Sigma 135mm F1.8 DG HSM | Art: First Impressions

“I wish this lens had been in my bag back in my newspaper days” is the first thing I thought when learning of the newest Art prime, the 135mm F1.8 DG HSM | Art. This super-fast aperture tele prime is a big chunk of cutting edge lens technology that is nice and sharp wide open and even sharper stopped down just a touch. And after a visit to my local gourmet cafe and bakery, Conlin’s, for a test shoot, I’d gladly trade the zoom range of a 70-200mm F2.8 for the middle of that range plus the extra stop and a third of light-gathering power for pretty much any restaurant photo assignment.

The Sigma 135mm F1.8 DG HSM | Art lens delivers super-sharp focal plane details and creamy bokeh, making it perfect for all sorts of documentary work. All images in this piece were captured with the lens paired with a Canon EOS 6D, Large, fine JPG, with minimal tonal adjustments made in Adobe Camera RAW. This shot: 1/100 F1.8 ISO 400.

Click here for pricing and availability info on the 135mm F1.8 DG HSM | Art.

The telephoto focal length is perfect for capturing subjects at their tasks, from an inconspicuous working distance. And the three-zone focus limiter helps make the zippy autofocus even more responsive when you are concentrating on a known distance subject.

The focal plane is sliced thin at widest apertures, like this shot at 1/160 F1.8 ISO 400. Notice both the foreground and background blur characteristics, perfect for focus isolation to draw the viewer’s eye into the frame where you choose.

As you can imagine, wide aperture depth of field at closer focal distances is paper thin, perfect for guiding the viewer’s eye exactly where you have chosen to focus.

We are focused exactly on the edge of these breakfast sandwiches, a Jersey classic: Pork Roll Egg and Cheese on fresh bagels. The line cook, the tickets and everything else is softened yet recognizable at 1/125 F1.8 ISO 400 with a touch of bounced fill-flash

In the hands, It is a formidable lens (comparable in general weight and dimensions to the recently released 85mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art and 12-24mm F4 DG HSM | Art lenses), packing 13 elements in 10 groups (two FLD and two SLD elements are in the optical formula), with a 3.6 inch barrel that’s 4.5 inches long before adding the lens hood. And at just over two and a half pounds, there is a heft to it. The wide focus ring ring grip allows the lens to be cradled easily with the left hand ready for either autofocus or manual focus operation with the AF/MF and Focus limiter switches placed easily for a thumb-flick to adjust.

Baker/Partner Scott Snyder rolls out Brioche Dough in the background as a bin of fresh-from-the-oven breads cool in the foreground. 1/160 F1.8 ISO 400, with bounced fill flash.
And here, we shift focus to the baker himself. I had the camera set to all-points AF, and it locked on to the black logo on the chef coat, the highest contrast element in the active focusing point zone. The background elements immediately place the chef in his environment without competing for your visual entry into the frame. 1/160 F1.8 ISO 400.

In indoor lighting (gray card metering showing about 1/60 F1.8 ISO 400), AF was very quick to the focus-lock beep in single AF, and swift in tracking in continuous AF mode paired with a Canon EOS 6D full-frame DSLR. I nailed most of my shots—but since I was hand-holding and tracking moving subjects at their tasks with a depth of field comparable to a few sheets of phyllo dough, some shots in certain series had a focus plane slightly different than where I’d planned.

We are stopped down to F6.3 here, and nearly at the close focus limit, and the depth of field is less than the diameter of a large iced coffee cup. 1/40 F6.3 ISO 400 bounced fill-flash.

With such slight margin for error, even an eighth of a second or less delay between a focus-confirmation beep and firing the shutter can make a big difference. A slight shift in position of either subject or photographer—even a deep breath, can change exactly what will be in focus. For example, on a full-frame camera, the depth of field is 1.44 inches, when focused at eight feet wide open at F1.8.

This isn’t a micro focus thing, this isn’t a lens design issue, this is how things work in the real world. Anyone who has ever stood on the Wii Fit balance board and thought they were standing “perfectly still” and then seen the involuntary motion mapped back to you can grasp what I’m saying here.

Depth of field is amazingly shallow, and focal plane sharpness is knife-sharp, perfect for highlighting details, like the two-tone seeds on the lead bagel here. 1/100 F1.8 ISO 400, bounced fill flash.

I have always loved that pinpoint focal plane feel, and this lens delivers—especially for food and restaurant work—as it draws the viewer’s eye into the frame exactly where you want, and then lets it drift to the sweetly softened ground elements rendered smooth as silk by the gorgeous bokeh the nine rounded aperture blades produce.

For photographers craving Art lens sharpness in a fast tele that delivers creamy bokeh—the Sigma 135mm F1.8 DG HSM | Art lens is a recipe for success!

And a special thanks to the good folks at Conlin’s Cafe & Bakery in Somerville, NJ for allowing me to visit and test out the new lens! I highly recommend their gazpacho, the Pan Chocolat, and the Chicken Club Ciabatta.


Also: Check out the 135mm F1.8 DG HSM | Art lens on a Portrait Shoot!


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