Why this is one of the best lenses you can buy for £350

By Geoff Harris

“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).

Very sharp indeed, and the lens is very easy to focus manually too

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.

Background blur is attractive and the AF fast and accurate

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).

The lens is relatively small and light, making it ideal for unobtrusive street photography

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.

This fast prime lens means low light is much less of an issue

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.

When working as an 85mm equivalent, the lens is ideal for capturing distant architectural detail

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.

One of the best budget prime lenses we’ve ever seen

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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