COMPARISON: The premium Nikon 85 showdown

Rating: 17 votes, 5.00 average.
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I've done a lot of searching around the internet to figure out which 85 is right for me on the Nikon mount. Specifically, I was looking for one that would work well with a D800, which at 36MP, would demand the highest optical performance available. To neglect optical quality at this pinnacle of 35mm technology would be to slap on CoolGuyEconomy tires onto a new $800,000 sports car; the results would show. I narrowed my options to these three:
  1. Nikon 85mm 1.8G AF-S ($500)

  2. Sigma 85mm 1.4 EX DG HSM ($900)

  3. Nikon 85mm 1.4G AF-S ($1700)

Immediately, a few things are obvious-
  • The price difference between the 1.8 and 1.4 is huge!
  • The Sigma is almost half the price of the 1.4G
  • I've only included AF lenses, silent-wave motor ones at that. Newer glass really is proving itself over the obsoleted predecessors.

There exist other 85mm options, but I've played with most of them and they've all had something lackluster about it that kept it from being my Iloveyouforever 85. They include the following:
  • Nikon 85mm 1.8D: Sorta clunky by today's standards. AF rotation is loud and bothersome. Not good at controlling lateral CA.
  • Nikon 85mm 1.4D: It's an old lens that's okay, but not very contrasty wide open. Very very soft outside of the center. Pretty pricey due to its high reputation (whether its still applicable or not). I ended up getting rid of mine fairly quickly.
  • Any manual-focus Nikon 85: These also have a ridiculous premium for some reason; I've seen them go for more than an AF 1.8D used.
  • Samyang/Rokinon 85 1.4: I had a pretty good experience with this (I had the updated version with integrated chip and UMC; their magical coating), but my dream lens is not going to be manual focus unless it has some kick or pop in rendition I absolutely must have. That's Zeiss territory.

In the hands, the 1.8G is a typical prime lens. Most anyone can carry it around all day without fatigue. The 1.4's aren't unbearable, but noticeably and expectedly heavier. Sigma's offering is a rock and a half heavier than the Nikon 1.4G, which is surprisingly light for a lens of this class, especially compared to the 24 and 35 1.4. However, those coming from the Canon 85 1.2L would rejoice and make spring sonnets of how light the 1.4's are compared to their old beasts of burden.

It's easy to see how closely related the 1.8G and 1.4G are. Both use plastics which came as a shock to everyone when Nikon first started rolling out primes without metal barrels, but most people have warmed up to it by now after realizing that there have been little to no documented cases of the plastic shattering or breaking. It's the proposed way forward.

The Sigma takes a different approach for the lens barrel with the new rubberized coating. I'm not too picky about my lens surfaces, but many out there are very vocal about how much they love/hate it compared to the old finish.

In terms of autofocus speed, I'd have to say that the Sigma takes first place, probably due to the short focus throw. I can't guarantee that it's the most accurate, but it being the one I've shot the most with, I'd say is more than enough in most circumstances. The 1.4G and 1.8G aren't slouches, but won't win any races; typical Nikon G prime focusing. The Sigma focus ring feels a bit stiff in comparison though, as if it's putting up a fight whenever I initiate turning.

As far as hardware goes, the Nikons come with circular hoods, while the Sigma comes with a much more daunting petal hood, as well as an extended hood for crop sensors. None of the lenses have metal filter threads, so mind your potential cross-threading.

Okay, so here's a quick comparison of each lens at various apertures-

To prevent your browser from crashing, a larger sized version can be found here.

Surprise! This suddenly turned into a chromatic aberration test. So let's check out the 100% crops here-

You'll probably wanna peep at this larger version. It also serves as a 100% sharpness comparison sample.

They all seem about even at controlling longitudinal chromatic aberrations, the purples in front of the focus plane and green behind. Good news for the 1.8G, since it lacks the ultra-magical Nano-crystal coating that the 1.4G is blessed with. In fact, if I were to nitpick super hard, I'd say the 1.8G is slightly better. The Sigma holds up surprisingly well here too.

Next up is a flare test. In theory, one would expect the 1.4G to be the best thanks to its Nano-crystal coating, and Sigma to fall a bit behind. I'm looking for two things here- flare artifacts and loss of contrast. The lenses were set up at the angle which looked to me to produce the most flare in the viewfinder. Check out the these results

And the bigger one here

Results here are as expected. The 1.8G is pretty good, but it certainly outpaced in terms of contrast retention by both 1.4 variants. It also develops a relatively pronounced flare artifact. The 1.4G wins in terms of contrast, and you'll also see that the flare artifact at the bottom left is least pronounced with this lens. The Sigma priced in the middle came in the middle, how about that? One more thing to point out is that both Nikons developed a bit of purple haze on the wall of the building. This is also ever so slightly present on the Sigma samples as well, but nowhere near as much; perhaps it's a Nikon coating thing. I'd certainly be getting purple craziness if I had shot on an iPhone5.

Now here's what you really wanna see from a fast 85mm lens- the bokehbluroutoffocuselements.

Bigger one here

Naturally, the 1.8G won't be quite as good as the others, but I still think it puts up a really good fight. This is a case where ignorance is bliss; if you never play with any of the faster versions, you'll think the results from the 1.8G are splendid and you'll never have to upgrade.

The Sigma's rendering is superbly close to the that of the 1.4G. It would take a lot of looking back and forth to notice that the largest difference is in that the 1.4G has a much more pronounced cat's eye effect in the corners; whether or not this is a good thing is subjective.

At equal apertures, the lenses are mostly the same in blurring, making it difficult to name a clear victor in this test.

One more close-up sample (as close as 85mm lenses get)-

Bigger here

So in the end, which one to get?

I'll put down the relative positives and negatives for each, but at this point, I'd either have the 1.8G or Sigma. The 1.4G is superb, but the second best is good enough that I can live with the $800 savings.

Nikon 85mm 1.8G AF-S
[++]Cheapest by a large margin
[+]As sharp as the 1.4's
[+]Does surprisingly well at controlling CA despite lacking Nano-crystal coatings
[-]Okay, but not that great against flare.

Sigma 85mm EX DG HSM
[++]Great job by a 3rd party manufacturer of providing nearly identical results as the 1.4G at almost half the price
[+]Good blur rendering
[+]Fastest in group at focusing
[+]Sizeable hood
[-]Slightly weak against sun
[-]Bit more susceptible to CA than Nikon offerings

Nikon 85 1.4G AF-S
[++]Overall the best
[+]Fantastic sharpness
[+]Majestic control of flare
[-]Average bang for buck (with all of the other options available)

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Updated 06-02-2013 at 12:28 AM by asamimasa

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