Question for you. Which would you prefer to buy: a $5,295 lens that fits natively on a 24MP camera, or a $949 lens that fits natively on your choice of many cameras, including 36MP, 42MP, and 50MP?
Carl Weese brought it up. In the post about the new Leica 50mm SL lens, he asked, "Was the challenge to make the most expensive FF normal lens?"
As they do in my world, one thing led to another last night, and I ended up spending a happy hour looking at online samples of the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 ART lens. What I kept thinking was, "Really? Someone needs a better 50mm lens than this? And, why?"
Right: we all want good lenses. It's frustrating to do the work of finding or making great photographs—it's usually a lot of work, because those fish don't always bite—and then be let down by the fact that you weren't using good enough equipment. I certainly get it.
However...well, let me put it this way. Our friend and sometime contributor Ken Tanaka made up a new word: asymptosis. He mashed together "asymptote," which means a curve that continually approaches but never quite meets a straight line, and the suffix "-osis," which signifies "a general functional disorder."
Asymptosis, n.: The ongoing quest for perfection or improvement even after the differences and distinctions are so small that they cease to have any meaning.
(coined by Kenneth Tanaka, definition modified by Mike)
Now, I don't mean to be picking on Leica again. (I have that reputation, but only because I insist on perceiving Leica as a camera company instead of a lifestyle brand and a status symbol...just as many of you Leica shooters do.) If you own and love the new SL, then you need a 50mm lens that fits your camera. Fair enough. You're going to pay a bit more for it, but presumably you were aware of that going in, and you don't mind.
Oh, and by the way: many people think $5,295 is too much to pay for a 50mm lens. But they're wrong, it's not...or rather, it's not necessarily. If I've learned anything in this business over the years, it's that price sensitivity is infinitely variable. I knew a guy once who bought a vacant lot for $675,000. And he didn't even need it. I asked him why he bought it, and he said, "Oh, it was available, and I thought lots like that might not be available in the future. So I thought I'd better go ahead and pick it up while I had the chance." (Paraphrasing there.) To that guy, I would imagine, $5,295 is not expensive for a lens. (He's since built a beautiful house on that lakeshore lot, which was indeed one of the last vacant lots available on that lake, so it did turn out to be useful to him. Even though he has other houses.)
But if you're just looking for a really good lens, do you really need one that's prettier than this? That isn't a dog? That has nice bokeh? That renders detail well? That's sharp? That can stop action? That's good for reportage? That works for portraits? That lets you get close to wildlife? (And I could go on....) Then I think the $949 Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 DG HSM ART is unlikely to hold you back, just from an image-quality standpoint.
Here's a sampling of critical opinion:
"Optically it's simply spectacular [...] It's the best autofocus 50mm prime we've reviewed to date, with optics so good that we can't really find anything to criticise." (Dpreview)
"This Sigma is fantastic, if you don't mind carrying it." (Ken Rockwell)
"The Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art stands up to the [$3,990, manual-focus] Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus very well, meeting or slightly exceeding the optical performance of the Zeiss! [...] The Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art is the most exciting lens we're likely to review this year. All competing lenses from Canon and Nikon fell short when compared to the resolving power of the 50mm Art. Compared to the mighty Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus, the Sigma holds its own, displaying nearly identical results!" (Imaging-Resource)
"It's no news anymore that Sigma's Art series lenses are both beautifully crafted as well as tough and it's really a joy to handle Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 DG HSM | A. [...] ...better than all the other 50mm lenses that we have tested to date." (Photozone [before testing the Otus.])
"From a resolution standpoint the Sigma is nearly as good as the Zeiss Otus, and clearly better than the Canon 50mm ƒ/1.2 L. [...] Of course, people buying wide aperture 50mm lenses are at least as interested in bokeh, autofocus accuracy, color rendition, and a number of other traits as they are in resolution...assuming those things all turn out acceptable to you, it’s hard to imagine a better value at 50mm than the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 art." (Lensrentals)
"The list of advantages of the tested Sigma is really impressive." (Lenstip)
"As one of the key models in Sigma’s new range of high-speed premium Art-series models, the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 DG HSM A is notable for high sharpness and control of aberrations, particularly at wide apertures. [...] the Sigma...is a highly desirable alternative to the more esoteric models available." (DxOMark)
What's the point of all this? Only this: all you need in a lens is for it not to hold you back. Beyond that, how good your pictures are is on you. The fact that you might be able to detect slight differences between superlative lenses doesn't necessarily mean one is functionally superior to another. Once "functional perfection" is achieved, do slight, detectable-but-nearly-invisible distinctions really matter? (For that matter, the Sigma itself could be way more than you need, and way more expensive than what you need to spend.)
I haven't tested this Sigma ART lens, and you should, of course, buy any 50mm lens your heart desires and your wallet can handle. People should do what they want to as long as it's not hurting anyone else. I have no objection. But I think I saw enough on my little tour last night to guess, plausibly, that $949 is probably all you really need to spend for a 50mm lens for a full-frame DSLR.
Unless you just delight in equipment testing...or suffer from asymptosis! Even if Leica's new lens turns out to be "better," that's still not going to mean that the other top-class alternatives aren't good enough.
Here's that link again. But don't let me tempt you. :-)
(Thanks to Kenneth Tanaka)
Original contents copyright 2016 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.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Peter Wright: "'Asymptosis,' what a great new word! Having a mathematical bent, I understood it as soon as I saw it. The other reason I understood it immediately, is that it's a condition that Leica owners like me have in spades: When I bought my 50mm Summilux Aspherical, I thought it was absurdly expensive at $3,795, but an incredible lens to use. Now I see the 50mm APO Summicron is available at $7,795, and I have to keep reminding myself that owning it won't make a blind bit of difference to my pictures. I feel better already knowing that the condition has been named, and probably some research lab has a grant to work on a cure! But I hope they get onto it before an APO 35mm Summicron appears, or I'm sunk!
John Robison: "Don't forget to link to your article 'The 50mm Lens and Metaphysical Doubt' from a decade or so past. In my opinion, still very valid points."
Bill H: "Asymptosis can be highly contagious in a crowded space such as a gearhead forum. Stay away from such gatherings and your chances of avoiding the disease are much better."
Jeff: "And the SL50 isn't even close to Leica's most expensive current 50mm lens designed for 'full frame.' One can even adapt the now close-to-$11,000 Noctilux on other cameras. Even next to the 50mm Summicron-M APO ($7,795), the SL 50mm is a relative bargain in the world of Leica."
Tom Frost: "Don't forget, Edward Weston took his famous 'Pepper #30' with a $5 lens from a flea market (or maybe it was a second hand shop)."
Bahi: "A few months ago, I helped with an exhaustive test of the Zeiss Otus line for (and with) a client using his Canon 5DS R. We compared the Otus range, with adapters, to a bunch of Canon L primes. Every Otus delivered contrast and sharpness that were uniformly impressive but it was the almost total absence of CA in the Zeiss lenses in the harshest conditions, shot wide open, that was astonishing. I mention this here because we also threw in a Sigma 35mm Art lens and it really was impressive—not quite an Otus but respectably close and with autofocus. Thoroughly removing CA in post, which we did as part of the comparison for the other lenses, is not as straightforward as people often claim—the process can easily spoil colour throughout the rest of the image so requires some care.
"Despite the thoroughly impressive results, the client decided against the Zeiss line, though he could afford it, mostly because the lenses were so heavy that he realised he wouldn't make good use of them. I thought that was sensible. He kept the Sigma.
"Meanwhile, whenever I look at any of my own pictures, shot with entry-level Nikkors, a bit of me dies. Longitudinal CA that I'd never noticed now mocks me. I'm a man of very modest means and my next prime will be a Sigma Art.
"Kudos to Zeiss, though—if an Otus is within your buying power and carrying power, don't think twice."
Gordon Cahill: "Re: 'Really? Someone needs a better 50mm lens than this? And, why?' I don't 'need' either of them. I 'want' the Leica. And I will have it. It's not human nature to be satisfied with just what you need. It is human nature to bitch about others who have stuff you can't justify or afford. Such is life."
Mike replies: And power to ye Sir.