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Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX HSM Review

Dustin Abbott

September 9th, 2015

85mm is a focal length that I really enjoy. It is long enough that creating shallow depth of field at wide apertures is very easy. It is a beautiful portrait length that avoids distortion of the features but is still short enough that shooting full body portraits is easily within reason. There are a few cheaper 85mm prime lenses for most camera systems, but those options generally have a smaller f/1.8 aperture. The top 85mm lenses, like the Zeiss Otus 1.4/85mm or the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II go from really expensive ($1700 for the Nikon/$2000 for the Canon) and insanely expensive ($4500 for the Zeiss Otus). But high end portrait photographers love the 85mm f/1.2L despite its fairly slow autofocus, and the Zeiss Otus 85mm still stands as my favorite lens I’ve ever reviewed despite being huge (in size and price!) and manual focus only. Somewhere in the middle lies a sweet spot in price for many amateurs and professionals alike…and that is exactly where Sigma’s 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lies. It comes in at right under $1000, and offers up comparable image quality for much less money. Does it have any major shortcomings that make it unworthy of your hard earned money? That is the question we will set out to answer in this review.  If you prefer to watch your reviews simply click on the video below:

Why now? (Speculation Alert!)

This lens was not just released – in fact, it was released four years ago. The main reason I wanted to spend time with this lens as it has been oft rumored (wishful thinking?) that Sigma was planning a new version of this lens for the ART series. Such a lens would be highly prized because of the stellar reputation that Sigma has built for image quality in the ART series. If and when such a lens came, here are a few of the things that I would expect based upon having reviewed three of the previous ART series lenses:

  • New build and design
  • Ability to customize AF functionality through Sigma’s USB dock
  • Reduced chromatic aberrations
  • Excellent sharpness
  • Potentially better AF performance/accuracy
  • Higher contrast

But this 85mm lens is a different story than some of the other lenses Sigma has released…and here’s why I don’t know that an ART version of this lens is guaranteed despite the clamor for such a lens. Most of the ART lenses have filled a niche that Sigma did not already have filled, and the one that overlapped (the 50mm f/1.4), brought a significant optical improvement along with a significantly higher price. The 85mm f/1.4 EX already has excellent optics and shares that 50mm f/1.4 ART’s higher price. It makes me question how much room Sigma has to operate to build a new lens that wouldn’t be much more expensive.  Sigma has built a threshold of pricing for the (full frame) lenses that follows a pretty specific pattern between about $800-$1000 USD; they have never breached the $1000 threshold with one of these lenses.  An ART series rebuild of the 85mm f/1.4 would almost certainly have to break that pattern.  On the flipside, Sigma’s ART lenses have quickly garnered more credibility with professionals and amateurs alike than any of the Sigma’s lenses previously had, so it is entirely possible that Sigma could move a lot more units based on the growing strength of the ART series brand. I’ll leave the speculation behind and let Sigma’s engineers and bean counters make that call. In the meantime we have quite an excellent prime lens in hand that just may  be the lens you have been looking for.

Build and Design

This lens is interesting because it came during a transitional period when Sigma was trying to “find itself” in its lens design philosophy.  This lens falls between the familiar older design philosophy (“crinkle finish”) and the new Global Vision design.  Sigma abandoned the “crinkle finish” that was once a hallmark of their design for a smoother, semi-gloss black finish. The black is broken up by a thin gold ring towards the front of the lens along with a gold-toned “EX Sigma” badge on the side. The design is clean and nice if not as modern looking as the new ART series design. There is a bit of lettering in white and gold at a few points. The body is essentially engineered plastics over a metal frame/mount just like the majority of other newer camera lenses. There is a ribbed section near the lens mount that mirrors a similar section on the lens hood.

The focus ring is about an inch wide with a ribbed, rubberized texture. It falls easily to hand and is damped fairly well but the action isn’t the smoothest that I have encountered. Unlike many autofocus lenses, however, there is a nice bit of rotation (roughly 45 degrees) between 4 feet and infinity, which gives you enough room to nail manual focus in the key portrait zone if necessary. The lens has a distance window as well as almost useless depth of field markings (only for f/16).

There is one switch on the left side of the lens that enables switching between AF (autofocus) and MF (manual focus). The HSM motor (Hypersonic Motor) in the lens does allow for full time manual override – just grab the focus ring at any time. The lens is fully internally focusing, so the length remains consistent at all times.  There is no issue with using a circular polarizer.

The lens design itself is quite squat, but in a handsome kind of way. It has that chunky “prime” look with a ton of glass showing at the front that looks rather great on a camera. I actually prefer the look of the lens sans the hood, although in operation I almost always keep the hood on both for the protection it provides along with the shading of the front element to help prevent stray light from hitting the rather large (77mm) front element. This is a common filter size and chances are you already have a few in this size. If not, they are readily available and the size will be shared with a number of other lenses (including Sigma’s 50mm f/1.4 lenses).

The lens hood design is somewhat unique in that included in the box is an extension to add when using a (APS-C) crop sensor body (see photo above). The effective focal length will depend on your camera body and its crop factor, but the lens comes out to an approximate 135mm focal length equivalent. This is true of any lens mounted on a crop sensor body, but Sigma apparently felt that the lens design relied enough on the lens hood to warrant the extension being included. It is essentially a two inch piece of circular plastic that attaches between the lens hood and the lens body to deepen the hood. I’m actually curious as to how often this extension actually gets used by end users.  (If you use this lens with a crop, let me know in the comments below!)

One admirable philosophy that Sigma espouses is that they always include a nice, padded case for storing and transporting their lenses. These cases are genuinely useful, and a great place to store the lens when not using it or transporting it. I wish that all other lens manufacturers would include cases that were this useful.

Autofocus Observations

My calibration process was a little interesting. I had a bit of challenge using Reikan FoCal (my typical program I use in lens calibration) as the lens would focus and defocus fine for a little while, but then it would emit a faint high pitched whine, and the program would hang. This was a new phenomenon for me even after using 100 lenses or so. I finally switched to a semi-automatic process and gave it plenty of space in between focus sessions. I still had a few hiccups, but I [eventually] got the job done. That behavior during calibration was probably copy specific, and if I had purchased the lens I would have had it checked out by Sigma to assure that everything was within spec.  I didn’t see any similar behavior in normal use during my month-long review period.

Focus accuracy on a lens like this is very demanding. 85mm and f/1.4 means that depth of field is often razor thin, and, while not perfect, I have been satisfied with my focus consistency even at wide apertures. I’ve had relatively few misses, and the lens has met my expectations in this regard.

I would not consider this a top tier lens when it comes to autofocus, however. I have some lenses in my kit that have exceptionally good autofocus and their consistency surpasses the Sigma 85. This is highlighted when using the lens in a portrait setting, when even a narrow miss means softer eyes or facial features.  To give you anecdotal evidence, I used this lens interchangeably with Canon EF 100mm f/2.L IS Macro lens to do headshots for my staff at the church.  I used the same lighting setup (fixed daylight temp high powered CFLs through softboxes) and the same aperture (for single headshots, at least) of f/3.5.  The Canon returned better focus consistency (and thus sharpness) and was my preferred tool when I reviewed the results. I will say, however, that I had a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 lens that I used for several years and eventually sold because I didn’t feel the autofocus was as consistent as the rest of my kit. I am dealing with memory, mind you, but I do feel that this Sigma is at least as accurate as my Canon 85 was…and probably better. The high end Canon 85mm f/1.2L II receives good marks for accuracy from most users but is well known to focus extremely slowly. The Sigma certainly focuses more quickly in most situations, and this portrait (one of the aforementioned headshots) shows that the lens is an excellent studio option.

Focus speed isn’t blazingly fast with the Sigma, but is adequate for most applications. It only feels “leisurely” when a large adjustment is necessary (from minimum focus to longer range). The reason for this is pretty obvious when you look into the front element – there is a LOT of glass in there. Moving large, heavy glass elements takes a lot of power from the autofocus motor. I wouldn’t consider the Sigma a great lens for sports or fast action, but it should do the trick for most events (weddings, for example) or portrait work.

The Sigma isn’t crazy about Live View focus on my Canon 6D body, however, and it tends to really hunt and take its time. It also doesn’t perform well in situations when the sun is brightly in the frame, either; it spends valuable seconds hunting back and forth. In those situations, the lens will make almost a pulsing noise as the AF motor reverses back and forth as it tries to move the elements into the proper position.  I noticed the same “pulse” behavior when using the lens in AF Servo mode.  It definitely prefers traditional one shot focus.

One aspect that could be improved here (beyond focus speed and consistency) by an ART series redesign would be adding compatibility with the Sigma USB dock. The key advantage here is that while many camera bodies will allow for a single calibration point (AFMA), the Sigma USB dock will allow you to tweak focus for four different focus points, allowing greater accuracy at a variety of distances. That would be extremely useful in a lens like this.

But this last bit is a hypothetical musing; at the moment there is no official word for Sigma about such a redesign. In the meantime, however, I wasn’t particularly disappointed with the overall focus speed and accuracy of this lens.  It isn’t top shelf, but neither was it unreliable.  Most of my images came back nicely focused.

Image Quality

Here is the nitty gritty, for this is the main reason that people buy an 85mm f/1.4 lens.    The beautiful image quality and great subject isolation that such a lens provides (even one famous for slow focus like the Canon 85L) is worthwhile for many photographers. It is one of my favorite focal lengths to work with, as 135mm (or more) provides even greater subject isolation but can be too long for many applications (even more true if you are using a crop sensor body), and 50mm, while more flexible for general use, just doesn’t provide the same subject isolation (look). The 85mm falls right into a sweet spot for portrait work, as it provides a very flattering perspective of features. It doesn’t distort things like noses and ears like wider focal lengths do, and it doesn’t overly compress the features like longer focal lengths (200mm+) can.  It also allows for full body portraits with nice subject isolation.

Take a look at some the top environmental portrait shooters and you will probably find an 85mm prime in their regular rotation.  But even your “ordinary” images (family, event, etc…) gain a very special look when using a lens like this.

The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 delivers image quality in spades (as I hope the images shared in this review will attest to).  I’ve used a number of 85mm lenses, and each has its strengths. The Sigma finds a nice balance between sharpness, bokeh, and drawing. It isn’t optically perfect (we’ll touch on those shortcomings in a moment), but those imperfections are part of what creates the nice drawing from the lens. If you were to examine images from the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II at a pixel level you would discover a number of optical imperfections. Chromatic aberrations, a lack of localized contrast in some places, and other defects are present – but if you step back and look at the images the lens produces (as a whole) they are unmistakably special. That make be slightly less true of this Sigma, but the analogy is appropriate here. The “look” of the images from this Sigma is special.

It offers nice sharpness while retaining a smooth transition to defocus. Some lenses can emphasize sharpness to the detriment of the overall look of the images. I’m very partial to the overall drawing of this lens. The images have a rich, warm look with great delineation of the subject. The bokeh is nice and soft, giving out of focus regions a nicely “creamy” look. There were a few situations, however, where I was surprised by how busy the background looked. This was at a very specific ratio of distance from camera to subject to background. Some highlights can have harder edges than what I might like.  Here are a variety of “bokeh” shots for you to check out:

A careful examination of image quality shows that chromatic aberrations are almost always present, if not extreme. Most of this is in the form of bokeh CA, however, making it often less noticeable. The test for me is whether or not CA is evident even at standard viewing sizes (as opposed to zooming in to a pixel level.) Most lenses being released in the last two years have improved their ability to control CA to the place that it is rarely evident except at a pixel level. The Sigma 85mm doesn’t have that degree of control over CA, but chromatic aberrations are reasonably well controlled for a large aperture prime like this. The problem for the lens is that the bar has moved quite a bit higher in this area in the last couple of years (and that is the standard that I’m using).

The lens seems quite resistant to flare.  I’ve not had any issues that I can recall when putting the sun into the frame.  I’ve primarily shot during the golden hour on either end of the day, but one day I shot into the rising sun that was getting pretty intense and didn’t have an issue with ghosting or veiling at at all.  This is a nice plus for a portrait lens, because often you are going to want to put either a natural or artificial light source into the frame to backlight your subject.

The lens has decent but not exceptional contrast at wide apertures (the Otus 85 is not threatened!).  That being said, the image quality wide open overall is very useful.  I shot the majority of the time between f/1,4 and f/2 and only stopped down when I needed additional depth of field.  Look at the nice resolution from this medium-focus distance scene at f/2:

I find that even landscape images do work at f/1.4-f/2, and the ability to radically change your focus point and create shallow DOF even in a landscape image can be a very appealing technique. Here are a few landscape oriented samples, including a few that use shallow DOF to tell the story:

When stopped down resolution is very high, and I feel like 85mm is actually a great focal length for shooting larger scale landscape images where a wide angle lens is just too wide. I wrote an article on the subject that helps explain the benefits of a using a telephoto’s compression to your advantage when shooting landscapes here. Distortion is quite low, and I would suggest bringing the lens along for an alternate view at some scenes when shooting landscapes.

I mentioned the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 (a lens that costs 4 ½ times as much as the Sigma). Part of what blew me away about that lens was the fact that it was able to have incredible (record setting) resolution and stunningly high contrast at wide apertures while retaining a very artful drawing/look to the images. Such an accomplishment is incredibly rare, however, and is the main reason the lens is massive in size along with being massive in price. I don’t think that this Sigma is as magical a lens as the Zeiss, but I also recognize that the Zeiss isn’t within reach (or practical) for many photographers. The Canon 85L is the standard in the field, but the Sigma is very close at less than half the price. The Sigma is offering up noticeably better image quality and more dramatic subject isolation than the cheaper f/1.8 variants and probably will hit a sweet spot in the image quality to price ratio that many photographers must consider. It is sharper at f/1.4 across the image circle than the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 is at f/1.8.

There are few better lenses for low light work than a good 85mm f/1.4 lens. It really sucks in the light, and makes producing great looking photos even in less than ideal light an easy accomplishment. While today’s DSLR bodies offer great high ISO performance, I think all of us prefer to keep ISO’s lower to allow for greater dynamic range (and smaller file sizes, too!)

One final image quality observation is the lens has a rather poor minimum focus distance of 2.79”/85cm, yielding an unimpressive .11x maximum magnification figure. This is, well, low, which means that the lens isn’t as useful as it might be for flowers or other smaller objects. While the figure is unimpressive, it is also right in line with other 85mm lenses. This just isn’t a strength for the focal length. If having better maximum magnification is more important to you, I might suggest either a macro lens between 90-100mm (I love my Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro and found the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 VC Macro a very impressive lens) or even a 135mm lens instead. All the 135mm lenses that I have reviewed (Canon, Zeiss, and Samyang) have much higher maximum magnification specs (particularly the latter two). Their maximum magnification is more like .25x, making them very useful for minimum focus shots. The Sigma has nice wide open resolution for these type shots, though, so this does help.  Here’s an f/2 shot plus crop to show off the nice resolution near minimum focus.

All in all the lens is offering up a lot of image quality for the money, making it an easy lens to recommend if IQ is a priority for you.

Conclusions

The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX continues to occupy a unique position since its release.  There are cheaper alternatives, yes, but those are mostly f/1.8 variants with image quality several steps behind this Sigma.  There is a Rokinon/Samyang 85mm with good image quality (and a very low price), but it is manual everything, and many photographers simply aren’t interested in messing with such a lens.  The Sigma’s true competitors are the first party 85mm lenses from Canon and Nikon, and the Nikon (85mm f/1.4G) comes in at an $800 premium at right under $1700.  Canon’s own 85mm f/1.2L II has a slight aperture advantage and beautiful optics, but it comes in at a whopping $2000.  That leaves the Sigma sitting at an excellent bargain position with almost as good optics, a nice design and build, and enough of a savings to add something like a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART with the price difference.  And yet this lens has never been a huge hit, and the main issue may be the perceptions due to the autofocus capabilities of the lens.  The lens did show a few quirks for me, and the overall focus accuracy is not top tier, but overall I feel the lens performed well during my test period and gave me some gorgeous images that I’m happy to add to my portfolio.  If you are looking for a good portrait prime that will produce beautiful images with sharp details, nice, creamy bokeh, and beautiful color rendition and don’t want to break the bank, then look no further.  Despite its shortcomings the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX will give you a lot of bang for the buck!

Pros:

  • Excellent image quality
  • Excellent price compared to first party alternatives
  • Nice, clean design ethos
  • Good flare resistance
  • Autofocus is reasonably fast for large aperture prime
  • Nice drawing/look to the images
  • Includes lens hood and nice, padded case

Cons:

  • Some autofocus quirks
  • Other options deliver more reliable focus accuracy
  • More chromatic aberrations than newer releases
  • Long(ish) minimum focus and low maximum magnification
  • No weather sealing/moisture resistance

 

Big thanks to B&H Photo for providing me a retail copy of the lens for review purposes. They are fantastic to work with both as a partner and as a retailer. I’d appreciate if you give them your business through the links below, which also helps keep me in business. Thanks!

 

Gear Used:

Canon EOS 6D DSLR Camera (Body Only)
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
Adobe Lightroom CC Software for Mac and Windows (Boxed Version)
Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud 1-Year Subscription
Alien Skin Exposure 7 (Use Code “dustinabbott” to get 10% anything and everything)

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