Optical Antithesis

A review of the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN lens for m4/3




The Sigma 16mm f1.4 shown mounted to an Oympus OMD EM1 mk 1 which is one of the larger m4/3 cameras.


I’ve said many times on this blog that my favourite focal length is 35mm (35mm equivalent) which give a diagonal angle of view of 63.4º To me it is a relaxing normal view, I find 50mm a bit too tight and 28mm a bit too “loose”. So when I migrated from so-called full frame to micro four thirds in 2010 one of the first lenses I bought was the Olympus m.Zuiko 17mm f2.8 pancake lens. Actually at the time there were only three lenses in the system the 17mm, a 14-42mm kit lens and the 40-150 telephoto kit zoom and I ended up getting them all.


Olympus m.Zuiko 17mm f2.8 shown on an EP5. The lens was the first prime introduced for the Olympus’ m4/3 system.


The 17mm was equivalent to 34mm in in full frame terms and has a diagonal angle of view of 65º, so close enough as not to make any real difference. It wasn’t a well received lens despite being what initial advocates of the micro four thirds said they wanted – pancake lenses. It’s slow maximum aperture of f2.8, slow and noisey auto focus combined with less than stellar optical performance put many people off and they went for the much more expensive Panasonic 20mm f1.7 which had the virtues of being optically better, and having a faster maximum aperture. It still wasn’t great in the AF department though. But hey these were the early days of mirrorless technology and AF systems were not very quick and accurate then. But anyways I got the Olympus in a kit with my Olympus EP2 and I actually loved it. I could slip it mounted to the EP2 in my pocket which made it a great stealth camera combination and I used it to shoot my TransPerth-Transhumance project. I still use the lens today, mainly on my EP5. The area where I felt it was absolutely hopeless was video. The AF was too slow, too noisy (think angry wasp stuck in a jar) and I wanted a bit more subject isolation than the f2.8 aperture could give.


The Sigma 16mm f1.4 compared to the Olympus 17mm f2.8, 25mm f.1.8 and the 45mm f1.9.


The Sigma 16mm f1.4 is a physically large lens. Here it is shown with the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 and 75-300 f4-6.3 zoom lenses.


So fast forward a few years and I’m shooting more and more video and I decide to get myself a better 17mm lens. In the intervening years Olympus had produced the very favourably received 17mm f1.8 and the eye-wateringly expensive f1.2 version. Panasonic had also come to the party with their Panasonic Leica Summilux 15mm f/1.7 lens. In fact I went to my local (if you can call 110Km away local) camera dealer to buy this lens and it was always out of stock which made me want it even more. But in the end I went for an outlier in the form of the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN lens. The reasons being that f1.4 is faster than f1.9, it was cheaper than the f1.2 and the difference between f1.2 and f1.4 is slight, and my dealer had it in stock. So what makes it and outlier? Well to put it bluntly it’s bloody huge. It has a 67mm ⌀ filter thread which compares to 37mm for the Olympus 17mm f2.8. It is bigger than the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 and the Panasonic Leica 8-18mm f2.8-4 while being only a little shorter than the Olympus 75-300mm f4.8-6.7. The 16mm focal length equates to 32mm on full frame with a diagonal angle of view 68.1º so is a bit wider, but when used with the Panasonic G85 for 4K video this isn’t much of a problem as the camera crops in slightly. So how come this lens is so lardy I hear you all ask. Well this lens wasn’t designed for micro four thirds, it was initially designed for the Sony 6000 series cameras with an APS sized sensor where it equates to being a 24mm in full frame terms. To get a wide angle lens that’s fast and a good optical performance means lots of glass and glass is heavy, and this lens is large and heavy for APS format cameras. To get some additional return on their investment Sigma decided to offer the lens in micro four thirds mount hence it seeming a funny focal length and being bigger than necessary.


Vital Statistics

Olympus 17mm f2.8

Sigma 16mm f1.4

Diagonal angle of view 65º 68.1º
Optical construction 6 elements in 4 groups 16 elements in 13 groups
Diaphragm 5 rounded blades 9 rounded blades
Minimum aperture f2.8 F1.4
Maximum aperture F22 F16
Minimum focusing distance 20cm 25cm
maximum magnification ratio 0.11x 0.07X
Filter diameter 37mm 67mm
Dimensions 57mm x 22mm (H) 72.2mm x 92.3mm (H)
Weight 71g 405g
Internal focusing No Yes



In the hand the Sigma 16mm feels very dense and substantial. The lens body is made out of what Sigma calls a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) which is substantially stronger than conventional polycarbonates while having similar thermal expansion properties to aluminium. The lens mount is made of chromium plated brass which should ensure a long life. The Sigma 16mm is advertised as being dust and splash proof but on closer reading of Sigma’s spec sheet there is only one seal and that is at the lens mount. The lens comes with a bayonet mount petal lens hood which has a ribbed grip to make attaching and detaching easier. While it is good that the lens comes with a hood it’s not the best implementation and feels quite insubstantial and can be fiddly to attach as it can foul and not lock home. There is a ribbed rubber focus ring of the fly by wire type – it feels smooth and easy to use. There are no other controls or switches which means if you want to switch between AF and manual focus you will have to use the camera controls for that.



The Sigma 16mm has an optical construction of 16 elements in 13 groups with 3 FLD (“F” Low Dispersion) glass elements, which offers performance equivalent to fluorite which exhibits less chromatic aberration than those utilising a traditional flint glass. There are 2 SLD (Special Low Dispersion) glass elements which also help to minimise chromatic aberration and 2 ASPH moulded glass aspherical elements which work to reduce optical aberrations. According to Sigma’s website the ASPH elements are polished with a tolerance of under 10 nanometers or 0.000001 millimetres which according to Sigma reduces onion ring bokeh.


100 % crops showing lens performance wide open and then at the best performing aperture.


In terms of autofocus the stepping motor is fast and accurate and very smooth when shooting video. I tested the lens on the OMD EM1 mk ii which has on sensor phase detect AF and on the Panasonic G85 which uses DFD technology – a variant of contrast detect auto focus that requires the lens to provide a profile to the camera to ensure fast and accurate AF. The Sigma does not have such a profile as these are limited at present to only Panasonic’s own lenses. Despite that there were no problems and I could detect no discernible difference between the Olympus and the Panasonic. The only downside in the AF department is that I can’t use the Pro Capture Low setting which gives up to 18 fps with auto exposure and AF tracking. This is no fault of Sigma’s as the option is only available with Olympus lenses.



Optically – well straight from the get go the Sigma is impressively sharp wide open corner to corner. The performance improves slightly (and it is only visible on my 4K screen at 300%) as you stop down. Diffraction sets in at f16 and this does soften the image. In terms of chromatic aberration, well wide open in high contrast situations it is apparent albeit slight and it is easy to correct in post. The lens is reasonably resistant to flare – but if you have a specular light source in the frame you will experience some veiled flare and ghosting. If you turn off the built in lens profile you can observe a slight barrel distortion, but switch on the profile and it is not visible. The bokeh balls this lens produces are more or less round when shooting wide open even at the edges of the frame and the transitions are nice and smooth. There is some onion ring bokeh which is the result of using moulded aspherical lens.Vignetting is not a problem and is very slight in the region of 1/2 stop.


Chromatic aberration is quite apparent on this lens. It is also quite prone to flare even when using the included lens hood.



This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Being designed to have an image circle much larger than micro four thirds requires means that you are using the best performing part of the lens and this really shows. Just for giggles I compared the Sigma with my old Olympus. The Olympus is noticeably soft in the corners at all apertures and just average in the centre. It suffers badly from chromatic aberration. Vignetting is very apparent, in excess of 1 stop in the corners with the lens profile switched on and getting on for 2 stops when switched off. Physically, optically and figuratively the Sigma stands head and shoulders above the little Olympus. The only area where the Olympus wins out is its small size and that is why I’ll continue to use it when I want something small and compact. For every other occasion I’m reaching for the Sigma. The knock on effect is that I’m seriously wondering about replacing my Olympus 45mm f1.8 with the Sigma 56mm f1.4.

“My love is wider…

…wider than Victoria Lake”*


York Mill
As you drive into York on the Great Southern Highway standing tall on your left is the historic York Flour Mill built in 1892, home to The York Mill.

I like wide-angle lenses, I use them a lot, but funnily enough mostly in the 24-35mm range (35mm full frame sensor speak that is). Occasionally I’d pull oy a 20mm, but as I said only very occasionally. The above shot was taken with a 24mm lens, it’s OK but a little cramped. I couldn’t back up any more as I was against the fence so I threw caution to the wind and chucked a 15mm lens on the front of the camera – and we’re talking full frame sensor here.


York Mill
York Mill again this time Voigtlander 15mm Super Wide-Heliar lens.

It’s amazing how much difference 9mm can make. Same viewpoint but this time with the camera in the landscape orientation. It sets the building in its context and thus makes it more appealing. I also like how the whole building is acting as a giant reflector for the setting sun. This will be the picture that is used for the end product, however, the one I like the most takes advantage of the enormous depth of field that such a short focal length provides.


York Mill
What a lot of depth of field – from 30cm to infinity at f16.


*  Today’s title comes from a couple of lines from the lyrics of “Is It A Crime” by Sade the über cool and totally smooth chanteuse of the 1980’s.

Lens Sharpness

Yoshinkan Aikido sacrifice throw, taken on Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom with slow sync flash edited using Photoshop Elements 2 and Genuine Fractuals

Currently in photography there are several sacred cows and you’d think that from the amount of chatter these subjects generated that they were the be all and end all of photography. Thankfully for the actual art form of photography they are mostly irrelevant. These sacred cows are:

  • megapixels
  • dynamic range
  • sensor size
  • lens sharpness

My feeling is that these topics are so hotly debated is because now in this digital age it is easy to quantify these values numerically and the bigger the number the better. There is no doubt about it a great big  spreadsheet of impressive looking numbers must be right after all. This is why the website http://www.dxomark.com has become a sacred text among the denizens of the internet fora and its proclamations and pronouncements can lift a camera or lens to photographic nirvana or condemn it to the lowest reaches of hell. Well having ruffled a few feathers with the piece on sensor size and depth of field this weeks entry is going to cause the DXO fundamentalists to really froth at the mouth in holy indignation.

Ura Tai Otoshi, a Yoshinkan Aikido technique. Shot using an Olympus C-720 Ultra using slow sync flash. Edited using Photoshop Elements 2 and Genuine Fractuals

Lens sharpness  is something to be coveted. After all Leica, Zeiss, Schneider, Rodenstock, Canon and Nikon have made an art form of it. Those who worship at the high altar of lens sharpness are prepared to spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small African nation on the lenses that have the highest DXO score. The Carl Zeiss Distagon T* Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 Nikon has a DXO score of 45 while the lowly Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II only has a rating of 25.  So the Otus is nearly twice as good as the plastic fantastic Canon. Phwoaaaaarrrrr forum domination and photographic greatness here I come,  I’ll go out and buy one straight away. The Australian list price for the Zeiss is $4474 while the Canon is $135, so the Zeiss must be 33 times better. Er no. To quote DXO “The DxOMark Score shows the performance of a lens, mounted on a given camera body, for its optimal focal length/aperture combination and for defined exposure conditions.” So the lens has been mounted to a camera on an optical bench shooting a 2D lens chart at an aperture that is guaranteed to give the best results in carefully controlled lighting. So in other words it does not reflect real world usage unless your photographic interests lie in shooting charts or brick walls with a camera on a heavy tripod so you can orgasm over how sharp the image is at the edges. Shoot a complex 3D object in rapidly changing light conditions at sub optimal aperture settings and these ratings really don’t mean anything.

A sacrifice throw from Yoshinkan Aikido. Taken using an Olympus OM 4 with a Zuiko 35-105 lens on Fujichrome 400 pushed to 800 ISO. Scanned using an Olympus ES-10 scanner and edited using Adobe Photoshop Elements 2 and Genuine Fractuals.

There is no doubt that lenses have become a lot sharper over recent years, but I find it amusing to see that they have become so sharp that they are now unflattering for portraiture as they show every blemish and pore. So much so that photographers are now spending time and money on lessening the sharpness (blurring if you will) on portraits. Don’t you think that is ironic? I’ll spend a fortune on a very sharp lens that is so clinically sharp that no-one likes the results so I’ll spend some more money on a Photoshop plugin to blur it.

 “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

A famous quote and often mis-quoted as nobody can really tell you the context in which Cartier-Bresson said it.  If we forget the Marxist definition of bourgeois and just concentrate on the dictionary definition we get:

 “belonging to or characteristic of the middle class, typically with reference to its perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes: a rich, bored, bourgeois family | these views will shock the bourgeois critics.”

I would hazard a guess that dear old Henri was string a bit when he said it and meant something along the lines that sharpness in a photograph is a very conventional and staid way of judging it and doesn’t look at its other qualities. How can I be sure, well I can’t but he also said:

 “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera, they are made with the eye, heart & head.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

 So I think it is more than likely to assume that Cartier-Bresson felt that there is a lot more to photography than technical perfection.

The Japanese art of sword drawing. Taken with an Olympus OM 4 with a Tamron 28 mm lens, using Ifford Delta 3200. Scanned using an Olypus ES-10 scanner and edited using Adobe Photoshop Elements 2 and Genuine Fractuals.

So by now you’ll have read this and seen some photos I made years ago of some people practicing Aikido and Iado, both Japanese martial arts. You’ll also have noticed that there is a lot of blurred movement and very little sharpness. The reason why is that I wanted to capture the beauty of the flowing energy that is involved in them and I felt that while static shots might capture the technical aspects of the techniques being demonstrated they don’t capture the nature of the philosophy behind them nor the dynamism. I like to feel that these are photos “made with the eye, heart & head” rather than the clinical gaze of the optically perfect lens. This is for me where the beauty of any art lies, not in technique but in the expression of ideas and emotions. None of the equipment used in the making of those photographs warrants a mention on DXOMark so I guess that gives them a score of zero. The equipment HCB used also isn’t on the DXO charts, and guess what quite a few of his pictures are blurred because he often relied on zone focusing and didn’t get it right, but I’d sooner have one of his pictures on my wall than a lens test chart any day.

Behind the Gare St. Lazare. By Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris 1932. © 2014 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris

If you are not familiar with work of Cartier-Bresson try this:

If those video clips have whetted your appetite then might I recommend Henri Cartier-Bresson  – the man, the image & the world. A retrospective. Published by Thames & Hudson.

Time For A Change

Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome by Loudon Dodd


I am holed up in the command centre of the vast global entity that is Paul Amyes Photography taking shelter from the heat of the Aussie sun and pondering what 2014 will bring while my minions work hard to bring about my plans for global domination.  Actually the end of the year and the beginning of the next are very good for such musings, so good that the Romans actually had a god of transitions, beginnings and endings, he was called Janus and January was named after him. He is depicted as having two faces, one looking to the past and the other looking to the future. This has led to the whole idea of making New Year’s resolutions whereby a person makes a promise to make an act of self-improvement commencing on the start of the New Year.

 “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”

Mark Twain


Photography is a very broad church and people do it for all sorts of reasons and one of the attractions is that equipment has a fetishistic appeal. There is something about cameras and lenses that makes us lust after them, day-dream incessantly, continuously peruse websites looking to put together the ultimate camera system. The term fetish means “an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit” and camera equipment is certainly worshipped, which implies a religion, which explains the virulent brand wars that flare up on online forums such as dpreview.com. It is probably just as well that this is online for if the protagonists were ever to meet in actual life ethnic cleansing based upon camera brand would surely be the result. Then look at the magical powers that are imbued by certain lenses. Oh if only you had a Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95, a Canon 85mm f1.2 L or a Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G IF ED VR then you could truly ascend to the astounding heights of photographic greatness as you’d never ever take a bad picture again.*

 “Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

Oscar Wilde


Three bodies, seven lenses, two flashes, flash meter, filters, cables, flash triggers, and reflectors. It is a hernia inducing load.

From reading the forums it seems that a lot of people spend the equivalent of a small third world nations GDP in trying to get the ultimate image quality only never to see those images ever displayed larger than a low res web image or to never to take the equipment out because it is too heavy and cumbersome. I often wonder at how many millions of dollars worth of photographic equipment lies in the back of cupboards unused.** Before the mob assembles and proclaims me a sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, self-satisfied, smug, pietistic, moralizing, unctuous, mealy-mouthed, hypocritical prig and lynches me I would like to say that I am guilty of all the above (except for the bit of fantasying about a Nikkor – ugh!). Now at the grand old age of 50 and after nearly 30 of them practicing photography in one form or other I now realise that no one piece of equipment that I’ve bought has made me a better photographer.***


“The old year has gone. Let the dead past bury its own dead. The New Year has taken possession of the clock of time. All hail the duties and possibilities of the coming twelve months!”

E. P. Powell

 Getting back to our two faced friend Janus and looking back over 2013 I can see that going out and taking photos, working on projects and showing them has made me feel photographically satisfied. So if like me you’re sitting at home wondering what 2014 will bring might I suggest a modest proposal? Instead of buying gear and hanging out on gear forums use your photography budget to travel somewhere photographically interesting, or hire some models, or devise a project and do an exhibition or publish a book. Set goals that are realistic, I’ve been wishing National Geographic and Magnum will come knocking for years now to no avail, and write them down. Then break down those those goals into their key components and then work out a time frame in which you can complete them. Looking forward to 2014 I have an idea of where I want to go and a rough idea of how to get there. It gives me something to look forward to, something to work towards and will give me a sense of accomplishment when I achieve it.


“Where there is no vision, the people perish…”

Proverbs 29:18

Yours truly working happily on Frenchman Peak.


* I bought a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L several years ago and I’m still taking rubbish. Can I get my money back?

** There’s no way I’m admitting to what lies in the darkest recesses of my cupboards, nor its financial cost. My wife sometimes reads this blog and there’s no way I will incriminate myself.

*** Actually one item did make me a better photographer, it was a tripod.

Very Adaptable

Olympus Pen EP-2 with 17mm f2.8 pancake lens

Not so long ago I was lucky enough to be given an Olympus Pen EP-2, it was an old superseded model, but still a very fine camera. My eyes were quickly opened up to the advantages of having a small light high quality camera with interchangeable lenses and it became, and still is, my most used camera. A little while later I was having a clear out of stuff and I “found” six “orphaned” lenses from film cameras that I no longer had. They were to me so good that I could never bring myself to part with them so I had kept them with the vague notion that one day if I ever got some surplus cash I would get a film body for them. However despite my nostalgia for film the reality is that I live a long way from any lab and I no longer wish to run a darkroom so any new found enthusiasm for film would quickly evaporate because of the inconvenience. One day while perusing a forum dedicated to M4/3 I discovered the whole subculture of using adapted lenses. My interest was piqued. There are a couple of reasons to use adapted lenses. The first and most sensible is that you do so because an equivalent focal length is not yet manufactured for your camera. The second reason is that it is just good fun to use old lenses that you already own or can get very cheaply.

From left to right is a 75mm Color-Heliar, a Sigma 70-210, an Olympus Zuiko 50mm, on the camer is a 35mm Color-Skopar, Olympus Zuiko 35-105, and a Tamron 28mm.

Olympus made adaptors for OM and 4/3, Panasonic for Leica R and M, and Novoflex and Voigtländer make adapters for older manual focus legacy lenses, but they are in the $200 bracket. If you look on E-Bay there are a myriad of adaptors all hailing from China and Hong Kong with prices starting at $12 AUD. So here is what to look for. For manual focus lenses the basic requirement is a rigid body and a well-built lens mount that allows infinity focus.  I would recommend either a chrome plated brass or stainless steel mount as they are more resistant to wear. Cheaper adaptors are often built deliberately to focus beyond infinity as it means tolerances do not have to be so tight. Initially this is a little disconcerting in use but you get used to it. Some of the cheaper makes can be a bit sloppy and this makes focusing accurately difficult. Forums such as Micro Four Thirds User have discussions on how to fix this quite easily, but this can be avoided by buying better quality ones such as those made by Metabones. If you believe the sales pitch by Voigtländer and Novoflex  you are risking your camera to cheap Chinese adaptors as swarf and dirt can fall onto your sensor and ruin it. The easiest thing to do is give them a wipe with a cloth and then a blast of compressed air to dislodge anything prior to mounting. In the end only you can decide on how much you want to spend, personally I took the view that this would be an experiment and I bought two $12 jobs in OM and M mount with the thought that if they were duff I could replace them and they had not cost a lot. With more modern auto focus lenses with stabilization and electronic aperture control things are a little more complicated. Firstly you will have to accept the loss of AF and IS. The cheaper adaptors also offer no control over the aperture, so the lens defaults to its widest aperture.

The Olympus Pen EP-2 with optional viewfinder and an Olympus Zuiko Om 50 mm f1.4 lens mounted via an adapter.

In day-to-day use is all this worth the hassle? Well there is no easy answer, it all depends upon whether you are prepared to accept work arounds and sometimes less than perfection. Digital capture does impose a lot of demands upon a lens as the sensor behaves very differently from film. The sensor is actually a very reflective surface and this means that modern lenses made for the digital era are multi-coated on the rear lens elements as well as the front to prevent glare. Some lenses, especially single coated ones, are also very susceptible to glare so I would definitely use a lens hood and be prepared for less than stellar images when shooting into the light. Older lenses designed for film are sharp in the centre but the edges and corners can let them down. Thankfully as of this time all the CSCs use a sensor that is smaller than 35mm film, and this means that the sensor is only using the best part of the lens. Talking of sensor size it is the crop factor of the various digital formats that causes the biggest problem for many users of adapted lenses as your wide angles cease to be wide angles.  A moderate wide-angle of 28mm becomes a short standard on APS having the same field of view as a 42 mm lens on full frame, or a long standard on M4/3 with a field of view similar to a 56mm. My favourite 35mm Color-Skopar is now a short telephoto on my EP-2, and my old Olympus Zuiko OM 35-105 ceases to be standard zoom but becomes a telephoto zoom. Voigtländer made a 12mm and 15mm lenses in either Leica screw (L39) or Leica M, but their performance on smaller formats leaves lots to be desired with most users complaining of excessive smearing in the corners. So the loss of wide angles is a problem for many, but on the other hand the multiplying effect of the smaller formats also brings many benefits. My 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar becomes a very nice compact 150mm equivalent, and my Sigma 70-210mm becomes a very small 140-400mm equivalent. So if you are a frequent long lens user you will be very happy. Older manual lenses are also very suited to video usage because the focusing action has a long throw and is damped making it easy to get very precise manual focus. Throw in wide aperture lenses and your mirrorless camera becomes a very capable tool for giving beautiful “filmic’ footage. The biggest hurdle to using adapted lenses is manual focusing. I am at that age where my arms are not long enough to use the rear LCD screen for focusing so an electronic viewfinder that allows me to magnify the subject is a must. Thankfully the EP-2 and all the later variants can all take one. An alternative to an LCD viewer is a loupe designed to go over the rear LCD screen. The brand named one is by Hoodman  and sells in Australia for about $110, if that is a bit steep for you there are plenty of cheap Chinese knock offs for the $20 mark on E-Bay.

Olympus EP-2 in video mode showing the Zuiko 50 mm f1.4 mounted via an adapter, a Hoodman Loupe and the Olympus SEMA external microphone.

All in all my own personal conclusion is that it has been great fun to re-visit some old lenses I’d already got and use them in different ways. Plus there is the added fun of trawling through websites such as E-Bay and Gumtree looking for cheap interesting lenses. The other thing in its favour is that if you are a little financially embarrassed and you want to explore digital photography as a hobby then using old lenses maybe just the ticket.

Frida, my Bull Terrier co-operating nicely. Olympus EP-2 with OM Zuiko 50mm f1.4 lens. Exposure 1/60 sec, f1.4 at ISO 3200 processed in Lightroom and Silver Efx Pro 2 by Google.