The Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art lens is perhaps the sharpest lens I’ve ever used. In addition, it’s a fun, artistic optic, one that may change the way you make pictures.
Wide open, the 85mm F1.4 dramatically isolates subjects while resolving amazing detail, and its bokeh—oh, my! Artfully designed state-of-the-art optics render out-of-focus foregrounds and backgrounds so buttery-smooth.
From people portraits and pics of their pets to nature and architecture, this lens is an amazing tool. Besides its already-renown sharpness, the Sigma 85mm F1.4 Art lens has superb contrast and reproduces color exceptionally. These three lens qualities—pro-level sharpness, contrast, and color renditions—are now accepted as hallmarks of the Sigma Art lens lineup.
Another standard of the Sigma Art lenses is their pro-level build. Pick up the 85mm F1.4, and you will immediately by struck by how solid this lens is. Mounted on a camera, it provides reassuring balance and focuses fast.
While I enjoy shooting a variety of subjects with the 85mm F1.4, this amazing optic is best suited for portraiture, at which it excels. Backgrounds are luscious while subjects pop with color, contrast, and knock-your-socks off detail.
Design & Features
The Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art lens is one of the Sigma Global Vision Art lenses. Sigma’s Art lenses are known world-wide for their innovative optical designs. The ultra-fast F1.4 aperture is made possible through the use of 14 elements arranged in 12 groups. The design incorporates two FLD glass elements, which perform similarly to Fluorite components. A 9-blade diaphragm controls light and depth-of-field. Its rounded blades help create exceptionally smooth bokeh. Apertures range from F1.4 to F16. The front takes 86mm filters.
Suited for use on full-frame cameras, as well as APS-C bodies, the Sigma 85mm F1.4 sports a matte black finish. It measures 3.7” in diameter and 5” long. The lens’s hood adds another 2.1”. Total weight is 39.9 ounces.
Focusing for the 85mm F1.4 is fast. An updated Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) provides autofocus with 1.3x the torque of previous lenses. The lens can be manually focused by turning the 2” rubber ribbed front ring. Focusing from infinity to the minimum distance of 33.5” completes 150° of rotation. Manual focus is smooth and nicely damped. At the closest focusing distance, magnification is 1:8.5.
Included with the Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art lens is a case, a front cap, and an end cap, as well as an ample petal-shaped hood. As with all the Sigma lenses, it is covered by a four-year manufacturer’s warranty.
Handling in the Field
Creating images with the 85mm F1.4 is supremely satisfying. If smaller, variable-aperture zooms have caused you to lose the joy of looking through a bright viewfinder, the 85mm F1.4 is sure to return that simple pleasure. At F1.4, even in the confines of, say, a dark church, viewing your subject is not a strain. Being able to shoot hand-held in such light gives a sense of photographic freedom. Producing spectacularly sharp images with great bokeh, too—well, that’s icing on the cake.
The 85mm F1.4 is designed for full-frame cameras. On my Nikon D800E, it feels well-balanced. While this optic is larger than many slower portrait lenses, it feels good in-hand during shooting. Its good balance makes holding it steady not a problem. And, during the photo session, I felt comfortable carrying the camera and lens with one hand while directing shots with my other hand.
Autofocus is quick, even in low light. How low? I was able to focus in my dimly lit basement down to -2 EV. That’s an exposure of 8 seconds at F1.4 and ISO 100. To be sure, I can’t even come close to manually focusing in such low-light conditions!
The bread and butter of the 85mm F1.4 is portraiture. Few lenses are as enjoyable to use and as highly productive for depicting people as the Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art. With its fast aperture providing bright views and quick autofocus, and with great balance allowing photographers to work comfortably, what’s left is the joy of capturing dramatic, sharp, and intriguing pictures of people.
Across its aperture range, the 85mm F1.4 is sharp. When shooting with quite distant or interesting backgrounds, you may opt for a moderate to small aperture to produce strong depth of field for the subject’s face and, perhaps, her surroundings. On a recent visit to the Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm in Dayton, Ohio, Phoebe couldn’t resist crawling through a giant hollow tree trunk. The circular shape of the end of the log was a perfect frame for an on-the-go portrait. Wanting to keep Phoebe in focus as well as the textured circular-framing log, I selected a f/8. The result is a super-sharp portrait that depicts subject and surroundings.
More often than not, photographers will wish to eliminate almost all of the surroundings in their portraits. Distracting backgrounds can ruin a shot as they draw viewers’ eyes away from subjects. That’s where a super-fast portrait lens can save the day.
Recently I was asked by Kingwood Center Gardens, a fabulous nearby horticultural center, to photograph their Director and the members of the board. I set up my lights up in the 19th century-style parlor in the Kingwood mansion. For a group shot, I utilized the Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM Art lens, but for took individual head shot in the ornately decorated room, I pulled out the 85mm F1.4. Shooting at f/2 threw the room details nicely out of focus.
I suggested in the opening that the Sigma 85mm F1.4 could change the way you take pictures. What I meant is that, having a super-narrow depth-of-field at your disposal, makes you look for subjects and locations that would benefit from such a small plane of focus. Such was the case when Annabelle wanted to pose with a chipping sparrow. Full of fervor for nature and always up for fun, she posed with the young bird resting on her head. Setting the 85mm at f/1.4, I positioned my self such that just their eyes were in focus while throwing everything else out-of-focus. This directs viewers to notice and then connect with the gaze of girl and bird.
The Sigma 85mm F1.4 works well on cropped sensor cameras, too. For APS-C bodies, the 85mm focal length lens becomes approximately equivalent to a 135mm F1.4 optic. Most portrait photographers prefer to shoot in the focal lengths between 70mm and 200mm, so 135mm is perfect for people pictures, too.
Cropped sensors, relatively speaking, produce more depth-of-field at a given focal length than full-frame counterparts. To this end, shooting a super-fast lens is a must to create shallow depth-of-field for APS-C shooters.
Not only does the 85mm F1.4 produce amazingly sharp images that throw the background out-of-focus, it does so while producing show-stopping bokeh. If you are not familiar with this photography-specific term, bokeh refers to the ability of a lens to make out-of-focus areas look pleasing. The more that out-of-focus background or foreground elements are rendered smoothly and pleasingly, particularly at wide apertures, the better the lens’s bokeh. Many factors affect bokeh, particularly the design of the optics and the shape of the diaphragm blades. Sigma engineers clearly made bokeh a priority in designing the 85mm F1.4.
To demonstrate the effect of out-of-focus areas on an image, I photographed a flowering redbud, keeping the same part of the twig in-focus while changing the aperture. Even moving from f/1.4 to a modest f/4 shows how much backgrounds can distract. Of the three images below, I think there is little question that the f/1.4 image is most dramatic.
Another way to study a lens’s bokeh is to take a defocused picture. The image below shows tulips at Franklin Park Conservatory with the focus set to a distance much closer than the nearest blooms. Instead of being a poorly made image, the incredible bokeh of the Sigma 85mm F1.4 turns this out-of-focus shot into an art. Consider how such images create fine stock for adding advertising copy.
Again, in the opening I mentioned that the Sigma 85mm F1.4 could change the way you take pictures. Not only does the ability to shoot with an extremely shallow depth-of-field open up new photographic possibilities, but also having a lens with incredible bokeh presents new image-making opportunities.
Most photographers pay attention to what they want in focus, With the Sigma 85mm F1.4 in-hand, your photographic eye will search for what you want to throw out-of-focus. Portrait-making will be as much of an exercise in making your subjects look good as in making your backgrounds look good.
The Sigma 85mm can, of course, be used for other types of photography. For nature shooters, a medium telephoto is great for numerous subjects, from landscapes to wildflowers.
While most people think of wide angle lenses for landscapes, telephoto lenses are an important stable mate for depicting parts of the world. Remember, photography is as much what you frame in as what you frame out. Often it’s one piece of the scene that catches your eye, and homing in on just that part is the key to an image’s success.
On a recent trip to Dayton, Ohio, Virginia bluebells were in profusion, especially in the woodland at Aullwood Garden. Shooting with a wide angle lens would have included too many distracting elements and would have made the smallish blue flowers all but disappear. I mounted the 85mm F1.4 and captured bluebells and tree trunks for a colorful abstract.
Moving in closer, the Sigma 85mm can produce stunning “portraits” of wildflowers. As with people subjects, the moderate telephoto perspective of this lens isolates floral subject without compressing them too much. A clump of white trilliums burst forth on a hillside at Mohican State Park in north-central Ohio. Shooting with the 85mm from about 3 feet away produced a perspective that seems very natural for the state’s wildflower.
All Kinds of Subjects
Many other subjects are depicted well with the Sigma 85mm F1.4 Art lens. On a recent trip to the Southern Kentucky Book Festival, I traveled to a waterfall road near Berea, Kentucky. On one a back road in the area stood an interesting piece of Americana: a costumed figure guiding an old-time plow, which was holding a mailbox. I pulled over and selected the 85mm, which allowed me to capture the face, hat, and outfit of “Job.”
The 85mm can be an effective moderate telephoto for architectural photography. While many building shots are made with wide angle lenses, utilizing longer focal lengths creates variety in depicting architecture. In the image below, stepping back several hundred feet from the Wolfe Palm House at Franklin Park Conservatory helped frame the classical structure with its tree-filled landscape.
With its excellent color renditions, strong contrast, and superb rendering of details, the Sigma 85mm Art lens can be used for any number of other subjects. While photographing the inside of the Ohio Statehouse, I was intrigued by a painting hanging below the building’s rotunda, William Henry Powell’s “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie.” Hung in the Statehouse in 1865, the fabulous painting still greets visitors today. I captured images of the oil painting from about 30 feet away with the 85mm F1.4. Then in my studio I zoomed in, finding so many details not visible in person: emotions on the faces of the men, a British “Red Duster” flag, two cannon ball holes in the prow of the “Lawrence,” and much more.
The Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art lens understandably promises shallow depth-of-field, sharp images, strong contrast, great colors, excellent bokeh, and extreme durability. All of these are delivered in legendary proportions. What you might not have expected from this lens is how it may change your approach to photography.
If there is one thing to learn from the Sigma 85mm F1.4 Art lens, it is that beautiful backgrounds and very limited depth-of-field can open up whole new photographic dimensions.