Review: Sigma 50mm 1.4 EX DG HSM

Rating: 4 votes, 5.00 average.
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This is my second time owning this lens, but the first time I've actually enjoyed using it. Back in late 2010 I had a Sigma 50 on Canon mount, and it was by far my worst lens experience. Based on my experiences with it, I spouted a lot of negativity towards the lens for almost two years.

One day while I was browsing used sales threads, I happened to stumble upon one at a fairly decent price, so I impulsively decided to try one out again; if I didn't like it, I knew I would be able to get rid of it without taking a loss. Shortly after I purchased it, I immediately felt a little bit of regret for wasting my time with another thing to sell. My trauma with the lens the first time around caused a complete shutout of any hope for liking the lens.

Some (pathetic) photos from my first round of ownership:

2010 Robert:


2012 Robert:

2013 Robert:

Inside the Box
  • Typical Sigma lens pouch
  • Hood (specific to this lens)
  • Front+ rear caps (these are on the nice side)
  • Manual (in case you've never used a lens)
  • Warranty card (don't know if these are even necessary with online registration)

Lens Handling
It's been pretty okay.

I've been okay with how the lens feels in both instances of ownership. The first one had the old Sigma finish, which it seems a lot of people don't appreciate for both the feel of it and because it eventually peels off. I actually think this finish was fine as it was except for the peeling part. Dunno what the big deal was about the feel of it. The current version I own has the updated rubberized matte coating on it, which feels really sleek. One thing I do worry about though is that the finish feels like it's easier to scar if it contacts a rough edge.

If you appreciate heft in a lens, this lens is much more satisfying than any other 50mm lens out there (short of the Canon 50mm 1.0/1.2L). Where most lenses have a 52mm or 58mm filter thread, this guy has a pro-tier 77mm, and weighs a little over a pound, nearly twice the weight of the Nikon 1.4G.

The front element is also pro-tier huge. Upon first glance, you'd never guess that it's a 50mm lens, which typically have a good amount of retaining ring bezel space with text engraving displaying its specs. It's also fairly recessed, so you can put it down on a flat surface without fearing that loose rocks will contact your front element.

Only the rear element moves upon focusing, but at infinity, it dips in enough that a few bits of dust can get inside.

The AF/MF switch is typical Sigma- not as well-designed as first party options, but it's not like you'll ever need outstanding tactility from it anyway. This would be one of the last thing that influences how much I like a lens.

As is typical of most AF lenses, the focusing ring is mediocre at best. Mine feels a little gritty, enough to get a bit of sound in video. Full time manual focus override is there, and is probably only going to be used to throw your focus to MFD for sorta macro. One thing to note though is that the focus throw is very short, so you'll have a hard time finely nailing focus.

Like most modern AF lenses, this is of Nikon G-type construction, so you won't get an aperture ring.This doesn't concern Canon shooters at all. Possibly a problem if you want to change aperture in video on a D600 while recording.

Atypical of a 50mm lens, this Sigma has a petal-type hood, which as we all know makes one instant professional. Don't know why they bothered giving this a petal hood from a technical standpoint, but even the Sigma 30mm 1.4 gets one; maybe Sigma just defaults to petal hoods for their EX lenses. It locks in nicely, and is nicely deep, suitable for my no lens cap ways.

Expectedly fast, but buyer beware

One thing that I've noticed with most Sigma lenses is that they pause ever so slightly before fully locking onto a subject, but then again, so do a lot of other lenses. The best lenses I've ever used for locking on focus are the Nikon 24-70 and 70-200, which lock on without a modicum of hesitation.

The Sigma is decently fast to focus, but I seem to run into a lot of discussion online about which 50mm 1.4 is the fastest at focusing. In my experience with 50mm 1.4 lenses, none is so much faster than the other that a prospective buyer would need to buy one over the other. I do feel however that the Nikon 1.4G feels the slowest. The short focus throw of the Sigma probably helps it focus relatively faster.

This lens review gets an addendum to the focusing section- it's reliability. Here's probably the most important part of this review:
This lens is a paragon example of quality control issues with Sigma. Because they have to reverse engineer their lenses to be compatible with Canikon bodies, there's naturally going to be a lot more error, piled on top of Sigma not being known for being the most reputable company when it comes to tight manufacturing tolerances; look at Zeiss and Leica for that.

When I had this lens on Canon, I used it with a 1D mmii and a 5D, and in both instances it wasn't perfectly aligned with the body. With micro-focus adjust, a majority of the problem would have been mitigated.

Focus in lower light conditions is a bit better than average. It doesn't resort to hunting as quickly as other lenses. Like the Sigma 85, the focusing algorithm seems to have been greatly improved.

Oh, another thing to note- Don't be fooled by sellers saying that their copy is a good copy. Those claims mean absolutely nothing because there's going to be mechanical tolerances between not only your lens, but your body. What focuses well on one body by no means guarantees that it will focus as well on another.

So if you have a body that's got micro-focus adjust, it should be all dandy, right? Not quite, sadly. On my newer version, I've got the focus properly adjusted at close distances, but I notice that it's not quite accurate at infinity, leading me to conclude that there is a bit of focus shift in my copy. This test was done wide open, and I'm unlikely to shoot anything that far away wide open, so it's a problem I've identified but can live with.

Image Quality
Don't expect it to be your sharpest lens

A lot of folks see the hype surrounding 50mm lenses and instantly conclude that any 50mm lens is sharp. Unfortunately, very few fast primes are going to be splittingly sharp wide open, and no 50mm really escapes this. In fact, no 50mm lens makes the list of recommended lenses that make full use of the resolving capabilities of the D800, which I plan to use the Sigma 50 with. Does this mean I should let this lens go before I finish this review? Nope, I'm using this lens as a tool to give me 1.4 without paying over a thousand for a 24/35/85 1.4, and I'll have to live under the threshold of not #1 performance, and considering how much extra shutter speed I'll need to keep D800 files steady, I'd rather take the marginal loss in image quality over a sharper, blurry shot.

This lens may be more attractive to those shooting on a camera body with a megapixel count in the teens. With the trend of super high megapixel count bodies on the pro-tier bodies, lenses that show any weakness will have their flaws exploited, resulting in this lens looking worse at 100% at 36MP than at 12MP. (Hardware limited) ignorance is bliss.

Center sharpness is going to be as good as any 50mm is going to be. Do any searching on a gear forum and you'll find endless threads on which 50mm 1.4 is the sharpest wide open or at peak sharpness. I haven't been able to find significant difference between the Nikon 1.4G and the Sigma to have preference for one over the other. The Nikon 1.4D is noticeably behind for wide open performance. The Canon 1.4 is about even in the center.

An issue that seems to plague fast 50's is the presence of of veiling flare at near distances, which robs the image of contrast and sharpness at edges.

One place where the Sigma is significantly behind in is in the far corners, characteristic of many fast Sigma primes. On crop sensors, this is far less of a problem, but on full-frame, you'll notice that the acuity is quite lacking.

Chromatic Aberration- Pretty noticeable wide open, but actually not as bad as I expected in my second time owning it. Very correctable in Lightroom.
Distortion- Whatever. My Lightroom import settings automatically correct for this.
Vignetting- Prevalent wide open, mostly gone by ~2.8.
Flare- Surprisingly good. It retains a lot more contrast than I expected shooting against bright backgrounds. You do get a bit of flare spots, but it could be a lot worse.

Compared to:
Canon 50mm 1.4: I wouldn't say one's significantly better than the other, both focus fast and cancel eachother out in sharpness throughout the aperture range.
Nikon 50mm 1.4D: The 1.4D is pretty weak at 1.4, giving the Sigma a definite edge.
Nikon 50mm 1.4G: Sharpness is about the same, but the Sigma focuses a little faster.

Should I get it if...
I want the sharpest 50mm: no… this one isn't that much better. I'd give the 1.8G the advantage for absolute sharpness.

I want the best wide open performance from a 50mm 1.4: Perhaps, but the differences are somewhat marginal. I'm none too bothered by onion bokeh or fringing of bokehballs, so if you're concerned about that, I wouldn't be the one to consult.

I have a Rebel/20D/30D/40D/60D/5Dc/1D/1D2/1Ds/1Ds2/D40/D50/D60/D70/D80/D90/D3000/D3100/D3200/D5000/D5100/D5200/D1/D1h/D1x/D2h/D2x/any other body without micro-focus adjust: No. Giant, giant no. Unless you're willing to send in your body and lens for 1-2 weeks to get it calibrated.

I want a the fastest fousing 50mm 1.4 lens: On Canon, no. On Nikon, the Sigma will get there faster, but it'll hesitate a little before confirming lock. The Nikon 1.4G is slow but steady. The 1.4D moves the quickest (depending on body), but isn't the most accurate.

I want the best looking 50mm 1.4: Yes. Petal hood and 77mm filter thread. Super pro champion king of everything to all onlookers.

[++]: [+]: [-]: [--]:

[++]: A 3rd party manufacturer lens on-par with 1st party offerings
[+] Sharp center image quality
[+]Good retention of contrast against sun
[+]Quick AF speed
[-]Corners never quite catch up to center sharpness on FF
[-]Most expensive 50mm 1.4
[-]Not good for video focusing
[-]Can exhibits focus shift
[--]Huge variance in quality control among earlier models

Despite some defects and negative experiences in the past due to past quality control issues, I really do like this lens for its pictorial uniqueness found within its imperfections. Certainly a lens I'd consider owning again; I had to think long and hard before letting my most recent copy go.

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Updated 06-04-2014 at 04:50 AM by asamimasa

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