Skip to my recommendation
Picture this: It’s late 2010. I’ve just bought the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G while on assignment in Singapore, and I am absolutely thrilled with it. Its autofocus isn’t super-fast, but it’s accurate, and the optics are absolutely out-of-this-world in sharpness, flare resistance, and just plain prettiness. So I’m feeling pretty good as I walk into the PhotoPlus Expo, where they have a test sample of the brand-new Sigma 85mm f/1.4.
I’m curious, of course. I’ve always appreciated Sigma’s willingness to foray into the field of fast prime lenses, and was a very early adopter of both their 30mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.4. So I put it on my camera. Ready, aim …
The autofocus bounds around like an excited terrier, locking into objects with startling speed. My heart sinks a little. This $950 lens is noticeably speedier than the twice-as-expensive one I just bought!
I had to put it down and walk away. The Nikon was a fantastic lens, after all, and I wasn’t having any problems with it focusing on the job. Best to just forget the possible cost-savings and move on.
But I couldn’t forget it, and after my precious Nikon 85 decided to stay on a taxicab floor during a manic, five-locations-in-90-minutes engagement shoot, I knew where to turn.
Given that it swayed my own purchase, let’s start with the…
Yes, it’s faster, and it locks on well. It has a zip to it that the current Nikon f/1.4 primes lack. In the video below, I am first pointing it first at a blank white wall to show the speed it goes to infinity and back, and then pointing it out the window to show how fast it locks on to detail. Very impressive. Again, in the field there is no extreme difference, because with accurate autofocus you tend don’t spend a lot of time focusing from infinity to back again, but the Sigma is a clear winner overall.
If you’re a Canon user, the autofocus speed will absolutely smack the optically amazing 85mm f/1.2 silly.
Caveat: My copy did need significant focus adjustment on my bodies (about -14) to reach perfection, and also will very occasionally lose communication on the lens mount contacts, either losing all autofocus or reporting that is is a “7800mm f/95” lens. I’m used to this happening with heavier lenses like 70-200s as gravity makes them lose contact with the mount, but not smaller primes. This may sound like a big problem, but keep in mind that this sort of thing widely varies from copy to copy and to their relationship with individual cameras, and also keep in mind that my cameras have been banged around quite a bit. If you like shooting fast primes wide-open, I strongly recommend using cameras that have micro-focus adjustment, and always buy any lens from places with good return policies in case a particular copy has issues (like … hey! … B&H through the links above).
This lens has no problems catching action, even at f/1.4.
It’s sharp, even wide-open. Is it “OH MY GOD!”, outresolve-a-250-megapixel-sensor sharp at f/1.4? No. Just plain old nice and sharp. Let’s take a 100 percent crop from this picture, taken at f/1.6:
100 percent crop:
I’d give the 85mm f/1.4G a slight edge here, but that’s sharp enough for me, and a tad sharper than the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D. The Canon 85mm f/1.2 should be a bit sharper at all wide apertures.
I din’t share RAW samples from client images, so here are a couple quick RAW images of snapshots out my window to compare f/1.4 and f/8. This is the closest I will ever get to shooting a brick wall:
If you’re buying a fast 85mm lens, you probably really care about how the out-of-focus parts look. After all, if you use it wide-open, most of your frame will be out of focus. The Nikon 85mm D and G are both justifiably famous for their out-of-focus rendering, and Sigma clearly knew they couldn’t release a lens with terrible bokeh. This is a bit subjective, but to my eyes they came through splendidly:
On normal scenes the background has a very pleasant, impressionistic look:
This was an area where the new Nikon 85mm was absolutely stellar, and it still has a leg up on the Sigma. With strong backlighting, your wide-open shots will definitely lose some contrast compared to the G lens. It’s not bad at all; it’s just that the new Nikon is that good.
People who prefer an old-school metal finish will still like the feel of the older Nikon 85mm D over either the new Nikon or the Sigma, both of which have a very solid but somewhat plasticky feel. At least Sigma has stopped the “peach fuzz” finish on their lenses that tended to flake off very quickly. My rough field usage can make a new lens look old within a few weeks, but the Sigma remains unblemished.
The hood is solid and reversible, with a ring of notches to make it easier to twist off. Contrast this to the terrible hood on the old Nikon, which could not reverse and you ran the risk of literally twisting your lens in half when taking it off.
The strongest recommendation is that I bought it for myself. My clients come first, and I only use tools that get the job done well, so if it’s in my bag, I love it. When this eventually breaks, gets lost, or stolen I’ll have a tough choice again between the autofocus of the Sigma or the slightly better optics of the new Nikon, but as a professional with lots of clients, budget doesn’t come into play nearly as much as it does for most camera users. If the two lenses are that close, the $750 you’ll save with the Sigma is a Big Freaking Deal.
Most new users: Buy the Sigma 85. It’s the speediest around, and a great performer.
For best optics: If you’re in a controlled environment, trying to outresolve a megapixel-monster, and price is not an issue, the camera-maker’s lenses still seem a little bit better. Nikonians get the 85mm f/1.4G, Canonistas get the 85mm f/1.2.
If you’re still shooting manual-focus film cameras or love freelensing: You need an aperture ring. Get the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D. Or if you don’t need AF at all, save money with the manual focus Samyang or Vivitar 85mm f/1.4.
Yes, the 85mm f/1.4D, once my favorite lens in the world, has been outclassed to the point of a niche recommendation. Progress marches on.