Ask a Nikon portrait photographer what his or her favorite lens is and nine times out of ten, no, check that, ten times out of ten, they’ll tell you it’s the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D AF. Launched back in 1995, the 85mm f/1.4D was a legend right out of the box, the original “cream machine,” so nicknamed for the creamy skin tones, tack-sharp center region focus, and lush background blur, aka bokeh, that made even routine portraits look strikingly dramatic when shot “wide open.”
But 1995 was a long time ago so it was with some fanfare in portrait photography circles that Nikon announced last year it would be updating that lens legend with the all-new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G. I got a chance to test a prototype version last October and immediately liked what I saw. While the remodeled lens is not a drastic reimagining of the classic 85—and what would be the point of that?—it’s seriously worth considering if you’re a Nikon shooter and care at all about portrait photography.
After receiving a final test unit of the 85mm f/1.4G in February, I quickly handed it off to my frequent co-tester for Nikon gear, portrait photographer Jordan Matter, who cut his teeth with the original 85. By happenstance, Jordan’s old lens was in the shop when the test unit arrived and he had already been pondering upgrading to the new glass. It was an expensive proposition though: Like its predecessor, the 85mm f/1.4G isn’t cheap, retailing for $1,699.
We had already tested Sigma’s comparatively bargain-basement-priced 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens ($899) in a Canon mount in the February issue of PDN and were impressed with that third-party model. Would the new Nikon 85 be that much better than the old one or the inexpensive Sigma to justify the investment? Here’s what we found.
The build quality of the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G is in keeping with Nikon’s other recent pro lenses: tough, no-nonsense, and with enough metal to keep it solid, and ample polycarbonate so it doesn’t weigh you down. The 23.3-ounce lens is heavier than its predecessor but three ounces lighter than the Sigma though we both found the stronger, narrower construction of the new Nikon to be superior. (It’s a close call, which is surprising considering the drastic difference in price.)
I paired the lens with a Nikon D7000, which magnified it to an approximately 127.5mm lens because of the camera’s DX-size sensor. Jordan, on the other hand, shot with it at its advertised focal length using his full-frame-sensor Nikon D3s. Both set-ups worked fine and, incidentally, because the new 85mm lens has an AF-S motor you can use it with Nikon cameras that don’t have a focus motor built into the body, namely its entry-level DSLRs. (If you want to stick a $1,700 lens on a $400 consumer camera, that’s your business.)
The lens sports Nikon’s familiar all-black chassis with gold elements including the badging and most of the lettering. (In fact, Sigma apes this look completely with its 85mm f/1.4 even down to the gold ring around the front of the lens.) The new lens blends nicely with Nikon’s black pro and prosumer DSLRs, giving them a serious photography look.
The front of the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G has a rubber, ridged focus ring, which will let you manually override the autofocus when you turn it if the focus switch is set to M/A. That’s handy! If you want full manual, set the switch to M. The lens ships with a standard, circular 2-inch lens hood that attaches to the front via a bayonet mount.
All in all, there’s a classic albeit less than luxurious feel to the new 85mm f/1.4, which is fine by me. This lens is designed for taking beautiful portraits not for winning beauty contests.
A NEW COAT
Along with the AF-S motor, the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G offers a handful of new features from the previous model. The biggest major change, at least to my mind, is the addition of Nano Crystal Coating, which helps cut down on ghosting and flare, making it much easier to shoot back-lit images with.
Jordan captures most of his portraits in natural light—either in his studio or out on the street—so the Nano Crystal Coating on the new 85mm can make the difference between producing a keeper or a throwaway. We both found the new lens to be superior to the previous model—and to the Sigma, for that matter—in this area. Jordan does a lot of shots in studio with the subject backlit by a window and the new lens produced evenly balanced shots with beautiful skin tones and no signs of ghosting or flare. Shots with the old 85mm showed slight flaring and while the difference wasn’t significant, it was noticeable.
The new lens also uses Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating (SIC), a technology I’m not as familiar with but it’s designed to improve the way the lens receives light to render color more consistently with less flare. But other than a lower instance of flare—which could have been a result of the Nano Crystal Coating—neither of us noticed that the color was markedly more consistent than with the previous model. However, I did notice the new version produced slightly warmer results than the previous model, which was welcome but not essential.
Shooting wide open on any f/1.4 lens—I don’t care which brand—is going to result in some instances of Chromatic Aberrations (CA), i.e. weird color shifts (purple fringing) in areas of the image where there’s high contrast, such as branches against the sky, or the edges of the building. I’m not sure whether the new coatings had some effect with the 85mm f/1.4G but I noticed only minimal CA in my wide-open shots, which is another nice plus and potential time-saver. Not to mention that the background blur at f/1.4 makes the purple/blue fringing even less noticeable and easily repairable, if you must, with Photoshop.
Though neither of us found the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G to be particularly fast when it came to autofocus speed—some of Nikon’s longer sports lenses lock in faster, in my experience—it felt slightly quicker from the previous model. The big difference between the two lenses however was that the focus felt smoother and quieter in the new model, probably thanks to the addition of Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) in the lens. And because the new Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G has internal focus, the length of the lens doesn’t change when you lock in. Again, these are subtle upgrades but they make the lens more discreet and less conspicuous, which should help put your subject at ease so you can produce more relaxed looking photos.
F/1.4 AND BE THERE
The reason you buy the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G is so you can shoot at f/1.4—or else you’d buy the far cheaper Nikon 85mm f/1.8D ($489)—to create an extremely shallow depth of field and make the face and, in particular, the eyes, of your model stand out. And like its predecessor, the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G excelled when shooting wide open. The new lens’ nine-blade lens diaphragm produced creamy, natural looking background blur while maintaining fairly reliable center area focus.
Jordan estimated he got 75 percent of his still portraits at tack sharpness in the center area with the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G compared to a 50 percent rate with the old lens. Photographing a slightly moving target, such as a fussy baby, dropped the success rate to about 50 percent sharpness; while shooting an actual moving target—walking baby—dropped sharp photos to about 15 percent. No, this is probably not the lens you’d want for shooting sports even though the fast max aperture does wonders in cruddy, indoor stadium lighting.
When stopped down to f/2.0 or f/2.8 the consistency of sharpness increased with the new lens but, again, that’s probably not what you’re buying this lens for. It can shoot at f/1.4 and that’s bloody well how you’re going to use it most of the time!
It is pretty amazing that photographers and non-photographers alike still respond so strongly to the sharp foreground, blurred background look. It’s why we’re willing to consider paying an extra $1,000+ for the tick up to f/1.4 when, probably, f/1.8 or even f/2.8 would suffice most of the time.
And in the end, that’s what choosing the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G comes down to. If you or your clients can’t get enough of the creamy goodness this lens can produce then, by all means, the extra investment is worth it. In the end, Jordan decided that his repaired Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D AF, which he purchased eight years ago was good enough even though he saw the subtle benefits of the new lens. For me, on my photo-gear journalist’s salary, I’d probably settle for the Sigma 85mm though Nikon’s new cream machine with its silky bokeh will still haunt my dreams.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Nikon portrait photographers should sit up and take notice: the new Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G is a worthy follow up its legendary predecessor. If you already own the old 85mm, this new version is not necessarily a reason to go out and empty your bank account. The improvements are subtle but noticeable and appreciated. For one, the new lens’ Nano Crystal Coating really helped reduce ghosting and flare with backlit shots so if you find yourself frequently shooting in variable lighting where the sun might sneak up on you, you’ll like this upgrade. The Silent Wave Motor also helps make this portrait lens even more discreet so you can get the shot without causing a paparazzi-like ruckus. And, most importantly, the maximum f/1.4 aperture produces stellar shallow depth of field with great background blur. We also found the lens to be more consistently sharp in the center than its predecessor when shot wide open. If you don’t already own a Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 lens, go out and get this new classic. However, if you’re on a budget, the cheaper Nikon 85mm f/1.8 or Sigma 85mm f/1.4 might suffice.
Nikon AF-S Nikkkor 85mm f/1.4G
Pros: Nano Crystal Coating cuts down on ghosting and flare for backlit shots; Silent Wave Motor makes lens quieter and more discreet; more consistent sharpness at f/1.4 than previous model; great results in low light with beautiful background blur when shot wide open.
Cons: Previous lens was already quite good so new version isn’t dramatically better; expensive.