Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art

Somehow, I managed not to post a single thing in the entirety of last year!  Switching roles at work, a permanent backlog of photos to be processed that took me till this year to get through, the manual labor to refresh our home theater room – there just never seemed to be the time.  Not that this year is likely to be any different!

One thing I’d put off from 2014 was mentioning a lens I picked up that year, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art:

A 50mm standard prime is normally considered pretty “boring”; it generally can’t do close ups with nice background blurring, nor can it capture panoramic landscapes.  Nonetheless, it’s one of the most common primes on a full frame sensor (with 35mm being equivalent on a 1.5x crop camera).  In fact, my own tendency to use primes started with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D back in 2009; after seeing the improvement in image quality over my 18-200mm superzoom, I started leaning much more heavily towards primes.

Despite the Nikon 50mm kicking off this trend, I didn’t ultimately use it that much.  The fabulous, inexpensive Nikon 35mm f/1.8G was a better match for the crop cameras I used until 2012, and by the time I went full frame, I’d picked up the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S; it didn’t have as wide an aperture as the Nikon 50mm, but it had superior optical quality and focus speed/accuracy despite being a zoom lens.

So it was a bit of a gamble when Sigma introduced the 50mm “Art” lens pictured above.  It had a number of fabulous early reviews, and amazing sample shots even when used at f/1.4 or f/2.0, but it was unclear whether I’d wind up preferring it over the 24-70mm that was seeing the most usage at that time.  To keep things short: it did, and I kept more shots with this lens – 30% of what I took in 2015 – than with any other.

The image above is from a visit to the Batu Caves in Malaysia; there’s lots of monkeys roaming around, in some cases looking for things they can snatch from unaware passers by!  There was an extremely strong backlight – the monkey isn’t against a totally white background because I lured it into a studio or as a result of heavy editing.  Normally this would cause flare galore, and a strong lost of contrast – especially when shooting at f/2.8 as in the above photo.  But despite the worst of conditions, the Sigma managed an image that I really like.

The above is also from Batu Caves, and shows the incredibly strength of a bunch of red ants that were carrying this dead cockroach back towards their nest.  Amazingly, the ants you see pictured here were able to lift that massively bigger carcass up a vertical stretch, at least until gravity won out and destroyed their progress; it was pretty amazing teamwork nonetheless.  In any case, the Sigma 50mm is no macro lens but it’s sharpness even at wide apertures – this one is also f/2.8 – coupled with the high resolution of the D800 makes it possible to capture some pretty small things without dragging a dedicated macro lens around.

Even at f/1.4, as in the above shot, the detail in the very narrow band that’s actually in focus at that aperture is just incredible.  The Nikon 50mm would lose contrast and sharpness across the entire frame if you had to use it wide open; that wasn’t the case here, and the bokeh feels very nice to me especially for a standard prime.

Every lens has drawbacks, and for the Sigma, that’d be weight and price; its very solid construction yields an 815g lens that is very close to the weight of the 24-70mm zoom, and at $950 it’s significantly cheaper than Nikon’s high-end 58mm f/1.4, but significantly more expensive than the $350 it cost for my older Nikon 50mm f/1.4 (or Sigma’s own non-Art version of the same).  Still I’m completely without regrets in having picked up this lens!



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