Photography / Hands-on Review

In the Field with the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art Lens

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For starters, how good is your job when you’re given an incredible lens—not yet available for purchase—and told to go play with it for the weekend? Answer: it’s pretty good. Even better is when that weekend coincides with a photo shoot aligned with that lens’s capabilities, in this case a concert in a small, dark club.

Photographs © John Harris

At the concert, the lens, the new Sigma 135mm f/1.8 HSM Art lens functioned perfectly, ably locking focus on the wild singer despite the bold spotlight and an otherwise darkened stage. It also proved itself in instances of ideal light, indoors and out, demonstrating its capabilities to produce sharp and high-contrast images with the pleasing effects of shallow depth of field. The question remains though, what would be the reason to buy this new Sigma 135mm f/1.8 HSM Art lens over its Canon or Nikon counterparts?

Paranoid Larry and His Imaginary Band; f/2.5; 1/400 second; ISO 1600

If this were 2012, the answer would be a simple one—it costs less. Yes, you would be concerned that the physical construction and optical performance would not be up to the standards of the proprietary lenses, but you would tread carefully, shoot in good light and be satisfied with the money remaining in your pocket.

Flash forward to 2017, almost five years since Sigma introduced its “Art” series of lenses, and a few months since the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens was announced to nearly unanimous raves, even topping a Zeiss Otus lens in a DxO test, and we need to reassess this paradigm. The 135mm f/1.8 debuted at the Japanese trade show CP+ and is scheduled for shipping in May, 2017, and the issue of third-party quality is no more. Sigma “Art” prime lenses, at least in the case of the 135mm, are as optically precise as those of Nikon and Canon. The major questions that remain are will it autofocus with the precision of a proprietary lens, is it designed as well and equally durable, and what is the cost difference?

Let’s first address the advantages of the Sigma 135mm, primarily its wide maximum aperture of f/1.8. The Nikon, Canon and Zeiss offerings at that focal length are f/2. (The comparable lens from Sony, which is from its Zeiss partnership, is an f/1.8 lens—but Sigma currently does not offer a Sony A-mount for this focal length). The faster maximum aperture of the Sigma, compared to the three other lenses, provides advantages in low light and, in my use, I saw no reason for concern that the Sigma is “soft” at f/1.8—if anything, it’s the contrary, as the following images should attest. Also, the wide aperture enables creative use of depth of field and its out-of-focus background bokeh is lovely.

f/1.8 1/40 sec ISO 1600
f/1.8 1/320 sec ISO 800
Washington Square Park with One World Tower in background f/1.8 1/250...

Its optical elements are designed to match the high-resolution sensors of high-end, full-frame cameras and utilize F Low Dispersion (FLD) and Special Low Dispersion (SLD) elements. The results of these glass elements can be seen in the strict delineation of colors and the absence of “color fringing” in high-contrast settings. In terms of optical performance, you can rest easy knowing that this Sigma lens will not disappoint.

The HSM in the lens’s name refers to its Hyper Sonic Autofocus motor, and this technology is the equal of its rivals—in fact it outperforms the admittedly older-generation Nikon 135mm f/2 in terms of speed and sound. Its AF was spot-on and, in sufficient light, autofocus was not a “two-step” process in the sense that I did not pause after a half-press of the shutter button to confirm focus—I just shot without hesitation and focus was accurate. Manual focus override enabled easy adjustment if the AF was caught between two near subjects, or grabbed onto a nose instead of the eyes. Remember that this is considered a medium-range telephoto lens, but 135mm offers significant compression within the frame, making it an ideal portrait lens but also apt for events, weddings, press, and general use.

A three-setting focus limiter switch allows you to control the distance in which the lens will focus. The settings are 0.875-1.5 m, 1.5m – infinity, and full focus range and manual override are possible, regardless of the setting. Minimum focus distance is 2.87' (87.5 CM), which is a bit closer than that on the Canon and Nikon and not as close as on the Sony A mount or Zeiss Milvus but, as mentioned above, this Sigma does not provide a Sony A-mount version, and the Milvus is a manual focus lens. The Sigma 135mm f/1.8 is available in Nikon F, Canon EF and Sigma SA mounts and also comes as a kit with the EF mount and Sigma MC-11 adapter to work seamlessly on a Sony E-mount camera.

f/9 1/800 sec ISO 200
f/5.6 1/2000 sec ISO 200
f/6.3 1/2500 sec ISO 200

The physical design of the lens is comfortable and practical even though it is noticeably heavier than the Canon, Sony, and Nikon 135s. I used the lens with my Nikon D750 and it did not feel too heavy and was well balanced even when using just one hand. The primary material in the construction of the barrel is Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) material, utilized to retain precision in cold and hot environments. The mount is brass with a rubber sealing ring to deter dust and moisture. The lens feels solid and is a real pleasure to handle and operate. A wide and ridged focus ring, coupled with smooth rotation action, made for effortless manual focus and a large lens hood with interior ridges clicked into place and stayed put. The minimalist approach to its appearance is appreciated, not much in the way of white lettering on the black barrel, just two switches (one for MF/AF and one for focusing limiting) and the focus distance window is all there is to detract from its handsome sleekness.

f/2.8; 1/250 second; ISO 800

The final issue to address is that of cost versus value, and this is ultimately something that no hands-on review can determine. I can say that this lens performs as well or better than its Canon and Nikon counterparts. With the fastest aperture of its competitors, state-of-the-art optics, and dust- and splash- proof design handcrafted in a single factory in Aizu, Japan, this Sigma is no longer the stuff of also-rans and its price must reflect that. As Sigma CEO Kazuto Yamaki noted in a DP Review interview at CP+, “In the past, some people regarded Sigma as just another third-party lens manufacturer, and maybe even as a cheap, low-quality lens supplier. But people’s perception has been changing, gradually, and I’m very happy about that.”

Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art Lens

You, too, will undoubtedly be very happy with this impressive 135mm f/1.8 lens.

18 Comments

Another reason for getting the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art, is the fact that when you AF Fine Tune, you can calibrate at four different focus distances. With my Nikons, I have to pick which distance I am most likely to use and hope that the other distances won't be too bad.

Your thoughts on this lens are much appreciated. I assume the photos of the singer were handheld, and so I am curious to hear your thoughts in how the lens performs in such conditions - did you end up tossing some shots or were alll in focus? I have no doubt this lens performs extremely well in bright light, or using a tripod in low light. If Sigma had incorporated optical stabilization, I would buy this lens. Perhaps Tamron will follow suit and make a similar lens but with VC.

Thank s for the comment J.A.  Yes, the photos of the singer were handheld and with all the expected space limitations and jostlings of a rock concert, so keeping stable was an issue.  Of course, there were some discarded photos but most were due to movemnet blur that was not flattering or the simple fact that the singer moved so much. so quickly that focus was lost. The autofocus of lens/camera combination really worked flawlessly to lock focus and if I fired right away and the singer cooperated, I captured what you see and with repetition, anticipation and good timing, I was able to get many usable photos from that night.

I saw an in depth youtube video comparing this lens (Nikon Mount) versus the Canon 135mm. Side by side comparison was very difficult to tell the results apart. Sharpness about equal. Bokeh comparable but perhaps slight edge to the Sigma 1.8 vs 2.0. However the Canon focused very slightly faster on its native body, accuracy about equal. Color differences neglible (the typical Canon versus Nikon color rendition differences).

To me on the Canon side, despite the age of the design of the Canon it in no way was out performed by the Sigma. And for $400 cheaper and a native lens, not tempting in the slightest for me to give up my Canon 135L (my favorite lense) for the Sigma. HOWEVER on other Camera lines it may be tempting to switch. The Sigma appears to be a great lens, but not better enough to make people already owning a 135mm to switch - and certainly not for such a premium price.

Thanks Scott..you bring up good points, price is a consideration, especially compared with the Canon and despite the strides made by Sigma, a proprietary lens, obviously, has its advantages.

I am a big fan of the Nikon 135 2.0 dc.  The color fringing is pretty much eliminated and 2.8 and gone at the 3.2 where I need to be at minimum to get both eyes sharp if nose isn't on lens axis.  Even present, it is quickly addressed in post.  The reason I use the Nikon is the bokeh.  The 85 bokeh is gorgeous, the 135, magical.   I would have to see examples of a few shots with this lens to see if it matches up.  

Thanks for the comment Bob.

Very informative review.  Have you evaluated any third-party full frame wide angle lenses (~28mm) of equivalent quality?

Thank you Ken S...Unless you are talking Zeiss or Voigtlander, I find these new Sigma art lenses to be the best third party lenses availabIe. I have reviewed the Sigma 24-35mm f/2 which is also an Art series lens and while I was not as impressed with it as I was with the 135mm, it is certainly a high quality wide-angle zoom producing wonderful images.  Years ago, I reviewed a Rokinon 24mm f/3.5 Tilt-Shift which faltered a bit in its design, but was optically wonderful and certainly worth the price.  But, specifically, a sub-28mm prime from a third-party, I have yet to do a hands-on review.  

I bought one a week ago, but had to swap it out for a replacement as the first one was back focusing past where my Nikon D800 could fine tune. The second one still back focusses, but at a fine tune of 20, it nails it. Haven't had a chance to use it for portraits, but it is very nice for shots that need narrow depth of field and soft defocus backgrounds. It's a keeper!

Thanks for that insight Jeff, does the lens hold up to the challenge of the high-resolution D800? 

Did you try using Sigma's dock to adjust the focus? It's my understanding that it should address all focus issues specific to the lens. 

Very informative and interesting review and demo photos! I haven't considered Sigma for a prime lens before. I will certainly check them out next time I'm in the store. 

Thank you Tommy. Yes, give them a test run next time you are in the SuperStore.

How do you think this lens might do with moving objects?

Thanks for the question Rick...in terms of the autofocus speed, I think you would be satisfied, depending on your camera.  Manual focus is precise and rotation is smooth, but the lens is a bit bulky though.

Very informative article and fantastic pictures!  Great stuff.

Thank you David...that review will be featured in this weekend's email blast.

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