Review: Nikon Z 85mm F1.8 (A Beautiful Lens in So Many Ways)

The Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 is an exceptional lens held back by only one problem.

Portrait photographers that work in a studio are going to adore the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8. I must admit, every time a Nikon unit came in for review, I sighed. We often get these great lenses that are stellar all around but limited by a questionably archaic and perplexing camera system. Why were we given only a single CFast card slot? Why did they make their lenses turn the opposite way on a camera than every other lens? Most importantly, why can’t the autofocus system be what it is with their DSLRs? At least with the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 it won’t matter much if you’re using it for portraits. It exhibits exceptional image quality in every way imaginable. And, it has the build quality to back it up. So, while Nikon has worked incredibly hard on these nearly class-leading lenses, they can only go so far.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Sharp image quality
  • Weather sealing
  • Smallish size
  • Lightweight

Cons

  • It’s held back by Nikon’s autofocusing abilities (or lack thereof), but they’ve gotten better.

Gear Used

We test the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 with the Nikon Z7.

Tech Specs

These specs were taken from the Adorama listing

Mount Type
Nikon Z Mount
Focal Length
85mm
Aperture
Maximum: f/ 1.8
Minimum: f/ 16
Format
FX
Angle of View
Maximum: 18 Degree 50′ (DX-format)
Maximum: 28 Degree 30′ (FX-format)
Maximum Reproduction Ratio
0.12x
Lens Elements
12
Lens Groups
8
Compatible Formats
FX
DX
Diaphragm Blades
9
Nano Crystal Coat
Yes
ED Glass Elements
2
Super Integrated Coating
Yes
Autofocus
Yes
AF Actuator
STM (stepping motor)
Internal Focusing
Yes
Minimum Focus Distance
2.62′ (0.8m) from focal plane at all zoom positions
Focus Mode
Autofocus
Manual
Filter Size
67mm
Accepts Filter Type
Screw-in
Dimensions (Diameter x Length)
Approx. 3 x 3.9″ (75 x 99mm)
Weight
Approx. 16.6 oz (470g)

Ergonomics

Here’s the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S. It’s not a large or heavy lens. It’s similar to the Sony 85mm f1.8 FE and the Zeiss 85mm f1.8 Loxia. These are small lenses designed to be paired with mirrorless cameras. And they did a great job with the designs here.

A 67mm filter thread is at the front of the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8. If you’re shooting portraits, then consider a polarizing filter to get better colors. But, also know that you don’t need a UV filter anymore.

On the side is the AF/MF switch. It works for what it is. What you’ll really care about is this big focus ring. It feels nice.

Build Quality

The Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 is said to be weather-sealed, and it really is. During our tests, we took it into the rain a few times and it continued to work. We aren’t shocked by this; from the first weeks we spent testing the Nikon Z7 and the lenses that came with them, and we found there to be substantial weather sealing. That’s fantastic for the customer. If you use your Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 on the Nikon z7, then you know it’s going to be rugged and reliable. While this lens is really intended for portraiture, it’s nice to know you can shoot portraits in the rain too. To that end, you can also take it into the dust. You’re not going to have major issues when it comes to the build quality of the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8, thankfully.

Beyond this, the lens feels pretty good in the hand. It’s not a chunky optic, and it’s mostly covered in a grooved focusing ring, which makes gripping it easier. Photographers with paws of different sizes won’t have an issue here. It shows that Nikon is dedicating itself to making lenses that aren’t all that mammoth, and translates further into having the Z system more attractive for purchase. You’ll be able to pack one prime attached to the Z7 and two other lenses (or more) into a camera bag easily. That’s very important to photographers. For what’s essentially Nikon’s version of the Sony a7r III, it’s got to be.

Autofocus

While the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 and the Nikon Z7 aren’t the best combinations for autofocus capabilities, it’s surely the camera you’re going to use for portraiture. The Z6 has better autofocus in our tests. But to see just how good the AF tracking on the Z7 did with the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8, we took it into the streets and shot a model walking towards us. It was able to keep her in focus for a fair amount of time. We set the camera to continuous shooting with Autofocus tracking priority. Only when the lens was slightly stopped down was it able to keep Amy in focus. In my opinion, you’re better off using a 70-200mm f2.8 lens option then. Unfortunately, the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 couldn’t keep up with a moving subject. But if you’re shooting a stationary subject, it will be more than good enough for most photographers.

Ease of Use

The Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 is a standard lens to use and operate in many ways. On the side of the lens is a switch for AF/MF operation. That’s really about it. The camera body itself has sensor-based image stabilization. So this helps keep the size down. Using the lens is only as difficult as the camera. If you’re not used to the Nikon way of doing things, then you’ll eventually get used to it. But ,if you’re used to Nikon’s higher-end DSLRs, you know certain buttons aren’t where you’re used to feeling for them.

Image Quality

The photographers who most likely will be springing for the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 are portrait photographers. However, we also have to make an exception for those who like to take candids while feeling like they’re a fly on the wall. An 85mm lens does a great job with that. With this in mind, those photographers will surely care about the bokeh. And with nine aperture blades, the bokeh on the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 is fantastic. It’s creamy and beautiful, in fact I haven’t seen boken I’ve liked this much from a Nikon lens since using the 105mm f1.4 prime. Photographers will also be happy with the sharpness, the color, and the fact that there are no technical problems with this lens.

Editor’s Note: Most of the images in this review have received no editing. But, some have in order to show the potential of the lens and camera combined.

Bokeh

The bokeh on the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 is super smooth and creamy. Obviously, it should be, since this is both a long focal length and a fast aperture lens. While it creates really nice images with natural, ambient light, I think it’s best used with either a ton of available light or with a flash. Then, the inherent properties of what a studio strobe does with flash duration helps to make the bokeh pop even more. You’re going to want to shoot with this lens wide open most of the time. And that’s fine. But, even when you stop it down to around f4 and focus closely, the bokeh is still gorgeous.

Chromatic Aberration

In our tests, we couldn’t find any issues with chromatic aberrations. We’re moving on.

Color Rendition

The color rendition from the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 really depends on what your settings are with the camera you’re using. In our experience, the color rendition has always been darned solid for a portrait lens. The colors are more muted than what you’d get with a shorter focal length, but I’ve come to expect this over the past few years. Manufacturers have realized that portrait lenses really should be a bit more muted than wacky and saturated like a Warhol look.

Sharpness

With the Nikon Z7, the sharpness of the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 is exceptional. Nikon’s lenses are great, and I’d also argue that this is about on the same level as the company’s 24-70mm f2.8. The stated zoom is arguably one of the best lenses we’ve tested in recent years.

Extra Image Samples

Conclusions

Likes

Dislikes

  • It’s held back by Nikon’s first generation Z cameras

The Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 deserves a lot of awards and praise. Quite honestly, I’d be happy to give it more. If Nikon’s cameras were only up to snuff, I’d consider moving to their system tomorrow. Of any company on the market, they’re showing the most effort. Sony has the attention of the masses, Canon is still limiting themselves, Fujifilm has great APS-C and Medium format cameras but refuses to go full frame, the L mount alliance wants to appeal to the old American adage that bigger is better, and Olympus is cutting back. But Nikon shows that they’re trying and failing. This lens and the others they have showcase some fantastic optical engineering. They’re also built well and built small. They’re great for a variety of photographers. There isn’t a single bad thing to be said about the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8. It has exceptional image quality, build quality, it’s priced right, and it’s portable. This is everything that mirrorless is supposed to be, but Nikon has to fix their cameras.

The Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 receives four out of five stars. Want one? Check out the Amazon listing.