Hands-On with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens
June 22, 2017
Shot with a Nikon D5 at 1/400th of a second, f/3.2 and ISO 800. Click through the gallery to see more test shots.
There’s no lack of fast prime 85mm lenses these days and that’s a good thing, particularly for wedding and portrait photographers. Sigma has recently added its own Art lens to the mix, the 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM.
This lens isn’t just exceedingly sharp; at $1,200, it’s also the most affordable 85mm f/1.4 lens on the market. Available in Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts, the lens is solidly built and comes with a lens hood and a padded soft case with a shoulder strap.
On the technical side, it’s constructed of 14 elements in 12 groups, including two FLD glass elements. The lens, with its 86mm filter size, provides a minimum aperture of f/16 and a minimum focusing distance of 33.5 inches. I tested the lens on a Nikon D5 and a Nikon D500 and was extremely pleased with the results from both cameras.
Hold your breath when you’re shooting this lens wide open. At f/1.4, there’s a thin slice of depth-of-field and any camera shake will be noticeable. That said, what’s in focus at this aperture will be extremely sharp, backed up by smooth and silky bokeh. Details, down to otherwise difficult-to-see skin pores, are visible and sharply focused.
The downside to shooting wide open—other than holding the lens steady (there’s no image stabilization)—is chromatic aberration. I occasionally found green outlines along high-contrast edges. But stop the lens down to around f/4 and any CA totally disappears. The lens also delivers excellent edge-to-edge sharpness, virtually no distortion and no real noticeable vignetting, even on a cropped sensor camera body. The lens is also admirably resistant to lens flaring, even when pointed toward the sun.
Built like a tank, the Sigma 85mm has a size and weight profile to match. It’s hefty at 39.9 ounces and large at 3.7 x 5 inches. In fact, it’s even larger and heavier than the 3.7 x 4.2-inch/34.8-ounce AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED as well as the 3.4 x 3.3- inch/21-ounce AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G. Paired with the Nikon D5, you’ll need some serious upper body strength to shoot with it for extended periods of time, but autofocus is responsive, quiet and accurate—even in relatively low light.
The broad, textured focus ring is comfortable to grip and turns smoothly. Manual focus override is possible without having to move the AF/MF switch and it was easy to manually focus at f/1.4. A focus distance gauge and a depth-of-field scale are available on top of the lens barrel, but I found it easier to use AF when shooting wide open.
What We Liked
The lens is capable of capturing razor-sharp details, and its internal construction creates a lovely, soft bokeh that’s particularly appealing at f/1.4. Autofocus is responsive and quiet, bordering on silent—perfect for wedding ceremonies. The body is extremely well built and very sturdy. Its “squeeze-able” lens cap is convenient, and the lens hood, padded case and shoulder strap are a bonus, as is the four-year limited warranty.
What We Didn’t Like
Remove the lens from its case and the size and weight of this beast are intimidating, especially when paired with a pro-size DSLR. Unless you have a very steady hand, the weight might be an issue since the lens—like most of the competition—lacks image stabilization. It’s not weather-sealed either, which may be a concern if you’re out in the field a lot.
How It Compares
The $1,200 Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM may be the sharpest lens in its class and certainly the least expensive. Head to head, the Zeiss OTUS 85mm may beat the Sigma in sharpness but it’s also more than twice as expensive and only has manual focus. If you rely on AF, the Sigma is an attractive bargain.
I love my NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4 G lens—it’s exceptionally sharp, smaller and lighter than the Sigma—but at $1,600, it’s also pricier than the Sigma. If image stabilization and price are more important than a super-fast aperture, Tamron’s 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD will get you very sharp images for a mere $750.
There’s no doubt that a fast, sharp prime 85mm lens belongs in a pro wedding or portrait photographer’s kit. Despite its size and weight, Sigma’s 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens meets or exceeds the competition when it comes to sharpness, beautiful bokeh and, of course, price.
Theano Nikitas has been covering photography for over 20 years. Although she loves digital, she still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film.