First, let me say that I was very excited about this lens when I first heard about it. The day is went up for preorder, I jumped on the internet and bought one, based solely on the positive reviews that Sigma’s “Art” series of lenses has been getting. I have owned (still do, in fact) several older Sigma lenses, and they are ok, but definitely not “professional” quality, so I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about with Sigma’s newer lenses. I somehow got my copy less than a week after preorder opened; the store I bought it from, to this day, still lists the lens as alternatively “back-ordered” or “unavailable,” so maybe I got the only copy they had. So, like a kid in a candy store, I ripped it out of the box and sat and stared in awe. Unfortunately, I then took a picture with it. A week later, heartbroken, I returned it – I waited over a month for a replacement, then gave up and cancelled the order entirely once I started seeing other people’s reviews backing up my findings. I will try to explain….
This lens is a beauty, no doubt about it. Hands down, the most beautiful camera lens I have ever owned. It’s big, it’s heavy, its made of shiny metal, textured plastic, and soft rubber in all the right ways and places. When you put it on your camera, it really looks like you mean business. It’s also packaged really well, in a very nice box (much nicer even then Nikon’s hilariously expensive 24-70 VR), and comes with a very well made lens hood, caps, and soft case. Really, it’s a testament to the attention Sigma is paying to design with their products.
In operation, the awesomeness continues. It has weathersealing around the bayonet, so when it clicks firmly into place, it stays there. Other, cheaper, lenses wobble a bit (yes, even Nikons), but this guy feels like it becomes one with the camera. The zoom is solid and well-damped, and VERY quiet (none of that whispy sound you can sometimes get, like plastic rubbing on plastic). Likewise, the zoom ring turns easily with one finger but stays put when you leave it be. Autofocus is super quiet; maybe, in fact, the most silent focus I have ever used – even during video mode, all you really get from the in-camera mic is a soft “whoosh-whoosh” sound, really amazing. The switches are a little tough to operate, but this can be forgiven as they blend so seamlessly into the body that you can forget they are there.
I will put a disclaimer on the rest of this review: It is entirely possible that I got some sort of defective copy. In fact, I very much HOPE I got a defective copy. I will also add that I tried this lens on a D5100, a D7100, a D500, and a D800, so please don’t assume it was my camera that was the problem. In fact, I noticed varying degrees of defectiveness based on which camera I used, the worst being on the D5100 and D800, the most tolerable on the D500. In short, your experience may vary, and that is a pretty big problem – when it comes to lenses in the $1300+ range, no one’s experience should vary! These lenses should have the tightest tolerances and most demanding QC tests so that the professionals buying them can just hook them on their camera and go, not worrying about AF fine-tune and off-plane and decentered focusing. Anyway, here’s the rest of the review…
So, the first thing you might notice is that the lens is nice and bright. The next thing you may notice is that it doesn’t seem to know how to focus. And I don’t mean it hunts a little, or just misses every so often, or is even just a little soft. This lens misses focus EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. After being surprised and disappointed by the first batch of photos I took, I set up my focus chart and used the AF fine tune to try to get it right. On the D800, the worst of them all, I had it pegged at -20 (the highest adjustment possible) and it was still out of focus. The D500 was marginal at -15, but would randomly be out of focus every third or fouth shot. The D7100 actually did pretty well, requiring a -8, but the D5100 has no AF fine tune feature, and was therefore completely unusable with this lens (unless you are shooting exclusively in live-view or video).
Once you get some focus, you may be alarmed to find it focuses pretty slowly, and not all confidently; this is particularly noticeable in low-light or backlight. For a wedding photographer, this is a major problem. I need lenses that focus as fast as I can push the shutter, and stay that way. Even in bright sunlight, this lens was unable to keep up with the constant AF of the D500 at 10 frames per second. I own a Sigma 50-150 from a few years ago that can do this with no problem, so why can’t a brand new lens perform this trick?
A few positives: Contrast and color rendition are superb, once focused. Skin tones are rendered perfectly, and bright colors don’t seem to exhibit any shift or bloom. No chromatic aberration was visible, and this is BEFORE any kind of Lightroom lens calibration was available to automatically remove CA. Compared to the Nikon 24-70 VR, CA control is amazing on this lens. Bokeh is also quite good, better than any other mid-zoom I have used (and yes, better than Nikon’s flagship, but just by a hair).
More negatives: Once I got the focus thing more or less controlled, I took some more test shots and was astonished to find images that were sharp in the center were out of focus on the left side and right side! It is almost like the focal plane was at a slight angle to the sensor, so that the left side was back-focused while the right side was front-focused (and the center stayed true). It was the most evident on the D800. It’s not a pleasant blur, either, but more of a “smear” that renders those out of focus areas in a distracting way. And it was like this in every photo.
Essentially, this one problem completely ruined the lens for me – it would be completely useless for anything besides photographs of small objects that fill less than 1/3 of the frame, held in the center of the frame – what photographer does that?? Landscapes are out of the question, as you need edge-to-edge sharpness for that to work, and this lens was incapable of doing that. To make matters worse, corner sharpness, even on crop-sensor DX bodies, is a complete joke (and is downright hilarious on the full-frame D800) – in fact, its so bad that you can see it even on 4x6 prints of images taken with the D800. It gives all your photos a strange, hipster-esque effect like they were taken with some cheap lens from the 60’s.
I tried to get past these problems, thinking maybe, just maybe, if I stepped it down to F/8 it would fix everything! Nope. At some focal lengths, stepping down actually made the off-plane focus problem worse, and the entire field was useless around 50mm. OS on vs OS off didn’t make any difference either. So, finally, after two weeks of working with it, I gave up and sent it back. I REALLY wanted to love this lens; I thought, in fact, that this would be the last 24-70 I would have to buy, so confident was I in Sigma’s “Art” designation and their media releases regarding the quality and craftsmanship of this lens. At first, I just wanted an exchange – send me another, it will probably be better! After a month of waiting for a back-ordered replacement, however, I gave up and started looking for another solution.