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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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:
•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.