Putting the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN Contemporary Lens Through its Paces: We Review

Sigma recently released a prime wide angle lens, which promises to be fabulous. Does it live up to the high standards of the other lenses in its class?

First Impressions of the Lens

Taking the lens out of its recyclable packaging — the lens itself was in a small polythene wrapper, but other than that, it was all recycled and recyclable paper and card — I was instantly impressed. One of the first questions I ask when I handle equipment is whether it oozes quality. Its matte black finish looked great; it felt robust and of a high quality. This promised to be a fine lens.

Attached to my OM-1, it was nicely balanced. It’s similar in width to my Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8, but slightly longer. This lens isn’t only compatible with Micro Four Thirds; other versions fit the Sony E, Canon EF-M, Fujifilm X, and Leica L mounts. It comprises nine rounded diaphragm blades, so I anticipated the bokeh would be pleasing.

There are 16 lens elements, two of which are SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, and three are Sigma’s FLD (Ultra Low Dispersion; one can only guess why they used F and not U in their acronym!) glass. Those glass specifications sound impressive, but they wash over me as much meaningless babble. When I’ve asked other photographers, they usually shrug their shoulders and admit they haven’t got a clue. I’ve tried lenses with all sorts of combinations of lens elements. Some have been great, and others not so. The only way to tell is to take the lens out and try it, which is what I did.

Focusing Performance of the Lens

The lens’ focusing was fast and accurate. It was not quite as fast to acquire focus as some of the Olympus Pro lenses I own. Still, speed isn’t necessarily an essential feature for a wide angle lens like this, as it would be when using a telephoto lens when you want to lock onto the subject quickly. Wide angle lenses are commonly used for landscapes when it is better to take things slowly. Focusing was quiet in operation, and manual focus was easily achievable. Pleasingly, it activated the focus peaking in the camera too.

Although the lens allows focus bracketing on my older camera (Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II), on my new one (an OM-1), in-camera focus stacking with this or other third-party lenses is not supported. As with all lenses, before buying, you should check compatibility with the camera functions you need. Despite that, with a wide angle lens with a great depth of field, focus stacking isn’t necessarily a function one would often need.

Like the 30mm, it has a close minimum focusing distance. With that wide f/1.4 aperture, it is possible to get an excellent shallow depth of field.

As I expected, the out-of-focus area had a nice creamy feel. Please take note, you Micro Four Thirds naysayers, this is smooth, creamy bokeh and a shallow depth of field achieved with a wide-angle lens!

Did the Images Stand Up to Inspection?

Checking for edge distortion, I aligned the sides of the frame with various uprights and horizontals. For something as wide as 16 mm, I was impressed by the lack of barrel distortion while using it.

There was no sign of barreling. Note, the walkway on this bridge slopes slightly from the center to the edges to drain water. It's not lens distortion.

There was no sign of distortion, even when focusing close up. Impressive!

This lens on my camera has a hyperfocal distance of 12.08 meters at f/1.4. So, if I focus that far away, everything from about six meters to infinity should be in focus. Testing this was where I met the lens’ shortfall. There seemed to be a significant drop-off in focus into the distance. However, I soon realized that focusing on subjects with fine detail showed that the lens was soft at f/1.4.

Compare these two images. Firstly, one shot at f/1.4.

Click to see a larger version of this image, shot at f/1.4.

The second at f/5.6.

At f/5.6, the writing on the boats is much clearer.

There was a more noticeable difference between sharpness between wide open and middle apertures than I noticed with the 30mm f/1.4 lens. In Lightroom, looking at images shot with the 16mm at f/1.4, there was a slight fuzziness to fine detail, which was still evident at even 33% zoom. This quickly reduced as I narrowed the aperture; at f/2.8, it was barely noticeable, and at f/5.6, the photos were razor-sharp.

Dropping the f/1.4 images into other programs, such as Topaz Sharpen AI, On1 Photo Raw, and DxO PhotoLab 6, that softness was removed effectively, and the photos were usable. Similarly, viewing at a smaller size, the unprocessed images looked fine. So, if you are solely posting pictures to Instagram, you would not have to worry about this.

Color rendering in the in-focus area was good. Examining the same subject shot with my pro lenses and this lens, I could not discern any difference. However, there were significant chromatic aberrations on high-contrast edges, especially toward the sides of the frame when shooting wide open. That is, of course, treatable in processing, but the default settings in Lightroom did not remove it. Again, the results were much improved at f/5.6.

In the in-focus area on the left of the frame, purple fringing was visible at f/1.4. Click to zoom in.

In the right side of the frame of the same image, significant green fringing can be seen on high-contrast edges in the out-of-focus area.

I dropped the aperture down four stops, and from f/5.6, I took a few shots with high-contrast edges to check the levels of chromatic aberration visible there. Even switching off the lens profiles in the software, I could see none in the in-focus areas.

Shot at f/6.3, the image is sharp and free of chromatic aberrations.

At the smallest aperture of f/16, there was no visible fringing, and the image was still acceptably sharp.

There was also next to no vignetting visible, another win for Sigma.

Lens Flare Is Well Controlled

Because it is a wide angle lens, I was particularly interested in how it controlled lens flare. Wide angle lenses are prone to it. Some people love lens flare, while others don’t; I fall into the latter group. So, I took the camera out at sunset and pointed it directly at the sun. (If you value your retina, please don’t do this with a DSLR and look through the viewfinder at the same time.) Consequently, I was pleased to see the starburst effect that radiated from the sun and pleasantly surprised to see no large purple or green blobs where light reflects inside the lens.

Holding the camera and hanging out over the edge of the pier, there was a starburst effect from the sun that was just disappearing behind a cloud.

What I Liked and What Could Be Improved With This Lens

This is a super lens. It’s a well-made bit of equipment, pleasant to use, and the photos taken with it look good. f/1.4 is fast. The images from it across the range of apertures are usable, but there is a substantial difference in sharpness across that range, and I had hoped that wide open, it would have been sharper.

I don’t design lenses, but if I were producing a fast lens, I would do my utmost to make it perform best when shooting at its widest aperture. After all, we buy fast lenses to use wide open and not at f/5.6. However, although I made many comments about the softness at f/1.4 and the color fringing, it’s not that bad; I’ve certainly used far worse. The images were softer at the widest apertures but were usable, especially when fed through good sharpening software or viewed at a smaller size. Nevertheless, that softness had a slightly dreamy look, which may suit some photography styles. Furthermore, as I said above, the right software can fix that lack of sharpness.

Like the 30mm version of this lens I reviewed recently, it is not weather- or dust-sealed. That may or may not be a consideration for you when buying this lens, and it will depend upon the conditions in which you photograph. As I said in my review of the 30mm, it is a deal-breaker for me. After all, I am often shooting in harsh environments. However, most photographers are not, and generally, cameras aren’t used on a wind-swept beach being sprayed with seawater, as I tend to use them.

Of course, a fast, wide angle lens makes one think about using it for low-light photography. It will be great for star trails where absolute sharpness is unnecessary. Gladly, the Starry Sky AI-focusing function of the OM-1 works with this lens.

The best thing is the price. From $449, it’s affordable, and you can buy it by clicking here.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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Great review, Ivor. I have used a number of the Sigma Contemporary lenses and I think they are some of the best value out there right now. They are made well, fast, and pair nicely with a smaller camera system.

When you say "recently released", this lens has been available for several years, so what is your definition of "recently" please?