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Review: Nikon 85mm f1.8 G

by Chris Gampat on 04/23/2012

Nikon recently updated their 85mm f1.8 lens to the current G version: something it was in need of for a while. 85mm lenses are primarily used as portrait focal lengths are are preferred by many because it allows them to work up close to their subject and still not suffer from distortion. We’ve reviewed many 85mm lenses on this site, and the staff are in agreement that they’re amongst some of our favorite focal lengths.

But how does the new Nikon budget level portrait focal length do? After testing it out against the Canon 85mm f1.8 and showing off a couple of image samples, our conclusions may shock you.

Gear Used

Tech Specs

Specs borrowed from B&H Photo Video’s website

Performance
Focal Length 85 mm
Aperture Maximum: f/1.8 – 1.8
Minimum: f/16 – 16
Camera Mount Type Nikon F 1
Format Compatibility Nikon FX/35mm Film
Nikon DX
FX in DX Crop Mode
35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor
Angle of View 28°
DX Picture Angle: 18° 2
Minimum Focus Distance 2.62′ (0.8 m)
Magnification 0.12x
Groups/Elements 9/9
Diaphragm Blades 7
Features
Autofocus Yes
Physical
Filter Thread 67 mm 3
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 3.1 x 2.9″ (7.87 x 7.37 cm)
Weight 0.78 lb (0.35 kg)

Ergonomics

The Nikon 85mm f1.8 is not at all a large lens. It feels a bit beefy and overall has a textured finish to it that gives you a bit more grip. It isn’t like Sigma’s matte finish but instead feels a bit more like a Rokinon lens: and therefore a bit like sanded down popcorn stucco on a wall or ceiling.

The lens is quite simply designed: the major change that you’ll notice is that there is no more aperture ring.

The new 85mm from Nikon takes design cues from Canon in a way. There is a focusing scale, but it only tells you how far out your focusing. If you decide the switch it to manual focusing mode, you won’t have a depth of field scale to use: that’s a giant pain for street photographers. It essentially forces you to use the autofocus.

On the left of the lens is an autofocus/manual focus switch. And that’s really all there is to it.

There is also a fairly large front element; and you may want to keep the hood permanently attached to protect it.

Focusing

The 85mm f1.8 is quick to focus and usually deadly accurate in terms of hitting its mark. Focusing on this lens is also very quiet in order for you to remain unnoticed: which is a huge factor at weddings and events.

Build Quality

Though I didn’t roughhouse the lens very much, it survived multiple trips in different camera bags as well as being banged around in these bags in the NYC Subway system. The lens survived without a scratch.

Ease of Use

Because of just how few switches and dials there are on this lens, it is relatively easy to use except for the previously noted street photography situation of zone focusing due to how the depth of field scale was designed.

Image Quality

On the D700

On a full frame DSLR like the D700, one can really see the true potential of just how beautiful this lens is. It captures color beautifully and the bokeh is also to die for. The only downfall is that it isn’t the fastest lens for capturing moving subjects in low light.

Though I haven’t personally tried one, the focusing on the D800 is said to be the same as the D700’s: or at least many reviews say that. If that is indeed true, then your best bet is to stop down quite a bit. As a former paparazzo, we were trained to track fast moving objects while shooting wide open (because that is what our clientelle wanted). If I were back to being a paparazzo tomorrow, I wouldn’t use this lens despite how amazing the image quality is. Indeed, it puts my Canon glass to shame. I would instead go for a 24-70mm f2.8 or 70-200mm f2.8. But those are also for more obvious reasons.

This lens doesn’t focus as fast as Canon’s 85mm f1.8 and perhaps that could be due to heavier elements inside of the lens. However, as stated previously, those elements tend to add up to what amounts to stunning images and great bokeh. If you weren’t looking at the image on the left at 100%, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the woman is actually out of focus. In fact, the floor right behind her is what’s in focus. However, she looks so sharp due to the fact that we are focused out by probably at least 6 feet away.

If you’re a street photographer or a street fashion blogger that works with lots of ambient and available light, the 85mm f1.8 is an extremely attractive option for the reason that it soaks up so much light.

Another majorly important factor is how the lens affects color balance and skin tones when photographing.

I’m pleased to say that the new lens renders skin tones better than what I’ve previously seen with Nikon’s 24-70mm f2.8 G in similar conditions. One can only expect that with a lens that was designed to shoot portraits though.

A slight problem of mine though is that the lens renders the colors a bit too warm: and almost Canon-like. Previously, Nikon tended to render images to be very neutral and that made it absolutely wonderful in editing because I was able to adjust the tones with ease rather than needing to color neutralize the photo.

Still though, the tones do look nice, but they’re not always what I’m going for.

Moving subjects may be a bit tough to photograph at times. Stagnant subjects on the other hand are totally fair game. While we saw that it is sharper wide open than Canon’s 85mm f1.8, it obviously becomes much sharper when stopped down.

To be fair though, I don’t feel like Nikon’s 12MP sensor lets one take the fullest advantage of this lens. Instead, I much preferred the images from my D5100 and above as the higher resolution coupled with just how good this lens is created far better images at certain times.

One must also account for the fact though that smaller APS-C sensors also tend to cram more pixels onto a smaller sensor and therefore can also achieve sharper images. If you want that with a full frame camera, then you’ll need to spring for the D800 with more megapixels than one can count on a larger sensor.

What I’m truly amazed at is that even on a 12MP sensor, it tends to resolve lots of detail even though I still personally feel that the higher megapixel sensors do this lens much more justice. In real life, I didn’t even notice the woman’s tattoo on her leg.

In a situation like this, the lens didn’t do what I typically expected for Nikon: which was to make the colors more neutralized. Instead, it once again gave me warmer tones: no matter what the lighting situation was.

To try to counter this, I also tried to work with different color settings and still got the same results. Perhaps this may be a hint to where Nikon is going with their lenses: rendering images to be more Canon-like.

It would only make sense, as the two companies seem to switch philosophies often.

However, don’t worry there is good news for you strobists and lovers of Nikon’s flashes. When a flash is applied to the mix, the colors are still the same as they ever were with your system. That means that somewhere in between the photons, lens elements, and daylight balanced lighting that the sensor and lens are acting accordingly to not overly mess with the tonality of your images.

If you were to use this lens with natural light and a gold reflector outside, who knows just how warm the images may become. If anything, I’d opt for soft-gold (ie. gold and silver mixed.)

On the D5100

Testing the Nikon 85mm f1.8 on a D5100 primarily consisted of random snapshots around the street and a couple of informal portrait sessions. Amazingly, the lens only focused slowly and sometimes inaccurately whilst indoors and using the farthest outer focusing points.

The 85mm f1.8 tended to render skin tones a bit too warm on the D5100; and I wasn’t too happy about that. It often required lots more work in the post-production process beyond mixing of the color channels.

To be clear, it often rendered them too warm in natural lighting. The photo of famous fashion photographer and good buddy Bryant Eslava to the right was shot under an awning that by Union Square: so we were able to get lots of natural diffused light. While it still is a very nice portrait of the rockstar photographer, it took a bit of work to make it look like Kodak Portra (the way I intended it to.)

The photos of Kathy above and below were done using a Yongnuo 560 EX II and my beauty dish hack. Due to flashes being balanced to daylight (which is naturally very cool in nature) I actually needed to bring more warmth to the images than what I saw.

In contrast, I’ve never experienced this with my Canon 85mm f1.8. For some reason or another, everything was always perfect in terms of color rendition, but often required a bit more saturation.

On a D5100, the 85mm f1.8 uses only the center of the imaging circle, and therefore also renders an approximate 127mm field of view. For portrait photographers, that is a wonderful spot to be and it is an excellent focal length for headshots if you ever consider getting into that.

Make no mistake about it though: this lens is super sharp for portraiture.

Here are a couple more image samples.

These were shot on the D700.

Conclusion

The Nikon 85mm f1.8 G is a modern update to an old lens, and Nikon indeed did a fantastic job with it. For the price, it is very sharp, fast focusing in most situations, silent, and built extremely well. As a budget level lens, it is really hard to beat except by perhaps Rokinon’s 85mm f1.4; but that doesn’t have autofocus at all.

This is an excellent lens for someone looking to get into portraiture, but I’m not really sure I would use it for anything else beyond that except for the street photographer looking to stay silent and far away.

In the end, I would recommend the 85mm f1.8 G; but still whole heartedly believe that there are better options out there from the likes of Rokinon and for a couple extra hundred dollars, Sigma.

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