Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art Review | The Best Mirrorless Portrait Prime?
Sigma “Art” lenses seemed to always get bigger and heavier, in the DSLR world, until some of them were downright absurdly oversized. The Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art was so big, it came with its own tripod collar! The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art was also a beast, weighing in at nearly 2.5 lbs. (That’s over 1.1kg!)
Were those Sigma Art lenses worth it? Yes, they were flawlessly sharp, if that’s what you’re asking. However, they were almost more trouble than they were worth, especially to any photographer who expected primes to be a portable, lightweight alternative to their big heavy full-frame zooms.
However, with their new lenses that are made specifically for mirrorless platforms, Sigma is changing all that. They’re shedding weight from some of their most impressive lenses, and even more exciting is this fact: The new mirrorless lenses are just as sharp, or even sharper!
Enter the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art, made exclusively for mirrorless mounts–Sony’s E-mount plus of course the Leica/Sigma/Panasonic L-mount. Yes, it is more than a POUND LIGHTER than its DSLR-made predecessor. Yes, it is just as sharp, or sharper! And yes, the images are gorgeous and full of character, too.
That basically sums up this review in a nutshell, for those who are already on the edge of your seat, ready to click “buy”: The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art, at a mere $1,199, is hands-down the best mirrorless portrait prime that we’ve reviewed. Don’t believe me? Read on, and I’ll prove it.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art Specifications
- FOCAL LENGHT & ANGLE OF VIEW: 85mm (28.6°)
- LENS MOUNT(S): Sony E, Leica L (Panasonic, Sigma)
- APERTURE & RANGE: f/1.4 to f/16, 11 rounded blades
- STABILIZATION: No
- AUTOFOCUS: Stepper motor, optimized AF algorithm
- MANUAL FOCUS: Electronically controlled, no distance markings
- OPTICAL CONSTRUCTION: 15 elements in 11 groups, 5 Special Low Dispersion, 1 Aspherical, Super Multi-Layer Coating
- MECHANICAL CONSTRUCTION: Metal & high-grade plastic
- MAGNIFICATION & FOCUS DISTANCE: 0.12x, 2.79′ (85 cm)
- FILTER THREADS & HOOD: 77mm, locking rubber-gripped hood
- SIZE: 3.26 x 3.78 in. (82.8 x 96.1 mm)
- WEIGHT: 1.38 lb (625 g)
- PRICE: $1,199 (B&H | Adorama | Amazon)
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art Review | Who Should Buy It?
An 85mm f/1.4 prime is a classic portrait lens. Some people may find that they prefer a 50mm or a 105mm instead, but it is a pretty safe bet to consider an 85mm if you do any type of portrait photography. Families, kids, couples, fashion, you name it. Having an 85mm prime is a good idea.
When it comes to choosing which prime (or zoom) is perfect for you as a portrait photographer, I used to only recommend investing in the one focal length you would use the most, so that you can get a high-end f/1.4 or f/1.2 prime, and then “fill the gaps” with more affordable, portable f/1.8 or slower primes.
(In other words, if you’re REALLY a 35mm f/1.4 or 50mm f/1.2 kind of portrait photographer, for example, then to cover 85mm you might only need a compact, affordable f/1.8 option.)
However, with the decently compact size and weight of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art, (especially if you leave the hood at home, although I usually don’t recommend it) …you can go ahead and buy a really nice lens like this, especially if you are shooting professionally and want gear that can be a workhorse for many years.
The same goes for wedding photographers: If you’re going to be holding a camera and lens to your eye literally all day long, (yes, I have photographed many Hindu weddings that started before sunrise, and went until very late at night!) …you’ll want a decently lightweight choice, but one that doesn’t compromise on image quality or build quality, either.
In the past, for any type of all-day work, I wouldn’t recommend getting a big, heavy, expensive f/1.4 prime. Instead, I’d recommend getting a modest, portable, and sub-$1K 85mm f/1.8 prime, even more strongly than I’d recommend it to a photographer who is just doing 1-2 hour portrait sessions. Your wrist will thank you at the end of each wedding, and your money can be saved for whichever lens you use the most!
Now, at just under $1,200, and with a decently lightweight form factor, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Sigma 85 1.4 DN whether 85mm is your absolute favorite wedding portrait & candid lens, or it’s just a lens you pick up when the conditions require it.
Candid & Street Photography
If it’s good for portraits and weddings, it’s probably great for candid & street photography, and all types of event journalism. You might want a 105mm or 135mm prime instead, if you find yourself not being able to “reach” your subjects with an 85mm, however, if your camera has more than ~40 megapixels, you can easily switch your camera into APS-C crop mode, and still have plenty of resolution (and plenty of shallow depth at f/1.4!) …which gives you a ~125mm prime. Not bad!
Action Sports Photography
In the past, f/1.4 primes weren’t as popular for low-light sports as a simple 70-200mm f/2.8, partly because a zoom lens is more useful for telephoto action, of course, but also partly because big primes with a lot of glass just weren’t that “snappy” to focus on high-speed subjects.
The latter issue is no longer a problem with modern highest-end mirrorless AF systems, such as on the Sony a9-series and even the crop-sensor A6600. Their AF systems, combined with the powerful stepper motor and the decently lightweight optics of the Sigma 85mm 1.4 DN, make low-light high-speed action photography a possibility, as long as 85mm is right for what you’re doing; it may very well be that you’re better off with either a 70-200mm f/2.8, or a longer lens like the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM.
Landscape & Nature Photography
You might not need f/1.4 all the time, in fact, you might spend most of your time at f/8 or f/11. However, if you’re a landscape photographer who also shoots nightscapes or any type of creative nature work with shallow depth and selective focus, then you’ll be happy to know that the Sigma 85 1.4 DN isn’t just a wide-open top-performer, it’s also truly flawless when stopped down to f/8-11. The lighter weight and more compact size also mean you might prefer it over any other 85mm prime, for its rugged durability that you can trust in inclement weather.
Nightscape & Astrophotography
Last but not least, yes, this new Sigma mirrorless lens is up to the challenging task of astrophotography. It exhibits minimal issues with things like color fringing or coma/astigmatism, even wide open at f/1.4. (See below for image quality samples!)
For those who are able to stop down to f/2 or f/2.8, whether there is moonlight illuminating a nightscape or you are doing deep-sky work on a tracker, the pin-point sharpness of stars at those apertures is truly phenomenal.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art Review | Pros & Cons
Spoiler alert: I can’t find anything substantial to complain about. If you’ll recall, I had some complaints about Sigma’s other flagship full-frame mirrorless prime, the 35mm f/1.2 DG DN Art. (Unlike this 85mm, it was massively oversized, and also, the aperture ring was annoyingly bumped from “A” to f/16.
Read on; maybe I’ll come up with some petty nit-pick, but honestly, that’s all it would be–a petty nit-pick.
Looking for the quick-and-dirty verdict? This is one of the most optically impressive 85mm primes we have ever tested. If you’re a casual photographer then it may come down to splitting hairs in terms of sharpness or other, more subtle image characteristics, however, if you’re a highly discerning photographer, whether you’re printing giant prints of portraits, or photographing deep space, you’ll definitely notice that “optically impressive” advantage with this Sigma mirrorless lens.
The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art is one of the sharpest 85mm prime lenses we’ve ever reviewed. At f/1.4, it matches or beats all of the competition on the Sony E-mount. In fact, I was more reminded of the ultra-sharp Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S, and the $2,700 Canon RF 85mm f/1.2 L, in terms of the level of image detail I was seeing from this lens.
When we can get our hands on 40-60 megapixel cameras for the main three full-frame mirrorless mounts, we’ll publish a side-by-side comparison so that you can see how this Sony E-mount lens stacks up against not just its E-mount competition, but also the Nikon Z and Canon RF mount competitors, too.
One of the biggest reasons you buy an 85mm f/1.4 prime is for all that creamy bokeh. The Sigma absolutely does not disappoint, delivering it a balance of incredible sharpness: incredibly soft background blur.
It’s easy enough to share beautiful shallow depth sample images captured in ideal lighting and subject conditions, however, to really test the bokeh of this new mirrorless Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art, we went straight to the most “nasty” test conditions possible, dead twigs, and we still found the bokeh to be quite good.
Colors & Contrast
Sigma Art lenses have sometimes exhibited a faint warm color cast to them, but if there is such an issue present with this mirrorless 85mm, it is either negligible and/or pleasing and actually beneficial to the overall character of the images. In short, these days with Sony and Adobe playing more nicely together, it’s nothing but good news in terms of colors and contrast, even from a third-party lens and an .ARW raw file!
Vignetting & Distortion
Distortion is virtually nonexistent thanks to the in-camera profile correction, and vignetting is surprisingly low even when that in-camera correction is turned off! Turn the in-camera vignetting correction on, of course, and overall there is very little to be noticed, even when over-processing images at f/1.4.
This is an impressive departure from many of the other mirrorless lenses we have reviewed lately, which almost always exhibit imperfect vignetting corrections at almost all apertures when your editing gets too heavy-handed.
Sunstars & Flare
Sunstars are noticeable by f/5.6, and beautifully well-defined by f/8, thanks to the fast wide-open aperture, however, the 11 rounded blades usually result in 22-point, open-ended sunstars, instead of needle-point sunstars of older manual focus lenses.
It is worth noting, however, that on occasion, at f/14 exactly, gorgeous ~11-point sunstars may appear if the light source is truly pin-pointed, and is shielded in just the right way. (See below)
Flare is almost never a problem if the sun is not in the frame itself. If you do put the sun in the frame and stop down your aperture, you will indeed see a few flare dots.
Color Fringing, Aberration, Coma & Astigmatism
All of these more obscure but pesky aspects of image quality are minimal or nonexistent. In fact, just out of curiosity, in Lightroom, I turned OFF the default “Remove Chromatic Aberration” tool that works so perfectly well. Even without any correction, there was STILL virtually zero color fringing or aberration! Truly impressive, Sigma, well done.
Macro & Close-Up Photography
At close distances, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art does not lose much, if any, of its sharpness. (Thanks to how ultra-shallow depth gets at such close distances, you’ll want to stop down anyways!) Of course, by f/2 or f/2.8, it is downright incredible again.
Design & Durability
With a metal mount, weather sealing, metal barrel parts, plus some high-grade plastic here and there, I have to give a nod to Sigma for achieving such a rock-solid build quality in such a decently portable package. Also, while I never personally had an issue with nasty weather, it was a long-standing footnote to Sigma’s Art class of lenses that, although they were solidly built, they had virtually zero weather-sealing. That is no longer the case!
All in all, we can tell that it’s not quite Sony GMaster status in terms of the physical “indestructibility”, however, it’s definitely built to stand the test of time and be a heavy-duty workhorse for many years to come.
Also, as you can see, there is not only an AF/MF switch, a customizable AFL button, and a click/de-click switch to go with the aperture control ring, but also, on the other side of the lens, there is even an aperture ring LOCK switch! This was something we really wanted on the Sigma 35mm f/1.2 Art; we kept accidentally bumping the aperture from “A” to 16 very often, which as you might imagine can really mess up your photos if you were previously shooting at f/1.4-2.8!
All in all, bravo to Sigma for covering virtually all the bases with this lens.
Autofocus reliability for fast-aperture primes was previously the bane of both mirrorless and DSLR setups, especially when the light got truly poor. In pitch-dark conditions, a DSLR would just “give up” and hunt back and forth; even though the brightness of the f/1.4 aperture aided the optical phase-detect AF systems, the AF motors and the “large chunks of glass” that had to be pushed back and forth just weren’t optimal.
With modern full-frame mirrorless camera bodies, and the powerful AF motor combined with “modest” sized glass elements in this Sigma, you get the opposite effect- incredible low-light accuracy, with pin-point focus even at f/1.4. As long as your subjects aren’t sprinting erratically towards or away from the camera, you’ll get almost all perfectly tack-sharp in-focus shots.
Manual Focus Performance
Electronically controlled, manual focus is extremely precise with the Sigma, and even at f/1.4, thanks to the incredible “bite” that the sharpness has, you’ll have no trouble nailing focus on your subjects as long as they’re holding still! Even stars in the night sky, one of most challenging subjects to nail, are effortless to focus on.
When a $1,200 lens shows up a $1,800 lens in even one way, you know it’s a good value. If you’re serious about portraits, or low-light photography of any kind, then you should invest in this $1,200 Sigma. It is absolutely worth it! We’ll talk more about the competition next, but suffice it to say, we recommend this lens over both the Sony GM and the Rokinon/Samyang AF 85mm primes.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art Review | Compared To The Competition
With the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art being at the price point of just under $1,200, there isn’t a truly direct competitor. To get right to the point: the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM is almost $1,800, and the Rokinon/Samyang AF 85mm f/1.4 FE is “just” about $700. (Or the Roki-Yang is on sale for under $600 sometimes.)
With the Sigma right in between, you have to look at the overall value in order to decide which one is best for your needs. I can tell you right now, again, the Sigma is the best value. It is built far more rock-solid than the Roki-Yang, and is noticeably sharper. On the higher end, the Sigma is also sharper than the Sony GM, and is built with almost the same impressive durability as the flagship Sony portrait prime.
In fact, the impressive resolving power of the Sigma leaves us wondering if a “GM mk2” of the Sony 85mm f/1.4 will need to appear soon, especially considering the jaw-dropping sharpness of the much newer Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM, FE 24mm f/1.4 GM, and FE 35mm f/1.4 GM. Of course, if such a Sony GM lens ever does arrive, it will probably cost nearly $2K. Just like we would expect a “Sony FE 50mm f/1.2 GM” to cost! (NOTE: we do not have any insider information, there are no rumors/leaks; we are just speculating!)
Honestly? If you really like 85mm, whether for serious portraits, low-light journalism, or just casual artistic imagery in general, get this lens to go on your Sony E-mount body, or your Sigma/Panasonic/Leica L-mount body. You won’t regret it.
What if you know you love 85mm, but you also want something even more lightweight and portable, or downright tiny even? You can always put a Rokinon/Samyang 75mm f/1.8 in your camera bag as well, to compliment this flagship-grade 85mm. The Rokinon/Samyang 75mm is so tiny (and affordable) that you’ll be happy to have two options that approximately cover your favorite focal range. (And, in professional situations, you need a backup of whatever your bread-and-butter gear is!)
Alternately, if you’re looking for extremely rugged build quality, incredible sharpness, and are on a budget, the other lens you should consider is the Tokina 85mm f/1.8 ATX-M, at a mere $499. It may be f/1.8 as opposed to f/1.4, however, its sharpness and bokeh make it a perfect choice for those who want a serious 85mm prime in a more compact yet still professionally capable package. At a fraction of the price, (less than half!) …we even rank the Tokina 85mm as a better overall value than the Rokinon/Samyang and even the Sony GM!
But, enough about the competitors. What if you already own an 85mm prime from your DSLR and are using it on an adapter? This is going to sound obvious, but if you’re happy with what you’re getting from an adapted setup, then stick with it! However, if you’re anything like me, you strongly dislike adapters in general, from their clumsiness when using multiple lenses to their compromise in autofocus performance, and of course, the front-heavy nature of a big heavy DSLR lens on an adapter is just terrible on one’s wrist. So, even if you’re content with the overall image quality you’re getting, you’ll likely still appreciate upgrading to the Sigma mirrorless 85mm.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art Review | Conclusion
I think many of us were beginning to lose hope that high-end mirrorless full-frame lenses would ever get significantly lighter or more compact than their DSLR-made equivalents. Sony’s f/2.8 GM zooms, and their 85mm f/1.4 GM, are all rather hefty.
Also, when Sigma “goes for broke”, and creates a lens like their DSLR f/1.4 primes, or their Sony E-mount 35mm f/1.2 DG DN Art, the results are, well, massive. Because of this, I was fully prepared for an obnoxiously big and heavy 85mm f/1.2 prime, or even an oversized 85mm f/1.4 prime.
Thus, I am delightfully surprised that the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art is not just optically phenomenal, but also a pound lighter than its DSLR-made predecessor. It balances amazingly in-hand, and overall performance is reliable in terms of the mechanics, and beautiful in terms of the results. For $1,199, you can’t go wrong!
Check Pricing & Availability
The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art is available for $1,199 for both the Sony E-mount (FE full-frame) and the Sigma/Panasonic/Leica L-mount.