There's an air of romance when photographers talk about the 85mm. Long considered the go-to for portraiture, an 85mm used well is a complete joy. There is the subtle perspective compression that goes with the focal length making it a great people lens, and the slightly longer than "normal" focal length that makes it popular for general use.
Combine these attributes with a very large maximum aperture, and a design that creates lovely out of focus highlights that also delivers great performance in low light and you have a winner. That's why most all manufacturers build an 85mm and most build an optically fast 85mm.
One of the most desired and anticipated lenses in Sigma's ART lineup was a replacement for their proven, but showing its age, 85/1.4Sigma announced the ART version and it is now shipping in volume and I thank Gentec International for providing me with a lens to review.
The very first thing that you note about the ART 85mm f/1.4 is that it's big. It is considerably larger than Nikon's 85/1.4 and even Canon's 85/1.2L. I mounted it on a Canon 5 series body and passed it around at a photographer's group recently. The initial feedback was that the lens was very heavy and that it would be tiring to shoot it all day. The lens weights in at 3.3 pounds and 7 inches long. Then the people walked around with it taking casual shots. Getting it back was a bit of a challenge. After some period of use, each person said that yes it was heavy, but that it balanced well and was easy to shoot in poor light. The 5Ds is not known for blazing autofocus, but the Sigma lens was very snappy on it. It is, a great deal faster when focusing than my Canon 85/1.2L II. The Canon lens is older and is well known for very slow focusing. That is one thing that makes the Canon less viable. The Sigma is more than fast enough focusing to help avoid missing shots.
The example image above was imported into Lightroom and was shot on a Canon 5Ds body. Only basic RAW conversion and post processing was done. This lens delivers killer images.
Why are fast lenses slower to focus in general? In contrast based autofocus, we see the focus system ping pong between too far and too close. The longer the focal length and the wider the lens opening, the narrower the depth of field. Thus autofocus takes a bit longer to hit the mark and we should not be disappointed, because if the eye of our subject is soft, the rest of the image has limited value.
I was prepping for a tutorial on headshot setups and only had my test mannequin available in the time that I had the 85mm. If you can get past the fact that Darla's eyes are a bit creepy, you see how terrific the tonal range and colour fidelity is. Imported to Lightroom for RAW conversion and exported to JPEG with no other post processing whatsoever.
The Sigma lens comes with a plastic bayonet mount petal style hood. The hood can be mounted reverse for transport and is easy to attach without the mis-mounts that happen with too many hood systems. I always use a lens hood and like the ease of installation and removal very much indeed. The filter size is 86mm, a very large option. For those who like protective filters, I would suggest Sigma's own WR series as they are well built and have no negative optical impact in my experience. For outdoor work, I would probably source a decent polarizer for this lens. My preference is the B+W Kasemann design, but I would need to determine if it were available in this size. If one were to use one of the system based filter system, I am confident that a Cokin Z series or equivalent could be made to work on this lens.
I shoot in all kinds of conditions and the 85/1.4 has a weather sealing gasket on the mount.
I also like that the lens is very quiet. Consistent with the awesome and highly recommended (by me at least) Sigma 35/1.4 ART, the 85mm is nice and quiet. For portrait and pet photographers, the motor noise is unlikely to be distracting or a detriment. I think it will be good for street work as well, although I prefer to let people know I would like to make their photograph. I found the Sigma to be substantially quieter than the recently announced Sony 85/1.4 GM.
This lens is not a rehash of its predecessor, it is a completely new design. It incorporates two Sigma FLD (think Fluorite) elements, two SLD (super low dispersion) elements and one element designed to control partial low dispersion and high refraction. All that techo-babble means sharp images with great colour and contrast.
Focus was crisp centre to edge, with only a nominal contrast increase noted when I shot at f/2 instead of f/1.4I firmly believe that if one buys a super fast lens, it should be shot there, otherwise why spend so much extra. The lens has good aberration control, and the only time that colour fringing was visible was in shots taken at the minimum focal distance of about 33". This is easily corrected in post processing and is no worse than other high end glass.
With the minimum focus distance being about three feet, this puts the Sigma in alignment with its major competitors. Closer focusing would be nice, but that would have an impact on weight, size and aberration control. I can be readily satisfied with what is delivered here.
In Canada, Sigma delivers an excellent 7 Year warranty and their local service provider is superb. I've had them do work on my own Sigma 120-300 and they were both fast and right the first go. No hassles with service matters, because people keep lenses much longer than they do bodies. The lens has a MSRP of $1569.99 here, about three times what you might pay for an 85/1.8. Thus, the justification for the speed is not trivial, but if you can make the case, it would be hard to go wrong with this choice. The Sigma 85/1.4 ART is available in Canon, Nikon, and Sigma mounts as of this writing.
If I did not already own the Canon L Series 85mm f/1.2 and would take a bath on the sale, I would own this Sigma 85mm ART without question. I loved it and I think that you will too.