect, but on a D700 and the D3 the weight balance — front element to rear LCD — was nice. With my left hand on the barrel it immediately felt right at home. It is however, heavier then both the Nikon and Canon counterparts.

The weight of the focus control is fantastic. Wonderful for quick pulls on the occasional video or even precise manual focus usage. No rusty zippers, yet there’s just enough hesitation to prevent accidental focus pushing even in the thickest of mosh pits.

This is actually f/2.2 but I was jogging backwards while this dog ran at me. For a 35mm it did a fantastic job of finding focus and doing so quickly.

This is actually f/2.2 but I was jogging backwards while this dog ran at me. For a 35mm it did a fantastic job of finding focus and doing so quickly.

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It’s f/2.2 but also in a high motion situation.

It’s quick. When street shooting with auto focus for quick grabs of people as they passed — both during the day and at night — it was snappy. This was not only a pleasant surprise but an area where a failure would nix any chance this lens had of getting my hard earned dollars.

On the topic of focus, I did experience the same issue reported on message boards describing completely back focused photos when using the outer edge focal points. Essentially, it’s as though the lens ignores the fact you’ve moved the focus point and maintains the idea that it’s still in focus from however it was last used. To me this feels like an electronics issue, and I suspect easily fixed with a firmware update via the Sigma USB dock (or a brown UPS truck).

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It’s quiet… err… sort of. Noisy lenses are a nuisance and a hindrance to good photo making. It pleased me to hear (or not hear) how quiet this Sigma 35mm is. I say ‘sort of’ because the copy I tested has a rather noticeable but intermittent squeak. Let’s call it “The Sigma Focus Warning System.” It was on by default with no way to disable it:

I suspect a screw came loose during shipping. Perhaps this is simply a quality control issue — remember that purebred to mutt analogy from earlier? — and the root cause of the outer edge focus point problem. Who knows and either way, having a focusing issue like this with a $900 leaves me little confidence. Peeping the screen is nice post-shot, but it shouldn’t be required to defeat a focusing issue.

The AF/M selector has a definitive snap about it and doesn’t rattle. If it loosens up in the future, put some tape on it.

The distance scale’s feet markings are a darkish grey, so much that in low light conditions they virtually disappear. I’m not sure what Sigma had in mind. My guess? There was a sale on grey paint.

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This is f/1.4

A 100% crop of the above f/1.4 photo. Some have complained about the bokeh looking noisy.

A 100% crop of the above f/1.4 photo. Some have complained about the bokeh looking noisy.

The jury is still out as to whether or not this is a bokeh monster. There are those who complain, but there’s always complainers. I tried to shoot a lot of pictures wide open so you guys/gals would have a good idea of what to expect. Personally, I have no complaints and would be more then satisfied with its bokeh quality for professional work.

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If I were a Canon shooter, I’d have a harder decision to make than a Nikon user would — do I plunk down the extra few hundred for the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L or not? If you are going to own it over five years, your dollar per day of ownership for the Siggy is about 50 cents a day versus nearly 70 cents for the Canon.

For the record it’s almost 90 cents per day for the Nikon. As a Nikon shooter though, if I were in the “I rarely need this focal length” category, consideration has to be given to the 35mm f/2… better DOF scale for street, much cheaper, lighter, smaller, has f-stop control on the lens, meaning I can use it on my old Nikon film bodies. Put it in my bag and forget it.

The allure of the f/1.4 is great however, and for the extra $500 getting that much more light to my sensor and the narrower DOF is a draw. And by the way, have I said the Sigma is sharp? The Sigma will blow the older 35 f/2 out of the water.

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Sigma 35mm with gradient ND + circular polarizing filters. The fall off — caused mainly by the stacked filters — in the top corner easily removed in post, but I wanted you guys to see it for yourselves.

The 35mm has a 67mm filter thread. Now I need to have a step up ring to manage my standard 77mm filters, breaking the ability to use the hood. Nikon’s 35mm f/1.4 is also 67mm, and Canon is 72mm. But hey, I’m not using that hood anyway. That said, I shot this once with not one but two filters stacked and barely detected a hint of vignetting. What I did see could just be the light falloff I mentioned above.

I tested the lens on a Nikon mount, but Sigma has it in Canon, Sony, Pentax, and (of course) Sigma flavors too. With the other brands in mind, you should know the lens cap doesn’t suck — in a pinch-cap form, the lens cap is on par with the others. The hood feels like a brittle petal shaped piece of plastic, and I can’t see anyone who uses their gear vigorously not having a broken lens hood after a few months. It’ll stay in the box.

Conclusion

Sigma has really stepped their game by launching this great lens at a killer price. $899 for a 35mm 1.4 SLR lens — wow. It should be compared side-by-side to any 35mm for anyone making that purchase.

I said “this isn’t the best 35mm you’ll ever lay your paws on,” and I might be right — there is room for improvement, but just barely. The optical characteristics of this lens, the focusing speed and aesthetics (Zeiss anyone?) are wonderful. While the 67mm thread is an inconvenience to me, there are an awful lot of people who never ever use filters anyway.

The back focusing issue with outer edge focal points is mostly confined to a small number of bodies (D700, D600, D800 and my D3) and likely, most will not experience it in everyday use.

I’d have a hard time giving this lens up for the more expensive Nikon and Canon equivalents. Given that it certainly has the feel of a professional lens and the optical quality to go along with it, I think the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 definitely has a place in my bag.


Update: Sigma confirmed with us that the lens had been checked over and tested to confirm it was in good working order before the courier picked it up and we all came to the agreement that it had taken a bit of a knock in shipping. The box did have an indentation on it, that in my experience — from working at a the post office years ago — is indicative of box abuse.

The good people at Sigma suggested that the squeaking was a sign that a screw had come loose and that loose screw was the root of the back focusing issues we’d experienced. The second lens Sigma loaned us had no issue whatsoever. It didn’t squeak, nor did it have any focusing problems, so the lesson here has to be: cherry pick your lenses.


 
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  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/zackhuggins/ Zack

    A friend of mine owns this lens and I own Canon’s 35L. He has been kind enough to let me borrow it a couple times and I gotta say, it’s pretty sweet. Not sweet enough to make me sell the 35L for this one, since I don’t look at my photos edge-to-edge at 100% but if I were buying today, I would go for this one.

    And regarding build quality, I can’t say how it compares to Nikon’s 35 1.4, but it actually feels more solid than the more expensive Canon, IMO. Not by a wide margin, but it certainly doesn’t feel cheap.

  • BJ

    This lens made me sell my 35L in a heart beat. Sharper wide open than the 35L, and for me that was the thing that took the cake. It’s not as fast AF wise, but after doing a M/A on it it works and hits the focus perfectly. Definitely a better buy than the current Canon version.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pengtuck Peng Tuck Kwok

    The Zeiss is quieter. Manual focus :D

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/kgnixer niXerKG

    I still went with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, mostly because people were dropping them so fast for the Sigma that it only cost $300 more for a genuine Nikkor that will probably last longer, be able to work with future bodies and was specifically designed by Nikon to work with my Nikon DSLR. Of course a big reason was again Sigmas history of QC or lack there of. They might be changing that around with the USB dock and tighter QC but I’m not playing guinea pig for that.

  • Mansgame

    I’m impressed that we don’t have another cheesy wedding related posting. Sigma has upped its game but if the difference is only $300, I’d wait for Nikon to have a rebate program and get theirs. Unlike the bodies, the lenses are long term investments.

  • Peter Grifoni

    i like to see where I could buy the Nikon equivalent at $1150.00.

    They are selling for $1796 on Amazon

  • donkey

    hows the af in low light? like at weddings on the dance floor?

  • SpaceMan

    “Be able to work with future bodies…” – you’ve been reading too much KR whose name shall not be spoken

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/kgnixer niXerKG

    Or I’ve had a Tokina or Sigma lens before and had it where it wouldn’t work with the body without a firmware update.

    I know KR should be taken with a GIANT grain of salt and it seems these days all he rants about is China and how much better Canon seems to be treating him but this lens not working with future bodies bit is 100% real.

  • harumph

    I don’t really understand the part of the headline that says, “hope for a purebread.” What does that mean exactly?

  • xaphod

    I’ve owned this lens (Sigma 35mm 1.4 art) for some months now. I use it on my Nikon D800 and D700 bodies. I’ve shot a couple weddings and some other professional work. Until now, I own only Nikon-branded glass — this is my only Sigma. I am not a Sigma fanb0y.

    First, I believe you have a damaged lens. That squeaky sound is awful and mine has never made that sound. Re the focus: especially on my D800, I had to use AF-fine tune setting of +12, quite a high-setting. But then on my D800, almost all my lenses have a setting of +10 to +15, including my Nikon 85mm 1.4, so I don’t hold this against the Sigma :)

    As far as field-usage goes, I find the focus fast enough, the weight tolerable, the sharpness outstanding, the bokeh good verging on excellent (compared to Nikon’s 50mm 1.4, the Sigma is noticeably better), the build quality superb (I don’t have the complaint of plastic that you do), and in general I like this lens.

    Now learning how to shoot well at this focal length, that’s another story — but that’s my problem :)

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/zackhuggins/ Zack

    I’ll second that he may have a damaged lens. My friend has this lens and after borrowing it a couple times, I never noticed a squeak of any kind.

  • Mansgame

    QC issues is one of the reasons why many people like myself can’t trust Sigma. There is so much sample variance with them.

  • Mansgame

    Genuine Nikon, duh.

  • asdfasdf

    Purebred because of brand? Buy the product, not the brand. How would it be different if it’s the same thing with the Nikon badge on it?

  • mradvice

    take your cameras to a nikon service, so they’ll fix your focus problem. It seems like your camera isn’t calibrated correctly. The lenses are probably fine as you have on all of the more or less the same adjustment

  • xaphod

    Yeah I guessed that too. But actually it isn’t a big deal to have a higher-than-average AF fine tune setting. So I’m planning to wait until I have to go in for a service for some other (more important) reason, then get this solved at the same time.

  • Spongebob Nopants

    The lens has been great so far.

    The wide angle makes it useless for street photography (IMHO) but I shot close ups of antiques with it a few weeks ago. I used a 67mm to 72mm converter and a 72mm +4 close up filter and the results were very pleasing.

    I’d gotten the 72mm close up filters for use with a cyclopital close up device so I could take close up images with my fuji w3.

  • http://mute.rigent.com/ Miles

    I use a step-up ring (72mm not 77mm tho) on mine and have no problems with the hood, just for those wondering.

    I tend to leave an ND filter on it all the time when shooting wide open on sunny days.

  • John Snow

    You are being paranoid. Good luck with your expensive Nikon with its erratic AF. I foresee no problems with the Sigma. You can update the firmware when needed with the USB dock. Relax, this is no longer an issue. Also, the older Sigma and Tokina lenses are some steps below this new Sigma series.

    If I had to choose today, I’d definitively go for the Sigma. It looks right, feels right and the optical performance is better then any other 35mm f/1.4 lens.

  • William The Great

    Even if the Nikon was cheaper, I would pick the Sigma. It’s better optically and the build quality is great. There’s nothing wrong with it. I don’t understand you man. I’m not hooked on Nikon gear and I’m no fanboy.

  • Ron

    +1

  • posesawkwardly

    I think he’s referring to the tendency of past Sigma lenses to be a hit or miss. You buy the lens and you don’t know if you’re getting a ‘lemon’ or not, so to speak. I’m thinking that Sigma’s QC has been improved with this new series. I’d like to think so at least.

  • Duncan Slam

    “There is room for improvement”, in other words, it’s not
    perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist. It amazes me that people are still not happy
    with the high level of build and image quality the Sigma offers at this price. The Sigma beats all other professional DSLR 35mm lenses (which are already amazing). It’s
    an excellent lens, period. Shut up and enjoy it.

  • Olivier Sylvestre

    35mm useless for street?
    35mm is the FOV street photographers have always used since “The Americans”. Find that book and see what street photography really is.

  • jimbox

    I got one of these through Amazon. I am very pleased with my ability to create very sharp images, wide open in available light. This and the 85mm f1.4 will do 90 percent of my people pictures.

  • Robert the Brave

    All I can say is ‘o my god’. This new Sigma lens is so freakin’ good. It’s the ruler of all 35mm lenses, period. I sold my Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G in a flash for this baby. It’s big, it’s bad and it’s beautiful.

  • tedtedsen

    thats true but the zeiss is focus lottery i have the 85mm 1.4 planar on my d800 i cant focus as Sharp as the sensor can so it is a focus lottery

  • Peng Tuck Kwok

    Never had issues with the 35mm 2.0, but try using live view at 1.4

    Helps a little.

  • bob knob

    Not paranoid. I’ve had compatibility problems with Sigma from different vintages on various Nikon bodies–focusing, metering, etc. Perfect on one body, way off on another. It’s the cost of saving $300 over OEM. Your choice, just know there is no free lunch.

  • dramatolog

    Most of reviews online are written based on photos made in bright daylight! I have this lens, and I agree: it is superb! But, it seams that it have serious focus problems in dark when FLESH focus assistant is used!

    I use d7100 + SB700.

    Does anybody else have similar experiences?

  • pillybilly

    Yes I had similar problems with a canon mark II, not only with low light but using lateral focus points give out of focus pictures during a full of sun day…
    Yes it’s sharp at 1.4 but from 2.0 a “cheaper” canon 85 1.8 is sharper.
    I made a microadjustment of +15, good for near image only, I think I Have a bad copy, I will try to have a replacement otherwise I can use this crap to fix tables.

  • senorgreenjeans .

    Heres the deal; I’ve been debating this lens for a few weeks and am still not convinced. I shoot Nikon and have for a long time but also use Zeiss glass and am willing to use Sigma. In the past, I wouldn’t have considered it. They were inferior and inconsistent. I think thats changed but that doesn’t change the fact that this lens looks to be average in out of focus areas, the color reproduction looks flat and contrast, average as well. It looks like Sigma is trying to win the sharpness wars to look good on sites like Dxo labs and are sacrificing what makes for stellar imagery. Rest assured, Nikon and Canon are very capable of producing sharp glass, but at what point does pure sharpness impact everything that gives a particular lens its character. To be fair, I’ve never been happy with any Nikon 35 or 50. They all have been good lenses, but far from great at those focal lengths. To me, Nikon kills the telephoto market and Zeiss is better wide. I’m thinking anything from Nikon 85 and up and Zeiss in the 20′s and down. The latest Nikon 35 1.4g is really good and looks to strike a better balance than the Sigma, that goes for the Zeiss 35 ZF as well. Better color, better contrast and better Bokeh. Obviously not as sharp as the Sigma, but relatively sharp if you know what you’re doing. The Nikon 50′s still leave me unsatisfied, although the new 58 is remarkable at everything accept its lack of sharpness. For many thats a non issue, for a wide portrait lens its incredible and softness can be very desirable and its not like its that soft either. Quite a few very talented and well known pro’s are using it as there primary 50. Im still a sucker for razor blade glass, so its not for me, which is why Ive been considering the Sigmas. Like I said, theres a lot not to love from what I can see with these samples. If anyone has had a similar experience and maybe returned it, I would love to know your story. If anyone else has some really good samples to share, which may change my mind, I would love to hear from you as well. I’m trying to break my habit of buying lenses and having to return them. I’ve done it plenty of times with Nikon glass and Zeiss and once again, Im not hear to bash on Sigma. This lens is doing some things very well, from what I can see, and I would be willing to shoot with it, Sigma or not.