When I do lens tests and reviews, they can often interest me personally for a purchase. For this review, I select the “Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Art Lens”. It would not be very relevant, in my opinion, to try a lens that does not easily fit into your current photo practice.
If you know the importance I attach to a large maximum aperture, you may reasonably suspect that I rushed into the opportunity to try the world’s first f/1.8 zoom.
Indeed, Sigma released in 2013 the first zoom in the world whose maximum aperture is f/1.8 at all focal lengths (which does not mean that you cannot close the diaphragm. Eh 😉.
A Small Revolution
And it’s a small revolution. Usually, large aperture zooms are limited to f/2.8, and honestly, it’s already quite a bit. A large maximum aperture allows both to work more simply in low light and more possibilities in terms of depth of field. In short, it’s all technically and artistically beneficial.
However, at f/2.8, we still do not reach what fixed focal lengths can do, which open at f/1.8 or higher. We often prefer these for the portrait because they allow a much smaller depth of field. They have the disadvantage of being less flexible since one cannot quickly adapt to a change by zooming or de-zooming.
And here, Sigma throws a rock into the pond (the pad was too small. 😉 By offering us no more or less than a zoom opening at f/1.8: The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art. In short, the best of the two worlds.
You guessed it; the optical engineers are not magicians (although here they amaze me!), compromises had to be made to propose this approach.
First of all, the lens is reserved for APS-C sensor SLRs, which remains the majority of the market. You will have noticed, while the standard zooms usually propose to go from 17 to 50 or 55 mm, this one stops at 35 mm.
What does that mean to you? Well, you will not have a small telephoto lens, which means that you will have to avoid making tight portraits at the risk of distorting the face of your models by getting too close. We have to be aware of this limitation.
Sigma also does not offer a stabilization system. It is rarely a problem at these focal lengths, especially since a huge aperture allows you to gain shutter speed more easily.
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And the Optical Quality?
I do not have a test bench at home to do tests, and anyway, it is useless since the most reliable and serious ones are already online for a long time. And the verdict is unmistakable: the Sigma 18-35mm flat-out beats its competitors (namely the 17-50 mm f/2.8 and assimilated) in terms of optical quality. And it even beats many fixed focal points located in the same focal range.
In short, there is nothing to complain about: the 18-35 mm is of better optical quality than the competition, without a doubt. It is not very surprising since Sigma is now clearly positioned as a manufacturer capable of producing very high-end lenses at a perfectly reasonable price. For example, the extraordinary 35 mm f/1.4 Art, better than the Canon and Nikon versions for significantly cheaper.
What’s quite fascinating is that with this lens, it’s like you have three fixed focal lengths in your hands at all times: you have the same aperture and the same optical quality. And all this, with the flexibility of a zoom.
And in The Field, What Does It Look Like?
You’re going to tell me it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t mean you if the beast does well once in your hands. The technical characteristics and the optical quality measured in the laboratory is good, but it is also necessary to know if other defects are present.
So, I decided to test it in my favorite field: concert photography. These are challenging conditions where the light is feeble and complicated to manage. Ideal for testing several things:
• The real and practical usefulness of opening to f/1.8 compared to my usual f/2.8.
• The speed of auto-focus of the lens (critical in concert photo and challenging in low light).
• The impact of the lack of 20 mm focal length on my images.
• The impact of the lack of stabilization.
Indeed, I usually use a Canon 7D with a Canon 17-55 mm f/2.8 IS USM. I have a second case, a Canon 5D MK III with a 70-200 mm f/2.8 IS USM mounted on it for more distant shots. In practice, I alternate between the two depending on what happens on stage and the photo I want to get.
Typically, I use the small zoom to capture the entire band, a musician closely enough (which strengthens the perspectives and makes fit into the image), our interactions with the audience. The big zoom is rather intended for tight portraits of musicians, and the drummer, always too far. 😉
F/1.8, Does That Really Change Anything?
The 7D is a great case, but it’s starting to date a bit: I don’t climb beyond 1600 ISO. It is sometimes a little bit just for the light present in concert.
By winning one-stop 1/3, I still saw the difference. Significantly fewer underexposed photos and sometimes even lower ISOs allow me to have a better final rendering.
It is a real plus in low light, and as I know, this is the key problem for many of you; it is a point to stress. Gaining all this in sunlight will help you make photos less blurred or better exposed.
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20 mm Less, What Changes?
I was afraid of feeling “cramped” because I am used to zooming up to 55 mm (full-format equivalent about 90 mm). In concert, we are relatively mobile, and being able to zoom easily is essential.
Quite honestly, this handicap is offset by the fact that I have a second case on the shoulder, allowing me to have a longer focal length if necessary. So, I didn’t feel it much. But even without that, I was surprised I didn’t feel cramped that much. I sometimes got a little closer, but in the end, I didn’t miss it.
It might be the case for you if you only have the 18-35mm in concert, and again: you have to be in a large enough room to feel the need for the 50 mm.
For more classic everyday use, frankly, I don’t think it will bother the big world in the end. Most of the photos of daily life are done in this focal range, and the 50 mm (equivalent 75 mm) will be more for tight shots and portraits. So, you will probably feel the lack of zoom sometimes, but in my opinion, not so blatantly as you might think.
Other Important Features
In terms of the speed of auto-focus, I had no worries. It’s just as responsive as my Canon 17-55 mm f/2.8, meaning I didn’t feel slowed down at all, despite the very dark vibe that can cause some lenses to worry.
The lack of stabilization either: as the subjects are fast, I am well above the shutter speed necessary to avoid the blur of movement.
Finally, testing it a little at home, I realized that the 18-35 mm reserved a pretty good surprise: an ability to proxy-photography attractive. We are not talking about actual macro, of course, but the minimum focus distance is significantly lower than on competing lenses, and so you can take pretty close shots easily. For example, this small globe is 8-9 cm high, and as you can see, it is a full-frame. At f/1.8, the depth of field modeling is very nice.
It is a detail, but it is pleasant for many to take close-up photos.
In short, the more I think about it, and the more I think that the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 is perhaps the lens we expected for quality photos in everyday life. Finally, the only thing you may need in addition is a 50 mm f/1.8, and you are ready for a vast majority of uses, all without compromising single-second image quality.
So obviously, it comes at a price anyway. This lens is found at about $680 at most online sellers. It may seem like a lot, but it’s still an excellent value for money: cheaper than three fixed lenses and also than a 17-55 mm f/2.8 from manufacturer brands like Canon or Nikon. It remains an excellent investment, in my opinion, which will last you a long time, especially since the construction is frankly solid, without having a mastodon goal either.
I hope that this test will answer the questions you may be asking yourself about this lens, which interests many people (I got a lot by mail). Feel free if you have any additional questions to post a comment.