Review: Sigma 85mm f/1.4

Specs and Purchasing Info: (Nikon) (Canon) (Sony) (Pentax)
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110310 101018 60mm f4Picture 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 …

ZIP! ZIP!

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.

110219 230954 85mm f1 4

The Sigma 85mm

Given that it swayed my own purchase, let’s start with the…

Autofocus:

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.

Untitled from Ryan Brenizer on Vimeo.

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.

110219 230617 85mm f1 6A

Sharpness:

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:

110219 100328 85mm f1 6A

100 percent crop:

110219 100328 85mm f1 6A 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:

NYC at f/1.4
NYC at f/8

Bokeh:

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:

110205 205520 85mm f1 4

On normal scenes the background has a very pleasant, impressionistic look:

110205 174625 85mm f1 8

Flare resistance:

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.

110205 205800 85mm f1 4

Build quality:

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.

Recommendation:
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.

More photos taken with the Sigma 85mm

brett maxwell - matches my thoughts almost exactly, and I ended up selling the Nikon G and keeping the Sigma.

Chris Aram - Appreciate you taking the time to review this … and possibly save me $750 to boot! ;-)

adam - I recently picked up the Sigma 85mm too and can’t believe how sharp it is wide open. Focus is dead on everytime for me too! I was a little skeptical after I had a Sigma 50mm that couldn’t get an accurate focus to save it’s life. This 85mm is the one to beat for sure!

Ryan Smith - Now I know what my next lens will be.

Vitalii Kukresh - Yeap, great lens for portraits. for both photo and DSLR video!

Scott - Nice review. I actually tried the Nikon version but sent it back in favor of a new 70-200 vr 2. To me, the 85 didn’t seem that great when I compared it at f2.8 to the old 70-200. Perhaps the focus needed some adjustment, or the shallow depth of field was to blame.

I may try another copy at some point, but it’s great to know the Sigma is a worthy option.

fotograf nunta - The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 seems to be a nice lens but I will keep my Nikon AF-S because I already buyed. Anyway, thx for review. :P

andy stenz - great write-up ryan – i’ve been loving my sigma and i’m glad to know i made a good choice in getting it!

Kent - The photos have shown that the Sigma very soft at wide open. The Nikon 1.4G is much sharper and contrasty at f1.4.

Ryan Brenizer - You’re free to your own opinion, but I’m not seeing what you’re seeing.

dan - i played with one a few months ago whilst holidaying in Japan. even though the store had it mounted in a KISS, i was very impressed with the AF speed. i now borrow a mate’s 85/1.4D whenever i need it, but with me wanting to shoot some 35mm film, i may just stick with the 1.4D for the aperture control.

Steven - I was looking for a review of this lens as I was keen to buy this and the Sigma 50mm 1.4 later this year, unlike most people I don’t really have that much choice in lenses as I have the Sigma SD14 camera so I don’t have the option of Nikon or Canon lenses. So when you teased us with the line “I had to put it down and walk away” my heart sank disappointed, for a moment.

Nice to see that that you liked it, sounds like I will have to add it to my bag for when I finally make the spare bedroom into a studio. Now if only you were to review the upcoming SD1 – ok thats asking too much. But yeah I’ve been missing those reviews lately, good to see that you are finding the time for them again.

xpose - Very good article for Nikon-maniac photographers. All pictures are perfects with tips of lenses, focus and light.Thanks so much

Fotografia Ślubna Kraków - Sigma is getting better and better. Good working AF is grate news also fore other future sigma lenses. Optically Sigma is almost perfect. Thanks for real live tests.

Jeff M - Hey Ryan, I just purchased this lens (sigma 85mm) and am overall pleased but it seems to be relatively soft in sharpness wide open. I’m shooting it on a Nikon D90. Is it normal for lenses to be less sharp at low f stops. I wondered if I have a soft copy or if the depth of field is just so narrow at 1.4 but the images seem quite sharp at f/5.6. It certainly allowed me to get shots of my son playing indoor soccer that I couldn’t get otherwise with my 18-200 VR lens. Is there much difference in the sharpness with the nikon version? Thanks, I appreciate your reviews.

Ryan Brenizer - Jeff, you may want to see if it is backfocusing. Mine needed some focus adjustment. Action makes that doubly hard.

MC - Thanks for sharing your experience… I tested a copy of 85G and it was not sharp wide open and the AF was really slow. Then I switched for Sigma and I am really impressed. I am a big fan of Nikon glass but Sigma 85 rocks IMHO.

andrew - thanks for the review :-)
and that dog really nailed it i guess ;-)
got my 50mm f1.4 just a couple of weeks now
and i have to admit it does what it does
its really sharp at 100% crop even
similar to the dog … i shot towels … :-D … looks like the fur thou …
guess now i will be on my way to get the 85mm f1.4 :-)

andrew - oooppss … forgot to mention … thats SIGMA 50mm im talking about … and the one to get will be … SIGMA 85mm :-D

Mukesh - Bought the Sigma 85 1. 4last Saturday. I have been using Nikon 135 2.8 manual, an old horse, and it gives great pictures and amazing bokeh. The need (or lust) for Sigma arose after reading all around that it had super fast auto focus. After suffering the pains of manual focusing 135 on d200, Sigma made sense. However unfortunately the piece I got had worse focusing accuracy and speed than any othe auto focus lens I had used. Even non HSM lenses 105 and 24 1.8 (both I own) were far superior and exact than the 85 I had landed with. I have since returned the lens to the dealer and the substitute is expected to arrive in a couple of days. I am just praying that the new lens performs as well as you and most on the net have experienced.

Nick - Ryan great work mate. I had the sigma 85mm on my d7000, had to do AF adjustment of -20. Ended up selling it to save up for the G, gave that idea up too after reading your review and ordered a 2nd sigma 85mm. Just hope it wasn’t my d7000 that was back focusing. Cheers mate

John - I took a look at your Nikon 85mm 1.4G review and those pictures look much better in terms of colour, sharpness, and smoother bokeh.

Mike - Ryan, what product/process did you use to do the AF adjustment?

Ryan Smith Photography of Myrtle Beach - Thanks for the review, I was trying to decide between the Nikon and Sigma, you made up my mind to try the Sigma. If you like it I know it has to be good, I don’t need scientific measurements of the lens, just that you liked using it in the field.

Rhys - Ordered this lens today, hope it lives up to it’s promising reputation…

Patrick - Good review. I’m not looking for what you described as a lens that can “outresolve-a-250-megapixel-sensor”. I’m looking for a lens that is crisp enough for decent print or photoalbum. I don’t need the ultra-high resolution at the moment. Rather have a better overall lens. Going to test-drive this lens next week!

iNSIXIANGMY - Thank you for the honest, real world review. I have been a hardcore Nikon brand fan but recently with the changes that Sigma has taken towards engineering their primes. This has changed my views on third party primes like these, with fantastic optics. The savings on $$$$ over the Nikon is just a side bonus too.

Zach - Hi, I’ve read quite a bit of your website, but this review helped convince me to go for the Sigma about 6 months ago. Just writing to report that I couldn’t be happier with my copy. Fortunately, it focuses dead on with no autofocus adjustment on my D3S. I shot with the 85 f1.4D before, and the lack of sharpness in that lens below f2 really drove me nuts. The Sigma I can shoot at f1.4 and know I will get usably sharp and crisp shots. What’s the point of having an f1.4 lens if you can’t use it at that aperture? This lens has saved my but on several assignments where I needed a faster shutter speed and didn’t want my ISO to go to 25,000.

Zsoli Jeffwarder - Sigma baby, you sure seem like a stellar piece of fast optics! :D

Theresa Michalesko Hart - can you explain what you mean by ‘My copy did need significant focus adjustment on my bodies (about -14) to reach perfection’.

Paul - Rather than choosing between the Nikon 85 1.4G and the Sigma 85 1.4, maybe a more relevant question for a lot of amateurs is – is the Sigma 85 1.4 worth the extra over the Nikon 85 1.8G ?

NikonDude - Nikon 85 1.4G is better and … made by Nikon. Sigma might be nice but I would always want the Nikon 85 1.4G …

Steve Fuller - Thanks for the review Ryan. I have to say the Sigma 85mm has transformed my photography and has been the best lens I’ve owned to date!

Mike - I bought the 85g based on your review of it- I wouldn’t trade it for the Sigma even if I could get back an extra $750. I agree with a couple of the other posters here- the sigma is lacking in comparison. These pics lack the IQ that I’m getting from the 85g.

Scott Sheppard - Great review

Raaz Walia - nice pohtography

Annas Yusuf - maybe I should have this..

David Burke - I LOVE my siggy 85 1.4 – £600 second hand compared to £1200 for the Canon 85 1.2 ii – even without the amazing performance, it’s a no-brainer. Thanks for the review.

Andrew Haug - Now that you have gone back to the Nikon 85 1.4g, I wonder if you would still recommend it above the nikon 85 1.4d? What made you go back? Autofocus accurracy? iq?