Introduction: 12-24mm F4 DG HSM Art
The Sigma 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM Art lens is the lens you have been dreaming of for landscape, architecture, travel, automotive, train, and nature photography. Featuring a constant f/4 aperture for bright viewing and quick focusing, impeccable corner-to-corner sharpness, and impressive close-focusing capabilities, Sigma has given photographers every reason to upgrade their ultrawide glass right now.
Beyond the first impression when you pick this beauty up—namely, an immediate sense of the pro-level quality of the lens—there is in the end the satisfaction with the remarkable detail this lens resolves. Beginning at 12mm, picking up 122° or more than one-third of the world around you, this lens reveals intricacies that you would never see with the naked eye. While you might expect good center sharpness—the 12-24 has this in spades—the edge and corner sharpness is excellent, too. Add to this contrasty, nicely color-balanced images, and little distortion, and you have the perfect tool for prize-winning photography.
Highlights of the Sigma 12-24mm:
- Wide aperture providing bright viewfinder images throughout zoom range.
- Robustly built for decades of pro-level use.
- Contrasty, spot-on color rendering, and super, super sharp!
The Sigma 12-24mm f/4 lens offers the pro-level performance previously only available in fixed-focal length lenses. From sunrises and sunsets to wildflower and waterfalls, from buildings and bridges to cars and trains, this ultrawide zoom fits nicely into the Art lens line-up already made legendary by the 20mm 1.4 DG HSM, 24mm 1.4 DG HSM, 35mm 1.4 DG HSM, 50mm 1.4 DG HSM, and 85mm 1.4 DG HSM.
Design & Features
The Sigma 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM lens is one of the Sigma Global Vision Art lenses. Sigma’s Art lenses are known world-wide for their ground-breaking designs, superlative image quality, and rugged construction. Upon picking up the 12-24mm, you will immediately be greeted by this quality feel.
Built for use on full-frame cameras, the Sigma 12-24mm f/4 is finished in matte black. On the one hand, it is certainly not diminutive in size, measuring 4” in diameter and 5.2” long, but, on the other hand, this lens is not all that large considering its full-frame designation, widest focal length of 12mm, and constant f/4 aperture.
A petal hood petal hood, extending 1.25” beyond the front ring, plus its matching front cap, makes the lens look a bit bigger than lenses with removable hoods. The built-in hood is important on this lens insofar as the front element bulges out about 1/2” past the front lens ring. The front cap, lined with a velour-like ring inside, fits snugly and smoothly. It provides secure protection during shoulder-slung use yet slides off pleasingly well when ready for action.
The 12-24mm f/4 is well-built in other ways. Its 40.6 ounces may seem on the heavy side, but, like the overall dimensions, this is not excessive considering the combination of ultrawide views and the constant fast aperture. Its glass consists of 16 elements arranged in 11 groups. The design incorporates FLD glass, which performs similarly to Fluorite components.
Focusing is smooth and precise. The HSM motor provides fast, quiet operation in autofocus. For manual operation, the 1/2” front ring is well-damped, turning 130°. The minimum focusing distance is an impressive 9.4” at 24mm, allowing close-up magnifications up to 1:4.9.
Zooming is accomplished with the 1/2”“ rubber ring toward the aft of the lens. Rotation is smooth and well-damped, describing 70° of rotation. While the front element moves in-and-out during zooming, the generous petal-shaped hood protects throughout its range. Regardless of the camera’s position, from upside down to pointed straight up, no zoom creep occurs.
The Sigma 12-24mm ships with the built-in hood, a slide-on front cap, a rear cap, and a padded case. As with all the Sigma lenses, it is covered by a four-year manufacturer’s warranty.
Handling in the Field
Shooting with this wide-aperture, full-frame glass is just plain fun. Gone are the days of squinting through small, variable aperture lenses that make it hard to see in anything but mid-day lighting. As I have pointed out elsewhere, namely in my reviews of the Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM Art (which I explored here) and the Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM Art (which I explored here), Sigma is committed to making wide-aperture, constant-aperture, pro-level zooms. The Sigma 12-24mm F4 DG HSM is no exception. Insofar as it remains at f/4 throughout its range, viewfinder shooting is efficient even at the ends of the day, at night, or in dark indoor locations. In addition, the fast glass makes autofocusing a snap. Images are locked in immediately.
One of the most enjoyable things about shooting with the Sigma 12-24mm f/4 is the instant, amazing results, namely brilliantly sharp images showing up on your LCD. Take a picture of an landscape and then review it: sharp, center and edges. Shoot an interior: sharp. Shoot at night: sharp. Are you getting the idea that this lens is sharp?! If you have been taking pics with another ultrawide, you owe it to yourself to try this one out. I predict that you are going to be blown away by how much detail this lens can resolve.
While the Sigma 12-24mm f/4 is a sizeable lens, it feels great on my Nikon D800E. With its good balance, fast maximum aperture, and short focal lengths, this lens easily hand-holdable for many situations. Zooming is butter-smooth and well-damped as you frame your subject. In low light situations, manual focusing is certainly possible but gets a bit tricky on the wide end. Autofocusing is quick at all focal lengths, even indoors or at the ends of the day.
Wide angle lenses are the bread-and-butter of nature and travel photographers. While I wrote here about the merits of shooting with the Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM Art (which I explored here), sometimes you do need more wide angle reach. The extreme focal lengths of the Sigma 12-24mm help capture stunning images in locations such as gorges and are a must for sunrise and sunset photography.
For geological reasons, cascades often form in narrow gorges, which leave photographers trying to depict frothy water in cramped quarters. Such was the case when I visited Cumberland Falls State Park in southern Kentucky. The main waterfall, Cumberland Falls, is large and in, by waterfall standards, a fairly wide gorge. Even there, however, wide glass was required to pick up the gorge, falls, and foreground details, such as the overhang rock extending from the fall to my vantage point. Zooming to 18mm helped define the foreground, middle ground, and background subjects, a fine recipe for creating a sense of three-dimensionality.
After shooting the main falls, I hiked down the opposite side of the gorge, where Eagle Falls is tucked in a small valley off the main gorge. For this plunge, I zoomed out to 12mm to capture the falls, slump blocks, surrounding rock faces, and nearby trees. (See photo above.) Having an ultra-sharp, ultrawide in your bag is just the ticket for waterfall photographers.
Another advantage to shooting the 12-24mm with a high resolution camera is that you can shoot wide and then crop as you see fit later. As a calendar photographer, this is a real benefit. I can capture a scene in great detail and count on fitting it to various rectangular and square formats, as well as cropping in to increase the balance with each particular aspect ratio. The shot of Anglin Falls (below at the end of feature) was taken at 12mm and then cropped to an 8×10 ratio, still retaining great detail.
For sunrises and sunsets, I love to start wide, zoom in when the sun reaches the horizon, and then zoom back out. Right before sunrise and right after sunset, the sky fills with colors. For modest crepuscular displays, focal lengths in the 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm may be enough, but when the sky really lights up, there is nothing like having 12mm at your disposal. Indeed, for most sunsets I find myself setting ‘er as wide as she’ll go.
An example: After returning home from a photo trip, I pulled into our drive shorty before sunset and glanced at the sky. I could see beautiful clouds to the west and color starting to fill in. I jumped in my truck, drove to the top of a nearby glacial hill, and began shooting. Every frame I took that night was at 12mm as the sky lit up with colors from east to west.
Of course, the Sigma 12-24mm is great for other nature subjects beyond waterfalls, sunrises, and sunsets, such as photographing wildflowers. I love finding carpets of blooms. One of my favorites are Virginia bluebells. The light blue bell-shaped flowers, which are deep pink before opening blue, are set off against foliage that ranks among the greenest I’ve seen. The key to capturing images of large patches of flowers is to create a center of interest. That is, a photograph of the broad expanse of blooms is not enough. It must have something to anchor your attention.
One technique that works well in creating a center of interest is to use an ultrawide lens in the portrait position and, near the bottom of the frame, get close to foreground flowers so that the buds appear relatively large. Then you let the plants stretch out into the middle ground and background, getting smaller and smaller. The sense of depth you create this way helps depict the wide expanse of plants. Below is an example of how I used just such an approach for bluebells in Richland County, Ohio, using the 12-24mm zoom.
The close-focusing ability of the Sigma 12-24mm makes it a useful tool in other ways when photographing flowers. Besides being able to depict large patches or gardens-full of blooms, photographers can move in close and get remarkable near-macro shots. Focusing to just 9.4” at 24mm, the 12-24mm can produce up magnifications up to 1:4.9.
While the 12-24mm focuses closest at 24mm, I prefer getting close to subjects using the wider end. At 12mm, this lens still focuses down to about 10”. This means that you can move in close to subjects such that they are less than five inches away from the front of the glass. You can use the wide angle perspective to highlight blooms near the camera and show others receding away elsewhere in the frame. This dramatic effect can be seen in the red tulips image near the top of this feature and in the bougainvillea shot below.
Many people assert that the effect seen in these two close-up floral images show a “negative” distortion, that ultrawide angle lenses with close subjects create unpleasing changes to the subject. This apparent distortion, however, is an artifact of viewing distance, not the lens. To understand what this is all about, consider the following: As you move in closer to these images, they appear less and less distorted. In fact, if you could print them two or three feet in size and then put your nose 6” to 10” inches away, the distortion would disappear.
If you haven’t tried this before, shoot a few images and try it. Getting closer to wide angle shots makes the subjects look similar to what they did in real life. In other words, the distortion that people negatively associate with wide angle lenses depicting close-at-hand subjects is actually a function of viewing distance, not a defect of the optic.
Flowers are not the only subjects that can benefit from close-ups. All kinds of subjects can be made more dramatic using super-wide views. Visiting Estero Beach, Florida, ostensibly to photograph birds, I happened upon a sand-covered sea star in the intertidal zone. A close-up with the 12-24mm created a more dimensional depiction of this echinoderm. The lens choice helps create a greater sense of depth as the sea star appears to rise out of the picture. This is amplified by the contrast of the sun and the stark shadow.
In all my years of photographing architecture, no focal lengths have served me better than those of ultrawide lenses. The benefits range from allowing you to capture entire cityscapes, helping you frame much of tight interiors, and depicting exteriors among close-built buildings, not to mention giving you plenty of resolution to shoot straight-on for avoiding converging vertical lines.
I love shooting nighttime architectural scenes with the 12-24mm. The fast aperture allows you to see what you are shooting, and the results are spectacular. While checking into a hotel in Covington, Kentucky, I requested a waterfront room to produce skyline shots of Cincinnati. The result was a nice view of the Ohio River, the Roebling Bridge, and the Queen City. The images are full of intricate details. When you zoom in on the Cincinnati image produced by the 12-24mm, you see amazing detail, including individual windows, cables and a flagpole on the bridge 1/3-mile away, and much, much more!
Another great way to use the super-sharp ultrawide Sigma 12-24mm F4 DG HSM Art lens is to shoot cityscapes straight-on to avoid vertical line convergence. If you point a lens up or down when photographing vertical lines, such as those most visible in downtown shots, these straight lines no longer look parallel. By using the level built into your camera or utilizing a bubble level, you can line up your camera so that it is pointing straight ahead. This results in a shot that keeps the vertical lines perfectly aligned. Of course, this means that much of the sky may need to be cropped out. Having the super-sharp 12-24mm mounted to a high-resolution imager renders this immaterial. You can produce images detailed enough for print uses and even for display in gallery displays.
In addition to photographing the stoic lines of the city, the 12-24mm allows you to have fun with all kinds of irregular shapes. One such object that comes to mind is Cloud Gate in Chicago. Visiting the bean-shaped metal sculpture is an amazing and interactive experience. The curved-upward underside begs for visitors to walk below, peering up at themselves and the distorted world. The experience also begs for taking pictures. To do photographic justice to this perspective, you need an ultrawide angle lens, which can capture you and the many other people reflected in Cloud Gate. With my final image, I chose to further increase the disorientation by converting the shot to black and white.
While you can image all kinds of specific uses for the Sigma 12-24mm, from trains and planes to first communions and concerts, I decided to test this lens on depicting cars. First I carried the zoom to the biggest auto show in North America, the Detroit Auto Show. While the trade show floor was packed, the 12-24mm was perfect for these tight spaces. The f/4 aperture view made framing easy, and the sharpness of the lens allowed for high-detail images.
Next, I visited the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. There I captured images from all kinds of angles. For a boldly blue 1963 Corvette, I got down near the front fender to emphasize sporty red stripes and the powerhouse under the hood. For a 1957 ‘vette sporting powder blue paint, I pulled back and to capture its gas station setting.
Simply put, the Sigma 12-24mm F4 DG HSM Art Lens is one sharp optic. From resolving detail in urban architectural scenes to depicting individual leaves in a landscape, this lens rocks! Furthermore, color is spot on. Images are beautifully contrasty. And resolution is amazing.
You could obsess over the FLD lens specs, pour over sample images online (like those seen above), or read the great reviews. I would suggest, however, the surest bet is taking this lens for a spin. Once you shoot using solid techniques, the real fun will begin as you pixel peep on your studio displays. Mark my words: You are going to see details you didn’t even come close to witnessing in person.
Conclusion: 12-24mm F4 DG HSM
The Sigma 12-24mm F4 DG HSM Art Lens lives up to its family name. Like the other standouts in the Art lens line, this ultrawide zoom delivers across the board. Its wide f/4 aperture provides bright viewfinder images, it is built bull-tough for decades of professional use, and its images are contrasty, spot-on in color, and superlatively sharp!