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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 HSM – price $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…
– 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
– 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