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When it comes to off-brand (or third party) camera gear, do you feel a bit skeptical? I was in the same boat for my entire photography career, choosing to invest exclusively in Nikon gear when I was a Nikon shooter, then all Canon when I switched over for the Canon 5D Mark III. “You get what you pay for” is what all of my photography colleagues would tell me, and I was an avid believer until this past summer when I invested in my first ever off-brand camera lens: the Sigma 35mm f/1.4.
Dubbed Sigma’s true flagship lens, the 35mm f/1.4 debuted in 2012 as the very first addition to the Art category, in Sigma’s newly announced lens categories. This shiny prime lens entered a crowded market in which Canon, Nikon, and Sony all have competitive offers, but Sigma’s version comes in at a fraction of the price, which is one of its most attractive features. So in this case, does the adage, “you get what you pay for” truly apply?
Let me preface this article by stating that this is the very first 35mm prime lens that I’ve owned, so I cannot make true comparisons between Sigma’s lens and that of other manufacturers, but I took it through several test runs to see how it held up. These were my findings.
Sigma’s 35mm fixed lens is equipped with a fast f/1.4 maximum, and f/16 minimum aperture. It has quiet, quick Hypersonic Motor (HSM) focusing with manual override and a 0.3m (one foot) minimum focal distance – no image stabilization is included. The lens has mounts for all major DSLR camera types including Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax, and it works on both full frame and APS-C (crop sensor) cameras. Out of the box, the lens comes with front and rear caps, a lens hood and a warranty and instruction guide, all packaged within a nicely padded, zippered nylon case. Brand new, this lens retails for $899, significantly less than other versions made by Canon and Nikon, which run upwards of $1,300.
On the technical side of things, this lens performed impressively well. Even when shooting at f/1.4, all images produced by this lens were super sharp. Autofocusing speed was pretty fast and accurate, even when attempting to use this lens in an action setting like the concert below.
After spending some time with the Canon 24mm f/2.8 prime lens that produces quite a bit of barrel distortion, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Sigma 35mm has pretty much no visible distortion. Although bear in mind that lens distortion can be easily fixed in post production using Photoshop’s lens Correction filter (or Lightroom’s Lens Correction panel).
Perhaps the first thing that struck me about this lens when I first interacted with it what its sleek, yet mostly plastic build. Compared to Canon and Nikon versions that are made of a mix of metal and plastic, this mostly plastic Sigma lens felt like it may not hold up very well in the long run. The Sigma seems to live up to its Art lens designation with the feeling that this lens would hold up better being used for artistic purposes, more so than run and gun type of shooting.
Despite being made of mostly plastic, the Sigma also feels pretty heavy (23.5 oz./ 665g), and it is indeed slightly heavier than its Nikon (21.2 oz / 600g) and Canon (20.5 oz. / 580g) equivalents.
While I loved capturing the world through a sharp 35mm prime lens, it was difficult to get over this lens’ size. The 35mm is known as a classic lens in photojournalism and street photography, and yet due to its size and plastic build, it was questionable if the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 could hold up well over time, especially in on-the-go style photography. As a result, I have to agree with my photography colleagues that you’d get what you pay for over time.
Investing in the more expensive Canon 35mm f/1.4 would be worth the extra expense ($899 for the Sigma, $1479 for the Canon) just because the L lens designation ensures a higher quality, more durable lens. As an additional option, the slower Canon 35mm f/2 comes with image stabilization and is priced lower at $599.99, so that may be a better budget option. And a final, even cheaper alternative might be to add 5mm to the lens focal length by going for the Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens, the smallest and cheapest ($149 USD) of them all.
Basically, splurge for the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and enjoy comparable, superior optics to the Canon and Nikon equivalents, but what you save in money might cost you later when testing the long-term durability of this lens.