Which One? Sigma 85mm f1.4 or Canon 85mm f1.8 for Portrait Photography

Portrait photographers often find themselves in a bit of a predicament trying to figure out what lens is the right one for them. For Canon photographers, you have two choices under $1,000 in the form of the Sigma 85mm f1.4 and Canon 85mm f1.8. We’ve reviewed both the Sigma and Canon lenses, and thought very highly of both. There are differences to both of them—but in real life practice only one is right for you.

The question is: which one?

Gear Used

Strobist setup for this test

Canon 5D Mk II

Sigma 85mm f1.4

Canon 85mm f1.8

Photogenic CL500F monolight

Smith and Victor FL75 light

Ergonomics

In hand, both lenses feel very good with more credit going to the Sigma lens. It feels beefier and much more solid than its Canon counterpart. Part of this has to do with the fact that it is an f1.4 lens and also considered one of Sigma’s top of the line pieces of glass.

The Sigma version comes with a special lens hood with an attachment upgrade for those using APS-C sized sensors. However, it was used without it during this test since I was using the full frame Canon 5D Mk II.

Autofocusing

Both lenses focused very quickly during my portrait session. The Canon 85mm is perhaps the company’s fastest focusing lens. In real life practice though, the Sigma was still able to keep up its pace. Nor did focusing speed really matter so critically in this case because of the fact that my subject was stagnant while I posed him.

What did matter was focusing accuracy. I needed to Microadjust my Canon 85mm but didn’t need to adjust the Sigma lens. When firing wide open, I was also careful not to use the focus and recompose method because otherwise the focusing would have been thrown off entirely.

The Sigma has been said to have autofocusing issues as well. On the 5D Mk II, this wasn’t the case. Sigma’s quality control seems to have stepped up their game in the recent years. Previously, all users had were complaints.

Wide Open Performance

Canon 85mm f1.8 at ISO 400 f1.8 and 1/200

Besides being one of Canon’s fastest focusing lenses, the 85mm is also known to be one of the sharpest lenses the company has in their line up. Indeed, it is very sharp. At first glance, and depending on your copy of the lens, it may not be so and the lens may need Microadjusting. Once properly calibrated to your camera, this little gem will astound you with its performance wide open.

Canon 85mm f1.8 at ISO 400 f1.8 1/125

Wide open, the lens does not vignette. Though there is usually color fringing with this lens when shooting wide open, I didn’t experience any during this shoot.

Canon 85mm f1.8 at ISO 800 f1.8 1/640

When you shoot with this lens wide open and it has been properly calibrated, it’s quite amazing at how little extra sharpening the images need. Indeed, the sharpness is very good and most users will be more than pleased with the results.

Sigma 85mm f1.4 at ISO 400 f1.4 and 1/500

However, the Sigma 85mm f1.4 is also an excellent performer wide open at f1.4. The sharpness is very good, though it seems like the lens vignettes a bit. On my friend’s Canon Rebel, we saw some color fringing, but not on my 5D Mk II.

Sigma 85mm at ISO 400 f1.4 and 1/800

It must be said though: the bokeh (out of focus areas) look far more pleasing with the Sigma lens with very creamy focus falloff. That does wonders for skin and clients such as actors will appreciate this.

Stopped Down Performance

Canon 85mm f1.8 at f2.8 ISO 800 1/250

The Canon 85mm f1.8 only gets sharper as it is stopped down. In the image above, I stopped the lens down to f2.8 and as you see, the quality has only improves. The eyes are sharp and so is the skin. Color rendering from this lens is also still very accurate.

Sigma 85mm f1.4 at ISO 400 f2.5 and 1/160

However, once again Sigma’s 85mm still delivers equally fantastic files.

Sigma 85mm at ISO 400 f2.5 and 1/160th

Overall, both lenses will deliver extremely sharp images stopped down and may even be too sharp at times. You may need to do some skin smoothing when using them.

Conclusion

So which lens is better?

Ergonomically- Sigma wins for being built better; but Canon wins for being lighter and more portable.

Autofocusing– Canon’s lens focuses faster. Once again though, this means nothing in practice with a stagnant portrait subject. Canon’s version also needed microadjusting.

Price– Canon’s lens is significantly more affordable.

Image Quality– To be very honest, most people won’t be able to tell the difference between both lenses unless the differences are explicitly stated. Canon’s lens vignettes less wide open though can exhibit more color fringing. Sigma’s lens is usually more prone to focusing issues. When stopped down, the lenses are near identical in real life use. It’s only when charts are put in front of you do you begin to see where the differences are.

But if you’re buying these lenses to shoot charts, I strongly suggest you apply to DPReview.

In the end, the current economic recession in America is making me choose the Canon 85mm f1.8 though I personally prefer the feel and wide open performance of the Sigma lens. However, the differences are so minute that I can’t justify the purchase to myself in a studio environment.

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