“Spend it on the glass” is one of the best bits of advice any photographer will hear – in other words, make sure you leave enough money aside after buying your camera to invest in quality lenses.
A lot of beginner photographers are disappointed by the results when they only use the cheap ‘kit’ lenses that came with their camera and wonder why their images lack star quality.
Meanwhile if you are coming to photography from smartphones, the difference a good lens can make can be revelatory.
Decent lenses can end up costing as much, or more, than your camera body, however, so you can see why people try to get by with what they have. Fortunately, you can get quality lenses at a sensible price if you shop around, especially if you buy from a third-party maker such as Sigma and Tamron.
Sigma’s reputation has never been higher, thanks to its high-quality ‘Art’ prime, or non-zoom, lenses (a must for any serious portrait photographer) but it’s also got some great glass further down the price range. A brilliant example is the Sigma 56mm f1.4 AF DC DN, which you can pick up for under £340.
The lens is released in L mount, which means it can fit a wide range of Leica and Panasonic cameras, but is also available for Micro Four Thirds (Olympus and Panasonic) as well as Sony E and Canon EF-M mounts.
So why is this lens such a good buy?
First, it’s impressively sharp as you can see from our test images. I took them on a Leica CL and to my eye, the Sigma outperforms just about anything in this price range (higher-end Leica glass is obviously superb but costs a bomb).
At wider apertures, everything is beautifully sharp around where you have set the focus point, with a lovely smooth quality to the background blur (bokeh). If you stop down to a narrower aperture for deeper depth of field, when taking a landscape or cityscape for example, the edge-to-edge sharpness is really impressive. Distortion and aberration are also kept the absolute minimum.
Despite its budget price, the lens is built to last, with a lovely solid feel. It’s made of TSC (Thermally Stable Composite) and has a brass bayonet mount with a rubber sealing for dust and splash resistance. The lens is not weather sealed, but you can’t have everything for such a good price.
The Sigma only weighs 280g, making it a perfect companion to mirrorless cameras (one of the selling points of mirrorless bodies and lenses when they first came out was less weight and bulk, but this seems to have been forgotten about of late).
Although the lens does protrude on my Leica CL, it’s never a problem, and helps with handling. You even get a lens hood, which neatly fits over the barrel when not in use.
This also a very versatile lens. With a maximum aperture of f/1.4, you can open it right up to help you get decent shots in low light (or when you want lots of background blur in normal conditions).
Combine this lens with the decent high ISO performance now available on most modern mirrorless cameras, and you can suddenly see a lot more in the dark. While the lens lacks built-in image stabilisation, this is now available on a lot of camera bodies anyway.
Something to remember is that the effective focal length will change according to which camera the lens is mounted on. On my Leica CL, for example, which uses an APS-C sensor, it becomes an 85mm lens; on a Micro Four Thirds camera, such as those from Olympus, you will find yourself shooting at 112mm. Both these are great for portraits and capturing detail in a landscape, rather than squeezing in the whole scene.
To conclude. So long as you can live without image stabilisation and weather sealing, and understand how the effective focal length of this lens will change according to what type of camera you are using, there are really no downsides to the Sigma that I can think of. Shooting ‘natively’ at 56mm is great for portraits and a lot of street documentary work, while if you are using it like an 85mm lens, again, this is very flattering for portraits. If you are only considering buying one prime lens this year, the Sigma 56mm f1.4 AF DC DN should be high your list.
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