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Macro Photography With The Sigma 85mm f/1.4

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Category: Flowers and Plants

Using The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Lens For Macro Work - David Clapp swaps people for plants as he puts the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 to the test as a macro lens.

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Flower photography
1Ds Mk III, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 with a full rack of extension rings.

Ever considered using an 85mm lens for portraits? Of course you have. What about landscapes? Well, perhaps. How about macro? Maybe not. But after buying a set of Kenko extension tubes a few years ago, I began to experiment with all my optics and the effect they had on them. My immediate choice was the Zork MFS / Rodenstock 90mm APO set up. Not only could this lens be used for wacky miniature world images, but after adding extension rings, the lens became a powerful macro set up. Having tilt was wonderful and with Live View, the focal plane could be positioned with precision. Yet with all macro imagery, there has always been a considerable flaw in my approach – a lack of patience.

I have to say there is nothing more irritating than setting up a tripod to shoot intimate macro. The slightest movement can mean another five minutes of tripod nudging and realigning, while cursing the wind with aching knees. I want freedom from these restrictions, both physically and mentally. I need quick responsive AF, sharp focus and quality results, all with smooth backgrounds and graduated colours. Is this too much to ask? Well it is quite a lot, enough for me to look at the Canon 100mm 2.8 IS, which you can purchase from Park Cameras, but is f/2.8 really wide enough? I think f/1.4 or f/2 sounds much more exciting.

So let me jump to the end of the piece and start by saying: ‘Thank you Sigma for lending me the 85mm f/1.4 (you can read ePHOTOzine's full review of the lens here: Sigma 85mm). It has yet again changed the way I work.’ I haven’t taken a single portrait with it, just flowers and more flowers, and the results have been amazing to say the least. I am untethered at last and my creativity is flowing like never before.

Rapeseed
Super smooth backgrounds make this a lens perfect for seperation. This is a straight shot taken at f/2 with a polariser fitted.

The lens

The first thing you notice when you pick up the 85mm is just how solid and heavy it is. I recently bought a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 (that I am extremely happy with in the end) for narrow depth of field work, so it’s no surprise that the build quality is of the same impeccable standard.  The 77mm glass is incredibly bright and I have to say it looks amazing both on and through my 1Ds Mk III. A quick ‘field over the road’ sharpness test revealed surprising detail with hardly any vignetting at f/1.4, with incredible sharpness between f/2.8-f/11. Yet this was rather unimportant for my initial subject matter – tiny hedgerow flowers. Who buys a fast prime to shoot landscapes anyway? I want wonderful soft bokeh and smooth out of focus backgrounds, just like the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 that I am learning to use when I travel.

Grasses
Warmth and crisp detail, the lens is ridiculously sharp. Here's the lens at f/2.8, again the backgrounds are so wonderful.

After a few minutes sitting roadside in a sunny South Devon lane, I was reaching for the Kenko rings. The minimum focusing distance was nowhere near close enough for these tiny flowers, so I began to ‘add some distance’. The rings push the lens physically further away from the camera body and this decreases the minimum focusing distance. Naturally there is a compromise; the lenses loses infinity focus, but who cares, I am sitting in the road.


Choosing the 36mm ring was almost perfect for the subject, filling the frame with delicate Stitchworts.
 
After adding even more rings, (25mm and the 12mm), close focusing became utterly incredible. The Sigma's entire focusing range was just reduced to just a few centimetres. Now to change some settings to make shooting easier –

1. AI SERVO, ISO400 and change the shutter mode to Continuous Shot.

2. Firstly position your body in a
comfortable position.

3. Now look through the viewfinder and rock forwards and backwards until a rough focusing distance is achieved.

4. Set the aperture to f/2.

5. Twist your body looking carefully and examine the plane of focus. In this case I was paying particular attention to the stamens and the bud.

6. Now half depress the shutter and gain focus lock. Expect the lens to shudder a little as it tracks any subject movement and compensates for minute changes in your body position.

7. Check the metering

8. Take a deep breath and hold it.

9. Blast three or more shots.

10. Exhale and check for change in facial colour.


To be honest I have to say I was astonished at the results. Hedgerow flowers this small are extremely hard to separate out from their surroundings with conventional macro lenses. This is where the Sigma’s super wide apertures make a massive impact. With extension rings the effect is even better. There on the viewfinder were perfect flowers emerging from silky smooth greens. It would have taken a long and frustrating time to get this quality result with any conventional macro lens, routed to the spot. The more I shot, the better my technique became and in just one afternoon, the pictures just got better and better.

Orchid
This Loose Flowered Orchid was a perfect candidate, although it won't replace the long lenses when shooting the flower in its environment. This is at f/2.8, with extension rings.

OK, many people love the Canon 100mm f/2.8, adore the 180mm f/3.5L and they feel smug about the Sigma 150mm in particular, but consider this – the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 outguns these sluggish optics with comparative ease. The AF on this lens is so fast and accurate, even with extension rings, that it outstrips all these the lenses handheld. Would you also be surprised to find out that it almost laughs in the face of the Canon’s 85mm f/1.2 Mk II? There is a marked difference in the AF speed between these lenses, with the Sigma outperforming the Canon in tests. Couple that with the price tag, an astounding £1000 cheaper and it’s time to ask yourself if brand loyalty is all that necessary?

With Sigma’s questionable copy-to-copy variation staining their reputation, many quality photographers still feel rather sore about Sigma, a bit like the whole Skoda / Volkswagen stigma. Sadly it's still an issue, because despite their strong industry position, I found myself doubting their QC. I went through four Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lenses to get the perfect lens. OK, I know that’s what Canon’s micro adjustment is for, but no matter what I seemed to do, the lens was not auto focusing accurately enough for my liking. The fourth lens is utterly superb.

On the other hand, The 85mm f/1.4 was utterly impeccable straight out of the box. You’ve got to ask yourself, 'Do I feel lucky?' I do feel lucky. I personally feel like it is the most powerful handgun in the world right now. Further testing shows its simply a wonderful, wonderful lens with exceptional optical strengths, super accurate AF and pro build quality. I am going to be very excited to use it for Northern Lights workshops this coming October too as I know I can trust it to deliver the goods, literally wide open.

It’s a jack of all trades. In the right hands, with the right approach, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 is one of the most exciting and versatile lens I have ever used. Although my approach is not the most straightforward, I can’t recommend it enough.

Lying in hedgerows with a tripod? Forget it, this is much easier. Sigma 85mm at f/5.6.

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Comments

itikhvin
itikhvin  1
19 May 2012 - 2:50 AM

I am confused... how is it easier to do macro with this lens and extension tubes vs a dedicated macro lens? Is it easier to focus? Or am I missing something?

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