Sigma 85mm f1.4 vs Canon 85mm f1.2L II

Note: To see all future reviews please note this blog is no longer active, please visit me over at oopoomoo.com

Sigma Canada gave me their new 85mm f1.4 lens to review. I thought it would be a cool lens to use on my dog portraits and maybe for street photography but I have been so busy with landscape shooting that I have not had time to give the lens a serious spin nor a detailed review.  So… to solve the problem I am letting someone more qualified to do the review for me (smart eh?) and share his findings here.

My good friend Wayne Simpson is a full-time portrait, wedding and landscape photographer who owns and uses the coveted Canon 85mm f1.2L lens daily in his work. I thought Wayne was the perfect guy to give the Sigma a test run and see how it performed for a working photographer. Both the Sigma and the Canon 85mm lenses are designed for portrait, sports, event and wedding photographers where prime lens performance (a fast wide aperture) is needed either for low light shooting or for an ultra-thin slice of focus. Wayne was interested in just how well the Sigma could stand up to his much lauded Canon 85mm. So I gave the lens to Wayne and he played… here is his report and results:

Note, neither I, nor Sigma Canada have sponsored, paid nor bribed Wayne… not even with beer! I simply wanted Wayne’s honest impressions as a working photographer. Wayne receives no cut, no commissions on sales, and not even a ball cap for his review (not too smart eh?). Wayne just wanted to see how both lenses performed so that he had the best choice for his own work. Plus like any guy, he likes to play with toys – can you blame him?!


Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX DG HSMprice $969 US at B+H Photo

image from Sigma Canada – available in Canada at The Camera Store

Canon EF 85mm F1.2L II – price $2149 US at B+H Photo

image from The-Digital-Picture.com

available in Canada at The Camera Store

Wayne Simpson reviews the Sigma 85mm f1.4 vs the Canon 85mm f1.2L II

Okay, first the disclaimer:

This is a practical comparison, and by no means scientific in any way. The following is simply my opinion as a working wedding and portrait photographer.

All shots are done with a Canon 1D Mark IV. The only adjustment done to the images is the odd exposure adjustment to the  RAW image, however, any images being compared will have had the exact same adjustments. White balance was either set to daylight or cloudy and was not changed after capture.

Here we go…

When I heard about the new Sigma 85 1.4 I must admit that I was curious, but  never really considered it as an option over my Canon 85 1.2 II. Even when the opportunity came to take the lens for a test drive I was not overly excited, but decided to give it a whirl. Well, once I had the lens in my hands I could immediately tell that this lens is for real!

Lets have a look at the build quality…

While I love the build quality of my beloved Canon 85 1.2 II, the Sigma appears just as good… just different. The actual diameter of the Canon (especially the lens hood) is much larger than the Sigma. I have always found it annoying that my Canon 85mm is big lens and it never seems to fit comfortably into any of the bags I have tried. This always  slows me down when changing lenses. The awkward size of the Canon prevents me from carrying as many lenses as I would like since this beast seems to take up the space of one and a half  “normal sized” lenses. This would not be an issue with the Sigma which is significantly more compact.

I tend not to use manual focus very often with my Canon because I don’t feel confident with its incredibly loose and touchy focus ring. The Sigma focus ring is more snug and less touchy which inspires confidence especially to use manual focus. However, the AF/M switch on the Sigma seems a little too exposed and prone to being bumped out of place; however it never happened to me while using it.

When shooting in bright light and using flash, I often like to use screw-on neutral density filters to cut down the light and maintain my sync speed while shooting at wide apertures. As a Canon shooter with other L series lenses, I have come to expect the filter diameter to be 77 mm.  However the Canon 85 1.2 II uses a 72mm filter size. I was happy to find that the Sigma uses the popular 77 mm size, which may save you money on filters especially if you already own other Canon L-series lenses!

If you have ever used the Canon 85 1.2 II you know how careful one needs to be when changing lenses. The rear element is basically level with the lens mount, which is a little scary. As if that wasn’t scary enough, Canon has hidden the red dot to align the lens and mount so that it’s not easily visible when changing lenses. Again, these issues don’t exist with the Sigma.

So it’s built well, but how well does it autofocus?…

Very well actually! I would guess that the Sigma is about twice as fast as the Canon in decent light. After using my Canon 85 1.2 II for a few years now, I have come to accept the fact that it is very slow to focus. In fact, if I’m photographing kids, or anything moving I will reach for my Canon 70-200 f2.8L lens instead. I missed many, many shots due to slow auto-focus before I learned the limits of the lens. While I did not test the Sigma on any moving subjects, I can confidently say that it would beat the Canon hands down when tracking a moving subject.

In backlit situations, the auto-focus of both lenses go a little crazy. At first it seemed that the Sigma reacted worse, however I think it just seems that way because the auto-focus bounces around faster!

Next, I tried the two lenses in a dark room shooting at f1.4, ISO 6400 at 100/sec (very dark). In this situation (without focus assist or flash) the lenses seem to focus almost the same speed on my 1D Mark IV, with a slight edge going to the Sigma. The Sigma seems to lock focus a little faster and with a bit more authority than the Canon. The one thing that the Canon has over the Sigma in this situation is that it can open up to f 1.2 allowing you faster shutter speeds for hand held shooting. This can potentially save your bacon as long as you can lock focus in the first place!

So, can the Sigma compete with the image quality of the legendary Canon 85 1.2 II?…

In short, yup! As you will see in the images below, it’s pretty much impossible to tell which lens is which when looking at image sharpness and bokeh. You don’t really see much of a difference until you look at the colour and brightness. Originally I thought that the difference in colour might be due to using an automated white balance (daylight or cloudy) and that the camera might be compensating somehow because of one lens having a larger maximum aperture than the other. Keeping this in mind I quickly set a manual white balance and re-shot, but found the same shift in colour.

©Wayne Simpson - The sharpness test subject

©Wayne Simpson - Sigma 85mm f1.4 at f4

©Wayne Simpson - Canon 85mm f1.2L II at f4

©Wayne Simpson - Sigma 85mm f1.4 at f1.4 - Bokeh test

©Wayne Simpson - Canon 85mm f1.2L II at f1.4 - Bokeh Test

©Wayne Simpson - Sigma 85mm f1.4 - Colour

©Wayne Simpson - Canon 85mm f1.2L II - Colour

One thing that is pretty much inevitable when shooting at very wide apertures is some amount of chromatic aberration or fringing. Now I’m no scientist, so I can’t explain exactly what causes it, but I do know that I don’t like it and it can be difficult to fix in post production (for me anyways!). In scenes with little contrast I found that both lenses where acceptable by my standards – even at f 1.4. Once you enter a high contrast scene however, the story changes. I found that the Sigma needed to be stopped down to about f 2.8 to eliminate the fringing, while the Canon still had a tiny bit of fringing still visible at f 2.8, although very minor. At f2.8 the sharpness is absolutely incredible with both lenses! I honestly can’t say which one is sharper, which is amazing considering there is something like a $1000 dollar difference in price!

©Wayne Simpson - fringing in low contrast light, Sigma 85mm at f1.4

©Wayne Simpson - the high contrast test for fringing

©Wayne Simpson - Sigma 85mm f1.4 at f1.4 showing fringing

©Wayne Simpson - Canon 85mm f1.2L at f1.4 showing fringing

So, lets sum up the pluses and the minuses for the Sigma…

The pluses:

–          faster auto-focus

–          77mm filter diameter

–          rear element is not dangerously exposed

–          slightly better focusing in low light

–          much less expensive

–          lighter and more compact

The minuses:

–          does not open to f 1.2

–          slightly warm colour cast which means extra work in post to match the colours of othere Canon lenses

–          darker exposure and a little less ‘pop’ than the Canon lens

–          Exposed AF/M switch can be dislodged accidentally

So, would I sell my Canon 85 1.2 II and buy the Sigma 85 1.4?…

Heck, it’s not out of the question! I guess the real question is do I really need to shoot at f 1.2, and do I need the faster autofocus offered by the Sigma? I have had the odd occasion where shooting at f 1.2 has saved me, but they are very few and far between–-I’m guessing I could live without it. The faster auto-focus though would be a very, very welcome change from my slower  Canon 85mm f1.2.

The major problem for me however, is the warm colour cast (visible in the comparisons)the  and slightly darker images  produced with the Sigma lens. I realize that these can both be fixed in post production, however it would mean that I would have one lens that produces a different colour than all of my other lenses. which means lost time in image correction. The images from my Canon just seem to have that tiny bit more pop to them… I don’t know how else to explain it! Maybe it’s something to do with the amount of money I spent on the  Canon lens, or maybe I’m still having a hard time accepting the fact that the Sigma is almost identical for about half the price!

If you are looking to buy one of these two lenses, my official advice is … go for the Sigma. For the difference in price, it is definitely the best bang for your buck. I will likely end up holding on to my Canon. However if I could do it again I would likely choose the Sigma especially for its zippy auto-focus. Unless you shot the two side-by-side, you likely would never notice a difference in the images. Who would have thought that this lens could hold it’s own against the legendary Canon 85 1.2 II!

Other reviews of these lenses:

Sigma 85mm f1.4L – dslrphoto.com summarizes numerous reviews here

Canon 85mm f1.2L II – Photo Zone review, The Digital Picture Review

See also the latest issue of Popular Photography for further comparisons

©Wayne Simpson - Sigma 85mm f1.4 at f1.6


23 Responses to “Sigma 85mm f1.4 vs Canon 85mm f1.2L II”

  1. […] Here is the original post: Sigma 85mm f1.4 vs Canon 85mm f1.2L II […]

  2. Very interesting results and quite surprising really. I have wanted to add the Canon 50mm f1.2 to my kit (stock seems to fluctuate, so every time I finally decide to go for it, it is out of stock). I already have the Canon 85mm f1.8 and was thinking that if I’m going to buy a new super fast lens, then adding a new focal length might be the best option, instead of just replacing an existing focal length (although moving from the Canon 85mm f1.8 to f1.2 would be a nice step up). Upon seeing this review, I now wonder how the Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX DG HSM compares to the Canon 50mm f1.2 (hint to Darwin/Wayne & Sigma). Given the Sigma pricing (Sigma f1.4 50mm $499 and Sigma f1.4 85mm $969), I could buy both lens for $1468. The Canon 50mm f1.2 lens is $1599 (all prices from B&H). That means I could buy both lenses for less then the price of the one Canon lens I was considering. It just seems too good to be true. Clearly a test drive would be required.

    • To anyone who can I always recommend trying before you buy if you can. Some stores let you rent first and then if you like the lens you get your rental cost back (e.g. The Camera Store). This is the reason I buy there instead of B+H. Or find a friend like Wayne who has a lens you want to test against and go play in the field. Darwin

  3. Robert Skoye Says:

    hi darwin,

    does sigma make the same 85mm lens for nikon? if so, i’d be keen to see a similar comparison to the nikon 85 mm 1.4 g. know any nikon guy/gal experts to put to work?🙂

    -robert

    • Yes, they make it for Nikon! And check out the latest issue of Popular Photography for their test of 4 different 85mm f1.4 lenses including the Sigma and the Nikon. In this test the Sigma basically performs almost identically to the Nikon with a tiny edge to the Nikon but the Nikon is nearly twice the money. Darwin

  4. Nice honest review… Refreshing (compared to forums).
    I’ll stick with my Nikon 85G, but I’m telling myself I can afford it…
    Creativity makes the biggest difference, despite my love of lenses.
    Did I mention the Nikon 85G?

  5. Great review, Wayne. One comment. To me, Canon 85mm 1.2II has more 3D look, as Wayne describe as “pop”. I would not be surprised if someone paid extra $1000 for the 3D feel.

    • little monster Says:

      what is 3D feel?

      • Well…it is difficult to explain scientifically. Photography is obviously visual reproductions of 3 dimensional reality into 2 dimensional image. However, photos taken by some lens, especially, German lenses and large format lenses seem to imply the more 3D reality in the images. Say…a face of the portrait taken by Leica lenses looks a little more standing out in an image, compared to entry model Japanese zoom lenses. They tend to be flatter. This is impression based, not evidence based opinion, though.

        I felt the same difference between the Canon lens and the Sigma lens even though it is not significant.

      • little monster Says:

        thank u for explaining~~i think i got it.

  6. That Sigma is such a rockin’ lens.

  7. […] own flagship 85L. I don’t have any examples as of this posting, but you can check here at the bottom of the page for a comparison between the purple fringing of the Sigma 85 wide opne @ […]

  8. […] No wonder wedding photographers, journalists and fine-art photographers love a fast 85mm lens (see this review of the Sigma 85mm lens for portrait […]

  9. The 85mm f/1.8 has the same 3d effect, i want to replace it with a sigma 85mm but afraid it won’t be the same…

  10. your results are very interesting,
    i did a comparison between this Sigma and the smaler Canon Ef85mm f1.8 on a crop body.
    if you are interested for the results, you can read them here:

    http://www.macrocontrast.com/2011/09/canon-ef85mm-f18-usm-vs-sigma-85mm-f14.html

    kr

  11. Interesting read, I really liked Wayne’s take on the Sigma as compared to the canon 1.2LII. I have the canon 50mm f1.2L and love it and was thinking I may get an 85mm at some point and the 1.2LII was my first and only choice, now I might have tor e think. I will try before I buy though…

    Thanks for sharing

    Will

  12. JayShep Photography Says:

    Very nice review. Good points!

  13. Thanks Darwin, I always find your reviews great. I may get me one of the sigma 85mm…

  14. Ordered the Sigma today, hope this lens lives up to it’s reputation!

  15. My Sigma is already on it’s way, but this review is just making me itch even more for it’s arrival. Nice review/comparison.

  16. The Canon 85mm 1.2L MKII is still the current king of 85mm inmy observation. The Sigma is very good but there is a pop that the canon has that’s just missing in the Sigma. I am a professional and that slight image pop and consistent color is significant enough for me not to chose the Canon over the Sigma. I have shot both stills and video with both lenses and the canon stands out in image resolution. Videos shot with the canon have a 3D/Real life looking but the Sigma was more 2D. The Diff was significant even by looking at the lcd on the camera and confirmed when loaded on a HD monitor. The Sigma is very good for Photos and will get the job done very well. So if your budget allows for the Sigma, then get it and you will shoot fantastic images ( as long as you are a good photographer and have interesting subjects). This does not negate the fact that, all things being equal, the Canon will give you a bit more (image quality wise). That tiny bit can mean a lot depending on the type of work you do and what your deliverable are. If Budget is not an issue, get the Canon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: