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Sigma’s 45mm f/2.8 and compact full-frame L-mount systems

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The arrival on the Macfilos desk of the Sigma 45mm f/2.8 lens has come as something of a revelation. Unlike all other full-frame L lenses we’ve seen so far, this is a tiny peach of an optic. We’ve written about it twice, once with Thomas Berger’s initial review and again when I picked up my copy from Red Dot Cameras last month.

I didn’t have time to try out the Sigma before leaving for the week in Mallorca, but I lost no time taking it for a spin at the first opportunity, last Sunday. This turned out to be at the America Car Day at Brooklands Museum. I bolted it to the Panasonic Lumix S1, the “cheap” entry to L-Mount full-framery, for the occasion.

The outing gave me the chance to examine them Sigma in detail and I really like what I see. The build quality is impeccable, as you would expect from the re-energised, upmarket Sigma, and the ergonomics are superb — even if the “back-to-front” aperture ring (A[uto], f/22-f.28), which is positioned at the mount end rather than at the front, takes a bit of getting used to.

Yet even this causes only a mild raising of eyebrows, and solely the eyebrows of M-lens owners, many of whom can be stuck in their ways, believing that the widest aperture slot should always be to the left.

One-click

With its precise one-third click stops and smooth movement, the aperture ring perfectly complements the equally smooth focus ring. The clichés aren’t half bad either. The metal hood is a masterpiece and has a very quick and clean fixing mechanism. It can be reversed quickly to add protection to the lens and reduce the length by 30mm.

Gangsta wagon. Hooch in the pooch

And, let’s not forget that it does have an aperture ring, which is more than you can hope for on any of Leica’s SL or TL offerings. To my traditional eye, popular prejudice runs to physical aperture rings instead of in-camera adjustment. You can see exactly where you are without checking viewfinders or the top adjustment screen. Incidentally, the Sigma also sports a useful AF/MF focus switch on the left of the barrel.

Autofocus with the S1 is extremely fast and probably the fastest I have experienced in a lens of this type. I have not tried it in low-light conditions, so far, but in daylight it is certainly up there among the fasts.

What a grille: Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne

But this lens is small, similar to a 23mm Leica Summicron-TL, and weighs only 235g (or 280g with the hood attached). It contrasts sharply with other 50mm prime lenses for L-Alliance bodies.

The lack of stabilisation helps keep down the size and weight — we can’t have everything — but this is if minor concern when it is used with well-stabilises bodies such as the S1.

Lenses such as the Summilux-SL 50mm, for instance, are much bigger and more expensive. That lens costs £4,080, a nearly eight times that of the little Sigma. It is also five times as heavy and über-bulky with it. The question is, do you really need it?

Of course, the Summilux is much faster and has been perfected to within an inch of its life. It’s almost certainly a better lens in absolute terms. Most of these pictures here were taken between f/5.6-f/8 and the sharpness is impressive. At the widest aperture of f/2.8 the lens is perhaps a little softer. I will report on that in a future article and these should be taken as my first impressions.

But the point is that the tiny Sigma is nearly as good for general photography (except in the speed) and it is so much more convenient and handleable. For my money, I’ll forgo the faster aperture and the extra honing to perfection and settle for a £549 f/2.8 compromise.

Even if you can afford the more professional lenses, the little Sigma has great attractions because it is so small and light.

I’m definitely sold on the Sigma 45mm. But while it is a perfect physical match for the CL, for instance, it cries out for a smaller full-frame body, perhaps one as compact as the original Sony A7.

That said, I’m using it on the Lumix S1 and the combined weight of 1.25Kg makes it quite a comfortable rig. The good handling of the S1, helped by that well-shaped and substantial grip, creates a formidable team for general photography.

Is it too much to hope for a smaller full-frame L-mount body? Leica’s forthcoming SL will be another heavyweight, vying as it will with the Panasonic S1R. Both the S1 and S1R are hefty beasts, more suited to the massive fast primes and zooms that we have become used to with the SL system.

Pro bodies

At the launch of the S1/R, Panasonic did say that this professional body would be just the first step into the full-frame system. A future smaller body was implied and we can hope that it will come sooner rather than later.

Click on any photo to bring it up to full size. Once in the lightbox, you can scroll through all the images in this article.

You have only to pick up the Leica CL to see what is possible. It uses the same lens mount, of course. Imagine a slightly larger CL with a full-frame sensor. Fantasy? Or the future?

Leica should be working on such a beast because I think it would sell well. Everyone acknowledges that the SL and the new Panasonics are fearsomely competent tools, especially when paired with those massive lenses, but many prospective owners are put off by the size of the overall system. This happened to me. I had the SL and 24-90mm twice, but eventually sold them because I found them too heavy.

I now have the S1, which has a similarly bulky body, but the haptics are better for me than those of the SL. It feels more comfortable to hold without those sharp corners of the SL, and the “kit” 24-105mm lens is really a very capable tool which is lighter and smaller than Leica’s 24-90. Not ultimately as good, undoubtedly, but good enough for me.

The tiny Sigma 45mm is a full-frame lens that will appeal to former M-system fans. Attached to a smaller body, it could show the way for a lightweight full-frame system to compete directly with APS-C. Many people who are now ready to move to the larger sensor tend to be put off by the size of the lenses.

Contemporary but good

The 45mm belongs to Sigma’s “Contemporary” range which I always assumed to be more of a budget offering. But I can detect no shortcomings in quality. The Art lenses, Sigma’s premium range, are faster and said to be of higher quality. However, this is reflected in the size of the lenses themselves; in some cases, they can outdo Leica for size.

But the 45mm swaps outright speed for a compromise of f/2.8 in a smaller enclosure. I think it works really well and, so far, I have been impressed with the results as well as with the built-quality and handling. The point is that it is good enough, it will not disappoint and it is affordable.

One for 77 Sunset Strip

The L-Mount system is on the move and, I hope, will expand rapidly with more bodies as well as lenses. Already, within less than a year, the lens selection compares well with other systems in terms of scope and quality. We just need some smaller lenses bodies for who want good-enough rather than perfection.

Perhaps Sigma will oblige sooner than Panasonic or Leica but, ultimately a move to more compact bodies, subject to the ever-present problem of coping with overheating, will be the answer.

Meanwhile, the Sigma f/2.8 45mm has just become my go-to prime for the L system. Owners of SLs really should seriously consider this lens. For its build-quality, performance and overall satisfaction, it’s snip at £549 when compared with its fatter and faster brethren.

Lens supplied by Red Dot Cameras, London

21 COMMENTS

  1. Mike, lovely detailed pictures. I would be interested in a comparison between the subject lens and the standard Leica 50mm Summicron (+ adapter) which is a combination I find very attractive in or about that focal length on the CL. Both are full-frame lenses of about the same focal length.

    Secondly, can we expect to see Sigma or Panasonic prime lenses designed for the smaller frame of the CL and TL sometime in the foreseeable future? I am less interested in the full-frame capability.

    • Thanks, David. I don’t feel competent to do a direct back-to-back comparison with the 50mm Summicron. All I can say is that having used the Sigma, I am not hankering after using the Summicron on a mirrorless camera. I am confident I could use the Sigma as my main lens. I will also use it on the CL, although the 68mm focal length is longish for general use. A 35mm Sigma would be useful.

      The important thing is size. SL lenses are too big and heavy for general use on APS-C, but the Sigma Contemporary lenses are just right.

      Whatever, we now have some interesting choices. I could happily replace my TL lenses with small full-frame autofocus lenses.

      As for APS-C L-mount lenses, the problem is the size if the market as long as the CL is the only body. If we were to get more cameras (Sigma it Panasonic) it would be cost-effective for Sigma to convert more of their lenses.

        • out of interest, would the cheaper and lighter Summarit line make more sense on the CL if we’re talking about adapting M lenses? It is a lineup that seems to get little interest from Leica users (which i’m not currently one of), but it may be a closer competitor to the 45/2.8 than a Summicron?

          • Jason, I often use my excellent 75mm Summarit on my CL and M8. On the former it makes a fine portrait set-up. I see no reason why any Leica 35mm lens would not work well on the CL.

          • The Summarits are well regarded and are only half a stop slower than Summicron. I particularly like the styling of the current models.

    • Yes, you are right. Sorry. I will amend the article accordingly. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, don’t know where I got that figure from.

  2. excellent read and photo’s, Mike, that very closely match my thoughts – and subsequently interest – regarding this lens. This is the exact pathway that could prompt me to move to a mirrorless fullframe future.

    Of course, on the smaller bodies topic, the 45/2.8 is probably a direct and inevitable consequence of Sigma developing the announced FP body. Obviously without ever handling one as yet, the lack of viewfinder and the electronic-only shutter of the upcoming FP are two major drawbacks to my mind and will probably mean that this also isnt something that will loosen my purse strings. Although, an FP and the 45/2.8 could be an almost perfect combo for a tour on a motorcycle, where space is of a premium. Especially if Sigma plan to give us further options in the contemporary range, such as a 30 and 85 prime. Wishful thinking perhaps, but i’d love to believe that they are looking at Pentax’s legendary 31/43/77 Limited primes and thinking “we can do that compact lineup for our mount” .

    The other known body – now that Panasonic have shown the cinematographer targeted S1H – that is being developed is a Sigma with a fullframe Foveon sensor. At a technical level, i’ll be fascinated by such a device. But its unlikely to be either cheap or small. It is, however, another option in a system that is barely 12 months old in terms of the Alliance. Things are moving swiftly for the L-mount.

    • And I’ll add a bit more, as I’m sitting here at my breakfast table, having had my Macfilos fix and just watched an interview with Sean Robinson from Panasonic singing the praises of the Sigma 45/2.8 and comparing it to the m43 15mm DG Summilux. This seems a very apt comparison to me, as they share a similar design with aperture ring. Perhaps we may even see a line of lenses from Panasonic such as the 45/2.8 .

      So I’ve just had my coffee, retrieved my 15mm Summilux and plugged it onto the Panasonic GX8. Now THERE’S a combination that I’d love to see replicated in the L Mount . Similar to Mike’s pondering on a full frame CL actually. Hmm, it’s such a nice combo, I think it needs to come with me today.

  3. The CL is a nice camera to use but so far I have only used it with adapted Leica M lenses. Of course, these are MF only but for street use zone focusing is straightforward as all M lenses have aperture rings and DOF scales. The aperture ring is an attractive bonus on this little Sigma and of course it’s AF obviates the need for zone focusing. However, at an almost 70mm effective it’s not ideal for street use.

    For me, the main shortfall on an otherwise excellent camera is the absence of IBIS. As I discovered trying to use my 135/3.4 Apo-Telyt M on a boat, camera shake meant sharp imagery was extremely hit and miss (mainly miss) but it is also difficult to use such a long focal length on dry land without a tripod. Now if Sigma can come up with a 135 stabilised tele of reasonable size that would indeed be attractive. Unfortunately it’s also probably physically impossible!.

    • The point of IBIS or ILS actually is important and I should have mentioned it in the text. When used with the S1, which has excellent IBIS, this isn’t a problem. But with the CL it is. I was looking at the 45mm as a replacement for M or even TL lenses with the CL. This benefit is limited by the 68mm focal length and we would need wider full frame lenses to provide real competition.

  4. My guess is that the L-mount deal with Sigma and Panasonic might exclude direct competition because the Leica lenses for this system are either very big, heavy and extremely expensive (SL) or just expensive (TL). I can’t see them welcoming Sigma or Panasonic competition for the 18 or 23 TL lenses but I hope I’m wrong. It’s interesting that the Sigma 45/2.8 crosses no such boundary although I suppose one could argue it’s a slightly slower substitute for the 75/2 SL (on SL) when used on the CL.

    • Martin, I agree that Leica might not welcome APS-C competition, but TL lens activity seems to be stuck at the moment. There has been nothing new and, frankly, I doubt that the sales of the CL and TL2 combined are sufficient to warrant much development. This would change if Panasonic or Sigma entered the APS-C market. However, Panasonic has said that it is not interested in APS-C and will concentrate on m4/3 and FF, which is a very sensible approach.

      When the TL lenses were developed there was far less demand for ILS than there is now. Despite Peter Karbe’s desire to keep the original lenses as small and light as possible — hence no ILS — this would probably have been different if these lenses had started life in 2017 or 2018 instead of 2013. Another factor is the lack of an aperture ring, which has become something of a shibboleth with TL and SL lenses. The presence of a physical aperture ring is one of the main attractions of the little Sigma. I think Leica owners, in general, have a preference for direct adjustment of aperture (and speed, for that matter).

  5. Interesting comments Mike. I’m surprised that CL sales have been weak, as you imply, but not so for the TL. I bought mine originally as backup to the now sold SL but also because of the potential benefits of having an M-sized digital body without the increasing difficulty (for my eyes) of rangefinder focusing. The Q has evidently succeeded because of this despite its limitations. That said, it seems to me that rapidly improving sensor technology should mean that smaller sensors become increasingly attractive because of the obvious size and weight advantages they allow. In this context APS-C bodies and lenses could easily occupy a sweet spot between the often considerably larger and more expensive FF systems and the not much smaller M43s. Panasonic May have a large investment in the latter system but Sigma does not. Moving off-topic an updated X-Vario with a proper EVF and a quality zoom would have considerable attractions.

    • Can’t disagree on this. I am one of those who feel that Leica’s X1/X2, X and X-Vario were concepts worth staying with. An X with L mount could well have been more popular than either the T or CL because it would have been a progression rather than a new departure. At the moment I don’t see much evidence of the TL2 selling like hot cakes and I suspect the CL isn’t far behind.

        • I think a Q2 body with an L-mount would be an excellent idea. With a wide variety of lenses now available, including the Sigma 45mm, it would make an ideal smaller full-frame camera. I don’t know what technical difficulties there would be, but to the layman, it looks eminently doable.

  6. Delighted to see your blog alive again. Really enjoyed the images of this post but was surprised at the low numbers of people at the car show. Here (Canada), it is much more challenging in the mobs at a car show. It almost makes me want to write a post on a car show.
    I think the Sigma 45 is a sensible lens. I only want one or two fast primes and the rest can be f/2-4, esltfir low usage wide angle glass and I do not need faster than f/2 plus for 85mm plus. The manufacturers seem to be missing out on quality slow glass.

    • It does seem that all the emphasis these days is on speed. Slower lenses don’t seem to receive the love from the manufacturers. We pay a big weight and size penalty for f/1.4 or especially f/0.95 when most of the time we are shooting in the f/4-f/8 range. Even if I’d had a very fast lens I would have shot most of those car images at slower apertures to achieve the required depth of field. Of course, the odd narrow depth of field shot would have added some interest.

      The attendance was quite good but the area at Brooklands is vast and only a few events every year look crowded.

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