PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


The Fifty debate redux

Now that Nikon ships a DSLR that can actually mount a Fifty and use it as it was meant to be used… which Fifty is best? That is today’s question. I know the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D does well for a $100 Chinese knock-off, but it’s not very good wide-open or under difficult lighting (see: back-lighting). So which one then?

There are three obvious choices open to Nikon shooters presently:
1) Nikkor 50mm f/1.4. Old and begging for a replacement.
2) Zeiss 50mm f/1.4. Good, but not quite a Zeiss.
3) Sigma 50mm f/1.4. A bit of a wildcard, a fresh take with potential.

Of these I must say the new Sigma piques my interest, so I researched it a bit more. Here’s what I’ve found so far…

Sigma Fifty is a bold new design.

Almost every Fifty out there takes a spin on the 120-year old double-gauss design – with good results, considering. Of the fast Fifties, Leica’s Summilux and Canon’s L are the only ones that really step out of the box with bold new designs to improve on the classic at widest apertures. We can add Sigma to this list now, they’ve taken a rite of passage to show they’re big boys too.

The 50mm f/1.4 (left) is closely related to the 30mm f/1.4 (right).

Note that this is very large for a Fifty.

At the same time it looks as though Sigma has “discovered” the importance of coatings in the last year or so. They’re now shipping new and updated designs that perform better under difficult light conditions, e.g. the 70-200-II. The 30mm f/1.4 is a good example as well, but my experience with it reaffirmed that the dilemma with Sigma is whether you’ll enjoy their flavor – often a perfume of tension, a touch of stress.

By now you must be dying for images… you can see a host of comparison images with the Sigma Fifty here:

The general feeling is that this is an excellent lens, in every sense of the word. Sample variation is definitely going to be its weakness however, as with many other Sigmas (and I’ll note this guy’s Zeiss sucks, so it’s not purely a Sigma thing). I note there’s another example on the web ( that simply doesn’t convince – I find this lens suspect, or maybe the OP just can’t shoot (with his 1Ds-II?).

That’s pretty good for Sigma at f/1.4 (left), debatably better than Zeiss (right).

One of the comparisons I saw and found dubious was an MTF-to-MTF comparison with Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4. One poster noted how the 30mm is in fact superior because its MTF chart showed slightly higher contrast over some part of the frame. While it is true in absolute, you have to factor that the pixel pitch of a smaller sensor is relatively much higher. A slightly lower MTF value intended for a much larger sensor format indicates much higher final performance.

This is even more true when you compare the border performance of the 30mm (DX border) with the border performance of the 50mm (FX border). The 30mm essentially has no contrast left even at the shorter distance, but the 50mm does better than both Nikon (much) and Zeiss (some). Kudos to the Sigma lens designers with their new Fifty.

Back to Earth, however, it’s not quite a Leica:

The Leica 50mm Summilux-M is the benchmark, and it’s the size of a shot glass.

One can always dream. :^)

Finally I’ll part with you on a hilarious quote I found while doing the research:

"If you are not SIGMA SD user, please do not mind too much about the quality of lens. ASP-C size beyer type image sensor dose not have enough quality to show you the difference. "


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  1. The first thing that struck me when I saw the Sigma was its price-Obviously Sigma must think they’ve got something special. Not that price should be an indication of performance, but for a 3rd party manufacturer to sell their lens at a much higher price than any of the main vendors means they must be relatively certain of its superiority. It appears to be relatively well-founded, though.

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