Hands-On Review: Sigma 35mm f/1.2 DG DN Art Lens

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Sigma’s latest announcement included three distinct lenses and, likely, the most highly anticipated of the three is the 35mm f/1.2 DG DN Art. This lens was clearly designed to be a showstopper, with its huge f/1.2 maximum aperture and equally huge physical size. But is the lens more than just a one-trick pony? I think so—if you’re willing to handle the weight and size of a lens like this, you’ll be well rewarded with its impressive sharpness, clarity, and unique rendering.

I decided to take the 35mm f/1.2 to a couple of gardens, and also had the opportunity to work with the L-mount version of this lens in conjunction with a Panasonic S1R. The lens is also available in a Sony E mount but, to me, the L-mount version is the more “important” of the two mounts, because it represents Sigma’s first effort at producing lenses in the new mount the company will be supporting for its own cameras. I mentioned this briefly in my review of the also-new Sigma 45mm f/2.8, so I was happy to get a chance to try a Sigma L-mount lens finally. This isn’t to say this lens isn’t a fantastic boon to Sony E shooters, but for the emerging L-Mount Alliance, it’s a great lens to have in the foundation of the three-pronged bloc.

When first encountering this wide-angle prime, it’s hard not to be struck by its size. And then, after you pick it up, its weight. It’s a big and heavy lens! Especially after working with something like the 45mm f/2.8, this lens is completely the opposite, despite having a similar focal length. Where the 45mm f/2.8 was modest and perfect for walkaround shooting, the 35mm f/1.2 is ostentatious and you’d best be served having a plan for your shoot beforehand. When combined with the S1R body, which is in the larger tier of full-frame mirrorless cameras, it’s a hefty overall package. As weighty as it is (it’s ~2.4 lb), it’s not that bad; it’s no 70-200mm f/2.8, so it’s still very handholdable and suitable for some casual shooting, but it wouldn’t be my first choice of lens on a long hike.

So, where does all of that weight and bulk come from? The f/1.2 maximum aperture… obviously. This is a large diameter, wide maximum aperture lens and, as such, requires a physically large design. And Sigma being Sigma, it also wanted this lens to perform well, so it has a 17-element, 12-group design. Mixing everything together—17 glass elements (including an especially large diameter front element), a Hyper Sonic Motor, brass mount, yadda yadda yadda—you end up with a substantial physical design. But think of it as the sum of many great parts and, for that reason, it’s fittingly hefty. One final point on this subject: in 2012, Sigma began its now well-respected Art line of lenses with the 35mm f/1.4, which is, also, a rather large wide-angle prime with stellar image quality. As Sigma is shifting its designs to be natively compatible with mirrorless cameras, it is fitting that it again chose a 35mm to flex its optical capabilities.

Looking past weight and size, the next most striking aspect of this lens is the f/1.2 aperture. Its notable because it’s the fastest lens in Sigma’s lineup and one of the fastest autofocusing lenses for mirrorless cameras in general. What this gets you is better low-light performance, along with that oh-so-desirable capability of producing shallow-depth-of-field images. It’s interesting having such a wide aperture in a wide-angle focal length, because even though you get plenty of subject isolation with the f/1.2, it doesn’t completely blur out the background the way an 85mm or 105mm lens would. You can highlight your intended subject in sharpness without losing the context of the scene. Pragmatically, working with f/1.2 proved to be a bit more intense than just setting your lens at f/4 or f/5.6 and shooting. For one, the camera’s focus system struggled to always hit focus because the available depth of field was often so narrow. So, I chose to work almost exclusively at f/1.2 with manual focus, a magnified focusing-assist tool, and with focus peaking. These “precautions,” if you will, felt necessary because they made the difference between focusing on the stem or the petals of a flower.

Besides the shallow depth of field, let’s not forget that f/1.2 also lets in more light than most lenses—only one third more than an f/1.4, but a full stop more than an f/1.8. And more than just light gathering, you think about closing down a lens a few stops from max in order to find that lens’s “sweet spot.” With this highly corrected f/1.2, that ideal working range of apertures starts earlier and offers a bit more flexibility for times when you want an entire scene to be in sharp focus. Also, while we’re on the topic of closing down the lens (unheard of for an f/1.2), I did take a few photos at f/16 just so I could reap one of the benefits of that 11-blade diaphragm: a rare 22-point sunburst.

One of the most pleasantly surprising attributes of this lens is how well it did perform wide open. It’s hard to comment on corner sharpness and other frequently tested attributes of off-center lens performance merit, however, since most of the time they were simply out of focus due to depth of field. But in the center of the frame, where it counts for a lens like this, sharpness and resolution is impressive throughout the entire aperture range. Some sporadic chromatic aberration did creep up at f/1.2 when shooting against very harsh backlighting, but I suppose that would be expected from nearly any lens. The slight fringing clears up by f/1.8, and even when present, it’s a pretty straightforward correction in post. When you’re not photographing completely backlit foliage, though, I never noticed any fringing of any color. Also one thing worth pointing out—a subject that frequently gets overlooked—is that this lens handles flare really well! The Super Multi-Coating helped retain full contrast and color accuracy in the handful of shots I made at the end of the day when shooting directly into the sun. In fact, I was trying to get a few images with some creative flaring around sunset in the gardens, and I simply couldn’t get it to happen beyond an occasional bit of haze when going out of my way to pick up stray light.

One unique experience I had with the f/1.2 design was that I found myself wanting to treat this 35mm lens a bit more like an 85mm. Because of its ability to separate subjects from backgrounds quite easily, I started shooting with it in a method where I would pick on very specific elements of a scene and let the rest fall slightly out of focus. It was a fun way of shooting and, as mentioned before, the wide focal length does give a bit more wiggle room in terms of including context in a scene, since a blurred background does not become a complete color wash, but rather a faint reminder of what is likely there. When working at more modest values of f/4 and f/5.6 (more my norm), the lens performed as well as any well-corrected 35mm I can remember using.

Finally, I want to go over a few more of the physical attributes of this lens quickly. I mentioned before that this 35mm f/1.2 has a Hyper Sonic Motor, which is set to deliver quick and quiet autofocus. This was true in practice, and particularly impressive considering the heaviness of the optical system. I ran into some hiccups focusing wide open, but I attribute that more to a camera issue than a lens issue. However, on the plus side, when I did eventually switch over to manual focus, the focusing control on this lens is really great. Sure, it’s a focus-by-wire design, but the torque of the focus ring, along with its width and tactility, was perfect for the application of fine-tuning selective focus.

The lens is of the same build quality you’d expect from any other Art series lens; it’s weather-sealed from front to mount and has a water- and oil-repellent coating on the front element to resist smudging and marking. It has a manual aperture ring, too, that I found myself using, versus letting the camera do it. This ring is a bit wider than the aperture ring on the 45mm f/2.8, so it fell into my grip of the lens perfectly. The aperture ring can be de-clicked with a simple switch, for those video people out there. Some of the remaining attributes: there’s an AF Lock button that I never used, a brass bayonet that seems rigid enough to support this beast of a lens, and a well-made lens hood with a lock to prevent you from easily taking it off of the lens.

So, after a week of visiting the gardens with this lens, it’s tough for me to say that I really do like the lens. Despite its weight and size, it’s a serious lens with seriously good performance. I say it’s “tough” for me to like this because I’m not really much of a wide-angle lens person. But, with the flexibility afforded by this lens’s fast design, I felt like it could play multiple parts. It has a wide field of view, perfect for establishing shots; an f/1.2 design, for isolating subjects; and, when you mix the two, you get this enticing mixture of being able to focus selectively on your subject without losing “the big picture.” It’s an effect that’s caught my attention and a lens I’d be excited to continue using into the future.

What are your thoughts on Sigma’s newest Art series prime? Are you a fan of ultra-fast lenses? Would you be willing to deal with the size and weight in order to gain that f/1.2 performance? Let us know, down below.

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