A Review of a "working" lens; not a "show off" lens.

Some lenses for digital cameras are "show off" lenses. You probably don't need them and you almost certainly paid too much for them but it's so much fun to pull a super-fast 28mm, 50mm or even 135mm out of your camera bag, put it on you camera and marvel at how supersharp it might be while also decimating the detail in a background with the lens's splendid bokeh. It's also fun to see the expressions on fellow photographers' faces when you pull a $10,000 Noctilux out and casually lock it onto the front of your camera. Silly stuff, but most of us do variantions of that (but mostly more subtle). Deep down we tend to believe that some esoteric and frightfully expensive lens has some magic incorporated into its design and if we just try hard enough we'll be able to make wonderful photographs that will once and for all prove that we are worthy, first tier photographers. But after using such lenses, with results that are very rarely any better than our rank and file lenses, we calm down and, if we're excellent at deflection, we blame the camera and start doing research on the newest camera bodies. Ah well. Human nature. 

At some point, especially if you are a "working" photographer (as in: you need to deliver or you'll starve) you come to the conclusion that there are a number of lenses that are in no way prestigious but which are called on time and time again to actually complete assignments with. These are the lenses that are not usually the most expensive but on an income-producing-to-original-cost calculation these are the ones that really deliver most of the profitable images for us. Some are common sense. 

If you are an event photographer you almost certainly have a 24-70mm of some kind and also a 70-200mm lens as well. You might have some fancier, faster lenses in the bag too but if you are honest you'll admit that the hard-working twins, the normal zoom and the tele zoom do most of the heavy lifting for your business. 

I admit that I was absolutely seduced by the alarmingly expensive, 50mm f1.4 Lumix S-Pro lens. It's the "reference lens" for Panasonic's entire L-mount system. It's a lens reviewers rave about and which Panasonic trots out when they want to talk about the quality of their line up. Every rep from Panasonic I've ever talked to about the lens always turns it over to show you the "Leica Certified" engraving on the bottom side before launching into a soliloquy that makes the lens out to be the ultimate achievement of modern optical engineering. 

The only problem is that it's a lens I almost never use. The same was true with my first version Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens. I loved the idea of them but I barely got any use out of the 85mm because it was just too heavy and just too slow to focus for anything other than totally stationary subjects. The 50mm is a focal length I love to walk around with. But the S-Pro is so big that it blows any pretense of discretion right out of the water. Too bad I'm so attached to the idea of it that I just can't part with it....yet.  

These are the show off lenses. They sound so good. And in use the image quality of the two I mention above is, indeed, spectacular. But just like a low slung sports car that you'd love to drive more, if it won't clear the traffic humps in the parking lot it's not really useful...even if the theoretics of it are breathtaking. 

Then, on the other hand, there are the lenses we find we can't really work without. With every camera system I've owned I find that I eventually need to shell out for a macro lens, for one reason or another. It used to be that I got a lot of calls for micro photography of small semiconductor chip dies. At the time I'd shell out something less than $1,000 for a beautifully corrected macro lens and use it to generate many, many multiples of the purchase price. I also had a wonderful collection of copy stands, macro bellows (loved the Nikon PB-4) and extension tubes. Also, quite a collection of lens reversing rings. 

I've stopped doing that kind of work and I'm several systems past my last collection of macro equipment but after being asked to do a digital copy of an old slide I realized that I have a backlog of stuff that needs to be documented and, until the slide request, had never bothered to duplicate the macro capabilities I used to have previous to L-mount system. 

The Panasonic system and the Leica system are both guilty of having zero macro options in native L-mount versions. Sure, you can source older Leica macros and use them with adapters but even the older ones made for the R series are expensive and hard to find. Thankfully, Sigma has several macro lenses available for the L-mount systems and the one I bought is, in context, downright cheap. It's a "working lens." The kind of lens you buy because it does a few things very, very well and when you need what it does there are few workarounds that will fill the bill; you just need that specialty feature set. 

I purchased a Sigma 70mm f2.8 Art series macro lens in the L mount last Friday and have tested it enough to know that it's a keeper. It's a bit big and somewhat heavy but nothing like the other f1.4 and f1.2 lenses in the Art line up. In addition, the front filter ring is a diminutive 49mms. The lens retails everywhere for around $560 and it also available in other, lesser mounts. 

My first task was to get a perfect high resolution copy of the Ann Richards slide I showed last week. You know your macro lens is good enough when it sharply reproduces the actual film grain, complete with sharp edges on the grain. This lens does that at 1:1 (which is the maximum magnification ratio).  The lens was easy enough to use on a Panasonic S1R. I switched the camera to electronic shutter and set the shutter delay at 8 seconds to make sure there was no movement at the time of exposure. I stopped the lens down to f8 partially because I think most macros are sharpest there, but also because the added depth of field helps to compensate for film curvature if you are shooting your slide while it's in its original cardboard mount. With nearly 50 megapixels of raw detail to work with the slides I shot on Friday, and again on Saturday, were as good or much better than any I had previously scanned with dedicated film scanners like the Nikon LS-4000. And being able to do each copy with a single shot was vastly more efficient than the multiple passes of the older technology. 

The extra stand-off distance of the lens from the subject is nicer for me than the typical 55 or 60mm macro lenses but it also more useful for a wider range of subjects than the 100, 105 and 180mm versions. The Sigma's 70mm is a Goldilocks focal length for me. I like it. 

Besides the heavy weight and bigger size of the lens there are one or two things which you might not like. They don't bother me but then I'm not a universal measure of how things should be done, and my taste doesn't always transfer well if you have different imaging needs. The first thing people complain about with this lens is that when shooting in the real macro ranges it is slow to focus. I find that while the lens dawdles a bit it's accurate and eventually gets where I need it to be without many misses. If you need a super speed, AF focusing macro you might have to look elsewhere.

Another stumble is that the lens is not internal focusing. The front of the lens trombones as you can see in one of the photos below. That's actually a feature; at least Sigma and I think so. Since the front lens element and front tube move forward when focusing the lens doesn't change to a shorter and shorter focal length as you get closer to life-size. That focal length change is similar to the idea of focus breathing in video. 

With internal focusing lenses the lens's focal length gets shorter and shorter as you focus. This changes the composition and the overall look of an image when compared to the same lens used closer to infinity. Not so with the Sigma. It doesn't change angle of view throughout its focusing range. 

If you can live with the lens barrel extending as you go for smaller and smaller magnification ratios (closer and closer to lifesize) then this lens makes sense because, optically, it's pretty darn great and it's about one half the price of competitive lenses from Sony, et al. The one other thing to consider is that the lens doesn't have image stabilization built-in. On Leica SL2 cameras and Panasonic S series cameras this isn't an issue since both company's cameras have very, very good IBIS. 

If you take the lens out of the studio and use it as a conventional street shooting lens you'll find that with judicious use of the focusing limiter switch you get fast autofocusing and quick lock-on without many episodes of focus hunting. You'll also be treated to a lens that is critically sharp from side to side by f4.0, which is where I tend to set this lens unless I know I need or want more depth of field.  (more following the pix) >
This is the Sigma DG 70mm Macro f2.8 Art lens in the L-mount
attached to a Panasonic S1 body. The lens is fairly large
but about half the weight of the first generation 85mm
Art lens for the L-mount. It's mostly metal and has a very high
caliber finish. It's a solid choice for everyday work.

The 70mm has some controls on the side of the lens.
The top control is a garden variety AF/MF switch while the bottom
switch allows you to quickly set focusing ranges to speed up shooting 
in known distance ranges. I mostly worked with the camera set 
to the 0.5m to infinity range on the street today.
On Friday and Saturday I use the 0.258-0.5m range.
This speeds up focusing and helps prevent hunting. 
It's a good feature to have.

While the lens lacks a traditional focusing scale wrapping around the lens barrel
the Sigma 70mm features a very useful close up scale on the tromboning 
front barrel. It's a different way of working but more precise for 
macro work and easy to get used to. Plus, it looks science-y.
When you get into the macro ranges the manual focusing takes a lot 
of turns of the focusing ring. That means it's slower to manual focus 
but you can be very precise as the long "throw" gives you 
heightened, exacting focus discrimination. Couple this with 
focus magnifying and you'll get ultra sharp stuff 100% of the time.

While my preliminary tests are more in line with my typical use cases for a macro lens I'm always interested in how it performs as a long, normal lens when shooting on location for clients or out on the streets for myself. Today, since the worst of the cold fronts is yet to strike, I thought it would be wise to get in yet another walk. After I lovingly wrapped the last of the pipes and gently applied mulch to all nature of plants and trees, I took the S1 and the 70mm for a quick two miler around the downtown area. I tried to shoot a mix of magnification ranges. I was very happy with everything I photographed. I sometimes forget that the S1 is the spiritual center of the S system and is perhaps the best overall combination of features, resolution, speed, high ISO performance and price. It matches with the Sigma macro very well. And I am always surprised by how good the image stabilization in this camera is.  (more>)

The succulent on the white table just outside a series of beauty salons was a nice test subject with which to evaluate the out of focus rendering of the lens. I used f4.0 and found the background to be calm and balmy, in the best possible way. If you can handle the sharpness the 70mm would make a very good portrait lens. It's long enough and fast enough to give one good control over depth of field with a good ability to blur background detail in a way that doesn't draw too much attention to the effect. 

I was trying to see how well I could handhold the lens and still get a good, sharp and well magnified image. The image just above is the full frame while the image just below is an approximate, 100% crop of the image above. I love the sharpness of the spider webs....

The beauty of the larger size of both the Panasonic S1 body and the Sigma lens is that they are easy to handle and shoot with while wearing gloves. Both are very straightforward and feel like real photographic gear and not so much like artless constructs wrapped around mini-computers. While I'm coming to grips with my new Leica SL 2 I must say that working with the S1 series Lumix cameras has gotten to the point for me where they have become almost completely transparent in use. And that's exactly what I want in a work camera and a work lens. 

The 70mm is a good, inexpensive addition to the overall system and even though some of its functionality matches the recent 65mm lens I purchased they are different enough to each have their own specific uses. The 65mm is a nicer street and travel shooter, is one stop faster and has a unique and adorable optical character. The 70mm will come out for small, technical table top stuff and also slide and film copying. I should probably take a breather on new lens purchases and actually get out and use some of this stuff. I'm about 35 days away from both having the second dose of the vaccine followed by the 15 day wait for full immunity. After that I can travel with relative impunity. That's just what I've been waiting for...

Home Note: I want to thank everyone here again for the quick tutorials on surviving a giant cold snap. Our neighborhood association got 3 cords of firewood delivered and I get to pick up as much as I can stick in the Subaru tomorrow. We got the plants well mulched and added a work light to the water pipe junction box after which I re-covered it. I was going to put a digital thermometer in so I could check the internal temperature via Bluetooth but decided that was unnecessary. We have extra water, tons of food and have covered just about everything that can be covered. With all this planning I'm convinced that the weather people will have gotten the forecast wrong again and we'll have a few snow flakes, a couple hours of bitter cold followed by a week of mild temps. At least that's my contrarian hope.