Allow me to get some formalities out of the way before anything else. It’s been about three weeks since my last post. Thanks not only to student teaching, but also a commitment to a multi-night pit orchestra production, I haven’t had any time to write new posts, let alone make more photographs outside of my formal photographic assignments.
That’s the bad news.
The GOOD news, it’s officially summer on my end! This means an abundance of free time, or at least, more time I can set aside for photography, lens reviews, and other ramblings I may deem fit for the website. 😉 I’ve got lots of things in store for the next few months, so lets get right to it!
The “fast 85”. About every single lens manufacturer has a lens with a large aperture that covers the wide end of the typical portrait focal length. Canon has an 85mm f/1.2, Zeiss currently makes their own 85mm f/1.4, the m4/3 crowd will soon have a Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.2, and even the lowly Nikon 1 system has a 32mm f/1.2 on the way. All of these lenses, when used on their respective camera formats, give a semi-wide portrait field of view that begins to give telephoto compression to images—essential to maintaining natural perspectives on subjects. Combined with their fast f/1.2-f/1.4 apertures, extremely shallow depth-of-field control is possible for marked subject separation from any background.
So then, we have the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AI-s, yet another hunk of metal and glass from Nikon’s film days. This lens has been superseded many times by AF-D and AF-S versions, both sporting fast f/1.4 and f/1.8 apertures. But there has to be an optical reason this lens still fetches a pretty penny online, besides for the allure of collectors, right? Let’s take a look!
Full Name: Nikon NIKKOR 85mm 1:1.4 AI-s
Dimensions: 2.85 inches/72.5mm in length, 3.17 inches/80.5mm in diameter, with a heavy weight of 21.9 ounces/620 grams (hood weighs an additional ounce/30 grams). This is almost 12 ounces/340 grams heavier than the NEX-7 itself, so it balances noticeably forward in the left hand.
Close-Focus: Marked at 3 feet/.85 meters. As far as the feet markings are concerned, you can get a little closer.
Average Online Price: $700 for mint, $450 for “beater”
Miscellaneous: 9 straight-bladed aperture stopping down to f/16, Nikon’s Close-Range Correction (CRC, or floating elements), depth-of-field markings for f/5.6 and f/11-16, infrared focusing dot, large 72mm metal filter thread, HS-20 metal screw-in hood, metal mount.
All metal, all glass, all AI-s. Aside from Zeiss’ new Z lenses (ZF, ZE, etc.), they just don’t make them like this anymore. I’ve never held an AI-s lens that didn’t scream out “QUALITY!” every time. When looking for a copy of the 85mm f/1.4, just make sure the glass is in good shape. That’s about the only “vulnerable” part of this hefty optic, if there ever was one.
But as always, how does the 85mm f/1.4 stack up to my four pillars of shootability?
- Small size? Definitely not. Though it comes with the specs of the lens, an f/1.4 lens of this focal length can’t cheat physics.
- Light weight? Another NO. Though one-handed shooting is possible with this lens on a NEX-7, it is by no means comfortable. On an SLR with a little more heft, like a d300, the kit balances much better all-around.
- Smooth operation? Of course! Like nearly every other AI-s lens I have tested, the mechanical precision Nikon builds into these old lenses stands the test of time to make photography a joy. Smooth focus, positively clicking aperture stops, and solid mounting all put modern AF lenses to shame.
- Generally favorable optical performance? There’s a reason this lens still sells for so much. The 85mm f/1.4 is optically fantastic, even on the resolution-monster NEX-7.
Common readers on this site know that I can’t get enough of the 105mm focal length on APS-C. However, what many don’t know is how I wish I could go just a bit wider without compromising performance. The 85mm f/1.4 does just that, providing both a wider field-of-view (still with telephoto compression) and essentially equal performance compared to my beloved 105mm f/1.8. This short telephoto isn’t without its faults, but the few shortcomings present are minor with regards to portraiture.
Starting with 100% center crops (meaning clicking on them won’t make them bigger), we see that detail is pretty soft at f/1.4. Veiling haze from spherical aberration doesn’t help matters, keeping contrast low. Unfortunately, even at f/2, spherical aberration is still hiding much of the increase in sharpness. Finally at f/2.8, detail is very sharp and contrast noticeably increases with the absence of veiling haze. Performance continues to improve at f/4, with high contrast and sharpness at the pixel level. Interestingly, and unlike other reviews of this lens, detail and contrast continue to get better at f/5.6, where it peaks. Diffraction doesn’t noticeably set in until f/16, where detail/contrast is about the same as f/2. This is fantastic for landscape shooters; if you need sharpness and large depth-of-field, feel free to stop all the way down if need be! At the opposite end of the spectrum (wide-open and f/2), the relatively low detail can be helpful for portraits. What you want sharp (such as eyes/eyelashes) can be easily brought out via post-processing, and what you want left soft (such as skin) can be untouched.
Moving on to corner crops, we see where the 85mm f/1.4 struggles from a technical point of view. Wide open, detail and contrast is even lower, though there is no noticeable “smearing”. Even at f/2, there just isn’t any real sharpness to talk about. As the lens is stopped down further, detail and contrast continue to improve, but it doesn’t peak until f/8. Diffraction can be seen at f/16, but it’s nothing to worry about. It’s a shame to see that cross-frame sharpness isn’t possible with this lens, but given that the center is still incredibly sharp at f/8, consider this the go-to aperture for optimum sharpness. Also, when used from f/1.4-2.8, the corners are likely to never be in focus, so the lack of sharpness at these wide apertures is a non-issue in the field.
Other items of note, the 85mm f/1.4 exhibits negligible focus shift, and there is absolutely zero field curvature. That’s right, despite the extremely large aperture, I could have easily used crops from the corner for the center, and vice versa, while replicating the above results.
Sharpness at Infinity
Important to landscape shooters, the 85mm f/1.4 doesn’t technically achieve cross-frame sharpness. To test this, I shot the now commonplace infinity test of the local clocktower that, after all this time, is still missing the “I”.
However, this isn’t to say the 85mm f/1.4 isn’t a sharp lens at infinity. Quite the opposite, you can see moiré (or, false color) in the railing on top of the tower in both shots. Seeing these artifacts is indicative that a lens is outresolving a sensor. Also, for all real-world shooting, shooting at f/8 will yield essentially cross-frame sharpness like the normal distance tests earlier suggest.
Sharpness at Macro
With its close-focus distance of only 3 feet/.85 meters, the 85mm f/1.4 shouldn’t be your go-to lens of choice for close-up work. However, with Nikon’s CRC, sharp performance is still consistent all the way up to close-focus.
For “everyday” macro shots, however, the close-focus distance isn’t all that limiting. Just don’t go for bugs or tiny garden flowers.
The 85mm f/1.4 has renowned, smooth, buttery bokeh known across the photographic community. This is another reason why the lens still sells for a pretty penny to this day. Let’s see just how good this lens handles what’s NOT in focus. Click below for a larger image:
Wow, what can I say? THAT’S SMOOTH! From f/1.4-2, everything, from far backgrounds (far left) to close foregrounds (far right), is a smooth and non-distracting blur. From f/2.8-5.6, near-foreground bokeh (center-right) gets a little distracting from doubling artifacts, but everything else remains very smooth. At f/8 and f/11, close foregrounds (far right) begin to show doubling artifacts, but backgrounds are always smooth. Fully stopped down to f/16, everything is essentially in focus.
Now, onto the lens’ handling of out-of-focus highlights.
Wide-open at f/1.4, otherwise neutral highlights are rendered with a hard edge that keeps the 85mm f/1.4 from producing a perfect circle of confusion. At f/2, highlights remain solid, and the edges soften out with a discernable nonagonal shape. This shape becomes more noticeable as the lens is stopped down further, and artifacts within highlights begin to show from f/5.6 and up.
With its ultra-fast aperture and lack of ED glass, there’s bound to be plenty of chromatic aberrations in the 85mm f/1.4 at its larger apertures. To assess chromatic aberration, I shot this worst-case scene of high contrast, overexposing the sky by 2 stops:
Actually, wait…it’s not as bad as I thought it would be! At f/1.4, the lens does exhibit noticeably bad purple fringing (about 20 pixels wide at its worst) but is mostly correctable. However, already at f/2, it’s almost completely gone, at only a few pixels wide. By f/2.8, there’s nothing to worry about in post-production.
As you can see in the original shot of the branches (this was at f/5.6), there is some noticeable lateral fringing on the out-of-focus branches as well, typical of fast lenses like the 85mm f/1.4. If high performance in this area is important to you, stop down to at least f/8 to get rid of most of these LoCA’s.
As you know, the 85mm f/1.4 has a massive front element. Even with the hood attached (and multicoating), flare is a serious problem for this lens:
Even more area-specific reflections can be seen in this video, shot in black-and-white to emphasize the reflections:
Avoid strong sources of light as much as possible when photographing with this lens…
Wide-open, the 85mm f/1.4 should exhibit noticeable vignetting, even on an APS-C sensor. That may be true on a full-frame camera, but on the NEX-7, vignetting isn’t that bad even wide-open:
Surprisingly, despite its fast aperture, the 85mm f/1.4 is essentially distortion-free:
Let’s hit the old recap:
Pros and Cons
- Just like every other AI-s, a masterpiece of mechanical construction that will last many years more than any electronic AF lens
- Sharp when it needs to be, soft when it doesn’t; optimum detail is very high at f/5.6-8
- Diffraction never noticeable in real-world images
- Consistent performance at every focus distance thanks to Nikon’s CRC
- Amazingly smooth bokeh and out-of-focus highlights, especially from f/1.4-2.8
- Purple fringing essentially absent at f/2
- Negligible vignetting
- Zero distortion
- Four times as fast as any 70-200mm f/2.8, and a lot less bulky
- Perfect focal length for portraits (APS-C or Full-Frame)
- The “superchunk”, a heavy lens even when mounted to a camera
- Detail at f/1.4 is still a bit disappointing straight out-of-the-camera
- Depending on focus distance and aperture, foreground bokeh can be a bit distracting
- Purple fringing at f/1.4 is a chore to edit out, and out-of-focus LoCA’s don’t start going away until f/8
- Insanely bad flare, but this is to be expected with such a fast lens
- Short focus travel, which can make precise focus a bit more challenging (especially at the larger apertures)
- Manual-focus only, in case you had forgotten
The Bottom Line
If you’re in need of a fast 85mm portrait lens and desire fantastic performance starting around f/1.8 for people, and tack-sharp results for landscapes stopped down, you should give the 85mm f/1.4 AI-s a serious consideration—even more-so if you can score a “beater” for a bargain.
That’s all for this post guys and gals, thanks for dropping by. It’s great to be back. 😀