When it comes to portrait photography, 85 really is the magic number. We reviewed a couple of swell 85mm portrait lenses last year including the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM in February 2011 and the Nikon AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G last spring.
Many photographers find an 85mm lens provides the ideal working distance for portraits because it allows you to be far enough from your subjects so you don’t crowd them while producing a flattering compression effect on the face. The other key number, of course, is the aperture and with those two lenses, you get a dramatic, shallow depth of field from f/1.4 along with a beautiful background blur.
But since we’re talking numbers, it’s important to point out that those two 85mms with their f/1.4s are not cheap: The Sigma sells for $899 while the Nikon is almost double that at $1,699. Are they worth it? It depends on how much you crave that fast aperture, and for some photographers there’s no substitute.
But let’s say you’re on a tight budget—and who isn’t these days?—and find you can live without the f/1.4? Well, there are many more affordable options out there including another recent entry in the Nikon stable: the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G.
For that drop in aperture (along with a few other changes), the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G gets a significant drop in price to $499. The build quality of this 85mm isn’t quite as robust as the f/1.4 version but some might like its lighter (12.4 ounces) profile, making it particularly suited for travel and outdoor headshot work.
We tested the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G with an early sample unit of the full-frame Nikon D4 (look for a review of the D4 next month in PDN) and found the combination to be stellar. Jordan Matter, a photographer I frequently test Nikon products with, is a diehard 85mm shooter and he loved this lens.
Matter used it to shoot headshots, portraits and for his ongoing series “Dancers Among Us,” and was struck by how much he didn’t miss having f/1.4 as an option.
“I shot with the 85mm a lot, often set to f/1.8,” he says. “Its focus is very consistent, more so than with my old Nikon AF 85mm f/1.4D or the new Sigma.”
When mounted on a Nikon DX-format (aka APS-C size sensor) DSLR camera body, the 85mm magnifies to a 127mm equivalent lens, meaning you’ll have to stand further back from your subject and you’ll get additional compression. Some might not like having the longer range for portraits but for me, anything up to 135mm is perfectly fine. Put this lens on a Nikon D7000 and you’ve got a relatively low-price headshot machine.
Though this prime lens has a slightly narrower build than the f/1.4 version, it’s got solid optics inside including nine optical elements and a seven-blade diaphragm, which helped us create pleasing bokeh that really made our subject pop in the foreground.
The Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G doesn’t have the Nano Crystal Coating that the pricier f/1.4 version has, so it’s not as resistant to ghosting and flare. This wasn’t a huge issue when shooting portraits, as long as we stayed away from extreme backlit situations. The lens does utilize Nikon’s Super Integrated Coatings and without getting into the confusing technical details about how these differ from Nano Coatings, let’s just say, the results were vivid with accurate color and very little distortion in our portraits.
As all good stealthy lenses should be, the 85mm f/1.8 was extremely quiet because of Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor, which muzzles the autofocus sound in the lens, letting you shoot portraits or movies undetected. The lens has two focus modes: M/A (manual-priority autofocus) and M (manual), giving you options to experiment and test your creativity.
The Bottom Line
Nikon portrait shooters who want to save themselves a few bucks would be wise to resist the urge to shoot at f/1.4 and go with the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G. Along with the slightly slower maximum aperture, a few of the luxe details have been trimmed on this 85mm Nikkor lens but it’s less than a third of the price of the f/1.4G model. And that’s what we call a bargain.
Pros: Great image quality with consistent sharpness; produces pleasing background blur; quiet and accurate; more affordable price point
Cons: Won’t cure you of your f/1.4 jones; no Nano Crystal Coating so avoid extreme backlit conditions
Price: $499; www.nikonusa.com
Read all of our lens reviews at www.pdnonline.com/lenses.