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  • Writer's pictureRuss Tierney

Let's talk 3rd party lenses.. 1.4 50mm Sigma art, & shooting at 1.4 with studio lighting!

Sigma 50mm f1.4 DG HSM Art

Model Kitty shot using the 50mm Sigma 1.4 Art at 1.4 with studio lighting
Model Kitty shot using the 50mm Sigma 1.4 Art at 1.4 with studio lighting!

This is somewhat a part two to the previous blog as seen here, where I talk about recent experiences with lens choice and how it can be a minefield. With a trip to Japan looming and living near a yearly air show, I was considering a longer lens as my current reach is only up to 200mm. "Wouldn't it be lovely to get just that bit closer to wildlife in a new country, or see those crazy details from afar" I thought. If you've seen my previous blog, you know the solution I (wish I didn't) chose, and then sent back. With that money, I'd already made up my mind that it was spent, so I was still on the hunt! Just before Christmas, I'd dropped my nifty 50 and broke it in two... it's never nice, but ultimately it's a really cheap lens (as cheap lenses go), to the point there was no point in claiming it on my insurance. Fortunately, it's the only lens I've ever personally broke from poor handling, but that's possibly also down to the fact that cheap lenses are made more cheaply too, so they of course take less of a beating - not that I'm suggesting you try dropping your L glass to compare! I don't let go of money easy, so I did my endless research of my options and decided the longer lens was out for now, and maybe I should spend it on a new 50mm instead, and all while saving a few quid in the process. My new dilemma was, which one should I get?

A while back, I won a photography competition for credit at a camera store and used that credit to by the 'Bigma', which I think was the 50-500 Sigma. Typically, I avoid 3rd party lenses, as my experiences with them are that they've always been a bit shit, but hey, this was free money to experiment with. However, it was, well, a bit shit. After being used to Canon L glass, it was a massive step-down in consistency and expectation; not too dissimilar to that of the Canon extender from the previous blog. Remembering (I can't) back now, I'm not sure if it was better or worse in overall execution, they were both equally disappointing, either way, it was another nail in the coffin for third party lenses for me. Years prior, I knew a photographer working in photography retail, and he said he'd not touch any Sigma lens outside the art series, so along with confirming my bias, that information stuck with me. I also know people who use Sigma lenses with few complaints in the modern day, so maybe they've progressed, or maybe they all use the art series and higher spec Sigma lenses? I think you're unlikely to risk money on higher spec 3rd party gear if you don't trust the lower end stuff, so it was not really a consideration before, but as suggested, ole research fingers here got to work.

My 85mm is a bit tight to get the desired bokeh on our neon wall, and I still (obviously as I broke it) dip in to the nifty 50 from time to time (see, I'm not an L snob), so it's a useful little lens to have knocking around. My new dilemma was this then.. was there any point in replacing my 50mm out-and-out with the latest incarnation of the EF nifty 50? Probably not right? I'm on an RF mount now, so an RF 50 will probably work better and give more quality within its own system, but you are paying £80 more or something potentially on par. Research suggested there was minimal difference, if at all, and EF lenses work beautifully with the RF-EF converter - all my lenses are EF. So my new options were, step up to a Canon 50mm 1.4, which second-hand would be less than an RF, step up more and look at the 50mm 1.2 L (woo, L glass), which, if I was savvy, I may be able to pick up for around £600 on the second market.. or do the unthinkable and look at a Sigma 1.4.

In conclusion Well, you know the answer to that one! The comparisons online ruled out the cheaper Canon 1.4, as if you're going to step up, you may as well step up properly, unless that 1.4 really makes enough of a difference from the nifty 50 1.8 - actually, possibly it does as it's just under a stop of extra light, creamier bokeh, and along with our neon wall here at the studio, I had the neon streets of Tokyo in mind as justification for going through with buying a new lens anyway.. but ultimately, I ruled it out as not exciting enough. As my refund for the extender was in the region of £450, I had a little more to play with, so I may as well get a 50mm lens that wasn't something I dip in and out of, but a useful tool in my photography armoury - justification number 2.

It's cheaper and better than the Canon! Now what surprised me, was it was pretty conclusive that the Sigma Art 50mm 1.4 outperformed the Canon L 1.2 throughout most f-stops in sharpness over the entirety of the image. I think there was an argument that the Canon was slightly sharper in the middle wide open, but the fall off was massive as you moved out to the edge of the frame, light years behind the Sigma. A 1.2 lens offers 1.2 more stops of light over a 1.8, so you gain a little over the 1.4, but ultimately, I was in it for a quality lens as I'm already gaining light, so I didn't need a little bit more. I think the only drawback with the Sigma was there's some vignetting, but the second that you open that in Photoshop RAW, your program takes care of that automatically if you have lens calibration turned on. It's also cheaper new than the canon second-hand, barring a good deal. Being tight, and looking at the second-hand market, if you're patient, you can pick up a pretty pristine one up for around £400, which I did.

Enter justification number 3.. I no longer really need my 85mm 1.8. If you know me, you know I love wide portraits, so I'm not going to obsess over that 35mm difference, and 50 is hardly unflattering, so I could sell that and claw back even more money. That's what I did, £155 to MPB rather than the hassle of going private, plus the Sigma 50 is massively sharper. The 85mm 1.8 also loves fringing! All lenses will fringe if you introduce enough contrast, or you place a high and low side by side (that could be as simple as a tree on a white-out sky cloudy day) as it tries to bridge the difference in the extremes, but the 85 was hell for it, so it was easy to let it go. All these images were shot using the Sigma 1.4 Art at 1.4, using either natural or continuous lighting:

Shooting with studio lighting at 1.4!? Having a 1.4 lens, or even a 1.8 or 2.8, is lovely like, but on sunny days, you can't always get your shutter speed high enough to use it wide open with those numbers, and you don't buy a lens with an insanely wide aperture to not wish to use it often at those numbers. There are cheaper options, plus you're guaranteed more sharpness, more consistency and more success as you move up the f-stop scale, if not because most lenses are that bit sharper, and often sharpest a few stops above being wide open, but you buy a 1.4 to use it at 1.4! The solution to this is an ND filter, which is basically sunglasses for your lens.. and you guessed it, it's a minefield! Every Tom, Dick and Harry makes filters for lenses, and sticking a cheap piece of glass over an expensive piece of glass is silly, it's the equivalent of using a crap lens because it can pull down the quality. Yet, never have I ever justified spending decent money on a good filter as I'm not a landscaper, so I have always avoided them instead, but with the addition of a 1.4, I figured, what the hell! I bought a 7 stop ND (natural density) filter because the variable ND's (ones that allows you to twist it to take more and more light away from say 2 stops to 10 stops), often had horrible reviews, especially at the lower end prices... so who's right? Well we've been here before haven't we!? Let's not overcomplicate it, 7 stops will be enough, even for the studio. It's also a 77mm thread on the Sigma Art, so it matches my L glass, so the new filter can give me mileage on more than one lens, so let's do this! I spent a grand total of about £12 because I found one that had decent(ish) reviews (albeit only about £35 new) on e-bay from a house clearance guy selling it as new at a bargain price.. I told you to be patient and look for the deals!

So what are my thoughts with a cheap filter, and what's its uses?

Model Kitty shot using the 50mm Sigma 1.4 Art at 1.4 with studio lighting
Model Kitty shot using the 50mm Sigma 1.4 Art at 1.4 with studio lighting

Y'know, it's alright. There's a very blue colour cast, but by the time you change your white balance and hit up photoshop, it's not really going to mater too much. Shooting at 1.4 with studio lighting under normal circumstances is something you just can't do, because studio lighting is just so damn powerful, but If you take away 7 stops of light however, then you've unlocked a totally new image maker for studio images, and an effect many won't have, or just one many have never considered for studio work. Outside, you can shoot at 1.4 on sunny days, whatever your subject may be, be that in open shade or direct hard sunlight. You don't even need to use it at 1.4, you could shoot moving water, by, say, leaving your shutter open 30 seconds, when before you couldn't as the light might over expose the image. You can use the same technique on busy streets, and as long as people are moving, you can make the streets look empty as moving targets won't register in the images.. assuming they're not wearing lights and loads of reflective materials in lower light.

So yeah, I fully endorse a Sigma 1.8 Art Series, and a cheap filter around the £35 mark isn't the end of the world either, you may lose minimal sharpness for the price of a colour cast which you'll mostly likely be able to fix in post!

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