We already know that Sigma’s lenses are fantastic, but which one is best for portraiture?
Portrait photographers these days enjoy using a multitude of focal lengths, and Sigma’s lenses offer a whole lot for the portraiture photographer. The company has spent years revamping their lineup with their Art series lenses and these lenses often top the charts on many proper lab tests. But we know that photographers don’t use lenses to shoot charts or brick walls and so we took them into a studio with models and lights to figure out which ones we liked the most. Our opinions may surely vary from yours and any professional working photographer will always lean towards a telephoto focal length. While this test has a lot of implications for professional photographers, it will also apply to lots of us who shoot and don’t demand the most professional needs.
- Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art: $749.95
- Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art: $799
- Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art: $959
- Sigma 105mm f1.4 Art: $1,520
- Sigma 135mm f1.8 Art: $1249
*Note: These prices are current to our time of writing this article
How We Did the Test
Reviews Editor Paul Ip and I went into a Brooklyn studio with two models and set up two different backdrops and sets of lights. I use a Profoto B10 with an Interfit 6 foot umbrella while Paul used an Octabank and two lights. All images were shot on the Sony a7r III. Paul and I used the lenses according to how a portrait photographer would work with them to get optimal results. By that, we mean that we went about using the lenses not all in the same way but more accordingly to how they’re designed to be used. A photographer would never use an 85mm lens in the same way that they use a 35mm lens. Further, a 135mm renders a scene different from a 50mm.
We also purposely shot on different backgrounds from Gravity Backdrops and with different lighting scenarios to show you all how the lenses are used in different setups. The models changed wardrobes and we ensured that those wardrobes contrast with the background to give the lenses the most advantage possible. Afterall, that’s just what you would do with models anyway. Paul and I both have different creative visions and directing methods to a certain point. Paul also tends to shoot a whole lot more than I do, and we worked on our images to provide readers with the most variety of shots here.
One of the biggest things that we found right off the bat is that these lenses are massive on Sony bodies. They’re essentially just the DSLR lenses with an extension that is almost ergonomically unnecessary. To say that this can be annoying is the truth. Every time I reached for the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens, it felt oodles heavier than the Sony G master which is made natively for the mount. The 50mm and many others also felt excessively heavy. In fact, I almost didn’t want to work with certain focal lengths. That, in and of itself, should tell you something. If a seasoned reviewers who are used to working with big lenses and cameras all the time don’t want to reach for certain focal lengths, then something needs to be done with the designs.
Another really big issue for us during the testing is the fact that Sigma’s Art lenses are very, very slow to focus on the Sony a7r III. Our cameras had the latest firmware updates and the Eye Autofocus worked effectively enough for us to provide you all with variety, but the lenses were very slow to focus. While I adore Sigma’s art lenses, I’m not sure that I’d ever want to use them on my Sony a7r III again due to how slow they are to focus. Hopefully Sigma fixes this in the future.
Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art
The Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens isn’t ideal for portraiture. We knew this. Many photographers out there knew it. Can it be done? Yes. Should it be done often? No. And so we needed to demonstrate this. Posing a subject can be more difficult due to the design of the semi-wide angle lens. Ideally one should always pull back from the subject. As an extra tip, try to keep parts of the subject out of the corner to avoid distortion. While 35mm lenses have become better over the years, I still wouldn’t totally recommend them for every day use as a portrait lens for studio work. But where the 35mm lens excels is with environmental portraiture. These are scenes where there is a portrait subject but many of these scenes don’t have a centered emphasis on just the person. It’s necessary to look at the entire scene.
In terms of performance, the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art was perhaps the fastest lens to focus. It is also the lightest and the oldest offering that Sigma has. As a result the image quality isn’t as stellar as many of the later lenses. But it’s also no slouch in the image quality department. But for portraiture, I think we’d look at other options. These models work specifically to ensure that their bodies look great on camera and we also had a hair and makeup crew on set. Now, imagine if you were shooting everyday folk who don’t do that. Not only would it make shooting these people more difficult but you’d look through the viewfinder and sometimes not even be happy with what you get.
Check out our review.
Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art
The Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art is a much better lens than the 35mm f1.4 for shooting portraits in terms of image quality. This lens is capable of rendering more details and it’s also just a longer and better designed focal length. I truly wish that Sigma went back and designed their 35mm to be similar. Sigma’s 50mm f1.4 Art is a bit more muted than the vivid 35mm as well–and that makes skin tones naturally look better. Photographers can easily use a 50mm lens for great portraits–much easier than a 35mm lens. But even longer focal lengths are ideal for a variety of reasons. Though I personally really don’t like the 50mm focal length, it’s sometimes my go-to choice for shooting portraits because I don’t like always reaching for an 85mm depending on the situation that I’m in. In this case though, I preferred it to almost any other lens.
The autofocus performance of the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art was also pretty decent and workable compared to the other lens options. It is very far behind the Sony 55mm f1.8 and the Sony 50mm f1.4 when it comes to autofocus speed though. Further, I don’t always feel like it used Sony’s eye autofocus system the best that it could.
Check out our review.
Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art
Now, here is where the images really started to look better vs the others. While the 50mm and 35mm were just easier to use due to their weights and size comparatively, the 85mm is still one of my favorite lenses from Sigma. In terms of the image quality, well, we can’t complain at all here. The photos are stellar and with a lens like this, it’s rather difficult to make the models look bad. In fact, it’s difficult for anyone to look bad with an 85mm lens. In terms of usability, we’d rate the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens to be the best because it’s the perfect middle ground. A photographer doesn’t need a whole lot of space the way they do with the 105mm and 135mm but it renders portraits better than the 50mm and 35mm lenses. It’s still slow and at times frustrating to focus, but you get good photos when it nails it.
Check out our review.
Sigma 105mm f1.4 Art
The Sigma 105mm f1.4 Art lens is the biggest of the bunch. And to be frank, it’s the most frustrating. Because of the design, you’re more often trying to hold the lens and not the camera. It’s huge and it’s also slow to focus. But when this lens nails focusing on the Sony a7r III, it does a great job with the images. Like the 85mm, it’s hard to create a bad photo with the 105mm.
Check out our review.
Sigma 135mm f1.8 Art
Last up was the longest lens: the Sigma 135mm f1.8 Art lens. This lens renders headshots and portraits the flattest and folks will look the most flattering. But even so, it’s still slow to focus and one needs A LOT OF ROOM to work with a 135mm focal length. The studio we used, Brooklyn Grain, is pretty large. But we still had a few issues with this. Many times, I didn’t even want to use the lens at all because it’s just so big on a mirrorless camera.
Check out our review.
Thoughts and Conclusions
If I really had to choose a lens amongst the five Sigma lenses that we tested on the Sony a7r III, I’d reach for the 85mm. Despite the fact that it’s a massive beast of a lens, it has the best balance of image quality and performance. The problem here is that the better the image quality is, the more the autofocus and performance suffers. The better the performance, the worse the image quality. Sigma’s lenses aren’t at all awful. But if you’re going to try to reach for one, spring for the 85mm.
Though personally speaking, I’m not sure that in full transparency that I can condone using these lenses for professional style work. They’re too slow to focus, sometimes unreliable and heavy. The lenses weren’t designed for Sony first, they’re adaptations of the company’s DSLR lenses for the system. Since this is the case, I’d much rather reach for Zeiss Batis or Rokinons own lenses for Sony FE cameras. But before all of those, Sony’s lenses are perhaps the best options.
Reviews Editor Paul Ip contributed to this test.