I’ve been grumbling about my 85mm f/1.4L ever since I bought it, and with the New Year upon us it felt like time to put whatever issues I have behind me and move on.

A few weeks ago a secondhand Sigma 85mm Art surprised me by being exactly where I looked for it online. It surprised me further by arriving after I’d paid for it and arranged for delivery. With these two whacking great chunks of glass in front of me, I was left with only one option. A shoot out, or maybe not…

Background

Let’s go back a few years, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art Lens is new and making waves due to its clarity, speed, build quality and price. I really want an 85mm prime lens for headshots and portrature and have taken against Canon’s 85mm f/1.8 because it’s a bit meh, and because I’m spoiled.

Everyone knows that the Art range will eventually include an 85mm, but no one knows how long it will take to come out. (Sigma had only recently updated the previous model). Canon’s other offering at this focal length is their awesomely awesome 85mm f/1.2. Still commanding around £1800 new and holding their value well, this was one of those lenses you don’t even get to see that often in person, let alone play with.

I bought one. Secondhand. I liked it so much I drooled over it here. I took a lot of commercial headshots with it as well as using it for things that it wasn’t best suited for, (packshots & astro landscape for example). I used it at f/1.2 far more than I should have and generally I loved it.

Years pass and while I was always aware of its foibles, (it takes a full elephant to get from one end of the focus to the other, and there is both a lack of clarity and significant chromatic abberation when shot at less than f/2), the move to the Canon 5d mkIV  made these weaknesses more apparent.  I was starting to miss pictures, or mind more when I did.

Canon 5d mkIII – EF 85mm f/1.2L II

About 18 months into my torrid but productive affair with the f/1.2, Sigma released their 85mm Art lens. It was big, pretty, heavy and sharp. I would play with one at every opportunity and would get close to buying/ordering one only to shy away at the last minute. My lens had fallen from its pedestal but I still thought of it fondly.

I’m something of a completionist, perhaps a little retentively so, (I’ve been mocked recently for buying Canon brand protection filters), and there is a part of me that worries about the Art Primes. What if they are better, I’ll have to replace all my lenses, and I love my lenses…

This is where the conflict between being a photographer and a collector sits – I should be looking for the best solution, rather than a complete collection.

This is how I came to believe that all my problems were solved when Canon announced the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS. It reviewed well, would solve all of my problems (of course Canon would have fixed them all), and no dangerous dalliances with third party lenses that might tip the balance. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading reviews and side by side comparisons wondering what to do.

For Some reason

When I went to TPS in March I was on the cusp of having the Sigma 85mm Art and the 35mm Art, until I bought the Canon f/1.4. So ingrained was my Canonness that I bought the Canon f/1.4 even though I wasn’t that impressed with it, (neither was a good friend of mine who told me in words of one syllable to ‘buy the Sig’).

Canon 5d mkIV – EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

My justification at the time was that I had heard of focusing issues with the Sigma, which can’t be fixed in post, as opposed to the Canon’s chromatic aberration which can. I’ve had mixed feelings about it since. There is still plenty of chromatic abberation, and while the focus is much faster than the f/1.2 I’m pretty sure it gets it wrong more often than the f/1.2 did. I’ve wondered whether I had a bad example because the reviews I’ve read don’t seem to tally with my experience. I started to wonder whether I was just completely spoiled until I heard other owners complaining of similar issues.

The turning point for me was buying the EF 35mm f/1.4L mkII late last year. The focus is so quick and accurate, the rendered image is pleasantly three-dimensional with phenomenal clarity and lovely bokeh. It produces magical Images, and a number of my lenses seem lacklustre in its presence, none more so that the 85mm f/1.4

This was when I decided to get my paws on a Sigma and really put it though its paces.

Final shoot out.

There is a problem here. I have neither the time nor the patience to do a proper side by side comparison, and even if I did I wouldn’t be able to keep my feelings out of my review. I’m comparing a lens that I don’t like, to the memory of a lens that I loved despite its weaknesses, to a lens I already know to be amazing and don’t want to like for a really stupid reason.

I know that the Canon f/1.4 can take a nice picture, but I’ve been leaving it behind because I don’t like it. Any chance for this lens has been crushed by 9 months of grumbling and second guessing, rose-tinted comparisons and bratty petulance. Is three hours in the park with a model and an MTF chart going to change any of that?

I don’t want to take and show you identical frames taken with each lens and then detail their respective failings, there are any number of people on the internet more willing, qualified, and skilful at that sort of thing than I am.

I decided to take the Sigma on holiday. We were going away over the Christmas break and I took a Mark IV, my 35mm, and the Sigma 85mm. If the lens could fit into my load-out then I’ll keep it. If it didn’t then I won’t.

Conclusions

Somewhat unsurprisingly the Sigma stays. A week or so away with it has confirmed that it is sharp, bright, fast and heavy, no surprises there. The downside of my holiday non-showdown is that most of the images are of the intern, but he’s a small and fast moving subject, useful for testing AF, and he takes a nice picture. I don’t love the Sigma the way I loved my f/1.2, but that’s probably a good thing. The f/1.2 had magic, which is something that comes from excitement and enthusiasm. From loving something despite its foibles, being excited about owning it, and making good work with it.

I want this Sigma to earn its magic, rather than being stripped of it, or endowed with it before I’ve had a chance to make some with it.