The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 lens has added Nano Crystal Coating.
The AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G, the latest in a series of new pro-spec prime lenses, does not actually focus at lightning speed. The first thing I noticed on the Nikon D3x was that, regardless of focus mode, it has a similar speed to the original Canon 85mm f/1.2 USM. It reacts in leisurely time to detected changes of focus and gently homes in. The focus action is never sudden, and it is neither a fast-reaction lens nor one for tracking action.
This is not surprising, but the old AF-D could prove better in many circumstances. What the AF-S model confers is almost perfect compatibility with video functions. (Unfortunately, the D3x on loan from Nikon does not offer video, so I was unable to check out this aspect.) With future Nikon bodies, I would expect the focusing to handle live video focus tracking for everyday subjects, including spot focus changes of distance.
A large, smoothly operating, manual override controls the focus from 85cm to infinity, but you will not be able to cover that distance without changing handgrip. It’s ideal for manual shifts over a smaller range.
This is a full-time manual override, confirmed by the switch on the lens, which goes between M/A and M. The M/A position is autofocus, which can be changed at any time by turning the manual ring.
The silent ultrasonic motor is, of course, a pleasure to use, and compatible in this G lens with many modern bodies that do not have full operation for older AF-D glass. The lens costs twice as much as any of those bodies, and all the professional cameras are backward compatible. The downside of the new AF-S G design is that many older film bodies cannot use it.
No 85mm f/1.4 lens needs to be this large; for many years, 72mm filter threads have been standard at this specification. The Nikkor takes 77mm filters and feels light at 595g because the lens barrel is not packed with glass.
This filter thread matches the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and other professional outfit essentials. The lens is provided with a soft drawstring pouch and a fairly deep, parallel-sided reversible bayonet lens hood. It has Nano Crystal Coating, which means it starts off higher in contrast than any similar lens I have used before.
The lens hood is hardly needed, but provides extra protection from glancing direct sunlight while safeguarding the deeply curved, 65mm diameter front element.
Pros and cons
The internal focusing is unusual, and maintains a constant angle of view, like the 70-200mm, to avoid odd scale-change effects if pulling focus during video shooting. The nine-blade circular aperture actually moves slightly, as it’s part of the group that does the internal focusing.
Unlike a conventionally focused lens, this lens has a true f/1.4 at 85cm instead of the expected loss of about 1/6th of a stop.
The minimum aperture of f/16 is a little restricting and it would have been good to have had f/22 available, despite the likely loss of sharpness, to get extra depth of field with today’s high-resolution digital bodies.
Like most new lenses, the 85mm has a high price at almost £1500. You only gain two-thirds of a stop in light-gathering power compared to the 85mm f/1.8 AF-D, which sells for less than £350. But this is an old design, with aperture ring and body-driven autofocus.
Canon has a light, still acceptably fast f/1.8 USM model for a similar price, while its £1500 choice is a very wide f/1.2. Only Sony has attempted to make an entry-level portrait lens, a plastic‑bodied 85mm f/2.8 selling for less than £200.
The justification for spending £1500 on a fixed-focal-length lens that you will only use at f/1.4 for special effects or low light has to be the exquisite image quality achieved at optimum apertures.
This lens performs best between f/2 and f/8, peaking around f/4 with a balance of clean resolution, contrast and just enough depth-of-field for portraiture. Any tiny losses from diffraction as you close down towards f/11 can only be detected on higher resolution sensors (such as the D3100 just announced). On full-frame DSLRs, even the D3x, every stop including f/16 is going to deliver.
Focus accuracy is the real problem. Micro AF calibration can help, but even the slightest body movement at portrait distances wide open will be enough to lose perfect sharpness on your chosen few millimetres. Shooting a subject that included plenty of detail over a depth of a few centimetres, it was obvious that even at f/1.4, the resolution of this lens is effectively perfect. No matter whether a sharp area appeared centrally or near a corner, the rendering of fine fabric texture was crisp.
The only problems arose with flat subjects – one of my first tasks was to create an Adobe Lens Profile for the 85mm using f/1.4, f/2.8, f/5.6 and f/11. The chequered test target looked far less sharp than most solid objects, and just moving the camera angle on the tripod head, at f/1.4, was enough to change the distribution of focus.
The profile, once created, eliminated a trace of chromatic fringing, which the lens displays at f/1.4 to f/2, and made an almost undetectable improvement to geometry and illumination.
Unlike some fast 85mm designs, this lens can be used for architectural or copy work. It has a surprisingly flat field, and is going to be exceptional for food, fashion and faces. The micro-contrast of texture and detail is only exceeded by the best macro lenses.
Although I could not detect any obvious aperture-related focus shift, not many shots were focused exactly as I would have wanted. Magnified live view focusing tackles this perfectly in the studio, but there is an alternative Nikon lens that is far better for food or product work – the 85mm f/2.8 Macro tilt-shift with its closer focusing and control of the focus plane.
I was viewing 24-megapixel images at 100 percent. Even at f/8 you can see the difference between the exact point of focus, and anything else. In practice, I made an A4 print from an f/1.4 shot and a similar f/8 shot, and both looked perfectly sharp where they needed to be.
With the D3x’s 1/8,000s top shutter speed, I was just able to use f/1.4 in full sunshine with bright subjects at ISO 100. The arrival of the Ripon City Morris Men in town provided some colourful portrait subjects, a bit of action, some very challenging contrast, and complex focus target movements.
Working with 85mm as my only lens on the D3x for a few days, I found that even on full frame the 28° view angle is tight on most subjects. And those planned by builders, architects or designers to be a ‘view’ – a church from its gate, a house from across the road – will be a tight fit. The same goes for normal social distances when meeting people, you have to step away and find a space to take a portrait shot, unless you want a frame-filling space. There’s a good reason the 50mm lens survived as a standard and 35‑70mm is a classic zoom range.
This brings me to the conclusion of my review, which must pose one question. The AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 G has all the operating qualities of the 85mm, focuses significantly faster, and offers sharpness that is just a hint less perfect. It’s tiny by comparison, and can be bought for around £300.
On APS-C models, its 75mm focal length equivalent works well; on the D3x, 24 megapixels offers plenty of scope for cropping. Even in the studio it’s more versatile – you need less space. So do you really need the £1500 85mm if a £300 50mm may prove better for many purposes?
Fortunately for Nikon, plenty of photographers will want both. And if Nikon decides to make a Nano Crystal Coated, AF-S, G-series version of the classic 105mm f/1.8, or even the earlier 135mm f/2, they will want those as well.
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