Is the 20mm F1.4 DG DN | A the ultimate wide-angle prime for travel?


Is the 20mm F1.4 DG DN | A the ultimate wide-angle prime for travel?

SIGMA is no stranger to innovation. It came up with the teleconverter, it developed the world’s only F1.8 zoom, and it created the first ever sub-500g full-frame camera. But it’s in the field of wide-angle primes that SIGMA has really turned heads over the past couple of years, creating a range of optics with an ultra-wide angle-of-view, a very fast aperture and outstanding image quality – a combination considered the holy trinity of optical characteristics for many astro, event, travel and landscape photographers. 

The three flagship lenses in SIGMA’s new breed of ultra-fast, ultra-wide primes are the 14mm F1.4 DG DN, the 15mm F1.4 DG DN Fisheye and the 20mm F1.4 DG DN. All three are unique in that they have F1.4 apertures, making them at least 57% brighter than their nearest competition, and all deliver incredible edge-to-edge sharpness.

I took the SIGMA 20mm F1.4 DG DN | Art with me on a trip to Japan, and I decided to challenge myself to use just this one lens. My go-to would normally be a 35mm for a trip like this, but I figured the towering buildings and tightly-packed ‘yokocho’ alleyways of Tokyo, where I would be spending much of my time, deserved something a wider. Besides, the ultra-fast F1.4 aperture would give me some separation if I needed it, and the close focus distance of 23cm would cater for tighter details, so into my camera bag it went. 

A tree-lined Tokyo street. F2, 1/320sec, ISO 100

Modern meets traditional

Japan is a photographer’s paradise. The capital, for the most part, is incredibly busy, both literally and visually. The city centre is a place that’s hard to describe, but if you imagine being in a plain white-walled photographic studio, and then somehow try to imagine the exact opposite, you’re probably somewhere close. Anywhere you rest your eye, there’s clutter and activity and colour and movement. But despite the apparent chaos there is an order and calmness to the place, with polite people and hardly any crime, so walking around with your camera in hand, even at night, is considered relatively safe. The city offers up plenty of photographic potential, but also the challenge of creating images with order and structure, especially when shooting wide-angle. The 20mm focal length was particularly useful for capturing the skyline from ground level and also for working in tight spaces, of which Tokyo has many.

Out of town feels very different to the city. Life is slower and more traditional, and the mostly wooden buildings are a world away from the ultra-modern, glass-fronted skyscrapers of Tokyo. The countryside is beautiful and lush, consisting mostly of either forested hillsides, or fields of rice or vegetables being cultivated on the precious little flat land Japan has. Away from the city there is much more traditional Japanese culture on show, which offers up lots of photo opportunity. Finding a clean composition is easier when shooting wide-angle, and there are lots of interesting places to photograph, such as temples and shrines, which have a strong connection to nature. 

The juxtaposition between Japan’s busy and modern urban areas and its quiet and traditional rural regions make for an interesting contrast. Working creatively within these two different worlds, and finding places where one world appears unexpected within the other, yields rich photographic potential.

The neon lights of Shinjuku in Toyko. F2, 1/100sec, ISO 800
View from the top of Tsurugajo Castle near the SIGMA factory at Aizu. F5.6, 1/250sec, ISO 100.

Ideal for architecture

Working in the city, the ultra-wide angle-of-view of the 20mm F1.4 was perfect for architecture and vistas, especially when working in tight spaces. Almost anywhere in central Toyko you can look up and find an interesting shot, with tightly-packed buildings towering skywards. Most of the architecture is modern, and chiefly constructed of glass and steel, so there are plenty of clean lines and some interesting reflections to work with. The lens’ well-controlled flare ensured high-contrast results when the sun was in frame or reflected in a building. For me, the 20mm focal length was about right for Toyko architecture. Any wider and it would have been difficult to eliminate clutter at ground level, and any tigher and I would have lost the dramatic converging verticals. 

The 20mm F1.4 DG DN | Art might be 265g heavier than the 20mm F2 DG DN from the Contemporary line, but it’s by no means a heavy or unwieldy lens. It feels properly balanced on a full-frame mirrorless camera and it isn’t a chore to carry around. Plus, the extra features it offers, such as its F1.4 aperture, the aperture ring and the AFL buttons, come in very useful. 

I love that there is very little detectable barrel distortion on this lens so that straight lines near to the edges of the frame remain straight without the need for digital in-camera corrections.

At the foot of theTokyo Metropolitan Government Building. F5.6, 1/200sec, ISO 100
At the foot of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. F5.6, 1/200sec, ISO 100
From the viewing gallery of the Tokyo Government Metropolitan Building. F6.3, 1/125sec, ISO 125

The F1.4 aperture ensures clear subject separation with the background that you don't usually get on a wide-angle optic.

A bowl of flowers at the road side. F5.6, 1/300s, ISO 100

Up close and personal

One of the downsides to an ultra-wide-angle lens is that they tend to be less capable at capturing close-up details. But I was surprised at how easy it was to get great results from the 20mm F1.4 DG DN. With a minimum focusing distance of 23cm – meaning your subject can be just 12cm from the end of the lens – it’s a perfectly capable tool for close-ups, and the F1.4 aperture ensures clear subject separation with the background that you don’t usually get on a wide-angle optic.

The bokeh is smooth and attractive, which is an important characteristic when working close up and wide-open, as the depth-of-field is so shallow.

Japanese maple tree. F2, 1/800 sec, ISO 100
A bottle in the evening light. F1.4, 1/800sec, ISO 125
Shop display. F5.6, 1/125s, ISO 100

Perfect for portraits and street photography

A 20mm lens isn’t as commonly used for portraits as, say, a 50mm or 85mm, but I’ve always liked it. It allows you to put your subject in context with their surroundings to create what is often termed an ‘environmental’ portrait. If for the first image below, for example, I’d used an 85mm lens and composed the image to keep the subject’s head at the same size in the frame, the background would be much tighter, eliminating any sense of place from the image. I think shooting wider makes it easier to tell a story about your subject and generally makes for a more interesting and powerful image. 

Having the F1.4 aperture, unique to SIGMA on a lens this wide, ensures a shallow depth-of-field, helping to keep the subject separate from the background. I love that it’s possible to slide a sheet-type ND filter into the rear of the lens because it means that on a bright day I can still work at F1.4 by cutting out some of the light.

A man in traditional dress. F1.4, 1/1000sec, ISO 100
A street in Shinjuku. F2, 1/4000sec, ISO 100
In the viewing gallery of the Tokyo Government Metropolitan Building. F1.4, 1/8000sec, ISO 100
A tourist in Aizu. F1.4, 1/4000s, ISO 100

An incredible low-light tool

If you’re a fan of urban after-dark photography, Tokyo is about as good as it gets. The city is alive with people late into the evening, and the streets are lit up with colourful neon. This presents a huge amount of photographic potential, especially if you have a fast lens that can handle darker conditions. The amount of light that travels through an F1.4 lens is four times more than through an F2.8 lens, which means shutter speeds are four times faster. This makes it much easier to achieve high quality results in low light situations without the need for either a tripod or an extremely high ISO setting. This is the why the 20mm F1.4 is so popular with wedding and event photographers, who need to be able to take clean, blur-free images on the fly.

I loved strolling around Tokyo’s yokochos, which literally means ‘an alley off a main street’. These alleyways are lined with tiny traditional restaurants and bars, often lit with paper lanterns and crammed with people, so there’s lots of interesting images to be had. Working at F1.4 meant I could get blur-free hand-held shots at around ISO 800 or lower, ensuring noise-free results.

A restaurant in Tokyo's Yokocho alleyways. F1.4, ISO 800, 1/100s
Tokyo's Yokocho alleyways. F1.4, ISO 320, 1/160s
Tokyo's Yokocho alleyways. F1.4, ISO 320, 1/100s

Final thoughts on the 20mm F1.4

I found this sharp and beautifully built wide-angle optic to be one of the most useful and interesting lenses I’ve ever used, and, I would argue, the most versatile wide-angle travel lens on the market. It really is one-of-a-kind, with there’s nothing else like it on the market. Its combination of an ultra-wide angle-of-view and an ultra-wide aperture opens the door to some unique images that you simple can’t achieve on other optics. Outstanding in low light, very sharp, intuitive to use and superbly built, the 20mm is an ideal lens for travel, events, landscapes and astro.

About Tim Berry /

Tim Berry is the marketing manager at SIGMA UK. He has been working for the company since 2020. He has a Master’s Degree in photography, was as deputy editor on Practical Photography magazine and worked as a freelance photographer for several years. In his spare time Tim likes landscape photography and his favourite lens is the SIGMA 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN II | Art.

Share this post

Sign up now