Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4 lens has long had a great reputation as a classic lens. With its wide open aperture at f/1.4, you can achieve razor thin depth of field and render backgrounds as a smooth creamy blur. I was very excited to get my hands on this lens and I was especially curious to see how it would perform on a full frame camera such as the D700 given that it was first released in 1995.
Physically, the lens is not very large and is about 3 inches in both diameter and length. However, because of the large exposed front element, I would recommend always using the lens hood which increases the size significantly. The lens weighs 1.2 lbs and has an extremely solid and satisfying feel in the hand.
Unfortunately, this lens is expensive with a street price of about $1250. Compared to its slower sibling, the 85mm f/1.8 lens, it is nearly triple the cost.
Note that the tests in this review are generally conducted with static subjects and are probably not indicative of how the lens would be used in practice since it was primarily designed for portraiture and low light handheld photography. However, I have chosen the tests I did as they are very good at isolating a particular characteristic of the lens for evaluation and are easily reproducible by anyone. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to generalize how, for example, sharpness under ideal shooting conditions may apply in their individual circumstances.
For the sharpness test, I selected the north entrance of Stanford University’s Quad (Figure 1) as a test subject and took photos at varying aperture. I used a Nikon D700 camera, tripod, and remote release. The camera was leveled with a hotshoe bubble.
Figure 2 shows pixel level detail for a crop near the center of the image. Examining these crops, we can see that the image is somewhat soft wide open but becomes much sharper by f/2.8 and reaches peak sharpness at f/4.
Figure 3 shows the detail for a crop on the edge of the image. Again, the crop is fairly soft but steadily sharpens as we increase the aperture to f/8.
Note that even though both the center and edges are somewhat soft at f/1.4 compared to smaller apertures, the entire image responds very nicely to sharpening. I would not hesitate to use this lens wide open for an appropriate subject.
|Figure 2. Pixel level detail from center crops shown at 100% magnification.|
|Figure 3. Pixel level detail from edge crop shown at 100% magnification.|
Vignetting is easily dealt with in software and generally I feel that unless extreme, it should only be a minor criteria when evaluating lenses (especial for a portraiture lens). In fact, for many applications of this lens, vignetting may actually be desireable. Figure 4a, shows the image take at f/1.4 when vignetting correction is turned off in Nikon Capture NX2. Figure 4b shows the corrected image (vignette correction is set to level 50).
Although distortion can be corrected by programs such as DxO, I was very pleased to find that the 85 f/1.4 lens has almost none, and straight lines in architectural pictures remain straight (Figure 5).
- The lens uses Nikon’s older AF system which is composed of a motor in the camera body driving the lens via a mechanical coupling. While generally considered less desireable than the AF-S system (motor in the lens), autofocus speed is fast and makes little noise.
- The lens uses a screw-in metal hood which is slow to attach and relatively clumsy compared with bayonet style hoods.
- Even with auto white balance the lens gives a very nice warm rendition of the picture.
Even though the lens is an older design it still holds up well and gives excellent full frame performance on Nikon’s digital cameras. The real question that you need to ask yourself is the extra stop of aperture worth nearly triple the cost compared with the 85mm f/1.8 lens.