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Sigma is saying.

07.18.2017

Intro

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.

Annabelle smartly sporting a springtime dandelion crown, stands out from a grassy, flower-filled field. The bokeh of the Sigma 85mm F1.4 Art lens renders the background buttery-smooth. Five Rivers Metroparks, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art Lens. f/1.4, 1/1000 second, ISO 100. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

How sharp it the Sigma 85mm F1.4 Art lens at f/1.4? Here’s a crop of just over 2% of the original file for the image above. Click on this JPG to see details at 200%. Look at the fine detail resolved in Annabelle’s eyelashes! Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art Lens. f/1.4, 1/1000 second, ISO 100. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

The Sigma 85mm F1.4 produces spectacular pet portraits, too. The out-of-focus Virginia bluebells in the background complement the tack-sharp orange-red fur of Rowan, a fox red Labrador retriever. Richland County, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/2, 1/400 second, ISO 400. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

The Sigma 85mm F1.4 at its widest apertures produces spectacular detail. Click on this image to see a 100% crop detail of the image above. This crop represents just over 4% of the original image, which was exposed at f/2. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/2, 1/400 second, ISO 400. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

The Sigma 85mm F1.4 offers the pro-level performance similar to its prime stable mates, Sigma’s 20mm 1.4 DG HSM, 24mm 1.4 DG HSM , 35mm 1.4 DG HSM, and 50mm 1.4 DG HSM.

Shooting in low light is made easy with the Sigma 85mm F1.4 Art lens. While some lenses may require you to pre-focus and tape your lens prior to pyrotechnic displays, the super-fast Sigma 85mm locks onto fireworks in an instant on-the-fly. Ashland, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/11, 2 seconds, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

The Sigma 85mm F1.4 is not just for portraits. Its angle of view and sharpness allow for all kinds of work, including nature photography. Celandine poppy, Aullwood Garden MetroPark, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/11, 1/8 second, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

Shooting at f/2.8 creates a picture in which the Phoebe is pleasingly out-of-focus but discernable, allowing viewers to concentrate on the young chipping sparrow she cradles in her hands. Richland County, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/2.8, 1/200 second, ISO 100. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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!

Incredible color, contrast, and detail are three givens when shooting with the Sigma Art lenses. Tulips, Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/16, 1/60 second, ISO 200. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

Portraits

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.

Keeping the hollow tree trunk and Phoebe in focus was the goal in making this portrait, thus the selection of f/8. Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm in Dayton, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/8, 1/1,000 second, ISO 400. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

The 85mm F1.4 produces great head shots. Here, Chuck Gleaves, Director of  Kingwood Center Gardens, Mansfield, Ohio, poses in the ornate 19th century-style parlor of the former home of C. K. King. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/2, 1/25 second, ISO 50. Two light setup. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

Shooting the 85mm F1.4 at f/2 produces shallow depth-of-field for headshots but produces tack-sharp results within the narrow plane-of-focus. Duffy Carto, Board Member, Kingwood Center Gardens, Mansfield, Ohio. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/2, 1/25 second, ISO 50. Two light setup. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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 narrow plane-of-focus of the 85mm F1.4 shot wide open keeps only Annabelle’s eyes and those of the young chipping sparrow in focus. Richland County, Ohio. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/1.4, 1/200 second, ISO 100. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

Mounted to a cropped sensor camera body, the Sigma 85mm F1.4 becomes approximately equivalent to a 135mm F1.4 lens, a great focal length for producing portraits. Here Sarah reclines in her favorite backyard hangout, a diamond-patterned rope hammock. Richland County, Ohio. Nikon D3300E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/2.8, 1/160 second, ISO 200. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

Bokeh

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.

Beautiful bokeh! Shooting wide open with the Sigma 85mm keeps subject’s faces sharply in-focus while rendering foreground and background elements nicely out-of-focus. Rowan, a fox red Labrador retriever, sits among woodland flowers (Virginia bluebells). Richland County, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/1.4, 1/1,000 second, ISO 400. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

Shooting at f/1.4 really helps focus viewers’ eyes on the central redbud flowers, which are sharply in focus. The yard behind is rendered pleasingly out-of-focus! Richland County, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/1.4, 1/125 second, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

Even at the moderately wide-open aperture of f/4, the yard behind distracts from central redbud flowers. Richland County, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/4, 1/20 second, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

While almost all of the redbud flowers are in focus at f/16, the yard behind is in-focus enough to become very distracting. Richland County, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/4, 1/20 second, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

Tulips out-of-focus, showing the remarkable bokeh of the Sigma 85mm F1.4. Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/2, 1/8,000 second, ISO 400. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

Good bokeh opens up all kinds of photographic possibilities, including intentionally shooting out-of-focus for posters, advertisements, internet meme creation, and other copy-placement uses. Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/2, 1/8,000 second, ISO 400. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

Nature

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.

The 85mm can be used to focus on one aspect of a landscape, here highlighting blooming flowers amid an army of tree trunks. Aullwood Garden, Five Rivers Metroparks, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/11, 1/4 second, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

The fine portraiture qualities of the 85mm focal length translates into a well-suited lens for depicting small to medium-size subjects, such as this clump of white trillium. Mohican State Park, Loudonville, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/8, 1/80 second, ISO 400. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Sigma Polarizer Filter. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.”

Shooting at f/2 helped “Job,” roadside art mailbox holder, stand out from distracting background shrubs and trees. Near Berea, Kentucky, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/2, 1/80 second, ISO 100. Hand-held. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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.

The Sigma 85mm F1.4 produces fine architectural shots, directing viewers to focus on one part of a scene. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/16 1/80 second, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Sigma Polarizer Filter. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

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 sailors in William Henry Powell’s “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie” (1865), which hangs under the rotunda of the Ohio Statehouse, were modelled on men in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A later version of this painting hangs over the head of the east stairway in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/11, 8 seconds, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

Click on this image to see a 100% crop (about 4% of the original image) of the center of “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie” by William Henry Powell (1865). This 85mm capture reveals exquisite details of the painting’s hero, Oliver Hazard Perry, as well as representations of Injury, Leadership, and Youth, arranged in classical triangular form. “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie” by William Henry Powell (1865). Rotunda, Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/11, 8 seconds, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

Click on this image to see a 100% crop (about 4% of the original image) of the left side of “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie” by William Henry Powell (1865). Almost impossible to see from the marble floor of the rotunda, the Sigma 85mm F1.4 capture reveals details such as the British Red Ensign or “Red Duster” flag, a cannon firing, and a gaping hole in the prow of Perry’s flagship, the “Lawrence,” from which he and his crew are here fleeing to board the “Niagara.” Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio, USA. Nikon D800E, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. f/11, 8 seconds, ISO 100. Gitzo GT2541EX tripod and Gitzo GH2780QD Ball Head. Photo © 2017 David FitzSimmons. All rights reserved.

Conclusion

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.

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