First, the geek alert:
The following ramblings are a product review meant for photographers. Unless you’re interested in geeky technical photography talk, come back soon or scroll below to see all sorts of fancy photographs :) I try to avoid putting much of this stuff up here, but wanted to review a new product for some photographer friends…
Ok, where do I start? After a few years of building up our lens lineup, buying and selling lenses and fine-tuning what we work with, it seemed that I would be in a constant phase of changing what works for us. About 2 years ago, I found system that we've been happy with, so for the last 2-ish years, Amy and I have been shooting a lineup that looks like this:
Tony: Full-frame camera, Sigma 15Fisheye, Canon 24L, Canon 35L, Canon 45T/S, Canon 85L, Canon 70-200 2.8IS
Amy: Full-frame camera, Canon 16-35, Sigma 50 1.4, Canon 135L, Canon 100 macro
Now, obviously we switch lenses here and there and do whatever it took to get a shot, but without a doubt, I used my 35L and 85L the overwhelming majority of the time. For weddings, I probably used those two lenses for 75-ish% of the day. They have been my bread and butter for two years. The only things I love more than my 85L are my wife, my family and my 35L.
One of the newest additions to our lineup (when I say new, I mean about 1.5-2 years old) was the Sigma 50 1.4. When I bought that lens, I loved it immediately. It had some focusing issues on my 5D classic, but on my 5D2 it was pristine. Quality wise, it was the best 50mm I've ever tried, including ALL the Canon versions. It was like Sigma just all of the sudden decided that they were tired of being 2nd best, but still wanted to charge less. To this day, I still get giddy thinking about how great that lens is, and it's actually LESS money than the Canon 50 1.2.
Which brings me, of course, to the Sigma 85 1.4. As you can imagine, after our great experience with the Sigma 50, I was super excited to try this lens out. So, when I went to WPPI in March and saw the Sigma booth, I immediately went and took their prototype for a test drive. I was EXTREMELY underwhelmed. It felt cheap, slow, and the images looked soft. I pretty much disqualified the lens then and there. Lucky for us, that was only the prototype.
When the Sigma 85 1.4 starting shipping, the glowing reviews started pouring in. I bought the Sigma 85 1.4 with a few qualifications. First, I wanted to use it in a wide variety of situations before making up my mind. Second, the 85L had such a proven track record with me that the Sigma was on a serious trial-basis. Third, I was going to thoroughly inspect the focusing capabilities as this is probably the biggest weakness of third-party lenses. So, after buying the lens, I've used it a TON this week. We had a commercial shoot, an engagement session and a wedding. Here's what I found:
The Good (stuff that's better than the Canon 85L):
This section could be long. In short, the lens is awesome. Here's a point-by point recap of the things I love about it:
- The Lens Looks Cool. This sounds silly, but when you spend as much time with your lenses as I do, it matters. There are a lot of photographers out there and when someone sees you working with an 85mm that's NOT the 85L, it can raise suspicions about professionalism. That sounds dumb and elitist I realize. But to me it matters. And the Sigma 85 1.4 looks really legit. It's finish is new for Sigma and it grips easily. The hood locks in place like the Sigma 50 1.4 hood and seems like it should stay in place for a while. To be frank, it looks like a really nice Nikon lens... sort of like the Nikon 24-70. Not at all like the Nikon 70-200, which I still think looks phallic.
- The Focus is FAST. As I mentioned above, this was a big area of concern for me after testing the prototype a few months ago. To be honest, I was VERY impressed with the focus speed. On a side by side comparison with the Sigma 85 1.4 vs. the Canon 85L, I found that from minimum focus distance to infinity focus the Sigma was about 2x faster. This was using the very scientific 'one-onethousand-two-onethousand' method. The Sigma clocked in at an even 'one-onethousand' and the Canon was at a 'two-onethous'. I was very impressed.
- The Focus is GOOD. After the first thing I shot with the lens, a commercial shoot, I was a tiny bit worried. For one subject in particular, I was having trouble locking focus. So, for the next two sessions, I paid extra attention to see if that was a mistake or if it continued. It seems to have been an exception. Since then, and especially at the wedding, the focus was GREAT. Not good, but great. Not only that, but I felt the confidence to use it with moving subjects, which I never felt completely comfortable doing with the 85L, due to it's slow speed.
Lastly, I'll say this important point: The true test of any lens for a wedding photographer is a lens's ability to focus in low light. Well, our recent wedding was quite the opportunity to test this out. The ceremony we shot was metering at ISO 3200, f/1.6, 1/50th of a second or EVEN DARKER in another half of the space. It was outside, after sundown, with little to no lighting where the bride walked in. If ever there was a test for the Sigma 85 1.4, this was it. A moving subject, and EXTREMELY dark environment, and shooting at 1.6. I was very impressed with the lens here and I do not think the Canon 85L would have handled the situation as well. Strike that, I know the 85L wouldn't have kept up. In fact, I wouldn't have used it out of fear for missing the shot.
- The Lens is Small-ish and Light-ish and Built Well. I don't know what the official numbers are, but the Sigma 85 1.4 lens is much easier to handle than the Canon 85L. It's not as wide and the rear glass isn't on the extreme edge of the back mount. I felt comfortable and confident with it. And if the Sigma 50 1.4 is any indication, it should be built like a tank. We've dropped our Sigma 50 on concrete 3 times now, including once from about 5 feet up. All with no issues whatsoever.
- The Price. Thanks to Hunt's camera in Massachusetts, I bought this lens for $811. That's so stinkin' cheap for a lens this good I almost can't believe it. The Canon 85L is more than twice as much.
The Bad (stuff that's worse than the Canon 85L):
- It's f/1.4, not f/1.2. Duh. This doesn't really matter to me much. Maybe it does to you.
- The AF/M switch. If you've used the Sigma 50 1.4, I'd imagine that the biggest annoyance you have is that the AF/M focus switch seems to be located in the worst possible spot and is raised significantly off the lens so that you accidentally switch it occasionally. Now, I switch lenses often, so it may happen more to me, but I accidentally disabled AF about 3 times at our last wedding. Now, it's a quick fix and you notice right away, but it is a design flaw in my opinion.
- The Service. One of my biggest considerations in buying Sigma lenses is the service. Regardless of if it's good or bad, it's known to take a few weeks to service a lens. With Canon's CPS program, if we hurt a lens (yes, I talk about my lenses like children), we send it to the doctor on Monday and always have it back Thursday or Friday. With Sigma's 'a few weeks' turnaround, I don't like the idea of having one of my favorite lenses at the doctor for that long. I've rationalized this by saying that if I REALLY needed one, I could buy another lens (after all it's half the price of the 85L) for a few weeks, then return or resell it later.
The Neutral (stuff that is about the same between the Sigma 85 1.4 vs. Canon 85L)
- The Sharpness. I found the Canon 85L to be a very, very, slight bit sharper at 1.4. After that, the lenses are pretty much completely equal on sharpness. The statement about the Canon 85 was always "If you can nail the focus, it's sharp as a tack." Well the Sigma is the same, except for the 'If' part.
- The Look of the images. This one is the biggest stunner to me. Canon's 85L has a look that I've NEVER seen replicated in another lens. Something about it just looks creamy, dreamy and awesome. It's a real thrill to shoot with for that reason. Well, somehow and someway, Sigma nailed this. To say that the images look almost identical would be an understatement. I am completely shocked at how Sigma was able to nail this look. Big kudos there. With that said, the look of images is obviously the same in my opinion.
Conclusion (what will I do?)
Writing this next sentence is like disowning a child.... The Sigma 85 1.4 is a better lens than the Canon 85L. There, I said it. It's not 'as good', it's actually better. The first thing you need to do is throw aside your idea that the most expensive thing is best. Then look at the pros of the two lenses:
Sigma: Better ergonomics, Better, faster focusing, Smaller, Lighter
Canon: Goes to 1.2, Better AF/M switch, CPS service
Other than the service, the Sigma advantages are the most important to me. Therefore, I'm keeping the Sigma lens. The Canon 85 will either be sold or stay on for our second camera.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments...