The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art (MSRP $499) isn’t quite on par with the best Art-series glass, but it’s nevertheless an excellent sub-$500 option for shooters who need a "normal" prime lens that produces sharp images and creamy bokeh. Designed for crop-sensor cameras like Canon’s Rebel lineup and Nikon’s DX cameras, this is an ideal choice for someone who wants an all-purpose lens that’ll get the most out of their sensor without breaking the bank.
If you had previous experience with the older, non-Art version of this lens, know this: The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art is a ground-up redesign. It includes more lens elements, more aperture blades, a closer focusing distance, and superior build quality. It also arrives at double the price, but lenses are one category where you generally do get what you pay for.
Who's It For?
The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens is what's known as a fast normal prime lens. It’s “fast” because its unusually wide maximum aperture of f/1.4 lets in lots of light, which lets you use faster shutter speeds in dim lighting. It’s "normal" because the focal length (on a crop-sensor camera) closely approximates the field of view that your eyes normally take in. And it's a "prime" because it offers only one focal length. That means you need to "zoom with your feet," as the saying goes.
Lucky for you, the one focal length you get is a very useful one, good for a wide variety of subjects. It's perfect for party shots, street photography, reportage, and even some landscapes. It's also workable as a portrait lens in a pinch, especially since its fast f/1.4 max aperture can effectively separate your subject from the background, making faces pop.
It's not a specialist by any means, but it’s useful in just about any scenario, making it an excellent investment for novice photographers who are still figuring out what they like to shoot. And the image quality? It easily outstrips anything you'd get from your average kit zoom lens.
Which kit lens it's replacing will depend on your system. Like most Sigma lenses this can be used on multiple mounts. In this case it's designed to fit Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, and Sigma DSLRs. It's a "DC" lens, however, so it'll only really cover the APS-C image circle. You can mount it on full-frame Canon and Nikon bodies, but the results will have heavy vignetting.
Look and Feel
As we mentioned in the intro, this is actually Sigma’s second attempt at a 30mm f/1.4 lens. Lately, the company has been redesigning many of its older lenses, bringing them up to snuff. The upgrades include improved optical designs, much better build quality, and new autofocus systems. That last point is particularly important for the 30mm f/1.4, since the older version suffered from well-publicized focusing issues.
The result is an largely metal lens that feels much nicer than similar primes, which are usually made primarily of plastic. For an APS-C prime, it's actually quite hefty, but it's not overbearing and the weight can actually help steady your hand when shooting freehand.
The focus ring offers extremely smooth action, and the focus mode switch on the side of the lens body has a rigid, satisfying snappiness. Everything about this lens oozes quality—rare for a lens designed for ostensibly “entry-level” APS-C cameras.
None of this matters as much as the image quality you can get out of the lens, but it's a nice bonus, especially at this price point. The only thing we feel that’s missing here is an aperture ring—something only Fujifilm and (less frequently) Panasonic offer these days. Weather-sealing would also be a plus, but there are very, very few APS-C DSLRs that would actually be sealed, as well.
In our labs, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art proved itself to be an able performer, though not without its share of flaws. Most of those issues crop up at or near the widest aperture setting; from f/2.8 to f/8, it absolutely excels.
We put the lens through its paces twice, one copy on the Canon 7D Mark II and another on the Nikon D5500. While the Nikon version benefitted from the D5500's higher-res sensor, the results were very similar on the whole. Both versions exhibited minor barrel distortion and chromatic aberration (color fringing in high-contrast scenes).
Both versions also struggled with sharpness wide-open at f/1.4, at least compared to the best primes on the market. Though the lens is sharp-ish in the center, the midway and corner regions are slightly soft at the widest apertures. It's certainly a better result than the older 30mm f/1.4 model, but still far short of what the best fast normal lenses can do.
Stopping down to f/2.8, however, changes everything. The corners improve to "good" status, but the center becomes truly outstanding. While you'll probably find yourself wanting to shoot at f/1.4 more often than f/2.8—mmm, bokeh—it's still a stellar result for a sub-$500 lens.
In our real-world shooting, we found that the 30mm f/1.4 Art opened up a number of creative opportunities. Its normal perspective and reasonably minimum focus distance (just under one foot) make it an extremely flexible tool. The close-focus capability gives you beautifully blurred backgrounds at f/1.4, and paired with sharp center performance, that means you can take high-quality snapshot portraits. (Just watch out for perspective distortion on your subjects' faces.)
Below you can see sample photos taken with the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art mounted on a Canon 7D Mark II and a Nikon D5500. Click the link below each photo to download the full-resolution image.
The 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art is another solid entry in Sigma's prestige lens line—not the finest glass the company has to offer, but a marked improvement over the older (if cheaper) 30mm f/1.4. Users looking for an all-purpose prime lens that'll excel in low light and provide creamy-smooth bokeh could certainly do a lot worse. At the very least, this lens surpasses most sub-$500 lenses, particularly at f/2.8 and beyond.
Compared to the similar Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX, the Sigma is more than twice as expensive, but it also provides far better build quality, a more naturalistic focal length, and shallower depth of field. Canon doesn't really offer a comparable lens; the closest match in the Pentax system is the legendary FA Limited 31mm f/1.8, which isn't as fast and carries an eye-popping $1,000-plus price tag.
In the field, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Art was a valuable asset in lots of different shooting situations. Its 45mm effective focal length (48mm on Canon APS-C cameras) isn’t perfect for any one kind of photography (except maybe street shooting), but it’s the utility infielder of the camera world. That’s valuable, especially for beginners who want better image quality than they can get from a cheap zoom but don't want to carry a whole arsenal of lenses.
Photographers who need something more specialized—for architecture, portraits, sports, or wildlife—may want to invest their dollars elsewhere, but this Sigma is an excellent value otherwise.
When evaluating any lens, we focus on four key areas: sharpness, distortion, chromatic aberration, and bokeh. A perfect lens would render the finest details accurately, wouldn’t distort straight lines or produce ugly fringing around high-contrast subjects, and would create smooth out-of-focus areas.
We evaluated two different copies of the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art: one for Canon (on the 7D Mark II) and one for Nikon (on the D5500). Both proved quite sharp from f/2.8 through f/11, but were a little softer wide open. They also struggled with minor to moderate chromatic aberration and distortion.
We found some slight differences between the two copies, but it's impossible to tell exactly how much of this is down to variations in testing protocol, copy-to-copy variance, and the differences between the Canon and Nikon imaging sensors. We'll go into more detail below.
A lens's sharpness is its ability to render the finest details in photographs. In testing a lens, we consider sharpness across the entire frame, from the center of your images out to the extreme corners, using an average that gives extra weight to center performance. We quantify sharpness using line widths per picture height (LW/PH) at a contrast of MTF50.
The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM starts off with fairly impressive wide-open resolution in the center, rendering 1,200 lines on the Canon and 1,400 on the Nikon. The corners and midway areas are substantially softer, though, with sub-1,000 line results.
The center sharpens up dramatically at f/2, however, topping 2,000 lines on the Nikon and 1,800 on the Canon. The Nikon version makes another jump up to 2,400 lines at f/2.8, staying above 2,000 lines until f/8 where it falls back to around 1,900. The Canon version makes a smaller jump up to around 1,900 lines at f/2.8 in the center, but never crosses the 2,000 line widths threshold.
The partway and corner regions stay comparably soft until f/2.8, where the midway rises to around 1,400 lines on both Canon and Nikon; it stays there through f/8. The corners approach 1,300 lines on both versions by f/5.6 and f/8, but they're never any better than that.
We penalize lenses for distortion when they bend or warp images, causing normally straight lines to curve.
There are two primary types of distortion: When the center of the frame seems to bulge outward toward you, that’s barrel distortion. It's typically a result of the challenges inherent in designing wide-angle lenses. When the center of the image looks like it's being sucked in, that’s pincushion distortion. Pincushion is more common in telephoto lenses. A third, less common variety (mustache distortion) produces wavy lines.
Both the Canon and Nikon versions of the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 show about 1.4% barrel distortion in our testing. It's enough to be noticeable if you're shooting architecture or any subject with prominent straight lines, but in most photos it's easy enough to correct in standard photo editing software.
Chromatic aberration refers to the various types of “fringing” that can appear around high contrast subjects in photos—like leaves set against a bright sky. The fringing is usually either green, blue, or magenta and while it’s relatively easy to remove the offensive color with software, it can also degrade image sharpness.
Both copies of the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art produced minor to moderate color fringing, which actually got worse as we stopped down the aperture. At f/1.4 and f/2, however, it's negligible, but in landscape shots you'll need to check tree branches against open sky and other high-contrast subjects.
Even at its worst, the CA occupies only a few pixels at 100%. It's likely partially to blame for some of the corner softness issues, as well, but it's easy enough to sharpen your shots up a bit and remove the CA at the same time.
Bokeh refers to the quality of the out of focus areas in a photo. It's important for a lens to render your subject with sharp details, but it's just as important that the background not distract from the focus of your shot.
While some lenses have bokeh that's prized for its unique characteristics, most simply aim to produce extremely smooth backgrounds. In particular, photographers prize lenses that can produce bokeh with circular highlights that are free of aspherical distortion (or “coma”).
In the examples above and below, you can check out the Sigma 30mm Art's real-world bokeh results. In both cases, the lens does a good job of isolating the subject against the background, helping them stand out for the viewer. The out-of-focus areas are buttery smooth, though occasional hints of jitter do crop up in particularly "busy" areas of the scene—check the rigging in the top-left corner above, and the out-of-focus ropes below.
In general, though, these are both excellent results—particularly for an APS-C lens. Better still, the 30mm f/1.4 Art is especially good at maintaining smooth bokeh as you stop down. Since the lens is much sharper at f/2.8 than f/1.4, that's a big point in its favor.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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