For the past 4 years I have been using a Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5 DG on both DX and FX bodies to do a little bit of interior and architectural work. It’s a large, but surprisingly light lens and it’s pretty sharp. However, it has some weaknesses, the biggest of these being that it flares very easily when pointed at a bright light source, even basic window light. In using it for various jobs I have also had to deal with high chromatic aberrations and a very warm, albeit not displeasing colour rendition. With editing software and some HDR trickery I’ve overcome its limitations and have enjoyed the extreme angle of view 15mm on full frame brings you.
A while back Sigma dropped that lens from their line up and the extreme wide angle zoom they offer now is a 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6II DG HSM model, which believe it or not is not a DX lens, but has been designed for FX (full frame) sized sensors. If I was impressed with the wide-angle view of 15mm, seeing things at 12mm on the newer lens became quite intoxicating. Yes, it’s a full frame, extreme wide-angle zoom lens, giving you a 122-degree, vertigo-inducing field of view at the wide end! Madness… and it's a lot of fun to shoot with!
Having a wide-angle lens is one thing. Being able to produce compelling imagery with one is another thing entirely. Most of us the first time we use such lenses tend to shoot them at the widest extreme, trying to get as much in the frame as possible and ending up with a lot of picture, but a picture of nothing in particular. Wide angles like 12mm invariably result in lots of dead space in images, particularly the foreground, or very small subjects off in the distance. When you’re shooting something this wide composition and perspective becomes even more important than is usually the case with a normal lens.
Fieldwork with the Sigma 12-24mm
So, what can you do with this lens? Where’s it good and where should you be careful when using it?
Unfortunately I haven’t had a great deal of architectural work come my way lately, so I haven’t been able to put it through any degree of real world testing for that specific purpose. What I have noticed though, in the course of making random images with it, is that the issues with flare I have on the older 15-30mm lens are not an issue with this lens. Barrel distortion at its wide end is surprisingly minimal, but as with any extreme wide angle lens, don’t put people near the edges of the frame otherwise you are going to see some funky head shapes.
Last year the guys from the massively popular UK Top Gear motoring show were in my hometown Durban for the first of 3 annual Top Gear Stadium Shows to be held here. For those of you who don’t know, Top Gear is probably the most watched motoring television show in the world and if you’re into anything that runs on 4 or more wheels with a petrol engine, these guys are hilarious to watch as they go about some rather silly motoring tests. Things as asinine as racing against the Royal Mail postal service from the southernmost point of the UK to its northernmost point being a prime example. Or fighter jets against super cars, etc, etc.
Anyway, I forked over a substantial amount of money for a couple of tickets to the first festival this year and my youngest son and I went off to the Moses Mabidha stadium for a day of typical Top Gear shenanigans, together with my Nikon D700 cameras and the Sigma 12-24mm. Inside the stadium they had laid down a proper asphalt track on the outside of the pitch and we settled in to watch the action. Now, I have been inside the MM stadium on a few occasions and some of you may recall some photos I took of this iconic stadium with its 30 story high arch during the soccer world cup in 2010. It’s a fabulous piece of architecture and has become synonymous with the city, hosting not only football, but also concerts and T20 cricket matches. We got seats on the second level of the stadium and I found myself in a perfect spot to take some more extreme wide angle shots of the inside of the stadium. This is what it looks like when you view it through a 12mm lens. Impressive, yes?
This is the inside of the iconic football stadium - click to enlarge
I also pointed the lens inside the engine compartments of some really expensive cars and the images in many ways make the car look like a clamshell!
I find the lens to be pretty sharp. Most of the time I am shooting this lens for maximum depth of field, so I tend to have it stopped down to between f/8 and f/13 and I am not disappointed with what I see. I once used to own a Nikon 17-35mm/2.8 AF-S ED and I don’t think that lens was a lot sharper than this one. Maybe wide open yes, but at the place where the sharpness is needed you shouldn’t be disappointed.
An example of "going closer" to fill your frame with lots of attitude! - click to enlarge
Build Quality & Aesthetics
This is a very well made lens! The built in hood is made of metal and the whole package is indicative of the way Sigma are going about producing their lenses these days - impressively. The zoom ring is smooth to operate as is the manual focus ring.
As with other extremely wide angle zoom lenses you won’t be able to put a filter on it as the front element is heavily curved. The lens cap is one of those snug fit types, but it does have a secondary piece in the form of a traditional cap that you can remove and put a screw in filter in its place. The result will be severe vignetting, so I have not seen any reason for its existence. Perhaps some other photographers will.
I have used it exclusively on a D700 and it feels quite at home on there. Nicely balanced. There’s no extending of the lens when zooming or focusing, which for me is a pretty big deal. I hate lenses that change size.
The only way I could get a shot of the Mercedes Formula 1 car at full speed with the crowds at Top Gear was to go wide, hold the camera above my head and point in the general direction of the subject. This gives you a great perspective - click to enlarge
There is surprisingly minimal distortion when shooting this lens at 12mm (see example of interior office shot), but if you’re a Lightroom 4 user you need only tick the Enable Profile Corrections for this lens in the Develop module and you’ll see the distortion go bye-bye. Same thing for chromatic aberrations. One click and its sayonara.
This is an out of camera, uncorrected shot. You can see the distortion along the ceiling strips - click to enlarge.
Here's what happens after clicking the correction box in Lightroom 4. Click to enlarge.
Most of us will always use this lens at its widest point, but you should consider using it at the 24mm end also. It’s good there too.
Click to enlarge
Value For Money?
The Sigma 12-24mm sells at Amazon.com for $949, so it's not a cheap purchase for most casual photographers. I think it is a fair asking price though, because as far as wide angles go, this one offers a lot. You're getting the ability to zoom from an insanely wide 12mm up to 24mm, so it's not like it's a 1-trick pony ala fisheye lens (which if you're in the Sigma camp will see you spending +$600 for their 15mm option, or for the brand conscious Nikon users $900 for the Nikon 16mm). If you're looking for the fisheye effect from a rectilinear, I am sure there are some plugins or filters you could apply in post to get a similar effect.
DX users should be well pleased with this as a wide angle option and it will prove to be a worthy rival to the Nikon DX-only 12-24mm option, giving you an equivalent 18-36mm field of view on FX - a nice range.
The downside is that it's slow aperture definitely affects the vibrance of the scene in your viewfinder. Things look dim when compared to the Sigma 15-30mm - that lens is literally almost a whole stop faster on the wide end, but nowhere nearly as well built as the 12-24mm. And it's much bigger.
My Overall Conclusion
This is another pretty good lens from Sigma's new range. It’s made in Japan and you can feel it when you hold one. The quality is there, despite this not being a designated EX lens. The closest FX competitor it has on the current market is the Nikon 14-24mm/2.8, which costs twice the asking price. I have not used that Nikon lens so I can’t make a direct comparison, but I won’t hesitate to recommend this lens as an extremely wide option for photographers on a budget. 12mm on full frame is awesomeness!
More sample images can be found here.
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