Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM is one of the best value fast standard prime lenses around. I have always had a soft spot for Sigma lenses and fall in love with a few of their products: Sigma 15-30mm EX DG, Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM and the infamous Sigma 50-500mm f/4-5.6 EX RF HSM (1st Generation).
Many always believe that making a standard 50mm lens is very easy. The answer is both yes and no. Yes because there’s a tried and tested optical formula that’s been around for decades. No because it becomes a real challenge for Sigma to produce a 50mm lens that has to be better in all areas in order to stand out from the crowded market, especially they are making it available for all different camera mounts out there! All camera lens manufacturers would have a 50mm lens in their product catalogues. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Leica, Minolta (now Sony), Konica… just name a few. So it seems weird that why Sigma wants to introduce a 50mm lens in this already crowded market. More so, when you consider that a standard lens isn’t even expensive to buy for a start. For instance, a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 will only cost around £80 or around USD 99. Even for the super fast f/1.4 versions, you won’t need to break your bank to get one. All because of its standardised design. Things only starting to go up when you get the ultra fast and boundary-pushing f/1.2 or f0.95 lenses.
What I love about Sigma is their creativity. Unlike some third party lens manufacturers who just make cheaper alternatives to the big boys, Sigma aims to design and make something rather interesting and, different. Third party lenses always associate with the cheap prices and cheap quality. But Sigma has done just the opposite recently and also upped the game by slowly upgrading their EX range (The EX means excellent? I don’t know but it’s the premium line for them anyway).
My first Sigma lens was a very cheap old 70-300mm zoom lens when I got it with my first film SLR back in 1997. I didn’t use it that much and eventually sold it. But my next Sigma lens proved to be one of my favourites, the 15-30mm. I came across it when I was on holiday in Italy. Even with rather cheap rubberised plastic outter shell, you could feel the weight of the glass elements. Distortion was low for an ultra wide and sharpness was excellent. I’d used it in many weddings and travel assignments. A joy to used indeed. I eventually sold it and upgraded to the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM for its weather sealed and more rugged body, which became a must for my abuses as a pro.
My next purchase was a rather weird one. As a wedding and portrait photographer, my maximum focal length would be around 200mm. That’s more than enough to compress the scene and isolate the subject when necessary. So I bought the Simga 50-500mm for a bit of fun. I always thought I’d never use it enough to justify keeping it but for some very strange reasons, I have kept it through the years and I still love it. Perhaps it’s a weird lens with such magnification, a very versatile focal length despite its Arnold Schwarzenegger dumbbell weight, hence the nick name “Big Ma”. Big Ma was a first of its kind and soon made its name in wildlife photography. My first generation was probably the fastest having f/4 and the latest ‘image stablised’ version has a maximum aperture of f/4.5. It doesn’t make much difference but I do like the stablisation of the latest version.
These two lenses kind of summarise the reasons of my love towards Sigma of being an original lens manufacturer.
So why this lens?
50mm has always been regarded as the ‘human eye’ in 135 photography. It has been in the 35mm film photography landscape since your grandfather was still playing marbles. And because it’s been around for a long time, many camera manufacturers have refined the design and sort of produce the same things over the years. It’s so common that you simply won’t find a ‘bad’ 50mm lens out there. You can pick up a decent 50mm f/1.8 for dirt cheap these days and still outperforms any kit lenses by miles. With such big aperture, it’s not difficult to achieve the ‘everybody-crave-out-of-focus’ effect (or simply the separation from your subject and background).
Sigma didn’t produce a f/1.8 prime. Instead, they make a much more desirable f/1.4 version. Sigma has delivered the lens in good timing with most 1.4 lenses out there are simply dated back to the late 80’s or early 90’s. This Sigma 1.4 simply betters them in almost every way.
50mm is a good standard lens that has a character that renders picture more natural to what human eyes see. The ultra fast f/1.4 also adds the versatility to shoot at low light while maintaining your ISO to a lower setting to keep the image quality. Every early photographer started learning photography with 50mm lens simply because it translates what he or she saw into pictures in a more natural way. Wider lens would distort pictures and tele lens would flatten the subject and compress the scene so neither is suitable for a learner. 50mm is where every photographer should start (at least in 35mm format).
Sigma still hasn’t produce something that the pros would consider as ‘rugged’. Though there’s always something good about holding a EX lens. This 50mm lens is quite a bit heavier than the equivalent from Canon, Nikon or Pentax and a lot larger in size. The Sigma 1.4 is about the same size of Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L II USM. The front has a massive piece of glass and uses a filter size of 77mm! It’s as fat as Homer Simson with a mouth for a few Krusty burgers.
Weight and size aside, I love it. It feels good and the rubberised texture around the lens barrel really adds some grip during operation. Because it’s an EX lens, it has metal mount which should last hundred of thousands lens changing. The lens elements are all made from glass and not plastics which is heavy yet reassuring. The whole lens seems to have put together well though early samples, from what I gathered, had back focus problems but it seemed to have sorted out lately. So overall, this Sigma shouts quality.
Using it in practice, good and bad
I bought my Sigma after my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 mark 1 broke down after a shoot. I didn’t like the mark 2 version (not that it’s a bad performer but the plastic mount really puts me off) and I needed a good standard lens to cover my other portrait work. My old 1.8 was small, light and discrete and it was difficult to find a replace that good. I did considered the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM but it’s way too old and the images were very soft at wide open, even though it’s still one of the fastest in auto focus because of its USM motor.
After a couple of days of research, the new Sigma 50mm 1.4 became apparent that it would be my next 50mm purchase. Obviously I didn’t need the ultra expensive Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, so the Sigma makes lots of sense by offering the middle ground for me. It costs a little more than the Canon 1.4 but way way cheaper than the Canon 1.2. So my pocket was much happier.
Usage experience can be quite a bit different if you are used to Canon’s own pro optics. Its operation is fast but not fast enough. It offers full time focus manual override but the focusing ring is way too stiff for my liking. Perhaps this is how Sigma interpret quality. Canon’s 1.4 or 1.2 lenses are much smoother so it allows me to adjust tiny focus by simple one finger touch. But unless you are shooting wide open at close distance, it will never need focus adjustment after the initial auto focus lock.
Sigma’s HSM is quite fast but probably no match in terms of out right speed of Canon’s USM or Nikon’s offering. It’s quiet too. As I am no sports photographer, I found the Sigma HSM focus is way more than sufficient for my use under ANY circumstances.
I did a few 1.4 photos as soon as I got the lens, just wanted to see how well it performed. The image was a tad soft but this was expected for any ultra fast lens. Colour fringing is my main concern however. When shooting very high contrast scene, you will notice quite a bit of fringing virtually everywhere apart from the centre. Even though you can correct this during post production, it just adds a bit more work to my work flow.
So it sounds bad? No really. I actually like this Sigma a lot. Perhaps it’s a little imperfect, but its character outshines its weaknesses. It’s sharp for a 1.4 lens. When stops down to f/2.8, you will find yourself a great 50mm lens. Don’t take me wrong, it’s perfectly usable at 1.4 and I did lots of photos at that aperture setting but at 2.8, it will blow you away. The other thing is its bokeh! The rounded aperture blades make very dreamy and buttery soft out of focus background or foreground.
One small thing you may notice, Sigma’s 50mm behaves like 45mm in Canon for some reasons. It has a slightly wider view of field. But this is good. I get more for my money!
So this Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG EX HSM is not perfect. It cannot compete with the Canon or Nikon’s professional offerings but it does outshine either’s 1.4 lenses by miles. The Sigma also produces some very delicious bokeh that I haven’t seen from a 50mm lens, but it still cannot compare to my favourite portrait lens, Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM.
As much as you think Sigma is a third party lens manufacturer, you will be pleasantly surprise by the lens’ quality and performance. At this price, it may seem pointless paying more for a third party lens but when you consider Sigma is no longer a third party manufacture, it’s a genuine original lens manufacture that makes great lenses for other cameras, it all starts to make perfect sense.
50mm lens is what all photographer should start with and always keep one in your bag. For me, until the Sigma breaks, I will be keeping it for a while yet, with a smile.