Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED (FX) vs. Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art – The Definitive Comparison

I, like many photographers, have been going back and forth trying to decide which of these are better.  I had seen some things that just made me wonder.  In my earlier test, it was shown that the bokeh from the Sigma was dramatically different.  The Sigma also just had that “wow” factor that I couldn’t seem to get from the Nikkor, even though the Nikkor was seen to be sharper in some cases, the Sigma in other cases.  I liked the weight from the Nikon, but the “pop” of the Sigma.

I was confused.

I even spent some time on the Leica forums asking what made a lens “pop”.  What makes the rendering of a certain lens special?

So this weekend, I set out to find out once and for all, what’s the best fast 35mm autofocus prime in the world on a D800.  The results may surprise you.

First off, I started out in my darkened apartment to test for both sharpness and bokeh.  Allow me to introduce Green, my willing subject.

Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G FX
Nikkor at f/1.8
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
Sigma at f/1.8

While you can click through to examine to your hearts’ content, I’ll save you some pixel peeping: in the center, they are effectively identical.  But something is going on at the edges of the frame.  The Nikkor spanks the Sigma!

Even at f/2.8, the Nikkor is showing a dramatic, visible difference over the Sigma.

Comparison at f/2.8 (Nikon is on the left)

Then there’s the bokeh.  Neither of them are going to win an award.  Onion vs. Donut.

Nikon vs. Sigma (Nikon on the left)

This is not at all uncommon for highly corrected lenses like these.

So, why is the Nikkor so much sharper?  I thought it must be field curvature.  Ok, no problem. Field curvature isn’t always bad unless you shoot brick walls for a living.  It may even be an advantage if you focus-and-recompose. So I focused with live view (like almost all of the samples here) and placed a new focus target towards the edges.

Sigma gets spanked at f/1.8.

Things aren’t looking good for Sigma at this point, it must be said.

So what did I do then?  Drank a beer and went to bed.

Then, the next morning, I woke up bright and early to a poring rainstorm like just about every day in April in Switzerland.
Then suddenly, there was a break in the weather.  Out I go!  You can’t shoot just charts and boxes I thought.  You gotta get out there!

So, using a stable tripod on my nearly-trusty D800, I a couple of landscapes as I’m wandering around the area.

Nikon wins
Nikon wins again

I’ll save you the effort of clicking through, but even at f/11, Nikon wins in an obvious way at near distances and at the edges of the frame.

Nikon left, Sigma right

Ok, I thought, I didn’t buy these primes to shoot landscapes, so let’s go find some more interesting subjects where I can shoot with a narrower depth-of-field.

Nikon at f/1.8
Sigma at f/1.8
Nicer rendering from the Sigma

Don’t ask me what is it about Swiss people and stacking stones, but I quite like the look of this mini cairn against the wet foliage.

Nikon at f/1.8
Sigma at f/1.8
Nikkor sharper, but Sigma more pleasing at f/1.8

Well that’s interesting.  Even though the Nikkor is sharper, I prefer the rendering of the Sigma.  What’s going on?

Confused, I headed to one of my favourite spots.

Waterfall with the Sigma at f/8. Click to compare vs. the Nikkor

Somehow, I quite liked the Sigma image here, although the Nikkor was nearly identical.

I was only able to review the images on the back of my D800 until that point, but even then I was seeing something strange. I had a long walk home to think about the results, but I wanted to review them on the computer before jumping to any conclusion.

Then I did.  And it didn’t clarify anything.

It was obvious that the Sigma was as sharp as the Nikon in the centre of the frame at the same aperture but the Nikkor was really ruling around the edges.  But sometimes (and always at  large apertures) I still preferred the Sigma.

Then I started looking at the shutter speeds.  Now, the Sigma is a much more complicated lens, so I expected that the transmission would be lower.  (Basically, you lose a little light as it passes through multiple glass elements) But in fact, the opposite was true!  The Sigma, at the same aperture as the Nikkor had almost always a faster shutter speed.

What’s going on?

Frustrated, I reviewed the images from the previous night and I had my “AHA!” moment.  Now it was all clear.

At the beginning of this review, I showed you the difference in Bokeh between the two lenses.  See how the Sigma bokeh balls are larger?Compare the bokeh from the Nikkor at f/1.8 vs. the Sigma at f/2.8.  More than a stop difference!

Nikon at f/2.8 vs. Sigma at f/1.8

Now it’s clear why I preferred the rendering of the Sigma in some cases.  The Sigma actually has a larger aperture than the Nikon at f/1.8!  Reviewing my images, I saw evidence of that again and again:  Shallower depth of field, larger bokeh and faster shutter speeds.

That is not to say that Nikon is cheating – we’re talking about less than a stop difference.  That also can’t entirely explain the difference in sharpness at the edges of the frame where Nikon has a visible advantage. However, consider this 100% crop of the Sigma at f/8 and the Nikkor at f/5.6.  Still the Nikkor is a tiny bith sharper, but notice the shutter speeds?

Nikkor at f/5.6 (1/6 s) vs. Sigma at f/8 (1/4 s)

So what am I going to do?  I’m going to keep them both.  The Sigma shines at narrow depth-of-field photography. It’s beautiful.  It has that thing that only Leica people seem to be able to put into words.  One must also consider the huge weight difference between the two as well: 665g / 23.5oz. for the Sigma vs. only 305 g / 10.7 oz. for the Nikkor, but that the Sigma goes to f/1.4 instead of just f/1.8-ish.

What will be in my bag every day?  The Nikkor, but I’ll be wishing for the Sigma. If I go out for a day of dedicated narrow-depth-of-field shooting like portraiture or some street scenes, you can bet that the Sigma will be weighing me down.

So if I had to buy just one, and my back didn’t mind?  Sigma.

32 thoughts on “Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED (FX) vs. Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art – The Definitive Comparison”

  1. Ha – i’ve been debating whether to sell my Sigma for the Nikon. Also on a D800. Also in Switzerland (Pfäffikon ZH to be precise). Mainly for the weight difference: i want a good walk-around lens! So tell me one thing: subjectively, is the nikon a “helluva lot lighter feeling” on the d800?

  2. Sigh, just ate my comment. Or at least I think it did. Trying again…

    Cool review, thanks. I’m contemplating the same thing, thinking of getting rid of the Sigma for the Nikon. Also on the D800. Also in Switzerland (Pfäffikon ZH to be precise). I find the sigma’s focus to be unreliable sometimes, even in good light.
    One question: subjectively, would you say the nikon is a “helluva lot lighter” than the sigma, ie for walking around?

  3. The issue with real aperture is interesting, quite a surprise. But perhaps aperture lever on sigma or nikon lens is not up to specification. Testing another copy of lenses may be interesting to see if this applies to all or if this is issue with single copy only.

    I see that the Sigma has smoother background bokeh. Nikon has pronounced edges in background bokeh which is often more distracting, but sometimes useful for creative use. I have explanation on how different types of bokeh are formed by spherical aberration:

    1. I’ve come across your website before. It’s very enlightening. I loved the bokeh comparisons and the technical information behind it.

      The only problem I have with that “inaccurate aperture” possibility – and I had the thought myself – is that aperture blades aren’t visible wide open, they’re fully retracted wide open, right?

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Perhaps what you call “pop” referring to the Sigma lens is simply what is usually referred to as microcontrast, something Zeiss lenses excel at and that makes the image look more three dimensional.
    Nowadays there are lot of ways to enhance it in post processing, the simpler and more crude being the “clarity” command in LR, be careful though, HDR is only a few steps away…

  5. This was a pretty sweet post. Except that I now have no idea which to buy. Have used the Sigma. It vignettes pretty badly, and sometimes, it’s sharpness is a tease. On other occasions, the lens has a real wow factor. It has, as you describe a sort of punchiness to it. Haven’t used the nikon. I like the idea of being able to frame portraits off centre at f1.8 and have that sharpness gain. I like the idea of it’s lightness also. The bokeh is something I’d be giving up though. Darn you for such a great review. First world problems.

    1. I’ve owned both of these (Nikon 1.8 & Sigma 1.4) for a couple of months now. I don’t see any difference in sharpness on my d800, but i’m not pixel-peeping. I do slightly prefer the bokeh of the sigma, but it’s very rare that the type of bokeh (point-highlights) that has the bigger difference between these two is gonna show up at 35mm. For the type of bokeh that I call transition-bokeh (ie. from in to out of focus), I find them close enough to be equal.
      The nikon is hella-lighter, which has led to the result that I use the Sigma for weddings when my big roller case is taking the load, and the Nikon for my every-day walkaround with the family lens.
      I will try to sell the Sigma probably, because of the weight difference.

  6. Thanks for the nice review. I thought I’d leave a comment and say greetings from the other side of Switzerland (Neuchâtel). I’ve been researching the web for this comparison, since I may add a 35mm to my kit. I usually go for quality over everything else, but in this case the weight is a concern, more than cost. If I shot weddings or portraits for a living maybe I’d have a different option, but I like what I see with this Nikkor. Thanks.

  7. Excellent article. Thank you. That be in said, how would either lens fair on a DX Nikon Body? I personally plan to purchase a full frame body in the near future, but I’d like lenes that function well on both type sensors. Some feedback would be very much appreciated. Thanks again.

    1. I’ve shot it on my D7000 and its equally great, but perhaps a little large. I think it would be an excellent choice for DX shooters who eventually want to go full frame as an alternative to the 35/1.8G DX lens, which I’ve also shot extensively, and recommend wholeheartedly – except for people like you who are thinking about full-frame switching eventually.

  8. Moving onto other features, the differences aren’t all
    that great. 6 is wrapped around ACR, its improved performance is
    of course, directly linked to ACR’s processing engine’s performance.
    If there’s a headline feature with the D810, it’s the absence of the optical low-pass filter.

  9. I did not see it anywhere in your post , but did you use the USB dock to calibrate the Sigma? Just curious. Thank you.

  10. Nice review.Ive used both lenses and it was a close call but I went for the Nikon 1.8 in the end.Really stoked with the performance and for 12 hour wedding shoots with it hanging around my shoulders, that little bit of weight saving over the Sigma is very welcome.

  11. Thanks for your review! I’ve been trying to decide between the Sigma 35mm 1.4 ART and the Nikkor 35mm 1.8G. I went for the Nikkor 1.8G. As a wedding photographer I need accurate and reliable AF in all lighting conditions. The mixed reviews about the AF performance of the Sigma lenses sets me back. Lens weight is also a concern. The Nikkor 35mm 1.8G coupled with a D750 feels light in my hands.

  12. Thanks for the review,

    Its a pitty you have not noticed the little front focus problem with the Sigma lens. You can see in the sample images that the focus point is a little of compared to the nikon images.
    When you say you prefer the rendering of the Sigma, i think you mean the bokeh and thats because the lens front focuses a little. The background blur is somewhat nicer, but the focuspoint just isnt as sharp as the nikon because it is out of focus.

    This is always a problem with third party lenses, Focus is never 100% where it should be. This Sigma lens does a fair job, but still not perfect.
    Perhaps fine-tune would help, but this is the main reason for me i would never ever buy third party lenses any more.

  13. hi. very good post. now i’m confuse when i read all those comment from you guys above. haha. i’m afraid of sigma’s weight but think the image is very more pleasant.

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