Tuesday, June 14, 2011

REVIEW: Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG Canon Mount
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG
It features hoods for both full-frame and cropped sensors

In my Which Lens Should I Buy? article I recommend that readers stay away from third party lenses. Recently I sold a 3 year old Canon L lens for $50 more than I paid for it, and that’s not the first time. Overall the better OEM lenses tend to hold their value very well, whereas one simply needs to visit Craigslist to find third party lenses selling for well below their original purchase price.

Now third party lens owners say their lenses are as good as or better than their OEM equivalents, so when there was a lot of chatter about how great the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG lens was, I had to try it out. After all, I’ve returned my Canon 85mm f/1.2L II after being frustrated by its limited minimum focus distance and AF performance – especially given its huge price tag.

This won’t be a scientific lens review that you’d find at DPReview or SLRGear.com, but rather my opinion of this lens on its own merit. After all, comparing ISO charts with this and another lens might be useful to some, the real proof in the pudding to me is – how does this lens perform in real world usage?

Sample Images & Thoughts

All of the following gallery photos were resized on Smugmug from the in-camera JPEG of mostly the Canon 1D Mark IV (and one with the Canon 5D Mark II). The Picture Style used in the camera for these was Standard and no additional processing has been performed on them.

You can view more EXIF info than what is found below on Smugmug by clicking the image below and then hovering over it to display the toolbar where photo info is available. You may also view at your desired size on Smugmug.

ALL of these photos are Copyright © Ron Martinsen and may not be used, copied, linked to, etc… without a written and signed usage agreement.

f/8 for 1/100 sec at ISO 400 (EV+1)

This is my favorite shot of the bunch. The detail was very sharp yet the color was decent as well. It was a far cry from what I get from my OEM lenses, but it was pretty darn good overall. The sharpness was great and the bokeh was decent. One of the problems I really had with this lens was the fact that it didn’t play well with my light meter, so this and most shots needed some exposure compensation (in this case +1) to keep the shot from being underexposed out of the camera.

Aperture Priority f/1.4 for 1/2000 sec at ISO 100 (EV 0)

I quickly learned with this lens that if I was in Aperture Priority and let the camera shoot with what the in-camera light meter thought was a correct exposure (in evaluate metering mode), I’d end up with a hideous dark mess as shown above. This was the best bokeh I could get and it’s not bad, but it’s not even in the same league as the Canon 50 & 85mm lenses.

f/2.8 for 1/640 sec at ISO 320 (EV 0)

At first glance it appears this was a case where there was no issue with the light meter and the lens, but this was a super bright shot with a model with fair skin, so normally it’s be more brightly exposed than this. In short, the underexposure of this shot was what was needed so my typical boost to +1 EV for this lens wasn’t required. That issue aside it’s a great out of camera result with much less bokeh than I’d get out of my 70-200mm @85mm and f/2.8. The colors were decent though (in sRGB, not so much in AdobeRGB) so I’d call this a pretty good result.

f/5.6 for 1/100 sec at ISO 160 (EV +1)

Here the bokeh is decent yet the colors a bit muddy. I was shooting with the Cloudy white balance mode as I would typically do in the overcast conditions I faced here. The sharpness and detail is pretty good for this handheld shot though, so overall I was happy with the result.

f/2.8 for 1/200 sec at ISO 100 (EV +1)

Here’s a nice shot that shows great detail in the face and hair then gradually drops off into a blur. Of course the blur feels more like f/5.6+ than f/2.8 to me. However, its still an impressive result from this lens.

f/8 for 1/100 sec at ISO 800 (EV +1)

f/8 is great, and here’s the proof. This shot despite the higher ISO and fact that it was hand held is brilliantly sharp. The detail is fantastic and there’s nothing to fault with the lens on this one. Those who are a looking for an excuse to get this lens are pretty much going to be sold on this lens with this shot

f/5.6 for 1/100 sec at ISO 200 (EV 0)

Here’s a shot where my settings should have overexposed a little and once again I got a perfect exposure. The detail on the camera mode dial where I focused is bang on, and everything else is appropriately out of focus. Once again I was wishing for a little more bokeh, but for this shot the results totally work.

Canon 5D Mark II
f/7.1 for 1/100 sec at ISO 400 (0 EV)
Manual w/ Fill Flash from 580 EX II

Once again the camera and lens didn’t talk to each other very well so the background is underexposed. I was dialing in values manually so I could have compensated, but since I was using a different camera I decided to stick with what the meter told me. There’s good image detail but little else to appreciate about this shot.

f/2.8 for 1/200 sec at ISO 100 (+1 EV)

I was very happy with the in-camera results here (using the 1D Mark IV) after bumping up the exposure compensation. The detail of the shoe and subject are very good out of the camera, but the blur in the background is a little weak. If the model hadn’t been there, it would have felt much more like f/8 than f/2.8.


I love that this lens can take 77mm filters as that’s what I use for my polarizer and ND filter. I also was impressed with the minimum focus distance of this lens when compared to the the 85m f/1.2L offered by Canon. I also appreciated its fast AF performance relative to the Canon lenses at 50 & 85mm.

While I wouldn’t say this lens is better than the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, it isn’t a bad lens. I had some issues with the focus being slightly off in the mid range of f-stops and it seemed to be 1+ stop dark according to both of my camera’s light meters – when compared to my Canon lenses.

The bokeh was decent, but not dreamy like the Canon 50 & 85mm lens offerings. The color was blah in comparison to the Canons, so expect a little more time post-processing. The weight was acceptable to me and overall it performed fairly well.

While I wouldn’t buy this lens as I still feel Canon and Nikon lenses are a better investment, this is a lens I wouldn’t mind having if money were not an issue for me. Money is an issue though, so it’s purchase price of roughly $969 USD (as of the time this article was written) seems a bit steep to me.  Sure, it’s cheaper than a Canon L lens, but that’s more than I want to spend for a Sigma.

To order yours, click here and choose the appropriate mount for your camera.


B&H was kind enough to loan me this lens for a few weeks so I could have adequate time to test it under real-world conditions. The lens was returned to B&H, and I may get a commission if you purchase using links in this article.

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