The rather remarkable Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 EX DG HSM
Years ago, rather unfortunately in some ways, I named the 35mm Summicron-M v.4 as the "King of Bokeh" (bokeh—or boke or boke-aji—meaning out-of-focus [o-o-f] blur). The epithet has taken on a life of its own since then...especially when that lens is for sale somewhere. Erwin rightly scolds me for this (indirectly) in Leica Chronicle.
I was missing part of the story at the time (1997). You see I never shot the lens wide open and very seldomly as little as one stop down. It does have wonderfully coherent blur—from ƒ/5.6 and moderate distances. That brilliant but flawed lens doesn't look its best (in any respect) wide open, or close up. (Lots of falloff, too, which I kind of liked.)
Let's face it, bokeh is not a strong point of Leica lenses, in general*.
Bokeh is one of the few things you can meaningfully look at on the web...although you have to be careful what you're looking at, and you need a very large sample size. People do all sorts of nasty things to their files. Heavy-handed sharpening, for one thing, will step on nice blur.
I've just looked at hundreds and hundreds (I'm not going to 'fess to "thousands," although probably it was...) of pictures made with the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 EX DG HSM, a large and heavy fast normal (or short tele**) prime available in five mounts (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony/Minolta Maxxum, and Sigma) that sells for $450. Maybe 2/3rds of the pictures were showing some degree of o-o-f blur, and in virtually not a single one of those images did I find blur that was anything short of good. Even when stressed—from close up, at every aperture, and with high contrast background objects. And in a great many cases it's outstanding—gentle and coherent.
Full-frame example (those heels could hurt you)
Extreme isolation (narrow plane of focus) example (and he's right about cats)
"Smooth Bokeh Test Shot" by Blackriver Images
Remarkable. Surely this lens must have been designed with this quality firmly among the design objectives.
I've seen more interesting bokeh, but usually you pay the price of inconsistency for that. This lens seems like one for those who never want to be surprised by ugliness in the o-o-f. This lens also might be a good one to choose when getting creative about putting important subject information out of focus, as here.
Never seen the lens in person, never used it. And I note that some owners gripe about its AF speed (it's always something). But for gentle bokeh, is there perhaps a new King?
*...Except the ones you own. Don't kill me.
P.S. In case you want to share an example of your own, here's the code to put a link or an image into the comments:
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Carsten Bockermann: "Over the years I have tried many 50mm lenses made by Leica, Nikon and Zeiss. In terms of bokeh the 50mm Sigma is clearly the winner, yet there are other 'features' that I don't enjoy that much. First, it's not a fifty. The field of view is noticeably wider than that of, say, a 50mm ƒ/1.4 AF-S Nikkor or the 50mm ƒ/1.4 ZF Zeiss. My guess is that the actual focal length is around 45 or 46mm. While performance at the wider apertures is very good it doesn't really improve when stopping down. At medium apertures the aforementioned lenses offer crisper images. And yet, as I tend to shoot a fifty close to wide open most of the time, this lens is my favorite in that focal length range."
Mark Walker: "Here in the shop where I work I very often show people the Sigma 50,, ƒ/1.4 as a great option over the Nikon or Canon equivalents largely for this reason: the nicer rendering of o-o-f areas, aswell as being a more than adequately sharp lens in the centre at ƒ/1.4. It is one of the few Sigma lenses that I like the look of, image wise, particularly on full frame. (Why do people moan so much about fast lenses being softer at the corners wide open ? You'd think they were going to use it to copy artwork or something)."
Daniel: "I'm sure to be not the only one to mention the Minolta/Sony STF 135mm ƒ/2.8 T4.5. There's even a website dedicated to the lens. It is specifically designed for good bokeh. Probably too good in fact, 'some reviews that hint that the 135 STF creates a slightly unnatural look, exaggerating subjects by rendering the defocusing effect too perfectly' (from the above website).
"I confess that being an owner of this lens I have not made proper use of it; maybe this is the excuse I need to take up more portraiture. On a film camera it was very hard to use owing to it being manual focus and conventional AF screens being rubbish for manual focus (I got an AF9000 with the split screen which works very well). On an SLT or NEX camera (using the LA-EA1), it's a doddle to focus now with magnified live view. You can see some samples on the aforementioned website."
Fletch: "It's an awesome lens... I just got a shock when I clicked on the example from Indonesia and came across my picture :-) "
Mike replies: Small world after all!
Diego: "Among us Sigma afflictionados, the 50mm f/1.4 is good, no question.
"But the lens in the iron mask, the true King of France...er...bokeh, is the Sigma 85mm ƒ/1.4.
"This lens puts the 50mm ƒ/1.4 to shame, in sharpness, focus accuracy, and importantly, quality of out-of-focus blur. Plus, backgrounds get more compressed at 85mm, which leads to more apparent blur. Check out some of the images in the Flickr group for this lens: http://www.flickr.com/groups/1464365@N22/pool/ . OK down off my Sigma pulpit.
"It pains me to admit it, but the honor of bokeh king should go to the Sony/Minolta 135 STF. It is probably the emperor, lord, and master of all things bokeh. This article really should have been about that lens, or at least, mentioned all of the contenders.
"The Nikon 105 ƒ/2 DC and Nikon 135 ƒ/2 DC lenses deserve a mention as well (DC = defocus control)."
Rita Leeds: "In case people are afraid that TOP has already forgotten about the beauty of large depths-of-field, here is a TOP post from just a few months ago: In Defense of Depth.
"I recall browsing the featured comments and reading about how many commenters also thought that bokeh was an annoying fad. I was taken aback at that. I guess it can be annoying if that's all people talk about (and that can certainly be the case a lot), but discounting something only because it happens to be popular doesn't seem like a good idea. Depth-of-field control is about control on both sides, and I don't think people on this site are apt to forget so."
Mike replies: Exactly right, and thanks for adding that, Rita. I personally actually seldom use lots of bokeh in my own photographs—I just like it to look nice when it does show up.