With Nikon steam rolling through what feels like a complete update of their prime lens arsenal, it was inevitable that the workhorse 85mm f/1.8D would be replaced eventually. Enter the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S, which incorporates a silent wave focusing motor and a completely new optical design.
Weighing in at less than a third the cost of the superlative Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S, how does this new telephoto prime perform? We put this new 85mm to the test.
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What's In The Box
The new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G comes will all the usual goodies you'd expect – a faux suede lens pouch, dedicated lens hood, instruction manual and a 5-year warranty.
The design of this lens is pretty standard and follows the same cues as the recently released Nikon 50mm f/1.4G and Nikon 50mm f/1.8G primes. As a prime, there isn't much to get wrong. One thing to note is that the lens barrel is much bigger than the previous 85mm f/1.8 AF-D, and almost exactly the same size as the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D lens.
Optically, if we look at the MTF charts from Nikon, the f/1.8G actually out-performs the new Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S wide open, with slightly higher contrast and overall sharpness (but just by a hair).
But more on image sharpness in a minute.
The lens hood for the 85mm f/1.8G is Nikon's now-standard friction locking kind for its primes. The hood has a positive lock that makes it seemingly impossible to accidentally disengage. It's also possible to mount the hood in reverse for storage, though the focus and manual/auto focusing switch are unaccessible in this setup.
I generally prefer to just leave the hood on in the shooting position unless it's necessary to pack the lens for travel, since the lens isn't terribly long even with the hood attached.
The build quality of the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G is very similar to the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, just in a bigger form factor. Due to the larger and consequently heavier glass elements, not to mention the overall size, the new 85mm does feel much more substantial than Nikon's f/1.4G and f/1.8G 50mm primes. While it doesn't have the heft or density of many older AF-D lenses, the 85mm f/1.8G is well build and feels solid in the hand. No complaints.
Operation & Handling
Overall AF speed isn't going to win any awards, but what the new 85mm f/1.8G lacks in speed, it does seem to make up for in precision. The new 85mm doesn't focus quite as Nikon's pro f/2.8 zooms, but then again, none of its primes really do. It feels just a slight bit more sluggish than the 70-200mm f/2.8. Portrait and most candid shooting, the speed of the lens is a non-concern, but it's not the first lens I'd reach for for action. That said, I found that the lens did surprisingly well on AF-C mode with my Nikon D700 while shooting skaters in Venice Beach, California during a recent trip.
As a prime lens, the controls on the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G are simple – there's a manual/auto focus selector and then the focus ring itself. Since this is an AF-S lens with full-time manual override of the helicoid, there's almost no reason to switch between M/A and M mode (unless you're not using a dedicated AF button and you have your shutter release and focusing coupled).
The focusing ring isn't strictly geared to the helicoid, so it doesn't move when the camera uses AF. The manual focusing feel of the lens is quite nice for an AF lens, and has a well-dampened feel with only the very slightest feeling of graininess. There's certainly enough draw on the focusing ring for critical manual focusing, which is a nice bonus.
The new 85mm f/1.8 is a sharp, sharp lens. It's nothing short of an excellent performer at nearly every aperture. In terms of pure sharpness, the f/5.6 to f/8 is the sweet spot of this lens, while f/8 and up give very even performance edge-to-edge when that's necessary.
In terms of usable sharpness, the lens performs nicely at basically any given aperture, particularly for any type of portrait work. Here's a composite of the aperture range showing a 100% crop the bottom the frame.
As you can see from this crop, the lens is very good even wide open, but becomes delightfully crispy at f/5.6 and f/8. At f/11 and beyond to f/16, diffraction sets in to compromise fine detail to a small degree.
Overall, the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G is the kind of lens that you could shoot at whatever aperture suits the exposure and depth of field you need, and you know that it'll deliver.
Color & Contrast:
No news here – the 85mm f/1.8G displays the same great color and contrast as all of Nikon's new primes. Next.
This 85mm prime exhibits some vignetting wide open, as is expected, but it clears up remarkably by f/2.8 and almost entirely by f/4. Past f/5.6, the frame is entirely even in terms of corner shading.
Purple Fringing & Chromatic Aberrations:
Color fringing is very well controlled with the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G, just as with the new f/1.4G version. Purple fringing was all but absent except in very extreme cases of specular elements. All but the very worst instances of purple fringing clear up by f/2.8 to f/4.
By virtue of the bright f/1.8 aperture, this new 85mm is capable of some very shallow depth of field. As a portrait lens, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G is more than capable of throwing a beautifully defocused background. For you bokeh nerds who care as much about what's out of focus as what's in focus, the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G displays neutral to slightly hard-edged circles of confusion. Here's a composite of the aperture range, f/1.8 through f/16, focused at 1.2-meters (4-feet).
Thanks to rounded diaphragm blades, the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G produces very circular OOF elements, even when stopped down. No old-school polygons, though past f/2.8 there edges can be discernable.
Overall, the character is less smooth than the new Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, but smoother than the old Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF-D version (which was never particularly smooth, despite the urban legends).
In the above sample, you can see the pretty much worst-case scenario of what the 85mm f/1.8G will render in terms of out-of-focus elements. It's not the gooey, indistinct blur of the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G or Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II, but even at its worst in harsh mid-day, Californian sun, it's not bad.
f/1.8G vs f/1.4G
In terms of performance, the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G offers almost all the excellence of the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G at a fraction of the cost. The big difference for most practical applications is in the maximum aperture of the lens – the 2/3-stop difference between f/1.4 and f/1.8. Which, all things considered, is not mindblowingly huge, but it's still probably the biggest tangible difference for most people.
For people who are interested in micro & macrocontrast, single barrel bourbon and other nerdy things, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G is a better lens (but we all knew that, didn't we?). Aside from the speed difference, there's a much different character between these two lenses. The big take away is that for most people, however, is that the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S is not $1,100 better.
At the end of the day, the f/1.4 might have more style, but the f/1.8 lens gets the job done just as well – as long as you don't need that 2/3-stop advantage.
The new 85mm f/1.8G is an excellent lens. Of course, so was its predecessor, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-D. What Nikon offers in this new short telephoto prime is nothing ground breaking or revolutionary – extremely good image quality and overall performance in a price point that won't break the bank.
For all the snobs, the 85mm f/1.4G is a better lens in most every way. It's faster, smoother in character, and arguably sharper at any aperture that matters. That said, at it's premium price point, it's also a design of diminishing returns. With the extremely high performance of the new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G, it offers nearly all of the performance of it's f/1.4 brother at less than a third the price.
For most people, the extremely high image quality of this new f/1.8G prime makes it worth a serious consideration at any price, but especially given its affordability next to the $1,600 Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S.
Personally, I came away really impressed by this piece of glass. It's fantastically sharp, offers great image quality and it's so reasonably priced that it's impossible not to recommend.
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