When it comes to Sony e-mount lenses, the premium Sony glass that they so often tease us with then snatch away via pro level pricing is a cruel, cruel joke. But have no fear — there is an alternative solution in the form of 3rd party lenses from the likes of Tamron and Sigma to name two. While Tamron is often associated with “budget” level quality, it’s more-so often build quality alterations in order to keep optics performance as high as possible. At any rate, if you’re seeking something more premium feeling or closer to actual Sony hardware, Sigma is generally where it is at.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the recently released, redesigned f/1.4 85mm, specifically the “DG DN” model, and whether or not it’s 1) worth the upgrade not to mention 2) simple everything that has changed (or hasn’t) between the new, smaller version and the tried and true old HSM version.
Specs & Hardware
The unboxing experience is as most lenses are — fairly uneventful. That said, included in the box you’ll find the zippered traveling pouch and not much else.
The lens itself is definitely on the side of premium fit and finish. The body is mostly all metal, the focus rings are smooth and confident in operation. And, much like the Sony GM lenses, you’ll find several additional features built on to the lens itself. Using the image above and right and traveling top to bottom, you have the AF / MF switch to quickly switch between focus modes, a focus lock button, and an on/off switch for the “click” of the aperture ring.
The biggest departure from the old DSLR version of the 85mm f/1.4 you’ll immediately come to notice (and almost certainly appreciate) is the massive diet the lens went through. Where the old DG HSM model tipped the scales at 2.49 lb / 1130 g and with a fairly large 86mm filter thread, the new DG DN Art is a mere 1.38 lb / 625 g and much smaller 77mm filter thread. Lengthwise, you’re also dealing with an overall package that is ~1/3 less. Make no mistake, this upgrade is borderline worth it for size and weight alone. If you’re a big 85mm user and have spent any length of time with the old HSM model, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Physical size aside, this is a re-design in the purest sense. Sigma completely redesigned this lens for mirrorless cameras this time around meaning other important aspects such as the elements inside, amount of elements, coating, placement etc. has all been reworked. Optically speaking, where the old HSM was already a class leading lens in terms of sharpness, the DG DN Art manages to add to that even further still, pushing this lens to the top of the heap as far as prime 85’s are concerned. And, it does all of this at a price that is ~$5-600 less than Sony’s own GM variant.
Performance & Impressions
If you have seen my previous review of the Tamron 28-200, (check it out here) you’ll know that I am a big fan of the versatility and no frills nature that a zoom provides. And while the Tamron 28-200 is a sharp lens as far as larger range zoom lenses goes, your higher end prime will edge out on top at the end of the day as far as sharpness is concerned, and then two-fold when it’s something like one of the e-mount sharpness kings from Sigma is concerned. Still, it is a bit of a hold your breath moment when you review good shots captured with the Sigma DG DN Art. It’s just…. so sharp. It truly is almost in a league of its own. Many people held the old HSM 85mm as on of the sharpest lenses on the market. The new DG DN Art 85 is even sharper. focuses faster, performs overall better, and is way smaller. There’s really nothing to knock it for here.
Similar to the Tamron 28-200, the main body I have used with the DG DN Art is a Sony A7iii. This combo, mind you, is a night photography beast. The super fast f/1.4 aperture combined with the A7iii’s fantastic low light abilities mean that after the sun goes down, instead of packing it up for the night, I’m just warming up. Auto focusing in lower light can be a tad slower at times though it is not abnormally slow and honestly not unique to this lens in the slightest. While we’re on the topic of auto focus, I will say that compared to the Tamron 28-200, the Sigma’s auto focus seems a bit faster but much smoother and quieter. Mind you, comparing the Sigma 85mm to the Tamron 28-200mm is definitely apples to oranges. Nonetheless, I have seen other reviews of this lens say it is perceptibly quieter than say, the Sony f1/.8 85mm which is often tossed into the arena to go toe-to-toe with this Sigma and other 85s.
I haven’t spent much time with this lens in the rain though did encounter a light drizzle on one evening photoshoot and the lens held up just fine. It’s worth noting that Sigma does incorporate a nice weather seal around the edge of the lens and does give it an official “weather sealed” badge. Like most lenses with some sort of weather sealing, you’re generally fine even in harder rain though the manufacturer can always escape liability with verbiage hidden within the ToS/warranty clause.
A lot of people will designate the 85mm lens as simply a “portrait” lens. And if you love portraits, you’ll probably love this lens. But 85mm lenses in general (and specifically this lens) aren’t just portrait lenses. You can honestly shoot anything with 85mm. All too often, generalities become accepted norms or standards and regurgitated with less and less discussion or critical thinking. That is, the adage of 85mm being “for portraits” seems to get pushed on people, leading them to believe you can only use 85mm for portraits. This is especially true for newer photographers and amateurs. With so much information readily available now, I would say the general consensus on given focal ranges and “what they are for” are far too rigid. Want to use 200mm for portraits? Cool. Do it. (Stand back though!) Want to use 85mm for landscape? Great. While I spent some time with this particular 85mm lens, I shot mostly street and landscape, with portrait being the least covered.
So where do we stand with this lens? Well, if you don’t have a good portrait lens or a good 85mm lens, this could very easily be at the top of your list as it’s still relatively affordable given the competition. If you had the old HSM 85mm, it’s a bit harder. As I noted above, performance is improved on the newer, smaller lens. However, is that improvement that much better? Considering the average cost of the DG DN Art is only ~$100 USD higher than the DG HSM, it actually seems quite easy to recommend this to both newcommers and old 85 owners alike. Speaking of which, you can find this lens online for $1199 USD in most places.
More important than cost though, and the thing that will weigh most heavily on most peoples’ minds (I couldn’t resist), is the size and weight factor. For a near break-even cost, you can get an overall better lens and significantly smaller lens. What’s not to love?
Note: I’ve included a few sample images from a low light shoot below both raw straight out of the camera with the 85 f/1.4 DG DN Art as well as edited. You can of course follow me on IG or Flickr (@betapixels on both) as well where I post more images with this lens.
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