The Nikon 58mm 1.4 and The now famed Sigma Art 50mm 1.4 are two lenses that arguably have a lot in common and at the same time polar opposites. The fact of the matter is the Sigma series which is marketed under the “art” moniker has received its praise because of technical proficiency while the release of the Nikon 58mm fell flat due to misguided expectations.
I want to stop you early in this versus article and let you know that if you are looking to find out which of these lenses “performs” better, that is to say the typical check list of sharpness, auto-focus, and other technical proficiencies, then just stop here it’s the Sigma, easily. There have been enough articles written that praise how incredibly sharp the Art series is, that is not the point of the comparison. This review is about something a little bit different and the root of what an “art” lens review should be; the look. What characteristics of the images created by each lens make them unique and which stands out when put side by side and therefore which one would I choose.
I tested and compared the two lenses on many of the typical categories: build quality, sharpness, auto-focus, and others. And my test met expectations, for the most part. Before we get down to where each lens is the winner and loser, let us jump right into one of everyone’s favorite comparisons and one of the main characteristics of the “look” of each lens: Bokeh.
Sigma Art 50 vs Nikon 58: The Bokeh Test
All of these images were shot on a Nikon D810 and exported without any editing or adjustments from Adobe Lightroom.
Bokeh Test Conclusion
After looking through all of the images, what I think you will see is that the bokeh rendering of the Sigma is remarkably precise, something you may expect from the lens that is known for being, well remarkably precise all the way around. The bokeh from the Nikon 58 does not produce clean and predictable circles, and I love it. This speaks to the character of the lens which the Nikon has plenty of. You will also notice a color shift between each lens, it is very consistent between series to series, this is something that will come up again later on. The synopsis for this particular test is that the Nikon 58 produces Bokeh with unique characteristics and plenty of character. The lens has a special "look" and in this test alone is my clear favorite, each photographer is of course free to make their own determination and may have differences in preference.
The next thing I really wanted to compare between these two lenses was sharpness. I've read that the 58 doesn't come close to the sigma in sharpness test, but the Sigma has set a standard that I perceived to be unreachably high for Nikon's niche lens. I wasn't hoping for the Nikon to be as sharp as the Sigma, and actually for a lens that I perceived to create artistic and dream like images I didn't want it to be as sharp. All that being said, I was still caught off guard by the results.
For this test I wanted to do something practical, and take images of something tangible that also has texture to make it easier to see where the sharpness falls off in real life images.
At this point I was thinking that the Sigma was clearly sharper which I expected but the Nikon was a little less sharp than expected, and then I zoomed in. All of these shots are zoomed in at 1:2
At 1.4 we can see a very big difference between the two lenses, the Nikon is very soft and for me not passable or usable. The next stop, f/2.0 is probably the most glaring difference. At f/2 we see the extreme sharpness the Sigma is known for and the Nikon is still not cutting it at all. At f/2.8, I think that Nikon is usable and it isn't until f/4 that the Nikon comes close to catching up (and I use the term catching up very loosely here). My take away here is, do not shoot the Nikon 58mm wide open. I would start around 2.2 or 2.5 but be more content around 2.8 as a starting point which is an unfortunate drawback.
Real Life Test
My next test was to simply shoot, go out and shoot without thinking about it too much in the manner and style that I would normally shoot. I had already determined that the Sigma was sharper, built tougher, and the Auto-Focus champion (especially in low-light) but this is a niche lens with unique characteristics so which one would I enjoy shooting with the most and which would give me results that I simply liked over the other.
The first three images where shot with the Sigma Art 50mm 1.4 on a Nikon D810 at f/2.2 and were exported without any editing.
And these next three images were shot with the Nikon 58mm 1.4 with the same Nikon D810 also at f/2.2 and were exported without any editing.
During this test I found the Sigma much easier to shoot with. Focusing was a non-consideration, just point the camera at the subject and shoot even with the wind blowing the greenery around while shooting. With the Nikon you have to really pay attention and take your time. It was also during this test that I started to really notice one of the main strengths of the Nikon. When shooting subjects that were back-lit or had a blown out background, the Nikon did two things really well: maintained incredible saturation and held the edges of shapes that were surrounded by blow-outs.
I wanted to test my theory with a more typical back-lit portrait scenario. So back at f/2.2, ISO 100, and manual white balance, I took about 30 portrait images of my daughter with each lens and the results were very consistent.
Again, I took a number of photos with each and the results were consistent. The sigma was much more likely to create a haze when shooting into the bright light source and the Nikon performed really nicely and provided more saturated colors overall.
Now lets look at were each lens is a clear winner.
Sharpness - By a mile. Not only did the sigma prove yet again the be a sharpness machine, the Nikon proved to be utterly disappointing when shot wide open.
Build Quality - There is a huge weight difference and when holding these two lenses it is clear the Sigma is a durably built lens
Auto-Focus - Sigma focuses with incredible speed.
Low-Light Auto-Focus - Be prepared to work slowly when using Auto-Focus in low light with the Nikon.
Character and Look - The Nikon provides a special look with a slight sharpness fall towards the edges, unique bokeh shapes, and tons of character.
Color and Saturation - The color rendering is just slightly different and provides more saturation.
Back-Lighting - When shooting back-lit the Nikon out performs the Sigma
Weight - The Nikon is a much lighter lens, although for me the weight of the Sigma provides a sense of security and quality.
You can probably tell from the pictures above that the Sigma has the wear and tear of a lens that gets used regularly and it's going to stay that way. I am a wedding photographer first and foremost, so being able to shoot quickly, accurately, and often in low light make the Sigma a very easy choice. That being said I love the Nikon. It is a niche lens with unique character that the precision laden Sigma just can't deliver. I enjoyed slowing down and shooting with the 58mm lens and think it would be great for portrait sessions and personal work, but is that percentage of use worth the price tag? At $1,600 I'm going to say no right now, it won't make the cut and find a place in my bag although I wish it could. Maybe at half the price I could justify having a unique character filled lens that I could shoot with during engagement sessions. This is purely a personal choice - obviously - and some of you who maybe shoot portraits more regularly or even possibly infant/baby photographers may love the creative look of the Nikon and find the Nikon 58 and as a go to lens while others will find no attraction to "slowing down" or shooting images that are not as sharp but have more character.