Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM A Review

Sigma recently announced pricing on their newly redesigned and reengineered (and not-yet-released!) 50mm f/1.4 prime lens, which sits on their Art Line. Many photographers consider a 50mm prime to be their go-to, foundational lens size, so it was exciting being able to try out a lens that has generated such a buzz in the industry. It will be released any day now and it is currently available through pre-order.

Who is this lens for?


The sigma_50_1-4_DG is for a professional or serious photography enthusiast. The capabilities for shooting wide open make it a great lens for low light situations, or for those of us that love to shoot really “soft” (like me). This lens performs well indoors and excels at capturing little details and blurring out the rest of what is going on in a room. I think someone who enjoys photographing his or her family would get a lot of use out of this lens as it’s versatility yields a beautiful final image. I feel that this lens is not used to its full capabilities for landscape or nature photography, but is terrific at photographing people.

I currently own and use the Canon 50mm/1.2, so this comparison was greatly influenced by my love for my Canon 50mm. The above images were shot with the Canon 50mm/1.2 (left) and the Sigma 50mm/1.4 (right). I personally feel that a 50mm prime lens is a must-have for anyone who loves photography. I will discuss my opinion on the comparison between the two lenses at the end of this review.

Specification Highlights

  • Mounts: Sigma, Nikon, Canon, Sony
  • Weight: 28.7 oz.
  • Part of the Sigma Art Line
  • Minimal focusing distance: 15.7 inches
  • HSM (Hyper Sonic Motor) for quiet and accurate autofocusing

Performance and Usability

Being overly technical is not how I approach my level of enjoyment with photography equipment. It is more about the end-result and simply how something works and feels in my hands. 

When I have a lens that can shoot as wide open as 1.4, I normally stay close to it’s capabilities and utilize that. I felt the lens was able to pick up the part of my shot I wanted in focus well and yielded a softness to the areas I wanted out of focus.


This image was shot with my Canon 5D Mark II and the Sigma 50/1.4 lens, ISO 100, F/1.4, 1/60.

My goal was for this child’s face to be the main part in focus, and this lens did what I had hoped with a nice softness, yet with good clarity. When zoomed in, the image keeps that clarity.

I was impressed by the great softness this lens gave, even at a slightly higher f-stop. In this example, I used the lens on a photo-shoot of a baby and shot with the f-stop at 2.0. It picked up the details in the baby’s toes very well while also giving me the soft blur I really like.


Image shot with Canon 5D Mark II and the Sigma 50/1.4 lens ISO 100, F/2.0, 1/800.

When zooming in, the image keeps its clarity. 


While I don’t think this lens is the best choice for photographing landscapes, I did think it did an excellent job on a maternity shoot I did in a wild field. The mother was clearly the focus and the lens did a exactly what I wanted it to: soften everything else in the shot, giving the image the depth and difference in dimensions for which I was hoping.


Image shot with Canon 5D Mark II and the Sigma 50/1.4 lens ISO 100, F/1.4, 1/800.

While playing around with the lens initially, I felt that when shooting at f/1.4, sometimes the lens struggled to pick up anything clearly. However, in my experience with shooting wide open at f/1.2 or f/1.4, I have found this the case with almost any lens. With several trials though, the lens did help me capture some beautifully soft images with small parts of the shot in focus and I was pleased with the performance.



Both images taken with Canon 5D Mark II and the Sigma 50/1.4 lens ISO 100, F/1.4, 1/40.


Technical Comparisons

Most major manufacturers make a 50/1.4 lens, which are smaller and significantly lighter. If you look at DxO Mark, which runs equipment through rigorous testing, the Sigma 1.4 rates higher than the Nikon and Canon 1.4 counterparts due to sharpness and vignetting, but also far exceeds both in price.

At this price point, the best comparison I could make was with my Canon 50/1.2. The Sigma rated slightly better than my Canon 1.2 in terms of vignetting, but slightly lower in terms of sharpness.

Sample comparison shots between the Sigma 50/1.4 and the Canon 50/1.2.



Top image: Sigma
Bottom image: Canon




Top image: Sigma
Bottom image: Canon


Conclusion

Overall, the Sigma 50mm/1.4 is a great lens. The bokeh is soft yet complex; the clarity in details is picked up without losing blur; and the vignetting on the edges is not an issue when shooting wide open. In some of my photos, I couldn’t tell a huge difference between using the Sigma 1.4 or the Canon 1.2. Yet somehow, I still prefer the Canon’s bokeh and softness. I continue to favor using the Canon 50mm/1.2 over the Sigma 50mm/1.4. During a few professional photo sessions, I switched out the Sigma lens and put back on my Canon 50mm/1.2. It is hard to put a finger on why I prefer the Canon. I prefer the quality feeling, the weight and structure, and the overall appearance of the Canon. I didn’t like that the Sigma lens was longer, skinnier, and felt more awkward than my Canon 50/1.2. There is just something “yummy” about the Canon 50mm/1.2 lens. While the Sigma is a great lens and performs well, I would say the only benefit over my Canon 50/1.2 is the price.

The Sigma lens is in a unique position among the competitors. It is higher in price than the Canon or Nikon 50/1.4 lenses but lower in price that the 50/1.2 lenses. It hovers in the middle. Technicalities and performance are significant issues when considering a lens, but equal and sometimes more important is price. I would find it difficult to justify paying over $1,000 (the list price of the Sigma 50/1.4 is $1300 but on sale for pre-order for $949) for a 1.4 lens when for a little more I could get a 1.2 lens that has the feel and look I appreciate and fits my personal “brand loyalty” to Canon.


Stacy Bostrom is a california-based photographer specializing in natural, photojournalistic family photography. You can see more of her portfolio at www.stacybostromphotography.com or visit her blog at www.bostromblog.com.

sigma_50_1-4_DG.

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    • Stacy, did you test edge sharpness at all, or just shoot at open apertures? i have the earlier siggy 50/1.4, so curious to know how the corners are compared to that; i would expect a big improvement, given the revamped optical formula.

       

      also, i assume your quoted price of $133 for the sigma is a typo. as of may 1 2014, it retails between $900-$950, while the canon 50/1.2 you mentioned is between $1400 and $1600. a difference of $500-$700 is not insignificant.

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    • A nice little reveiw.  May I assume that the lens lists at $1330? 

      Like the reviewer, I find my f1.2 lens yummy, and my Nokton 50/1.1 super yummy and my friend's Nocilux an optical Christmas cake.  While the Sigma lacks those little treats it does seem to do a fine utilitarian job wide open that could place in the ranks of Canon and Nikon 50/1.4s.  What I fail to understand is why Sigma would need to make a generally ordinary normal standard lens with so many others around.  The Sigma, whatever it's virtues are, is overweight and overpriced.  It does focus closer than the usual standard 50mm lens.  There maybe virtues I have missed, being a manual focus guy.

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    • Correct - $1300 list price (though on sale currently).  That was completely my fault! Updated.  Good catch-thanks!  

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    • for $1300, forget it. but if it's worth the price, i would kind of need to see more than an offhand comparison to the 50/1.2, i.e., how well it performs on its own throughout the aperture range. DPReview rated it better than the Sigma 35/1.4, which is a super lens, so... this review left me wanting a little more objectiveness. i see more contrast for the sigma in the second pic, and we'd need to see a 100% crop to evaluate sharpness accurately.

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    • "The Sigma, whatever it's virtues are, is overweight and overpriced.  It does focus closer than the usual standard 50mm lens.  There maybe virtues I have missed, being a manual focus guy."

       

      I agree, Alex, but you must understand this is an "ART" lens designed for true artists. Run of the mill photographers like myself simply can't appreciate how this lens is better than the 1/3 priced Canon or Nikon equivalent. Besides, all "artists" use a $4K Leica nowadays. :)

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    • "Run of the mill photographers like myself simply can't appreciate how this lens is better than the 1/3 priced Canon or Nikon equivalent."

      all snark aside, the lens does have a better build and a different optical formula than the lower-priced 1.4 equivalents. and since the reviewer only tested it against a more expensive 1.2 lens (where it seems, to my eyes, to produce contrastier, and perhaps sharper, results), and didn't bother to examine corner performance--which is likely the difference between the older Sigma--we have no way of knowing that from this review. We do know that the reviewers' "brand loyalty" to Canon will have to suffice, in the absence of 100% crops for sharpness.

       

      Whether the lens is indeed overpriced in the era of demanding 36mp sensors, however, remains to be seen.

       

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    • Very useful review and some lovely pictures.

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    • Nice Photos, better than many I've seen with this lens in other reviews.  Your photos are a good complement to the technical tests, and certainly seem to support them more than refute them.  I don't own any Sigma lenses, but I guess this will be my first.

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    • This was a nice review with some great samples. One thing I would like to point out is DxO rates the Sigma 1.4 ART as sharper than both Canon and Nikon offerings(including the Canon 1.2). Make sure to pick the same camera on DxO's drop down list when comparing. The sharpness difference is apparent in your samples. 

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    • I too am surprised at the claim the Canon is "sharper" - the f/1.2 L is an impressive piece of engineering but, like the Noctilux and Noct-Nikkor, I've always understood that it was a bit compromised as a general-purpose lens. Tests - which aren't real-world, I admit - seem to suggest that the Sigma doesn't quite have the corner performance of the Otus wide open, but it actually overtakes it a couple of stops down, and these lenses are streets ahead of anything else in the 50mm range (and mostly anywhere else), at least in the "fast" category.

      The reason the Sigma interests me - even more than the Otus - is that the LoCA seems to be relatively under control. It's the thing that spoils large aperture shots for me. The Otus and the Zeiss 135 APO both attempt to correct this but arguably end up with some slightly weird bokeh as a result; the Sigma seems to be better and more natural. It's not perfectly corrected, but it doesn't have the green/magenta traffic light effect of most fast lenses in the transition zone. I couldn't justify Otus money, but this Sigma is the first 50mm to tempt me to spend more than f/1.8 money. I'll be interested to see Photozone try it out, and I'm waiting to see how it copes with a D800, but so far, so promising.

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    • I like your comments and they are a refreshing change from the walls and charts we see in other tests.

      It is indeed interesting that you prefer the Canon, but perhaps not surprising, given your subject matter. The Sigma generally seems to "test better"; but is this actually significant, as most tests involve focusing on a distant and flat subject, perpendicular to the lens, which has to be one of the rarest configurations for using fast lenses like these shot wide open? One could argue that the whole point of these lenses is how well they handle out of focus areas since there will be, inevitably, so many of them when shot at or near full aperture. Would anyone choose to take a landscape image focused at infinity at f1.4 or f1.2? The difference between paper and real world tests could be due to differing amounts of field curvature and differing resolution characteristics when focused at closer distances. The main consideration for choosing between these lenses, I suggest is (assuming a basic level of sharpness) the quality of bokeh. We can be pretty sure that at f2.8 or so no one will be able to tell them apart in sharpness.

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    • A nice review, in an environment in which the lens is probably the best suited.  The conclusions I drew were, that while I appreciate the great build quality of the lens ( I have the 35 mm f/1.4 Sigma), and the quality of the images, the utility of the lens for the price is a real issue for me as  I regard my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 as a very good lens.  My Nikon 85 mm f/1.8 AFS-G Nikon is the most used lens, second is  the 35mm f/1.4 Sigma , followed by the Nikon 50 mm f/1.4 AFS for portrait and family photography. I wouldn't be surprised if a number of other shooters, both Canon and Nikon aren't in the same boat regarding utility for the price.. As an aside I went to the reviewer's website- very well done!

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    • I really enjoyed your review however, you have stated a few incorrect things regarding the new Sigma 50mm 1.4.

      You said, "the Sigma rates higher than the Nikon and Canon counterparts due to sharpness (Nikon) and vignetting (Canon), and also far exceeds both in price...The Sigma rated slightly better in terms of vignetting, but slightly lower in terms of sharpness."

       The entire section of the post is just confusing. You say its sharper and then take it back. The truth is it's sharper. DxO rates it far pass the Canon's  50mm f1.2 .  It's only competition sharpness wise has been the Otus by Zeiss. The sharpness difference is clearly evident when looking at the photograph of the flowers/plant.  Moreover, the price is going to be staying around $949 not moving up to $1300.  $1300 was the initial price that an Australia company posted in February before it was even truly released to the public.  I believe everyone it's now saying the official price will merely go up to $1030.00 but everyone is reporting $949.  This will make it the sharpest, cheapest, best 50mm on the market. The only difference I can see is size and bokeh (not that important to me, it's too slight of a difference) . Size can be a factor especially if you like the lightness however, $500+ saved is another product I could get for my photography. I'd suggest those who are confused should rent both of them. I'm sure every rental company has already pre-ordered theirs. 

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    • Nearly all of the reviews I've read about this Sigma talk about the fantastic optical quality, sharpness, resolution and lack of distortion. On a couple of forum postings there have been notes about autofocus problems. Pixel peepers are having a holiday with this 'lense'. All the graphs show how superior the Sigma is to all the rest except the 4000-dolar OTUS ZEISS.


      So is refreshing to read somebody say that she just happens to like her Canon L more.  She likes the feel of the lens, the quality of the pictures and the security of having a Canon.  You are not supposed to think like that on photographic forums so it is very cool that somebody does and has the guts to express her thoughts as well.  Lenses don't take pictures, people do.

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    • "So is refreshing to read somebody say that she just happens to like her Canon L more.  She likes the feel of the lens, the quality of the pictures and the security of having a Canon.  You are not supposed to think like that on photographic forums so it is very cool that somebody does and has the guts to express her thoughts as well."

       

      Nothing wrong with preferring a lens one has acclimated with and become familiar. However, the author misstated the price of the Sigma and the pictures she posted showed the Sigma to be sharper/contrastier than the Canon in the (limited) head to head testing. There's a difference between emotionally bonding with a lens and making an objective technical analysis of its performance. As pointed out already, she also contradicted her earlier statements. On the plus side, she did include real-world samples which allowed viewers to reach their own objective conclusions.

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    • Despite my earlier surprise about the claim of softness in the Sigma, I do appreciate the review, and don't want my comments to be taken as a criticism. I'm curious whether any apparent softness in the Sigma may have been a focusing issue (I've had real trouble with my 35 f/1.4 - I need to tune it properly, but for now I just use live view) rather than the lens itself. I'd always understood that the f/1.2 Canon is not particularly sharp, so my surprise here was less that something appeared to be sharper than the Sigma than that it was this particular lens! On the other hand, if it's sample variation, it would not be the first time that a significant difference in sample behaviour was seen in a lens, especially from Sigma. I'm curious as to whether it was tuned for the camera with Sigma's dock, though. It's always possible that a lens is designed to perform well at a typical testing distance and is unrepresentative of the real world - or the reverse, for some macro lenses that test poorly - so real-world experience here is welcome.

      I'm much more interested in the bokeh of the Sigma than in its absolute sharpness. The Canon certainly has more ability to lose the background - any f/1.2 lens will have an advantage - but there are many aspects to the quality of bokeh. I've not been blown away by the images I've seen from the Canon in the past in this respect (though I'm not criticising it in general). There's a subjective component as well, and I'm not going to criticise the reviewer for picking a preference. And I can't argue with the ergonomic review! All useful information - Stacy, thank you for posting.

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    • Price questions - the pricing notations in the article are not incorrect. The Sigma website lists the MSRP at $1300.  The $949 price point (sale) also is shown on the Sigma site

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    • hmm, so you don't think it's misleading to say that a lens which is currently selling for $950 costs over $1000 and to factor that in as a reason to buy another lens? in any event, sigma frequently discounts its lenses, so it's doubtful that the $1300 MSRP will stick for very long. the 35/1.4 listed at $1400 upon its release in late 2012, but i'm not sure how many were sold at that price; it currently sells for $899, less than a year and a half after release. i bought mine for $800 in Dec. 2013. With that in mind, its probably realistic to say that the new Sigma will be coppable for less than a grand, giving users a clear choice between entry-level 1.4s, specialty lenses like the Canon 50/1.2L and the Nikon 58/1.4 G, and the uber-pricey Zeiss Otus.

       

      I still would have liked to see how the corners perform at open apertures, to help evaluate whether i would want to upgrade from my current 50/1.4, the previous Sigma.

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    • Eric,

       

      Short answer. The new Sigma's better in the corners wide open. Can you take it's size and weight though? How often you do need an f1.4 to be sharp in the corners? I wish manufacturers would make an effort to keep these lenses smaller rather than larger - take a leaf out of the mirrorless book. The Canon f1.2 for example has a lot of elements (like the Sigma) but strikes me as a reasonable size, so I don't really see why the Sigma is so huge.

       

      In my experience, the Sigma sites always gives the MSRP as much higher than what they sell for in the stores, whereas with Canon the store price more closely matches their official price. Even when Sigma has one of their sales, the price direct from them, is still usually not as cheap as buying it from a good store. I wonder why they bother given this, but they do.

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    • Short answer. The new Sigma's better in the corners wide open. Can you take it's size and weight though? How often you do need an f1.4 to be sharp in the corners?

       

      i will admit to being a sharpness junkie, but i also value performance at open apertures. i do have the sigma 35/1.4, which is fairly hefty for a prime, as well as the sigma 50/1.4 DG HSM. i'm very happy with the 35's performance, which is a smidgen better than the older Sigma 50. the older 50 is already clunky and large for a 50/1.4, but at the time it was released, it set a new optical benchmark for sharpness wide open and bokeh. i don't often need corner performance at open apertures with my current 50, and using it on FX, corner fall-off hasnt been as much of a problem in real-world shooting as the Internet has reported.

       

      i'm not really in the market for a 50 at this time, and i've been generally pleased with the older 50/1.4's performance at 1.6-2.8, which is where it generally gets used. however, i would consider the new Sigma if its appreciably sharper, which it appears to be, especially if i upgrade from my current 12mp FX body to a 24 or 36 mp sensor, which might show the limitations of the older 50 a bit more. so i'll keep an eye on this lens as the price drops over time.

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    • I am sorry but brand loyalty is stupid. Missing on new and better performance items because of the brand loyalty is stupid. Sigma 50mm F1.4 Art was designed to compete with Zeiss and it is is very close to it but has better bokeh because Zeiss has onion rings bokeh and Sigma doesn't. Plus Sigma focuses faster than Canon 50mm F1.2

      Win-win for me all around for $950. I just need to wait for Nikon version.

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    • brand loyalty is stupid

       

      Not really. Many of us have experienced all sorts of AF focusing difficulties with third party lenses. Sigma, in particular, have been very prone to this in the past, as is pretty well accepted. This may be a thing of the past, but many breathless "this lens is the greatest thing EVER!!" comments end up looking silly after 6 months of use when the AF is erratic and unpredictable. I am by no means saying this is the case with this lens, only time will tell. I have both 15mm and 85mm Sigmas, and although both are excellent lenses optically, they are, indeed, unpredictable at times with AF. It's not a problem for me as I am used to it, but it is nevertheless true.

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    • Not really. Many of us have experienced all sorts of AF focusing difficulties with third party lenses. Sigma, in particular, have been very prone to this in the past, as is pretty well accepted. This may be a thing of the past, but many breathless "this lens is the greatest thing EVER!!" comments end up looking silly after 6 months of use when the AF is erratic and unpredictable. I am by no means saying this is the case with this lens, only time will tell. I have both 15mm and 85mm Sigmas, and although both are excellent lenses optically, they are, indeed, unpredictable at times with AF. It's not a problem for me as I am used to it, but it is nevertheless true.

       

      interestingly, i've never had any kind of AF issues with 3rd party lenses, ever -- including the Sigma 15mm, 50/1.4, 35/1.4, and 85/1.4. but as far as the brand loyalty comment goes, there have been so many well-documented issues with recent Nikon bodies, from oil spots on the d600 to AF issues with the d7000 and d800, that it seems a little ironic, if not misguided, to be blaming lensmakers, or basing one's opinion on past reputation. FWIW, Sigma makes all its lenses in Japan, whereas many Nikon lenses are manufactured in China and Thailand. The "truth" is there's no guarantee these days that QC issues can be avoided by buying from an OEM. Similarly, there's no guarantee that an OEM lens will be sharper or even better-built necessarily, based on name alone.  It is true that Nikon and Canon have much bigger marketing budgets than 3rd-party companies.

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    • Thanks for your review Stacy. Wonderful photos too. Contrast and sharpness are clearly better with the Sigma. Looks like another home run for Sigma.

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