It's not very often that a third-party lens manufacturer challenges the likes of Nikon and Canon, let alone Zeiss, but that's exactly what Sigma has done with their 50mm f/1.4 ART lens. The Sigma 50mm ART is lens that promises to be an uncompromising tool that set its sights on no less than the Zeiss Otus 50mm f/1.4, what is has been until now a peerless optic designed to take the fullest advantage of high megapixel sensors like the Nikon D810. This is not your average third-party alternative. As the second installment of their ART series, following the 35mm f/1.4 ART, Sigma is clearly making the statement that not only can they match the quality of giants like Nikon and Canon, but they can surpass them to share the same rarified air as Zeiss. Is the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART worth the $950 pricetag (and the weight)? Read this Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART lens review for the full scoop, complete with sample images and downloadable RAW files.
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Design & Controls
In contrast to Sigma's lenses from even just a few years ago, the new ART series lenses are exceptionally sleek designs. Gone is the tacky, “peach fuzz” coating of the old EX lenses, replaced with an attractive matte finish. The 50mm ART lens features a wide manual focusing ring with fine grooves in the rubber ring, as well as even finer grooves in the high density plastic barrel. An AF/MF switch on the side features an extremely tight and positive detent — the action is nicer than same switch on any of the pro Nikons I own. Sure, this is literally the smallest of control elements on the Sigma 50mm ART, but it's still a point driving home the attention to detail that Sigma put into this lens.
The build quality of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 is excellent. Though the barrel is made out of plastic, the lens feels much closer to an older manual focus lens with a metal body than the plastic used on even high end Nikon lenses. There's a density to this lens that gives a very true sense of quality.
General Shooting & Handling Impressions
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 is a heavy, heavy lens, especially as a 50mm prime. It's nearly three times as heavy as the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, and about twice the length. In practice, shooting with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 feels more like using a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom than a petite “nifty fifty.” This is a lot of weight for a single focal length, so it's simply a matter of mentally committing oneself to the lens. Which, generally speaking, is easy to do considering the quality, so far as the 50mm focal length is suitable for one's work. Weight aside, the Sigma handles well while shooting. It balances nicely with a Nikon D810 body. The controls are all well laid out and the manual focusing action is as nice as I've felt on an AF lens — well dampened and smooth with a drag that feel like my old manual focus Nikkors. That said, the AF performance, even when shooting wide open, is so good that I rarely even needed to switch to MF.
AF Performance: Speed & Precision
AF speed of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 feels much faster and more confident to than the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D and 50mm f/1.4G. Moreover, accuracy and precision seems better as well. All this was without any AF fine-tuning on the Nikon D800 and Nikon D810 — stock performance out of the box was fantastic. In some instances, I found that the Sigma 50mm could front focus slightly at medium-long distances (say, 20-feet out), but this might well be a reflection of the Nikon D800/D810 units used while testing as well.
Overall Image Quality
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 is probably the best lens you could use on a Nikon D810. Yes. The image quality is that good. Not just the stunning sharpness that DXO Mark and other testing/review sites have confirmed, but naturalistic contrast and a otherworldly smoothness that is compelling and addictive. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART is one of those lenses that renders with a quality that delights. The rare combination of superlative sharpness and extremely smooth character really sets the Sigma apart most lenses. In fact, the only lens I've used with this same quality is the Tokina 90mm f/2.5, a lens with its own cult following for this same sharp/smooth character. Here's an example image that shows off the smoothness of the Sigma 50mm to me. Here's a backlit scene with a multitude of backlit, point highlights and visual elements at varying distances from the point of focus. A lesser lens with a harsher character might render farther elements smoothly, but it would struggle with intermediate elements. Here, the Sigma 50mm renders a scene that, while possessing a few harsher areas, is overall very smooth for the amount of visual data it contains.
Chromatic aberrations and fringing are extremely well-controlled with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4. There are the faintest traces of fringing wide open, effects which quickly disappear narrowing the aperture a 1/3-stop or so. Corner shading and distortion are similarly well controlled, to the point where they're basically non-considerations. Throughout the aperture range, the contrast of is fantastic. Even wide open, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 delivers rich contrast and a surprising amount of flare resistance.
Wide Open Sharpness
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 is one of those lenses that just begs to be shot wide open. Sharpness is so good at maximum aperture that there is little need to stop down for increased image performance unless one needs complete, 100% edge to edge detail. Wide open, image sharpness is very high in the center square of the frame. The corners can suffer from smearing, but this is only visible on images focused at infinity where the whole scene is roughly in focus. For scenes with more depth with a defined focus point and fall off in depth of field, the overall sharpness is so good that I felt comfortable using any of the focusing points on the D810 (including the outer points) with confidence when shooting wide open.
Stopped Down Sharpness
Crystalline. That's the characteristic the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART gives in terms of stopped down performance. By f/2.8-3.5, the frame is basically as good as most zooms achieve in overall peak sharpness, and by f/4 the frame is basically flawless edge to edge for all critical needs.
Here's an example of the overall sharpness of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 paired with what's probably the finest sensor most photographers might have access to, that of the Nikon D810. In this test image, you can see that the Sigma 50mm is easily producing moire patterns and resolving extremely fine detail.
For a more real world sample of sharpness, here's an image shot wide open at f/1.4 at 1/500 and ISO 100:
And here's a 100% crop on the point of focus:
This is with default Lightroom sharpening and no other detail adjustment. For me, this level of sharpness — given that this is wide open, in low-contrast lighting — is pretty great. And just for kicks, here's a crop from the very corner of the frame, the woman's hair, which is hitting the plane of focus:
Here we see slightly lower contrast and, while there's no definite point of focus, we still see lots of usable detail. For me, this image showcases a number of things: great, usable sharpness wide open, precise focus achievement, and an overall very smooth character. More about this latter point below.
Rendering Character, color & contrast
Aside from pure resolution, the most striking thing about the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART is the fact that it also maintains a very smooth quality throughout its aperture range. The images drawn by this 50mm possess a very round and soft character, which when combined with the exceptional sharpness, delivers images that have a very unique character to them. While I was shooting the test images for this review, the thing that continually struck me was this special drawing quality of the Sigma. Even reviewing images on the camera's LCD, I was continuously impressed by the character of the images. With that said, let's get to the sample images.
Additional Image Samples
Who Should Buy This Lens?
In a way, the Sigma 50mm ART is the entirely contrary to the movement toward mirrorless cameras that promise lighter, more compact gear. Instead, the Sigma 50mm is relatively massive for a 50mm lens with a density and weight to match. If you're concerned in any way about the weight of your gear, this lens is not for you. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 is intended for photographers wanting the highest performance in optics and aren't afraid of the extra weight and bulk this quality necessitates. If you utilize cameras like the Nikon D810 and Sony a7r (both of which share similar 36 megapixel sensors produced by Sony) and demand the utmost quality for images, the Sigma 50mm will delight you.
Sigma 50mm Review Summary and End Notes
With this lens, even more so than the extremely well-reviewed Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART and Sigma 85mm f/1.4, Sigma has proven they're capable of producing not only budget-friendly options, but industry-leading performance as well. In terms of pure optical quality, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART strikes the perfect balance between superlative sharpness while still having an addictively smooth rendering quality. For most users, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART presents the highest performance they're likely to see in a DSLR optic.
The only downside to this lens? It is undeniably the weight. For a 50mm prime, it's a massive and dense piece of glass, metal and plastic. However, if you can shoulder the weight of this prime, there's the massive reward of image quality that rivals (and bests) the best that Nikon and Canon have ever produced.
As comedian Steve Martin famously prescribed, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ The 50mm f/1.4 ART is Sigma’s execution of that advice. The optical quality of this lens is not only too good to ignore, it’s flat out better than anything Nikon or Canon offers in the same range. I love the rendering quality of this lens. It has a very rare combination at wide apertures of delivering exceptional sharpness while still maintaining a very smooth character. Optically, just about everything about this ART lens is superlative. Flare, ghosting and chromatic aberration is all extremely well controlled, while the resolution and contrast is phenomenal.
Where to Buy:
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART for Canon EF
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART for Nikon F
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART for Sigma SA
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART for Sony A