Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM: First Impressions

Yesterday I added this wonderful new creation by Sigma – Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM – to my arsenal of lenses. Since its release in November last year, it is being celebrated by so many photographers. Many have already tried it out and published extremely positive reviews. Now, I have this lens in my hands and can form my own opinion as of a nature photographer. I am going to report my experience with Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM in two or three posts in this blog that will grow to a more extended text in Reviews section of my website.

As always, my tests are only of practical kind and from a view point of nature photography. I claim neither scientific correctness nor objectiveness that can be applied to other areas of photography. For more profound technical tests and comparison with other lenses see specialised sites like “The Digital Picture” or “Digital Photography Review”.

Unpacking

As with other Sigma lenses, the 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM comes with a hood, both caps, and with a very well made case. Although I prefer to use Lowepro and Thinktank pouches with my lenses or to put them blank in a padded photo bag, the tradition of Sigma to supply such a quality pouch with every lens is really nice.

What's in the package: Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM, hood, pouch

What’s in the box: Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM lens, hood, pouch, rear and front caps

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM is a rather compact lens. Like all 1.4/35 lenses, it is larger than a 50 mm lens but of similar size or smaller as its Zeiss and Canon counterparts. It is very well built, even compared with already good full-frame lenses that this manufacturer produced in the last years. The lens body feels solid although not as heavy and “bullet-proof” as in Zeiss lenses. Just like all other 1.4/35 lenses it has no weather sealing, and thus should be used with care in dusty and wet environment. The focusing ring moves very smoothly and is rubbered. The rest of the body has black smooth finishing – which is in my opinion better than in Canon and all Sigma lenses – though not as good as in Zeiss.

Compare the size of  Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM (in the middle) with Sigma 150 mm f/2.8 DG HSM Macro and Sigma 15 mm f/2.8 DG HSM Diagonal Fisheye.

Compare the size of Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM (in the middle) with Sigma 150 mm f/2.8 DG HSM Macro and Sigma 15 mm f/2.8 DG HSM Diagonal Fisheye. All lenses are shown here without front caps. The fisheye has an unremovable hood which adds almost a third of its height.

Since I received my copy of Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM only yesterday, I hadn’t a chance yet to use it for real photography but couldn’t resist to try it out and did some quick tests in a “home studio”. In these tests, the lens was used with a Canon 5D Mark II camera mounted on a tripod and set to ISO 400. As the target, I used a Soviet 10 roubles banknote which has a very fine pattern of barely visible curved lines. I attached it on the original box that my Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM arrived in. Of course, all 100% crops shown below are of an unprocessed RAW image.

Autofocus

Currently, most of my lenses are manual focus only. Therefore I can compare this lens only with Canon autofocus lenses that I owned several years ago and with two other Sigma lenses that I currently own (though usually focus manually). I will be able to tell more after I have used Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM for awhile. My impression during this first shooting was that the autofocus is very accurate and quick – probably on par with Canon lenses such as EF 17-40 L and quicker than in my other Sigma lenses. The motor is silent and sounds more like in a Canon than like in an older Sigma.

Resolution

The resolution is what I was most interested in when I decided to purchase this lens. Sigma did with its 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM a kind of miracle raising the resolution to previously unknown level. According not only to the manufacturer but also to many independent reviews it is one of the sharpest wide-angle lenses currently available. Since, I am going to use this lens very often for landscape photography, resolution is for me the most important criterium. It was the first thing that I tested.

As usually in such tests, to evaluate the resolution of Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM, I looked at the sharpness in the middle, edge and corner of an image that was made with different aperture setting. I had to adjust the shutter speed every time when the aperture was changing. Therefore, some samples may appear darker than the others: It has nothing to do with the lens but is only a result of different exposure settings.

Zones of 100% crops used for sharpness assessment.

Zones of 100% crops used for sharpness assessment.

Middle

The following samples show the image sharpness in the middle of the frame at different apertures.

f/1.4 frame middle

f/1.4

f/2

f/2

f/2.8

f/2.8

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

f/11

f/11

f/16

f/16

Edge

Here are the 100% crops from the left edge of the frame at different aperture values.

f/1.4 border

f/1.4

f/2

f/2

f/2.8

f/2.8

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

f/11

f/11

f/16

f/16

Corner

The following samples are 100% crops from the bottom left corner of the frame at different aperture values.

f/1.4

f/1.4

f/2

f/2

f/2.8

f/2.8

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

f/11

f/11

f/16

f/16

As you can see in the samples, this lens is very sharp even wide open. The sharpness increases at f/2. At apertures between f/2.8 and f/8, the image is extremely sharp. Even more remarkable is the uniformity of sharpness at all apertures: At extreme edges and in corners it is almost the same as in the frame centre.

Chromatic aberrations

All lenses that I have ever seen were showing chromatic aberrations in certain circumstances. No lens is immune against it, and, of course, not Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM. However, lenses differ in the strength of CA. In shots with good lenses they should be, if at all, then barely visible. According to what was already reported about Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM, this lens produces very minor chromatic aberrations. Under studio condition my observations confirm it. For final conclusion, I have to see the images shot at bright light.

The CA in photography are most easily distinguishable in high contrast areas of an image and increase from the frame middle to edges. For the samples shown below I have cropped a square between the middle and the left edge of the test image.

f/1.4

f/1.4


f/2.0

f/2


f/2.8

f/2.8


f/5.6

f/5.6


f/8.0

f/8


f/11

f/11


f/16

f/16

To my eyes, the CA are very well handled in this lens. In the test images they are very little noticeable at all aperture values. I’d expect them to increase at strong light but overall this issue is in Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM within the usual range for any quality wide-angle lens.

Macro capability

Wide-angle lenses aren’t macro lenses but I use them often for close-up shots of amphibians and reptiles. Therefore, the capability for close focusing and possibility to achieve a good frame composition with a small subject are important to me.

Although Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM doesn’t offer such an extreme wide angle of view as fisheye lenses and doesn’t pull out the foreground, it appears to be useable for small, but not too small, subjects, such as frogs. The minimum focusing distance of Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM is 30 cm, but the working distance is only around 15 cm which is not very close, on one hand, but on the other, close enough for larger subjects, such as snakes, tortoises, or larger lizards.

Below you see how an image of a small frog shot with this lens could be. The toy frog shown here was about 5 cm long.

A close-up shot of a 5 cm long frog at a distance of around 15 cm from the lens front (i.e. at minimum focusing distance of 30 cm).

A close-up shot of a 5 cm long frog at a distance of around 15 cm from the lens front (i.e. at minimum focusing distance of 30 cm).

Carl Zeiss’ top-class service for top-class lenses

A disclaimer: I have no business relations with Carl Zeiss AG, and this article isn’t intended as advertising – neither hidden nor open. Everything written below reflects solely my personal opinion.

Last Sunday was the first sunny and warm weekend after the unusually long and snowy winter here in Central Europe. Since I had to stay at home for the last 6 months, for me it was the opening of this year’s photography season. I went to a nearby place where the breeding activities of common toads were already under way. Actually, this wasn’t a photographic excursion. Instead, I was going to try out some new gear that I had got for an upcoming videography project. For this work, I took with me my Zeiss Distagon T* 3,5/18 ZE and Planar T* 1,4/85 ZE along with Sigma 150 mm f/2.8 DG Macro.

Near the end of my filming activities, I decided to capture some more of the landscape with the Distagon lens and put it on the camera that was mounted on a rig. When I was attaching the follow-focus device, I removed the lens hood for a moment and then put it on again. Either I was already tired or had lost cautiousness after months of inactivity, but I put on the hood a little tilted and damaged the locking mechanism. If you try to put a plastic hood on a Canon lens in a wrong way, it just wouldn’t lock, but nothing would get broken unless you have applied too much force. Usual hoods just have a thread in plastic that latches on the lens. In Zeiss lenses the hood is more high-tech: The lock is a real mechanism that has several parts and is all made of metal. Its construction and locking function is much more complex than in plastic hoods of other manufacturers.

Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 3,5/18 lens hood

Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 3,5/18 lens hood

The hood should be attached in a way that the label “Carl Zeiss” shows on the top side. First, three cutouts at the edge of the hood mount need to be aligned with suitable notches on lens’ front ring. After that you rotate the hood a little clockwise and it clicks in place: Metal plates inside the lock snap on the groove in the lens’ front and fixate the hood. I had used this lens for about two years already and never thought that improper alignment can so easy cause this lock to get stuck. After that the hood can’t be attached anymore. This is exactly what happened last Sunday.

While a plastic hood of other lens manufacturers is relatively cheap and, if it was broken, can be replaced with a new one, Zeiss hoods are expensive, so that repair makes sense. This hood of Distagon T* 3,5/18 costs over 120€ and not only reduces flare and improves image contrast but also protects the lens that costs 1300€. Therefore, I wasn’t going to use the lens without hood which had therefore to be repaired as quickly as possible.

On Monday, the next day after accident, I sent a parcel with the broken hood to Carl Zeiss service. I am not sure about other countries, but in Germany Carl Zeiss lenses are being serviced directly by the manufacturer. So, my lens hood went straight to Carl Zeiss headquarters in Oberkochen. This morning, on Thursday, less than three days after, I received it back – repaired, probably on the same day when they received it… But more than that: The service was completely free of charge.

I always have been amazed by technical quality and artistic performance of Zeiss lenses, and if I could afford, I’d purchased all ZE, i.e. Canon mount, series of them. Now I am also impressed by their service. Thank you, Carl Zeiss!

Herping lens for Pentax

In May this year I have posted a list of close focusing wide-angle lenses that are suitable for herp photography. Here is another lens for this list that I found later:

smc Pentax DA 10-17mm F3.5-4.5 ED (IF) Fisheye

This lens has a KAF bajonett and hence is suitable only for Pentax DSLR. It has not only very nice short focusing distance of only 14 cm over the entire zoom range. In so-called “super macro” mode its working distance can be reduced to only 2.5 cm. This lens also allows precise manual focusing even with autofocus turned on.

Close focus wide-angle lenses for SLR cameras

For an article on herp photography that I am currently preparing I have reviewed all wide-angle lenses with minimum focus distance below 20 cm.

Sigma 10mm f2.8 EX DC HSM Fisheye

With only 13.5 cm this lens has the closest focus among SLR wide-angle lenses. As all other Sigma lenses, this one exists for Canon, Nikon/Fujifilm, Sony, Sigma, Olympus, but unfortunately it is for APS-C cameras only, i.e. it would produce a smaller image on full-frame. The Canon version has an EF-S type mount and is not compatible with full-frame cameras.
Due to smaller APS-C sensor, the Sigma 10 mm will draw a similar image as a 15 mm fisheye lens would do on full frame. I don’t know if the shorter focusing distance would be of advantage. Anyway, if I had an APS-C camera, I would have preferred this lens for small amphibians and reptiles, and for large invertebrates.

AF DX Fisheye Nikkor 10.5mm 1:2.8 G ED

Naturally this lens is available only for Nikon, and for Fujifilm cameras that have the same mount. The focusing distance is remarkably short — 14 cm, but a little greater than on Sigma mentioned above. Like the Sigma 10 mm, it is supposed to be used with APS-C sensors. Unlike Canon’s EF-S, Nikon’s DX lenses can be used with full-frame cameras but will result in reduced frame. The image captured with this lens would look as if the focal length were about 15 mm in full-frame equivalent, i.e. the field of view would be narrower. Since I use Canon cameras, I can’t tell anything concrete about this lens. To me it looks like Nikon’s counterpart to Sigma 10 mm fisheye.

Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye

It focuses at 15 cm and is the lens of preference by many herp photographers. I own a copy of it, too, and have used it frequently. It is a great quality lens that provides excellent IQ and is a unique lens for full frame. As of time of writing, it was out of competition: There are no alternatives for Nikon/Fujifilm and Sony because their own fisheye lenses focus minimum at 20 cm. For Canon there is a fisheye zoom lens discussed below, but the Sigma 15 mm is more value for the money unless someone really needs a shorter focal length that the Canon zoom offers. For close-up wide-angle photography of reptiles and amphibians this is the best lens among fisheyes — both for APS and APS-C sensors. Therefore, I have to recommend it without too many reservations to everybody who is interested in herp photography. Personally, I don’t like the bokeh of this one and actually of all Sigma lenses that I have seen so far. The other minor problem is that you have to set the exposure manually because cameras tend to overexpose when used with this lens.

EF 8-15mm 1:4 L Fisheye USM

The Canon EF 8-15mm 1:4, after it was released in 2011, was a unique lens among lenses SLR cameras because it was the first fisheye zoom ever made for APS sensor. (Note: The Tokina zoom lens mentioned above is supposed to be used with APS-C cameras.) For nature photography, it is usable only at the long end — 15mm. Then it is equal to the Sigma and has the same minimum focusing distance — 15 cm. Obviously, it is a Canon-only lens, unparalleled in other brands, but Sigma fisheye lenses for Canon are less expensive and provide similar or, as primes, even better image quality. Thus, only someone who strongly believes that Canon lenses are the best and for whom money isn’t an issue would prefer this lens to Sigma 15mm f2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye.

Tokina AT-X 107 DX AF 10-17mm f/3.5~4.5 Fisheye

This is currently the only zoom fisheye lens optimized for APS-C sensors. Like Sigma 10 mm it focuses at 14 cm but can provide a narrower view field if set to greater focal length than 10 mm. Setting this lens to 17 mm significantly reduces the huge barrel distortion of a fisheye lens. Like Sigma fisheye lenses the Tokina AT-X 107 is a favourite lens of underwater photographers. For herp photography the greater focal length is more interesting because it helps to reduce the distortion with optics and not through cropping in software. Thus, if I had an APS-C camera and this lens I would use it at 17 mm all the time.
The images produced by this lens did not impress me when I saw them in reviews. My impression is that this lens is less sharp than the 10 mm and 15 mm primes made by Sigma. Reviewers also complain about chromatic aberrations that this lens is prune to. The images coming from my Sigma 15 mm are almost free of CA.

Carl Zeiss Distagon 2.8/25 t*

Zeiss Distagon focuses not so close as the fisheye lenses discussed above, but it appears to be a unique lens of its kind because it is a moderate wide-angle lens. Usually such lenses have a minimum focusing distance of 25 cm and more but this one can focus as close as 17 cm — only 2 cm farther than a fisheye lens. As for the time of writing, Carl Zeiss was producing the Distagon 2.8/25 T* only for Nikon, Pentax and M42 (screw) mount. However, any of these versions can be used on Canon with an adapter. The drawback is the need to set the aperture manually on the lens because even the best adapters do not transfer information from the camera. Therefore, I preferred the older version of Distagon 2.8/25 T* which has a separate aperture control ring.
The Distagon 2.8/25 T* has at least two advantages over the fisheye lenses: First, the extreme barrel distortion characteristic for fisheye lenses is absent in the images produced by it. Second, this lens is compatible with 58 mm filters, hence graduated and polarizing filters can be used with it. It is a very useful capability in herp photography because the upper 2/3 or 3/4 in an image that was captured with a fisheye lens are often overexposed when the exposure was measured on the subject — a frog or lizard on the ground. A graduated ND filter may help to solve this problem.
As in all Zeiss lenses, the image quality that this lens delivers is superb. The images have typical for Zeiss lenses smooth bokeh, excellent contrast and natural-looking colours. In terms of imaging performance and build quality it is the best lens in the line-up of close focusing lenses presented here.
The 2 cm greater focusing distance of Distagon compared to Sigma fisheye lens may be of disadvantage when the photographed subject is very small. However, a greater focal length may compensate this. Like all Zeiss lenses, the Distagon 2.8/25 T* is a manual-focus-only lens. However, it is not an issue when this lens is used for herp photography because for a close-up wide-angle shot of a reptile or amphibian any lens usually has to be focused manually.

Sigma 24mm F1.8 EX DG ASP Macro

This is the second non-fisheye wide-angle lens that I am aware in the league of lenses with minimum focusing distance of less than 20 cm. Though it focuses at 18 cm, it is still close enough for most subjects in herp photography. As all Sigma lenses this lens is being produced for Canon, Nikon/Fujifilm, Sony, Sigma and Olympus. There appears to be a consensus among reviewers of Sigma 24mm F1.8 EX DG ASP Macro that it is inferior to the rest of lenses in this list both in image and in build quality. Probably the most interesting in this lens is its maximum aperture of f/1.8 that is certainly of advantage if this lens used for low-light — not in herp photography, however, where a greater depth of field is important.
I am mentioning the Sigma 24mm F1.8 EX DG ASP Macro here for completeness and not for recommendation as a herping lens. However, it is inexpensive and someone who already has this lens may try to use it for herp photography.

Carl Zeiss Distagon 2/24 t* ZA

This is a specific lens for Sony Alpha. With 19 cm, it has the biggest focusing distance among the lenses in this line-up, but still it is less than 20 cm. Therefore I mention it here for the sake of completeness. For herp photography with a Sony Alpha camera a Sigma 15mm f2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye should be a more suitable and even less expensive alternative. For the time of writing, the only existing Sony fisheye lens — SAL-16F28 16mm f/2.8 — had the minimum focusing distance of 20 cm and wasn’t an option at all.

We should remember that the focus distance is measured from the sensor plane to the subject. In real world the distance between the subject and the front of the lens — i.e. the so-called working distance — is what matters. To know this distance, we have to subtract the length of the lens and probably also the depth of the camera body from the official minimum focusing distance value. If, for instance, the length of Carl Zeiss Distagon 2.8/25 T* is 90 mm and the sensor is at least 2 cm behind the rear element of the lens, then the working distance is only about 5-6 cm. This is very close indeed if you consider that the subject in front of the lens may be a dangerous snake.