Gear Reviews

Gear Review: Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

Sigma isn’t exactly a brand I’ve had a historically good experience with, but their recent release of prime lenses has me re-thinking them completely. Read on for a stellar review of their newly released 85mm f/1.4 prime lens…

The Quick

If Sigma’s 85 1.4 could spit… Nikon’s 85 1.4G wouldn’t be worthy of bathing in it. It’s as sharp as I could ever want at 1.4, and the bokeh this thing creates makes even the most distracting backgrounds look like a dreamy slice of heaven.

The Build

Typical Sigma – it’s got a plastic casing. i hate to have to start on a sour note, but it kind of sucks. However for $900 less than Nikons best competitive offering – I’m all for it. Yes, Nikon has a better build quality, but I haven’t’ had any issues with my trusty Sigma primes.  As a matter of fact (just like my Sigma 50 1.4), I’ve owned the lens for around a year and I barely have a scratch on it, and the glass itself seems to be holding up just fine.

I’ll mention that I’ve owned and used a few Sigma zoom lenses over the years and for a while was totally turned off to ever using Sigma again. Their zooms SUCK. Plain and simple. Their primes do not.

The Use

I first got my hands on one of these things second shooting a wedding with the Thundercat of Epicness Ryan Brenizer. We swapped 85mm lenses as he wanted to try some freelensing, which requires an aperture ring. I gave him my 85mm 1.4D  so I took his Sigma 85 for a 10 min test drive. After the first few minutes I almost thought about running back to my NJ rental car and high tailing it to the airport never to be seen again. Yes, it’s that good.

This thing is sharp. It’s almost always the first thing I do when I buy a new lens. I start taking photos with the aperture wide open. I then proceed to pixel peep like a champ. Like Sigma’s 50 1.4 this thing is sharp as a tack. To be fair, Nikons 85 1.4G is just about as sharp, but I still think the Sigma beats it by a hair.

The bokeh really does make my life easier. Especially when I have a wedding portrait location in the middle of pedestrian busy Washington DC. Sometimes it can be cool to have people in the background of a photo, but usually – it’s just distracting. The 85 will put your subject in a creamy dream world never to leave.

The focus is quick and quiet. This is where this lens clearly wins out again the Nikon 85 1.4G. It’s absolutely faster in my real world uses and just as quiet. It’s very accurate, but then again pretty much any lens I’ve tried does a great job on my Nikon D3s.

It controls flare really well and stays pretty contrasty in direct light – I will say the Nikon 85 1.4G might have a little bit of an edge in this.

Similarly to my Sigma 50mm 1.4, I will say that the manual focus ring isn’t great. It’s small and it doesn’t override the autofocus like some Nikon lenses do. In my line of work I rarely need to use manual focusing, but for some people I’m sure it’d be more essential.

Here is a shmorgishborg of images taken with my Sigma.

(Click on an image to view it larger)

The Tips

This isn’t specific to this lens at all, but it’s certainly a tip to consider when buying any fixed focal lens.

One thing I did early on to try and figure out which focal lengths I’d be most comfortable shooting with was arrange all of my photos from an entire year by focal range and a zoom lens (I used the 24-70 nikon lens). This let me see where I naturally tended to spend the most time on my zoom lens. I found it was at 24mm 48mm and at a distant 3rd place 70mm. Thus, it’s not surprising I feel most comfortable shooting with my 24mm 1.4 and 50mm 1.4 lenses.

Transitioning from using zooms to using prime lenses can be a bit stressful when starting out, but after a few months I’ve finally done it and now I rarely use a zoom – unless to keep things interesting. I’ll also tell you that after you’ve been shooting just fixed focal lenses for a while breaking out the old zoom lens makes life so easy it feels like cheating.

The Conclusion

If after reading this you continue to go on and buy the Nikon 85 1.4G at +$1600 instead of the Sigma 85 1.4 at ~$900 you are silly. In fact, you wouldn’t be worth of bathing in the Sigma 85′s spit (see “the quick” section if you’re suddenly confused and offended). Seriously, Sigma pulled off an amazing real ease with this lens and even though I don’t shoot at 85mm a whole lot (purely out of preference) when I decide to I get a little flutter of excitement to be able to pull this lens out.

When Nikon released they updated 85mm 1.4G lens I was the first in line to preorder. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was one of the first to have that thing in my hands & shooting (aside from the sneaky Ryan Brenzer – who happened to be in China when he got his – probably from the black market, where he likely thrives in camera gear espionage). Okay, weird tangent. Anyway, at the time all I had to compare the Nikon to was my Nikon 85 1.4D. It didn’t live up and was returned two days later.  So even though I didn’t get to do a side by side comparison of them in real time in the exact same situations by the laws of the commutative property it’s fair to say that the Sigma lens wins hands down.

Summary

Rating

If Sigma’s 85 1.4 could spit… Nikon’s 85 1.4G wouldn’t be worthy of bathing in it. I can’t think of a single reason not to get this lens.

  • Price
    $969
  • In my gear bag?
    Yes
About Sam Hurd

Sam is a professional wedding and editorial photographer based in the Washington DC area. He photographs 40+ weddings a year, press events, commercial portraiture, and regularly hosts workshops in his Baltimore MD studio and around the world. His work has been published internationally including the Wall Street Journal, the NYTimes, and the Washington Post. He's available for commissions worldwide.

Blog Comments

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  1. Last image is crazy awesome – love the distortion & reflections! Well balanced gear review as well , maybe include range of images shot at different apertures to show the bokeh, focal limitations at shallow DOF, CA / flare and edge sharpness. Congrats on the new website!

  2. Agreed. This is my main portrait lens and I loooove it.

  3. Hello there! i have recently stumbled to your awesome website and i really love your photos and also your reviews! I was wondering if you are willing to share your post-process regiment for i really like the colors of your photos. And also, I will be buying the Sigma 85mm 1.4 EX DG HSM real soon and i am very excited!

  4. So I got the 85 sigma and I fell in love with it instantly! The optics are ,IMO , on par if not better then nikons offering. My only issue is the AF is hit or miss… Did you have to fine tune the AF of your copy ? I set mine to -7 and it helped but it is still inconsistant. I want to shoot and not worry all the time if the shot is in focus or not.

  5. Harlowe, that’s why u pay double price for nikon, to shoot and do not worry about focus. such a truth :/ greedy pays twice.
    i want one, i would like to get sigma, but it looks like i’ll have to pay the full price for 1.4g if i want problemless life.

  6. I recently bought it following many reviews posted on internet sites, and I have no regret at all. I was using the Canon 100mm f/2 and Sigma beats my Canon in almost all aspects and the bokeh is amazingly good due to its insane shallow DOF. This will be my lens to go in indoor photo when flash is not allowed.

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