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Sigma 70mm f/2.8 Macro ART Review

Dustin Abbott

September 3rd, 2018

Sigma’s first macro lens in the ART series has flown somewhat under the radar, overshadowed by the more flamboyant lens announcements (Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 ART, 105mm f/1.4) along with the announcement of the Sony FE retrofit of the ART series.  Sigma’s approach is a little different from the established conventions in focal length, focus method (the lens focuses externally and employs a focus-by-wire system), and eschews the image stabilization that most modern macro lenses employ.  What they have done, however, is focus on the ART series priority – optical performance – on which the Sigma 70mm f/2.8 DG Macro ART definitely excels.  It is extremely sharp at all focus distances.  It also has weather sealing, and, continuing in the delightful trend from the 14-24mm ART, it is fully compatible with Canon’s Lens Aberration Correction (only the second third party lens that this is true of).  But are these things enough to make the 70 ART Macro worth adding to your kit?  Read on to find out!

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Sigma 70 ART Macro Build and Design

I refer to this lens as being somewhat quirky, mostly because it is seems somewhat out of step with everything else that Sigma has done recently.  Sigma has carved out a niche for the ART series by offering high resolution lenses (which this lens does qualify for!), but also by offering lenses with wider maximum apertures that what is typical, be it at that particular focal length or zoom range.  70mm is a slightly oddball focal length, and the maximum aperture of f/2.8 is in no way unusual.  For a closer look at the lens, check out this video episode where I take you up close and personal with the lens:

What makes this lens unusual for a 2018 release is what is missing, namely an internally focusing design and a lack of OS (an optical stabilizer).  This is also the first ART series lens (for DSLRs) to not have Sigma’s HSM focus motor (HyperSonic Motor) – a ring-type focus motor.  Let’s take a moment and examine what each of these things mean.

First of all, this lens is not internally focusing, which means that the inner barrel extends like a piston when focusing towards the macro range.  In fact, you can actually get reproduction ratios by seeing the markings on that inner barrel as it extends:

Sigma has this to say on the topic:  “In recent years, macro lenses in the standard range have tended to employ inner focusing with the goal of maximizing autofocus speed. In contrast, the new SIGMA 70mm F2.8 DG MACRO | Art lens is designed to prioritize optical performance, fulfilling the demanding image quality requirements that define the Art line.”  I’ve used a lot of internally focusing lenses with amazing optics, but I’ve also got two lenses that externally focus and are incredibly sharp (Zeiss Milvus 2/135mm and Voigtländer APO-Lanthar 65mm f/2 Macro).  I’m not sure that I follow the reasoning of why Sigma conflates external focus and image quality, but the lens does have excellent image quality, so I’ll concede this point to them.  On a practical level know that using the lens hood here is particularly important, as at no time does the front element exceed the length of the lens hood, meaning that the front elements stays protected…if you are using the lens hood.  Here you can see what things look like with the lens hood in place and the lens completely focused to macro.

A byproduct of this inner barrel extension is that the lens has a fairly tiny filter thread of just 49mm.  The lens bucks the general trend of Sigma ART lenses being large and heavy all around, in fact, as the lens is a moderate 2.79 x 4.17″ / 70.8 x 105.8 mm (Diameter x Length) and weighs 1.13 lb / 515 g.  This isn’t small in an absolute sense, but it is very reasonably sized and slightly smaller than some competing lenses.

More puzzling is that this lens does not have OS.  Pretty much everyone started putting image stabilization in their macro lenses about 7 years ago because, of all lenses, macro lenses are the most demanding to handhold (at macro distances).  Depth of field becomes incredibly small at macro distances, and effective aperture reduces (meaning that the lens needs more and more light the closer you get to a subject).  Many hardcore macro shooters work only from a tripod for this reason, though one still has a problem if their subject moves at all.  Most macro lenses with a stabilizer have one especially designed for macro work (Canon calls this a “hybrid IS”), and I can attest that it makes a huge difference.  Yes, when I’m serious about macro work, I use a tripod, but I also find that macro lenses are very flexible “run and gun” lenses, allowing one to capture a variety of subjects.  If I’m hiking, for example, I don’t want to be carrying a tripod.  I found using the 70 ART Macro much harder for this kind of work.

When I used it on the a7R3 and it’s excellent IBIS (Steadyshot Inside), I was able to shoot a handheld macro like this of the top of a Pepsi can.  Good luck doing that on a Canon or Nikon without that stabilization.

It wasn’t so much about stabilizing the final result (you can easily solve that by using a fast shutter speed), but rather more about holding the lens still long enough to focus on the small area where I wanted focus.  Suffice it to say that I really missed OS for the situations where I frequently use a macro lens.  Sigma designed this lens for macro purists who are willing to do their macro work from a tripod and are more concerned with image quality than anything else.  Fair enough, but that does limit the appeal of the lens to a wider audience, particularly when Tamron’s exceptionally good 90mm f/2.8 VC Macro from their SP series costs only $90 more.  In some ways this lens makes most sense to me on Sony FE where it can take advantage of Sony’s excellent IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization).  I think Sigma’s decision to exclude OS from this lens is going to haunt them.

The general build of the lens is very good.  It has the now-familiar Sigma ART series design, which is sleek and modern in dark, understated way.  The lens comes with both lens hood and a nice padded, pouch.  While it doesn’t have more robust weather sealing of the new 105mm f/1.4 ART lens, it does at least have some dust and moisture resistance at the lens mount (better than nothing!)  The mount is brass and the body a blend of metals and engineered plastics (or “thermal composites” as per Sigma)!

As is typical for ART lenses, it employs a nine rounded blade aperture iris design, which is very effective at maintaining a circular shape with the lens stopped down.  The minimum focus distance on this lens is 10.16″ / 25.8 cm, a little lower than either Tamron’s 90mm Macro or Canon’s 100mm macro options.  It is a full 1:1 macro lens.

I consider this focal length to be a good option for those that shoot food or product photography, where the slighter wider framing may come in handy.  Those that shoot insects or moving things might prefer the longer working distance of a longer focal length.

It should be noted that this lens is compatible with Sigma’s teleconverters, which gives you a few options.  It can also be used with Sigma’s USB dock (for firmware updates, focus calibration, and more), is eligible for Sigma’s mount conversion service, and also is compatible with the MC-11 adapter for Sony (though with a few quirks).

Sigma 70 ART Macro Autofocus

The final somewhat odd element of the Sigma 70 ART Macro is Sigma’s decision to go with a focus-by-wire system rather than a traditional HSM motor here.  I’ll give you Sigma’s marketing/explanation followed by my thoughts.  “The focus-by-wire system eliminates the direct mechanical connection between the focus ring and the focus drive system. Controlled by SIGMA’s latest algorithm, a newly developed coreless DC motor adjusts focus with optimal speed and low noise. Full-time manual focus is available even during autofocus, allowing the photographer to make minute focus adjustments simply by turning the focus ring. In addition, the focus ring’s large angle of rotation helps the photographer achieve the extremely precise focusing required for effective macro photography.” 

I’m afraid I can’t swallow all of this.  First of all, Sigma’s HSM motors are typically fairly quiet anyway, and the statement about “optimal speed” is pure marketing – the autofocus is quite slow, particularly if you are doing major focus changes.  Using the included focus limiter is going to be key here, as focus speed is fine for smaller focus changes.  Going from macro to infinity is somewhat leisurely, though.  

At first I thought this was a wise decision by Sigma, as it seemed like the lens was going to be a natural to adapt to to mirrorless.  Sigma ART lenses are some of the very best lenses to adapt to Sony FE already due to their MC-11 doing a great job in helping lenses make that transition.  I was somewhat disappointed by what I found when adapting the lens to my Sony a7R3, though, as the lens tended to hunt at times, get stuck sometimes, and in other occasions refused to focus on the foreground object that I wanted it to focus on.  In this image of a flower, for example, the camera refused to focus on a very obvious foreground subject.  In the second image I actually manually focused into the right zone, and the focus system “woke back up” then.

The image quality results were excellent (this is an optically superior lens!), but I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience due to the inconsistent character of the focus.  I’m actually interested in testing an actual FE mount lens, as I suspect it will operate much better.  I did check both the lens and my MC-11 for firmware updates, but while there was an MC-11 update, it didn’t address my issues.  Perhaps a future firmware update to one or the other will improve this performance.  Here’s a few shots taken with the Sigma/Sony combo:

A byproduct of the focus-by-wire system is that the traditional distance window is eliminated from the barrel, though if you take off the lens hood and look at the barrel markings you will get a similar effect.  Focus-by-wire lenses require the camera to be on and awake before any input to the manual focus ring does anything.  There is no direct coupling to the elements, so all input has to be routed through the focus motor.  I’m skeptical that this is what macro photographers really want as these systems tend to have poorer tactile feedback and less precision, though, to be fair, focus-by-wire systems are vastly improved over where they were a few years ago.  You can employ full-time manual override, but the camera must be on and active for this to work.  Let’s just say that this lens is no Zeiss for manual focus bliss.

On a far more positive note, the autofocus accuracy was generally excellent right out of the box in my tests on my Canon 5D Mark IV.  I didn’t feel that any calibration was necessary, as the lens nailed focus again and again.  There was one oddity, though.  I have a setting enabled on my 5D Mark IV where only the cross-type AF points supported by a given lens will show up (I value accuracy over having more points).  I had the fewest points available to me of any lens I’ve used, with only the center group lighting up for some reason.  I’ve used a lot of Sigma lenses before and never seen anything like that before.

This lens would be too slow to keep up with very fast action, but I did shoot a few things moving moderately fast (like the Luge riders at the Skyline Luge Mont Tremblant) and was able to stop that action fine.

All in all, the focus system leaves me with some unanswered questions.  It probably makes most sense on Sony, but I was surprised that the experience with MC-11 was actually sub-par compared to other ART lenses adapted with it (the 105mm f/1.4 ART I was reviewing at the same time worked very well).  It works fine in what it does, and focus accuracy was excellent, but the slower focus speed, limited focus points, and the disappointing MC-11 performance left me a little underwhelmed.

Sigma 70 ART Macro Image Quality

To this point in the review, I’m sure you’ve gotten the impression that I’m somewhat nonplussed by the 70 ART.  Fortunately, this is where things take a definite turn for the better.  Sigma made this lens all about the image quality, and it delivers here in spades.  For those of you that have skipped right here, here’s a brief recap of this focal length (a somewhat unconventional one).  I like shorter macro lenses for things like food and product photography, where a longer lens is sometimes a detriment.  I do a lot of work in my Angler Port-a-Cube light tent, and my Canon 100L Macro is sometimes a little tight for that kind of space.  I don’t like the 70mm focal length as well for portraits or used as a short telephoto, as it doesn’t compress the image as much or blow out the background the same way.  It also doesn’t have as big of working distance as longer focal lengths for photographing insects or other things that might be scared off by getting too close.  You need to determine how you intend to use your macro lens and whether this focal length is an asset or liability for the kind of work you want to do.

The 70 ART is supported by Canon’s Lens Aberration Corrections in camera, which is a huge recent development for Sigma. Prior to the release of the 14-24mm f/2.8 ART lens no third party lenses were supported by Canon’s in camera corrections, which was a baked-in advantage for first party (Canon) lenses. Somehow Sigma has gotten access to this (most likely through some kind of internal agreement with Canon), which now extends this advantage to Sigma (other third party lenses that I’ve reviewed in this same time period are NOT supported). The 70 ART is the third Sigma lens in the past few months that I’ve reviewed that has been supported, and it is a significant advantage for these lenses. What this means is that all of your JPEGs are fully corrected in camera for things like vignette, chromatic aberrations, and distortion (if you enable these corrections). In this case, the lens actually has relatively few issues in any of these areas (other than vignette at f/2.8) it does enable you to get great looking JPEGs right out of camera. This is particularly helpful for the times you A) need to quickly get images to clients without an opportunity for editing or B) want to show images to clients. I like to shoot with RAWs recorded to one card and JPEGs to another for this purpose.  Sigma’s new access to this allows their lenses to compete on a level playing field with Canon lenses in the Canon space, and gives them an advantage over other third party lenses for now. Sony is not restrictive on third party lenses, so the FE mount will have similar Sony support…but that’s not unique or unusual. For Canon shooters, however, this is a big deal. 

My coverage of image quality falls into two categories: 1) Resolution, where I cover sharpness and contrast and 2) Rendering, which looks at the global look of images in areas like color rendition, bokeh, flare resistance, chromatic aberration, etc…  I would recommend that you watch the following video episode where I interactively breakdown the optical performance of the 70 ART in detail:

Resolution:

I used a strong competitor in this field as a benchmark for this comparison – the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM.  I’ve owned this lens since shortly after its release and have used it for literally thousands of product shots for dozens of companies.  I’ve also used it as a point of comparison for variety of other macro lenses released since I’ve owned it.  While the focal length isn’t identical (Sigma alone makes a 70mm Macro), I’ve made minor adjustments to the camera position to accommodate the difference in framing.

With both lenses wide open (f/2.8), I discovered the following.  Both lenses metered identically and seemed to deliver similar light transmission.  Both lenses exhibit some vignette to roughly equal degrees, and neither lens shows any visible distortion (very important in a macro lens!)  The vignette will be cleared up either in post (by applying a lens profile), or can be corrected for in-camera for JPEGs with either lens.  Both lenses show roughly equal amounts of center sharpness and contrast, but the Sigma is a little better along the edges of the frame (though both lenses are excellent across the frame).  This is a very strong performance, as the Canon is an exceptionally good lens. The Sigma delivers just a slightly warmer color temperature than the Canon (a typical Sigma trait).

As you can see from the crops from this handheld landscape photo, the image quality is nearly perfect even wide open from the Sigma 70 ART.

At f/4, the vignette mostly clears away on both lenses and they show a fairly even illumination across the frame.  You can see from this comparison just how much the vignette lifts (this is from the right upper corner).

The Sigma makes a more significant jump than the Canon at f/4, and the edge performance is just brilliant.  The Sigma shows slightly more resolution along with higher microcontrast levels.  Note how there is no haze in the stone textures anywhere.  This is basically a perfect optical performance.

There is little more to be gleaned when stopping the lens down further, as both lenses deliver fantastic optical performances stopped down.  

The Sigma 70 ART can be stopped down to f/22, though except that diffraction will start to cause a bit of softness to creep in at smaller apertures beyond f/11 (how much depends on the resolution of your camera body).  Here’s a few more shots at typical landscape apertures (f/5.6-f/8) that show just how fantastic the lens is for resolving even at infinity.

Rendering

We’ve seen that the Sigma 70 ART is a fantastically sharp, contrasty lens, but what about other metrics?  Let’s take a look at a few more comparisons with the Canon to glean a few more insights.  In these comparison photos, we will look at the three things:  1) the overall rendering in terms of the “look” of the images including global contrast, color rendition, and bokeh. 2) the microcontrast – local contrast at a pixel level and how it affects textures and 3) the bokeh rendering (defocused area).

In these comparisons it becomes clear what the 70 ART’s strengths and weaknesses are.  It is a strong lens when it comes to color rendition, global contrast, and microcontrast.  In both main images and microcontrast crops you can see that the contrast metrics favor the Sigma (all settings were equal here).  The plane of focus shows fantastic degrees of contrast and the color rendition looks great.

The great challenge for a lens like this, however, is to do the opposite in the defocused region, where you want less contrast and no sharpness.  You want a creamy out of focus area without hard lines.  The Canon is the better lens here, with noticeably softer, creamier bokeh.

At macro distances, however, this is less of an issue.  Here’s a look at near-macro framing at f/2.8, f/4, and f/5.6:

Moving in even closer, and the bokeh looks beautiful.

I also liked this image, where I felt like the great contrast helps my subject to stand out even though I was quite a distance from him when taking this shot.

Here’s a substantial gallery of “bokeh” images taken at a variety of focus distances so that you can determine for yourself if the 70 ART’s blend of bokeh and sharpness works for you.

What’s indisputable is that Sigma has nailed chromatic aberration correction on this lens.  The primary reason for that very high microcontrast is an extremely low amount of CA.  In this photo of water droplets (it’s not monochrome), just a low color subject), there is no visible CA before or after the plane of focus.

I likewise find these white blossoms to be a hotbed of chromatic aberrations because of the high contrast inherit to them…but there are none to be seen, even at f/2.8 here.

This really helps the lens to shine for food or product photography, which, as you can see from these images, it does very well at:

Flare resistance was also a strength for the lens.  I didn’t torture test it, per se, but it worked well in all of the real-world shooting situations I found myself in:

So, outside of some slightly busy bokeh in some situations, I think the image quality from this lens is exceptional.  I would encourage you to visit the Lens Image Gallery and look at more photos.  Evaluating real photos is very beneficial for evaluating what a lens is capable of.  I purposefully do minimal editing on these images so that you can better evaluate its potential.

Conclusion

As I said previously, the Sigma 70mm f/2.8 Macro | ART is a somewhat quirky lens.  It deviates from the path established for the ART series on a number of levels, and also deviates from the modern standard of what a macro lens should have (Image Stabilization, Internal Focus, etc…)  The one area where it is very much a Sigma ART lens is in the optical performance, where it delivers as good a performance as I’ve seen from a macro lens outside of bokeh that is a little busy in some situations.  I’m less impressed by the decision about the focus motor, at least on DSLRs, and frankly surprised that the performance on Sony via the MC-11 (at the moment) isn’t better.  I’m sure that the FE version optimized for Sony probably works well, and the choice to go with the focus-by-wire DC focus motor makes perfect sense there.  In fact, I wonder why Sigma didn’t just go all in and develop this lens purposefully for Sony.  The lack of OS is not really an issue there, and they could have probably made it even smaller and more attractive by purposefully designing it there.  The reasonable price point (this is the least expensive lens in the ART series) would have made it very attractive to Sony buyers as Sony’s 90mm f/2.8 Macro, while reportedly excellent, costs twice as much.  The lens that Sigma made seems somewhat stuck between a mirrorless and DSLR lens, and suffers for it despite its fantastic optical performance.  I’m left with the conclusion that Sigma designed this lens mostly for macro shooters who want this kind of focal length for dedicated macro work and typically work from a tripod.  For those of you that want a general purpose macro lens that can double as a portrait lens, consider other options.  The Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 VC that I reviewed here is a compelling alternative.

Pros:

  • Solid build including some weather sealing at the lens mount
  • Compatible with teleconverters, Sigma MC-11, and USB Dock
  • Exceptional image quality at all apertures
  • Fantastic microcontrast
  • Low distortion
  • Perfect chromatic aberration control
  • Good flare resistance

Cons:

  • Focus motor quite slow
  • Lacks an image stabilizer
  • Focus-by-wire not optimal for macro photographers
  • Inconsistent performance on Sony via MC-11 (FE version works fine)
  • Bokeh can be slightly busy at some focus distances

 

Gear Used:

Sigma 70mm f/2.8 DG Macro ART:  B&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon Canada | Amazon UK | Amazon Germany | Ebay
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (5D4): B&H Photo | Amazon.com | Amazon Canada  | Amazon UK
Sony a7R III Camera: B&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon.ca | Amazon UK  | Ebay
Peak Design Slide Lite:  Peak Design StoreB&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon Canada | Amazon UK
Sony a6500: B&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon.ca | Amazon UK | Ebay
Peak Design Leash Strap: B&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon Canada  | Amazon UK
BenQ SW271 4K Photo Editing Monitor – B&H Photo  | Amazon | Amazon.ca | Amazon UK
Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud 1-Year Subscription
Alien Skin Exposure X2 (Use Code “dustinabbott” to get 10% anything and everything)

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Keywords:  Sigma 70mm ART, Sigma 70 Macro, Sigma 70mm Macro ART, Sigma 70 f2.8, Sigma 70mm f/2.8, ART, Macro, Sigma 70mm Review, Sigma 70 ART Review, Dustin Abbott, Sigma 70mm f/2.8 DG Macro ART, Sigma 70mm f/2.8 ART Review, Photography, Sample Images, Video Test, Sony FE, Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 5D4, Sony a7R3, Sony a7Riii, Sharpness, Bokeh, Autofocus

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