Sigma 24-35mm f/2 Art lens review:Bright idea
Sigma breaks the f/2.8 barrier for full-frame zoom lenses, without breaking the bank. But are the tradeoffs worth it?
By Daven Mathies | April 28, 2016
Since some ancient human first looked at a horse and thought, yeah, I can ride that, we’ve always been trying to get faster—in transportation, in food, and yes, in photographic lenses. It appears Sigma (of all companies) has assumed the mantle of leadership here, its engineers making it their personal mission to test the limits of zoom lens speed. They did it first with the acclaimed 18-35mm f/1.8 for APS-C cameras, and now they’ve done it with a full-frame lens: the 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art (blah blah blah—lens names are way too long these days)..
Naturally, a lens of this caliber demands equally high standards of testing, which is why I took it to the most photographically grueling environment in the Pacific Northwest: the Hello Kitty exhibit at Seattle’s Experience Music Project museum.
All joking aside, over the past few years, Sigma has made somewhat of a transcendental climb from a budget third-party lens manufacturer to a holy cow, this lens is actually fantastic budget third-party lens manufacturer. That is to say, they’ve gotten really, really good without giving up the thing that attracted people to them in the first place: affordability.
The 24-35mm f/2 Art is no exception. It is a full stop faster than the fastest zooms from Nikon and Canon, but significantly less expensive. However, as you can see by its name, it has a rather significant drawback: a very limited zoom range.
There’s a reason for that.
Photographers have long been asking manufacturers for a faster zoom, and manufacturers have long replied with something like, “Sure, we could, but… .” You see, the problem with making a lens faster is that it usually means making it larger and more expensive. So while a 24-70mm f/2 (or f/1, for that matter) is theoretically possible, few people would be willing to carry it around; fewer still able to afford it.
Sigma’s solution to this conundrum appears to have been to start with a target of f/2, set a physical size and weight limit roughly equal to a 24-70mm f/2.8, and then just see how much zoom range they could cram into it. The result is a lens that is actually quite affordable, very fast, and… totally impractical.
(Bear with me, because I’ll get to the good stuff, but it’s going to take a while to get there.)
What does 24-35mm actually look like? Well, that’s a zoom power just shy of 1.5x—hardly anything at all. However limited that may seem on an objective level, I feel like it’s even worse on a subjective one. The thing I always liked most about any given 24-70mm lens is that it offers a full transition from definitively wide angle to definitively telephoto. With one lens, you can shoot a landscape or a portrait; reveal an environment or zero in on a single element; achieve glorious amounts of barrel distortion or pincushion distortion.
There is something intrinsically different about a telephoto (greater than ~50mm) and a wide-angle (less than ~50mm), and that’s what’s so great about the 24-70mm lens. With a 24-35mm, you just have wide and slightly less wide—personally, I would have found even a 35-50mm f/2 to be more useful.
That said, this lens has one huge saving grace if you’re in the market for a fast wide angle: cost. Before taking cost into account, I would have made the argument that it’s easier to carry around a couple of wide angle prime lenses; they won’t take up any more space in your bag, and will offer significant weight savings when mounted on the camera. However, at just $999, the Sigma 24-35mm is kind of a ridiculous value compared to primes.
Take, for example, Nikon’s newish line of f/1.8 primes: the 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm. Separately, each is less expensive than the Sigma, but to purchase all of them would cost $1999, or basically twice as much. Even if you just bought the 24mm and 35mm, you’d be out $1279. Sure, they are each 1/3-stop faster—but 1/3 stop is hardly anything on today’s full-frame DSLRs, with ISO capabilities literally in the millions.
And price isn’t the only area in which the Sigma competes with primes. It offers incredible optical performance, as well. I was quite impressed with the wide-open sharpness, which I think easily matched (and likely beat) the D750’s 24MP sensor that I was shooting it on. It’s baffling that seemingly no compromises (other than focal length range) have been made in order to keep the price under $1000. The lens is made up of 13 elements, including three aspherical elements to limit distortion, while a 9-bladed aperture diaphragm promises circular bokeh across the F-stop range. It’s also built incredibly well, with a solid, professional feel (read: very heavy) and smooth zoom and focus rings.
Similar to what I discovered with Sigma’s 18-35mm f/1.8, the 24-35mm seems to produce chromatic aberration around high contrast edges even when stopped down to f/5.6. This was really only noticeable in the edges of the frame, with the center remaining crisp and clear. The good news is that at f/2, the CA wasn’t much worse (and was, in fact, better than many prime lenses I’ve seen). For whatever reason, it just doesn’t go away when stopped down like one would expect. For this reason, this lens may not be the best landscape lens for the most discerning photographers.
At the end of the day, the Sigma 24-35mm is still a lens that is horrendously impractical for many photographers. It is the size and weight of a 24-70mm, without the versatility. If you need a fast wide angle, an easy alternative would be to pick up a cheaper 28mm f/1.8 (both Canon and Nikon have one) and then just “zoom with your feet” like your high school photography teacher taught you.
But for wedding photographers, photojournalists, and all those who need a smidgeon more flexibility without sacrificing sharpness or low light performance, the Sigma 24-35mm f/2 Art may be just the lens you’ve been waiting for. It offers the performance of a prime, but isn’t quite as limiting. Moreover, it’s very refreshing to see a third party manufacturer innovating and trying new things in an area where imitation has been the name of the game for so long.