Autofocus Sigma 14mm f/3.5 Zen


A seriously wide angle of view that's difficult to master, but fun to use.

Oh my, here's a lens wide enough to take in almost your entire vision, yet with very little linear distortion (i.e., straight lines remain straight).

Angle of View
114 degrees (35mm); ~90 degrees (D1)
Close Focus
7 inches (18cm)
Weight
1 pound 2 ounces

 

The Basics

Sigma has been making high quality, unusual optics for some time. One of my earliest non-Nikon purchases was the 14mm f/3.5 (now replaced in Sigma's lineup by an almost identical lens that has a larger maximum aperture of f/2.8). If you've never sighted through the viewfinder with a lens this wide, you're in for a real treat (or surprise).

114 degrees is seriously wide, and poses a real composition problem, as this picture demonstrates. The bush is about 3 inches away from the front of the lens, while I'm standing about eight feet away. The mountains (those are the Towers of Paine just to the left of me) are more than two miles away. Nikon F5, Fuji Velvia, unrecorded aperture (but likely f/16).
This lens has a maximum f/3.5 aperture, with a minimum aperture of f/22. Focusing reaches as close as 7 inches (0.18m). The front element does not move during focus changes, though this doesn't do you any good, since it sticks out like the bottom end of a plastic cola bottle and doesn't accept screw-in filters. A built-in "hood" attempts to block off extraneous light, but don't count on it--the front element curvature is so extreme that the middle of the lens is beyond parts of the hood, and is extremely prone to catching extraneous light.

The focus ring is narrow, but easily distinguished by its knurled rubber pattern. You can't really use filters with this lens, though there is a small "slot" at the rear that can be used to slip in thin gelatin filters cut to size.

At over a pound (1 pound 2 ounces), you'll be amazed by the heft (it's a small lens, just heavy).

Handling

I really doubt you'll be manually focusing this beast--you get almost no benefit from doing so due to the huge depth of field--but if you do, you'll find the action a little loose and finicky. Autofocus on my N90s, F100, F5, and D1x is quite fast, almost amazingly so. I've never seen the lens hunt on autofocus. But...the focusing is a louder than the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8--this is not a lens to use in quiet situations.

The aperture ring is fine, with solid click stops. The front element is very significantly exposed, so you're going to get fingerprints on this beauty if you aren't careful. The supplied "lens cap" is one of the more unusual I've seen--it actually has a cap on the cap! You really have to see it to understand.

Performance

With one major caveat, the Sigma 14mm f/3.5 is a decent performer. The edges are a little soft wide open. And I wouldn't use the lens at f/22, as defraction seems to take a bit of sharpness away at minimum aperture. Fortunately, depth of field is so great even at f/3.5 (hyperfocal distance is less than 8'), that you'll never really need to stop all the way down. I expected more light falloff in the corners, but this common wide-angle problem is well controlled on this lens. Unbelievably, straight lines really do stay straight.

I don't generally recommend shooting portraits inches away from a subject with a 14mm lens, let alone doing so while pointing into the sun, but...F100 with Sigma 14mm, Fuji Provia, slightly cropped! Note lack of contrast in upper left corner.
But...the extreme front element curvature produces a penalty you need to be aware of: flare. If any stray light hits that big hunk of glass, contrast is greatly reduced, making images unusable. Worse still, direct hits of light on the element sometimes produce a strange bit of flare--essentially a hot spot in your image (the depth of field is so great at smaller apertures and close focus distances, that at times it can be at the front element, meaning the light hitting the lens is rendered in the image!). I can't think of a time when I haven't had to shield the lens from stray light. In fact, I invested in one of those inexpensive snake-like holders (Flarebuster) that fit into the hot shoe (the other end is a small clip, and you put a small piece of cardboard in it to shield the lens, adjusting the snake arm as necessary).

Drawbacks

  • Contrast Control. Watch for any stray light hitting the front element. Get in the habit of shading the lens. I bought a small clip gizmo that mounts in the hot shoe and whose gooseneck arm allows me to position a small piece of cardboard to shade the lens. This solves the problem 90% of the time.
  • Composition Problems. When you're taking in 114 degrees, you'd better be a master of placing objects in the frame (and have a 95% or better viewfinder). As with any wide angle, it helps to have foreground, midground, and background interests, but the 14mm will push your wide angle framing skills. I can't tell you how many shots I thought would work didn't, usually because of big expanses of midground that just sat there empty.
  • The Lens Cap. Because it slips over the built in hood, the unique cap has a tendency to come off in my tightly packed camera cases. Moreover, that strange cap on the cap sometimes pops off, leaving the front element exposed.

Postives:

  • Sharp and clear. Sigma has managed to make a very wide angle lens without most of the optical issues that plague them (light falloff, corner softness, chromatic aberration, etc.).
  • Great value. Much less expensive that some of the alternatives (see below), yet you don't really give anything up.

Alternatives:

  • Sigma 14mm f/2.8. Newer version of the f/3.5. Virtually everything I've written above applies to this lens, too. Using a one-day loaner from my local store, I didn't see enough difference in results to justify switching, though the slightly brighter viewfinder image is useful.
  • The Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D, Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G DX, and Sigma 15mm f/2.8. Not really an apples versus apples comparison, since all three of these lenses actually take in a wider area and are what is known as a full-frame fisheye (straight lines appear curved unless they're dead square in the middle of the frame); the 10.5mm does the coverage over the smaller DSLR frame, the 15mm and 16mm do it over a full 35mm frame. Nevertheless, most photographers can only afford one exotic wide angle lens, and the unique properties of these lenses are compelling. In almost any situation where I'd use the Sigma 14mm, I'd consider using the Nikkor 16mm or Sigma 15mm (or a 10.5mm on a Nikon DSLR). The exception: interior architecture shots, where the straight line rendering of the Sigma 14mm is clearly preferable.
  • Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D. Much more expensive than the Sigmas. And frankly, I don't see enough difference to justify the cost difference. The Nikkor does seem to have less problems with contrast control than the Sigma, though the problem isn't completely gone. Optically, I don't see much to distinguish the two other than a slightly warmer color out of the Sigma.
  • Tamron 14mm f/2.8. I haven't shot with this lens. It, too, is more expensive than the Sigmas, so it would take something extraordinary in its performance to be considered in this group of competitors.
 
Quick Evaluation


Recommended, especially if you can find a used one in good shape at a decent price.

features
performance
build
value

Update: July 23, 2003
Update: 1/14/05

Table of Contents
Others Ask
jsw writes: The "cap on a cap" is for digital photographers using the Nikon D1 or something similar. Since the digital camera has a CCD smaller than 35mm film frame, it can use the lens with the big cap on and the end cap off without vignetting. Of course it has the field of view of a 20mm lens. You can even use standard filters where the small cap.

Thom responds: A clever idea, but I doubt this was what Sigma intended, as the lens predates the D1 by many years (I owned my Sigma 14mm for six years, and I believe the lens was available before that). If you have a D1 and use the Sigma with the outer cap still on, you need to remain alert for vignetting, as the outer cap has a habit of getting slightly dislodged when brushed against.

JM writes:I would concur with the assessment of the Sigma's performance. With the Nikon D1 [D1h, D1x, D100, S2 Pro] this is an outstanding wide angle lens. It has excellent color and is sharp; granted, the D1 only uses the center portion.

Thom responds: Using only the central portion of the lens is a big asset (the digital sensor of most DSLRs doesn't cover the full 35mm frame). Besides avoiding the inevitable softening that happens in the corners on fast, wide lenses, light falloff is nonexistant. On a D1, D1h, D1x, D100, or S2 Pro, the 14mm becomes something closer to 21mm, which is acceptably wide, but watch out for light hitting that front element, which will reduce contrast.

RT writes: I puchased the Sigma 14mm f2.8 two months ago and have been very impressed. I've used the lens on a Nikon N80 and an F4s. For interior architectural shots the lens is superb, though you must be careful to hold the lens camera perfectly vertical, otherwise distortion occurs. For outdoor scenic shots it provides very good contrast and sharpness close to that of my Nikon 20mm. I've yet to get gels to place in the rear mount and have been surprised at the lack of blue shift with flash and daylight shots since there is no UV or other filtration. Corners do get soft and have less contrast, but not overly so. The HSM focusing is quick and silent. Manual focus is slightly tight but very definite and smooth. The lens will focus past infinity mark for reasons unknown to me, perhaps allows for thermal expansion of the plastic parts. The Sigma weighs significantly less than the Tamron and Nikon offerings, which I do think is a plus, since those lenses push the two pound mark. I suppose the Nikon is sharper and more corrected than the Sigma, but I doubt it is worth double the price. I am very pleased. This lens is a real keeper and worth every penny.

Thom responds: Lenses that incorporate special elements (such as the Nikon ED glass) focus beyond infinity for exactly the reason you mention: to insure that the lens can still focus at infinity at differing temperatures. As for "lack of blue shift," virtually all modern films have such altered UV response that a UV filter is no longer necessary, even at altitude. It used to be that some films--I seem to remember Ektrachromes and the early Fuji slide films being seriously troublesome in this regard--had enough UV response that photos taken at even 6000 feet had serious blue shift. Lately I've taken Fuji Provia and Ektachrome VS up to 18,000 feet without filtration and seen no shift.


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