Razor sharp. Wide aperture. No distortion. Minimal falloff. Dust- and splash-proof design. Focus limiter switch. Available for Canon, Nikon, and Sigma systems.
Quite heavy. Expensive. Omits optical stabilization. May require focus adjustment.
- Bottom Line
The Sigma 135mm F1.8 DG HSM Art is a lens that portrait photographers will adore: It blurs backgrounds with aplomb and is one of the sharpest we've ever tested.
Sigma's Art series of lenses has established itself as a go-to third-party option for photographers thanks to excellent optics and, for the most part, very attractive prices. The 135mm F1.8 DG HSM Art ($1,399) delivers on image quality, but it's also as (or more) expensive than the closest lenses from Canon and Nikon. Thankfully it backs up its price with phenomenal performance, so we're naming it our Editors' Choice for photographers shopping for a prime lens in this focal length.
The 135mm F1.8 is fairly squat, about 4.5 by 3.6 inches (HD), but very heavy for its size, at 2.6 pounds. Its front element is big, supporting 82mm filters. Sigma includes front and rear caps, a reversible hood, and a soft carrying case. The lens itself is available in versions for Canon (EF), Nikon (F), and Sigma (SA) cameras.
The outer lens barrel is metal, sturdy and cool to the touch. Sigma includes a seal at the mount point in the design, and promises that the 135mm is protected from dust and splashes. I used it in a very dusty environment and survived without getting any sort of particulates inside the camera.
There's no optical stabilization—it's a feature frequently found on telephoto zooms, but not on prime lenses in this range. It's a concern if you're using the lens in dim light and want to keep the aperture stopped down a bit—a stabilized 70-200mm f/2.8 is a better choice in that scenario—and you can forget about handheld video. We'd consider it more of an issue if there was a similar prime lens out there with stabilization, but there simply isn't. The closest you'll find are stabilized f/2.8 macro lenses, like the AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED and the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM.
Despite not bearing a macro designation, the 135mm Art has a pretty good close focus range. It can lock onto subjects as near as 2.9 feet (88cm). That means you can project subjects onto the image sensor at 1:4.3 life-size. The lens has a focus limiter switch to reduce the time the autofocus system will hunt for a lock—it can be set at close range only (0.88 to 1.5m), at long range only (1.5m to infinity), or for the entire range of focus. I didn't feel the need to use it—the lens focuses very quickly—but it's there if you need it.
The only other control switch is the AF/MF toggle. Of course, you can override autofocus at any time simply by turning the manual focus ring. It occupies a good portion of the barrel and is finished in textured rubber so it's comfortable to turn, even on cold days. There's a corresponding scale to let you know at what distance the lens is focused.
We tested the Nikon version of the lens along with the 45.7MP D850. One thing to remember when buying any lens, not just third-party options, is that focus might not be spot on with your SLR body out of the box, and that was the case here. The extremely shallow depth of field that a 135mm f/1.8 design delivers certainly compounds the issue, because even a slight wonkiness in focus will be very visible in an image.
Thankfully the D850 supports automatic focus adjustment, so I was able to correct the issue easily. Most pro SLRs offer some built-in fine-tuning, but you can optionally invest in the Sigma USB Dock to do the job; it also lets you update lens firmware. Once the adjustment was dialed in, the 135mm focused perfectly on the D850.
I used Imatest to see how sharp the images the lens is able to capture are. At f/1.8 it scores an incredible 4,493 lines on our center-weighted sharpness test. That's much better than the 2,750 lines we want to see at a minimum from the D850, putting the lens right into the excellent range at its widest aperture. Image quality is very strong from edge to edge, and while the periphery lags behind the average score, it's not by much—the outer edges of the frame show 4,207 lines.
There's a modest improvement in resolution at f/2, 4,606 lines. But the lens enters phenomenal territory at f/2.8 (4,912 lines), f/4 (5,094 lines), f/5.6 (4,961 lines), and f/8 (4,922 lines). It loses a bit of clarity at f/11 (4,546 lines) and underperforms at f/16 (3,951 lines), but that's to be expected. Diffraction cuts into image quality when the iris is that narrow.
Distortion is nonexistent. There is a little bit of dimness at the corners when shooting at f/1.8 (-1.6EV) and f/2 (-1.1EV), but it's gone at f/2.8 and narrower. Even the 1.6-stop loss of light at f/1.8 is pretty modest as vignettes go. You may find it a nice touch for portraits, but if you don't it's very easy to remove using standard software tools like Lightroom CC.
The Sigma 135mm F1.8 DG HSM Art is very sharp, focuses quickly, is built tough, and gathers a heck of a lot of light at f/1.8—which, combined with the long focal length, nets shots with extremely blurred backgrounds. It's not without some downsides—there's no optical stabilization, it's heavy, and it's definitely priced on the high side. But even with a few marks against it, the images it delivers make it a clear Editors' Choice.
It's also a much more modern option than Canon's EF 135mm f/2L USM, which first went on sale in 1996, and Nikon's AF DC-Nikkor 135mm f/2D, a unique lens with a control system to adjust the look of bokeh, but one that's been around since the Bush administration—the first Bush administration. With lenses, old doesn't mean bad, but Nikon owners will have to live with a screw-drive focus system in the company's only current 135mm prime. If you shoot with a Nikon and don't mind going a little wider, the AF-S Nikkor 105mm f/1.4E ED is also a fantastic lens, but at $2,200 it's a pricier proposition than the Sigma.
Other Olympus Lenses
By Jim Fisher Senior Analyst, Digital Cameras
Senior digital camera analyst for the PCMag consumer electronics reviews team, Jim Fisher is a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he concentrated on documentary video production. Jim's interest in photography really took off when he borrowed his father's Hasselblad 500C and light meter in 2007. He honed his writing skills at retailer B&H Photo, where he wrote thousands upon thousands of product descriptions, blog posts, and reviews. Since then he's shot with hundreds of camera models, ranging from pocket point-and-shoots to medium format… More »
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