Review: 85mm f/1.4G

All images in this post were shot at f/1.4, except for the first-dance, where I stopped all the way down to f/1.6. The new lens is stellar at f/8, but so are a lot of cheaper and more versatile lenses.

I picked up Nikon’s brand-new 85mm f/1.4G just in time for a wedding at the Four Seasons in Singapore. Not a bad place to test it out, I thought.

Nikon has been doing a lot for professionals since the release of the Nikon D3 in 2007, including a fantastic range of new professional lenses. Except for exotic telephotos, though, few of these lenses have been direct replacements for older models — the 14-24mm f/2.8 and 24m-70mm f/2.8 both extended the range of previous pro zooms; the 24mm f/1.4 was wider than the 28mm f/1.4, which had been discontinued anyway, the tilt-shift trio brought new functionality, etc. Only the 50mm f/1.4 AF-S had brought modern tech to an older specification of lens, and reviews were mixed, due to slow autofocus.

So what could Nikon possibly do to improve one of its all-time legendary lenses, the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D? So much has been written about this lens, particularly the wonderful way it renders image backgrounds at wide apertures. It is an amazing piece of glass that turns almost anything it’s pointed at into eye-candy — you can see some of my work with it here.

So how do you improve on a masterpiece? The most obvious area is mechanical design. The earlier 85mm was released in 1995, when I was still in high school messing around with a Minolta SR-T 101B. Its build is absolutely professional, but it has a few quirks. Most obvious is the metal, screw-on hood — once you put it on, you might as well leave it on forever. It doesn’t reverse for storage and, much worse, it’s just hard to remove. On two different copies while trying to take it off I unscrewed the lens in half! (It screws back together, though). Also, the manual/autofocus adjuster was incredibly wonky. Lastly, they removed the aperture ring, which is good and bad — taking it off makes a lens a bit sturdier and weather-resistant, but it means you can’t use the new lens on older film cameras, and it will be much, much harder for me to freelens with it. And then, of course, there’s the …

AUTOFOCUS

Like most fast 85s, the old 85mm f/1.4 wasn’t the fastest-focusing lens on the block, although it seemed like a screamer compared to Canon’s 85mm f/1.2. The new lens has an AF-S motor inside the lens, which makes it much quieter and more fluid to focus, since it doesn’t have to engage the camera’s motor to make small focus adjustments. The new lens is quite capable, but people who expect it to be as speedy as, say, the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II will be disappointed.

It’s hard to directly compare the autofocus of the old and new lenses, because the old lens’s speed was driven by what camera you were using. On a camera like my D3s with a giant motor, the old lens is actually FASTER at zipping from near-to-far focus. On a tiny-motored camera like my old F80, the new lens would be much faster, and on a motorless camera like the D3100, the old lens wouldn’t focus at all.

The important thing is common usage, and in that, the new lens should give most people better results. The updated autofocus makes the new lens much better at tiny focus adjustments, which is great for tracking moving objects or using continuous focus mode. I NEVER, EVER trusted continuous focus mode with the old lens, but with the new one, especially with outer focus points, it seemed to be the best way to do the job. That was a big change for dancing coverage, for example. Overall, a noticeable improvement, but not a revelation.

SHARPNESS

The new lens is sharper. That’s all there is to it. The old lens was always regarded as “more than sharp enough,” but never in the same class as Nikon’s sharpest lenses. The cheaper 85mm f/1.8 was sharper edge-to-edge in the f/8 range, for example. But the new one may change that. It’s sharp, really REALLY sharp, right at f/1.4. I can’t give full-res versions of client images, but luckily a few local monkeys decided to help me out.

Links:

Full-size JPG

RAW file

COLOR:

Like most recent Nikon professional lenses, the new 85mm has a markedly richer color transmission than older models. It also renders photos a bit warmer than the old lens, which might mess with the heads of people in fields where a few degrees of white balance really matter, like studio and product shots. Here is a comparison, taken with the same white balance, same picture controls, same exposure, everything. The old lens is on the left, and the new lens is on the right.

Like the old lens, there is a bit of color fringing wide-open if you look really, really closely, but there is a bit less of the old purple-blooming problem.

CONTRAST:

The new lens has somewhat better contrast in normal situations, and WAY better contrast in backlit situations. Again, here is a comparison — old lens on the top, and new lens on the bottom.

BOKEH:

This is a big one for 85mm f/1.4 aficionados, who are as nuts as I am about the way the lens renders images. The good news is that they are very, very similar in all of the direct comparisons I’ve done. This doesn’t mean the lens is perfect — pixel peepers might go crazy over the slight doubling in the bokeh in this worst-case scenario, but that it seems just about as near-perfect as the old one, and that’s high praise. More direct comparisons will be linked at the bottom.

SAMPLE PHOTOS:

Good autofocus and contrast in tricky lighting

Foreground bokeh everywhere!

Sharp focus and great rendering into the interior of a car

The AF was quick enough for candid moments, even if AF-C mode

Very good flare control

Even monkeys love Nikon lenses

Great example of sharpness wide-open (Link to full image)

Comparison shots: (old on left, new on the right, shot with all settings the same)

CONCLUSION:

The original lens was a staple in my bag for years, and now the new one will do the same. Will it revolutionize my shooting? No. The AF-D will always be an amazing lens, particularly for cameras with good focusing motors. My photos will be slightly sharper and with more natural contrast, but I’ve never looked at a photo with the old lens and regretted using it. But the mechanical differences are stark, and you never know when that slight advantage in autofocus will make or break a killer image. For me, as a professional photographer who’s working just about all the time, little differences justify the upgrade. For you, it’s a personal choice.

The old lens is recommended for:

•Bargain-hunters

•Manual film camera aficianados

•People who want a lens hood that can double as a weapon

The new lens is recommended for:

•Resolution-seekers (D3X owners plus any future high-resolution cameras)

•Users of cameras without AF motors

•People who want the very best and don’t care about the law of diminishing returns.

Is this the best fast 85mm on the planet? For me it is, since it’s the best one that will fit on the ridiculously awesome Nikon D3s. So it will stay in my bag for some time to come.

Want to buy either? Why not do it from my links as a thank-you for risking monkey-attack from this review. I make 99 percent of my income from actually shooting, so I hope you see this review as unbiased and even-handed.

Brittany - I love the, “even monkeys prefer Nikon lenses.” Amazing!

Az - Beautiful shots Ryan.

My first stop for Nikon lens reviews.

brett maxwell - A wonderful read as I wait for the big brown truck to deliver mine!

Chris Honour - Always have loved your equipment reviews. Thanks Ryan…

Chris

sam hurd - that first shot….damn.

Nikon D3100 and new Nikkor Lenses – Buyer’s Guide | San Francisco Lifestyle Wedding Photographer | Bay Area Wedding Photography - […] Checkout Ryan Brenizer’s great review with large size photos of the new Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G here. […]

Lynette J - LOL! Lens hood that will double as a weapon!! hahahahaha! Love your reviews Ryan, but why do you make me go spend more money?!? ;) I am holding my breath on the 35/1.4…if that doesn’t show up this week, I am coming back here to use your link for the new 85. :) Can’t wait to see the full Singapore post!

Marc W. - Looks like the CA issue is still there (bridge photo).

Paul Von Rieter - Awesome review. Going to go get mine today… YAH!!!

Luca - Thx for the FIRST REAL review of this amazing lens! I’m trying to contain myself from buying the old AFD (cheaper than new but still great)…

Russ Beinder - Mine will be here tomorrow… let the fun begin.

AF-S 85mm f/1.4G N - Belgiumdigital forum - Digitale fotografie - […] AF-S 85mm f/1.4G N http://www.ryanbrenizer.com/blog/2010/09/85mm_review CONCLUSION: The original lens was a staple in my bag for years, and now the new one will do the […]

New2mac - Wonderful sample images for comparison. Totally unbiased review.Thanks for spending the time to do it.

Avelaine Scyrup - Dang it, I just bought the old 85mm a few months ago!

Luis Toledo - Great review Ryan. I love the way the old one flares! Gotta try this one though. cheers.

Mark Parker - Thanks for taking time to do this Ryan!

Steve Z - Shot my first wedding in the Colorado mountains yesterday with the 24 1.4 . . . and am super pleased. I’ve already sold my old 85 in anticipation for this one which I have on order. I shoot a lot of backlit, so the vastly improved contrast will be a bonus for me. Nice review, amazing pics.

Vince - I have waited a year for a new 85/1.4, and I was hoping they have VR bc I shake as I shoot, sigh. No VR now, but will get it anyway, I’m physically tired lugging around the new 70-200/2.8. Your review has helped me decide. Nikon should thank you.

Vince - I was hoping the new lens has G, N, and VR function. Now 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. Your review helps, thanks a lot. Great images.

Eric Kotara - Great review Ryan. And I absolutely love that image with the blue lights bokeh; FABULOUS!!!

Mike - My wife ordered one for my birthday. It’s sitting on the kitchen table boxed up. You don’t know how hard it is to wait 2 weeks to open that thing! Your shots are BEAUTIFUL!

Cinal Studio - Very good review. Thanks a lot.

Martin Andersson - Thanks for great review! I am wondering if the 85 is faster then the 50 AF-S, and if it is I am wondering if you can somehow define how much faster.

Thanks :)

Becca - “Even monkeys love Nikon lenses”

Hands down the best sentence from the whole review :)

Thanks for sharing!

Ravyn S. - That photo with the groom kissing the brides cheek with the blue lights and the beautiful blue bokeh is GORGEOUS!!!

Sam Obeid - Love this lens and finally got to use it at a wedding this past Saturday. It was awesome and thew AF is so much better than the D version, I have no regrets!

Neil Cleere - I use the old 85/1.4 for portraiture studio shots of pens mainly – an unusual application I know but I’ve always lie the out of focus quality rendered on very oblique shots of pens when using this lens. Sharpness was nver quite what I would have liked in the plane of focus but this new lens looks like the best of both worlds.

Your images look great and I wish I wa sin your line of work. thank you for sharing the information

Ray Soares - Congrats!
Excelent review and BEAUTIFUL pics!
Best

Ray

Martins Kikulis - Can’t wait to get my hands on this lens!! The price tag is huge, but I hope it will be worth every penny (or cent).. :)

Depositato: nuovo Nikkor AF-S 85mm F1,4 VR - [BLOG] | Forum -X- NextHardware - […] piccola prova sul campo tra il vecchio e il nuovo.. Review: 85mm f/1.4G Ryan Brenizer — New York City Wedding Photographer __________________ […]

Review: Sigma 85mm f/1.4 » Ryan Brenizer — New York City Wedding Photographer - […] this: It’s late 2010. I’ve just bought the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G while on assignment in Singapore, and I am absolutely thrilled with it. Its autofocus isn’t […]

R. J. kern - Thanks for the great review! My older 85 1.4 is among my favorite lenses (right next to the newer 24 1.4). Not sure if I’ll bite the bullet and get the newer one, as the law of dimensioning returns is one I don’t want to chase! You offered some great pointers with images to boot. Thanks for sharing!

Henry - Nice pictures, I hope one day you can coming to Bolivia, and make lots a pictures…., thank you

pens - A very good review. Thank you

Steve - That looks like an absolutely superb portrait lens.
I’m so glad I entered the world of DSLR photography just as Nikon are making & releasing great new lenses!
Thanks very much for the review.

Cheers

Company Pen - This looks like a fantastic digital camera that has mega photographing abilities. The images are stunning and has captured each moment beautifully.
Definitely investing in this camera for our photographs when we need the images for our website.

Jens Rueckert - thanks for this review. great shots, respect. so, I’ll keep on saving for this lens …

yuriy - just got me one thank you for the review

Shirin Yemulwar - I want all images.

Seema Joshi - excellent review

Richard carr - Very good review

billett.j - It’s rare to see such great sample shots in a review, nice one for doing so!

Misha Taunton - This lens grants sharp images with a stunning depth of field. We use it frequently and love the quality this lens affords. Great review too!

Priya Selvam - Thanks for this review – so helpful, I know which one I’m going for!

Peter Freed - Thanks v. helpful!

Shawn - Wow, this lens looks amazing, as do your photographs. Great review btw! I’m saving my pennies…

Ken Pearson - This has been really helpful. By the way, you work is spectacular!

Review: Nikon 28mm f/1.8G » Ryan Brenizer — NYC Wedding Photographer. Problem solver, storyteller. - […] these lenses, as well as others like the 85mm f/1.4G, were priced well out of the hands of most shooters. Luckily, once the professionals had been taken […]

Rob Dunning - Gorgeous photos Ryan. I think you’ve jus tipped it for me to upgrade my 1.8 to 1.4. Thanks for the review :)