Specs and Pricing info
This summer, I looked at the gear I tended to use for weddings — never wider than 24mm, dominated by f/1.4 or f/1.2 primes — and said “Ok, let’s shake this up a bit.” So I chose the Sigma 12-24mm, which on a full-frame camera gives as wide a rectilinear frame as any lens for any system — a 122-degree frame of view. To go wider than that, you have to go fisheye. Moreover, the lens is one of the least light-sensitive professional lenses around — it starts at f/4.5 at the wide end, but if you want to zoom you should just consider it an f/5.6 lens, only letting in 1/16th the light of my 24mm f/1.4.
I’d been having a blast with it, working with new possibilities and limitations, when my pals at B&H asked me if I wanted to review the new version Sigma was releasing. Absolutely — the Mark I Sigma is extremely fun but more than a little quirky, and to get solid performance out of it you generally want to be in the f/11 range, severely limiting use as an indoor available-light lens. I figured the new lens would be more or less identical, but with some new coatings, a bit of new glass, but no major changes.
Then I opened the box. The new lens, even though it has the same basic specs, felt totally different. It’s longer, leaner, and with a wider rear element (the Mark I’s is strangely small). It felt sturdier in the hand, and I could immediately see an improvement in sharpness and vignetting wide-open. This doesn’t mean it’s optically perfect at f/4.5, but it does become more than usable — a real optical challenge at this frame of view.
I don’t often shoot blank walls, but this comparison tells the tale quite well. Below are photos taken with the old and new versions at 12mm f/4.5 with the same 1/4th power bounce flash off a white ceiling, on the left and right respectively:
Enough said. The white wall shows a far more dramatic result than most real-world applications, but when you look at the Mark I photo, the vignetting is so dramatic that you think you might have put a DX lens on your camera by mistake. Some of the vignetting on the left of the Mark II photo may be from the directionality of the flash combined with the extreme angle of view, but even then the falloff is far more gradual.
Also, the difference in color is interesting, given that these were taken with the same flash at the same intensity, in “Flash” white balance setting. The older Sigma seems to have a turquoise cast to it, especially in the vignette. Now, of course lots of photographers pay lots of money for Photoshop actions to create vignetting that looks sort of like that, so there’s no saying what’s better. But I strongly prefer the new version.
In terms of basic usage, it’s hard to tell any difference between the two, because a lens set to 12mm f/5.6 has such a deep depth-of-field already that autofocus is almost an afterthought. If you love bokeh in all of your images, this isn’t the lens for you.
But what sort of things IS this lens good for? Well, it’s wide. Really, really, really wide. So wide that anyone placed near the corners of its pictures looks like Jabba the Hutt. Like with a fisheye, shooting at 12mm is generally something you’ll want to do sparingly, but when used right it can give really dramatic accents.
For instance, it’s hard to find a better lens to show off the interior of a particularly ornate church:
And while subjects too close to you or too close to the edges of the frame will look clownish, with the right placing you can get a great deal of a scene in the frame without looking crazy. Here you can see a lot of the scene, including the same little peninsula I’m standing on, but it doesn’t scream “Crazy wide!!”
And the same here, because the human elements are close to the center of the frame:
The real strength of it is to see commonplace scenes in very different ways. Because it’s so wide, every parallel line instead becomes something converging toward a perspective — which might drive architects crazy, but can also make for interesting compositions:
Not to mention the sort of “reverse compression,” where your subjects can fit into any frame or arch or space that would normally be too large:
Sigma has done a greg job with the revamp of this lens — there are always going to be lots of challenges from shooting ultra, ultra-wide, but with the new model at least the challenges are just coming from perspective instead of lens design.
If this sounds up your alley, purchase it here.