Why do you need a 50mm lens?
I adore the 50mm focal length. On a full frame sensor, a fast 50mm gives you the potential for good subject isolation and depth of field control, while also leaving you some room to experiment with environmental composition.
“It corresponds to a certain vision and at the same time has enough depth of focus, a thing you don’t have in longer lenses. The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see.” – Henri Cartier Bresson
Though I am not skilled or precise enough in my composition to obviate the need for a 35mm in my bag (truth be told, I prefer the 35mm over the 50mm in a lot of situations), there an innate joy in a perfectly framed image made with the classic 50mm focal length.
This brings us to the idea of a nifty-fifty. Almost all camera manufacturers have them and due to the low barrier of entry they are often the first prime lenses that a photographer will use. They offer photographers a cheap way to get a shallow depth of field and dip their toes into the ocean of primes. In addition to the benefits of a nice, large aperture, cheap 50mm lenses also serve to reinforce the idea of careful composition and framing. The crutch of zooming to recompose is taken away, forcing a more measured, contemplative approach to photography.
However, this isn’t a nifty-fifty. If anything, this lens is as far away from the idea of a small, cheap 50mm lens that can be imagined. Weighing just a bit under 1kg and around 50,000 INR,
this is an expensive, intimidating lens.
Why should you even consider this lens when there are cheaper and smaller options available? In short, I have never shot with a better 50mm lens (and I have tried many).
The 50A follows Sigma’s new design philosophy first introduced in the 35mm 1.4 Art ( a benchmark lens that put Sigma back on the map for many photographers). Though the exterior of the lens is plastic, it feels very well put together with tight tolerances and high quality workmanship. The intimidating weight also adds to the feel of quality – the lens feels more like a 24-70 f 2.8 zoom rather than a modest 50mm prime.
Featuring a mostly-metal construction, the lens feels solid and much better than any of the 50mm lenses of Nikon and Canon. The only notable omission from the otherwise stellar build is the complete lack of weather sealing. This is something to keep in mind if you intend to use the 50A in less than perfect weather.
This is the one category where I believe this lens suffers. The sheer size and weight of the lens ensure that a photographer needs to be prepared for fatigue after a long day’s shooting. Also, if paired with a lighter camera body, the combination is uncomfortably front heavy and causes a signifiant strain on the wrist. Paired with a more substantial body, such as the Nikon D810 or the Canon 5D3, the lens is far more tolerable.
The autofocus of the Sigma 50mm Art is much improved over the older version of this lens – the 50mm EX DG HSM. However, like most of the Sigma lenses I have owned, the 50A required a fair amount of focus micro adjustment calibration. If you intend to purchase or rent this lens, it would be best to pair it with a body that supports micro adjustment or the optional Sigma lens calibration dock.
After calibration, AF accuracy was good to excellent in most cases. Weddings, my primary use case for this lens, provided an excellent opportunity to put the AF through its paces and I was generally quite satisfied with its performance. There were times, especially in low-light, where the lens struggled but those occasions were few and far between.
Without resorting to using MTF charts, the easiest way to describe the image quality of this lens is “superb”. The bokeh is smooth and very appealing and the lens renders wonderfully sharp images right from f1.4, requiring very little additional sharpening in post processing. Stopping this lens down to f/2 and 2.8 give you images that are incredibly sharp.
Overall the Sigma 50A represents the best combination of optical performance, build quality and price. The only lens close to this quality for a dslr would be the mighty Zeiss 55 1.4 Otus – a lens that costs more than 4 times more, is larger and is manual focus only.
If you ever wondered what the bleeding edge of optical quality looks like, I highly encourage you to check out this lens.
About the Author – Ram Balmur is a professional photographer and specialises in wedding and event photography, portraiture, architecture and travel photography. Ram is also passionate about teaching photography and has been doing so for several years now. You can see more of Ram’s work at www.rambalmur.com.