Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art is Everything They Say, and Then Some

**UPDATE: Allow me to say up front, I have never used the Zeiss Otus 55/1.4 and I make no claims that this lens is as good or better optically, than that lens. For that, see the scientific comparisons on the web provided by the various labs such as DxO Mark. Also, I fully believe there is more to an optic than just the hard and fast metrics (sharpness, lack of aberrations, etc.). What I can say is this lens has blown me away and raised the bar for what optics are capable of technically.

Generally speaking, I don't fall into the hype of new products. I mean, look at this blog. I am getting psyched about lenses and gear that were released 20-30 years ago. I tend to wait things out, let them prove themselves, and then check them out when the bugs have been worked out. (Not there is anything wrong with being the first to try and experience things, it's just not been my compulsion.) But recently, I came across some images on a photoblog captured with the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 and I was just blown away. I certainly love and appreciate the virtues of vintage glass as much as anyone I think. But let's face it, the digital world is very different from film. As you likely know, lenses designed for film accounted for light striking the emulsion and being recorded a certain way. The digital sensor however, is a very different animal. Lenses that once were the pinnacle of sharpness, are in some cases, completely different when used in conjunction with a DSLR. On top of that, the technological advances in design and manufacturing have come so far in recent years, better optical performance is an inevitability.

This being the case, I found myself looking at the images from the Otus, and yearning for a lens that could truly utilize the 24 MP resolution of my D600 sensor. Unfortunately $4k is a little out of my price range...for a 50mm normal lens. Enter: Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art.

Sigma has made huge waves recently having announced a new dedication to designing premium optics. Better than simply announcing it, they actually did it. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art along with several other lenses have proven to people, Sigma isn't kidding around. The latest release in their Art line is the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art. What's the big deal about another 50mm lens? The Sigma aimed at competing with that $4k Zeiss, but at a far better price point. $949 to be precise. And as the test labs got ahold of new copies of the lens, it seems, Sigma wasn't far off the mark optically.

Again, I have not really been the hype-type but ever since the announcement of this lens and the subsequent lens test results (by DxO and others) which proved that this lens was indeed what it was claiming, I knew, this is something I absolutely wanted. I found myself on the Sigma site and other blogs, watching like a hawk for the price announcement and release date.

On April 14th, I ordered this lens directly from Sigma's site. It arrived May 23rd. Immediately I discovered for myself, the performance I have been looking for.

This lens is amazing, pure and simple.

This weekend, my wife's band, Ian McGowan and the Good Deeds is on tour and things could not have aligned better. I literally picked the lens up from UPS, got home, loaded up the car, and left for a three-city tour. The 50mm f/1.4 hasn't left my camera (save for a couple times I made some images of it, and was instantly called a 'nerd' by Nikki's bandmates). I have enclosed a few of the images made with it so far and intend on doing a more thorough write-up in the future. As usual I have posted the images at reduced size, but included some 100% crops from key areas of the image.

Allie Gordon (Vocalist) with Ian McGowan (Lead Singer/Songwriter)

It seems I missed focus slightly if I was focusing on Allie's face. The plane of focus seems to be sitting just beyond her eyes. Regardless, it is gorgeously sharp even wide open. With a lens this sharp, I am learning I need to be much more careful assessing focus.

Nikki Kovaluk (Wife/Violinist) playing at The Bay in Warrensburg, MO

We begin to see the low-light limitations of the Nikon D600 here. This image was made at ISO 3200. Still, shooting wide open, the lack of aberrations, specifically chromatic aberration and softness, just amazes me. Furthermore, I have read some complaints about this lens' bokeh. I personally think the lens does a fine job blurring the background. The 9-bladed aperture is designed to maintain a soft, round circular shape across all apertures as it is stopped down.

Nikki Kovaluk (Wife/Violinist)

Another great example of how the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 handles the background and maintains sharpness wide open. I am surprised to find as many folks claiming the cost isn't worth the performance and talking about sticking with their current 50s. This thing seriously blows the doors off all of the other 50mm lenses I have ever used. Yes, we may be talking about in a smaller series of circumstances, but for my shooting habits (often shooting wide open, low light, craving razor sharpness in the plane of focus.) this lens has become my new standard.

Tree @ f/1.4 (using ND filter)

Crop 1
Crop 2

Crop 1 is nearer the center of the image, and I know, I have been ranting...but the sharpness wide open! And look at the contrast! A beautiful balance between maintaining contrast but not getting overly punchy as much of the detail across even the darker portions of the image is maintained. Crop 2 continues to demonstrate the resolving capabilities of this lens off-axis.

I have been playing around with flare and trying to achieve some of those more ethereal images. This image may be too much but I love it. It has been retouched and cropped in PS. Have a look at the original image.

Clearly the contrast is reduced but the shot is straight into the sun. I have been impressed with how this lens handles flare and how tough it is to actually significantly impact the image in other areas, by composing an image, in the face of a bright source of light.

More to come! This lens is awesome.

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