|Sigma 17-35mm f2.8-4 EX
by Vivid Light Staff
This 17-35mm is part of Sigma's EX series of professional lenses. Does that mean that this lens is positioned against comparable pro lenses from Canon, Minolta, and Nikon? They are all lenses with a constant f2.8 aperture with street prices of $1,500, $1,550, and $1,550 respectively. It gets interesting when you realize that the street price for the Sigma is only $440 or less than one third the price of the competition!
So how does it stack up against it's much pricier competition? We think the Sigma represents a good bargain in many respects but a more accurate comparison might be to put this lens against the Canon 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5 ($370), the Minolta 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5 ($480), and the Nikon 18-35mm 3.5-4.5D ($490). These are lighter weight variable aperture versions of the big pro glass. Not built to the same robust specs as their larger constant aperture brothers, they will all provide solid images - though they won't take the same level of physical abuse.
In this group the Sigma holds it's own. Only the Nikon offers a focal range that approaches Sigma's; and while 3mm may not sound like much to those of you who haven't had the opportunity to shoot with a super-wide lens, the difference between 17mm and 20mm is huge. In tight quarters the ability to zoom out to 17mm can be the difference in getting the shot.
Just be cautious. Any 17mm lens will give an apparent distortion in depth of field. In the image of the Captain Mirenda at the helm notice the size of his hand in relation to his body and his head. With careful framing you can use this distortion to your advantage to create images with impact. Just be careful not to overdo it and make sure that when you're getting this type of distortion it's because you intended to.
That 3mm difference is also huge in landscapes. That additional 3mm increases your angle of view by a full 10 degrees! The difference in focal range alone will sway many Canon and Minolta shooters over to the Sigma.
One thing I should mention is that the 17-35mm is available with Sigma's Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) only in Canon and Sigma SA mounts. Nikon, Minolta, and Pentax mounts are standard autofocus not HSM. The Nikon mount is a D lens but the Minolta is not.
Pick up this lens and you'll find that at only 14.1 ounces it's quite light and balances nicely on light cameras and feels nearly weightless on heavy pro bodies. We had the Nikon mount version without the HSM motor. However the specs for the HSM version are an identical 14.1 ounces so there shouldn't be a significant difference in handling. The aperture ring on our lens had a nice positive click stop and was easy to reach.
This is a two-ring zoom. Both the wide zoom ring and the focus ring are covered with a ribbed rubber coating making them comfortable to use. The zoom ring is nicely damped with a smooth action that covers the whole zoom range in just under a quarter turn. We wished that the focus ring had this well damped feel. Its operation was smooth but felt under damped. It wasn't loose by any means, but it had a plastic feel compared to the smoothness of the zoom ring. Like all it's EX brethren the exterior of this lens is an attractive matte black with sharp clear markings for focal length and depth of field.
The 17-35mm features an internal focus system, which improves close focusing allowing it to focus down to 20 inches. A side benefit is that the front lens element does not rotate when you zoom or focus so your polarizer or ND grad filters won't rotate. Speaking of filters, this lens takes an 82mm filter. We didn't have anything that size in house so we used Lee filters held in front of the lens when needed. This meant that we weren't able to test for vignetting at wider focal lengths. Our suspicion is that vignetting is probably not a problem with this lens however as the filter threads are stepped well back from the lens element. 82mm is an odd filter size and you should factor in the cost and availability of filters when considering this lens, as it's not likely you have anything that size rattling around your camera bag.
In the Field
The bane of all super-wide lenses is distortion. We were pleasantly surprised at the fact that the Nikon 17-35mm AFS we had previously tested had no visible linear distortion. But that lens cost more than three times the price of the Sigma.
This lens does distort noticeably at 17mm - something you need to be aware of when composing a scene. The key to using this lens effectively is to recognize the fact that there is some distortion and compose appropriately. That means being very aware of linear subjects at 17mm. This becomes much less of a problem by 20mm and distortion is almost non-existent by 35mm. See The Brick Test in this issue for a complete explanation of rectilinear or fisheye distortion in this issue.
Another thing you need to be aware of when shooting with ANY lens under 20mm is the fact that tipping the lens off level will cause converging lines in your image VERY quickly. That means you'll need to be careful with buildings or any other subject that includes recognizable straight lines or edges.
But lets put those concerns aside for a moment. This lens is fun! The wide focal range provided a lot of flexibility in close quarters when shooting for the Chesapeake article while allowing the flexibility to quickly zoom back out to 35mm for 'normal' shooting.
There is a tendency to spend a lot of time out at the extreme when you mount a lens like this, which can result in some really awful images. But dial into what you can do with all that space and you have a wonderful invitation to experiment. The warped perspective that you get at 17mm allows you to capture the world in a very different way. Buying a lens in this focal length will definitely have an effect on your photography as you'll start to capture different kinds of images than you've captured in the past.
Images from this lens stood up quite well on the light table. They were sharp, with good contrast and color (as you would expect from an EX lens) with little sign of the flare that often creeps into super-wide lenses (and was sometimes a problem with the Nikon 18-35mm).
You need to understand what this lens won't do. It's not going to take the abuse of a lens three times it's cost and it's not going to give you distortion free rectilinear performance. It gets blown away by the true pro glass but it performs well when compared against other lenses in it's price class.
Now before you fire up the email to tell us we're being too hard on this lens remember that it was Sigma who classified this lens as "professional" so that is the yardstick we use.
But put this lens against it's true competition which are the lenses in it's price class aimed at serious amateurs and it does quite well. All in all it represents a good bargain. It gives a much wider perspective than most of the others in its class, which top out at 20mm. Canon, Minolta, and Pentax shooters will buy this lens because those manufacturers don't offer a truly competitive option. Nikon shooters might be better served by Nikon's 18-35mm which has a similar price.
For it's price class the Sigma 17-35mm is well made and capable of providing arresting images when used properly. And it's fun! All that extra perspective allows you to experiment and create images that you can only create with a superwide lens - and this is the least expensive ticket to the party.
Some will call it's compromises unacceptable but others will overlook them and make great images with this lens - which after all is what it's all about.