Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G

Nikon's flagship wide aperture portrait lens receives a facelift, gaining a silent-wave focusing motor and Nano Crystal Coatings to reduce ghosting and flare. Here, Gary Wolstenholme takes a look at how it performs.

This new short telephoto optic from Nikon is the latest addition in their revamped professional lens line up. It is the replacement for the revered 85mm f/1.4D, which garnered an enviable reputation for the image quality it can produce and most of all for the smoothness of it's out of focus blur. The new lens adds a silent focusing motor and Nikon's Nano Crystal optical coatings into the mix and can be had for around £1500. The older lens is still available new, from places that still have stock, for the discount price of around £890.

This focal length makes the lens ideal for portraiture, giving a slightly flattened, flattering perspective on a full frame body. The wide aperture also allows for very shallow depth of field, allowing you to isolate subjects from their background superbly, or even to try and soften the odd wrinkle here and there.

If the hefty price tag is beyond your reach, but you still fancy a lens at this focal length, Nikon's 85mm f/1.8D may be worth a look. This optic has a quick rear-focusing system and is lighter and more compact while still offering a respectable maximum aperture. This lens which has remained largely unchanged since the original non-D version can be picked up for around £300 new, but it lacks the silent focusing and nano crystal coat of the lens we will be looking at here.

Those on a budget, but not willing to compromise the maximum aperture may also wish to look at Sigma's 85mm f/1.4 HSM. This lens costs around £690 and has the same bright f/1.4 maximum aperture of the Nikon and a silent focusing motor.

To put the price into perspective, Canon's 85mm f/1.2L II is a half a stop faster with that huge f/1.2 maximum aperture, but costs around £1660, which is £160 more than this Nikon optic.

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G: Handling and features
Weighing 595g, this new optic is around 45g heavier than its predecessor and feels very well put together as a result. It is still not what I would call a heavy lens though and it balances perfectly on my D700, with or without the MB-D10 grip attached. Just like with Nikon's other new professional prime lenses the build quality is superb. It is finished in a matt textured black finish with a gold ring near the filter thread denoting it's place in Nikon's professional line up.

Focusing is performed internally, and is very quick for a lens such as this with a large aperture. Care needs to be taken to ensure focus is accurate though, especially when shooting at maximum aperture, although the lens performs well enough for me, locking on accurately much of the time. Full time manual focus adjustments are possible due to the use of a silent wave focusing motor. The focusing ring gives a positive feel, making fine adjustments possible without too much hassle. A small distance scale window is located on top of the lens barrel and hyperfocal markings are provided for f/16 only. Unfortunately these markings are so close together that they are not easy to use at all.

Overall I really enjoyed using this lens. The difference the f/1.4 aperture makes to the brightness of the viewfinder needs to be seen to be appreciated. The aperture diaphragm is constructed from 9 rounded blades, which help this lens to produce images with very pleasing, soft out of focus blur.

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G: Performance
With this lens' primary purpose being portraiture, I wasn't expecting extreme sharpness at maximum aperture. Despite this it still performs well, producing images with good sharpness in the centre. Stopping the lens down just one stop to f/2 increases the resolution in the centre dramatically, and this pattern continues as the lens is stopped down as far as f/5.6, where the lens performs excellently from edge to edge.

Peak resolution across the frame is achieved at f/8, where the centre sharpness has dropped a little, but the resolution towards the edges exceeds excellent on our scale. Beyond this, at smaller apertures diffraction begins to affect the resolution, but only a little, with images still showing excellent levels of sharpness in the centre at f/16.

Resolution at 85mm How to read our graphs
The blue column represents readings from the centre of the picture frame at the various apertures and the green is from the edges. Averaging them out gives the red weighted column.

The scale on the left side is an indication of actual image resolution. The taller the column, the better the lens performance. Simple.

For this review, the lens was tested on a Nikon D700 using Imatest.

A short telephoto prime such as this doesn't need the exotic low dispersion glass found in zoom lenses and super-telephotos to control chromatic aberrations, as shown in the results for this optic. The levels of colour fringing are so minute that Imatest barely recorded anything. At their worst they cover an area of 0.14 pixel widths at f/1.4, which will be difficult to spot, even with a fine toothed comb.

Chromatic Aberrations at 85mm How to read out charts
Chromatic aberration is the lens' inability to focus on the sensor or film all colours of visible light at the same point. Severe chromatic aberration gives a noticeable fringing or a halo effect around sharp edges within the picture. It can be cured in software.

Apochromatic lenses have special lens elements (aspheric, extra-low dispersion etc) to minimize the problem, hence they usually cost more.

For this review, the lens was tested on a Nikon D700 using Imatest.

As I expected for a lens with a wide aperture like this, falloff of illumination towards the corners is quite pronounced at maximum aperture. At f/1.4 the corners are 2.37stops darker than the image centre, which can be quite noticeable. Although not technically perfect I like the vignetting effect for portraiture, as it can draw attention to the subject of the image. Stopping down to f/2 reduces the amount of falloff visible, but it can still be quite noticeable as the corners are 1.53stops darker than the image centre. Stopping down to f/2.8 results in visibly uniform illumination across the image area.

A little barrel distortion is present as I would expect from a lens with a wide aperture such as this. The level is quite low with Imatest detecting 0.7% barrel distortion. The distortion pattern is a little peculiar, with straight lines near the centre appearing almost straight, but with a visible increase in the amount of curvature towards the corners of the image area. Although this might make it a little more difficult to correct in image editing software afterwards, the level of distortion is so low that it should rarely even be noticeable, never mind cause an issue.

Click on the thumbnails for a high resolution image.
This image taken at f/5.6 shows excellent levels of contrast and detail from edge to edge. Shooting at f/1.4 can be tricky due to the shallow depth of field. The out of focus areas have a wonderful quality to them and the high level of vignetting can be seen clearly against the light background.

Just as with Nikon's other lenses equipped with their Nano Crystal optical coatings, ghosting an flare is kept to a minimum. I noticed a slight loss of contrast when shooting straight into the light, but otherwise the lens rewarded me with sharp, contrasty images under a wide range of lighting conditions. A deep circular plastic hood is supplied with the lens, which does an excellent job of keeping unwanted light off the front element.

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G: Verdict
As is often the case, there is much more to how a lens performs than the resolution alone. In this case, Nikon's new 85mm f/1.4 certainly proved itself capable of producing images of very high resolution when stopped down a little.

Even wide open, the images produced by this optic are more than fit for purpose. In the centre the resolution is still good, and the falloff to out of focus is very smooth and soft, leading to very flattering images. Also, on the plus side, the lens is able to focus accurately enough to make the bright maximum aperture useful, even if a little care has to be taken from time to time.

Although the price tag may seem steep at £1500 for a fixed lens, you get what you pay for in many cases. In this case, if you need the ultimate in Nikon compatible portrait telephoto lenses then it just may well be worth stumping up the extra pennies.

It's a superb lens for portraiture.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G: Pros

Good resolution performance
Beautiful out of focus blur
Excellent build quality
Negligible levels of CA
Good resistance to flare and ghosting

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G: Cons
Maybe a touch pricey, but you get what you pay for


Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G: Lens specification
Price £1,500.00
Filter size 77mm
Format Full-frame
Construction 10 elements in 9 groups
Angle-of-view 28˚30’ (18˚50’ with Nikon DX format)
35mm equivalent focal length (on APS-C body) 127.5m
Internal focusing Yes
Image stabilisation No
Minimum focus 85cm
Maximum aperture f/1.4
Minimum aperture f/16
Weight 595g
Size 86.5 x 84mm
In the box Lens Pouch CL-1118, Lens Hood HB-55

The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G costs around £1500 and is available from Warehouse Express here:

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G

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