Reviewing the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D AF

I’m a zoom lens kind of guy — mostly because I like the versatility of zooms. But I’ve been intrigued by prime lenses for the simple reason that a good prime at a big aperture can give you really nice separation of foreground and background elements — almost looks a bit like medium format. And to the layman’s eyes, it’s this quality of an image that seems to say “pro.”

So I went over to Adorama Rentals and picked up the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D AF on a 3-day weekend rental for $26. Can’t beat the price for trying out a lens before you drop a cool $1200.

The lens is quite compact, especially compared to Mike’s Canon 85mm f/1.2 (that lens is understandably a huge hunk of glass, but creates some pretty nice images). The Nikon lens debuted in 1995, so it doesn’t have all the newfangled glass, vibration reduction or Silent Wave motors. Speaking of Silent Wave, this lens doesn’t focus nearly as fast and can be on the loud side, but considering the size of the glass, it’s not so surprising (and Mike thought it was quite good compared to his f/1.2). The 85mm is a bit like a 50mm on steroids in size, but it’s very small and light compared to a fast zoom.

Although my intent isn’t to shoot street photography, it was such a great overcast day in New York City, that I walked down to the street this afternoon to take a few pictures. Everything was shot wide open on a Nikon D3 at ISO 400.

I reduced the size on these images, applied a slight curve, and ran an unsharp mask. Are they sharp out of the camera? Yes. Ultra-sharp? I dunno. Everything looks slightly blurry to me at 1:1, but I’m not a lens reviewer. I’m just a guy who pushes a button like a monkey.




These dogs were really friendly! He licked my face!



My Conclusion:
The images look really good. Creamy. Buttery. O-toro. The kind of stuff that would clog your arteries and make you take an extra Lipitor. The bokeh is nice, particularly in foreground elements. I thought the colors were accurate — not too saturated, not too bland. The focusing was a bit slow for street photography, but let’s be honest, this is a portrait lens, so you can’t really judge it on that criterion.

The thing is that I don’t shoot enough available light portraiture to make it worth purchasing. When I shoot in the studio, I’m locked in around f/8, so my zooms work fine. When I’m shooting events, I like the versatility of the zooms, even if the widest aperture is f/2.8. So the problem isn’t the lens. It’s me. It’s not you. It’s me.

Let’s do the math real quick. A daily rental is about $20 (the 3-day weekend rental is slightly higher). The cost of the lens is about $1200. If we assume a 3-year write-off, I’d have to use the lens 60 times in 3 years, or about twice a month. Yes, resale, blah blah blah. I’m still gonna rent. Don’t worry Nikon, I’m buying that 24-70mm.

There are rumors of an upcoming refresh of this lens. It would be pretty bad-ass with some VR and Silent Wave. And if that happened, I might have to change the stuff I photograph….

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. at 12:43 pm

    An alternative would be the Nikkor AF 85/1.8 D. It is inexpensive and still good in low light situations. I paid € 359,00 for mine and have been using it regularly since then.

  2. Chris Owyoung at 1:23 pm

    Agreed. I would hold off on this lens until they release the AF-S VR version. Did you happen to take any “headshot” type portraits while you had it? This is where the lens really shines. Chris

  3. Daniel at 4:37 pm

    Is it a fact that they are going to release the new one as as a VR lens? I kind of don’t see the sense releasing a f1.4 prime with VR, shooting wide open should take care of the slow shutter spreed in low light…

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