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Thursday
Apr042013

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 vs. Nikon 28mm f/1.8G

Sigma's brand new 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM A1, or Nikon's new-ish 28mm f/1.8G AF-S... which one is right for you?

These two prime lenses have similar focal-lengths, similar maximum apertures, and similar price-points. It's no wonder that I see them discussed and compared with each other on forums fairly often. Given $700-900 to spend on a fast, relatively-wide, prime lens, which do you get? First, let's take a look at a high-level specifications summary to get a feel for what they offer (clear winners highlighted in green):

To summarize: the Nikon is a bit wider, smaller, and lighter than the Sigma. It's also a bit slower (2/3rds of a stop), but it's a good deal less expensive as well.

Construction and Handling

The Sigma really outshines the Nikon in both construction and handling. When I first got my Nikon 28/1.8G, I was disappointed with the light, plastic feel of the lens. The focus ring feel light and cheap. It most certainly doesn't feel like a $700 prime lens should. Unlike the Nikon, Sigma uses a metal lens barrel with a very smooth, well-damped focus ring. It's also larger and heavier than the Nikon, which really give the Sigma a nice, high-quality feel. The flip-side of that is that the light weight and smaller size of the Nikon can certainly work to its advantage. I prefer to travel light, especially when hiking, where every single ounce really adds up. In that sort of situation, the Nikon would be my go-to lens.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 HSM DG

Focal Length

Focal lengths are tricky. What works perfectly for one photographer may feel completely wrong for another. To that effect, I've created two GIFs, below, which help to illustrate the difference in focal lengths. Please note that these comparisons are for the field-of-view on full-frame / FX cameras.

Focal Length Comparison: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 vs. Nikon 28mm f/1.8G (16:9 crop)

Focal Length Comparison: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 vs. Nikon 28mm f/1.8G

As you can see, the fields of view these lenses provide are actually quite similar. The Nikon may be slightly better suited towards landscape photos, and the Sigma might be a bit better suited for things like portraits and street photogoraphy. However, I like to challenge these sorts of assumptions, and I really think that either lens could be excellent for landscape, street, travel, and most other general types of photography - when placed in the right hands, of course. To give you an example, below is a landscape photo taken with the Sigma 35/1.4, and an environmental portrait taken with the Nikon 28/1.8.

Yosemite Falls (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1, landscape)

"Sailing, J24, Boston Harbor" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G, environmental portrait)

Optical Quality

I don't have the right resources or knowledge to do a full optical assessment of both lenses. The general consensus across the web is that the Sigma is the new resolution benchmark to beat. From what I've seen, I have to agree. It's pretty astonishing in terms of center resolution and sharpness.

That said, the Nikon is nearly as good as the Sigma, and I have absolutely no complaints about its resolution or performance. If you're eager to look at some charts and numbers, the brilliant folks at Photozone.de have reviewed both lenes:

As you can see, the resolution numbers are quite similar. In terms of flare-resistance, both lenses performed very, very well during testing. I didn't have any issues with flare, even with the sun in the frame. It appears that Sigma's multi-coatings are beginning to rival Nikon's expensive "Nano-Crystal" coatings.

In short: both lenses are optically excellent.

Bokeh

I enjoy bokeh (out-of-focus blur) as much as the next guy, but I tend not to obsess over it. In this case, the Sigma wins out over the Nikon 28mm f/1.8G. This is simply due to the slightly longer focal-length and faster aperture, which just makes it more "bokeh-rific" than the Nikon (given the same subject at the same distance). Nevertheless, the Nikon's bokeh is pleasing and soft in certain situations, and about as strong as one might expect from any 28/1.8.

Autofocus

Both lenses feature fast, quiet, ultrasonic motors. I've encountered reports of the Nikon 28/1.8 having some focus-shift issues at different apertures (in-focus at f/1.8 may be out-of-focus at f/5.6). I've thoroughly tested my copy, and have had no such problems. There is some noticeable field curvature that one must be aware of, but that's expected of a moderately wide, fast lens. I didn't notice any field curvature with the Sigma.

As far as accuracy is concerned, both lenses are very accurate. Over the course of my week shooting with the Sigma, I only experienced one hiccup and missed-shot due to an AF problem. This was while using the extreme, center-bottom focus point. Some users have reported problems with the Sigma on the D800 when using the extreme outer focus points, but other than my one missed shot, I didn't have any issues. In fact, I also missed a shot in a similar situation with the Nikon during the same time period. Overall, I'd say that these lenses are about equal when it comes to AF performance and accuracy. Neither one is absolutely perfect, but they're not terrible either. In fact, they're both quite good.

Sample Images

I've been taking photos with the Nikon 28/1.8G for nearly a year now, so I've had time to amass a number of sample images that I'm very happy with. Unfortunately I only had the Sigma 35/1.4 for less than a week, since I rented it from the wonderful people over at LensRentals.com. Nevertheless, I managed to get a handful of images that I'm content to display.

"Port Tack, Boston Harbor" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G)

"Sunset, Delicate Arch" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G)

"Untitled" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G)

"Wine Tasting, Napa" (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1)

"Summit Celebration" (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1)

"Tunnel View, Yosemite" (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1)

Summary & Conclusion

You really can't go wrong with either of these lenses. If cost, weight, and build quality are of negligible concern, then the decision could boil down to just one very subjective factor: focal-length. It really all comes down to the photographer's preference. Gary Winogrand famously used a 28mm lens for most of his street photography, but Henri Cartier-Bresson shot primarily with a 35mm.

For landscapes, I usually reach for a zoom (typically the 17-35/2.8 or 24-120/4) so that I can compose more precisely. For me, primes are more useful for travel, street, and portrait photography. Because of this, I find the slightly tighter focal length of the Sigma more appealing for general use. I also prefer the heavier and more solid construction of the Sigma over the Nikon. Conversely, I can see myself reaching for the Nikon when traveling light, like when hiking, where every ounce really counts. Other photographers might prefer working with primes for landscape photography, where the 28mm might be more appropriate than the 35mm.

If you're having a hard time deciding, I suggest renting these lenses from LensRentals.com before you choose. Or, you might try scotch-taping your zoom lens at each focal-length for a few days. It'll quickly become apparent which one you prefer.

Sigma 35/1.4 Pros

  • outstanding optical quality
  • 2/3rds of a stop faster than the Nikon
  • robust construction
  • nice, normal-wide field-of-view on FX
  • on DX it yields a "normal" 50mm equivalent field-of-view

Sigma 35/1.4 Cons

  • heavy
  • more expensive than the Nikon
  • no rear dust gasket/seal on mount

Nikon 28/1.8 Pros

  • outstanding optical quality
  • light and relatively compact design
  • nice, moderate-wide field-of-view on FX
  • less expensive than the Sigma
  • has rear dust gasket/seal on mout

Nikon 28/1.8 Cons

  • 2/3rds of a stop slower than the Sigma
  • cheap-feeling construction
  • on DX it yields a slightly strange 42mm field-of-view
Thursday
Mar282013

Entire Nik Software Collection Available for $149

The entire Nik software collection has been made available for $149 (70% off the original price). Even better, the discount code "WBEEM" will get you an additional 15% off, for a total of around $130!

For that price, you get HDR Efex Pro 2, Silver Efex Pro 2, Color Efex Pro 4, Viveza 2, Dfine 2, and Sharpener Pro 3. These plugins are an incredible steal at that price. Google's acquisition of Nik is proving to be quite beneficial to the photography community thus far. We'll see what the future holds...

Head over to niksoftware.com to get in on the action.

"Sands of Time", Antelope Canyon, AZ (D800 RAW converted with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2)

Wednesday
Mar062013

Your Point & Shoot Isn't a Second-Class Citizen!

 "The best camera is the one that's with you." -- Chase Jarvis

This quote is constantly referenced in numerous photography forums, across all corners of the internet. As soon as the topic of discussion turns to camera size, traveling, or point & shoots, that quote is bound to appear. It's an excellent lesson for a photographer to remember, but the unfortunate problem is that the quote is often used as an excuse to purchase the latest and greatest form of small camera gadgetry. When a hot new point & shoot camera is announced, every DSLR-wielding photographer starts to have wandering thoughts:

If only I had a better pocketable camera to carry with me every day, then I'd be able to capture all those little scenes I see all the time just going about my daily business! Maybe my vacation photos will get better if I weren't burdened by all this heavy gear? Perhaps I could get some better street photos if I were to use a smaller, less noticeable camera?

I'm one of the worst offenders when it comes to this. In fact, when the revolutionary Canon Powershot S90 compact was announced back in the Autumn of 2009, I was one of the first to buy one. It was an incredible little camera, and I was very happy with it for three and a half years.

Canon Powershot S90

That little camera came with me on all sorts of adventures. I brought it hiking, snorkeling, into clubs & restaurants, and across foreign countries. It was my primary social activity camera, used to document all sorts of life events like birthdays, barbecues, and parties. It was fantastic for those things; I have countless photos of myself and friends that were taken with that camera. It's done a great job of documenting those memories and moments.

Yet, over the course of those four years, I have less than a handful of images taken with the little S90 that I'd be happy to print and put on display. However, over the same period of time, I made dozens and dozens of images with my DSLR that I would be more than happy to display. So, what's the problem? Why was my camera so underutilized for serious photography? Was the hardware simply not capable of producing what I wanted? Well, point & shoots will never have image quality as good as their equivalent-generation DSLR counterparts, but most that have been made since around 2010 are more than capable of producing beautiful images. Sure, they may not be quite as detailed or as noise-free as the latest DSLR, but that's not what photography is about. Photography is about creating or conveying feeling using imagery, and modern point & shoots are more than good enough for that task. If the issue isn't one of hardware or equipment, what is it then?

Red as Roses, October 2010, Toronto (Canon S90)

The Hike up to Mittersill (Sony RX100)

"Every photograph you've ever admired was taken with past equipment, not the thing you're waiting for someone to announce." -- Thom Hogan

The real problem with picking up a point & shoot instead of a DSLR, is that the mind dismisses it as a toy. It is immediately compared to a serious DLSR, so the mind turns it into something that's not up-to-par for serious photography. Of course, it's not a toy. It's precision photographic instrument that's incredibly capable when placed in the hands of a proficient photographer with the right mindset.

The key to using a point & shoot effectively is having the right mindset. Picking up a point & shoot shouldn't turn you into a snapshot shooter. Adopt the right mindset, and stop treating your small camera as a second-class citizen to your DSLR - it's simply a different type of tool to be considered when something lighter and more compact is necessary.

With this in mind, here are two things that I regularly do when using a DSLR, which I nearly always forget to do when I use a compact camera:

  • Previsualize: What story are you trying to tell? What feeling should be conveyed or triggered? Consider the positioning, framing, camera settings, and all elements which are necessary to make it happen.
  • Work the Scene: Don't just put the camera away after a first attempt. Slow down and work the scene, taking multiple photos, trying to improve upon each previous shot.

It all boils down to this: to take fantastic photos with your compact camera, then slow down, and use it just like you would your DSLR.

Monday
Mar042013

Finally, a new 80-400mm... and a Curious DX Coolpix

Nikon has just announced a new version of the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens, which seems to have all the features and updates that Nikon shooters have been clamoring for over the last several years:

  • AF-S motor: Finally, faster autofocus that'll work on the lower-end Nikon bodies, too!
  • VR II: Nikon's 2nd generation stabilization system, which works much better than the 1st gen. Remember, the old 80-400 was Nikon's first production lens with VR. Yes, it was that old. One odd decision here is that it does NOT have the 3rd generation VR III system that's included on the new 70-200 f/4, which was announced a few months ago.
  • New optical formula: The old lens was pretty weak past 300mm. This newer one looks to be a lot better judging by the MTF charts.

The full specifications are available on Nikon's website. The price is $2700, which is rather expensive. The old version was selling at $2300 MSRP, and has been selling for $1500-1700 new for the past few years. One odd thing about the $2700 price point is that it's currently exactly the same price as a 70-200 f/2.8 VR II, with a 2x teleconverter (TC20eIII). With that combination you get a superb 70-200 VR II, as well as a very good 140-400 f/5.6. Surely the new 80-400 will be better than that combination past 200mm, but unless you really need that extra reach all the time, it's worth considering the 70-200 + 2x TC for the same money. I hope that once the reviews start appearing, the new 80-400 blows us all away with superb image quality.

If you're interested, it's available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

Now comes Nikon's puzzling other announcement: a Coolpix with a 16 megapixel APS-C sensor, and a fixed focal-length 18mm f/2.8 lens (actually, it's an 18.5mm lens, giving a 28mm FX equivalent field of view). Here's Nikon's product page. They're calling it the Coolpix A. I guess 1 was already taken! ;-)

Looks great, right!? Finally, what we've all been asking for - a photographer's compact! Unfortunately there's a lot missing, and the price-point is rather high: $1100! That's nearly as much as a Fujifilm X100s, another compact APS-C camera with a fixed-lens. However, the X100s has better manual controls, built-in optical and electronic viewfinders, and a one-stop faster f/2.0 lens (at a 35mm equivalent, rather than the Nikon's 28). What you do get with the Nikon is a much, much smaller body. It appears to be the size of a slightly chunky point & shoot camera, which is something that's impossible to find in any other camera with an APS-C sensor. For comparison, the compact Sony RX100 is 101 x 58 x 36mm, and the Coolpix A is 111 x 64 x 40mm - a bit larger but remains pocketable with a much, much bigger sensor than the RX100. The tradeoff there is that the RX100 has a more flexible zoom lens. For comparison, the Fuji X100s is 127 x 74 x 54mm - considerably larger.

It's certainly an interesting proposition, but there's much more bang for the buck available out there. Unless you really need the small size of the Nikon, and you really love the 28mm equivalent fixed focal length, look elsewhere to systems like Micro 4/3, entry-level DSLRs, the Sony RX100, or the aforementioned X100 / X100s. Nevertheless, if you're interested, it's available for preorder on Amazon.com.