As part of our Orms Maker Series this month, we’ve been collaborating with Action Sports Photographer, Kent Locke. If you missed Kent’s Instagram Takeover on @OrmsDirect, he promised a review of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art Lens. So here we are! Let’s see how Kent got on…
A Surfer Portrait Series with Ford & York van Jaarsveldt.
Let’s start this review with some context and a bit of a confession.
Firstly, the confession: I’m not technically a portrait photographer. I specialise in sports photography. However, there’s so much more to this field of photography than just getting the action shot. More and more, I’m learning that there’s a whole story to be told that unfolds around the action. These high-performance athletes are still people, each with their own unique personality, life-story, and struggles. Likewise, there’s a lot more to each game, competition or surf session than just the action. There is a whole narrative of candid moments, interactions, and emotions that often go undocumented.
Aside from my passion for creating compelling action imagery, photography for me has become a platform to meet and build friendships with people I would otherwise not have the opportunity to interact with. Shooting portrait series with the athletes and surfers that I work with provides another way in which to get to know these guys. Normally I’m stuck behind a 400mm or 600mm lens, a fair distance away from my subject. Portraiture allows me to spend a bit more time with the athletes I’m working with, in a more intimate space.
Okay, enough of the philosophical drivel. You’re here for a lens review, so let’s do that. I may not be the most accomplished portrait photographer out there, but I’m still looking for a great lens to capture ‘the other side of the story’ that I’ve been speaking about. I’m still looking for a lens that’s optically sharp, well-built, and that autofocusses reliably etc.
I’ve been spending a fair bit of time linking up with and photographing two brothers and surfers from Cape Town – Ford and York van Jaarsveldt. Ford is just about to finish high school, and York has just started high school. These guys have surfing built into their DNA. They both exhibit undeniable natural talent, each with their own unique strengths and talents in the water. They’re also just great fun to be around, and Ford makes a decent cup of coffee too!
I linked up with these guys for a lifestyle portrait shoot just after a late-afternoon surf session at one of their local spots.
While I occasionally shoot with off-camera flash, I prefer to shoot on location in natural light. It feels more authentic (and it’s easier). So for this session with Ford and York, I used the Sigma 85mm f/1.4mm Art lens paired with my Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. No lights, no fuss.
85mm is perhaps (in the opinion of some) the perfect focal length for portraiture. 85mm creates great compression with little distortion. And with a fast aperture like f/1.4, it generates a shallow depth of field for dramatic subject isolation. It’s versatile enough for close-up portraits where the face of your subject fills the frame, and you can also step back for full- body portraits with a little more context. You’ll see examples of both from this shoot.
BUILD QUALITY AND AESTHETICS
Sigma have now established themselves as a company who produce lenses of the highest build quality. Their Art and Sport series lenses are all beautifully and robustly constructed, and the 85mm f/1.4 Art is no exception. It looks and feels great.
However, it is big and heavy. It’s considerably bigger than the equivalent Canon and Nikon 85mm lenses. It also has a large 86mm filter diameter. While filters of this size are easily available, they are quite expensive, and it may be off-putting to people who already have a selection of the more common 72mm filters. Having said all this, the lens felt well balanced on my camera and despite its size and weight, it wasn’t at all unwieldy. It handled well and I didn’t find the size and weight a hindrance at all.
Although there are no claims that the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art is weather sealed, the lens does feature a rear gasket ring. Because I often shoot environmental portraits on-location, and not in a studio, this is a nice feature that gives me confidence that I’m not likely to get dust on my sensor.
I most commonly shoot with Canon L-series USM lenses. So I’m used to photographing with lenses that are lightning-fast and deadly-accurate when it comes to autofocus. The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art didn’t feel at all sluggish in the autofocus department. It has a quiet, smooth and accurate autofocus motor. It’s certainly fast enough for any portraiture scenario. And it was spot-on in terms of accuracy for the most part. The few frames that did miss-focus I could put down to human error, especially when wide open at f/1.4.
You’ve probably skim-read the first part of this review just to get to this section, right? I would have done the same…
Sharpness & Contrast
I knew this lens was going to be sharp, I just didn’t realise how incredibly sharp it would be! Sigma’s Art series glass has proven to be sharp across the range. The 85mm f/1.4 Art sets a new standard in my opinion. Corner to corner, wide open at f/1.4, this lens is tack sharp. You only get minor improvements in sharpness by stopping it down to a narrower aperture. It’s possibly the sharpest lens I’ve ever used, right from its widest aperture. The lens has great contrast, too. Shadows and highlights resolve really nicely and images are punchy straight out of the camera.
Round, creamy and undistracting. That’s the kind of bokeh you want from a lens, right? Well, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art delivers in this regard.
Distortion, Vignetting and Chromatic Aberration
With advances in editing software like Adobe Lightroom and Camera RAW, issues like distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration are largely a moot point. These ‘problems’ are easily and swiftly resolved in post-production. Nevertheless, it’s always better to reduce these as much as possible in-camera I guess.
85mm lenses generally don’t suffer from much distortion. That’s why this is a popular focal length among portrait photographers. The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art produces no noticeable distortion.
However, the lens does have some evident vignetting, especially when wide open at f/1.4. This is to be excepted, and in my opinion, it’s actually quite pleasing. If it bothers you, the built-in lens profile in Adobe Lightroom effectively deals with the vignette.
As I write this, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art is about two-thirds of the price of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM lens (which is about 10 years old at the time of this review). It’s the same story with the equivalent Nikon. As we’ve come to expect, Sigma have continued to undercut the competition in terms of price without compromising on quality. In fact, I think it’s time to acknowledge that Sigma is no longer a third-party brand to be treated with suspicion or disdain (as has been the case for many Canon and Nikon purists in the past). Sigma have firmly established themselves as a leading manufacturer of exceptionally high-quality lenses.
To be honest, I don’t have much more to say. This is an exquisite lens. It’s hard to find fault in the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art. I don’t shoot enough portraiture to warrant buying one myself, and I can get by with my Canon 24-70mm or 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses in most situations. However, this is a lens I’ll definitely be renting for specific shoots. And if you’re a dedicated portrait or wedding photographer then this lens is certainly something you’ll want to consider purchasing, and I suspect it’s a lens you’ll end up using almost all the time.