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).
The 85mm/f1.8 AF-S side by side with the 50mm/f1.8 AF-S
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.
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.
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 at f1.8 Wide Open on FX (D700)
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.
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 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 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).
At f2.8 on the D700, out-of-focus bright spots are pleasingly rendered
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.
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.
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.