The Sigma 85mm 1.4: One Year Later

The Sigma 85mm 1.4: One Year Later

About this time last year, the Sigma 85mm 1.4 Art series lens was released and I went ahead and decided to pull the trigger and invest in the new glass. I had heard great things about other entries in the art lineup and understandably Sigma's new 85mm focal length was getting a solid amount of hype. For the past year, I have been shooting exclusively with Sigma's 85mm. It's been the only lens in my camera bag and the only lens I've used for a straight year. What follows are my impressions after a solid year of use; what I like about the lens and what I don't like. 

Let's start out with some of the things that I love about this lens. After a year of continuous use, I can say that there is no question that the Sigma 85mm 1.4 is a great piece of glass. I am first and foremost a portrait photographer so the focal length itself is a no-brainer for me. As a short/medium telephoto lens, the 85mm gives me a gorgeous level of background compression, beautiful bokeh, and I don't need to be overly concerned with facial distortion if I come in for a closeup shot. It's been said before and will be said again that the 85mm focal length is pretty much perfect for portraits. 

As I currently live in Colorado and have generally have access to gorgeous sunsets for most of the year I have developed a love for shooting backlit images. If you've ever shot backlit before, you know that depending on the angle and position of the sunlight, as well as your own preferences regarding lens flare, some lenses can be finicky about nailing focus. This is understandable as you're basically asking your camera to nail focus while either direct or angled light is coming right into the lens. I can say with confidence that the Sigma 85mm handles backlighting scenarios like a boss. This is one of the first things that I noticed about this lens; even in less than ideal backlit situations, the lens is wildly successful at getting great focus right where you want it.

When it comes to any new lens one thing people always want to know is, is it sharp? That's a complicated question to answer as there are many factors that go beyond the scope of the lens itself such as shooting style, camera settings, stability, lighting, etc. that all affect your image sharpness. Speaking only of the lens itself, yes it is very sharp lens though there is a catch. Expect to fine tune this lens for best results. Right out of the box (and I understand this to be quite common for Sigma glass) your lens will most likely not be perfectly tuned to your camera body. My 85mm is set to +14 via the in-body AF-fine tune Nikon settings, which is quite extreme as the scale only goes +/- 20. There is an official Sigma dock available that can be used to further fine tune your specific lens (make sure you get the Nikon dock for Nikon, Canon for Canon, and so on), though I have never used the dock and can't speak to how it compares with your in-body fine tuning. 

Another always relevant question about any new lens is the price point. The Sigma 85mm is not an inexpensive lens and thus may not be right for everyone. At the time of purchase, I paid $1199 which was a colossal investment for me. After I received the lens, I sold my previous 85mm and my 50mm to recoup a bit of the cost, this would not have been an investment I could make otherwise. This resulted in my year-long endeavor of shooting exclusively with the Sigma. While I have no regrets about my decision to buy this lens, it has to be noted that the price point of the Sigma lens may make other available 85mm lenses better investments for different people depending on their budgets. Always weigh your options when it comes to investing in new gear and never feel that you have to go with a more expensive option if your budget doesn't allow for it.

My single largest issue with this lens is the same complaint I had when I first took it out of the box. This lens is enormous and extremely heavy, far too heavy in my opinion. Coming in at about 2.5 pounds this feels like a dumbbell mounted on my camera. For comparison, the Nikon 85mm 1.8 lens only weighs 0.77 lbs and the Nikon 85mm 1.4 lens only weighs 1.31 lbs. While this may not seem like a big deal to some, you should never underestimate the total weight of your setup. I have a battery grip on my D750 camera body and as the total weight of the setup increases, my ability to drop the shutter speed while hand holding and still remain stable enough for a sharp shot becomes an issue. This is going to vary from person to person as we all come in different sizes, some with steadier hands than others, but I have found that with the Sigma I am rarely comfortable dropping below 1/160th shutter speed and would much prefer to be around 1/200th or 1/250th. For context, with a Nikon 50mm 1.8 I am comfortable hand-holding with a shutter speed as low as 1/60th.

 

After one year of use, I can confidently say that I am pleased with the investment I made with this lens. It doesn't miss a beat in backlit lighting situations and after some expected fine tuning it is a wonderfully sharp lens. It is however quite pricey and much, much heavier than I would like. Is it right for you? That's a decision that you'll need to make for yourself and it depends on a number of factors like your budget and what you already have. If you'd like to see more images from me that I've taken over the last year, find me on Instagram and have a look at what I've shot with this lens. Let me know in the comments your experience with Sigma glass. Have you shot with this lens before? Do you have similar pros and cons to say about it? What about other entries to Sigma's Art series, what's been your experience?

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32 Comments

Spot on review. I've had this lens for almost a year myself and have also been using it exclusively. I couldn't agree more with you. In fact, I was just posting on Reddit that I wish this lens had image stabilization. It would help me be more confident at lower shutter speeds because of the weight.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks Cris! Haha, I think everyone wishes all our lenses had image stabilization or that in-body stabilization was a staple at this point :P

Jim Bolen's picture

Yep, that is what makes me not purchase it. Because of some health problems (brain tumor), I now have tremors and it requires that I have to have IS if I ever shoot hand-held, which is most of my location portraiture.

Evan Kane's picture

Definitely wouldn't make sense for your situation. Thanks for the comment and sorry to hear about your health problems Jim

Jim Bolen's picture

Thanks! Yeah, that's why I'm leaning towards the Nikon 105.

or that canon or nikon had IBIS

What was your previous 85 and why do you like the Sigma better?

Evan Kane's picture

Hi Sam, my previous lens was the Nikon 85mm 1.8 which was a great lens by all accounts. I like having the ability to open as wide as 1.4 (though I confess I don't do so very often). I was also looking at the Nikon 1.4 at the time but decided to go with the Sigma as I had heard from multiple sources about the quality of their Art lens series.

That's it? You can go to 1.4 at times? Okay, thanks.

Evan Kane's picture

Well from a technical aspect the elements of the lens are of a higher quality as well. Such is the often the nature of comparing something to entry level equipment. Additionally, the build quality itself is of a much higher quality (metal vs plastic) which may or may not be a factor depending on how a person treats their gear.

Campbell Sinclair's picture

Sam I have the this lens and the color straight out of raw was almost perfect and little editing was needed.I found there is some chromatic aberration - usually purple , easily corrected in lightroom. Its sharp as a tack.

Thanks for replying. How was your AF hit rate? I'd heard the Sigmas weren't as high as Nikon or Canon but the estimates were all over the place.

Campbell Sinclair's picture

It was fine. Just be careful at 1.4. Its such a tiny depth of field.

Nice write-up Evan. I have the Nikon 85 1.8, and I 'm very happy with. However, occasionally I get tempted to get an 85 1.4 version.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks very much :) I have nothing but nice things to say about the Nikon 1.8, it's a great lens and would probably be the most logical entry point for anyone looking to invest in the 85mm focal length without breaking the bank

Andrew Bennett's picture

This was helpful; thank you for a great article.
I've paired a Sigma 70 200 to my Sony A99ii. I do like the lens more than reviews would have you believe, but it took a LOT of micro-adjusting to get it right. I'm plus 12 on both short and long end.
I do have the much sought after and pricy Sony 85mm1.4 and it is superlative. It's ability to focus quickly and precisely is superb. I won't be swapping it out, but I'm very happy to hear that the Sigma has been a worthy lens. Thanks for taking the time to tune it.
APB

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Andrew. I tried to make it clear that yes this is a sharp lens but at the same time any prospective buyer should expect to fine tune the Sigma, more so than with say an official Canon or Nikon lens.

I have been using the Canon version for about a week. I didn't have to do any adjustments to get it to focus correctly, it was good from the get go. I only paid $999.00 brand new for mine. Black Friday was good to me. I don't mind the weight, but the purple CA is really bad. Especially in backlit photos. I have not seen any reviewer talk about it, which is making me think I have a bad copy.

Evan Kane's picture

Nice Black Friday find! Personally I have not noticed any extreme CA issues, though it is possible that this varies from lens to lens.

Justin Berrington's picture

I’ve also been using this lens for about a year and have been very pleased. The color rendition is incredible. The weight is a bear but I think it has actually helped me take better shots at slower shutter speeds. It’s either the weight or the size.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Justin, I agree with you that the weight of it might be able to be seen as a double edged sword. Yes, it's very heavy which can be a pain in the butt though it has also forced me to be more aware of how I'm shooting and to brace properly because of it.

One thing I haven't seen since the film days is articles having to do with perfecting handholding and stabilizing cameras and lenses for the sharpest images possible. I look at holding a camera and taking a photo the same as when I go target shooting, rifle or pistol. That's a skill that needs to be talked about more these days. And yeah more weight, up to a point, will help stabilize your lens.

Justin Berrington's picture

When I was first starting out I looked for articles and videos on proper handholding and didn’t really find a lot on the topic. What I did find was a lot of conflicting techniques. I eventually decided to use my old m16 training using proper breathing techniques along with what I thought was comfortable for me.

Controlled breathing is a good part of it, such as shooting when your breathing naturally pauses, or even holding your breath. As for holding itself, there are a lot of techniques and objectively some are actually better than others, but what should feel comfortable to all may not with someone that has say an old shoulder of wrist injury that still bothers them, or even arthritis. Some adjustments may need to be made besides what should normally work to provide comfort.

Whatever ends up working for a photographer it is something they need to explore, practice and perfect, no less than a sharpshooter on the range.

Your issues with weight confuse me quite a bit. Especially the part regarding the stability of your hand at low shutter speeds. Maybe it is just me, but I've always found that lighter setups tend to be more shaky, thats just physics. A lighter object will be subject to minor shakes in your hand, while a heavier object requires more shake for anything to be noticeable, thus being the more stable option.
That being said, it is normal to be able to shoot with a slower shutter speed with a wider lens (such as the 50mm you mentioned) than with a longer focal length.

Having used firearms in the past, the same applied there, a heavier hunting rifle (to a certain point) is a lot more stable than a very lightweight one.

How in the world are you getting issues with slow shutter speeds with the Sigma?

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment William, so obviously hand holding and stability are going to vary somewhat from person to person. I've found that the heavier lens is more difficult to stabilize from a standing position than say a significantly lighter 50mm.

If we're talking tripod or even monopod scenarios then yes, more weight would be an increase in stability. As I typically am shooting at the wider apertures, the longer and much heavier Sigma lens can become much more difficult for me to brace effectively.

But too heavy is also not good either. Kind of hard to hold steady something that taxes someone's strength and endurance to pick up.

Jason Lorette's picture

Thanks for this, good to know as I absolutely love my 18-35mm 1.8 ART.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I picked up the Nikon 85 1.8 a couple weeks back after going back and forth on the investment of the Sigma. Too many good reviews on the Nikon NOT to buy it. So... I rationalized that I'll learn on that lens, if I ever feel compelled to go to the Sigma, I'll sell the Nikon to help pay for the Sigma. Or conversely, try to make money and help fund it as well. It just came down to cost/benefit at the time for me.

I tried the Sigma in a camera shop on my body, it felt great- the weight was a quality I liked... but then again, that was for a limited amount of time in a controlled environment, not at a shoot. But it's a tank regardless.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Vincent, that's a good plan. The Nikon 1.8 is also a great lens and as with any gear investment the question you need to be asking is how is the equipment going to pay for itself through your photography.

The Sigma is definitely a tank, that's a great description haha.