Sigma 20mm f1.4 Art DG Lens Review
A real-world usage review by a wedding photographer
As soon as Sigma announced the new 20mm f1.4 DG HSM Art lens, I knew it would be something that would compliment my style, and I was immediately very interested, even before any specific details were released, or anyone had used it!
My experience with Canon ultra-wide angle lenses has been very hit and miss, and while I now own and love the Canon 16-35mm f4 L IS USM lens, the F4 aperture isn't ideal when it comes to dark, typical wedding situations, and also I find F4 to be quite an uninteresting aperture, preferring to shoot shallow DOF where possible.
I have previously owned the Canon 17-40 F4 L which I bought and re-sold very quickly, the lens did not impress me at all and I very rarely reached for it. Next came the Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L USM Mark II lens, which was a bit of a love/hate relationship.
This lens was not cheap, and perhaps I set my expectations too high, but everytime I used it, I felt like it did an OK job at everything, but was a master of nothing. At 35mm f2.8, the lens gave a fairly shallow DOF appearance, but each time I used it at this setting, I wished I had my 35mm f1.4 on the camera. When shooting at 16mm, often I found that included too much in the frame, and I would end up cropping the image. At 2.8 the image was generally acceptably sharp in the middle, but the edges were lacking.. and as I am a heavy user of a “rule of thirds” this did affect me, by anything not being central was slightly soft. By 4-5.6 thing were better, but again, this aperture didn’t really do anything for me, and I begrudged having a £1000+ lens and using it at f5.6 to get decent results, which is what any free kit lens would be doing!
Next, came the Canon 24mm f1.4 L Mark II USM. Again, a bit of a love hate relationship here too. First off, interested in the lens, I hired one from Wilkinson Cameras for a wedding I photographed at Stanley House, Preston. I knew the bride had 7 bridesmaids, and having worked there before, I knew the rooms where they would be getting ready were small, so a fast 1.4 wide angle would be useful.
Because I had hired the lens, I think I probably used it more than I normally would have – which was a good thing! I really liked it. It had that wide look but was able to isolate subjects within a frame, giving an almost 3D look to the images. This was what I wanted. I was generally shooting the lens at wide open f1.4 or f1.6 apertures and the results on the back of camera seemed to be great. Obviously, I was checking as I was shooting a lot more than I would with a lens I owned and knew inside-out, but I was consistently impressed with the results, so began to trust the lens as the day went on.
When I had finished editing the pictures from that wedding, I had included a lot of 24mm shots. I don’t know the exact numbers, or the hit rate, but it was high. This lens with my 35mm f1.4 and 50mm f1.2 was a killer combo – giving me everything from 24mm (wide enough to get it all in), 35mm (still my favourite general lens) and 50mm (isolate and close up on details lens) all at lightning fast apertures of f1.4 (and f1.2!) Having never been a fan of zoom lenses (24-70 2.8 type lenses) I felt like this was my way forward.
On the back of that wedding I bought a Canon 24mm f1.4 L USM Mark II and immediately began playing with it, before my next wedding. I found it needed a little micro adjust to be accurate based on my typical shooting distance with a lens of this type. Following shooting a few weddings with it, I found this lens to be weak compared to the one I had hired. It was very soft at anything below f2.0 and had a very strange halo type effect (coma?) around things in focus. The lens also lacked contrast. Micro adjusting the lens didn’t resolve it, so I sold the lens and purchased another brand new one. This lens was better at extreme apertures and I felt f1.4 was usable with this lens, but after shooting with it for a few days over Christmas, I found the auto-focus to be very unreliable, and it was missing shots more than it was hitting them.
With an upcoming wedding on the 23rd December at one of my favourite venues, Mitton Hall, I knew I wanted a wide, fast prime lens and I wasn’t completely comfortable shooting it with my second 24mm. Around this time, I had heard about the Sigma 20mm f1.4 and literally ordered one 3 days before the wedding. I knew it was going to be tight time scales, but the lens arrived the next day, allowing me a little time to get used to it before the wedding.
My initial impressions, based on “testing” the lens taking photos of the white Sigma box it was delivered in… wow, 20mm is wide!! It seems like the 4mm gap between 20mm and 24mm is a lot larger than you’d expect. Focus seemed spot on, although this was far from a scientific test, it seemed to nail it at f1.4 every single time.
I was staying at my girlfriends the night before the wedding, so decided to annoy her and her 2 kittens by playing with it later that evening, giving it a thorough test before the next day.
As the night went on, I was more and more impressed with the lens.
From a physical perspective, the lens is enormous. It feels as heavy as my 85mm f1.2 L Mk II, and longer. The front element is bulbous and it has a built in lens hood to protect it. The lens really is massive. The 24mm f1.4 in comparison feels and looks like a toy.
It may sound sad to any non-photographer, but I was seriously excited about the day ahead.
As I arrived at Mitton Hall, the skies were blue and there was a little frost on the ground. The sun was just rising. Mitton Hall was lit by the rising sun against the blue skies. Framed by trees, this immediately looked like a perfect 20mm shot to me. So I started the day, the very first photograph I took, with my Canon 5D Mark III and Sigma 20mm f1.4 Art lens.
I stopped the lens down a little for extra depth, and the image was absolutely pin sharp with stunning contrast.
I began photographing the girls getting ready. They were in the library room which has amazing light. I started off with some 35mm and 50mm until the girls were comfortable with me being there, and then gradually worked closer in, and got the 20mm perspective I knew I wanted.
To give an idea of just how wide 20mm is, on the second photo below, the girl to the far left, and far right were almost 180 degrees to me, yet the 20mm has got it all in the frame. There is a little distortion, obviously, but nothing too bad. You just have to be cautious to not get anyone’s head actually on the frame edge.
I shot the lens from the offset at f1.4 and the lens just kept hitting focus on every single shot. I put the lens in some difficult situations, very heavy back lighting, busy contrasty scenes with lots of depth, focus tracking as the bride moved – whatever I threw at the lens, it seemed to take in its stride and achieve focus lock without any issues.
The only time the lens missed once or twice was when shooting directly into the window, spot metering off the girl’s faces – rather than the (still rising) sun directly behind the glass. This is probably the toughest of conditions for any camera or lens, and I was amazed the lens focused at all. I literally couldn’t even look through the viewfinder without being blinded by the sun – yet the lens still got (some) of the shots in focus.
Not wanting to put all my eggs in one basket, I put the 20mm lens away, and shot some 35mm and 50mm, to add some variety and ensure I had got my “safe” shots with tried and tested lenses. I still felt like my Sigma 20mm 1.4 was very much a gamble and I didn’t want to risk getting home and finding that all the shots were slightly out of focus – not that I needed to worry.
The 20mm next made its appearance during the drinks reception. Now, Mitton Hall is a very dark venue. Add to the fact this was a 1pm wedding in December in the UK, this means that the sun was setting at around 3:30pm – it was getting darker and darker from the minute the ceremony finished. Jo and Stephen also had a lot of guests, which meant getting around, taking photos was quite challenging. I put my 20mm on one of my Canon 5D Mark III’s and shooting at around 1/40th of a second, f1.4 ISO 2000 I was able to properly expose atmospheric photos of the reception.
Once again, compared to my 50L which I had been using upto this point, I noticed an instant sharpness and contrast boost. Significantly. Sharpness at f1.4 on the Sigma was something similar to f2.5 on the 50L, and the contrast from the 20mm was on a totally different level.
From that wedding, my Lightroom statistics showed me that I took over 800 photos with the Sigma 20mm f1.4, which made it my 3rd most used lens that day. If I had owned the lens for longer, and was more confident with it, I reckon it would have been in 2nd position with my 35mm 1.4 very close by.
Since that wedding, I have regularly used the Sigma 20mm f1.4 in a variety of different situations, and each time it comes out of the bag, I am still in awe of its size and weight, but feel very confident using it, knowing it will give me unique images. There is no other lens in the world like the Sigma 20mm f1.4
I have created a summary based on my findings with this lens below. This is far from technical data, just actual real-world experience from owning it now for around 4 months.
The Sigma auto focus is very very accurate and I would have no hesitation trusting it. It isn’t the fastest auto focus system in the world – infact, most of my other lenses are faster than it. It isn’t as slow as the 85L. This isn’t a problem for me. It isn’t a sports lens. The auto focus is accurate and locks on well and as long as you keep your subjects at generally the same distance from you, you wont ever notice the auto focus – it just works.
Owning both the 35 and now 20mm f1.4 Art Sigma lenses, I feel it is worth mentioning the contrast these lenses produce. It is significantly higher than any other Canon lens I own. I personally love it.
This lens is sharp. Normally with lenses of this kind, f1.4 will be their weakest aperture and they will generally get better as you stop down. With this lens (and also the 35mm 1.4) I don’t find this is the case. I would go as far as saying the sharpness is the same at f1.4 as at f5.6 – it might not be on a technical chart, but in real-world usage, any aperture on this lens is more than sharp enough
I do love Sigma colours. I have noticed, a typical trademark of Sigma, the colours are slightly warmer than Canon. Slightly. Not even to the point that it needs correcting. I like this. In-line with the added Contrast, images from this lens look great straight from camera.
If there is one negative about this lens, it’s the vignetting. Normally, I love vignette. I add it in post to all my shots. However, the vignetting from this lens is extreme. You actually need to think about it while shooting. Shooting a blue sky, or against a white wall, the corners look silly dark. It looks like the image has been edited on a smart-phone app with “vignette” set to +100. In a lot of situations this wont be an issue… but it is something that I keep at the front of my mind.
This isn’t ever going to be a good portrait lens.. but at f1.4 it still throws the background out of focus nicely. The amount depends on how close you are to your subject. Again, I love this.
Overall, I am seriously impressed with this lens. Sigma have done something amazing here, and been the first in the world to produce anything as wide and fast as this lens.
The pro’s outweigh the con’s for me, and this lens is definitely a keeper. The only thing I would suggest to people is to bear in mind quite how wide 20mm is. This lens gets a LOT in the frame. A lot of photographers may be put off by that. It is a very difficult lens to shoot with. Objects that aren’t within a few feet of you appear tiny. The edges distort and square rooms turn a weird sort of diagonal shape. But for my uses, this lens is ideal.