I have always loved prime lenses. They give me the look I want and they generally outperform zoom lenses in both low light and image quality. They main reason I love them is the larger apertures that are available. I remember back in 2012 when Sigma made waves in the photo world by announcing their 35mm art lens. I picked one up a few months later and it has been one of my favorite lenses, if not my most favorite. It is one of those lenses that you wonder why you ever took off your camera when you start shooting with it again. Sharpness, contrast, autofocus, large aperture: it has it all! So when they started expanding their art series line, I waited anxiously for a longer Art lens in the series. I thought I would jump at the 85mm Art when they announced it but forced myself to be happy with my current 85mm f1.8G lens from Nikon. My 85mm is a great lens, but I often want something a little longer for the telephoto compression. Sometimes 85mm actually feels a little wider for me on full frame when I want to remove a distracting background. My beloved 70-200 went with me to many weddings and I got many stunning photos with it, but it just seemed to be lacking some of that magic that I get with my primes. As a Nikon user, I always looked longingly at the Canon 135L but Nikon's version is pretty old and something like a 105mm didn't seem like a big enough change from 85mm to merit having both in my bag. So as soon as Sigma announced their 135mm art lens, I immediately posted my 70-200 VRII for sale, and pre-ordered my new "dream lens" after it sold. So is it everything I hoped it would be? Read on!
My son helped me unbox this behemoth, and I was surprised at how big it was! (Insert Michael Scott jokes here). Obviously at an 82mm filter size, I knew it was going to be substantial, and it is. This is a serious lens, made for a serious purpose. I noticed that the lens hood felt noticeably looser than my 35mm (more on that later) and didn't positively and firmly click in place like I expect a pro lens hood to do. Over though the lens is beautiful, heavy, and feels well built. The focus throw is quick and is easier to manually turn than my 35mm Art. I almost alway autofocus though so the feel of the focus ring is more about build quality than ergonomics to me. The front glass is pretty exposed and huge (and beautiful), so I expect I may want to permanently attach the lens hood, or get a decent 82mm filter for the front to protect it.
Now the good part. I met up with a couple local photographer friends and Jacqueline was nice enough to come model in the rain! We shot about an hour before sunset and were losing light quickly; a good test for the wide aperture on this lens. Overall, the lens performed like I expected. Fast autofocus, great build, and the photos seem like what I would expect from this lens. I will say, similar to most wide aperture primes like my 85mm, this is one of those specialized lenses that you'll need to practice with to get it right, but when you do get the focus dead on this lens will shine and make you giggle like a school girl when you see what it can produce. I can tell that shooting wide open at f1.8, there isn't much margin for error with focusing. I expected that, so will keep practicing with this focal range and the thin depth of field.
I used the lens on my D700 and Df cameras. It focused fast on both at f1.8. I did notice a bit of struggle as the light got low but I was shooting at ISO 1600, 1/250 f1.8 if that gives you an idea of the available light. Also using the focus points at the edge of frame was a little sluggish. This is likely due more to the cameras themselves, but I didn't notice that as the light dipped, the focusing was a little slower. In good light, it was as fast an as accurate as my nikon 70-200 VRII, and that's saying something. For all intents and purposes, if you're shooting portraits and not sports, this lens is more than fast enough. I didn't have any hunting issues and never felt the need to use the focus limiter switch. That might speed things up a bit in the future but focusing was fast and got right on target.
You can see that my focus wasn't perfect on all of these (see the eyes), but that's where it will just take some practice with the lens. The areas that ARE in focus are tack sharp and all of the sample photos were shot wide open at f1.8. I'm sure that stopping it down to f2.8 or so will make it even crazier sharp, but you don't really buy a lens like this to stop it down all the time. If I was shooting a couple I might stop it down to get more in focus though but you don't need to worry about inherent sharpness with this lens; it's an Art series lens. You need to worry more about where you are focusing and practice nailing your focus with the shallow DOF. I love the look of the lens overall and the contrast was spot on. I think the lens rendered perfectly on the photos I took and expect it to work great in all kinds of lighting.
As I mentioned, this thing is a tank. I wouldn't sit in a monsoon with this lens, but the Oregon drizzle was no problem for it. My cameras are all sealed and the lens is moderately sealed. If I was really worried about it, i'd just put a plastic bag over it. as long as you don't let water actively run into the cracks in the focus ring, you'll probably be fine. My concern about the lens hood was quickly confirmed. Shortly into our shoot, the hood bumped against my legs and popped off falling into the mud. I wish the lens hood was more secure. It's probably my only gripe about this lens so far. The hood on my 35mm Art is so tight and secure and I wish this one was too. I use my hoods to keep rain out and protect the front element, so I don't want to worry about whether the hood is going to fall off or come loose while hanging at my side.
I'll let the photos speak for what this lens is capable of. But I will say, practice, practice, practice. This is one of those lenses that you will absolutely love when you nail focus and composition. If my photos weren't sharp, it was me, not the lens. This was my first time out with it and I feel like I need to play with it a lot more to get comfortable with what it can do. So far though, it's a winner, and i'm not regretting selling my 70-200 at all. Some people might have a concern that there is no IS/VR stabilization but honestly with the extra light you get from being able to shoot at f1.8 and with how good sensors are today, just bump your ISO a bit like I did. I could have easily shot up to 6400 on the DF without worrying. I was pushing it on my shutter speed at 1/160 and 1/200 and noticed the slightest motion blur but that was probably my own fault. This lens will show your mistakes. If you shoot indoors in dark places all the time, then maybe think twice, but this lens is made to be a portrait lens, and that's what it does well, especially outdoors. If you can swing the price, or if you're on the fence about this lens, rest assured that it definitely holds up to the Art line standard that has been seen in Sigma's previous Art lenses. The Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art Lens is a winner. I pre-ordered mine from B&H and it came super fast.