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Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S FX Review

by Shun Cheung, April 2012 (updated June 2012)


Traditionally, in 35mm-format (i.e. Nikon FX) photography, along with 105mm, the 85mm focal length is considered to be ideal for portrait photography. Perhaps 105mm is better for “head and shoulder” type images while the 85mm can cover a bit more. Over the years, Nikon has had various 85mm lenses that are highly regarded, including a 85mm/f1.4 AF-D and a 85mm/f1.8 AF-D from the early part of the AF era. Two years ago, Nikon added a 85mm/f1.4 AF-S, incorporating an in-lens silent-wave AF motor. While it is an excellent lens, the $1700 price tag plus the bulk and weight is not for everybody. In January 2012, Nikon added this f1.8 version when they introduced their D4 flag-ship sports DSLR. With a very reasonable $499 suggested price, this new 85mm/f1.8 AF-S is an attractive alternative, especially for those who are interested in portrait photography using both the FX and DX formats. On DX, it becomes a longer portrait lens that is good for head shots.

This review is based on my experience with two different samples of the new Nikon 85mm/f1.8 AF-S. Initially, Nikon USA loaned us a test sample for review. After using that lens for a month, I decided to order my own copy, which took my local camera store about two weeks to deliver (in mid April, 2012), just a few days after I had returned the loaner copy. Therefore, I never had both lenses with me simultaneously, but my experience is that both are excellent with no obvious sample variation (although the loaner lens required AF fine tune on my D7000 body, more on that later).

Lens Construction Quality

The new 85mm/f1.8 AF-S has a similar construction as the popular mid-to-economy AF-S lenses such as the 50mm/f1.4 AF-S, 50mm/f1.8 AF-S, 40mm/f2.8 DX AF-S micro, and 35mm/f1.8 DX AF-S. All of these lenses are made by Nikon’s factory in China and have a solid plastic barrel and a metal lens mount. Since the 85mm/f1.8 has the longest focal length among this group of lenses, it also has the largest front element and is overall larger than the others. This lens accepts 67mm front filters. Personally, I am totally happy with the construction of these lenses, but the f1.8 version of the 85mm AF-S is quite different from its f1.4 bigger brother, which is a lot heavier with an even larger front element that requires 77mm filters.

AF Speed

It is well known that AF speed on Nikon’s AF-S 50mm f1.4 and f1.8 is not particularly fast. Apparently Nikon’s design goal is optimized for auto focus accuracy rather than speed, as depth of field can be razor thin at those wide apertures. The new 85mm/f1.8 AF-S falls into this same category. Its AF speed is fine and AF is very accurate. For capturing portraits, I see no problems. If you capture indoor sports such as basketball from court side, perhaps you could benefit from faster AF speed.

The manual focus ring on this lens is on the loose side. While a lot of AF lenses, including AF-S ones, do not have a manual focus ring that is ideal for manual focus, the ones on the 50mm/f1.4 AF-S and 1.8 AF-S provide a little more resistance. The one on the 85mm/f1.8 AF-S seems to be a little too loose for a good manual focus feel.

AF Fine Tune

As I mentioned earlier, I have used two different copies of the 85mm/f1.8 AF-S. The test sample on loan from Nikon auto focuses perfectly on the D300, D700, and D800. On my D7000, however, there is obvious back focus from f1.8 to f2.8. From f4 and down, the depth of field seems to mask the problem. After some trial and error, I determined that the lens required a -9 AF fine tune setting on my D7000. With fine tune, the lens focuses perfectly on my D7000. Just to make sure that my D7000 was not the source of the problem, I tested some other lenses such as my 50mm/f1.4 AF-S at f1.4 on it, and AF was spot on.

After I had purchased my own 85mm/f1.8 AF-S, I realized that it auto focuses perfectly on all of my DSLR bodies, including the D7000. Therefore I cancelled the AF fine tune setting for the earlier lens. I have no explanation for this variation and why only that one specific body/lens combination required AF fine tune.

Optical Quality

Sharpness

Sharpness is an important aspect for landscape, architecture, and macro lenses. For portraits, one does not necessarily want to capture all the little blemishes on a face. Nevertheless, the 85mm/f1.8 AF-S is a very sharp lens. I have used it at f1.8 on a D700; even wide open, it is quite sharp from corner to corner. If you can stop down a bit to f2.8 or f4 to gain some depth of field, its sharpness is amazing even on the very demanding 36MP D800.

Vignetting

Similar to most fast f1.4 and f1.8 lenses, the new 85mm/f1.8 AF-S has fairly serious vignetting wide open. Typically such vignetting is no more than a minor problem in real-life photography, but to check out how much vignetting there is, I have captured a uniform blue sky with this lens on FX-format D700 and D800 bodies. At f1.8 and f2, you can see very dark corners; it is still noticeable at f2.8; by f4, for all practical purposes, the vignetting is completely gone.

Realistically, few would capture a bright blue sky at f1.8. If you capture a white wall at f1.8, you should be able to correct the vignetting in post processing without much difficulty.

Distortion

I have captured the usual “brick wall” image and “swimming pool” image placing the horizon near the edge of the frame. The new 85mm/f1.8 AF-S is essentially distortion free. I would imagine that you can still measure it with precision equipment, but for practical photography, I have no concern at all about distortion from this lens unless you focus it to a very close distance.

Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration is minimal on the 85mm/f1.8 AF-S. Under very bright sun light, there may be a tiny bit of color fringing from dark-to-bright transitions in the image, but the problem is almost negligible.

Bokeh

Bokeh is not an area I pay much attention to, but the out-of-focus bright spots look pleasing to me. See the sample image captured at f2.8 on the Nikon D700 (FX format).

Other 85mm Alternatives

The 85mm/f1.4 AF-S is the top Nikon 85mm lens. That lens is made by Nikon’s home factory in Japan with very high construction quality. The front element is much bigger requiring 77mm front filters. As a result, it is also quite heavy. For those who want “the best” AF 85mm lens in the Nikon F mount and the option of very shallow depth of field, the f1.4 version should be the top choice at a much higher cost, over three times as expensive as the f1.8 version in this review.

Zeiss also makes a 85mm/f1.4 lens in the Nikon F mount, as part of Zeiss’s ZF.2 lens series. Those lenses are manufactured by Cosina in Japan with a Zeiss design. They have a metal barrel with excellent construction quality with a smooth manual-focus touch. However, the ZF.2 series are the equivalent of Nikon AI-P lenses with a CPU in the lens to communicate electronically with the body, but they are manual focus only. (Please keep in mind that only the ZF.2 version has a built-in CPU. The original ZF version does not and is the equivalent of Nikon AI-S lenses.)

Nikon also has an 85mm/f3.5 DX micro AF-S VR lens. That is a dedicated macro lens designed for Nikon’s DX-format DSLRs. While it shares the 85mm focal length, this DX macro is more a specialized lens for close up photography.

Conclusion

For a number of years, I had been considering a Nikon 85mm portrait lens. Earlier when the top-of-the-line Nikon 85mm lens was the f1.4 AF-D, I decided to wait until an AF-S version was available. In August 2010, Nikon finally introduced the 85mm/f1.4 AF-S at $1700. Unfortunately, a few months after its introduction, in March 2011, Japan was hit by a major earthquake and then its subsequent tsunami, and the supply of the 85mm/f1.4 AF-S has been tight to this day.

To me, the addition of this f1.8 “economy” version is very welcome news. For portrait work, at least my preference is to stop down a bit to f2.8 or even f4 to gain some depth of field. If you capture portraits at f1.4 to f2, you can easily end up with one eye in focus and the other not. At least to me, that is a very annoying effect. Therefore, I don’t really need a maximum aperture of f1.4. From my point of view, the optical quality of this new lens is excellent and the construction is fine. In fact, compared to the f1.4 version, the lighter weight and smaller size is a plus, not to mention that the cost is less than a third of the f1.4 lens. The Nikon 85mm/f1.8 AF-S is a lens I would highly recommend. The fact that I quickly bought one myself says it all.

I have not used the f1.4 version much. For those who are willing to pay for extremely shallow depth of field and the very best quality, that should be the obvious choice.

You can find additional images of the 85mm/f1.8 AF-S and images captured with it in my 85mm image folder http://photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=1033179

Nikon 85mm/f1.8 AF-S Specifications

Maximum Aperture f1.8
Minimum Aperture f16
Angle of View for FX 28 degrees 30 minutes
Angle of View for DX 18 degrees 50 minutes
Lens Elements/Groups 9/9
Closest Focus Distance 2.62 feet/0.8 meter
Filter Size 67mm
Lens Hood (included) HB-62
Dimensions diameter x length 3.1×2.9in, 80×73mm
Weight 12.4oz/350g

Where to Buy

Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-S
Price as low as $496.95 from 1 retailers
$496.95

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR Lens, (compare prices). From the Nikon website: Updated and optimized for digital, this fast aperture compact medium telephoto FX-format portrait lens offers crisp and natural image reproduction for stills and HD video.




Text and photos © 2012 Shun Cheung.

Article revised June 2012.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Frank Skomial , June 04, 2012; 01:47 P.M.

This lens also provides focus distance information, so it is a G lens and a D lens.

The Zeiss lens with CPU  as mentioned lacks auto focus, and lacks the focus distance information.

Scott Paris , June 04, 2012; 08:15 P.M.

Well OK, but the vast majority of dslrs that Nikon sells are APS-c, not full-frame.

On those cameras, the 85mm is about 128mm equivalent, traditionally a little long for portraits.

50mm is about 75mm equivalent, which is a little short.

How come none of the manufacturers make a 60-65mm f1.8, which would be more in the ballpark for the cameras they actually build?

 

Eric Arnold , June 04, 2012; 10:05 P.M.

scott, tamron has a 60/2.

Simon Jenkins , June 04, 2012; 10:12 P.M.

A lens that I am moving closer towards towards purchasing, I'm not completely sure If I had the money I would make good use of the 1.4. Thanks for the great review Shun it gives me a better understanding and expectation of this lens.

Shun Cheung , June 04, 2012; 11:01 P.M.

All Nikon G lenses (i.e. no aperture ring) are also D lenses (the lens can relay focus distance information electronically to the camera body). Therefore, whenever a lens is a G, it automatically implies that it is also a D. Nikon simply skips the D designation when a lens is a G.

It too puzzles me why Nikon does not introduce a portrait lens for its DX bodies; something like a 60mm/f1.8 or 70mm/f1.8 would be ideal as a portrait lens for the DX format. The lens itself can be DX or not (i.e. whether its image circle can cover the entire FX frame), as generally speaking, there is little benefit making a 60mm lens DX; it is mainly the wide angles that benefit to be DX. Nikon does have a 60mm/f2.8 AF-S, but that is a macro lens at $550 or so. It is in the same price rage as this 85mm/f1.8 AF-S, but that lens is obviously slower and may not be suitable for those who want extremely shallow depth of field.

If I have the money some day, I may still go for the 85mm/f1.4 AF-S, which is a much bigger lens. Perphaps due to its weight, the f1.4 version feels very solid although the outer shell of its barrel is still plastic. I haven't used that lens much but I am sure it is excellent and is priced accordingly. For most people, this 85mm/f1.8 AF-S is simply a much better deal.

Andrew Gilchrist , June 05, 2012; 02:15 P.M.


Why is the vignetting so much heavier on the upper corners of the frame than the lower?

 

"I have no explanation for this variation and why only that one specific body/lens combination required AF fine tune."

I don't think sample variation should be very surprising -- this is why the AF fine tune is available.  I think this is potentially an issue with any body and lens combination, regardless of price point.  I wonder if it manufacturers will ever automate the fine-tune by automatically calibrating phase-detect using contrast-detect AF -- seems possible?

 

"How come none of the manufacturers make a 60-65mm f1.8, which would be more in the ballpark for the cameras they actually build?"

 

Pentax has APS-C-dedicated 55/1.4 and 70/2.4 (82.5mm and 105mm equiv, respectively).  I would have liked to see them make a 70 macro and make the 55 a little longer, more like 58mm.  Agree that 50mm (75mm equiv) isn't my favorite length for the smaller sensors and don't understand why Pentax just released a new 50/1.8.

Simon Jenkins , June 05, 2012; 03:15 P.M.

Can I ask a silly question then? So would the 1.4 produce a better quality image over all apertures compared to the 1.8, or does the price just hike up so dramatically just because it goes to 1.4?

Shun Cheung , June 05, 2012; 04:03 P.M.

Simon, I am sure f1.4 has a lot to do with the price, as it requires a much larger front element. Moreover, the f1.8 is made in China and I am sure it will sell in much larger numbers than the made-in-Japan f1.4, so you have cheaper labor, lesser construction quality (but still very good), and savings in mass production.

Take the 300mm AF-S lenses as an example. My 300mm/f4 AF-S cost me $900 about 10 years ago but the 300mm/f2.8 AF-S cost $4000 a bit before that. Back then neither one had VR. Therefore, one extra stop in the aperture can cost a lot more money. Both of those were made in Japan.

I can understand some sample variations. What puzzles me is that I have used some 20 lenses on my D7000 and none requires AF fine tune, including the 50mm/f1.4 @ 1.4. That loaner 85mm/f1.8 AF-S also requires no AF fine tune on 3, 4 other bodies I tried it on. However, when you match that particular lens and body, the back focus is very obvious.

Ruslan Lavrentyev , June 06, 2012; 12:10 P.M.

According to tests on the-digital-picture.com, this one is very highly regarded. The sharpness is good at  f  2.8  as shown above but the old Nikkor 50/1.4 AI-s has very high sharpness (even somewhat harsh to skin) even at f2 in the centre and it might be shown under  better lighting conditions (e.i. outdoors).  

Duncan Murray , June 07, 2012; 08:15 A.M.

I understand that this G lens is a step down in construction quality to the D lens which it replaces.  I find the 85/1.8D to be sharp at every aperture, with very little CA.  The only problem is the inability to focus-mode switch, like on the AF-S lenses.

Brian T , June 07, 2012; 08:43 A.M.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4 D

Shun, I know it be insane to list all the alternatives, but one worth mentioning is the 85mm AF-D f/1.4.  It comes at a significant discount at almost half the cost of the 85mm f/1.4G AF-S and performs similar.  Obviously it requires the body to control autofocus, but its surprisingly quick and accurate.

However, I do find the new 85mm f/1.8G to be a significant upgrade from the prior 1.8D version.  Particularly in the blur quality (bokeh).

Also I found that the AF fine tuning was not required on my D700, D800 and D4, as it was dead accurate right out of the box.

Thanks again for the great review.

Dan Pieniak , June 15, 2012; 11:35 A.M.

Like a few other people have said, why do they - Nikon - Canon and others -  continue to list these cheaper lenses as if they will be used on the pricier full frame 35mmm digital cameras, when all are pretty much made for the APS-C sensors cameras?

Shun Cheung , June 15, 2012; 11:43 A.M.

Actually 85mm is more a portrait lens for FX. On DX, 85mm is a bit too long for portraits.

 

I have used the 85mm/f1.8 AF-S quite a bit on the D800, which has 36MP and is very demanding on lenses. This lens works very well on the D800 despite its (the lens') relatively low price.

William Kazak , September 10, 2012; 09:06 P.M.

I like the new 85mm F1.8G. I use it on my D300 bodies and it is better than my new 50mm F1.8G, which I like. The people pictures just look better because of the perspective. You can grab a headshot just fine, so I would not worry about this being too long on DX for portraits unless your studio is small. It is fatter than expected. I don't like the 67mm filter size. Otherwise, everything is fine.

Kathi Hammond , September 11, 2012; 10:33 A.M.

I am looking for a macro lens, many of which are in the 90-100 mm range.  This one seems to be reviewed most often as a portrait lens.  Anyone have any experience with it as a macro lens?  I shoot with a Nikon D7000.  Want very close up very sharp shots of bugs, flowers, etc. that I can't quite achieve with my 50mm f/1.4.  thanks!

Shun Cheung , September 11, 2012; 11:14 A.M.

Nikon does have a 85mm/f3.5 DX macro lens with AF-S and VR. If you want a macro lens that is 85mm, I would look into that. That lens works fine with the D7000, which has a DX-format sensor, but please keep in mind that the 85mm macro is DX so that it won't work well on FX bodies.

 

Otherwise, Tamron has a 90mm macro that is popular. Personally, I have Nikon's 60mm/f2.8 AF-S macro and 105mm/f2.8 AF-S VR macro; both are excellent lenses. Those two can cover the full FX frame.

Scott Paris , September 11, 2012; 11:26 A.M.

Kathi:  You CAN shoot sort of close-ups with the 85mm f1.8, but it's not really designed or corrected for that usage.

Look into the Nikon 60mm f2.8. Micro-Nikkor for really sharp bug-shots.  It's also a great portrait lens, equivalent to a 90mm on full-frame.

Currently available (at Adorama, anyway) in two versions: the older one, with an aperture ring, and the newer, "G", version, without.  I have the older one, which is built better and about $80 cheaper.  As far as I know, the glass is the same.

Shun Cheung , August 26, 2013; 06:30 A.M.

Scott, are you referring to the Nikon 60mm/f2.8 macro lens? The AF-D version with an aperture ring has 8 elements in 7 groups, while the current AF-S G version has 12 elements in 9 groups. Those two lenses are definitely not the same optically.

 

Concerning the 85mm/f1.8, the AF-D version, again with aperture ring, has 6 elements in 6 groups, which is also different from the AF-S G in this review. The 85mm/f1.8 AF-S has 9 elements in 9 groups.


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