The ART of Sharpness: Sigma Redefines the 50mm Prime lens

The Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens is a high-resolution lens that brings all the crisp detail, sharpness, ‘bokeh’, and feel of a luxury lens, for less than luxury price. This lens is single-handedly bringing the glamour back to the 50mm focal length and the prime lens in general. Zoom lenses may be the workhorse of a lot of today’s professional photographers, but for those who want the best optical quality in a smaller package, the ultra-sharp prime is still king.

The sharpest of the sharp.
The sharpest of the sharp.

My first prime lens was a 50mm, and yours probably was, too.  You can shoot a lot with a fifty, and you have to when it is your only lens. That first prime was plastic, lightweight, relatively sharp when stopped down, and let in a lot more light than my kit lens. It was a great! The ability to control depth of field was a revelation to me, at the time. I was able to shoot video in dark clubs and play with selective focus. I actually bought it here at the shop, years before I dreamed of working here, and the lens was amazing to me. Needless to say, I have always had a soft spot for the fifty. On my crop sensor camera it is a great portrait lens and on the full frame cameras it is the all-around, do-everything lens.

All about the detail. 1-400 sec at f – 10 ISO 640

I decided to take Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens out for a spin when I was downtown near the Convention Center and shoot some of the buildings and architecture around the area. I was instantly impressed by the optical quality, contrast, and detail. The speed of the HSM (Hyper Sonic Motor) autofocus was impressive silent and fast. Manual focus with this lens is also a pleasure,  given it’s large, smooth focus ring. This is the experience that I had been missing on my 50mm lenses. Lenses made for modern cameras tend to treat manual focus as an afterthought, making their focus rings small and almost useless. The focus ring on the Sigma 50mm Art also makes it a great lens for video production.

As far as the build quality, it is right on. Lots of glass, metal, and plastic, with a nice matte finish on most of the lens. There is no weather sealing, so it is not an out-in-the-rain lens, but it feels like a much more expensive lens in the hand. It is a pretty heavy, although the wight adds to the impression that this lens is made extremely well.

Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art

The beauty of the 50mm focal length is that it is non-distorting. The fifty doesn’t magnify the scene, nor push it further away. What you see is what you get. That means that when you are deciding on how to compose your shot, there is not that much to think about. When you put the camera to your eye, the shot is right there, making it very intuitive to shoot. This makes it a great focal length for walking around and shooting casually. If you are doing studio portraits everyday or headshots, it might make sense to go more telephoto, like 85mm or even 200mm, but if you had one lens to go to for it all, 50mm would win every time.

Shooting with a kit lens or an entry-level zoom can be great and they are versatile, but you’ll notice that there is some limitations with available apertures. If an 18-55mm kit lens can only open to around f5.6 at 55mm, that means that the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art can let in 4 stops more light when wide open, than that same kit lens. This open aperture affects the lens’ ability to limit the depth of field, which produces the often desirable effect of a pleasing blur and out of focus background. When a lens can shoot with a more open aperture (like f1.4, f2.0, etc.) you can achieve the ever-popular ‘Bokeh’, or background blur. This lens has beautiful ‘Bokeh’, due to its 9 rounded aperture blades.

This allows for a very low minimum focusing distance of 40cm. That is about 1.3 feet!
Also, the minimum focus distance is very low, coming in at about 40cm, or about 1.3 feet. This allows for even greater flexibility when shooting with only a couple of lenses or just one!

Because of the lack of distortion, street photography is a style that the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens excels at. You can get very natural looking image and a tremendous amount of versatility. I almost exclusively use this focal length on a full frame camera for street photography for the reasons listed above, and the fact that prime lenses tend to be sharp, with this lens blowing most other primes out of the water.

Street images and candid photography is the perfect place for a 50mm focal length. 1-1000 sec at f - 8.0 ISO 1600
Street images and candid photography are great styles for the 50mm focal length.
1-1000 sec at f – 8.0 ISO 1600

Sigma did something no one expected with this lens.  The only lens out there at 50mm that is in the same class as far as image quality (the Zeiss Otus, 50mm) does not have autofocus, and is about $4,000. I am not comparing these lenses, but the fact that the Sigma beats out all other lenses in its class in overall image quality and resolution and needs to be compared to a lens that is 4 times it’s price- that gets your attention.

Sigma has designed this dock to be used with their SIGMA Optimization Pro software that allows you to update firmware and adjust focus.
Sigma has designed this dock to be used with their SIGMA Optimization Pro software that allows you to update firmware and adjust focus.

Sigma also designed a lens dock that allows the customer to update firmware, adjust the autofocus and optimize your lens for your taste. Sigma designed an end-user software, called Sigma Optimization Pro that is pretty powerful in its ability to adjust optimum focus distance. So, now you don’t have to send your lens to the manufacturer to get it right where you want it. With 13 glass elements, in 8 groups, and little motors inside the lens, there is always the possibility that in the life of the lens the autofocus could get off. We all bang around our lenses more than we think we do and this will save you a ton of hassle when you look at your portraits and it just isn’t sharp. If the focus is off, you just hook it up to the dock and adjust it back to optimum sharpness. This is a tremendous advantage for shooters who are out on location day after day, and can’t afford to be without their lens for weeks while the engineers fiddle with it.

construction_blueconstruction construction_pink

The lens construction enables the superior optical quality, using Special Low Dispersion glass to minimize chromatic aberration, and aspherical lenses to minimize any distortion. Honestly, I have seen very little, if any, chromatic aberration, distortion, or even vignetting from this lens. There is a little vignetting and subtle softness when wide open at f/1.4, but nothing that would detract from the image to any great degree.

Point this lens at anything at f/8, unless you want to hide something. This lens is so high resolution that it will keep up with the ever increasing mega-pixel range of modern cameras. 1-125 sec at f - 8.0 ISO 320.
Point this lens at anything at f/8, unless you want to hide something. This lens is so high-resolution that it will keep up with the ever-increasing mega-pixel range of modern cameras.
1-125 sec at f – 8.0 ISO 320.

I look for leading lines, geometry, and angles when I shoot architectural style photos, and sharpness plays a great role in showing the detail of the buildings. Sometimes, a tilt-shift lens is the only way to go, but the lack of distortion and optical quality of this lens makes it a great all-around lens for finding geometry and lines. The Greek Orthodox Church just lit up with the golden hour sun, showing off the beautiful contrast from this lens.

This Greek Orthodox church lit up as the sun set. 1-250 sec at f - 8.0 ISO 640
This Greek Orthodox church lit up as the sun set. 1-250 sec at f – 8.0 ISO 640

Shooting with a ‘normal’ focal length lens helps sharpen your compositional skills also. You are forced to change where you stand in relation to your subject to change the perspective of a shot. Zoom lenses have made it easy to change focal length in an instant, but can lead to lazy framing. I find myself taking less shots with a prime lens, and that can be a good thing. I will spend more time deciding on a composition and looking at the elements of the photo. Arguably, this is the most important thing you can do for your photography- shoot with a fixed focal length and move your feet. This is often overlooked and maybe even a bit cliché, but I still believe it to be true.

The world is beautiful right after a storm.  1-125 sec at f - 10 ISO 640
The world is beautiful right after a storm.
1-125 sec at f – 10 ISO 640

This lens can do so much that you have to check it out in person. Come in to the shop and shoot it on your camera or rent it for the weekend or your next shoot. If you decide to purchase the lens within 10 days after renting, we will credit the rental fee back to you! Visit mpex.com/rentals to get it reserved!

All photos, except product shots, shot on Canon 1Dx.

TJ Hansen

Photographer at MPEX.com

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