Lens review: The Nikon AF-S 85/1.4 G

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Untitled still life. Nikon D700, AF 85/1.4 D with extension tubes.

Let me start by giving you a bit of my fast 85mm history. I never saw the big deal about this focal length until I went full frame; and even then, not til I got a D700 and the f1.4 D version in late 2009. Up til that point, it was just another forlorn intermediate marking on the barrel of my 70-200 or 70-300mm lenses.

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Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands. Nikon D700, AF 85/1.4 D

After The First Leica Period, I had to find a lens to satisfy my bokeh addiction – it would spiritually replace the Leica 50/1.4 ASPH and Voigtlander 50/1.1; since all of the Nikon mount fast 50s were frankly pretty weak, and after the M8’s 1.3x crop factor, 50mm becomes 75mm, 85mm was the natural choice. I went for the Nikon AF-D 85/1.4 – the screwdriver focus version – and had a love/ hate relationship with it. On one hand, it delivered amazing bokeh, and great sharpness and separation of planes; use it at f2 and smaller apertures for optimal performance.

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Ticketed. Nikon D90, AF 85/1.4 D

But what I didn’t like was that it missed focus frequently owing to the backlash in the focusing system, and often wouldn’t be able to move the elements enough to take care of small changes in distance. And then there was the edge softness, and CA…which was perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen in a modern lens design. Wide open, on a high contrast edge, you’d get a good 2-3 pixels PLUS some sort of interesting ‘bloom’ that would span anywhere up to a further 5 pixels – on a 12MP FX body, which is already fairly forgiving of lenses.

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On set. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar

Enter the Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar. Not only did it have minimal CA, and somehow deliver 2/3rds of a stop more shutter speed for a given aperture setting (no doubt the T* coating had something to do with the hugely increased T stop) – it also delivered micro contrast and color transmission that was absolutely out of this world. In fact, the ability to reproduce fine structures went far beyond anything that I’d seen from Nikon glass – and I was pleasingly reminded of the 2/28 Distagon I also owned.

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Construction, Putrajaya. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar

There is, of course, one catch: it wasn’t easy to focus. There was definitely some focus shift on stopping down; I solved that problem by shooting it wide open all the time – and with bokeh like that, I can’t think why anybody would want to stop it down in the first place. But more than that, depth of field – as expected – was about the thickness of two sheets of paper. Maybe two and a half, if you had a more distant subject.

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Arches. Perbadanan Putrajaya. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar

The Nikon AF-S 85mm f1.4 G ED IF N SWM (full name). Image from Nikon USA.

When Nikon released the updated AF-S 85/1.4 G in late 2010, I jumped. I didn’t intend to, but a brief test drive at my dealer purveyor of addictive substances confirmed my worst fears: it was not only on par optically with the Zeiss (at least on the D700), it also focused by itself, and was able to do so with precision, thanks to the AFS motor.

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Left out. Nikon D5100, AFS 85/1.4 G

On the D700, 12MP and 16MP FX bodies, I still think it’s an amazing piece of glass. You get all of the good properties of the Zeiss – high transmission, smooth bokeh, great micro contrast, broad spectral transmission, that 3D look, almost no CA – lateral or longitudinal – but with precise, fast autofocus. It’s also slightly sharper in the edges and corners than the Zeiss was.

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Pipe man, Nikon D5100, AFS 85/1.4 G

There really isn’t a lot to say beyond that it’s a) almost perfect on these bodies and b) eye-wateringly expensive. It was, and still is, my favorite lens for the D700 – fully 7% of all the images on my flickr stream were shot with it (which is amazing when you consider the number of cameras I use, and the number of lenses I’ve got.)

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Rickshaw man, Kathmandu. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

Which is why my subsequent experience with it on the D800 is very, very confusing indeed. It doesn’t focus accurately or quickly; in fact, it tends to hunt more than a little, and doesn’t snap to focus with the certainty of the D700. (Although this could be my body, with it’s AF sensor misalignment and other peculiarities – I’ll report back again once I’ve had a chance to do extensive testing with the replacement D800E). It also isn’t that sharp, even on center. Before you ask, it isn’t an AF fine tune issue – even focusing in live view yields similar ‘best case’ optical results. It gets better – or perhaps worse – there’s also now very visible longitudinal chromatic aberration, something I’ve never seen with this lens on the D700; this color shifting also causes reduction in contrast and visible degradation of sharpness.

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Failure to launch. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

To top everything off, I find that if I calibrate the lens for close distances, then it’s off at infinity. And vice versa. Again – not behavior I’ve ever seen with any other body I’ve used this lens on. To be sure, I tested three samples, and several D800 bodies – they were all the same. I think it’s one of those unfortunate cases where the optical design doesn’t play nice with the new low pass filter or whatever other optical elements happen to be sitting in front of the new sensor.

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No trekking today. Kathmandu. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

If you stop down to f2, most of the oddness goes away. By f2.8, the lens becomes its perfect self again – but we didn’t pay for the extra stop to use it at f2.8; perplexingly, the (optically) much simpler AF-S 85/1.8G (no nano coating, no aspherical elements, no ED glass, no RF or IF even) is perfect at f1.8, and stays that way – the f1.4G needs to stop down to f2.8 to match it. Of course, you do loose about 2/3 stop of transmission between the two lenses, so something has to be said for the value of the fancy coatings and optics in the f1.4G.

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A great lens for ‘sniping cinematic moments’. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

Still. Surprising, no?

It’s a pity, because I really, really wanted to use this lens on the D800 – the sensor’s ability to reproduce very fine tonal gradations and subtle color nuances goes beyond anything else I’ve used; that combined with the 85/1.4 G’s resolving power and optical qualities (seen on the D700 at any rate) would have made a formidable combination for cinematic photography. Alas, it looks like I’m going to either have to buy the 85/1.8G to use on the D800, or stick with the D700/85/1.4G combo for now.

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Stall chefs. Nikon D800, AFS 85/1.4 G

Can I recommend the lens? For D800 users, honestly, no. You’re better served by the 85/1.8G; use the balance of funds for other glass, or buy one of my prints with some of the money you’ve saved (shameless plug). It simply lacks the crispness I’ve seen with other bodies. For D700, D3, D3s and DX users: absolutely yes, it’s a stunning piece of glass, and has become my go-to lens together with the 24/1.4. I don’t know why it isn’t the case on the D800 since it has similar pixel density to the D7000, with which the lens does an excellent job – but it just isn’t. Now, what might be an interesting combination is D800 + Zeiss 1.4/85 Planar; I’d rather not find out in case I have to buy something. Having three 85mm lenses would be utterly ridiculous, wouldn’t it? 🙂 MT

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Kathmandu. Not just a portrait lens; it’s great for reproducing the fine detail in landscapes, too. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

The Nikon AFS 85/1.4 G is available here from B&H and Amazon.


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