Trying to usefully review a camera often means trying to put yourself in the shoes of another consumer, with different needs and expectations from my own. So it’s not my intention to seem disingenuous by selecting a product I can’t picture buying for myself.

However, while I can’t imagine buying the Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM (mainly because I can’t imagine owning a DSLR again), I have a pretty good idea of how excited the me of a few years ago would have been. That’s why it’s my product of the year.

Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM: What I Love

  • Brings previously unseen capability to APS-C
  • Consistently impressively sharp
  • Covers my most-used focal lengths
  • Keenly priced
  • Fast focusing and well built

The reason I like the 18-35mm so much is because it allows APS-C shooters to do things they've not really been able to achieve before. The exciting thing about it for me isn’t so much the fact that it’s a constant F1.8 – cool though that sounds – it’s what this means for photography. It gives you a lens that behaves comparably to a 28-50mm F2.8 on full frame, giving the same control over depth-of-field and similar low-light potential as you'd get with the larger format. The result is I got some photos I rather like with cameras that are within reach or already in the hands of a lot of people.

Although it's far from being a conventional portrait lens, the 18-35mm gives a fair degree of flexibility, with impressive sharpness when well focused.

And, while 28-50mm isn't the most flexible zoom range in the world, if you think of it as a collection of primes, including a 28mm, 35mm, 40mm and 50mm equivalent, stuffed into a single tube, then that's really pretty impressive. And it becomes all the more impressive if you were to actually try to go out and find that set of primes that fast for APS-C cameras, because nobody has bothered to make them for you. To come close to completing that set, you'll have to pick the nearest match from lenses designed for full frame, which often means all-out, pro-grade F1.4s, and the price tags that come with them.

APS-C users of the world unite

When I started at dpreview I was a keen DSLR shooter but, not being committed (or wealthy) enough to buy an EOS 5D, I shot APS-C. And I was hardly alone in that; for much of the last decade, APS-C has been the de-facto standard format for most photographers. More realistically enthusiast-grade full frame cameras have only arrived in the past twelve-or-so months and, at around $2000/GBP1500, they’re still out of the reach of a lot of people.

So, if you want to picture the ‘typical’ keen photographer and you imagine someone shooting with an APS-C DSLR, you’re likely to be right more than 90% of the time. And yet, most of the big manufacturers have never made any great effort to design lenses for these people. Sure, the big manufacturers have a 16-50 or 17-55 F2.8 lens in the lineup, but that’s often the extent of their high-end lenses and their prices are not inconsiderable. Beyond that, APS-C users have historically been rather poorly served (a cynic might note that this paucity of APS-C-intended lenses promotes the plausibly spurious notion of an ’upgrade path’ to full frame).

The 18-35mm F1.8 gives a touch of depth-of-field control and the ability to get better results in lower light than a more conventional 17-55mm F2.8. The slight focus error in this image could well be mine.

The 18-35mm F1.8 doesn’t push you into an awkward limbo between two systems – it lets you harness the more of the potential of the camera you’ve already bought, already know how to use and feel at home with. It doesn’t give you the lovely big viewfinder that you get with a full frame camera, but it gives you many of the other advantages.

And, while the 50mm equivalent long end of the zoom leaves it a little short, it’s still a lens that covers the focal length range I shoot with most often. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of spending money on a nice wide-angle lens or a fast telephoto zoom, only to find you’re still using the built-to-a-budget-of-nearly-nothing kit zoom that came with the camera, most of the time. For the photography I like to do, the 18-35mm paired with a fast 90mm-equiv prime would leave me pretty happy.

Ranging from wide-angle to just-beyond normal, the 18-35mm covers most of the focal lengths I most often use - almost like a set of F1.8 primes that happen to come in a single tube.

It’s not perfect – some cameras (particularly Canon, based on our experience with several bodies and several copies of the lens), struggle to focus it well enough to get the most out of it. And yes, that’s a major drawback in a lens. Thankfully, we had a lot more luck with the Nikon-mount version, and it’s on that basis I’ve selected it (though we're seen some complaints from Nikon owners, too).

Ultimately, even if you don’t subscribe to my theory that APS-C users are being taken for granted, there are still a couple of factors that would still make it my product of the year. It’s astonishingly sharp, at every focal length and every aperture, and it’s sensibly priced – often selling for less than most camera makers’ F2.8 APS-C zooms. And, if that’s not enough for you, look at it this way: it’s the fastest consumer zoom in the world.

This is part 4 in a series of articles where DPReview staff will be highlighting their personal standout products of the year.

Richard Butler

Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 sample galleries

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