Sigma 50mm DG HSM: The New Normal

Sigma 50mm DG HSM: The New Normal

When Zeiss announced its 55mm f/1.4 Otus lens, it described the motivation as “DSLR cameras with high resolution 35mm sensors put enormous demands on lenses.” In other words, the modern DSLR sensor has a resolution that exceeds the design of the last generation of lenses. What’s the point of shelling out $3300 for a 36MP Nikon D810 if  you’re using a lens designed in the film era?

This is all well and good, and the Otus lives up to the hype, but with a price tag of $3,999, it is out of reach of 99% of photographers. Cue Sigma.

Following on the success of their enormously popular 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM lens, Sigma released a 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM. At $949, the Sigma model isn’t exactly cheap when compared to the current generation of Nikon and Canon lenses, but it simply outperforms those lenses by a wide margin, and according to DxOMark, the Sigma comes awfully close to the Otus for 1/4th the price.

At 1.79lbs (815g), the Sigma is a beast. The new Art line of lenses feature a stiff focusing ring, which is an intentional design feature. Sigma told us, “The new global vision lenses feature a well dampened focus ring which is smooth and allows for better control of focusing for both still and videography.” And unlike the Nikon/Canon offerings, the Sigma has more plastic parts, but not your run-of-the-mill plastic, theirs is a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC). “[TSC] offers minimal thermal shrinkage combined with exceptional hardness and 25% greater elasticity than polycarbonate. Since its thermal shrinkage is low, TSC matches well with metal parts, further contributing to the high-precision construction of each lens. It also allows for reduction in size and weight of the lens while maintaining its premium quality.”

Given the hype, several of us at the PhotoShelter office were excited to try out the lens. Todd Owyoung, Sarah Jacobs and I took the lens out in “real world” situations and photographed a variety of subjects. The clarity of images was immediately apparent, and everyone started lusting after the lens.

Todd noted, “As comedian Steve Martin famously prescribed, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ The 50mm f/1.4 ART is Sigma’s execution of that advice. The optical quality of this lens is not only too good to ignore, it’s flat out better than anything Nikon or Canon offers in the same range.

“I love the rendering quality of this lens. It has a very rare combination at wide apertures of delivering exceptional sharpness while still maintaining a very smooth character. Optically, just about everything about this ART lens is superlative. Flare, ghosting and chromatic aberration is all extremely well controlled, while the resolution and contrast is phenomenal.”

Nikon D810 ISO 64 f/5.6 at 1/500s

Nikon D810 ISO 64 f/5.6 at 1/500s

full crop

full crop

After trying it out on a weekend trip to CT, Sarah was so excited that she rented the lens from LensProToGo for her trip to Europe. “Shooting with a 50mm feels natural to me – I’ve owned Canon’s “nifty-fifty” (1.8) since I started shooting, and so I was especially excited for this upgrade.”

The emergence of Sigma as a top tier lens manufacturer is part of the vision of CEO Kazuto Yamaki who took over the company in 2012 after the passing of his father, Michihiro Yamaki, who founded the company in 1961. The younger Yamaki devised a “Global Vision” plan which reorganized the lens offerings into three categories (Contemporary, Art, and Sports), with the simple purpose to “promote the love of photography.” This broad mission might be construed as marketing speak, but the results speak for themselves.

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G Canon 50mm f/1.4L USM
Year Announced 2014 2008 1993
Minimum Aperture f/16 f/16 f/22
Filter Thread 77mm 58mm 58mm
Weight 815g 280g 290g
DxOMark Score 35 17 24
Price $949 $425 $399

People

ISO 500 f/3.5 at 1/100s

ISO 500 f/3.5 at 1/100s

ISO 3200 f/1.4 at 1/250s

ISO 3200 f/1.4 at 1/250s

ISO 100 f/8 at 1/640s

ISO 100 f/8 at 1/640s

 

ISO 100 f/2.8 at 1/3200s

ISO 100 f/2.8 at 1/3200s

ISO 500 f/3.2 at 1/100s

ISO 500 f/3.2 at 1/100s

 

Places & Things

051900DSC_3407

ISO 100 f/1.6 at 1/500s

ISO 400 f/2.8 at 1/100s

ISO 400 f/2.8 at 1/100s

 

ISO 100 f/2 at 1/640s

ISO 100 f/2 at 1/640s

ISO 6400 f/6.3 at 1/2000s

ISO 6400 f/6.3 at 1/2000s

 

Is the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM sharp?

Extremely. Even wide open, the lens is incredible sharpness, which makes the out-of-focus areas all the more prominent.

ISO 400 f/3.5 1/400s

Full crop. ISO 400 f/3.5 1/400s

How is the chromatic abberation on the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM?

There is very little chromatic abberation. Even in this full crop of a highly backlit leaf, you don’t really see any purple fringing or axial distortion.

ISO 100 f/1.4 at 1/125s

ISO 100 f/1.4 at 1/125s

Does the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM have good bokeh?

With a 9-bladed aperture, the Sigma gives you a very round circles of confusion with no distinct signature. It’s a creamy look that will satisfy any shooter. But circles aside, the real test to me is the separation of foreground and background elements. Can you get that Sartorialist look that would make even the most cynical fashion blogger weep with joy? The answer is clearly yes. This is a sweet lens.

ISO 400 f/1.4 at 1/10s

ISO 400 f/1.4 at 1/10s

ISO 100 f/1.4 at 1/2000s

ISO 100 f/1.4 at 1/2000s

Pros

  • Incredibly sharp
  • Very pleasing optical signature
  • Reasonably priced compared to Zeiss

Cons

  • Heavy
  • Expensive compared to Canon/Nikon

Conclusion

The question of whether to get this lens or not should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the trade off in sharpness and general awesomeness is offset by the sheer weight of the lens. This isn’t the fault of Sigma per se – glass is heavy, and there’s no way to get around the physics of the situation. But the weight was the single negative that all three of us echoed. Great street photography lens, except it’s really heavy. Great environmental portraiture lens, except it’s heavy. On the other hand, photojournalist Andrew Gombert recently weighed his camera bag for me, and it came in at a whopping 22.5 lbs, so what’s another pound? A lot, according to Sarah, “Taking it on a weekend trip was one thing, but carting that amount of glass around Europe for travel shots was a beast. I got some great sharp, tight shots – but ultimately I won’t be buying this lens. It’s just too dang heavy.”

Canon and Nikon will inevitably offer newer versions of their 50mm lenses, but the question is at what price point? I have no doubt that their engineers are capable of designing modern lenses for high resolution sensors, but will the market bear another $1000+ normal lens, or is the sweet spot in the $300-500 range? Whatever the case may be, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM is a tremendous value for what you get, and is clearly the new normal.

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There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Mark at 12:43 am

    I was very fortunate to obtain one of the first production copies. I shoot commercially and without a doubt I utilize this lens when it is the right tool for the job. An incredible value and prior to Sigma I only used L series glass from Canon. I now own and two Sigma Lenses. The Art 50 and their Sport 120-300 that replaced my beloved Canon 300mm f2.8 L IS. I’ve never looked back and now consider Sigma glass before new Canon L lenses.

  2. James at 10:13 am

    I opted for the 35mm 1.4 from Sigma after doing a lot of thinking about it, I own a 50mm 1.4 (the non premium version) from Nikon. If I did not own a 50mm then the sigma “nifty 50″ would have been in the top 3 lenses I would choose from. Otus as amazing as it is, is not practical at all to purchase given the price range it’s at. Thats practically 2.5x more expensive than any other Zeiss lense so far (I own a 21mm Distagon). I paid 350 bucks for the non premium 50mm 1.4, it’s still doing ok.
    Sigma is definitely carving out a more respectable image for itself in the photography community, the nagging complaints of hit or miss quality control is a serious concern for me still. I don’t think that gets addressed much by the media or Sigma.

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