Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art Versus Canon 85mm f/1.2L II Shootout: Which Wins?

The new Art Series of lenses from Sigma have been getting some outstanding reviews since their release, so how does the 85mm f/1.4 Sigma Art lens stack up against the tried, trusted, and far more illustrious Canon 85mm f/1.2L II?

In this review, popular photographer Julia Trotti takes the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens and puts it through some tests in a variety of situations and scenarios. In the first section, she pairs the lens with a Sony a7 III and a Metabones adapter for Canon mounts and shoots a model in good light during the day. Some of her key observations were that the lens worked flawlessly with the adapter and was super fast to focus. Interestingly, she noted that when she'd tried some native Canon lenses paired with the Sony a7 III and an adaptor, she'd experienced some lag issues with them. 

In the second part of the review, Trotti puts the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens up against the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens. She uses both on a Sony a7 III and a Canon 5D Mark IV. The key takeaways were:

  • The Sigma has a rear focus element whereas the Canon has a front focus element
  • The Canon's bokeh was a little softer and creamier than the Sigma's
  • The Canon's colors were a little warmer straight out of the camera
  • The Sigma had less lens flare (which could be a good or bad thing depending on your artistic tastes)

The most interesting part for me was that, at a certain distance (when Trotti tried to get all of the model's body in the frame), the Sigma struggled to find focus quite a bit. The example photos show many that are blurry and pretty much unusable. Up close, the Sigma was outstanding, but at that particular distance, it was very hit and miss.

The reason my eyes lit up when I saw this is that I recently got my hands on the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens. I debated long and hard whether to go with that or the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. I opted for the Sigma, but in my limited use so far, I've found that it misses focus more than I like in certain scenarios. I've played with all manner of settings but haven't been able to nail down settings to guarantee a 95 percent or greater keeper rate on shots just yet.

Make no mistake, when the Sigma does get it right, the results are absolutely outstanding, and Trotti's review here confirms as much. But for a new lens that is priced at close to $1,000, I can't say I'm 100 percent sold just yet, even though I absolutely love the results when they do come out right.

What about you? What have your experiences been with any Sigma Art Lenses, particularly the 85mm f/1.4 Art Lens reviewed here or the 50mm f/1.4 Art Lens? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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Personally, I owned the Sigma 24-105mm, whereas my dad owned the Canon version, and after extensive use his 24-105mm looked like shit, but mine was in great condition, even after dropping it from 4 feet high. The rubber on his Canon 24-105mm zoom was coming off and it had developed horrible zoom creep. The optics on the Canon 24-105mm are also inferior to that of the Sigma as well. The so-called Art lenses have a premium build and are made for professional use, and I would go as far as saying they are better built than Canon's own glass. I suggest you try them out before formulating your opinions based off of some YouTuber that more than likely doesn't own the lens and has had very little time to see how they perform long-term.

Great! Care to explain your presence in online discussions? If you're replying to this comment then certainly you must have some modern devices at your disposal, so what's your point exactly? Are you still shooting film too? I don't doubt it, that's the way to go for those legacy Nikkor lenses...

My son, a wedding photographer, had to send a 50 Art and a 35 Art back to Sigma because the barrels loosened up. The 35 was sent back twice. He gave up and bought Zeiss lenses. But he has a 24-70 II and a 70-200II that has been through the wars and have never had a problem. YMMV.

I've had the 50mm Art and has not failed me either. I guess YMMV holds true here.

You really hate Sigma, huh? I paid less for the, but got better quality than the Canon equivalents. You wouldn't know that because you go around knocking Sigma lenses without even trying them. Get a life ...

Mileage varies with the Sigma lens ... In my case autofocus was terrible. I had the 35 Art (kinda where it all started) on a 5DIV and after countless failed calibrations and missed focus at f1.4 I splurged on a 35LII and after a week or two shooting that I sold the Sigma and never looked back. I loved the optics on the Sigma and I believe some of their lenses are superior to Canon's however for the type of Candid portraits I do I need a better keeper rate at f1.2-1.4. I actually feel sometimes my 35LII is too sharp. I can do a group portrait tack sharp at 1.4 no problem... But the bokeh suffers. My 1.2 lens are nowhere near as sharp as the Sigma Art on paper but I love the results and although I could easily trade towards Sigma I don't think it would be a clear upgrade.

On the contrary, I've had plenty of bad luck with all-metal lenses that were poorly engineered and had pinch points where a bad bump would cause metal to pinch metal, grind, and eventually jam. Meanwhile, I've had plenty of high-grade plastic lenses that seemed utterly impervious to the same types of bumps.

Really, it's all about the QUALITY of the plastic being used. And many of the top brands have begun to use really good plastic, even composite materials such as in some of the basic Nikon bodies.

In short, at the end of the day, the only way to actually break such a plastic product is for it to suffer such a bad impact that even if the camera had been made of magnesium alloy, it would still have suffered some sort of major damage anyway.

You missed my point, John.

The point was, SOMETIMES plastic is, in fact, a better idea for durability's sake. Period. Metal, when "dinged", can permanently change its shape, and if a lens isn't properly engineered, that can cause griding, binding, and serious damage that leads to a $600+ repair. The right quality of plastic, however, under an identically forceful "bump" will not crack, or permanently change shape, but just absorb the ding and continue conforming to its engineered specification, instead.

So, I'm not sure what you're talking about WRT expensive pens.

Aww, John blocked me, or deleted his account? Oh well. Your last comment sounded respectful and logical. *shrug*

I think John's been placed in a temporary naughty corner

Not entirely sure what you mean by aging "gracefully". Good plastic pretty much doesn't age at all—at least not at any rate that will likely matter to the human race.

Umm... I think we're talking about different types of plastic here, but OK.

Last I checked, metal rusted. Glass elements were susceptible to separation. All grease breaks down at some point or another as do all gears. There's no steadfast rule dictating that metal lenses used better quality components: see FSU lenses as a general example of metal lenses built with poor materials and crap QC. (Doesn't stop me from owning them, but let's call a spade a spade.)

That's not to say that I think that modern lenses will last long, but I think that it will be the electronics that do them in long before any issues involving plastic come into play.

Sigma lenses have the worst focus consistency of any lenses I've ever used. I will never purchase or use another Sigma product again.

I've owned 3 sigma lenses and each had to have micro adjustments to work properly. I still have a 100-400 that focuses just fine, but the image stabilization is quite quirky.

I for one have more focus issues with Canon lenses than with Sigma lenses. Examples are the 16-35 II and 135/2. It 's one of the reasons I've exchanged some of my Canon primes for Sigma primes (35/50/85).
The great thing about the Sigma lenses is that I can calibrate the AFMA on different focal distances, where the Canons can only be calibrated at one distance.
For me a big downside of the Sigma lenses is their weight. My camera feels so light when I swap my Sigma 85/1.4 for my Canon 135/2 :)

I don't care for the USB focus fixes because tuning a lens to one camera body may make it a lot worse on another. :-/

Well that's the beauty of it all, it can make the in-camera AFMA behavior predictable: I only need to calibrate a Sigma lens on one body (reprogram the lens using the Sigma USB Dock). On the other body I only need to enter one fixed AFMA value. This in-camera AFMA value is the same for all lenses, since it's "the difference" between the bodies.
If you'd calibrate the lenses "from zero" on two bodies, you'd get two parallel curves. FYI, the AFMA on my 5D4 is 0 (since the lens was programmed using this body), and the AFMA value on my 5D3 is -2. This value is the same for my 35, 50 and 85 Art lenses.
This reliability is enough to keep me away from mirrorless ;)

Hmmm. I never thought about it that way. I have one Tamron lens, compatible with their TAP, so I'll try that. Thanks!

I am personally way happier with Canon autofocus than Sigma but I had to give you thumbs up for the weight comment :). The 85/50Ls are so much lighter than Sigmas although they are technically a third of a stop slower... That's the problem with modern lenses, so many elements, super sharp but I still like that technically inferior rendering especially for portraits. Even the 50L is plenty sharp for an excellent portrait and then the size factor makes it my favorite travel lens!!

I have had the Sigma 85mm art for a few weeks now and i think it is an outstanding lens. Interstingly, I have noticed one or 2 missed focus issues when shooting the face, but have mainly put this down to my technique. I also notice that these sigma art lenses are recommended to be used with the calibration usb dock which should align the focussing up with the camera. I havent bought one of these docks yet but think it would be a good idea. When comparing what you would pay for these two lenses, I would say the Sigma is the better value lens with better optics in some areas.

If you are willing to spend some time calibrating your lenses, the dock is really worth it!

I wonder if calibrating a Sigma lens on Sigma’s USB dock is any better/different from calibrating the lens in camera? I know Canon and Nikon have menu functions for in-camera lens calibration and they recognise the lenses attached.....

As long as you get the result you want it doesn’t really matter but I’m just curious what the difference between the dock and in-camera is...?

The big difference is that the in-camera AFMA calibration is very limited. You can only enter one value (for one focal distance). My Canon EF 135/2.0 for example needs very different AFMA values depending on the focal distance. By heart, the AFMA values change from around -10 at 3m to 0 at 9m.
With the Sigma lenses and the lens dock I can enter AFMA values for 4 different focal distances. This is a game changer for me.
Sigma, please feel free to sponsor me with a 135 art lens ;)

I just calibrated my 50mm art lens with the Sigma USB dock last night. It's still not 100% absolutely perfect but it's much much better. And yes, the flexibility of calibrating at 0.5, 0.7, 1.5 and infinity on the USB dock is very useful. I'm still left wondering why the lens (yours, mine and anyone else's) comes out of the factory at such poorly calibrated settings......

We've almost completely stopped recommending fast third-party lenses because the AF is inconsistent. Yes, the optical quality of the Sigma Art lenses is UNBEATABLE... but every single time we've tested them against native lenses, they miss focus far more. In our 85mm f/1.4 comparison, the Sigma missed focus so much that it was more accurate to simply manually focus it. Same applies to the Sigma 18-35 and 50-100 f/1.8 lenses. Focus calibration can't fix it; it's the result of camera manufacturer's not testing and optimizing the camera bodies for those lenses.

Unfortunately, most formal lens tests don't test AF consistency in the real world; they either manually focus on test charts or they dismiss all focusing errors as user error. As a result, the third-party lenses look like great values. But if you miss focus, it doesn't make ANY difference how great the image quality is

Oh, another misleading aspect to lens reviews - they'll show focusing speed and accuracy by showing you how quickly the camera draws a green box around the subject. However, once you get the shot back to the computer and zoom in, you'll discover that it was out of focus despite getting focus confirmation. Sometimes they test focusing with the subject far away, where depth-of-field would hide missed focus.

We still use them for video, where we tend to manually focus on still subjects with deeper depth-of-field. However, we couldn't use the Sigma 18-35 for vlogging with the EOS R because the AF simply missed focus. Frustrating.

It does look like, unless I missed something, that she was composed right at the edge of the phase detect area on the a7riii. When I shot adapted lenses, my experience was similar to yours. However, now that emount lenses are becoming available, my experience isn't the same and actually on par with native sony glass. I mainly shoot seniors so I'm in constantly varying ambient conditions. The only time eye af struggles it when I have strong irregular shadows on the face, hair, or something else obscuring the face. To me that is understandable, and simply switching to a focus/recompose style of shooting gets me past the obstacle. Last weekend, I shot in downtown Chicago in challenging conditions with the new emount sigma 105 f/1.4 and it was exactly what I had hoped for. There were focusing challenges but the camera performed similarly​ when the 70-200 gmaster was in use. I'm excited about Sigma now more than ever and I think for those of us in Sony land, we are getting tools that continue to up what we are able to create more and more easily.

I haven't tried that but Manny Ortiz did and gave up trying to AF with the Sigma it was so bad... That's why I haven't bothered to shoot with that variation.

Intresting because I saw that video:

And it's a little different opinion than yours Tony. Who is telling the truth? : S

We can both be telling the truth; people have different shooting styles. We are more demanding of precise focusing, too-others often count a shot as in focus when we consider it to be out of focus. I also haven't used the 85 f1.2 but it has a reputation for terrible focusing. Fwiw I scrubbed through the video and didn't see any samples, so it's hard for me to guess.

I often do walking shots during portrait sessions at 1.2 on the 85L/5DIV combo and even if I get a few misses I get enough keepers for amazing looking shots :). The subject isolation with full body shots in motion at 1.2 gives it that medium format look... My only issue is a little bit of softness at the contrast and purple aberration easily fixed in post.

Your 3rd paragraph is definitely the most salient and accurate in my use of the 50mm Sigma Art thus far. In camera the AF lock is lightning quick and at first glance the pic looks crisp. But zoomed right in and closely inspected it becomes eminently noticeable that it's soft where it shouldn't be far too often.

Some of the photos in this video were completely unusable but I haven't experienced that really. I have, however, had far too many slightly off shots. As you said, the quality of the Sigmas is almost unbeatable - when they get it right. But because of that incredible quality and laser sharpness, it is very noticeable when it's not quite right.

I'm yet to put my finger on why it happens or find a suitable setup to minimise it happening. Absolutely love the lens when it decides to play nice, but it's behaving a bit too much like my 2y.o daughter at the moment!!

Curious to know if this AF performance issue also extends to Sigma's E-Mount ART series lenses given that Sony has open sourced that mount. Do third party lenses still AF problems on Sony bodies?

Someone help me, ...why isn't this Sigma being compared against the Canon 85 1.4 L IS? I'm confused. The Canon 85 1.2 II is almost /ancient/ by today's megapixel standards...

Skip both of these and check out the Tamron 85mm f/1.8. Really.

hahaha no.

The Tamron SP 85 is a phenomenal lens. Never had a single focusing issue with it (on Nikon), unlike Sigma.

I have the Tamron 16-300mm and the 150-600mm which I use to shoot surfing. Both are great lenses, especially for the price. Magnificent bang for buck, especially output quality.

The Tamron 85 is great, but absolutely a different class of 85. If you desire both crazy DOF and creamy bokeh, you may not be able to "settle" for anything less than a 1.4.

Having said that, anyone who is so obsessed with 85mm as a focal length that they're willing to spend a fortune and/or lug around such a heavy lens as the Sigma or Canons, ...probably ought to have a "backup" 85, like the Tamron, in case anything happens to that exotic, bread-and-butter lens that is such an integral part of their style. Seriously, if you love a focal length so much that you spend $1K+ on it, and lug around a heavy beast, ...what do you do if it gets damaged in the middle of your photo shoot? Do you switch to a 50 or a 70-200, potentially risking a different final product than the client was expecting? Or do you just re-schedule the photo shoot? For this reason, whatever your favorite focal length is, I always recommend that pros have a backup of it.

Smaller lenses like the Tamron 85 also make great street / candid lenses for when you don't want the obtrusiveness of such a big honkin' piece of glass, but you still want that favorite focal length. ;-)

I think the whole "bokeh" thing has been blown way out of proportion, for sales, of course. Sure, there are differences, but they're simply not that insanely different. It's just become another foolish religious cause.

Completely agree. Devoting entire reviews to the 0.5mm diameter difference of a bokeh circle/shape in the background then recommending one lens over another because of it is insane for most general photographers. If your entire portfolio and photographic style revolves around bokeh then perhaps......but that’s a tiny niche within a niche

I hate "busy" bokeh just as mcuh as the next guy, but hey, I'm not about to spend 10X more on a lens just because it has /slightly/ more aesthetic bokeh. My clients are never going to notice, and I'd rather rely on my understanding of framing and depth perception to make my subjects truly stand out against a background. (No amount of bokeh can save you if you've got a tree trunk growing out the back of your head, or a same-tone clutter "touching" someone's hair, etc...)

5 years is not "ancient"

The f/1.2 is 12 years old if I'm not mistaken, but yes, even 5 years today is old. It's a fast-moving world in optics.

No, the 85 1.2L II released in 2013. No, 5 years old for L lenses are not old.

Sorry, but 5 years is old for any lens, there's nothing special about an L or any other lens when it comes to the advancement of technology.

...I'll add that it doesn't make the older lens obsolete, but time marches on, and it marches really fast today.

Disagree. Lenses don't advance that quickly. There's no 85mm 1.2 on the market that exceeds the Canon II version in optics. The Sigma 85 1.4 and Canon 85mm 1.4 have their own benefits, but do not exceed the 1.2L II in all aspects. "Time marches on" is a cute saying but let's talk about the actual specs.

You're free to remain in denial of reality.

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