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