Monday, May 19, 2014

Bokeh Shootout: Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G vs Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART

The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM was the lens that launched the reputation of the refreshed Global Vision ART series of lenses. That's no small feat for a third-party manufacturer, but the key advantages of this lens can be summed up in two words: cheaper and better. Against its Canon counterpart, the Sigma is most definitely cheaper and and it is demonstrably better; the Canon design is getting on in years whereas the Sigma has the benefit of the latest in optical design.

Compared to the Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G, the comparison is not quite so black and white. The Nikon lens is also a "modern" design, so you would expect it to be at the top of the class regardless of price. Ordinarily, you would think of the Sigma as being an alternative to Nikon's second-tier lenses, namely the Nikon AF-S 35mm F1.8G ED in this case. However, despite being more expensive than the f/1.8 Nikon, Sigma shoppers are skipping past the entry level and directly comparing it to the pro-level lens. So how close does the Sigma come?

The following were shot on a Nikon D800, with the terracotta warrior figurine as the focus target, placed approximately four feet away from the camera focal plane. Though there are subjective differences, its remarkable how similar the two lenses render this scene.

Nikon 35mm, f/1.4
Sigma 35mm, f/1.4
How close is it? If you were presented a single image and asked to identify which lens it came from, you would likely have a very hard time. If you were given two images side-by-side like you are here, it would still be hard to tell them apart unless you knew what to look for. Vignetting is typical for fast lenses; there's roughly an equal amount of darkening in the corners for both lenses. If you look closely, the Sigma is actually a bit sharper and more contrasty in the plane of focus (Click for 100% crop):

Lateral chromatic aberration is well controlled on both lenses, but if you look closely, the Sigma is also slightly better in this regards.  However, the Nikon has a slight edge when it comes to the quality of the bokeh. The Sigma does well, but its a bit more nervous-looking than the Nikon. Here's the middle-right side of the image frame:

The difference in bokeh is most noticeable on the lettering of the Cactus trigger box. However, in real-life shooting with less busy backgrounds, the subjective difference between these lenses would probably be less apparent.

Put it this way: the Sigma will surely please somebody who doesn't spend as much time retouching his/her images, as it gives a bit more sharpness on the plane of focus. From an outright quality standpoint, the Nikon approach is technically better: though the acuity is not as high in the plane of focus, neither is the background bokeh sacrificed. In other words, you can selectively sharpen the Nikon image to taste in post processing, and the overall image would be better than the out of camera Sigma shot. The reverse is not true; you cannot (quickly/efficiently) improve the bokeh of the Sigma to match the Nikon. However, we are talking about small differences here.
In today's market, buyers are looking for lenses that can shot wide-open without reservations. This is different from the AF-D prime era, when it was accepted that lenses like the AF 35mm f/2D would entail some sacrifice at maximum aperture. This is no longer the case; there is a strong likelihood of having bought the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 before considering primes, so many of today's buyers are looking for something that the normal zoom can not do. Both of these lenses fit the bill; one of them does it at less cost.

With thanks to Broadway Camera.

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