Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
RSS feed
Twinkles: Sigma 14/2.8 EX

Twinkles: Sigma 14/2.8 EX

In my continuing quest for the perfect wide-angle, I've settled on a new contender. I replaced Popeye with Twinkles -- the Sigma 12-24/4.5-5.6 EX had to make way for another Sigma, the 14/2.8 EX. While I was pretty satisfied with the optics on Popeye, I felt limited by its aperture range, and it was also rather (nose-)heavy for all-day walkaround use. The 14/2.8 EX has a rather a poor reputation: along with the 17-35/2.8-4.0 (since replaced with the 17-35/2.8-4.0 DG, similar in spec but an obviously different design) it's widely regarded as the only lemon in Sigma's EX line. I was very positively surprised with it from the start. Is my copy exceptional, or is the reputation due to some high-profile reviewers getting hold of poor copies? I don't know. Whichever way it is, here is my field report on Twinkles. Take it for what it's worth -- an account of one photographer's experience with the lens, no more, no less.

The availability of wide-angle lenses for the "crop factor" cameras has improved a great deal over the past year or so. Until recently, the Sigma 12-24 was considered pretty much the only game in town for Canon shooters who wanted a rectilinear lens significantly wider than about 17 mm. Since then, the EF-S 10-22 has hit the market, and Tamron, Tokina, and Sigma have announced similar "cropped" ultra-wide zooms. All of them hold their own optically against the likes of the hideously expensive Canon 16-35/2.8L on full-frame, are nicely built, not too big, not hideously expensive, and handle well. However, they all share the same weakness: none of them are brighter than about f/4.0. Therefore, spurred on by my personal positive experiences with Sigma lenses, and despite the fact that the Canon EOS-20D has pretty much caused me to stop drooling for full-frame digital, I decided to pass on all of them and look at something that's been around for a while longer.

Each of the major manufacturers has a rectilinear 14 mm on the market. The Canon 14/2.8L is the most expensive of the bunch, followed by the Tamron 14/2.8, and finally the Sigma. At about $900 in the US, the Sigma isn't exactly cheap either, but it's a positive bargain compared to the nearly $2,000 Canon. At that price, you'd expect the Canon to be just about perfect in every way, but going by the samples I've seen, it isn't. All of the ultra-wides appear to suffer from significant lateral CA and corner softening, and while the Canon is as contrasty as you'd expect from an L, and seems to handle flare much better than the Sigma, it seems distinctly overpriced. That said, if I was a millionaire, I'd get the Canon without a second thought.

Twinkles

Twinkles on the 20D. It's a nice match both visually and from a weight and balance point of view. Like Popeye, this one has a pretty impressive objective lens.

I had originally passed on the Sigma EX 14/2.8 because of some rather poor reviews it had received, but also due to a pretty large number of distinctly sub-par samples I'd seen at DPReview and elsewhere. However, following a posting in which I discouraged someone from buying the lens, I got some email and samples from a few people happy with their copies -- and was very favorably impressed by them. I got curious about trying it, and eventually an opportunity for swapping my 12-24 against it presented itself. I liked what I saw, and Popeye now has a new home, while I'm shooting with Twinkles.

Design and build

Like Popeye, Twinkles is one of the "good EX's" -- in other words, it has nice, tight build, no major usability niggles, HSM, and an overall clean feel. The lens barrel markings are sufficient and clearly legible, the focus ring is broad and has what feels like the right amount of throw, and there are no creaks, squeaks, or slop. The lens feels good in use. However, the built-in lens hood is rather symbolic: it's neither very effective at protecting against flare, nor against bumps or accidentally touching the objective lens. Twinkles uses the same rather hacky lens cap system as Popeye: the lens cap attaches to a metal sleeve that slips over the built-in hood (and often comes off by itself when I pull the camera out of the bag). The bulgy, big objective lens means that like Popeye, Twinkles doesn't take lens-front filters. So it's either gel filters or nothing. I've opted for nothing. This does mean pretty frequent cleaning of the objective lens, at least if shooting in dusty or otherwise inclement conditions. A Lens Pen is a very useful accessory to have in the field, as is a better lens cleaning kit for the base camp.

Twinkles

Twinkles from above. The hood is rather symbolic, but the focus ring is nice and wide, and has enough throw.

Like on other EX lenses I've used, Twinkles has the distance and DOF scale in a window at the top of the lens barrel. The DOF scale is calculated with full-frame 35 mm film in mind, which makes it rather useless on a crop-factor digital camera. What's more, field curvature or some other weird issue I can't quite recognize means that you're best off not relying on it -- better figure out how the lens behaves and shoot based on that. It's not rocket science.

Lens barrel markings

The DOF scale is clearly legible, but of limited usefulness on crop-factor digital cameras.

Shootability

Overall, Twinkles is a real pleasure to shoot with. On my 20D, it focuses silently, very fast, and right on the money literally every time. I don't think I've had a single case of missed AF that wasn't obviously attributable to user error. I've shot with it in lighting conditions from bright sunlight to night streetscapes and poorly lit interiors. The major shootability issue is related to flare: Twinkles produces flare spots like there's no tomorrow, so I often found myself shading the lens with my hand, which was sometimes left in the frame and had to be cropped (or cloned) out. The exposed objective lens is a real dust and fingerprint magnet, too. Since you can't use lens-front filters on it, this means that some reasonably good lens cleaning field kit is needed -- a Lens Pen, for example -- as well as a proper kit for base camp. Lens tissues and Eclipse work great for that. The good news is that dirt comes off the coating quite well, much better than off certain multicoated filters. On the 20D, Twinkles is just below my "carry all the time" pain threshold -- I had it on my wrist pretty much all the time for two weeks, and don't remember resenting it at all. Because of the fast and precise AF -- HSM combined with the bright maximum aperture and the excellent AF system on the 20D -- it's a pretty uncomplicated lens to shoot with, other than the flare issue. Being a prime, I also find it faster and more straightforward to deal with than a variable-aperture zoom. I generally keep my camera in aperture priority mode, and twiddle the aperture between f/4.0 and f/11 depending on the light, with f/2.8 and f/16 reserved for emergencies, and nudge the ISO up and down to match. Popeye had a certain amount of zoom creep (it wouldn't stay put at 12 mm), and of course a zoom adds another variable to deal with, which hurts my poor one-track brain. I enjoy shooting with Twinkles a lot -- as much as I've enjoyed any lens.

Snapshot

Snapshot from Byblos. Twinkles is great even for hip shots.

Flare

There's good news, and there's bad news. The good news is that Twinkles is extremely resistant to veiling, and I've yet to see a single unambiguous instance of ghosting. It maintains contrast just great even in extremely strongly backlit situations, and while direct light on the objective lens from certain angles does cause some veiling, it's pretty minor -- I haven't had a single shot rendered unusable by veiling, and after "printing through" it they look just fine. Popeye was another story; shooting with it in bright conditions was pretty much a constant war of attrition against flare.

Family reunion

Family reunion around Easter 2005, Ain el Roummane, Lebanon. Big surfaces completely blown out, yet the shadows are nice and dark and hold plenty of detail. I haven't even printed through this one at all.

The bad news is that Twinkles twinkles. I've never used a lens anywhere near as prone to producing flare spots. If the sun is in the frame or near it, you'll get a nice row of flare spots of various brightnesses and colors, guaranteed. Even moderately dim light sources, such as an ordinary lamp, can cause the same effect. Sometimes this looks kinda cool and can actually be put to creative use, but most of the time it's a significant annoyance -- in fact, the only concern of note I have with the lens. To make it worse, the hood is unnecessarily shallow when shooting on a crop-factor camera, and not much better than no hood at all. I've been experimenting a bit in hacking in a better hood, but haven't come up with an entirely satisfactory solution yet. Like Popeye, the sleeve of the lens cap vignettes, so it's not a viable solution for the problem.

Flare spots

Beirut streetscape, with a full set of flare spots in all their glory. Note that contrast hasn't suffered much at all.

Flare spot

Death of the Pope. Flare spot at bottom left. This was in perfectly normal interior lighting -- not conditions where I'd expect to have to worry about flare.

Sharpness and Aberrations

The only aberration worth mentioning that Twinkles suffers from is lateral chromatic aberration (L-CA). This shows as red/cyan fringes of high-contrast objects near the edges of the frame, and more subtly as corner softening. Until recently, CA correction was something of a drag: it required either something like Panorama Tools, or manual tweaking with Photoshop's Adobe Camera RAW. However, my new favorite RAW converter, Raw Shooter Essentials (from Pixmantec) automatically corrects this aberration with no user input at all -- and it does it pretty well, too. I couldn't do much better by hand. As a result, I never even see it.

Conversion comparison

The top left half is a conversion with Adobe Camera RAW and no CA correction; the bottom right is RSE with its built-in correction. It's clearly there, but I'd still say it's within acceptable limits. Not as bad as the Tokina 17/3.5 I had by a long shot, and only slightly worse than the 12-24. As an aside, while doing the comparison, I noticed that the RSE conversion was bigger by a few pixels -- I had to nudge it outwards to get the conversions to align. Weird.

All of my samples below have been processed with RSE unless otherwise noted. So if you're a JPEG shooter who doesn't like to post-process and/or isn't familiar/willing to learn the CA correction techniques (or you're a RAW shooter who's not willing to switch to RSE), this may not be the right lens for you. With RSE, however, it's a real performer. I would rate it as "acceptable" wide-open, and between "very good" and "excellent" between f/4.0 and f/11. Past that, sharpness starts to decline, and for some reason goes completely down the tubes at f/22 -- much worse than wide-open, and much worse than I've seen on any other lens. Go figure.

Center, f/2.8

Center of the frame, ISO1600, f/2.8. Resolution is good enough, although contrast has dropped a bit and the picture has a somewhat "dreamy" look. In my opinion, an excellent performance for a lens this wide.

Center, f/2.8

Corner of the frame, ISO1600, f/2.8. Still holding up, if only barely. Incidentally, I had to look hard to find a real-life frame shot at f/2.8 where a corner with enough detail to show was actually in focus -- in this kind of situation, resolution is almost always limited by DOF rather than lens resolution. This performance is ample to make a very crisp 11 x 16 -- don't forget that at 8 MP and screen resolution, you're basically mashing your face to a print about a meter wide.

Note that in my opinion corner sharpness wide-open isn't that big a deal. In real life, scenes this wide are pretty deep, and you won't have your corners within depth of field except by accident when shooting wide-open. Therefore, my standard for "acceptable" may be looser than someone else's, so take it for what it's worth. Stopped-down, Twinkles is sharp enough that it should satisfy even the most discerning photographer.

Center, f/7.1

Center of the frame, ISO200, f/7.1. Sharp!

Center, f/7.1

Corner of the frame, ISO200, f/7.1, solidly in the sweet spot. Sharp, sharp, sharp!

What's It Good For?

Since the lens is reasonably compact, it doesn't attract as much attention as Popeye or the 20/1.8, and because of the wide field of view even on the crop factor, it's easy to photograph "past" people while actually making them the main subject in the frame. It's great for situational shooting. Of course, this means walking right up to people and interacting with them, but that's part of the fun, isn't it?

Nun at Harissa

Novice in meditation at the shrine to the Holy Virgin, Harissa, Lebanon.

The perspective of a 14 mm on a 20D is pretty solidly wide, but not yet so wide that it jumps at you all the time. It makes for a very nice lens for interior situationals, since it's wide enough to include several people and context, but not so wide that the faces look completely smeared out at the edges.

Interior group

Waiting for coffee, Batroun, Lebanon. It was a big room, but you need something about this wide to get across a feeling of the space. Amazingly, there's no discernible vignetting -- and this one's shot wide-open.

The classic use for a wide-angle is, of course, landscape photography. Twinkles is impeccable stopped-down, and is therefore very well suited indeed for the job. From about f/8.0 down there will be enough depth of field to get everything between reasonably close and infinity in focus. I usually focus on infinity, stop down to f/11, and let the rest of the picture take care of itself for this type of shooting.

Beachscape

Pebble beach and fisherman, Tabarja, Lebanon. Shot at f/8.0.

While Twinkles twinkles -- it produces flare spots like there's no tomorrow -- it's mercifully free of ghosting. This means that it works out fine for night streetscapes and similar situations. I didn't see a single example of ghosting in any of my pictures.

Beirut by night

Downtown Beirut just after sundown. Several bright point-like light sources, but no ghosting to be seen.

I suck at architecture photography (about all I understand about it is that it's "taking pictures of buildings"), but I can't see any reason why it wouldn't work out fine for that job too: it's nice and sharp stopped-down. However, it does have some barrel distortion, especially close up, which may or may not need correction. I haven't felt the need for that myself. When it comes to resolving power, this lens works just fine at least on the APS-C sensor.

Chapel

Chapel in Maronite patriarch's summer residence, Qadisha, Lebanon.

Finally, Twinkles works out fine even for some rather unusual duties. It makes a pretty good lens for environmental portraits -- as long as you don't get too close and don't put your subject at the very edge, it'll look pretty good and permit something that's maybe just a little out of the ordinary without looking gimmicky. In other words, I found rather to my surprise that I happily used it as my walkaround lens, and didn't feel very limited at all by the perspective. Teamed up with the 50/1.4 for the occasions when something longer was needed, it made a very nice and very light all-day lens. I've been thinking of buying one of those compact, cheap, and dark but optically decent medium telezooms for the rare occasions I want something longer than the 50; I think an 80-200 or 50-200 might work out great as a "fair-weather" companion for Twinkles.

Mountaineer

Mountaineer from Qadisha valley, Lebanon. Note the barrel distortion evident in the door frame. It rears up its head close up -- but goes away at more moderate distances.

All in all, I'm very happy with my new acquisition. For my particular requirements -- about f/2.8, about this focal length, about this weight, under $1000 -- there isn't another lens currently on the market that I'd rather have. If money was no concern, I'd certainly pick the Canon 14/2.8L over this one, because it deals with flare better (and of course the red ring has its own appeal). For the "human-affordable" budget, though, it's definitely worth a close look. If someone comes up with a crop-factor 14/2.8 that has a deeper hood, less exposed objective lens, and significantly better flare resistance, I might switch (unless Canon comes up with a human-affordable 20D-sized full-frame or 1.3x crop dSLR first). However, given the poor reputation the lens has, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that there are lots of duff copies around -- or even that my copy is exceptional. But only having shot one, I've no way of knowing for certain. But my little Twinkles is a winner.

Aounists

Young supporters of General Michel Aoun, in the opposition protesters' camp on Beirut's Martyrs' Square.