Photography / Hands-on Review

Hands-On Review: the Sigma 24-35mm f/2 Full-Frame Lens

In 2012, Sigma announced that it would restructure its lens lineup into three new categories: Contemporary, Art, and Sports. Loosely, the Contemporary lenses are feature-heavy zooms designed for versatility, the Sports are telephoto lenses for action capture, and the Art are large-aperture primes with sophisticated optics. Not just a rebranding of its existing lenses, this decision heralded the beginning of a new effort to create first-rate and, in some cases, unique optics to compete with the professional photographic lenses of other major brands. While critics continue to hurl brickbats at this company, Sigma persists in its way, offering such odd but wonderful cameras as the dp Quattro series with Foveon sensors and exquisitely designed and optically precise lenses, such as the 24-35mm.

35mm,  f/2.0, 1/40 sec., ISO 400

I have had the new Sigma 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art Lens on a Canon 5D Mark III for two weeks now. The full-frame-compatible lens is available for Nikon F, Canon EF, and Sigma SA mounts and is ideal for landscape and architectural shooters and for portraitists who want to add environmental context to their images. Its superb sharpness also makes it useful for wide-angle close-up (not macro) work, as well as wedding, event and, to some degree, photojournalistic work. It is not a lens for street photography or anything that requires ultra-fast autofocus, and its size and weight would dissuade me from carrying it too far into the field, unless I was specifically after interiors or low-light situations with a tripod.

Most impressive is this lens’s constant f/2 maximum aperture, which is a joy in low light, and for controlling depth of field across the zoom range. Along with its nine-blade diaphragm, it created lovely out-of-focus background highlights. With its set of wide angles, it is suitable for capturing details up close and still incorporating enough of a scene for context. I enjoyed shooting flowers in my garden at f/2, bunching in a bouquet of blurry colors and a sharp selectively focused single flower. The lens also served well when shooting a couple, with one person in the foreground, sharp focus on the eyes, and her mate behind her, blurred but recognizably part of the pair. This is not always so easy, especially when in close quarters, and the 24-35mm range enabled options within that tight space

35mm, f/2.0, 1/100 sec., ISO 50

While I found that the autofocus did not always grab as quickly as I would have liked while shooting in the streets, mind you—often, shooting blind and rattling off three to four shots of an oncoming subject—its accuracy, given a steady hand and defined subject was always on target and its Hyper Sonic AF was smooth and as quiet as can be. Honestly, for all practical purposes, it was silent. Both its zoom and focus are internal systems so the lens does not extend and, because the distance from the image plane to the tip of the lens hood is 7" and the minimum focus distance is 11", you can get quite close to your subject. Manual focus override is supported and the focus ring is particularly smooth; however, there is no hard stop on the ring, and when reaching infinity or minimum focus, the torque changes slightly but the ring still turns.

24mm, f/2.0, 1/13 sec., ISO 3200

The focal-length range on this lens is rather unique. Canon once offered a 24-35mm in its FD mount and a 20-35mm f/2.8L and now, has an L series 16-35mm f/2.8 lens while Nikon has a 17-35mm f/2.8, but Sigma emphasizes that this lens is the first constant f/2 full-frame zoom lens and that its focal-length range and constant maximum aperture provide you with the equivalent of three common prime lenses (24mm, 28mm, and 35mm) in one lens. While there is obvious truth to this notion, and having wide-angle versatility is convenient, I’m not sure that the benefits of three distinct primes are incorporated in one lens, especially one of this length and weight. My initial feeling was that the difference between 24mm and 35mm was not enough to justify a new lens; I can always take two steps back or forward, right? 

However, my friend David was correct when he said, “They throw it out there so you have to give it a chance,” and I’m glad I did because my opinion changed somewhat. When shooting with shallow depths of field, the difference between 35mm and 24mm created images with a distinct feel, more of an ethereal mélange when wider.

24mm 28mm 35mm

Also, when zoomed out to 24mm, the mild distortion brought certain subjects to life in a way that the more “flat” 35mm could not. Of course, compositions could be improved without having to relocate or change setups. This proved very practical, as I was shooting architecture exteriors. In one case, the only safe spot I had to shoot a building was alongside a freeway with little leeway to move physically. I needed to eliminate trees and lampposts from the frame to improve the composition, while still including the entirety of the building, and the subtle difference between 28mm and 35mm created a much more pleasing image.

24mm 35mm

As I mentioned earlier, the lens is very sharp. Its complicated optical design includes one “F” Low Dispersion glass element, seven Special Low Dispersion elements, and two aspherical elements. This system helps to reduce the appearance of spherical aberration and axial chromatic aberration. A Super Multi-Layer Coating minimizes flare and ghosting for sharp, high-contrast images. In this regard, the lens performs well, even at wide apertures. In testing the optical performance of this lens, I often shot directly into the sun and while flare appeared in some shots, it was much less frequent than I had expected. Also, inevitable smudges on the front element were easy to remove with just a cotton cloth, indicative of a protective lens coat on the front element. Shots of the proverbial brick wall demonstrated mild curvature at the wider end, and at f/2 the corners were a bit soft, but given the sharpness in the center of the frame and overall focus control, this should not be considered much of a knock. 

24mm 35mm

Physically, the lens exemplifies the Global Vision aesthetic—minimal, handsome, and well-built—constructed with Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) material that is durable and maintains performance in extreme temperatures. The ridged rubber zoom ring moved perfectly, not loosey-goosey, and never budged from the spot at which I placed it. The lens is longer than you would think it needs to be and heavier than a 28-70mm f/2.8, but with a constant f/2 max aperture, this is the tradeoff. The lens is austere, with just the AF/MF switch, distance scale window, focal lengths, and “Made in Japan” legend interrupting its bonny blackness.

Like the old Willie Dixon song, this lens is “built for comfort, it ain’t built for speed.” And by that I do not mean it is comfortable to carry around (it is not), but like a 1970s-era Cadillac, it may not be quick nor fuel efficient but it is powerful and will get you where you need to go in exacting style. What I really appreciate about this lens is that it commands its space. Within its zoom range you will be able to control the scene, adding distortion if you want, zooming in or out with precision and placing pinpoint focus anywhere or everywhere. It does all you could ask of it—just don’t ask it to move too fast.

24mm, f/14, 1/800 sec., ISO 250

As long as you are confident in your application and sturdy of shoulder, you cannot go wrong with this lens. Its sharpness, focus control, and unique zoom range are proof that Sigma’s lens strategy is heading in the right direction.