Gear of the Year 2019 - Richard's choice: Sigma 56mm F1.4 DC DN
|Photo: Dan Bracaglia|
I originally wanted to choose The High Line in New York as my Gear of the Year, but apparently a one-and-a-half mile elevated stretch of re-purposed freight railway doesn't count as photographic gear. It's also somewhat exclusionary, in geographical and logistical terms.
I'll (grudgingly) concede those points. And anyway, it's not the ex-railway infrastructure itself that's so good for photography: it's the fact that it's full of ambling tourists and relaxing New Yorkers taking a break from the city's hubbub, such that they're much more amenable to being photographed by slightly nervous Brits wielding camera gear.
The three lenses I've most enjoyed shooting with this year have all been portrait primes
But thinking about photographing strangers along The High Line made me realise that the three lenses I've most enjoyed shooting with this year have all been portrait primes. Reviewing the GFX 50R and 100 gave me a chance to use the GF 110mm F2, which might be the best lens I've ever used. Covering the launch of the Sony a7R IV gave me my first exposure to Sony's very impressive 135mm F1.8 GM. But it was a rather more modest lens that I used most often, and can most easily imagine myself buying.
|The 85mm equivalent focal length is a classic choice for head-and-shoulders portraits.
Sigma 56mm F1.4 DC DN | ISO 1250 | 1/100 sec | F1.4
Photo: Richard Butler
The Sigma 56mm F1.4 DC DN is exactly the kind of lens I wanted when I first started getting into digital photography: it's small, it's light, it's fast (both in F-number and autofocus) and, above all, it's affordable.
It's small, it's light, it's fast and it's affordable
Most of the big camera makers have been pushing comparatively inexpensive full-frame bodies, but have saddled them with often bulky and expensive lenses. The Sigma 56mm provides a credible portrait option for owners of smaller-sensor cameras at a size and price that's hard to match.
It's available for Micro Four Thirds as well as Sony E and Canon EF-M mounts, but I personally prefer it when mounted on APS-C. 112mm equiv (on Micro Four Thirds) is still a great focal length for portraits, but I find myself using it a bit more freely when it's acting as an 85.
|But 85mm equiv is also wide enough to allow landscape portraits, as well as portrait ones.
Sigma 56mm F1.4 DC DN | ISO 100 | 1/1600 sec | F3.5
Photo: Richard Butler
For me, having it as an option instantly makes the Sony and Canon APS-C mirrorless systems more interesting: it means I can think about putting together a kit with a 35mm-equiv prime, a standard zoom and a small, effective portrait lens, giving me just about everything I need.
Like many people, the first prime lens I owned was an elderly but inexpensive 50mm F1.8, mounted on an APS-C DSLR. But, while I loved the shallow depth-of-field ability and the option to shoot in much lower light, I never found myself enjoying the 75mm-equiv experience. My colleague Rishi points out that the real-world difference between 75 and 85mm should be negligible, and yet I'm convinced I shoot unflatteringly close with a 50mm, but end up delighted with my 56mm results. It may well be all in my head, then, but that's where my confidence and creativity come from, too.
|In fact the lens can be used for things other than portraits
Sigma 56mm F1.4 DC DN | ISO 100 | 1/200 sec | F3.5
Photo: Richard Butler
Best of all, unlike Carey's choice of the 45mm F2.8, I don't feel the need to temper my enthusiasm for the lens with caveats. I'd love it just for being small, light, fast and affordable, since it's in a focal length I like so much. But it's also optically very good. It's sharp where I want it, has pleasant, smooth bokeh and looks good in the transition between the two. F2.1 equivalent is more than sufficient for the shooting I do. What more could I ask for?
Sigma 56mm F1.4 DC DN sample gallery
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