What Is an “Art” Lens?

One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 "Art" lens, which represents Sigma's efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. Note the "A" badge on the barrel, denoting their "Art" series. However, just because they call it an Art lens doesn't mean you are automatically creating art just because you are using it.
One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 “Art” lens, which represents Sigma’s efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. Note the “A” badge on the barrel, denoting their “Art” series. However, just because they call it an Art lens doesn’t mean you are automatically creating art just because you are using it.

We all want to make amazing images, and we all see amazing images we admire every day. Often we think, “I saw something just like that the other day and tried to photograph it, but my pictures were nothing like that one. What am I doing wrong?”

Often the answer is a nebulous collection of visionary perspective and technical knowledge, with all imagery consisting but one thing: light.

While it is an excellent tool in the toolbox of photography, it is often very tempting to regard selective focus with large-aperture lenses as a goal unto itself, which it is not.
While it is an excellent tool in the toolbox of photography, it is often very tempting to regard selective focus with large-aperture lenses as a goal unto itself, which it is not.

A few years ago, lensmaker Sigma, faced with combating a reputation for poor quality control that resulted in inconsistent products, reorganized and upped their game by introducing their “Art” series of lenses. Bigger, heavier, more expensive, and better built than anything Sigma ever created before, these lenses are aimed at photographers who want the best image quality from larger-maximum-aperture lenses, and who are willing to deal with physically huge and heavy glass. Examples of this line are their 18-35mm f/1.8 Art, 35mm f/1.4 Art, 50mm f/1.4 Art, 24-105mm f/4 Art, and so on.

Primed for Primes
It’s no secret: I love”prime” lenses, which are defined as non-zoom lenses, usually featuring larger maximum apertures than zoom lenses, and which are usually lighter, smaller, and more affordable than their zooming brethren. Much of the time when I can choose between a zoom or a prime, I choose the prime. Though slightly less versatile than zooms, I spent the first part of my career shooting with nothing but primes (since zooms weren’t all that great then), and I am quite comfortable selecting a lens and then “zooming with my feet.”

I have only seen one “Art” series lens, bought by a student of mine last year.

One lens I keep recommending to photographers just starting out who only have the inexpensive "kit" zoom lens that came with their camera is the 50mm, either the pricier f/1.4 (left), or the smaller, more affordable f/1.8 on the right. Both are a good start down the road to lenses with better "art" credentials.
One lens I keep recommending to photographers just starting out who only have the inexpensive “kit” zoom lens that came with their camera is the 50mm, either the pricier f/1.4 (left), or the smaller, more affordable f/1.8 on the right. Both are a good start down the road to lenses with better “art” credentials.

As the popularity of these lenses rose, so did the idea that “Art” was a class, not a brand, of lens, and that we artists wanted one. But removed from its brand, was an “Art” lens really meant to be “the best,” without context, or is the “Art” something more, something etherial, something even magical?

In a conversation with fellow photograph Robert recently, he asked me, “Aren’t all lenses ‘art’ lenses?”

Our AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is certainly capable of creating images in the field of "art" in the right hands and the right circumstance.
Our AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is certainly capable of creating images in the field of “art” in the right hands and the right circumstance.

I speculated that lenses followed an evolution the same way culture did, with a growing interest in technology and capacity, while leaving behind some of the things we loved: older lenses, for example, are generally softer at the edges of the frame (often due to an aberration called spherical aberration, which results in the focus plane of a lens being curved slightly), and most computer-designed lenses have either gotten better at preventing that, or, in the case of cheap ones, hide these sometimes-flattering aberrations beneath other, more garish, problems like distortion and chromatic aberration.

So, I thought, maybe Sigma’s “Art” lenses are designed to bring back some of that old-lens look.

In actuality, Robert is right: all lenses are “Art” lenses because art isn’t a function of equipment or technology, but of the heart and mind.

Sigma’s “Art” series are, in simplest terms, a high-quality product intended to turn around a company struggling with quality-control issues, as well as a big, heavy tool in the toolbox. They are certainly capable of producing art in the hands of an artist.

One thing that "feels" artistic is using large maximum apertures to create powerful selective focus (often wrongly called "bokeh", which is another concept altogether), as I did in this image of Max the Chihuahua I shot yesterday with our AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Pleasing to the eye, shallow depth of field is not art unto itself.
One thing that “feels” artistic is using large maximum apertures to create powerful selective focus (often wrongly called “bokeh”, which is another concept altogether), as I did in this image of Max the Chihuahua I shot yesterday with our AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Pleasing to the eye, shallow depth of field is not art unto itself.
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3 Comments

  1. Ah. I just thought Sigma’s “Art” series was a way to raise prices (and therefore profits), without really doing much else. As you know, I’ve used multiple Sigma lenses over the years, and enjoyed them for the most part, but for me, the draw was always the low price — relative to Canon’s offerings.

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  2. An excellent reflection of our conversation. I’ll have to see some examples to consider if Sigma’s strategy will justify their effort. I do like the idea of “flattering aberrations” This is something I look forward to seeing and knowing more about.

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  3. Ironically, most of Sigma’s ‘Art’ primes are highly corrected to produce a very flat field of focus.

    In other words, they’re designed to excel at taking photos of flat test charts better than those older, esoteric lenses with uncorrected field curvature that give many of our favorite classic “portrait” lenses the ‘character’ that makes us love them (and also makes them “soft” on the edges when shooting flat test charts with the focus adjusted for the center of the frame).

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