Review: Nikon 85mm 1.8G AF-S

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When shopping for a sharp prime, it's hard not to come across the option of an 85mm 1.8. Canon's 85mm 1.8 offering has been biblically spectacular in optical and mechanical performance. While Nikon shooters enjoyed similar optical quality since 1987 with the 85mm 1.8D, the screw-drive autofocus isn't quite the modern marvel it used to be, and by today's standards, a focusing ring that rotates on AF is a sign of antiquity. To keep up the pace of successful, affordable primes, Nikon's new 1.8G offering needs to knock the socks off of the connoisseurs of 85mm. Upon first glance of specs, the only noticeable update is the inclusion of a silent wave motor, and the omission of the aperture ring, as is within spec of G lenses.

Inside the Box
No surprises.
  • Bigger than necessary box
  • Plastic casing suspensing the lens from knocks
  • Hood (HB-62)
  • Front+rear caps (the modern kind that fit better)
  • Pouch (who uses these?)
  • Manual (8 out of 174 pages are in English) + Warranty card

Lens handling
Precisely satisfactory

A bit on the light side due to the plastics used compared to the metal construction of the older 1.8D. The plastics aren't too bad actually; it's the robust sort that would bounce if you drop as opposed to cracking or shattering. I do with the filter thread and hood bayonet were made of metal though, it's not too reassuring, but follows the trend of build quality being just enough.

It balances really well on smaller bodies (e.g. D5000, D7000, D90; anything D800 and smaller), but not so much on the bulkier pro bodies (D3-size). Dimensionally, it's thick enough to have presence, but won't ruin any wrists like the 85mm 1.4G, or even worse, the Canon 85mm 1.2L. The hood is appropriately sized; not as bulky as a 24-70 2.8 or 70-200 2.8 hood, but not insignificant like the petal hoods found on ultra-wide zooms. I personally always leave the hood attached unless I absolutely need to play packing tetris while traveling. Indeed a lens you will never feel the strain of gravity over 12-hours of shooting.

The death of the aperture ring as a lens component among modern Nikon lenses is something that has been lamented by photographers who have been around long enough to know what one is. It is indeed nice to be able to have full, analog aperture control for special-case uses, such as when adapting lenses or using non-chipped extension tubes, but I can't foresee myself shedding tears of fury for the lens design decision. On the plus side, there's less moving parts on the lens, so there's less things for you to mess up externally, and less spaces for moisture and dust to sneak in. Weather sealing is always an appreciated feature, and this lens has got a rubber gasket to keep nature away from your camera internals.

Focus speed
Smooth, but not rapid

It doesn't try to set world record speeds in AF like a 70-200 2.8, but this isn't the sort of lens one uses to challenge the most rigorous focusing situations. Sort of like a good butler- "Certainly sir, here we are." It loses to the 1.8D in absolute focusing speed, but the butler's consistent accuracy and unwavering performance throughout bright and dark earns it my preference over the predecessor. Trustworthy and reliability this lens has in aces.

Image Quality
Yes yes yes

There's a bunch of comparisons to make against other 85mm lenses, but on its own, the 1.8G is a paragon example of a sharp lens. Here's a comparison of the 1.8G against the 1.4G and Sigma 1.4.

Lighting set up by yours truly, shot taken by Heidi

Anoraks of lens sharpness swear by stopping down one to two stops with no faith in wide-open performance. With this lens, the optical pedants can pull back their veils of doubt and bathe in the sunbeams of wide open pleasure.

Nikon must be hiding some super magical elements. The 1.8G performs at a level expected of their lenses featuring the equally magical nano crystal coating, without featuring the coating at all. The simple optical design must have a significant role, but I can't think of many other lenses that are as optically superb as this.

Without any particular weak distance or aperture, this lens is one of the few that I can rely on in any situation to produce the goods without a hint of wavering. Quelled and quashed is the devious denizen in my ventromedial prefrontal cortex that makes me doubt a lens in a particular situation. Without heavy consumption of sleep aids and alcohol can I rest easy at night knowing this 85 won't ever falter; that's a sort of predictable steadfastness that's rare even in the most expensive lenses.

Distortion: forget about it. The smallest hint of negligible barrel distortion. Fix it in Lightroom and move on.
Chromatic aberration: surprisingly well controlled. Longitudinal chromatic aberration isn't invisible, but better than most lenses in this class. Lightroom profiles will also help out here.
Vignetting: worse than the 1.8D, but vignetting is one of the easiest things to correct in post now. Mostly gone by f/2.8.
Flaring: I praise this lens for its performance despite not having nano crystal coating, but this category is where the 1.8G shows inferiority compared to the higher-end lenses blessed with the coated elements. Use the hood.

Compared to:
Nikon 85mm 1.8D: I'd go for the 1.8G every time. I've owned the 1.8D twice, and both times I felt that the wide open sharpness was a bit lacking. The purple fringing was also a lot more noticeable as well. On the other hand, the 1.8D is now a lot easier to acquire for cheaper on the used market, so if the 1.8D offers something the 1.8G doesn't quite satisfy or you simply don't want to spend that much on a 85mm, the older model is still a good choice.

Nikon 85mm 1.4G: The other natural comparison. The high-baller version of the 1.8G is a thing of envy, but if in the unlikely scenario that you are the only 1.8G owner in a room of 1.4G owners, you aren't entirely ridiculed. Sharpness compared, the 1.8G is uncomfortably close to the 1.4G. The 1.8G is becoming an increasingly popular choice on the D800, largely due to displaying less chromatic aberration, which becomes quite noticeable wide open with the 1.4G at such high resolution. Strictly for thin DoF freaks and those who shoot frequently in f/1.4 territory.

Nikon 85mm 1.4D: I haven't had a great experience with this lens. If someone offered me a straight trade between my 1.8G and a 1.4D, I'd take the trade just so I could sell the 1.4D and pick up two 1.8Gs. AF of the D lenses are swifter, but not quite as accurate as the Gs, so I'd only buy the 1.4D if I needed f/1.4 and couldn't spend the extra for the 1.4G. But then, I wouldn't, because the following lens exists.

Sigma 85mm 1.4 HSM: I like this lens a lot, and is undoubtedly my favorite lens made by Sigma. To me, the most difficult comparison to make when shopping for an 85mm would be between the 1.8G and the Sigma 85. For about $300 more than the 1.8G, you get f/1.4 and the fastest silent motor among 85mm lenses. I adore how this lens handles as well- the weight is just right, and the barrel fits very nicely in the hand. Image quality is superb in the center, but on full-frame, it's lackluster in the corners, and corner-to-corner sharpness and chromatic aberration control is where the 1.8G outpaces the Sigma. I would imagine that on high-resolution sensors such as the D800 that the 1.8G is the safer choice, and the Sigma falls short similar to the 1.4G.


[++]: [+]: [-]: [--]:

[++]First class sharpness
[++]Overall value
[+]Precise, confident autofocus
[+]Low distortion
[+]Minimal chromatic aberration
[-]Plastic filter thread not good for longevity
[-]Susceptible to flare

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Updated 06-02-2013 at 12:33 AM by asamimasa

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