While Panasonic seemingly focuses on video featured GH cameras along with their new full frame platform, and Olympus hopes pros jump to its EM1X, I’m over here enjoying my now aged, and in my mind legendarily ‘just right’ Goldilocks GX8 with some new glass. I’ve long blown the horn for Sigma’s full frame optics, providing industry leading optical performance at honest, realistic prices (every one of the half dozen lenses I’ve tested/reviewed and/or purchased over the last few years have been wonderful), I started to wonder why I’d not tried out their crop frame offerings. Well, I have now, and I don’t know why I’m surprised, but the Sigma 56mm f/1.4 DC DN Contemporary lens is another absolute gem.
I’m using the micro 4/3 mount option, which crops to a 112mm equivalent focal length, putting it right in that mid tele, portrait sweet spot between the traditional 85mm and 135mm focal lengths. For the APS-C lot, this lens falls right into the more standard short tele ~85mm slot, which will certainly appeal to many (as it absolutely should). I for one like the extra cropping as it starts to compete with my long standing, and stellar Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens for time on the camera when portraits or more isolated subjects, with bokehfied backgrounds come calling.
Weather sealed at the mount, compact, lightweight, fast and sharp as a tack, this lens is one I feel many system shooters can find great value in. C’mon in to see my take…
I can ramble on about this, or any lens. Simply put, I’m at a point in my photographic journey where I’m having fun. I have mostly eliminated the work side of things (largely down to geographic relocation accompanied by time allocated elsewhere on the camera strap front) and look to photography primarily for enjoyment. That I’m also a long time gear nut and reviewer couples the technical with the more artistic avenues of the craft. Because I’m not making money from photography much anymore, I’m more concerned with value, with bang for the buck if you will. Over the last handful of years, I’ve found no better way to gain said bang in the lens game, than by looking at Sigma, and the micro 4/3 system at large.
When I say bang for the buck, what I’m looking for is lens speed and optical performance at a reasonable price. I’ve talked long about how I feel the cost for many lenses in this and other systems seem greatly inflated, largely down to supporting astronomical advertising and promotional budgets by huge companies scrambling to scrape together or maintain their piece of the imaging pie. Sigma seems to have avoided a bit of that cost by resting on their newly reformed and brilliant reputation. We may not see their logos adorning photo vests at huge sporting events, or in commercials with celebrities, with the trade off being that we sport a “third party” name on the side of our lens, and possible scorn of hipster fanboys who pull from ill conceived forum comments to further bolster their egos in relation to their purchasing decisions.
Look, I too shoot and love some of the more well known “name brands” in both camera and lens, and have made my decisions for my own reasons, so I fully understand that there will be valid arguments for a particular brand’s offerings in many instances. That doesn’t mean that these third party offerings are lesser, though. We have options, and really good ones at that, for those of us willing to save a bit of money by buying into alternative manufacturers offerings. Look at what Tamron, Samyang, Voigtländer or others are providing at fractions of the cost often times. There may be tradeoffs, surely, but in various cases (as I’ve found with many of the Sigma Art lenses) they offer better optical performance and lower costs.
That said, let’s let the lens speak for itself…
Here I have the $1600 Pana-Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 Nocticron, the $480 Sigma 56mm f/1.4 and the $900 Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lenses. Three different focal lengths with varying pros and cons, certainly, but three lenses that can be used for similar subjects and effects. There are no right or wrong answers to many of the questions I pose in relation to my own curiosity, but going back to my newly refound love of value, I’d like to see what each of these lenses really provides for me and my shooting as I tend to see the Sigma as a potential replacement for both of the others.
Here is a quick and dirty portrait. All shot on the GX8 at ISO 100, 1/125 second with lenses set at f/5.6. One light camera right through a diffused beauty dish, and one light behind fired through a strip grid, all via pocket wizards. Each image was captured from the same location and distance, then cropped to match relative framing… Can you tell which is which?
Okay, in the same order as above, here are full size crops…
So, what do you think? There are slight differences in color rendering and contrast. Considering the Sigma and Leica lenses needed to be cropped into, and each resulting image being of a lower total resolution as a result, I’m impressed with all three myself with a little extra going to the Sigma and Leica in slightly growing amounts based on the crops. All three lenses, to my eye, are sharp AF at that f/5.6 setting. So, which was which?
- Leica 42.5mm
- Sigma 56mm
- Olympus 75mm
The good news, is that all three are very, very capable portrait lenses. The bad news is that one of these lenses is twice the price of the Sigma, and the other is over three times the price of the Sigma (at non-discounted, full retail anyway as the Leica is and has been $400 off of late making it more of a ‘deal’).
So, at an aperture that all three test pretty much off the charts at, they’re all remarkable in my opinion. You couldn’t go wrong shooting portraits with any of these three, under controlled and optimal conditions.
HOW ABOUT RESOLUTION WIDE OPEN? All shots below were shot with each lens wide open, and corresponding exposure values. Point of focus was the “LUMIX” on the front of the Lumix 14mm f/2.5 lens, with all lenses manually focused using MF magnification assist and Focus Peaking. Position of the camera was adjusted physically to as closely frame the scene identically and maintain identical resolution. ISO was set at the base (ISO 200) with corresponding widest apertures set, and shot on Aperture Priority which automatically adjusted the shutter speed to set the same exposure between the three shots. 2 second timer was used and of course, the GX8 was on a tripod. All full shots followed by the three side by side at 100% below. Have a looksee and click any to see larger:
Leica 42.5mm @ f/1.2
Sigma 56mm @ f/1.4
Olympus 75mm @ f/1.8
100% Crops (from left to right: Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 – Sigma 56mm f/1.4 – Olympus 75mm f/1.8)
Wide open, the Leica is obviously softer than the other two. (I took two separate manually focused shots, along with one AF frame for good measure for each lens). The Sigma however, is as sharp, if not slightly sharper than the Olympus, wide open while being 2/3 stop wider. Impressive.
While this isn’t a purely fair comparison, I did stop both the Leica and Sigma down to f/1.8 to match the Oly, A) because they can stop down, and B) because it’s the first available aperture that all three lenses can shoot at.
Stopped down to f/1.8, the Leica certainly sharpens up and gets closer to the Olympus, but look at the Sigma… Yowza. The Leica and Olympus have long been two of the sharpest lenses available for the system, and I’ve never had any problems, nor complaints on that front with either. The Sigma 56mm lens however shows what Sigma has been doing so well of late. Another big win for Sigma, and our pocket books, assuming of course the focal lengths on offer suit your needs.
MINIMUM FOCUSING DISTANCE (MFD) AND MAGNIFICATION
So, what benefits do any of these lenses have over the others outside of pure sharpness or resolution? Well, the Leica is an f/1.2 lens, which very few lenses in existence can boast, allowing faster shutter speeds in lower light. The Sigma is but a third stop slower at f/1.4 clocking in at a 13.5mm longer focal length and identical minimum focusing distance meaning it can further shallow up the depth of field at that MFD. The Olympus is a stop slower than the Leica, and 2/3 stop slower than the Sigma but has the longest focal length of the three , handy when shooting more distant subjects and wanting to maintain the highest resolution without cropping, but has a disadvantage at maximum magnification while offering up a longer MFD (see below), and is bested by the Sigma in pure sharpness when both are shot at f/1.8 (if not even wide open on part of the Sigma).
The Leica and Sigma have an identical minimum focusing distance (.5m/1.64′). The Sigma has a quite thin depth of field at 0.01 feet, that’s 1/100 of a foot or less than an eighth of an inch or under 3mm. That’s thin. The Leica, at that same minimum focusing distance at its maximum aperture of f/1.2 produces 1/200″ thicker a DOF at 0.015 feet, or 1.5/100 of a foot, also insanely thin. The Olympus at it’s max aperture of f/1.8 and it’s minimum focusing distance of 0.84m/2.76′, produces a depth of field of a whopping 0.02 feet, or 2/100 of a foot in focus which might get you either an eyelash, or an iris to be in focus. What this has meant to me, in a real life scenario, is that often times I’ll AF off of an eye, and it will catch the eyelash, and the actual eye will be out of that acceptable DOF, when shooting close in, or one eye will be in focus and the other will not be, even if squared up to the camera. All of these measurements are impractically thin working depths of field, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t illustrate it, right?
What does this all look like in practice? Well, have a look:
Minimum focusing distance (MFD) wide open:
Leica 42.5mm @ f/1.2
Sigma 56mm @ f/1.4
Olympus 75mm @ f/1.8
These are Lego storm troopers. Their heads measure roughly a half inch in depth from front to back. This is less depth than the distance between the tip of your nose and your eye. If you look, you can see that the backs of their helmets are already out of focus. Mayhaps you’ve heard of people grumpily bitching that their lens’ auto focus doesn’t work, or a lens has “serious back or front focus issues”, which may be the case (for DSLRs anyway), as that is a real problem. But often times, I’d wager those whining are just trying to rely on an auto focus system that gets thrown off by locking onto a hair, or the subject (or photographer *gasp*) slightly moves due to the act of breathing after the AF has locked in. Shallow DOF like this can make for a hugely challenging situation, and while fun for effect, be careful what we’re asking for with these remarkably fast lenses.
To see these three lenses, again at their minimum focusing distance (.5m/1.64′ for both the Leica and Sigma, and .84m/2.76′ for the Olympus) set to f/5.6, to see how the focal length and focusing distance differences affect the depth of field at this MFD.
Minimum focusing distance (MFD) at f/5.6:
What this shows us, is that the Sigma’s focal length, and shorter minimum focusing distance is capable of creating the shallowest DOF when shot at these three lenses respective MFD.
All of this is technobabble though. What I appreciate about the Sigma is the overall package. It’s smaller and lighter than either of the other two, being composite as opposed to metal, and is at least partially weather sealed, which neither of the other two are. It’s nearly as fast as the Leica, and faster than the Oly. While these three focal lengths aren’t remotely identical, they are able to be used interchangeably, for much of my shooting needs. As long as I’m able to be mobile by getting closer to, or further from my subject, I can use these three pretty congruously. While the Leica and Olympus are different enough to justify both in the bag, I find the Sigma a good replacement for both of these lenses.
Now, I may eventually get rid of the Leica, but an f/1.2 auto focus lens is a handy tool, no matter the system or focal length. The Oly on the other hand is proving to be surplus with this Sigma around. Other than it being a little longer, it doesn’t really offer me anything the Sigma can’t also do well enough. (I’m selling a bunch of gear HERE if you’re interested, this 75mm included, email me with any questions)
Finally, I’ll share some images that I’ve taken using this Sigma lens over the last 6 months or so. I’m obviously happy with the purchase, so much so that I’m getting rid of the 75mm, and may possibly sell off the Leica as well, in time.
f/5.6 – 1/500th – iso 200
f/2.2 – 1/800th – iso 200
f/1.4 – 1/8000th – iso 200
f/1.4 – 1/160th – iso 200
f/2.8 – 1/1000th – iso 200
f/1.4 – 1/125th – iso 1250
f/4 – 1/125th – iso 200
f/1.4 – 1/160th – iso 200
f/1.4 – 1/1600th – iso 200
f/2 – 1/5000th – iso 200
f/5.6 – 1/125th – iso 200
Thanks for the read. All gear links throughout the article are, as per normal, linked through my B&H affiliate account. You can see the Sigma 56mm f/1.4 here via B&H.
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