Sigma 105 f1.4
Me writing an equipment review? Sure, why not? I have been actively taking photographs for over 50 years and in 1975 made my first commercial sale at age 14 to a newspaper. The Dundee Courier in case you were wondering. Let's just say I have used a lot of different equipment over the years, from an 8x10 Sinar to Sony point and shoot digitals.
Garreth Fisher of Tudortech, the local distributer and importer of Sigma, was kind enough to lend me a Sigma 105 f1.4 a few weeks ago. I have one other Sigma lens in my cupboard, the phenomenal 14-24 f2.8 art. This is not free stuff. I buy my gear from Johan at Kameraz in Rosebank. I don't ask for favours when buying equipment but I do expect professional level support and honesty. I get that from Johan at Kameraz and have done so for decades. Difficult times for us working professionals and the support we get from people like Johan at Kameraz and Garreth at Tudortech is very important. Thank you Garreth for allowing me to test this lens
For context, and context is everything, I am currently using a Sony system. An A9 and an A7r III. As I have already stated, I use the Sigma 14-24. My other lenses are Sony 24-105, Sony 90mm macro, Sony 70-200 f4, Sony 200-600. My bread and butter lenses, what I can't live without, are the 90mm macro and the 70-200 f4. I am primarily a product photographer and those two lenses are indispensable to me. That doesn't mean I can manage without the others lenses, the Sigma 14-24 handles my architectural and interior needs, the 200-600 is wonderful when a longer reach is needed, the 24 to 105 is my standard walking about lens.
Looking at the list of my gear you can probably see why I am interested in the Sigma 105 f1.4, I currently lack the capacity to really blur out my backgrounds with very shallow depth of field. To be blunt, I don't have much call for that effect with my commercial work. Very shallow depth of field is also not my personal style of shooting. I like to relate subject to environment and while I may slightly blur background to bring attention to the subject, I rarely do so to the degree that the background becomes unidentifiable. However times change and personal styles change as well and I am now looking for a lens that will allow me to totally obliterate the background with shallow depth of field. I did own the Canon 85mm f1.2 when I was shooting on 1Ds cameras, and while I didn't use it a lot, it gave me a capability I don't currently have.
Enter the Sigma 105 f1.5 Bokeh Master
I had the 105 on loan for two weeks. I didn't shoot lens test charts but used it a lot for day to day stuff and on three non commercial shoots for friends.
Meeting the Sigma 105 for the first time reminded me of meeting Francois Pienaar when I photographed him for a Lays Potato crisp campaign, both the lens and the rugby player are bigger than expected. They are both built like brick outhouses. I'm pleased I never had to carry the famous sportsman around but obviously I had no choice with the large Sigma. Almost 2kg in weight and an awkwardly large front element meant I had to move some partitions around in my Peak Design camera bag. Look, this lens is large and heavy, thats how it is. On the Sony cameras it handles better when using the grip, but it's not the most awkward thing I have ever shot with. Anyone that thinks this lens is unmanageable has obviously never hand held a Speed Graphic or even some of the digital backs I have owned. Yes its big and heavy but I found it perfectly manageable. I'm not a big believer in the technique of waving a camera about like a damp tissue while peering at the back LCD, but prefer to hold the camera to my eye with my left hand cradling the body/lens while my right hand drives the controls. If you use this old fashioned method, as the gods intended, you will be just fine with the large Sigma, I promise.
This lens was released around two years ago and while it now mounts on the Sony with a native E mount it is not optimised for mirrorless cameras, so how does it focus? On the A9 I would describe it as good. It's not the fastest focussing lens I have used but it's quiet and accurate. I used it to shoot a wedding and had no problems with focus. As I have come to expect with the Sony A9, everything was sharp. I did a small clothing shoot with the Sony A7R III and the focussing was a bit more difficult. Admittedly I was dealing with backlighting and that is always a bit challenging for focussing systems but still, the 105 was not as accurate as its was on the A9. As we all know, low light conditions aggravate focussing issues, but the large maximum aperture on this lens helps alleviate this problem to a degree, another plus for lenses with a large maximum aperture. Overall the auto focus characteristics of this lens fall well within the realm of acceptable for me. Accuracy is more important than speed for lenses like this as the slice of sharp focus is so thin. At f1.4 auto focus becomes an absolute necessity unless the camera is tripod mounted and the subject is totally stationary, and by stationary I mean not even breathing.
I have nothing negative to say about the build quality. It is as good as anything I have ever used and is what we now expect from Sigma, simply stellar. The lens comes with a removable tripod collar, unusual for a lens of this focal length, but not unusual for a lens of this weight. The tripod foot of the collar is built-in Arca Swiss compatible, wish more manufacturers would do that. I never bothered removing it but simply rotated the tripod mount up and out of the way. This lens looks and feels great. It does get some stares though, it is an impressive chunk of kit.
I have two small things I wish were different with this lens. The first is I find the close focus distance of around a meter to be a bit limiting. When photographing a wedding, for example, I found myself having to back away at times for things like the exchange of rings. I tried some macro work using a short extension tube and loved the effect of the shallow depth of field at close distances but cannot see myself quickly fitting such a accessory in the midst of a pressured wedding shoot.
The second thing I would like on this lens is a programable button on the lens. Every other lens I own has such a button and I use it for focus lock. My fingers automatically look for it and its annoying to have one lens that doesn't have such a button.
The image quality is my favourite thing about this lens. The bokeh is simply breath taking. Creamy smooth with beautiful transitions. Cat eyes only off centre and not too severe. It behaves pretty much as you would expect a lens that calls itself a bokeh master to behave.
But there was a surprise, and a good one. I was knocked out by just how sharp this lens is. Creamy beautiful bokeh looks so much better when contrasted with areas that are really crisp. This stunning lens really steps up in this department. Wide open this lens is razor sharp. Stopping down to f1.8 it gets sharper! I wasn't even sure that was possible quite honestly. At f11 I thought I could see some diffraction making an appearance but wasn't sure, at f16 there is definitely some diffraction blurring but the image is still acceptable to me and a little bit of judicious sharpening in Lightroom, Capture 1, Photoshop or whatever clears most of it up.
The combination of a sturdy, deep lens hood and obviously top quality lens coatings serves to keep lens flare within acceptable limits even for the fussy.
I love this lens, I did not enjoy handing it back. I feel it would be a valuable addition to my equipment and I would use it regularly. In these tough times any and all my equipment needs to make me money. I am not sure that with what I shoot and with my style of shooting that this lens makes financial sense for me. The thing is I like it so much that I am trying hard to justify the purchase and I think that it will end up in my cupboard, even if I have to find clients that require the feel that this lens so elegantly delivers. If you need or want a lens that provides best in class bokeh and razor sharp quality this lens has to be on your radar.