A wedding photographer that I am, the 35mm is my mainstay. So, when I laid my hands on the highly coveted Sigma 85mm 1.4 Art lens, it was as though a machine gunner was handed a sniper rifle.
Make no mistake: if you shoot most of your images with focal lengths not exceeding 50mm, you’ll need to refashion your approach with the 85mm. That’s the ideal scenario. But, what if you want to shoot the 85mm with the street-like approach that you’re accustomed to?
That’s precisely what I wanted to figure out.
Getting started wasn't as easy as I hoped. How do you find the space and the distance to substitute an 85mm for a 35mm — and not make standard portraits of people? When a friend suggested we go to the beach for an early morning workout, I realised right away therein lay my answer.
I knew I’d find my subjects jogging, sauntering by the surf, and some, well you know, just sitting on the benches soaking in the warmth. The challenge would be to create images with context, and frames that aren’t just about bokeh.
So, that’s what I did.
I had predefined a few parameters for my test. The most important one was “speed”. It may not be a key criterion for those who use the 85mm-100mm focal lengths predominantly for portraits. But, my requirements were a whole lot different.
I wanted to make dynamic images — of subjects that were not standing still and staring into space or beyond your shoulder. And, I wanted to shoot them at 1.4.
To assess a portrait lens primarily (as a secondary parameter, it might make sense) for speed of focusing may sound a bit unreasonable. However, I believe a lens’ true strength lies in its versatility — being able to perform at its best in a range of situations.
Did the lens live up to my expectations? Damn sure it did. I even managed to fire a few frames of my friend running towards a murder of crows and most of the images were as sharp as they come.
Sharpness means different things to different people. For me, it’s all about how the subject stands out in a frame. I wouldn’t read results off a resolution chart — it’s simply about how I perceive the image. What that also means is, I’d have to take into consideration a bunch of things: contrast, handling of light and textures, and so on.
All of the images during my test were shot on a rare summer day when the sun decided to take a break. It wasn’t cloudy, but it wasn’t a day of directional light either. So, I knew my test results would be skewed.
Despite the conditions, the lens showed great promise in terms of contrast even with little directional light, though the highlights (both in the bokeh and the subject) were occasionally a tad flat for my taste. Not something I’d lose sleep over, however.
I understand that stopping down would have helped my cause, but personally my purchase decisions are usually driven by a lens’ limitations more than its strengths. For example, even in the hands of a highly-skilled photographer, a lens with autofocus issues is not going to yield a 10/10 hit rate.
In the case of this lens, pixel peeping did show great point-of-focus sharpness at 1.4 that’s as good or even better than most popular portrait lenses. Even for the contextual images that I was creating, the perceived sharpness was way more than just satisfactory.
This is an Art lens, for heaven’s sake.
If you waited forever for this lens to arrive, primarily for its strangely intangible quality of making good images look even better, you’ll be thrilled. Sigma has been consistent in this regard, and the Sigma 85mm 1.4 Art is no exception. A whole lot cheaper than its competition — the incomparable Canon 85mm 1.2 or the Nikon 85mm 1.4G — the lens holds its own and makes for a better buy if price is the deciding factor.
Why I still wouldn’t buy this lens
The Sigma 85mm 1.4 Art is a beast. Not just in terms of performance, but also in girth and weight. You have to hold it to believe it. It’s huge — beating even the heavy Canon 85mm 1.2 in both dimensions and weight. Now, picture yourself lugging this behemoth around your shoulders the entire length of a wedding day. Painful, right?
Maybe, and I say maybe, I’d consider using this lens regularly someday when I can afford an assistant who can do the literal heavy lifting for me. Until then, I’m better off desiring but not giving in to the temptation of owning this wonderful piece of glass.