I’ve recently been putting the best 35mm primes for Nikon through their paces to see how they perform. In terms of prime lens focal lengths, 35mm is an extraordinarily useful focal length on both full-frame (FX) and APS-C (DX) cameras. On a full-frame, it gives some wide-angle for context in the shot without much worry about distortion. It can also add silky bokeh to blur out the background. On a DX Nikon camera, it becomes roughly equivalent to the trusty 50mm ‘nifty-fifty’. It’s a focal length that can come in handy for anything from travel to weddings to events to landscapes to reportage.
I’ve previously reviewed Nikon’s flagship at that focal length, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G. It is, as you’d expect, an excellent lens. But it’s not what you’d call inexpensive.
Sigma has its own 35mm prime aiming to compete directly with the Nikon. On paper, they’re very similar. But the Sigma will make much less of a dent on your wallet. So I wanted to see how the much less expensive Sigma stacked up against the Nikon and how much of a compromise it is in real-world shooting.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM | A
Camera manufacturers like to cram enough acronyms in to the name of the lens to make your head spin. The formal name of this lens is the Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | A. Here’s what it means, decoded:
- DG: Designed for digital. But that’s not quite all there is to it. Basically it means that it works on full-frame cameras. Sigma uses DC for lenses designed specifically for cameras with APS-C sized sensors like Nikon’s DX cameras. DG lenses will work on full-frame, APS-C, and film cameras. DC lenses will only work on APS-C cropped sensors. Sigma has its DN lenses, which are for mirrorless micro4/3 cameras.
- HSM: Hyper Sonic Motor. This refers to the autofocus mechanism and trying to imply that it’s fast and quiet. Nikon’s version is Silent Wave Motor.
- A: Sigma’s “Art” series. Basically, it distinguishes it from its “Contemporary” and “Sports” ranges. Overall, the Art series lenses tend to lean more toward things like landscape, portrait, and general use where the emphasis is on the optical quality. The Contemporary series tends to put an emphasis on convenience and versatility (like broad zoom ranges), while the Sports series aims for, well, sports, but also nature and wildlife photography. The categories are more useful in marketing than in practice, but when there’s overlap in the focal lengths, the Art and Sports options tend to be more expensive.
There are also a bunch of other acronyms used in the marketing literature for this lens like SLD and FLD. But they’re not especially helpful for what matters most to me–how the lens performs in real-world shooting.
The lens comes with front and back lens caps, a dedicated petal lens hood, and a padded case. It takes 67mm screw-in filters. It does not have image stabilization. It doesn’t include Sigma’s USB dock, which you can buy separately as an optional extra.
Performance and Handling
The lens feels quite heavy and solid, and while nowhere near as large as something like the superb Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G, it is significantly larger and much heavier than typical 50mm lenses.
There’s a wide focusing ring with a rubberized grip. There’s no aperture ring, so all aperture controls happen in the camera and requires a camera that is compatible with Nikon’s G lenses.
I’m very, very impressed with the sharpness of this lens, especially wide open. It’s much sharper at f/1.4 than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G I tested and worked right out of the box, whereas I needed to do some calibrating to get the Nikon into a range I found acceptable. In my tests, I found the sharpness of this lens to be not just good, but excellent.
A very wide aperture like f/1.4 has two main attractions. One is that it lets more light in, meaning you can shoot effectively in low light. The other is that you can blur the background to both draw the eye to the area in focus and imply depth in the image.
Bokeh is a very subjective, quality. I like the bokeh from this lens. It’s very smooth, and bright lights in the background out-of-focus area are round and aren’t distracting.
At f/1.4, focusing can be very unforgiving. If you don’t have it spot on, it can ruin an image. But closing the aperture a little to around f/2 can be more useful but still creates a very pleasing bokeh. Overall, I like what this lens does with bokeh. Here are some examples.
This lens uses aspherical lens elements to minimize visual aberrations. You can get purple and green fringing in at-risk areas of sharp and wide contrast, but it’s not especially prominent and is really only apparent when you look at an image from a high-megapixel camera at 100 percent. Most of the time it’s easily fixed in Lightroom.
There is some pretty strong vignetting at the wider apertures that doesn’t really disappear until about f/5.6 or so. It’s so strong at the wide end that it can have quite an effect on the camera’s light meter and exposure calculations and change the look of the shot quite a bit. Here are some examples. The first is taken of some solid cloud cover; the shot at left is at f/1.4, while the shot at right is f/5.6:
And with this one of the overhead lights in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The shot on the left is at f/1.4 and the one at right at f/5.6:
Thanks to engineering and coatings, lens flare is essentially non-existent. I didn’t run into any issue with it under normal shooting conditions with shooting at lights at night or with the sun in the frame.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is mechanically good without being stellar. Without an aperture ring and with internal focusing, there aren’t many moving parts. The lens feels solid, but overall, it doesn’t have the same mechanical refinement as the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G.
The focus ring is large and grippy, but its usefulness is undermined somewhat by not being as smooth as it could be. Even attaching a follow focus for video, I’d prefer it to be smoother and slightly looser for smooth focus tracking or fine adjustments. Again, I’m being picky in comparison to the Nikon, which has silky smooth focus ring movement.
Bells and Whistles
Sigma has recently introduced a new feature with some of its lenses: the ability to interface the lens with a computer using a USB dock. It lets you update the lens’s firmware and to fine-tune various aspects of focus. It’s an intriguing idea, but I haven’t put it to the test with this lens.
Things to Watch Out For
- There are some things to be aware of when buying third-party lenses, the most important of which is that there’s no guarantee of compatibility with future (or, for that matter, past) cameras. Canon and, especially, Nikon go to great lengths to ensure that their lenses are compatible with their own cameras, but they’re not under any obligation to extend any such courtesy to third-party lens makers like Sigma or Tamron. That risk that the lens might not be compatible with a future camera you want to buy might be small, and it might not be a major factor in your decision, but it’s certainly something to be aware of.
- There’s a quirk with the lens hood. It’s possibly just the copy I got, but it doesn’t really lock into place. You can twist it until it stops, which is its correct position. But it doesn’t actually lock in place there. So if you’re taking the camera in and out of a bag, or even wearing it around your neck or over your shoulder, it’s incredibly easy for the lens hood to rotate out of alignment. If it was a perfectly circular lens hood that wouldn’t matter, but the whole point of an asymmetrical petal lens hood like this one is to fit the rectangular frame. So if you’re not careful, you can very easily end up with vignetting in two of the diagonal corners as the lens hood gets out of alignment. It’s only a small point, but I find it unnecessarily distracting to have to make sure the lens hood was correctly aligned every time I pull it out of my camera bag.
Nikon 35mm f1.4 vs Sigma 35mm f1.4
On paper, these lenses are very similar. What surprised me is how close they are in real-world shooting.
I’m a long-time user and admirer of Nikon glass. They make superb lenses. And I honestly haven’t used many Sigma lenses, although I’ve used the Sigma 10-20mm ultra wide-angle zoom for years and actually have two copies, one for Nikon and one for Canon. But in cases where Nikon has an equivalent lens, it wouldn’t usually occur to me to consider a Sigma in place of one of Nikon’s pro-level lenses.
The experience of shooting with this lens has convinced me that I’m going to have to rethink that approach. I like this Sigma lens. I like it a lot. And that caught me by surprise.
The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is nearly double the price of the Sigma. And I had spent quite some time shooting with the Nikon before trying the Sigma and had found the Nikon to be a typically excellent lens. So I expected the Sigma to feel like a compromise.
I like how sharp the Sigma is wide open, and the quality of its optics are top notch. Especially wide open, the Sigma is superbly sharp–much sharper than I was able to get out of the Nikon. I like the Sigma’s smooth bokeh, although some users have found that it can be a bit “fussy” in some conditions. For me the sweet spot with this lens in terms of the combination of sharpness, versatility, and the look of the end result is around f/2 to f/2.2. Wide open at f/1.4 is nice to have in very low light shots when you need it, but it’s a very unforgiving aperture for most shooting because of it’s super narrow depth of field.
That said, the Sigma certainly has its flaws. Its vignetting at wide apertures is stronger than I’d like and affects the exposure of most of the frame. The kind of tunnel vision that evokes isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s there. I didn’t find its autofocus to be as quick or as quiet as the Nikon. I also prefer build quality of the Nikon, and given the type of conditions I often find myself shooting in, the Nikon’s weather sealing is a big plus (the Sigma doesn’t have weather sealing).
If money is no object, I lean in favor of the Nikon. But how often is money no object? I can think of a lot of good ways to spend the $700 or $800 you can save by choosing the Sigma over the Nikon. And that makes it a tough call. Honestly, when I reach into my bag, I’m perfectly happy with pulling either of these lenses, and I’m confident that either of them can get the shot I want.
Overall, for me, the Sigma stands very well on its own. The fact that it is so much less expensive than the Nikon is an added bonus and is a nice reminder that less expensive doesn’t necessarily mean compromising on image quality.
Focal Length: 35mm
Maximum Aperture: f/1.4
Minimum Aperture: f/16
Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 63.4°
Lens Elements: 13
Lens Groups: 11
Compatible Formats: FX, DX
Diaphragm Blades: 9
Focus Modes: AutoFocus, Manual Focus
Image Stabilization: No
Minimum Focus Distance: 0.98 ft / 30 cm
Filter Size: 67mm
Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 3.03 in. x 3.70 in
Weight: 23.46 oz
Made in Japan