The Prime Directive: Sigma’s Latest Cinema Lenses

I recently picked up a small subset of Sigma’s new Cine Prime lens lineup to try out for a few weeks. I say “subset” because the full line up of Sigma’s new Cine Primes has recently expanded to include quite a few focal lengths.

The entire lineup now includes 10—yes, count them—high-speed Cine Prime lenses, including 14mm T2.0 FF, 20mm T1.5 FF, 24mm T1.5 FF, a new 28mm T1.5 FF, 35mm T1.5 FF, a new 40mm T1.5 FF, 50mm T1.5 FF, 85mm T1.5 FF, a new 105mm T1.5 FF and the 135mm T2.0 FF. That’s quite an impressive lineup from a manufacturer that has just recently dipped its toe into the Cinema market.

Up Close And Personal With Three Sigma Cines

Unfortunately, the time period that I needed to borrow the lenses to evaluate them happened to coincide with the opening of Sigma USA’s new Burbank, California facility (see sidebar article), so I was only able to evaluate an abbreviated set of three of the lenses. I chose the 14mm T2.0 FF, the 50mm T1.5 FF and the 85mm T1.5.

But I chose these focal lengths for a specific reason. Since I own Canon EF mount lenses of the same focal length, I thought it would be interesting to compare these lower- to medium-end Cine Primes with my decidedly much, much lower-cost still-lens Canon prime lenses. I also own the Canon C200. So I thought I could shoot tests in the best format I had available, Canon’s Cinema RAW Light format, which would provide me with the highest resolution, dynamic range and color space to judge the images I captured with the Sigmas.

The Sigma 85mm T1.5 Cine Prime almost dwarves the front of the Canon C200, but the lens works great on it.
The Sigma 85mm T1.5 Cine Prime almost dwarves the front of the Canon C200, but the lens works great on it.

I mainly shoot documentary-style films, including behind-the-scenes footage and higher-end corporate projects. I don’t usually shoot narrative, music videos or commercial projects more than once or twice a year. So I typically utilize still lenses with my C200, largely so I can utilize Canon’s image stabilization, which helps immensely with handheld and gimbal shooting. It also lets me take advantage of Canon’s DAF system, a phase-detection auto-focus system that is generally credited with being instrumental in professionals actually utilizing auto-focus, professionally or at least in certain situations.

The Sigma Cine Primes are available in three mounts: two electronic versions (Canon EF, Sony E-Mount) and one passive (PL Mount). Sigma doesn’t deploy iData protocol on the PL versions, but the EF- and E-Mount versions communicate focus and t-Stop information to integrate the camera’s metadata capabilities. Of course, autofocus is not utilized; these are, after all, Cine Primes, where most often a camera assistant will be pulling focus for the operator.

All of the Sigma Cine Primes include controls and markings that ACs and operators will find helpful.
All of the Sigma Cine Primes include controls and markings that ACs and operators will find helpful.

To be clear, Sigma doesn’t hide the fact that these lenses are fully “rehoused” versions of its top-of-the-line ART still lenses. But don’t let that fool you. These lenses are genuine cine primes, not merely still lenses that have had the aperture ring de-clicked.

As an example, the 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM ART lens for Canon EF cameras sells for $1,499 and weighs 2.57lbs. The same lens in its Cine Prime guise sells for $5,999 and weighs 3.1lbs.

When you hold both lenses in your hand, you’ll notice how different the Cine versions feel. They’re heavier and more heavy duty, and all of their controls have a more serious and business-like appearance, for filmmaking.

The still ART version, of course, has autofocus, but the focus ring doesn’t have the same perfectly dampened, much longer focus throw of its Cine Prime cousin. The still lens will most always be used with autofocus, whereas the Cine lens will more typically be used with a manual or motorized follow-focus mechanism with the steady hand of an operator or AC pulling focus.

The bodies of all the Cine Primes are aluminum with steel mounts. The EF mount version felt rock solid mounted to my Canon C200, which isn’t always the case with other EF mount lenses and adapters. So I was impressed right off the bat.

The Sigma 85mm T1.5 Cine Prime required a sliding baseplate to compensate for the front-heavy balance on the small C200.     
The Sigma 85mm T1.5 Cine Prime required a sliding baseplate to compensate for the front-heavy balance on the small C200.

Two other elements filmmakers look at when studying lenses are focus and iris. The 14mm Cine Prime has a .08 MOD/32 focus pitch and utilizes the same standards for iris. The lens’s focus rotation is 180 degrees, not 300 degrees, as some ACs prefer, and the focus goes past infinity.

Sigma told me this is to compensate for miscalibrated mounts where the back focus is set up incorrectly, which makes sense. Having experienced this in the past with rental gear, I like this feature, although ACs may not.

If you think about it, for narrative filmmaking, a longer focus pull may allow for more precise focus positioning when using a motorized-focus control, but for manually focusing, I prefer the shorter throw when operating handheld. It’s just as much of a pain to have to rotate a follow focus as it is to manually move the focus ring if you weren’t using a follow focus. (This may be because I shoot more run-and-gun documentary-style productions than narrative style with an AC.)

The Sigma Cine Primes are nicely marked and evenly spaced on the focus scale. Each lens in the set is marked with the front diameter, filter diameter, image diameter, focal length and maximum T-stop speed.

The Sigma 14mm T2.0 Cine Prime front element protrudes enough that filters cannot be mounted to the front of the lens.
The Sigma 14mm T2.0 Cine Prime front element protrudes enough that filters cannot be mounted to the front of the lens.

Fabulously Full Frame

One factor that makes these Sigma Cine Primes really special is that they all cover full frame, or, as we are now calling it, “full format,” since technically full frame alludes only to a 36x24mm imager, and few of the FF cameras have an imager that exact size.

Overall, I have not been very impressed with full-frame or format cinema cameras and feel that this new “advancement” in digital-cine cameras is mostly a ploy to sell new gear to users who already may own a very competent S35 camera and lens package. But it’s often hard to argue with trends—and the current trend is that 2018 was the year of the full-format Cine camera: The RED Helium/Monstro FF cameras are popular, and the Sony Venice and Canon C700 FF, as well as several other lower-end FF cameras like the Sony a7 series, are, too. So it shows you that the FF trend isn’t going away anytime soon.

At the very least, I commend Sigma for making these lenses FF. I don’t own an FF camera, so I was only able to try the lenses out on an S35 camera, but from what I have read and seen, they perform well on FF cameras all of the way to the edge of the image. And since every lens in the lineup projects a 43.3mm image circle, these lenses should cover any of the newer-generation popular FF cameras, like the RED Monstro imager.

Cine Primes Vs. Still Lenses

To compare the new Cines, I set up a lab test. I thought it would be interesting to compare the images from the Sigma Cine Primes with my Canon inexpensive still-prime lenses of the same focal length.

I set up my Canon C200 on a tripod and staged and lit a series of test charts consisting of a focus chart, a Kodak grayscale strip and an X-Rite Video Color Checker chip chart. I lit the scene with a single Aputure Light Storm LS 1s Daylight LED panel that was shone through a Westcott 42” diffusion disk.

All of the test shots were shot under the same lighting and at the same distance and exposure. Since the Sigmas read out in t-stops and the Canons in ƒ-stops, I relied more on matching exposure via the waveform display and Zebras on the C200 than on trying to do an f-stop to t-stop conversion. This is a bit of an exercise in futility, since photo lenses have actual transmission variance even from copy to copy, and I was using three different Canon still lenses of three different focal lengths.

You can see the electronic connection for Canon EF use here as well as the 9-bladed iris on the 85mm T1.5 Sigma Cine Prime.
You can see the electronic connection for Canon EF use here as well as the 9-bladed iris on the 85mm T1.5 Sigma Cine Prime.

My slowest photo lens was Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM. So I decided to use the following settings on this inexpensive lens and light the scene for 23.98 fps, at native ISO 800 to maximize dynamic range for the C200 at T5.0 with a 180-degree shutter.

My other two stills lenses were the very inexpensive Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM prime and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. Note that the 10-18mm Canon lens is an EF-S APS-C lens whereas the other two primes are EF full-frame lenses. These images were all shot at T5.0 with me matching the waveform as closely as possible, which usually put the still lens ƒ-stop at around 4.5-4.8 to match the T5.0.

Sigma Cinema Prime 14mm T2.0 Vs. Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM  

If you look at the framing variation, it’s interesting. The Sigma, being a prime, was definitely shot at 14mm. The Canon, being a zoom, I set to match at 14mm, but the C200’s readout of 14mm on the zoom has a much wider FOV when you compare the two images side by side.

The Canon FOV looks more like a 12mm, even though the C200 said it was framed at 14mm. Discounting the framing variation, the Sigma looks sharper to me, especially on the right-side white-on-black lettering on the X-Rite that says, “X-Rite Color Checker.” The color chips in the X-Rite also have noticeably more saturation.

Sigma Cinema Prime 50mm T1.5 Vs. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM

I see the same color characteristics and detail improvement here on the Sigma versus the Canon. It’s amazing to me, though, that here, too, a $125 consumer lens could have much of the same characteristics of a $3,500.00 cine prime.

Keep in mind, too, that these are merely test charts, not super complex, beautifully lit scenes with faces and expensive sets and wardrobe. 

Sigma Cinema Prime 85mm T1.5 Vs. Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

In comparing these two lenses, I see quite a bit more fine detail with the Sigma versus the Canon still lens.

With the same differences in color quality and saturation as the other two comparisons and with these two 85mm lenses, to my eye, the Sigma has noticeably more contrast and fine detail.   

On The Job

I shot two projects using the Sigma Cine Primes. One was an interview for a documentary I have been shooting over the past year; it was a fairly controlled situation, shooting a series of sit-down interviews in a living room.

Interview shot with Sigma 50mm T1.5, exposed at T3.5, 23.98 fps, 180-degree shutter.
Interview shot with Sigma 50mm T1.5, exposed at T3.5, 23.98 fps, 180-degree shutter.

The scenes were lit, but the lighting has a “nothing fancy” documentary style. I used just two LED panels to match the talent with the overall ambient light level of the room. (For this documentary, we’ve tended to set up lights that provide a more informal look. To do this, we shoot in Canon’s Cinema RAW Light and carefully tweak it to make the interviews look natural and not too slick.)

The keyword we have been going for as far as the look of the film is “authentic.” So we’ve avoided hair lights and lighting the environment much. It’s been much more about lighting the talent for basic exposure, in a flattering way but not doing too much.

The Sigma 85mm rendered a flattering, detailed image with a very neutral color cast that veered just a little bit toward the warmth that Canon lens coatings are known for. The Sigma didn’t strike me as super sharp like certain German-manufactured lenses are known for. But the Sigma Cine Primes had a very slight softness to the image, while still holding on to good depth of detail.

A Second Shoot With Cines

Shooting a percussionist laying down tracks for a new album with the Sigma 85mm T1.5 exposed at T2.8, 23.98 fps, 180-degree shutter.
Shooting a percussionist laying down tracks for a new album with the Sigma 85mm T1.5 exposed at T2.8, 23.98 fps, 180-degree shutter.

The second project I shot, mainly with the 50mm and 85mm, took place at a recording studio, with a session in progress: A recording artist was laying down tracks for a new album with the help of a talented percussionist.

I was not able to add more than a couple of tungsten instruments to the incandescent lighting that lit up the studio. Here, we were going for a slightly more dramatic type of look with higher contrast to allow this scene to match scenes that we already shot last year in a different recording studio. On this shoot, I was quite happy with the Sigma’s color rendering, resistance to flare and the flattering skin tone reproduction.

We shot all over the recording studio this session and shot many different musicians with widely varying skin tones. The Sigmas never failed to flatter the skin and the overall look of the talent.

Overall Conclusion

After working with the Sigma Cine Primes on both informal tests and a few on-the-job shoots, I came to the following opinions about them:

Pros:

  • They are an excellent value for the money.
  • The color, detail and skin tone rendition are superb.
  • They are very well made and are somewhat future proofed (as much as anything in our business can be) since they are full frame

Cons:

  • I did notice some mild breathing, more than I have seen on other Cine Primes that cost a lot more money. The breathing was there, but not objectionable to me. I noticed they breathed less than any of my still lenses and less than some other Cine lenses I have used over the years.
Freshly rained-on flowers shot with Sigma 50mm T1.5, exposed at T4.0, 23.98 fps, 180-degree shutter.
Freshly rained-on flowers shot with Sigma 50mm T1.5, exposed at T4.0, 23.98 fps, 180-degree shutter.

Bottom Line:

The Sigma Cine Primes represent a solid choice that should pay dividends whether you are an owner operator considering buying a partial or full set or if you are a working DP and rent them. For me, as a documentary shooter, I rely on the IS and DAF function of my C200 too much to consider buying a set of these lenses. But for my occasional higher-end shoots, where I have ACs to pull focus, I will definitely be putting the Sigmas to work.


New Digs For Sigma

Sigma opens a new showcase facility in the heart of Los Angeles

For me, as a DP, it’s always helpful to have a facility that offers the ability to bring in a camera and try out a lens before purchasing. That’s one of the big reasons I was excited about the Sigma Corporation’s new West Coast office in Burbank, California, that opened its doors this past October. While it’s not a retail facility, it does give you the ability to try out and compare different lenses. The new facility is significant for DPs and filmmakers for several other reasons, as well:

• Support: By opening this facility, Sigma showed that it will offer support for the film and television community in Hollywood. During the event, executives discussed big plans for expansion of their Cine and Global Vision lens lines.

• Evangelists: The company also announced and showed work from DP Timur Civan, a talented cinematographer who is also the company’s first official Sigma Cine pro. In his role, he’ll present lectures, seminars and workshops about using Sigma lenses for pro work across the U.S.

• Education: To get a sense of how broad the lens lineup is, the facility showroom features most, if not all, of the lenses Sigma makes. But besides serving as a showroom, the facility will also function as a screening room, classroom and lecture space where Sigma will host an ongoing presentation series about using its lenses for various types of high-profile projects.

• Hands-On Access: The showroom has a nice environment to shoot in and offers room for an actor or model to walk through a scene for testing. The facility also has a pre-lit “scene” similar to one you might see at a tradeshow like NAB or Cine Gear. That means you can have something to actually shoot if you decide to try out a Sigma lens.

• Service: The facility includes a repair and service facility, complete with lens collimators and other specialized equipment for repairing and collimating lenses.

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