Hello dear friends. There has been no secret here on the bloggings, surrounding my desire to find the perfect 85mm lens. It has become my own photo gear holy grail, and a fun journey it has been. I’ve owned, sold, used, borrowed or rented at least a dozen different 85mm (or equivalent) lenses for a few different systems over my years. It’s probably the single most fascinating focal length, for me. The most popular classification for a lens of this focal length, is going to be portraiture. It balances minimal distortion, with flattering spacial compression when working at traditional distances for portraits, and is a go to for many portrait photographers. I do like a good portrait session, but a mid range tele lens like a nice, fast 85mm can offer much more than merely head and shoulder shots. I want to look at this lens on its own at first. How sharp is it? Bokeh? What kind of value does is present at its price point for a photographer like me, or you? Later, I’ll be comparing this lens to a couple other fast portrait lenses that I have here on the blog, but for now let’s see how this beautiful new Sigma Art lens stands on its own…
Full disclosure, this lens has been lent to me by way of Adorama who continues to be awesomely supportive of independent bloggers such as myself. I have a long standing relationship with them, and because of this, support them by doing a lot of my photographic gear shopping through them. All links in this article will route you to Adorama, who offer the best pricing along side other large, legitimate online retailers and I whole heartedly support, and would suggest at least considering them if you do purchase anything now or in the future. They’re great.
Onward and upward. The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens is yet another feather in the quickly growing cap that is Sigma. A company that used to have wonderful and non prohibitively priced lenses, plagued by manufacturing inconsistencies as they translated their optics to various mounts, has since remedied most every one of those quality control issues for their new, Art lenses. Any micro adjustment focusing issues can be tinkered with and tailored to your sensor and mount by way of their USB dock as well.
The very first thing I noticed when unboxing this beaut, is that it is substantial, weighing in at over 2 pounds. It’s heft in the hand makes you realize that you’re palming a lot of glass. Sigma lists the 85mm Art lens’ specs as follows:
- 14 elements in 12 groups
- Two SLD elements, one element with a high rate of anomalous partial dispersion and a high index of refraction, and one aspherical element
- 28.6 degree angle of view (Full Frame/35mm)
- Minimum focusing distance of 33.5″/85cm (1:8.5 / .12x max magnification at min focus distance)
- 86mm front filter thread (!)
- 9 rounded aperture blades
- Aperture range – f/1.4 – f/16
- 3.7″ x 5″ (94.7 x 126.2mm)
- This lens weighs 2lbs 11.1 ozs (1.222kg) incl hood and cap. It’s not listed, but I’ve weighed it, and can confirm, it’s heavy.
While Sigma doesn’t list this lens as “weather sealed” it does include a rubber gasket, normally only seen on weather sealed lenses, around the mount giving it at least a little environmental sealing. It does not have image stabilization, which is too bad, but honestly, for it’s primary demographic being portrait shooters, I.S. is something that isn’t entirely necessary when using good outdoor, or added light either in the field or in studio. Where that might be more a concern is for event/wedding shooters where low light, and resulting shutter speeds will be more an issue. That said, if this lens did include I.S., it would potentially be quite a bit more expensive, and it’s price point is a major boon to those looking for speed and optical quality. Also, so many camera bodies are integrating IBIS now, so, tradeoffs.
I am looking at this lens (and have the benefit of getting to test it before committing to it) with the hope that it will satisfy everything I want and believe I need in a fast, portrait focal length. Those things (for me), are that it is sharp in the center wide open at f/1.4, corners are usably sharp by f/2.8, skin color and overall color fidelity are pleasing, and out of focus areas aren’t overly busy or distracting.
Below, I’ll be administering my super patented (not really) methods of assessing the lens, in real world scenarios with a few controlled tests and comparisons between a Canon EOS 5D MkII and adapted to a Sony a7II via a Metabones Mk IV smart adapter (find that here). I’m not overly concerned with how this lens reacts to charts, but rather what it looks like in situations that I plan to shoot it. All shots throughout the article are captured as proprietary RAW files, and processed through Capture One Pro 9, output to high quality JPEGs for use here. Any tests or direct comparisons are done with absolutely nothing adjusted other than the RAW conversion. For any images that I’ve adjusted, I’ll list that so that you know something else has been done.
My expectation for this lens is that it is sharp wide open, in the center. I’m not worried about corners when shooting at max aperture, but I do expect the corners to sharpen up within two to three full stops. Rarely would I see the need for sharp corners when shooting with such shallow depth of field, but in cases where I will be shooting where a deeper DOF is called for, I’d like to see these corners comparably sharp when looked at, at these smaller aperture settings.
Below is a controlled series of shots at ISO 100, manually adjusted stop for stop to match exposure via the listed aperture with equally balanced shutter speeds. Manually focused center frame with 100% crops from the Center, top left and bottom right, utilizing the 2 second timer and mirror lockup on the 5DII. The bottles were set up to be equal distance from the camera in a flat plane which isn’t exactly how DOF works, but when looking at sharpness charts, or how we anticipate lenses and depth of field to work, it is measured on flat planes because it is easier to replicate for testing as opposed to matching field curvature in regard to the more elliptical nature of DOF, so, there’s that. The distance from the camera was roughly 5 feet, which I consider to be about optimal for a good, tight head/shoulder shot, with the background another 5 feet behind the plane of focus to give you an idea on how this focusing distance and it’s DOF are affected in relation to background elements (more apparent when viewing large). Click on image to see full size:
As I’d hoped, I’m happy with the sharpness in the center, wide open. It noticeably sharpens up with each stop, up through about f/2.8 with perhaps very incremental bumps through f/8. In the center, I’d say this lens is as sharp as I’d ever need by f/2.8, but entirely sharp enough even wide open. The corners are a slightly different story. While both the top left, and bottom right are noticeably softer wide open, through f/2.8, by f/4 they’re solid. Perhaps a stop less than I’d have liked to see, but honestly, anything I’d need the corners really sharp for, I’ll be shooting at f/8 and smaller most of the time, and even so, for any shooting where you’re focal points are avoiding the extreme corners, this lens will do just fine.
2 – BOKEH
Bokeh with a portrait tele prime lens should be smooth and non distracting in my opinion. I’m not bothered by non circular points of defocused light around the edges of the frame personally, but I’d like to see out of focus areas that don’t draw the eye away from the subject due to hard, distracting edges, onion-ringing or poorly controlled and busy OOF backgrounds, and with an 85mm lens this fast that shouldn’t be too tall a task.
shot at f/1.4
shot at f/2
shot at f/2
shot at f/2.5
With this lens, it is not hard to separate your subject from background elements, creating that 3D pop. The bokeh itself is very pleasing to my eye. Obviously, busy backgrounds create more chaotic bokeh, but this isn’t a product of a lens, but spacial relationship and physics. OOF points of light are smooth and while they go a bit cat eyed toward frame edges, they nicely blend while staying creamy, not exhibiting the onion ringing or bokeh donut’n that many of the more budget friendly lenses do.
3 – VIGNETTING/CHROMATIC ABERRATION/FLARE
With a lens this fast, I’d expect some pretty substantial vignetting, especially at the price point (honestly, regardless of the price point). The test shots below were manually adjusted, stop for stop. As they say, a picture is worth far more than me rambling on about it, so here you go…
Vignetting is substantial wide open, but drastically changes when stopped down. While still slightly noticeable even at f/5.6, it will be nearly imperceivable when shooting something that isn’t a uniformly lit wall. Still, more than I’d have expected, but nothing I’d worry about for my shooting. If you shoot a lot of skies with your 85mm lens and don’t like correcting for vignetting, or tend to stitch shots together for panos or the like, I’d suggest doing so at f/5.6 or smaller with this lens.
Regarding Chromatic Aberration (CA) and contrast robbing flare, I would expect any lens, again this fast, to exhibit some pretty substantial color shift along high contrast edges as well as a noticeable drop in overall contrast when shooting backlit subjects or directly into light sources. In that, the Sigma didn’t disappoint my expectation. What I can say though, is that CA is pretty well controlled and quickly accounted for when stopping down. Click to see the 100% crops below, full sized.
CA? Yep. Pretty severe cyan and magenta shifts on high contrast edges, along with a flare following that same trend, wide open. Stopping down though, it’s pretty quickly altered with both CA and Flare incrementally bettered with each stop as we should assume. This is about as much light as I could throw into the lens to provide the worst case scenario in regard to extreme backlighting and contrast challenging flare, being that I shot into the sun on a cloudless day. I’ve not seen a huge issue with this lens in more normal shooting scenarios (see more of those examples directly below), but here you have it. I’m happy with the performance and will aim to either stop down when shooting in these extreme situations, avoid them, or just deal with a little CA correction in post when necessary.
4 – IMAGE EXAMPLES
Here are a few shots from over the last month with this lens. Obviously, being a traditional portrait lens, I tried to fit in as many portrait sessions as I could. You’ll see below that I have a mix of staged portraits along with less formal candids, and in general more from the hip while out and about type shots. These images have had a variety of tweaks from adjustments to contrast or color, as well as plugin filters via photoshop on others. Examples on more how I’d play with files normally (which is really what I wanted to see results from). All settings listed below each image. Click any any to see larger.
ISO 100 – f/2 – 1/125
ISO 400 – f/1.4 – 1/2000
ISO 400 – f/8 – 1/500
ISO 400 – f/2 – 1/320 (using extension tubes)
ISO 200 – f/5.6 – 1/640
ISO 100 – f/5.6 – 1/200
ISO 400 – f/5.6 – 1/4000
ISO 1600 – f/2 – 1/160
ISO 400 – f/1.4 – 1/640
ISO 200 – f/2.8 – 1/320
ISO 200 – f/5.6 – 1/125
ISO 400 – f/8 – 1/320
ISO 100 – f/2 – 1/125
What can I say? This lens is a large, honking, beautiful beast capable of an amazing image file. Smooth, lovely bokeh with well controlled flare and CA, sharp wide open where you’d need it, and razor sharp stopped down. It shoots seamlessly when adapted to the Sony a7 series bodies via the Metabones adapter, and plays really nicely with the Sony sensors. For the money, I don’t know if there is a better 85mm lens on the market. I’ll put that to a bit more testing against the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 next to see if the extra 2/3 of a stop along with quite a bit more weight is reason enough to move the Zeiss along to craigslist.
Sigma has been killing it. Absolutely killing it. While there are still people barking about front or back focusing, this is almost entirely eclipsed by way of the Sigma USB Dock, and saying that, I’ve used 4 of the new Sigma lenses, and I’ve not seen one solitary focus issue at all! This is also when adapting these EF mount lenses to the Sony FE and Micro 4/3 cameras. Any quality control issue that plagued Sigma a decade or more ago, in my experience, has been properly dealt with and expunged with this new rebirth of the company’s recent optical offerings in the Contemporary, Sport and Art optics. Bravo, yet again Sigma. Honest, beautiful class leading lenses at a fraction of the price to comparable optics being put out by Canon, Sony and Nikon, which is great for everyone considering that the big boys have some serious competition in this space. Regardless of whether you prefer to have your lenses come from a proprietary manufacturer or dabble with third party manufacturers, with quality like this, we all win. Quality choices are good, really good.
Stay tuned to see if this bad boy sticks around the TRP camp after doing a more in depth comparison to the Sony FE mount Batis 85mm f/1.8 and the Panasonic/Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 micro 4/3 lens, in a soon to be born article. To stay up on new articles, you can add your email address at the top of the page (via standard browser) or below if viewing on a mobile platform.