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I am looking at the Sigma 18-35mm ART and the Canon 16-35mm F4L.

As part of my research, I am coming across the "lens calibration" aspect of the Sigma. I am struggling to understand exactly what it is/how it works.

I understand that some have come across focus issues in the Sigma's out of the box and that they have previously had a slight issue with quality control. I am comfortable buying a Canon L lens and not thinking twice about it, but given the reviews of the Sigma I wanted to look into it. Just want to do my due diligence.

In order of importance, my question can be more clearly broken down to these:

1. Does the calibration dock come with the lens, or, if the lens isn't calibrated properly out of the box, do I need to buy more gear to compensate that?

2. Has this played a role in anyone's decision to buy/avoid this lens and in what way?

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Michael Clark's answer covered everything pretty well, but I thought I'd throw in, as a Sigma owner and as a dock owner & user.

Has this played a role in anyone's decision to buy/avoid this lens and in what way?

Not the particular lens you are looking to buy, but I considered the lens dock as a feature when I bought my Sigma lenses. Understand that Sigma, like all third-party lensmakers, have to reverse-engineer the lens communication signals through the lens's electrical contacts. That information (communication protocol, commands, etc.) are not provided to them by the on-brand makers (Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc.).

From time to time, a newer camera body from Canon or Nikon might not work with one or more existing third-part lens, because they broke the off-brand lensmaker's expectations they made from reverse-engineering. Historically, this meant sending your lens back to, Sigma for instance, to have its firmware updated so it work with the latest bodies.

But now, with the Sigma dock, you can download lens firmware updates from the internet and update your lens, without shipping your lens anywhere.

This is such an important innovation, that I think more 3rd-party lensmakers will adopt this tactic in coming years.


How does the lens calibration feature of Sigma Art lenses work?

It works well, and it's easy.

I use the Sigma dock for AF fine tuning on my Nikon D800E. Where the Sigma dock is better than any in-camera AF fine tuning (that I'm familiar with) is that the in-camera tuning adjusts front- or back- focusing for the entire lens.

For instance, a lens might focus perfectly for close-in focus distances (say, 3 feet), but back-focuses for subjects at a distance (perhaps at 50 feet). With in-camera, if you adjust for the long distance (that is, dial in some front-focus, to make the 50-foot shot focus perfectly), then you wind up front-focusing for close-in. It's a compromise: you make the lens perfect for your most often-used distances, knowing you'll be slightly off at the other end.

But, with the Sigma dock, you can adjust the focus for up to 4 focus distances. Thus, it's not all-or-nothing for all focus distances. You are actually changing the autofocus profile at different points in the focus range, making a sort of piece-wise nonlinear adjustment curve to your lens.

It's really quite simple to use. If you don't get the settings right, it's trivial to reset them (i.e., set the values all back to zero).


Aside from the usability of the dock, I wanted to address something you said:

I understand that some have come across focus issues in the Sigma's out of the box and that they have previously had a slight issue with quality control.

I've heard the same thing, but I think if you dig into it, you'll find that Sigma's older, longer focal-length lenses (like the 50-500mm "Bigma", or the older 120-300mm OS) were the most failure prone, and accounted for most of Sigma's reputation problems.

Rather than try to sum up lots of anecdotes, I'll turn to Roger Cicala, founder of LensRentals.com. In his 2011 lens repair data summary, Roger wrote:

During the year I will see this data pop up on various forums, often for the purposes of bashing Sigma lenses. Those who do that are painting with too broad of a brush. Yes, Sigma supertelephoto zooms have reliability problems. The current versions fail, the previous versions failed. But what nobody seems to notice is that the other Sigma lenses NEVER end up on this list. From a reliability standpoint the Sigma wide zooms and primes are extremely reliable.

And the following year in his 2012 lens repair data summary, he wrote:

Sigma’s big zooms still have trouble with their HSM motors and OS units, but Sigma really does seem to be doing better. Their large zoom lenses are still on the list but the frequency is lower than it used to be, in a year when my new accounting system made most numbers look worse. Sigma’s prime lenses and smaller zooms have excellent repair rates.

By accounts I've read, since introducing a full lineup of their Global Vision Series (Art, Sports, and Contemporary) wide and normal primes, Sigma's reputation for build quality and reliability has only gone up.


Disclosure: I own Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG Art, 150–60mm f/5–6.3 DG Contemporary, and 8mm F3.5 EX DG Fisheye. I am supremely happy with them (except for the lens foot on the 150-600mm. It's tiny, and doesn't work as a carry/lift handle at all).

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    There are also plenty of older Sigma Wide Angle and Normal focal length lenses still being sold that aren't exactly stellar in the optical performance department. The new Global Vision lens series from Sigma are on an entirely different level than their older budget/consumer lenses in terms of build quality, optical performance, and price. – Michael C Jan 1 '17 at 18:22
  • @MichaelClark that's a good point. My 8mm fisheye is one of those. It's not stellar optically. I have it solely because I can get a full frame circular fisheye with ring flash (i.e., "Jarvie Window") shot. It's a gimmick shot, but it's absolutely a hit at parties, venue special events, and wedding receptions. – scottbb Jan 2 '17 at 0:54
  • I really appreciate you taking the time to follow up on this. That makes a lot of sense actually and definitely helps clear some things up as far as pre-purchase research goes. Also reasuring because I've just bought a 50mm EX, somewhat out of temptation and am curious to see how it performs. Out of curiosity, do you know if the dock system works for those pre-Global Vision lenses if something IS off? – Golightly Jan 2 '17 at 3:48
  • That lens is not compatible with the dock, unfortunately. Their compatibility list is at the bottom of Sigma's product page for the dock. – scottbb Jan 2 '17 at 3:51
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    "Where the Sigma dock is better than any in-camera AF fine tuning (that I'm familiar with) is that the in-camera tuning adjusts front- or back- focusing for the entire lens." Very true. Where it comes up a bit shorter than in-camera calibration is that it can only be used to calibrate to one camera body at a time... whereas most camera bodies can 'remember' up to 40 different lenses at a time. Some cameras can even differentiate between two copies of the same model lens. – Michael C Nov 23 '17 at 23:30
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Does the calibration dock come with the lens, or, if the lens isn't calibrated properly out of the box, do I need to buy more gear to compensate that?

No. The Sigma calibration dock is sold separately. That way the consumer doesn't have to pay for another one each time a compatible lens is purchased. If the dock was included with every compatible Sigma lens, the price for every compatible lens would almost certainly be increased to include the cost of the dock.

During promotions many online sellers will sometimes throw in a dock at no or very little additional charge with purchase of selected compatible lenses. All of the "Global Vision" series of lenses from Sigma are compatible with the dock. This includes the Sigma Art, Sports, and Contemporary series. Even without a promotion the cost of the Sigma USB dock, currently less than $60 at many authorized dealers in the U.S., is a fairly small amount compared to the cost of the lenses with which it is designed to work.

Note that the main issues addressed by the use of the dock are not any issues with the lens itself. They are issues associated with matching a particular lens to a particular body.

Has this played a role in anyone's decision to buy/avoid this lens and in what way?

Most potential purchaser see it as an advantage. Rather than having to send a lens to an authorized factory service center for autofocus adjustment or firmware updates the user can do it themselves.

The software included with the dock allows a profile to be built to match each specific lens to a specific camera body that is more detailed than most camera's built-in autofocus calibration settings do. As the resolution of both lenses and sensors increase, the effects of sample-to-sample differences between two same model lenses or two same model camera bodies will be more noticeable at pixel peeping display sizes and those differences are often the greatest contributor to autofocus calibration errors. Most cameras with built in AF calibration only allow one adjustment, or sometimes two adjustments - one on each end of a zoom lens' focal length range, to be applied to each camera/lens combo. For example, I have a Canon EF 100mm f/2 that requires different AFMA settings when used at shorter focus distances than when used at longer focus distances. It's a pain to have to change the AFMA setting to match the distance at which I'm shooting. With the Sigma dock and associated software, adjustments can be made to Sigma lenses at more focal length and focus distances. This results in better overall AF accuracy when done properly.

Firmware updates are sometimes needed with third party lenses to make them compatible with camera bodies introduced after the lens was released or sold. Because third party lens makers reverse engineer their lenses to work with other manufacturers' cameras, sometimes a newer camera model won't work with an older third party lens. The lens makers can usually make changes to the lens' firmware to make them compatible with the newer cameras. In the past, though, the lens had to be shipped or carried to a service center to have the firmware updated. Now it can be done via the USB dock by the end user for any of Sigma's 'Global Vision' series of lenses. That includes the 'ART', 'Sport', and 'Contemporary' line of lenses from Sigma. (Tamron also now sells the USB "TAP-in" dock that allows the same thing with most of the latest Tamron lenses.)

Of course when considering the two lenses mentioned in your question the ability to fine tune autofocus is just one among several things to consider:

  • Overall optical quality at various focal lengths and apertures. Which one, if either, is better at the focal lengths and apertures you are most likely to use the lens?
  • Wider maximum aperture (Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC) vs. FF compatibility (EF 16-35mm f/4 L).

Here are links to Bryan Carnathan's reviews of the Sigma 18-35mmf 1.8 DC Art and the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L at The-Digital-Picture. The Sigma review includes a screen shot from the Sigma USB dock software.

  • Thank you very much for the detailed response. As a follow-up, do you know if it's a hassle to use or if you have to have a high level of technical/optical knowledge to use properly? – Golightly Dec 31 '16 at 0:38
  • To do it well, it is very detailed work that requires the ability to accurately set up test targets and measure AF variances, just the same as any AF calibration process does. The actual software itself looks like it is fairly easy to use. Probably more intuitive than Canon's built in AFMA system. I've only read/watched reviews of the Sigma dock system. But I've done a lot of Canon AFMA adjustments using a variety of methods. How well AFMA works is based mainly on your ability to properly measure the performance of your camera/lens combo with properly aligned test targets. – Michael C Dec 31 '16 at 0:45

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