Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens field tested: Sweet!

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens field tested: Sweet!

Regular readers know that as someone who does a lot of wildlife and sports photography, the long lenses in my camera bag usually don’t leave much room for high-quality (read Large) prime lenses. So I took advantage of a recent hiatus between trips to get review units of two of the sharpest primes to test out with my new . First up is the highly-rated .


by the numbers

Lens ConstructionThis is a big lens, weighing in at just over 2.5 pounds (heavier than Nikon’s own – Sigma claims 39.9 ounces, but with lens shade my review unit weighed just over 40 ounces). It features a very solid build and chic black design. You definitely feel like you are using a state-of-the-art professional lens when you pick it up. Autofocus is very fast (at least with the ), which you’d expect from a high-performance prime with an ultrasonic focusing motor that Sigma says is 1.3x more powerful than the one in its predecessor. Full-time manual focus over-ride is available by simply turning the focus ring. The lens itself consists of 14 elements in 12 groups, with a 9-blade rounded diaphragm for natural Bokeh. The elements have been upgraded over the previous version with new anti-reflective coatings. It can focus down to 33.5 inches, and takes an unusually-sized 86mm screw-in filter.

The lens can be used with Sigma’s USB Dock for updating and tuning.

Street scene: , , 1/500s @ f/8, ISO 200

f/1.4 can make Art better than life

One of the big payoffs of upgrading to a super-fast lens like this one is the shallow depth of focus you can achieve and use to great effect in isolating and highlighting your subject. With smartphones or standalone cameras used with small apertures most of the scene is roughly in focus. With wide apertures both the background and foreground are smoothly blurred. One issue this addresses for photographers is that when viewing a person or a scene ourselves, our eyes and brains isolate the subject automatically. When we are staring at the same scene on paper or a screen, we don’t have access to the same 3D cues, and the scene tends to appear more jumbled together. This photo of a backlit pine tree shot at f/1.4 actually does a better job of separating the tree from the background than my eye was able to do:

Example of how f/1.4 can isolate a subject while keeping it sharp

Comparing the new Art lens to the older Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens

I own the older Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens, and have used it for many portrait shoots and in studio situations over the years. Clearly though, if I want to get the most out of my new camera, I’ll need to bite the bullet and upgrade to the Art lens. You can see the difference in this DxOMark comparison of the two on the Nikon D800E (they haven’t been tested on the D850, so that’s about as close a match as possible).

With Art and Sport Sigma goes head to head with Nikon and Canon

For most of the last decade Sigma has been known for making affordable alternatives to OEM lenses from Nikon, Canon, and Sony. They’ve typically been lighter, less-expensive, and featured a little less build quality. Some of them have been truly excellent but few were set to directly challenge camera vendors Pro lens lines. With Sigma’s launch of its Art and Sport lines, that’s changed. Sigma’s Art and Sport lenses are still somewhat less expensive, but they are built like tanks, and in some cases heavier, and sharper, than their OEM competitors. For example the is about 1/2 pound heavier than the . It also manages to be a few hundred dollars less expensive ($1200 versus $1600), while still being one of the sharpest lenses DxOMark has ever tested.

Technically the does have a tiny amount of distortion, and a little bit of vignetting,
but it is fixed accurately and silently if you use software with lens profiles. If you want to see for yourself, capture
a Raw image and then click the Lens corrections on and off. In the case of this image you can barely see a difference.
, Sigma 85mm Art lens, 1/180s @ f/6, ISO 100

A great Street Photography lens, but far from subtle

The focal length and performance make this lens technically ideal for many styles of street photography, but by the time you attach it to a pro DSLR like the (or even more so to the ) it is the opposite of subtle. Even if you’ve made eye contact with someone, the combined size of the device you’ll be pointing at them is likely to provoke something of a reaction.

This un-touched JPEG from the and shows what the combo is capable of.
To see a more complete gallery of my sample images from the , .
(Note – Some were taken with the Sigma 24mm, the rest with the Sigma 85mm)

Not all lens test scores are created equal

While DxOMark helpfully provides an Overall score, I think it is important to dig below that and look at some of the specific scores and measurement data. Often, a lens’s strengths or weaknesses may be apertures you don’t use, or for lighting conditions you don’t have. Also, not all defects are equally simple to correct. For example, a lack of resolution is very hard to fix in post-processing – but if you are posting to social media, you may never need the 36MP the Art lens can resolve. Similarly, Vignetting and Distortion are relatively simple for software to remove in post-processing (especially if the software has a profile for the lens), while chromatic aberration is very hard to remove.

Is the for you?

If you are serious about 85mm in your photography, and have the room (and can carry the 2.5 pounds) this lens is an amazing option that won’t break the bank. You will probably need new filters (if you use filters) because of its relatively-unusual 86mm thread size. It also doesn’t have image stabilization. That’s fairly typical of super-fast primes, but if you’re not a steady shooter or find yourself needing to use long shutter speeds hand held, then you may want to look elsewhere. The good news is that the lens is .

Sample image Gallery

This gallery of my sample images taken with my are using either the or the , that we’ll have a more complete review of posted soon:


Focal Length

Maximum: f/1.4
Minimum: f/16

Camera Mount Type
Nikon F

Format Compatibility
35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor

Angle of View

Minimum Focus Distance
33.46" (85 cm)


Maximum Reproduction Ratio

14 / 12

Diaphragm Blades
9, Rounded

Image Stabilization


Tripod Collar

Filter Thread
Front: 86 mm

Dimensions (DxL)
Approx. 3.73 x 4.97" (94.7 x 126.2 mm)