Welcome back to Tstops.
It’s been a long time since my last entry as its been a busy year shooting. This means one thing however. Something special has captured my attention. In 2016, I stopped by the Sigma booth at Photo Expo in New York. The usual plethora of still lenses behind glass on display. In a far corner at the end of the booth, were two cine cameras with something that looked a bit different attached. Two compact twin cine style zooms based on the now legendary Sigma 18-35 and 50-100 stills lenses. I could tell just by looking at them, this was something out of the ordinary. The housings were properly built, marked and even had some really unique features that some of the top end cine lenses lacked. For example, they had all kinds of technical data printed on the lens barrel itself, filter thread size, outside diameter, and the copies they had on display even had close focus information. I was intrigued. I introduced myself to Brian Linhoff, the gentleman standing by them proudly and hit him with a rapid fire barrage of questions relating to the optics and mechanics. Were they par-focal? What kind of focus mechanism was under the hood? Sensor coverage? Coatings? MTF? Before he answered anything he asked me who I was and what did I do? It seems for Sigmas first foray into cinema lenses, these were questions that they hadn’t heard from the photographers that stopped by the table, and being primarily a photo company, they had limited exposure with motion. I explained I was a cinematographer, and I was just curious how they came up with so many clever design elements. He said, it just made sense and I agreed. The 18-35 and 50-100 were both members of Sigmas top shelf “Art” series of lenses. The line at the time was made up of just a few lenses, the two zooms, and an 85mm F1.4 prime, which was shockingly beautiful and even out scored the bar raising Zeiss Otus 85mm according to DXO. My next question naturally was.. do you have PL primes? The answer was “soon”. How much is asked? “Affordable” was the answer. The full 7 lens set is priced at around $24,799 at reseller Duclos Lenses. Thats a decent chunk of cash. However, as I came to realize, this set is a steal.
Flash forward several months and I got a call from Sigma asking if I would have any interest in testing their newly developed full prime set. I mean, when you ask a lens addicted DP if he wants to test brand new lenses the answer is always YES! A few months later, the set arrived, and I was ready to give them a whirl. I received the 14mm T2.0, 20mm T1.5, 24mm T1.5, 35mm T1.3, 50mm T1.5, 85mm T1.5 and the 135mm T1.5.
I have been shooting a very wide range of projects, fashion, commercial, tabletop, stills and even shot a film of my own.
Here’s what I think.
The prime set, is a fully rehoused version of the full ART series of primes. Now, this is not just a set of still lenses with gears glued on. The build quality is similar to the top offerings available today. The physical size, look and feel is similar to ARRI Ultra Primes. Dense, but compact. Where as Zeiss CP2/3 are airy, light and feel hollow (not in a negative way), and the Cooke S4 and MiniS4’s are dense and feel like there is no air space inside, I’d say the Sigmas Cines fall somewhere in the middle, closer to the S4’s. They feel confidently built. Focus mechanism and Iris move like silk. The Focus scales are longer than the still versions, but still not quite the 300 degree rotation you would find on a S4 or the UltraPrime. Given the price I can understand there had to be some compromises. It uses what was described to me as a hybrid of cam & rail and helicoil focus mechanism. I’m not sure what that means exactly, as it seems to be a bit of a secret within Sigma. The result is a fantastic, smooth and jitter free focus pull. Low resistance, but just enough dampening to make hand turned focus pulls have smooth starts and stops. The bodies are all aluminum, with steel mounts. As of now, the lenses are available in an electronic EF mount and dumb PL mount. No iData protocol is on the PL versions. The EF version, however transmits focus and t-Stop information to the camera. They are fully manual, so no autofocus functionality. The EF version (I also tested the EF version) benefit greatly from a locking mechanism EF mount. The native Canon mount on a Canon DSLR, Arri, RED and Metabones EF adapters have zero play. Cheaper EF adapters, did have some play (commlite adapter on A7R2).
The markings are good, and reasonably spaced even on the longer lenses. Still rehoused lenses often suffer from having a majority of its focus range compressed into a 1/8th of a turn. While not as well spaced as the Angeniuex 24-290, the longer Sigmas at least give you a 150′ mark. Many budget lenses mark somewhere around 90′ then you basically have to guess till you hit infinity. All of the Sigmas rotate well beyond infinity to make up for any mis calibrated mounts. I do wish they had a hard stop at infinity, but that means that every camera you ever put them on has to be 110% perfectly back focused. (this should be the case at all times!) The real world often has other plans. Rented cameras, lens adapters, and lower cost cameras often are not back focused perfectly. This buffer gives you a shot in hell of hitting infinity focus even on a very mis-calibrated mount. So, while some ACs find it somewhat annoying to have 3/4″ of travel past infinity, if production rented a camera that was very far off, the 1st AC would not be screwed. Not being screwed is far better than being slightly annoyed.
All in all, beautifully built, and made to last a long long time.
This is the part where I was floored. I knew the Art series was great. I had tried out the 85mm ART stills lens on an A7R2 and was blown away by the look. Absolutely razor sharp at all stops. No compromise on sharpness wide open. The bokeh on the 85 was truly something special. Smooth, with perfect flat specular discs, but not quite gaussian, that is to say it doesn’t look like perfect airbrush blurry. It has texture and form. Bokeh quality is obviously subjective in its beauty. I find it gorgeous. Bokeh is a function of lens design. To achieve certain optical goals, it affects different parts of the image. Sharpness, flare, chromatic aberration, distortion etc. When you eliminate one, another usually suffers, so lots of meticulous design planning goes into building a lens to get good overall performance. In the case of the 85mm Art it’s nearly a perfect lens. Now, an 85mm is actually one of the simpler optical designs, and making all the corrections to achieve a perfect image is within the realm of possibility. The Rokinon 85mm for example is definitely the jewel of the set, and only $300. Sharp, low CA, low distortion etc.. The trouble is matching the rest of the set to that standard. The Rokinons (and Xeen) show how hard that is when given a low price point.
The crazy part of the Sigma Art, and by extension the Sigma Cine set is that they just don’t break. The optical perfection of the 85 carries all the way through the entire set. In fact, the 14mm T2.0, is one of the fastest ultra wide lenses available. The Cooke 14mm S4 T2, Master prime 14mm T1.3 and Ultra Prime 14mm T1.9 and Leica Summilux C 16mm are all fast wides.. and they all cost as much as a car. However, the Sigma set has another ace up the sleeve. Not only are they fast and optically incredible, they ALL cover full frame. None of the aforementioned high end cine primes can touch a full frame. Forget Vista Vision which is even bigger. The 14mm Sigma at an incredible T2.0 (F1.8) covers the RED Monstro vistavision sensor. Even wide open, the 14mm is TACK sharp in the corners. It’s a nature and astro cinematographer’s dream lens. Every lens in the set is a dream lens.
Just to be fair, the weakest lens in the set is the 20mm. Now by weak, I mean it is maybe 5% less sharp wide open than every other lens in the set @T1.5. By T2.0, you would never know it had a flaw. I am gushing over these lenses because they deserve it. On a S35 frame, I think these lenses would hold their own against Master primes, Summilux C’s and Cooke 5i’s. (I will shoot a blind test soon to see if my impressions hold water). That is what they feel like on the monitor, tippy top shelf glass. Now, mechanically the shorter scale of focus and I’m sure some build quality differences will be apparent, but when you take into consideration the average price of a sigma is about $3499 per lens, vs $25,000 per lens for the Arri/Leica/Cooke, I think the value is clear.
But let me not get ahead of myself. Just take a look. Here are a few moving examples. I made these clips to put the Sigmas through their paces in real world scenarios. A mix of natural light, available light, “No light”, lit interior/exterior and tightly lit tabletop.
This first video is a fashion film. It’s intended finish is monochrome. I included a second color version for those of you who want to see it all in color. The third video is an assortment of shots from different cameras and very different circumstances. Tabletop, timelapse and documentary. Pay close attention to the small things. Notice how despite the incredible resolution, it has a gentle focus roll off. It looks to me like a hybrid of: the sharpness of a master prime, the focus roll off of a cooke, the subtle color tone of a Leica and its very own flavor of bokeh. Lenses this clean usually are boring to look at. With these lenses, the cleanliness is not sterile. It is the source of its look.
The look they give is sophisticated but still has some character. With the exception of the two widest lenses, the set has almost no distortion, and none of them have significant chromatic aberration. Even wide open. The 14mm does however have a very strange distortion when you get to close focus. It’s almost like a donut shaped area that distorts differently. When on S35 frame its less pronounced. This only happens when focusing under 18″. When the focus throw is further out, its nearly perfect, lines are dead straight and you get no curvature of horizontal lines as you tilt the camera. I think the internal elements just get too close (or far from) the big glass ball that makes up the front element. The 20mm has a tiny tiny bit of barrel distortion, but nothing jarring to the eye. It would only show up if you were shooting a grid, and you were close to it physically. At distance the distortion cleans up to the eye.
So maybe they aren’t 100% perfect but I only found a few issues.
One: The primes do exhibit some slight breathing. It only becomes apparent when you near the close focus end of the lenses. It’s subdued but more noticeable on the wider end. That said, even the worst offender still breathes a lot less than most of the S4’s. If you have shot on S4’s recently, you will know that while present, their breathing is totally acceptable and hasn’t stopped them from becoming the most popular set of lenses of the last 25 years. I think the Sigmas are absolutely acceptable. Would it be better to have none? Of course. Will it kill a shot? No. Remember the price tag. It seems this is where the compromise happened.
Two: The close focus on some of the lenses is not the best, specifically the 85mm. The CF on the wider end is excellent, and although the 135mm is 35″ close focus, it’s so tight that it feels almost like a macro.
14mm: 11″ CF
20mm: 11″ CF
24mm: 10″ CF
35mm: 12″ CF
50mm: 16″ CF
85mm: 34″ CF
135mm: 35″ CF
The 85mm, kinda is the odd man out. As its adapted from a still lens, I suppose this is another compromise. Jumping from 16″ CF of the 50mm to 2’10” of the 85mm is a pretty big jump. The 85 is not tight enough a focal length to get really close to an object at that distance. You can fill the screen with a face, but you may not get an eye to fill the frame. If your set is the 5 lens set, you may have to go through some hoops to get a ECU, diopters etc.. I found the 135mm very useful for table top and product. With some post cropping, we got some very close up shots. You saw the water droplets hitting the ice in the examples above. The resolution allowed us to crop in a bit without the shot standing out in a bad way.
Three: The lenses vary in overall length. Not huge amounts, but going from 20mm to 135mm means you are going to have to move the matte box around a little when swapping lenses. The gear positions however are static. Follow focus and Iris motor doesn’t move the whole day regardless of lens. ACs find it mildly annoying.
One other little thing. Over the time I have spent with the Sigmas, the pelican case they came in only held 5 lenses, so the 14mm and 135mm had to travel in another case which is slightly inconvenient. This is not the lenses fault, but it did make me question whether to carry the 14 and 135 around on every shoot. If you do go for the whole set, it is probably a good idea to have a custom case built to hold them all. I believe Duclos Lenses is working on a special case that holds all 7.
Despite a few small drawbacks, I think this set is the best deal in professional level lenses money can buy. They are fast, amazingly sharp, great new look, has beautiful bokeh and the kind of build quality that will last you decades with proper maintenance. Not to mention being rather affordable considering the level of lenses it seems to be competing with in terms of performance.
Thank you for reading. Till the next examination!
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