A Lens For The Love Of Photography

It can be hard for third-party, high-end camera-accessory makers to distinguish themselves and attract consumer attention. Canon and Nikon make lenses for their own camera systems that tend to work better than most — in part because they’re making them in-house, with all the inside advantage that entails. But companies like Sigma have been providing alternatives, often with a cost advantage, for years.

The company recently embarked on a path to reinvent itself and its line of lenses with a focus on greater quality, as well as value, however, and the approach is making even brand loyalists sit up and take note.

Sigma’s new 50mm lens has a very wide maximum aperture, at F1.4, and manages to come in way under the $1,600 or so you’d pay for Canon’s top-of-the-line 50mm F1.2L lens. The handy portrait/travel/pretty-much-anything lens may cost around $600 less, but it also manages to compare very well to the L glass in terms of image quality. Sharpness with the Sigma, especially at wider apertures, is much better than on the Canon, for instance, and you can produce equally amazing visual effects in terms of bokeh and artful selective focus.

Before I get into more details about performance, I should address lens construction on the Sigma 50mm. The hardware build on this piece of glass is excellent: the external structure uses traditional metals along with a custom thermally stable composite for greater ability to handle a range of temperatures, and comes with a brass bayonet mount for connecting to your camera.

It’s pleasantly heavy in the hand, an outward indicator of the ample glass contained within, which accounts for the superior image quality. The included lens hood snaps in snugly and securely, and has a rubber-coated surface that complements the overall matte black look of the lens itself. Truth be told, you can’t really put a better looking lens on your Canon DSLR, red ring or no.

[gallery ids="1025861,1025862,1025863,1025864,1025865,1025866,1025867,1025868,1025869,1025870,1025871,1025872,1025873,1025874,1025875,1025876"]

Of course, looks don’t make a lens: Or rather, the looks of the images are what’s ultimately important. The Sigma 50 F1.4 doesn’t disappoint in that regard, either. The nine-blade aperture helps create smooth, rounded bokeh, and the AF motor is quiet and fairly snappy, though this isn’t the lens I’d use for capturing action and birds on the wing. Of course, it’s much more suited for portraiture and general walk-around photography because of its focal length and wide aperture – but it’s perfectly suited to those tasks in a way that Canon’s lower-end 50mm 1.4 and more expensive 50mm 1.2L are not.

When combined with my Canon 6D body, the full frame sensor and wide aperture meant that I could illuminate even nighttime scenes with relatively little stretching or sacrifice in terms of noise on images, or with the need for an external light source. As a result, the Sigma 50mm is a great choice for street photographers looking for a good focal length that can also shoot in all light conditions. And for candid portraits while at family gatherings or parties with friends, few combinations can match the power of the 50mm with a full-frame body in my experience.

Sigma has transformed from a consistent, reliable budget option into a hit-maker.

I’ve gotten in the habit of carrying two Canon zooms for all my photography needs, covering a range from 24-70 on one and 70-200 on the other. That has served me perfectly well for shooting events, hands-on demos, video interviews and more at work functions, and decently as a heavy but handy walk-around tourist kit. But Sigma’s 50mm F1.4 reminded me what it was like to shoot with primes, and how much more fun photography can be when you have the ability to stretch yourself with extreme apertures and when you have to use your feet and frame creatively instead of relying on zoom to get the right shot.

Sigma also has a special accessory that works with their entire new range of lenses, including this one. The dock connects to your computer, and using Sigma’s specialized software allows you to dial in a specific autofocus performance at four different focal-length ranges with the 50mm F1.4. This means that if you find that it front-focuses when up close, but back-focuses far away, you can adjust for both.

My lens had great autofocus accuracy out of the box, so I didn’t need to use this tool. But it’s far more convenient and flexible than the in-camera microfocus adjustment included by Canon in its high-end DSLRs. And it allows you to tune for multiple focal lengths, instead of just for the lens as a whole.

The bottom line is that Sigma has transformed from a consistent, reliable budget option into a hit-maker; the 50mm F1.4 DG HSM Art is the latest of its successes, but the rest of the Global Vision series, including the 35mm F1.4 DG HSM Art, the 18-135 F1.8 DC HSM and the 120-300mm F2.8mm DG OS HSM Sport are likewise impressive. Of course they’re still going to tax the wallet, but in terms of performance for dollar value, Sigma currently has the best game in town.