Lens Review: Nikon 85mm f/1.4G

June 27, 2014  •  1 Comment

Stingray From the FrontStingray From the FrontThe new Corvette 2014 Stingray, as seen from the front - Redmond, WA

There is a lot to love about this relatively expensive prime lens, and a few things that aren’t quite so easy to fall for. It also faces stiff competition in the form of Nikon’s own (and, by all reports, spectacular) 85mm f/1.8G, which is significantly cheaper than the f/1.4G and performs very nearly as well as it’s more pricey, larger, older brother.

That said, there are aspects of the f/1.4G that make it stand above the f/1.8G (not just the faster aperture), and, unlike the rumored Sigma ART 85mm f/1.4, this is a lens you can buy now (as of this writing). Bottom line: if you need what the f/1.4G brings to the table over the f/1.8G, it is a great lens and worth the investment. If you don’t need those things, get the f/1.8G. Or if you don’t need an 85mm lens right away, see what Sigma produces in the next several months.

Classic RollsClassic RollsA classic Rolls Royce in Redmond, Washington on a warm summer Saturday morning

Pros:

  • Usably sharp at f/1.4 even with the D800E when you nail focus
  • Biting sharpness at f/2.8 through f/8 – among the sharpest lenses I’ve used
  • Beautiful, creamy-smooth bokeh
  • Great contrast and saturated “Nikon-flavored” colors
  • Nano coating does a great job preventing flare, increasing image quality
  • Solid, weather-sealed build that does not extend when focusing
  • Decently quick autofocus on the D800E
  • Capable of tremendous subject separation

 

Cons:

  • Strong Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration when used wide open to about f/2.2
  • Long minimum focus (not a macro lens)
  • Not built as brick-solid as, say, a Zeiss ZF.2 (no Nikon lenses are, including the gold-ringed pros like this one)
  • Expensive
  • It’s much less expensive little brother (f/1.8G) gives you 90% of the performance of this lens at 1/3 the price

E-TypeE-TypeLooking from the rear of a convertible Jaguar E-Type 4.2 on a sunny Saturday morning in Redmond, Washington

This is a professional-grade (gold-ringed) Nikkor lens, with a price to match. It is built as solidly as any Nikon pro lens (which is to say: strong plastic composite exterior, metal barrel inside, weather sealed gaskets, plastic hood), and is relatively compact compared to some of the larger pro Nikkor lenses like the 70-200mm lenses. That’s not to say it’s small, especially compared to the f/1.8G lenses in Nikon’s lineup, but it is a little less burdensome than some of the other big Nikon lenses (e.g. the 14-24mm f/2.8G), and it handles and balances nicely on a pro body like the D800E. The manual focus ring is quite nice, though again not on the level of the Zeiss ZF lenses, and the plastic hood does its job without fuss.

One of the very best features of this lens, and the reason why people pay top dollar for it despite the existence of the f/1.8G, is that this lens produces usably sharp (e.g. critically, near-tack sharp) images at the point of focus at f/1.4. If you nail focus – which, with the razor thin depth of field, can be a challenge even with the central AF point – you are rewarded with a clear, detailed subject that fades into quite lovely bokeh in the fore- and back-ground areas of the image.

The image quality at f/1.4 is compromised only by the strong Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (LoCA), which manifests as purple edges along high contrast edges in the foreground and green edges on elements of out of focus highlights in the background. It is present, and it does lower the perceived sharpness of the lens at f/1.4; that said, it is not as strong as the LoCA I saw on the otherwise excellent Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro Planar, and LoCA can now be reduced or even eliminated by RAW processing software like Lightroom 5 and Capture One Pro 7. Therefore, while I would strongly prefer a genuine apochromatic lens design that eliminated the LoCA issues, I can live with it here.

Ferrari in the SunFerrari in the SunA Ferrari glinting in the morning sunlight on a pleasant Redmond Saturday

By f/2.8 you get razor-sharp images, complete with a ‘pop’ or three-dimensionality to the images thanks to the high micro- and macro-contrast and the way the image goes smoothly and quick out of focus. I only start to notice diffraction at around f/11, but you can still go that high if necessary. The colors from this lens are good, very Nikon-like and saturated (I still personally prefer Zeiss ZF colors, but that’s a personal preference). The Nano coatings help both contrast and color and also do an excellent job reducing flare.

Bokeh is gorgeous, smooth and creamy and almost entirely delicious. The only problem with the out of focus elements is the green fringing caused by the LoCA, as mentioned above, which can serve to bring the edges out on the out of focus highlights with a greenish tinge that even LR5 and Capture One Pro 7 can struggle to completely eliminate. Stopping down solves this but you lose some of that f/1.4 “magic” when you do that, so it is a tradeoff. Again, a true APO design here would have been amazing…

Autofocus on this lens generally works smoothly and relatively quickly. It is not lightning-quick like some of the pro Nikkors, but it isn’t annoying slow, either. I have had the lens – coupled to my D800E – miss critical focus on occasion at f/1.4, usually front-focusing by a few inches, but then the next shot will be perfect (so it’s not a micro-adjust issue). As a result I tend to ‘chimp’ (check the LCD) with this lens a bit more than I usually do, zooming in to check the focus point to see if I nailed it. Realistically this isn’t a bad idea with an ultra-fast prime anyway, especially when shooting at f/1.4, because the depth of field is so thin that any movement by you or the subject can throw the area of acceptable focus completely off, but that’s additional time you might not have on a gig and can give you cause for concern.

LamboLamboA lamborghini in Redmond, WA, complete with the classic bull logo

So what does this lens give you that the much less expensive Nikon 85mm f/1.8G not give you? In short: usable f/1.4 max aperture, built quality, and Nano coatings. From what I have heard and seen, the f/1.8G is excellent wide open and less prone to LoCA than the f/1.4G, though it is more prone to flare and has somewhat lower overall contrast and color saturation thanks to the lack of the Nano coatings. If you don’t need the f/1.4, or the higher level of build quality (with weather sealing), or the Nano coatings, then the f/1.8G is clearly the better buy.

As a photographer who places (very) high demands on his lenses, I don’t regret opting for the f/1.4G instead of the f/1.8G, especially since I use the f/1.4G on paying gigs where I need all the build and image quality and “magic” in my images that I can get.

For those photographers who demand the best 85mm (with autofocus) on the Nikon F mount, right now this is it, and I recommend it heartily. The rumored Sigma ART 85mm f/1.4 may well dethrone this lens in terms of sharpness, but this lens is available now and is proven and capable. I wish it had vibration reduction from the 70-200mm f/4, but that’s a bit of a quibble and probably would push the size (and cost) up even more.

Overall: recommended, if you need it.


Comments

1.Brian Rowland(non-registered)
Thanks for an objective and balanced review.

Interesting comment re benefits of nano coating and saturation......

Pretty much aligns with general consensus re F1.4 performance and LoCa's
But none of the current generation lenses do much better including Zeiss and Sigma based on the critical Photozone reviews.
It seems Nikon have delivered the best that can be achieved at the time of design.

I lfind the signature, build quality and overall optical performance of this lens very attractive - but for me the price is hard to justify.
And I refuse to buy the plastic made in China 85 1.8 G as I am not convinced that QC is the same as Nikon Japan.

I have no doubt a new 85,1.4 Sigma Art lens is close to being released which will provide this lens with serious competition.
Based on the success of the highly acclaimed Sigma 35 and 50 Art lenses, Sigma may well set new standards for both optical performance and value for money for this focal length.

And better still the Sigma 85 will be made of metal and made in Japan.
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