Its hard to deny the allure of a large aperture lens. Besides being fantastic for low-light photography, the lovely, creamy bokeh and subject separation that can be achieved by using them is incredible. When I first started taking a greater interest in photography, learning the correlation between aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, and what the manipulation of these settings could give my images, I immediately wanted a large aperture lens. Its the one thing that you can't substitute - all modern DSLR camera bodies from entry level to professional have a similar range of shutter speed and ISO settings, but there's simply no substitute for letting in more light and creating a depth-or-field this narrow.
I've owned various large aperture prime lenses (anything from f2.8 and up is considered "large") such as the inexpensive Canon EF 50mm f1.8 (which for its price is exceptional value) and later upgraded to the EF 50mm f1.4 which focuses faster and has superior build quality, however I've always found that the 50mm focal range was a little long for me; sure its great for upper body portraits, but I tend to prefer wider-angle compositions, and I often found myself passing over the 50mm lenses for something with that extra width. While the 50mm lens gives great results it just wasn't the right fit for me as a general purpose do-anything lens.
A few months ago I discovered what I was looking for when I used a friends 35mm f1.4 lens - I instantly fell in love with it (even though it was a Nikon!). I was immediately impressed with the field of view that the 35mm lens offered (on a full frame camera), it's wide enough to capture a group or individual portrait without being too far away from the action, and also wide enough to capture a reasonable landscape image too. Of course I could have stepped back a little further from my subject and used used the 50mm, but the 35mm range just felt "right" and a good general purpose range for me.
I knew that I wanted a 35mm f1.4 lens of my own, but was shocked to see the prices of the Canon 35mm f1.4 (and Nikon), both being around the $2000 mark. Big aperture, quality glass is never going to be inexpensive, but we all have our limits, and a $2k price tag was definitely over-budget for me. I could have gone for a cheaper option such as the Canon 35mm f2, or even the older model Sigma 35mm f1.4, but the reviews that I had read left me feeling as though I'd be let down a little when it came to image quality.
While I was in the process of researching my options, Sigma announced that they were producing a new series of lenses and were going to be releasing a completely new 35mm f1.4, I was immediately interested. I've owned several Sigma lenses in the past have been impressed with their performance and price. This all new 35mm with a price tag of less than $1000 and a build quality and finish to rival just about every other lens in the category, not to mention exceptional performance, had me hooked. I placed an order with a local camera supplier and my brand new shiny Sigma 35mm f1.4 DG HSM arrived within a few weeks. :-)
Love at first sight? Opening the box I was pleased to see that all of the usual Sigma inclusions were there such as a nice padded pouch, a lens hood, and a centre-and-side pinch lens cap - no need to purchase these separately at exorbitant prices, they're all included in the standard package.
Wow. The aesthetics and build quality of this lens is something to behold. Its a sleek and smooth combination of all metal construction, muted black coatings, and gorgeous glass. It feels solid in the hand and at 665g its only slightly heavier than both the Nikon and Canon competitors. The focus ring, with its soft-touch rubber grip and firm yet silky-smooth movements inspires confidence in the quality. It looks and feels like a first-class, high-quality product, and is a big step-up from Sigma's previous EX or "professional" grade lenses. The filter size on this lens is 67mm which means that they should be relatively inexpensive. As most of my filters are 77mm or 82mm I'll be ordering a generic step-up adapter ring. Taking my new Siggy along on its first outing paired with a 5D Mk3, I was impressed with how quickly and accurately it focused. Even in the low-light ambiance of a local bar, back-yard barbecue, or dimly-lit wedding reception, the lens snaps to attention, locking on the subject accurately without hunting around. The huge 1.4 aperture lets in lots of light, allowing even older AF systems (such as the 9 point system found on my EOS 40D) to focus accurately and quickly too.
The HSM motor which drives the auto-focus is smooth and quiet. What I was most excited to see was how it performed where it really matters - how the images look and feel, and I wasn't disappointed. When I got home and downloaded my first shots I was immediately hit with how sharp and contrasty they where. All of the images showed excellent results in these areas, and with a minimal focus distance of just 30cm combined with the f1.4 aperture, subject separation is fantastic.
A little pixel peeping of images with back-lit subjects showed minimal chromatic aberration, and this was quickly corrected with the defringe tool in lightroom. One thing that I really like about the 35mm is that unlike ultra-wide lenses it doesn't distort too much at the edges of the frame, so features stay fairly well in proportion. Try shooting a reasonably close portrait with a 16mm or other ultra-wide lens and you'll see what I mean - features like noses and feet are stretched, becoming unflattering.
As expected with an aperture of this size, there is considerable vignetting at f1.4, but it drops off quickly when stopped down, and is pretty much gone by f2. To be honest I don't really mind the vignetting anyway, as combined with the narrow depth-of-field it really helps to separate a subject from a busy background. At the time of writing this, I haven't gone looking for a lens correction profile for the Sigma, but with its high popularity I'm sure they'll be out there on the interwebs.
The Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM is receiving rave reviews all over the place and its easy to see why. If the aesthetically pleasing look and feel, rock-solid construction, and fantastic performance isn't enough to convince you of this worthy contender, then perhaps the price tag will - at the time of writing, this the lens can be purchased locally in Australia for as little as $825. For quality like this it's an absolute bargain. Well done Sigma, I hope that your new 120-300mm f2.8 OS HSM is as good as this too! The Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM is quickly becoming my favourite lens, and will be my first choice for many shooting situations.
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** With the exception of the first picture of the lens itself, all images in this review were shot using a Canon 5D MK3 and the Sigma 35mm f1.4 DG HSM lens at apertures between f1.4 and f2. The first picture of the lens was shot with a Canon 5D MK3 and a Canon 100mm IS L Macro, with a Canon 580EXII speedlite, fired through a soft-box positioned directly above and in-font of the subject.**