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Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Arrives. Announces New World Order.

Published November 21, 2012

OK, I’m beginning to think maybe the Mayans were right. It appears the world is going to transition into something different in 2012. The photography world at least.

About 5 years ago, I wrote a blog post explaining that quality control problems and horrid repair service meant we would probably stop carrying Sigma products entirely. I spent the next several months manning the ramparts and pouring hot oil on the Sigma Fanboys who assaulted the Lensrentals Walls.

Since then, the most amazing thing happened. They got better. The repair center sprouted an efficient and intuitive web page, real people started answering the phones and knew where your stuff was, repair times went from months to weeks, to often days. Quality control seemed to improve, too, except for the large telephoto zooms. Recently they announced ( making announcements – what a concept, Nikon) quality control improvements, redesign of some problematic lenses (OK, they didn’t use the word problematic lens, that’s me. They just said redesign), and are going to offer the gearheads among us unprecedented ability to fine tune their lenses to our cameras.

So today, we received our first 35mm f/1.4 Sigma lens. The first in their new revamped lineup.  (No, you can’t rent it yet. It’s going to have to undergo extensive testing at my house over the long weekend. Maybe next week.) I was eager to see it, hoping it was going to be another step forward and hoping to find some signs of what will be adjustable in these new lenses.

As always, this isn’t a review, it’s my quick first impression after putting the lens through our normal intake tests. I’m not a lens reviewer. Also, as always, my summary comes first, for those of you who have trouble reading more than 150 words without a picture.

This lens kicks butt, takes names, and basically posterizes the manufacturers who make the cameras this lens will fit on. 

For those of you who spend too much time post processing, I’m using ‘posterize’ as demonstrated below, not the 8-bit jpg way.


copyright Getty Images / Sports Illustrated


The Sigma 35mm f/1.4

Left to right: Canon, Sigma, and Nikon 35mm f/1.4 lenses. Copyright by Hostess Joey



OK, you can get out your crayons and color me Fanboy, but this lens is built solidly. It really feels more like a Zeiss 35mm than a Canon or Nikon. Sigma says there’s a lot of metal in there, and at 1.4 pounds I believe them. On the other hand, that makes it several ounces heavier than either the Canon or Nikon, but about the same amount lighter than the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4.

It feels solid, too. The manual focusing ring is smooth and accurate, although I found it a bit stiff. Not problem stiff, but certainly not move-it-with-a-fingertip. Autofocus speed was reasonably quick, about on a par with the Canon 35mm. More importantly to me, AF accuracy was good, too, even when we darkened the room down to the point where many Sigma lenses start hunting.

Of course, we went over to the Imatest bench next. As most of you know, I hate testing one copy of a lens. The only thing I hate more than that is testing no copies. So I did the one we have today, knowing that there will be another dozen next week and planning just to keep this data to add to that. But like chicken salad on a hot summer day, this data won’t keep.

Of course, I’m going to compare this copy to the average numbers we get for the Canon 35mm f/1.4. I’ll mention that this may be the absolute sharpest of the zillion or so of these lenses Sigma turns out. I’ll get data for another dozen copies next week and we’ll see how it varies. So, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume this is the best copy Sigma will ever make. So to make things fair, I’m going to compare it to both the average for all Canon 35mm f/1.4 lenses we have, but also to the very best out of the 100 copies I’ve tested.


MTFSigma 35mm f/1.4Canon 35 f/1.4 avgCanon 35mm f/1.4 best
Peak MTF 50775650700
Avg MTF 50665555600
Worst Corner MTF 50445325370


As you can see, this copy of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 was a bit better in the center and clearly better in the corners than the best copy of the Canon 35mm f/1.4 I’ve ever tested. For the Nikonians amongst us, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 tested on a D3x resolves almost identically to the Canon.

Stopped down to f/2.0 and f/2.8 respectively, the Sigma responds with 900/770/560 and 1000/870/770 mtf50 values (center/average/corner). The Canon ‘best copy’ returned 840/740/520 and 1000/840/740 numbers. It’s probably worth mentioning the Sigma has slightly less distortion at 1%, too.

The Circuit Board

We didn’t do a disassembly today but we did have to take a quick look at the main circuit board, since this will apparently be the first ‘totally programmable’ lens using the upcoming Sigma Optimization Software.

The PCB board in this lens is quite different from anything we’ve seen from Sigma before: cleaner with more chips and few other electronic components. Much different.

Also looking like it will be nice is the 9-bladed aperture ring.

I’ve had about zero chance to actually shoot with it (neither would you if Tyler was standing around screaming about another 50 lenses that need to be tested so they can go on sale for Black Friday) but I’ll fix that this weekend. In the meantime, here’s a shot of the lovely and talented Lensrentals spokesmodel Kenny, at f/1.4, with a bit of 100% crop in the corner. I believe this lens is going to be fun. And at $899 well worth the price of admission.

As to finding anything signifying the new programmability of theses lenses, I didn’t. But if some of the more electronically educated among you want to look up some chip codes, I’ve got a full size image of the PCB you can look at.

Roger Cicala

November 2012

Addendum: A few real world pictures added, along with the note that 1) the lens is not weather sealed and 2) AF was as fast and accurate as the Canon L primes I usually shoot with. I didn’t do side-by-side comparisons, but it was certainly not noticeably different.

Roger Cicala, 2012


Roger Cicala, 2012


Roger Cicala, 2012


Roger Cicala, 2012


Roger Cicala, 2012


The weakness of the lens (every lens has some) does begin to show up in some of these photos: the backround bokeh is not nearly as smooth and buttery as the Nikon or Canon 35 lenses. That’s how it is with lenses – the designer trades off one aspect for another. With this lens we have awesome sharpness at an excellent price, and perhaps at the expense of background blur.

For some photographers the background blur will be a deal breaker. For others the price and sharpness will far outweigh that issue. Nice to have choices, isn’t it?

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

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  • Sven

    Also having extremely inconsistent focus. After a Camera internal adjustment of +13 it is as good as it gets. This means it nails focus about 30% of the time. The other 70% it either front- or backfocusses randomly. Sometimes very strong. I testet it with the classic “focus test”, obviously with the camera on a tripod and a remote shutter release. What a piece of garbage, I should not have believed in the hyped reviews of this lens.

    Same happened to me with the Tamron 24-70 2.8. On this lens the aperture is not adjusted correctly. 3.2 is in reality 2.8, 3.6 is about 3.2 and 4 is about 3.2 and so on… Additionally the image stabilisation now broke after about 500 shots.

    From now on only nikon lenses.

  • Joe

    @ Roger Cicala:
    Read your test with interest, since I myself had severe problems with the new ART-line of Sigma and wanted to jump in with some observations, thoughts and remarks.
    – I got the 18-35mm/1.8 ART: had it shipped to Sigma service 4 (!) times, once even including my Nikon (that previously was sensor- and autofocus-tested by Nikon’s service to be on the sure side): even though they claimed to have tested and adjusted the lens, autofocus on anything more distant than 2 meters was still WAY off all the time. Even after the calibration, they have claimed to have done ON MY CAMERA! So blurry, that you even could see that right on the camera’s LCD-display without zooming into the photo. Sigma even sent me a new lens in exchange the fourth time: marginally better, but still way off. Cross-testing with other cameras from my dealer: it WAS the lens, not the camera. After some web research, this seems to be a quite common problem: either you are lucky and got a good copy, or you’ve just lost…
    – the adjustment tool (USB dock), that I have, did not help: yes, you can adjust the lens. But: even if you got infinity-focus adjusted (next adjustment point is 50cm), you still will be presented with 2 problems: objects between 2m up to around 30m will still not be “focus-eable”. So anything between the two adjustment-points will stay problematic. And: you still will have problems with focus inconsistency: maybe, one time focus is spot on, but the next 10 shots will be non-useable. Tested it in a real-world situation at a well-lit dance-contest: with single spot focus, NOT ONE of 500 pictures was sharp (and I am not talking about motion blur, but severe mis-focusing)!
    – You said, you test with Live-view focus. IMHO, this will give you an idea, what a lens might be capable of, but not, how the lens behaves in real-world situations. The big problem, the ART-series seems to have is with “Phase-Autofocus” – which I think is the autofocus setting used in 95% of all cases. I need fast and reliable autofocus, and I can’t wait, until live-view autofocus has done its task. Would anyone doing street photography, documentary style or just normal everyday “shoot what I find interesting” use live-view autofocus – I would say “no”, they all use “normal” phase-autofocus. From lenses in that price-category, I expect reliability. Not a single one of my Nikon lenses, and not my Sigma 8-16mm and 80-400mm have the slightest problem with phase autofocus. They are spot on. Only the 18-35mm ART (and, as I read but cannot prove myself, other lenses from the ART series as well). May I suggest, you include “normal” autofocus in your testing?

    Let me add a final remark: this post is not about bashing Sigma. I just wanted to exchange some thoughts and observations. Besides guys like you testing equipment, user-experiences are the only way for us end-users to get an idea about manufacturer’s quality control and possible problems of a lens. Thanks for providing that opportunity to express our observations in your blog.

  • Found out my Sigma f1.4 35mm lens was way off on calibration which is something I overlooked. Added a +20 adjustment using SpyderLenscal tool and voila! Tested this afternoon in an outdoor model shoot and it is working like a charm. Maybe others in this forum who find this same problem need to also calibrate the lens. Apparently, calibration is often overlooked by photographers.

  • Not happy with this lens at all. Atanything below f2.8 it’s useless in studio or in natural light for portraits when shot 8 feet or so away from subject. Eyes are rarely in focus and I have tried even fast shutter speeds and it doesn’t help. I wish I had never bought it. Yes, it maybe sharp close up but within a 35mm close up for portraits you have to be careful with distortion. A BIG disappointment and I don’t get it when it comes to good reviews. My Nikon 85mm f1.4 and 70-200 f2.8 knocks the socks off this lens. You get what you pay for I guess. IO will be sticking to brand from now on despite reviews on Sigma.

  • I did some extensive testings on 2 copies. Around 300-400 test shots at all distances. Even shooting same subject at the same distance would yield focus inconsistent, shot A would be front focus while shot B was back focus. It drove me crazy.

    The lenses seem to “auto” focus on their own. After several attempts and adjustments from Sigma USB Dock to get to +9/+9/+10/+10 on one lens, other lens was at +10/+10/+15/+15. With the above adjustments, both of the lenses produced tack sharp images if they didn’t shift focus on their own. Unfortunately, there was only 20%-25% of the chance that the lenses would focus on the focus point.

    My works can’t accept this kind of inconsistency. It may work perfectly on other cameras but definitely not on Nikon D810.

    I love Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 (APS-C) while hate Sigma 35mm f1.4 at the same level.

    I returned both copies. Others may have good luck, however, I didn’t have that luck.

  • Ansel Adams

    I had several bad focus problem during a wedding few days ago. It gives bad focus at 5.6 too in day light on a 5d mark II using the central focus point. The problem is not the front-back focus i tried to correct with a +15 M/A but the inconsistence you get 90% of the time. Yes it’s good at f1.4 very little chromatic aberrations but from 5.6 it’s not an impressive lens at all, a “cheaper” canon 85 1.8 is as sharp or maybe sharper.
    Reading other comments i am starting to think reviews on internet are all fake or maybe i have only bad luck.

  • 3bc

    I don’t know if I am lucky or if this is a case of people that have problems being the ones to speak up (which is somewhat natural I believe). My copy is brilliant. Right out of the box, first copy. The only time I miss focus is in incredibly low light on my 6D where other bodies would give up looking anyhow, and that is more of a stress test than practical use. The only negative thing about this lens is it makes every other lens I own seem totally inadequate. Sharpness, color rendition, bokeh (which on my copy is creamy and really messy), “it” factor, this lens blows my others away. My other lenses are not the most top notch but generally we’ll respected: 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.8 and 24-105mm f4 (all canon). I just spent 5 days in Europe doing a lot of shooting and of the 1000 images I took maybe 100 weren’t with the sigma, and those would be shots I needed all the length I could get on and went to the 24-105.

    My typical Lightroom PP involves bumping clarity and saturation up to around 10-13, vibrance to around 13-15 and sharpness to around 45-55 depending on the particular scene on pretty much every shot just to get dullness that RAW files/my kit imparts on my images. I have not had to add any clarity, vibrance or sharpness to any shots I’ve taken with this lens. Can’t recommend highly enough.

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