Plugged In: Rebooted lenses worth another look

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Six or seven years ago, Japanese after-market optics maker Sigma had a deservedly poor reputation for mediocre lenses which, if not exactly good, were at least affordable. Fast forward to 2015 and the emergence of Sigma as one of the three or four best lens makers in the world.

Between 2012 and 2015, Sigma introduced a wide variety of greatly improved optical designs, prograde construction and quality control that’s among the best in the industry. Despite the considerable upgrade in versatility and quality, Sigma’s lenses remain relatively affordable yet routinely exceed the optical performance and construction quality of more expensive comparable lenses made by name brands like Zeiss, Canon and Nikon.

Sigma now matters to every photographer using an interchangeable-lens camera because it’s becoming the first and best choice when upgrading from the inexpensive kit lens that usually ships with an interchangeable-lens camera. Most newer Sigma lens designs are made in a variety of lens mounts to natively fit nearly every popular camera brand. That makes a comparative discussion easy because variations of the same basic lens can be purchased to natively fit many different cameras.

Our discussion this week is limited to the newest Sigma designs. Older models remain as mediocre as ever. If you’re not sure, check online reviews of the exact name of the lens, omitting no groups or letters. The naming difference between old and new Sigma lenses is subtle, at best, so be careful that you’re getting the newest models. Generally, the more recent models are optically stabilized and thus include an “OS” grouping in the longer name.

It’s worth noting what Sigma did right in just a few years. Sigma was set in its ways for many years, neglecting to upgrade its overall quality and remain competitive. Sigma did have some strong latent advantages, including creative and competent optical designers, a highly experienced workforce at its sole plant in rural Japan and a closely controlled supply chain in which the company made everything needed. When Sigma’s founder died, his son made the most of these homegrown assets, switching design and marketing strategy to very high-quality lenses that filled important niches overlooked by the major manufacturers, and backed by excellent quality control.

The most recent Sigma lenses now tend to be larger and heavier than most. That’s because the company uses a lot of glass inside the lens barrel, necessary to ensure high optical performance. Unlike some of the competition, most Sigma lenses are not weather- and dust-sealed, but at least you’ll get a large but secure lens case and a lens hood, something many name brands omit.

In the company’s first major shift, three distinct product lines emerged — its top-end “Art” series intended for professional photographers and other demanding users, the “Sport” series intended for sports, wildlife and other photographers who need high-performance telephoto zoom lenses, and the “Contemporary” series, less expensive consumer-market lenses.

Several early Art products for digital SLR cameras — two single-magnification “prime” lenses and one wide-angle zoom — surprised the professional photographic world, forcing a major re-evaluation of Sigma as a high-quality brand suitable for serious professional use. Sigma’s first breakthrough product was a 35-mm f/1.4 prime lens of exceptionally good sharpness, suitable as a moderate, wide-angle lens on full-frame dSLR cameras, or as a standard lens on dSLR cameras using smaller, APS-C sensors. It’s a prograde lens that’s as sharp or sharper than comparable Zeiss, Canon L and Nikon G lenses but at a lower price.

Similarly, the newer Sigma 50-mm f/1.4 Art model is generally considered to be as good a lens as the Zeiss Otus, previously considered the quality benchmark. The Otus costs four times as much as the Sigma 50-mm Art model, but unlike the Sigma, the Zeiss has neither autofocus nor auto-exposure capabilities. The choice seems clear to me.

The second surprising — and surprisingly good — product is a very bright f/1.8 18- to 35-mm wide-angle-to-normal zoom lens available for most dSLR cameras using APS-C sensors. It’s widely believed that this lens reinvigorated interest in APS-C dSLR cameras as professional tools. It’s that good a zoom. Ordinarily, a zoom lens is less sharp than a single-magnification prime lens, trading off some sharpness for versatility. In contrast, Sigma’s 18- to 35-mm zoom tests sharper than Canon’s latest and more expensive 24- and 35-mm L optics, each costing nearly twice as much.

More recently, Sigma startled by introducing a similar 24- to 35-mm f/2 zoom lens primarily intended as a very bright wide-angle zoom for full-frame cameras. No other manufacturer has attempted such a bright, full-frame, wide-angle zoom. And it’s sharper than equivalent name-brand, single-magnification prime lenses. Until objective tests were published, many scoffed at Sigma’s claim that this lens could replace all three wide-angle prime lenses, 24 mm, 28 mm and 35 mm, typically found in a professional’s full-frame kit, but it can.

Among photographers using full-frame cameras, a 24- to 70-mm wide-angle-to-mid-telephoto zoom is the most commonly used lens. Sigma’s current offering is an older model that’s decent but doesn’t surpass comparable Nikon and Zeiss models. I expect an upgraded Art model within six to 12 months. The newer 24- to 105-mm f/4 Art series zoom is not quite as bright but is lighter and has a higher maximum magnification. Both professional and user reviews are quite positive.

In the less-expensive, consumer-grade Contemporary series, two relatively affordable new Sigma zoom lenses stand out. The C 18-200 mm f/3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM wide-angle-to-telephoto megazoom clearly refutes the notion that zoom lenses with a very wide magnification range can’t be acceptably sharp across their entire magnification range. The Contemporary series 150- to 600-mm ultratelephoto zoom does much better than most high-magnification consumer zooms. It’s nearly as sharp as its more expensive sibling in the prograde Sports product line.

Several of Sigma’s macro-telephoto prime lenses remain highly regarded, including its 70-mm f/2.8 and newer optically stabilized 105-mm and 180-mm models. They’re suitable for both full-frame and smaller APS-C sensor dSLR cameras.

Although all of the lenses discussed above are suitable only for digital SLR cameras, Sigma does make a few compact f/2.8 Art lenses for Sony and Micro Four-Thirds mirrorless cameras that are exceptionally good values, usually selling in the $199 to $209 range. The 19-mm DN wide-angle lens is decent, the 30-mm normal lens is very good and the 60-mm medium telephoto is exceptionally sharp. A highly regarded 14-mm wide-angle DN Art should be available by the end of the year

Were I to personally buy new dSLR lenses or change systems, the newer Sigma lenses would top my list.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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