Last summer I had the opportunity to test out the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art lens and review it for dPS. I absolutely loved the lens, so when the opportunity arose to try Sigma’s 85mm f/1.4 Art lens, I jumped at the chance.
I continue to be excited by Sigma’s lineup of Art lenses, as they offer incredible image quality for a great price. Several of my photographer friends were singing this lens’s praises since it began shipping, so I was eager to see if it lived up to its reputation.
First Impressions of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art Lens
As a Nikon shooter, I tested the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens in a Nikon mount. The first thing I noticed about this lens is that it is an absolute beast. The lens is 3.7 inches wide by 5 inches long (94.7mm x 126.2mm), and weighs in at a whopping two and a half pounds (1113 g / 39.3 oz.)! Compare this to Canon’s 85mm f/1.2L II lens, which weighs in at four ounces lighter and is more than an inch and a half shorter. The filter thread is 86mm, compared to 72mm for the Canon one. For another comparison, Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4G is also more than an inch and a half shorter and 2/10 of an inch slimmer, weighs more than a pound less than the Sigma at 595 g / 21oz.), and accepts a 77mm filter.
The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens consists of 14 elements in 12 groups, featuring two low dispersion SLD elements and an aspherical element to help reduce chromatic aberration. The construction of the lens feels as solid as other Sigma Art lenses I’ve used. The metal barrel has a nice finished look, the switches and focusing ring have a high quality feel to them and they are easily located when looking through the viewfinder. The ribbed rubber focusing ring takes up a large portion of the lens barrel and provides a long, smooth throw, perfect for manually focusing if you desire.
There is rubber sealing around the lens mount to protect against dust and moisture, as well as oil repellent coatings on the front and rear elements. Sigma also states that the lens’s hypersonic motor (HSM) has 1.3x more torque than its predecessor, allowing the lens to focus faster. Minimum focus distance is 33.3 inches, similar to competitors’ lenses.
The fast maximum aperture of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art makes this lens a workhorse for many applications. At f/1.4, you’re getting a lot of light through the lens and onto the imaging sensor, making it ideal for low light situations. In addition, that fast aperture allows for use of lower ISOs, helping to minimize noise. Finally, working at wider apertures such as f/1.4 mean you can force your viewer to look exactly where you want by creating images with extremely shallow depth of field.
The lens ships with a high quality padded soft case, ideal for transporting the lens. Sigma also provides a sizable plastic hood, ideal for helping to eliminate lens flare off the sizable front element. The hood locks into place securely and offers good protection from impact as well.
The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens is compatible with Sigma’s USB dock, which helps facilitate the updating of firmware, lens calibration, or other customizations such as focus parameters. Unfortunately, I was not provided with the USB dock for this review. My first time shooting with the lens I found it to front focus quite a bit. This was corrected by using my Nikon D810’s AF Fine Tune feature, but in my 25 years in photography, that’s a feature I’ve never had to use before, so I was a little put off by the need to do so.
In Practical Use
Once the AF issues were corrected, the lens was awesome to use. The autofocus was fast and quiet and the lens was tack sharp. The beauty of a portrait lens at f/1.4 is the ability to blur the background way out of focus and have the sharp areas of the image really jump out at you. This made the initial front-focusing issues all the more of a problem because when you photograph using such shallow depth of field if you miss your focus, you really miss it! It’s imperative that you’re precise and that the lens can be counted on to focus where you tell it to. See this article I wrote: Fast Glass: Tips for Working With Wide Aperture Lenses for more that.
The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art is an excellent portrait lens. The bokeh is buttery smooth and the contrast and sharpness make for a beautiful look to the image straight out of the camera. Repeatability of focus was a bit of an issue at times, and I occasionally had to refocus the lens when taking multiple shots at the same distance. While for me it wasn’t a major problem, it’s worth noting when you may need to work under greater pressure than what I was facing in my test shoots.
The lens does exhibit some focus breathing when changing focus from one distance to another. Focus breathing is where objects in the image become more or less magnified as the focus is changed. This won’t be a major problem for still shooters unless you are focus stacking, but for video shooters, this may be a slight cause for concern, especially when doing drastic focus pulls.
While I did not have a chance to use the lens under these circumstances, I was struck by how quickly the lens focused and thought it would have made an excellent lens for photographing sports such as basketball, back in my sports photography days. In addition, the excellent image quality and wide aperture mean the lens can be used in many other situations. Those include; landscape photography, when either a moderate telephoto focal length is needed, or when photographing a flower, tree, or another object when you want a shallow depth of field to blur the background or foreground.
When properly calibrated, the lens is tack sharp and provides stellar image quality. Build quality is outstanding, and the lens felt good in my hands. The autofocus was fast and smooth, as well as quiet. Image quality was outstanding.
Price-wise, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens is a bargain, comparatively speaking. The Nikon 85mm f/1.4G retails for $ 1599, while Canon’s 85mm f/1.2L lists for $ 1899 (at the time of writing this review). At $ 1199, the Sigma provides outstanding image quality at quite a bit less than its competitors. The lens is available in Nikon, Canon, or Sigma mounts.
This lens is heavy. Combined with a pro body, you could be lifting almost 6 pounds every time you take a shot. For wedding and portrait photographers who might want to use this lens a good portion of their workday, that means a lot of heavy lifting and arm fatigue after a while.
Also, there is no image stabilization on the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art. While neither Nikon nor Canon offers image stabilization on their fast 85mm offerings, it should be noted that Tamron’s SP 85mm f/1.8 lens, while a stop slower, does have that feature. That allows the lens to be handheld at shutter speeds slower than could be achieved with the Sigma at 85mm f/1.4.
The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens is an outstanding value that provides incredible image quality at a good price. While I would prefer it to be a bit small and lighter, there’s no denying that the bottom line for image makers is image quality and the Sigma delivers that. Four stars.