By Adam Welch
The world of camera lenses can be separated into two main groups: zooms and primes. Prime lenses are those which have a fixed focal length, meaning that they don’t zoom in and out. Once upon a time there were only primes. With the advent of zoom lenses photographers no longer had to rely on just their feet in order to get achieve the desired composition. This versatility brought with it a trade-off. Zoom lenses have more moving parts and components, which adds weight and reduces the speed of the lens, along with sharpness. Optically, primes are generally much faster and sharper than zoom lenses but limit the shooter to only one focal length, which can be off-putting to some.
But times change. Today we see a new generation of photographers realizing the merits of shooting with prime lenses. This paradigm shift is reflected by lens manufacturers who are beginning to produce more prime lenses for a hungry new market.
The 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art lens from Sigma is among one of these that is meant be an all-purpose fast prime, for those needing a lens with excellent sharpness and great low light capabilities. I put the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 through its paces and have a feeling you will be well pleased.
Being part of Sigma’s well regarded Art line of lenses, I expected the 30mm to be highly refined and well-built; it did not disappoint in this area. It’s manufactured from the same thermally stable composite (TSC) which is incredibly metallic in its heft and appearance. The entire lens looks very smooth and professional, with all markings and indicators being commendably well executed. The focusing ring has that perfect feel of silk when it’s turned. It moves very smoothly, being neither overly tight, nor too loose. The travel from minimum focus distance to infinity is just right, and it still leaves a lot of cushion for focusing accurately when in manual mode. The AF/Manual switch is ideally placed for no-look operation, and is very crisp when it is clicked from one to the other.
Included in the package is also a great looking lens hood which causes a bit of deception when attached because it makes the lens appear markedly larger than it actually is in reality. But it does a superb job of reducing the amount of contrast-robbing peripheral light from making its way to the lens’s front element. Overall, the quality of workmanship displayed in the 30mm is outstanding. It feels very well balanced when mounted to the camera (Canon 7D).
It leans towards the robust side in terms of weight for a normal (close to the naked eye’s field of view) prime lens at 15.3 ounces (434g), but it is by no means clunky or difficult to shoulder for long periods. Here we see the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 compared to another prime work horse, the Canon 50mm f/1.4.
With the lens hood reversed for storage, it’s easy to see just how compact this lens really is in the hand.
Here are the official lens specifications and element array provided via Sigma USA.
The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is quite the beast, photographically speaking. The 30mm focal range is very close to what could be considered wide angle, yet it shows no perceivable distortions at the corners. The bokeh is absolutely beautiful; the nine curved aperture blades produce an incredibly smooth, nearly dream-like, background blur when shooting at wide apertures. Some portraits today are being shot with alarmingly short focal lengths with very positive results. This lens would serve that purpose well, and offers richly vibrant colors across the entire aperture range. This great color rendition will make for a love at first sight situation with landscape photographers also. If you shoot a lot of nightscapes this lens will appeal to you as well. Of course the f/1.4 aperture capability makes for great low light work, but the coma was found to be very low likewise. This means all your great shots of the night sky will be produced clearly, with little distortion of those small points of starlight.
The autofocusing of the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is also a point of praise. Focusing was very fast and accurate, and very quiet. It’s great to see a prime lens with AF that is on par with its other features. While manual focusing is always a good idea, the benefit of a high-performing autofocusing mechanism can’t be understated when shooting at the wide open apertures which this lens is capable of achieving.
This brings us to one of the only two downsides thus far found in the 30mm; its sharpness at small and large apertures. It is certainly not uncommon to see a marginal reduction in sharpness when approaching minimum and maximum apertures, from even the most highly prized lenses. From f/2.2 through to f/11, the sharpness of this lens is wonderful. Anything smaller than f/11 or wider than f/2.2 however, saw a significant drop in overall sharpness in my tests. Happily though, that leaves an enormous range of possibilities for optimal image sharpness, and in my opinion, should not diminish the respect this lens deserves.
Here are some sample images to demonstrate the corner sharpness over a range of apertures from f/1.4 through to f/16. The first picture is for reference to the 1:1 magnification applied to the samples.
And now for the samples:
The other downside is relatively noticeable chromatic aberrations at wide apertures. Of course this is to be expected, but it bears mentioning nonetheless. For a lens of this quality the chromatic aberration is a little more than expected when the lens is wide open at f/1.4. These aberrations drop extremely quickly past f/1.8 and diminish completely around f/2.2.
Even at their most noticeable, Lightroom handled the fringing easily in post-processing. Much like the sharpness issue, for most shooters, the chromatic aberrations shouldn’t be a concern, or at the very least should be manageable.
The 30mm F1.4 DC HSM | Art is a terrific lens, despite any marginal concerns with sharpness and aberrations. It performs quite well across a wide range of situations, and will be a great addition to those looking for a low light prime lens with low distortion. Astro photographers will love it for its low coma and sweeping perspective, and landscapers will be drawn to its wonderful color rendition. Even street photographers would be elated to have this lens in their bag due to its incredible bokeh.
Here are a few real world sample images which were shot with the Sigma 30mm F1.4 DC HSM | Art lens, mounted to a Canon 7D, processed in Adobe Lightroom CC.
I would recommend this lens to virtually anyone who needs a sturdy low light prime lens. It fits a myriad of circumstances when high grade professional quality photographs are needed. When shooting at common apertures it is an incredible value for a prime lens at this price point.
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