Review of Sigma 135mm F1.8 DG HSM “Art” for Sony FE

This may not be the proper review you expect. If you need the technical data – Lenstip and many other sites already have it, and you have probably read it already. It’s more like a hands-on, but I’ll turn it into a rolling review showing more images as they come, and using the lens for different purposes.

Foreword

After a week spent in Croatia and Slovenia, I should have probably started by reviewing the Sony FE 85mm and 55mm f/1.8 and adding the second part to my Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8 Di III RXD review, since I’ve spent plenty of time with those lens (and, finally, with my Mavic 2 Pro). But then my new toy arrived just a day after we returned, and I couldn’t resist sharing my first experience while it was fresh in my mind.

I got the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art from Amazon UK (available in Germany too – here, but right now not available in their US website) after I cancelled an order for the Sigma MC-11 adapter and the Sigma mount version of the same lens that would have cost me a little bit less. I probably made a mistake with that, but I will elaborate on the subject later. My other choice was buying the MC-11 adapter version for Canon EF (or Metabones V) and sticking to the Canon EF 135mm f/2 that I can buy cheaper on eBay or from the local Photo forum, but I’m not one of the fans of the red rings and I really wanted to have the best possible light transmission and maximum resolution, so… here we are, talking about the brilliant monster Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art for Sony Full Frame E-mount.

Alternatives

First of all, here is the current deal with the converters and native 135mm lens with auto-focus. For once, there is the Zeiss Batis 135mm f/2.8 (which I will leave for a comparison later in the review). And that’s that, the only other FE-mount 135mm is the Sigma. Not much choice, until you realize that using a converter you can also get the reverent Canon EF 135mm f/2, which is widely regarded as a great portrait lens. The thing  with the adapters with AF – you either stick to the most often used Metabones V, which provides plenty of features, firmware updates, etc., but with lens it still performs as adapted lens, or you go the Sigma MC-11 road for Sigma mount lens (or MC-11 for Canon EF lens) , which is a bit risky, considering Sigma only guarantees it would work with Sigma lens with the Sigma or EF mount and one of the firmware updates broke the support for Canon glass (temporary, latest update works okay). With the Sigma MC-11 the lens behave as any FE native glass and every function of the camera works, including the Eye-AF, DMF, etc. It is also cheaper than the Metabones by a good margin.

ISO100, 1/640, f/2.2

Initially I ordered the Sigma mount version of the Sigma 135mm Art and adapter, with the idea that the adapter will be useful for other lens too – the Sigma mount versions are still cheaper than the E-mount versions, so you’d save quite a bit in the long term. Also this way I’d gain access to the upcoming 70-200 f/2.8 Sport and a cheaper version of the 35mm f/1.4 I plan to use for astrophotography, but I didn’t want to use the adapted versions. Alternatively one can get the Canon EF 135mm f/2 and pay even less (and also gain the ability to use Canon EF Lens, looking at you, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM) – this would make it even cheaper, as you can easily find the Canon at a price much lower than the MSRP nowadays.

ISO100, 1/2500, f/1.8

There is one last thing to consider – the Sigma 135mm /1.8 DG HSM Art looks like they just slapped the converter inside. It’s bigger by the EF/Sigma mount versions. And, pains me to say this – it also feels a but like adapted lens. And I wonder if the Sigma version + the MC-11 would have worked the same – hence my doubt I made a mistake canceling the order for converter and Sigma mount version to order this one. But that’s something I won’t find unless Sigma blesses me with a free Sigma-mount copy and adapter, so I’ll leave it for better times.

The bad news first

May be the most important thing you should know is that the autofocus with the Sigma 135mm, while by no means slow (and it is virtually quiet too), still underperforms compred to some fast native lens. The lens hunts quite often outside studio conditions, but that “quite” is there only if you compare it to the Zeiss glass. I have an 85mm FE /1.8 and I have a bit better success rate with it, yet I realize it 50mm shorter, more compact and times lighter lens, which makes it easier to avoid photographer mistakes. The Sigma is unforgiving to bad handling, and sometimes it just decides to show you the finger.

ISO100, 1/6400, f/2.5. Focus went really off in this shot. Too bad, as I rather like it.

Even out in the sun you may find you need to use the limiter button to make it bearable. It still works great function-wise – with DMF you get the manual focus assist – and oh, boy, you don’t even need peaking to see the sharpness, sometimes you’ll get moire-like patterns on thin objects like hair or cloth directly in the visor), with AF-C and Eye-AF it tracks the eyes or faces when it loses the eyes, and you can use the focus point nearly everywhere on the screen. I have some images with focus in the extreme corner of A7R II sensor. It focuses where you want it, but it won’t feel like instant results every time, when you try to nail the ever moving kid’s eye or, essentially – any moving target. And sometimes it fails and starts hunting.  Don’t get me wrong – it will work most of the time, but sometimes, like 5% of the shots, it will make you cry in frustration.

ISO320, 1/3200, f/3.2. I tried focusing on the motorbike, but the focus is behind it.

The Sigma is also huge. Put the hood on and it becomes enormous. And it is also very heavy, as to be expected of lens as bright as this one. I didn’t find it difficult to shoot with it if I hold the lens with my left hand, but working with one hand while keeping a thumb for the Eye-AF is hard without the grip. The lens itself is over 1.1 kg, and the weight is in the front.

The good news

It is very, very sharp even wide open. An I’m talking about more than usable f/1.8 to superb f/2-2.2. At f/2.8 you won’t b able to find a flaw. I have images to prove it, but take my word – even with the 42 megapixel sensors this lens has plenty more to give. Stopping it down improves the sharpness even further, but not by a huge margin, and that’s limited to f/3.2. From f/4 to f/8 you get pretty much the same results, bar the difference in the depth of the focust field.

Problem is at f/1.8 you have a hair-thin focus field that is hard to put exactly where you want it. Closing to f/2 or f/2.2 doesn’t even change the much the out of focus areas (bokeh), and if possible, it makes it even sharper, and much easier to nail focus because of the slightly increased depth of field.

It doesn’t have CA of any sort (well, may be some cyan cast on the edge of some extreme setup, but it’s a pixel wide and it is far from being obvious, so I’d say it is more like “zoom to 500% and you may notice the few tinted pixels” case, I tried to uncheck correction in LR, couldn’t find them. According to Lenstip it’s also one of the lens with superb coma correction. Also it doesn’t show softening anywhere for any reason.

And then comes the bokeh. I know this is subjective, but in my opinion the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art has this “art” at the end for a reason. May be more so than any other lens in the range. It’s smooth, and it manages to separate the subject completely from f/1.8 to f/2.2, with some forms starting to come back in the background at f/2.8, without any sign of being nervous, bright rings/edges or anything that would ruin an image for you.

Flares do exist only if you are extremely unlucky. If you use the supplied hood, you will have to look nearly directly in the sun to provoke them. Sure you can pick up a flare or ruin an image, but it can happen with any lens if you do it dliberately. From a full day under the sun without using the hood (it makes the lens seem huge), I have just one image ruined by the sun and I did it on purpose:

A small gren blob is all I have, but the image lost contrast.

BTW, you can put the focus somewhere on the sides and people won’t notice that you are aiming a huge glass against them. It is extremely sharp in the corners even suing wide apertures. A 100% with default sharpening:

And here is something literaly extreme:

The so called “compression” makes the lensextremely suitable for some interesting street or architectural shots. Or just adding depth to images. This is a crop from larger image I took, together with f/8 it shows the effect well:

Click for higher res

On the side of the lens there is a limiter switch with three positions. You will probably have to learn to rely on it, as it helps to avoid unnecessary hunting for focus. There is no point staying in the closest range if you are going to shoot furter, or to have infinity if you are planning to shoote close ups.

AF is silent, and absolutely usable with Eye-AF and DMF. I’m only missing a button on the ife of the barrel for the Eye-AF, but it’s not that big deal.

Some mixed news

Some reviewers expressed strong opinion against the 82mm thread of the filter. In my opinion the biggest problems with Sigma is not that they need biger and more expensive filters, but that they don’t follow a particular order and you need different sizes for the different lens they offer. 82mm is big but you can step it down to 77mm and even avoid vignetting on the way. I don’t mind since the Sigma doesn’t actually need a filter (yet I found a good one and I will let you know how it worked when it arrives).

Click for 100% crop from the first image

Final thoughts

The Sigma 135mm F1.8 DG HSM “Art” for Sony E-mount has its small flaws, namely the focusing doesn’t feel fast, but its optical qualities are nearly unrivaled, especially if you consider the price. Personally I think it’s brilliant for its purpose, with the only general flaw being its size and somehow (if your are coming from a really fast prime)- the AF. It’s a monster (and not just on its own, as Sigma makes other lens with similar sizes), but the build quality is top notch and having a limiter to reduce the hunt and/or shoot at closest distance is also a geat idea, otherwise you may run into the abovementioned AF issues.

That being said – the AF not being instant and the occasional hunting in specific conditions outdoors are the only real gripes I have with the Sigma. And I know for a fact that using the Canon EF 135mm f/2 glass with one of the AF adapters is even more unsatisfying, so I’d still take the Art lens anytime over this combination.

The only other choice I have is the Zeiss Batis 135mm f/2. , which costs a a bit more or may even be found at the same price if you are willing to get a used one. The Zeiss definitely has more neutral rendering, and in general it is much lighter, which is really good if you want to travel with it. It also has an optical stabilization, which is kind of useless for portraits but helps with almost anything else.

What the Batis lacks though, is the light transmission of the Sigma – f/1.8 vs. 2.8, and to me its bokeh, even at the same aperture, has much less quality, being more “swirly” and busy (similarly, the Canon 135mm f/2 also suffers from the swirly effect, albeit to a lesser degree). The Sigma lacks that problem almost completely. Also I think the Sigma is sharper if stopped down to the f/2.8, and for once we know it’s superb for astrophotography (if you shoot with long lens, as my best guess is there aren’t many people that would do it with the lens in qustion). In short – the Zeiss is lighter and has better color rendition, while the Sigma is brighter, may be sharpe, has better bokeh and superb corrections. If you shoot video, you need the Zeiss because it’s AF is much more convincing in tracking mode.

Posted by Nikolai Tsekov

My goal is to collect all the “native” compatible autofocus FE lens and review every new one released in the future for as long as Sony keeps supporting the E-mount. Clicking on any of the ads and buying stuff from Amazon following the links in the blog would help me a lot.

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