Cincinnati Portrait, Wedding & Lifestyle Photography-Breighton & Basette Photography

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REVIEW: Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM

The venerable nifty-fifty. Some photographers avoid this focal length like the plague. It isn’t a telephoto and it isn’t a wide-angle, which they believe makes it kind of boring. On the other hand, some photographers adore how 'normal' this focal length is, because that boringness means it doesn’t distort reality as much as most other lenses. For that second group of people, the ‘realism’ is actually pretty exciting. But the truth is that art is always subjective…and so are the tools you use to create it. As far as I’m concerned, I love 50mm lenses and I think every photographer should have one. I also love my Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM, and I'm about to tell you why.

I’m one of those people who learned photography the old-school ‘romantic’ way: using only one lens. That lens was a 50mm f/1.8. It’s the main focal length that my artistic eye is built on. Although I'm perfectly comfortable with whatever focal length will get the job done, I often start my composition by imagining each photo in 50mm, then I mentally zoom in or out from there, before ultimately choosing the field-of-view and perspective I want. Sometimes this happens instantaneously, as I walk forwards or backwards and engage my subject...while other times it happens slowly, as I stand quietly and watch things unfold. But regardless of how quickly it happens, what it does mean is that the 50mm focal length is the foundation of my kit.

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 @ 1.4

But that’s just me. The first real question of this review is why should you own one? Well, a good 50mm lens is kind of like a pack mule. It’s inexpensive and it doesn’t need to be stellar at any one thing, it just needs to be good at everything. It’s not sexy like a mystical 8000mm f/2.8 telephoto that can render someone’s eyelashes from half a mile out. It’s not awe-inspiring like a magical 0.5mm fisheye that shoots so wide it can take a picture of your subject (in front of the camera), and you (behind the camera), at the same time. It's just not vary flashy.

Like a pack mule, a solid 50mm prime is the lens you pull out when you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and you need a tough little son-of-a-gun that can do a bit of everything. I’m talking portrait, landscape, action, close-up, shallow depth-of-field, architecture, lowlight…everything (note: APS-C cameras require a 35mm lens to achieve a similar field of view). Basically, it should be able to get you a shot in almost any situation, which means you always want to have one close at hand. However, the pack mule will never be as cool, or as specialized, as a purebred racing stallion. That's ok though, because even if it's only there as a backup, it's much better to have one and not need it than to not have one and wish you did.

So that finally brings us to the main question: how well does the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM function as a photographic pack mule? I think it functions really well.

VALUE. $400 new on Amazon, and $328 used (EX+ condition) on KEH. I think that’s pretty good. Yes, you can get my old buddy, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D, for $120 new on Amazon, and if that’s what your budget dictates, I would say go for it. You won’t be disappointed. There are a slew of cheap 50mm f/1.8 primes for almost every type of lens mount, and if price is your overarching concern, most of the cheap 50mm primes can get the job done. The Nikon 50mm f/1.8D is no exception. However, if you spend a bit more, and go with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM, you'll end up with a half-stop more light, a built-in focus motor, tougher construction, full time manual focus, better control over depth-of-field, and a nice hefty little chunk of glass. Besides, at this price point, you can still hurl it like a softball at the head of whoever is trying to steal one of your more expensive and more exotic lenses, and not feel too bad if it breaks. To me, all of those features make it a good value. In the future I may get the more expensive Sigma 50mm ART, but it won't mean anything to our clients, or to their enjoyment of their photos. It would be purely for my own delight. So right now, it's not a priority.

AUTOFOCUS. After value, the next most important thing for me is autofocus. Sharpness means nothing if a shot isn't in focus. I need my focus quick, and I need it accurate. This lens delivers. Yes, the focus motor on my copy is a tiny bit louder than I would like; my Sigma 85mm f/1.4 is quieter. Nevertheless, with my D3s set to AF-C, this lens is plenty fast enough to capture a dog charging full speed straight at me. Bam, bam, bam…each shot in perfect focus. Clicking through the series of images is like a flipbook of impending doom. I love it. If it can handle running dogs then it can handle a beautiful bride gently gliding down the isle. Like any lens, if it’s dark enough, or the contrast is low enough, it will definitely hunt around, but even in dim churches and dim reception halls, it hasn’t let me down.

SHARPNESS. @ f/1.4 it’s pretty sharp, but lacks some contrast, which can easily be corrected in post. Besides, when I’m taking a portrait with a 50mm at this aperture, I’m usually close enough to someone’s face that I want sharp eyes and a bit of softness on the skin. When I import my RAW images into Lightroom I sharpen them up a bit, add a subtle blurring mask on the skin, and I get exactly what I want, so I’m happy. @ f/1.6 not much has changed. @ f/1.8 it’s now starting to sharpen up and gain contrast. @ f/2 It’s getting really nice. @ f/2.8 I’m completely done, because it’s now giving me everything I could ever want. Corner sharpness isn't usually an issue for me, but if I'm getting real funky with my composition, which I often like to do, and I'm placing my subject on the edge of the frame, which I also like to do, then I know I'm okay because I'm safe at this aperture. I like to shoot wide open whenever possible, so unless I REALLY need to increase my depth-of-field for things like group photos and landscapes, this lens doesn’t go beyond f/2.8 very often. In fact, most of its use occurs between f/1.4-f/2.

BUILD. My patent-pending ‘Fingernail Tap Test’ says it’s got a metal bayonet mount and everything else on the outside is probably either plastic or glass. My official ‘Juggle From Hand-To-Hand Test’ says it feels solid, as if there may be more metal hidden underneath that plastic. My world-renown ‘Shake It Beside My Ear Test’ reveals only a slight rattle from what sounds like something small, light and plastic. I’m pretty good with taking care of my gear. I keep caps on things when not in use and my lenses always have protective filters on them. I’ve used this lens in sub-zero temps, and it’s been splashed by water more than once. With proper care, I don’t see why it shouldn’t last as long as I need it to. However, I don’t trust the longevity of any ultrasonic lens motor, and this lens also doesn’t have a gasket on its mount. Those two things haven't caused me any problems so far, but they're worth pointing out.

HANDLING. I use prime lenses almost exclusively, and only one of my lenses has vibration control. So my lens reviews won’t usually have much to say here. It balances well on my D3s. The focus ring could be a bit wider. It has full time manual focus, but it still has an AF - M focus switch on the side, which should be labeled AF/M – M. It’s got a depth-of-field scale that’s useless to me, but it still looks cool. (Confession: I like the little jumble of numbers on depth-of-field scales, because they look technical and important, even though I rarely use them due to the way I shoot)

CONCLUSION. I like the price, I like the autofocus, I like the sharpness, I like the build, I like the handling. It's the lens I often have on my camera when my camera is in my bag and I’m heading to my next job, or when I'm simply walking around. It’s the lens I often have on my camera when I’m at a wedding reception and all sorts of craziness is going on and I have no idea what will happen next. It’s the lens I often have on my camera when I’m photographing children and pets who are running wild. It’s not my 'scenery' lens. I have something for that. It’s not my 'portrait' lens. I already have something for that too. It’s not my 'long distance' lens. I already have a heavy little monster designed for that! Instead, my nifty-fifty is my [fill in the blank] lens, or to put it more bluntly: my Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM is simply...my lens. I love it.

- Breighton

DISCLAIMER: These are real world reviews...of gear we’ve actually used. We approach our gear like a good painter approaches a fine set of brushes: each was chosen for a reason. They’re used when needed, they’re cleaned after every job, and they aren’t replaced on a whim by the newest fad. However, the most important part is that the painter knows that he/she is the real artist, and even the best brush is still nothing more than a simple tool.