Wednesday, June 1, 2011

SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM Practical Review

The stigma of SIGMA wanes with every photograph through this amazing prime lens dedicated to APS-C crop sensors. The SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM lens satisfies the "fast aperture" and standard focal length crowd for APS-C DSLR's. As for the "stigma", SIGMA manufactures SLR camera lenses under the name of "Quantaray" which is sold by Ritz and Wolf Camera stores. I am not a big fan of Ritz Camera or the budget priced "Quantaray" in house brand they retail. With much doubt and skepticism, I picked up my SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM from my friends at North Tampa Photography for a street price under $500 for a practical lens review.

"Practical" means real time use out in the world. My world consists of capturing the true to life moments of my family of five, which includes a 3 month old newborn. No complicated wavelength and focus charts here. I go out and shoot pictures. Lots of pictures and even video to be exact.

Paired with my compact Canon EOS Rebel T3i/600D, the SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM has definitely the "L" pop in color, sharpness and contrast. The EX designation denotes a sturdy build, while the DC means digital crop. The HSM is an acronym for Hyper Sonic Motor for auto focus. The lens body feels sturdy and chunky but not heavy. Mated to the T3i/600D, this lightweight combination provides a "Rangefinder" camera like feel such as the new Fuji X100 or even the ultra expensive Leica M9.

The SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM is categorized as a wide angle prime lens. On a crop camera, 30mm focal length has the focal equivalent of 48mm. It is more like a standard prime lens. Imagine a standard focal length with a fast f/1.4 aperture. A definite "bokeh" producing lens machine.

SIGMA has come a long way since Quantaray in my opinion. Their recent marketing push of their professional grade lenses has gotten much attention in the DSLR world. SIGMA quality control couple years ago has gotten some criticism such as grossly front and back focusing lenses coming out of the Japanese factory. This SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 lens gives me renewed faith, but wait! This cannot be the only choice for a budget priced and fast standard prime lens for crop sensor DSLR's ? Let me make a quick lens comparison just to be sure.

I chose two fast wide angle prime lenses priced under $600 to compare to the SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM. Of course, when I mean wide angle on a crop camera I mean standard focal length close to 50mm. So the lowest priced in the group (street price around $300) and one of my favorites is the Canon EF 35mm f/2. The smallest and lightest also means slower focus due to the lack of any Ultra Sonic Motor AF system. 5mm of longer focal length means a 56mm crop equivalent. The last contender in this brief lens comparison is the Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM lens. Wider and faster than the EF 35mm f/2 but more expensive (street price around $530). The 28mm Canon gives almost a 45mm focal length equivalent on crop. I guess the added expense justifies the fast USM AF. The lens comparison verdict? Here are my observations.

Here is an excellent example above of the Canon EF 35mm f/2 in action. Great bokeh and the colors just pop for this value priced prime lens. Now for the bad part. No Ultra Sonic Motor auto focus means slow and gear grinding AF noises. Also, the optics are showing their 1990's age when ISO is pushed around 3200. Compared to my "L" lenses in the same ISO range, the resolution of the lens pushes it limits with high megapixel cameras such as the T3i. For the price, who can beat this quality? Well, the Canon EF 35mm f/2 lens is showing it's age but still is a favorite in my camera bag.

The widest of the group is the Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 and the most expensive. I was very disappointed with this USM lens. Although the picture above is really cute but there is no "L" pop like the other lens in the comparison. It looks flat like a kit lens. The AF is faster but that does not make up the horrible chromatic aberration in high contrast areas wide open at f/1.8. I even tried to correct the excessive purple fringing with Canon Digital Photo Professional for raw processing and correction, but no luck. Not a good choice for my camera bag, definitely.

All paths in the jungle lead to my SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 verdict. This lens is a complete dream for crop cameras. The fast aperture combined with the unique focal length makes great bokeh for still pictures and for video capture. The Hyper Sonic Motor is a close second in speed compared to the Ultra Sonic Motor of Canon's AF. The price makes the SIGMA a great value when you look at the features. SIGMA even includes a lens hood. What a deal!

Now for the SIGMA negatives. The wonderful SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM is designed only for crop sensor cameras. It is the Canon EF-S equivalent for lens mounts. You can mount the SIGMA lens to a Canon 1D APS-H sensor but you will get slight vignetting. I solved that with a slight crop of the picture or the peripheral illumination correction in Adobe Lightroom. A little time consuming but manageable. Full frame cameras such as the 5D Mark II is definitely not an option with this lens.

The second negative maybe part user error and the extremely tight focal plane of f/1.4 when it comes to AF accuracy. I had my share of OOF shots at f/1.4. Although soft focus images are expected when shooting handheld, it seems a little more prevalent with the SIGMA in my unscientific opinion.

Now for the SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM Video Test. Armed with various helpful DSLR cinematic tools, I captured some 1080p video with this dreamy lens. The 30mm focal length makes composition a snap complemented by the fast aperture to give great bokeh. F/1.4 is challenging when it comes to focusing the shot. Even with my trusty Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 2.5x viewfinder, achieving correct focus can test your eyesight and patience.

A 1080p video shot with the Canon EOS Rebel T3i/600D at 29.97fps. Edited with iMovie'11 and used Quicktime to compress a 700mb H264 video file. I mainly used the SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM, Canon EF-S 17-55mm f.2.8 IS and the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS Lenses. For audio, I used a Sennheiser MKE400 shotgun microphone. I also used a Manfrotto 701 HDV fluid video head with Benro 3580 tripod legs. For focus, I used a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 2.5x viewfinder.

A 1080p video shot with the Canon EOS Rebel T3i/600D at 29.97 fps. Edited with Apple iMovie'11 and used Apple Quicktime to compress a 980mb H264 video file. Equipment used: Sennheiser MKE400 shotgun microphone, Benro 3580 and Manfrotto 3221wn tripod legs, Manfrotto 701 and 501 HDV fluid video heads, Fader ND Mark II Variable Neutral Density Filter and the Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 2.5x viewfinder.

The SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM is a mighty contender in the budget priced wide angle fast prime category. The recent surge in Canon lens prices due to the recent tragic earthquake and Tsunami in Japan makes other third party brands a viable choice in today's DSLR lens market. Until supply of Canon glass outweighs worldwide consumer demand, the SIGMA brand will lead and shine as an overall best value for fast lenses.

You can view more pictures and videos in my SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM Lens Review Gallery.

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  1. Nice video on the communion...too bad someone just had to walk by. I'm tempted to get this Sigma 30 f1.4 now. Thanks!

  2. G,
    Thanks for the video compliment.
    The SIGMA is dreamy on crop sensor cameras. Unfortunately, it horribly vignettes on APS-H and full frame cameras along with a slightly slower focusing speed compared to the other Canon lenses I reviewed in this article. If you do not mind the longer 5mm focal length, the Canon EF 35mm f/2 is less expensive and works on full frame as well. If you are dedicated to crop cameras, the SIGMA is the way to go...

  3. Thanks for the review. It's now on my amazon wish list.
    As for using External mics with the T3i I saw on YouTube you used a Rode, in this blog you mentioned senheiser.

    I'd enjoy seeing a comparison of the two. Also your experience with tweaking the manual sound control would be nice.


  4. David,
    You are very welcome. Over the past year I have compiled a collection of shotgun microphones catered to HD DSLR's and gathered a few observations. The Rode VideoMic has excellent sound and range for the price, but is way to bulky to fit in my camera bag for travel. I wanted smaller, so I picked up the Sennheiser MKE400. The very portable shotgun microphone made out of metal is very durable but the audio is very tinny. Almost night and day difference between the Rode VideoMic. My latest purchase is the AZDEN ECZ-990 shotgun microphone. Just about the same size as the Sennheiser MKE400 but only a $60 price tag. The sound is quite phenomenal but the Rode is still the best. Out of the three microphones, the AZDEN stays in my camera bag all the time. Anyways, if I lose or break the AZDEN, it is only $60 and not $150 for the Rode or $200 for the Sennheiser.

  5. thanks for your review. it was very useful. I am very very confused on whether to go for canon 28mm or sigma as both the lens are priced at same level. But after reading your review, i think i'll opt for sigma. :)

  6. Thanks for the review! I'm also soon getting this lens. I will definitely use it for video and still shots. The main reason to buy this lens is f/1.4 aperture. In Finland it's so dark most of the year inside the houses. I want to take some nice cat shots also with this lens.