Nikon 85mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's absolutely perfect, circa 1990.

The Long Version: The f/1.8 85mm lenses of the world don't seem to get much love. Overshadowed by their faster cousins, both the Canon and Nikon 85mm f/1.8have fantastic optics for a not-unreasonable price. But they aren't glamourous enough to attract the high-budget amateurs, and they don't zoom to attract the every-length-covered crowd. With a focal length that's a narrow-normal on a 135 format, or middle telephoto on a cropped sensor, it's not a remarkable way of seeing the world. It's a lens that will appeal most to practical people who just want to take photos.

So how I ended up with one is a massive mystery.

One of the nicest things about the 85/1.8 Nikkor is going to sound odd: it's a satisfyingly lens-sized lens. It's not a monster like the other 85's: Nikon's 1.4 and 2.8, or Canon's 1.2; it isn't an absurd zoom or super-tele, and it's not even too petite like some of the wide-angle lenses. With its solid metal screw-in hood - included with the lens - it suits a camera from the DXX or DXXX series perfectly. It has some heft to it, but it's not too much to carry around all day. Naturally, size is a personal thing, but from the first time I used the 85/1.8 it has felt like a classic. That's an impression that's let down a bit by the plastic lens barrel; but about the only modern lenses that are still made the old-fashioned way are the Pentax Limiteds. I won't hold that shortcoming against the Nikkors.

Optically, there are no significant compromises with the 85 f/1.8. It's never really soft, and it sharpens up across the entire frame once it's stopped down just a little bit. (In daylight, even the weak mid-winter stuff we get in Toronto, a 1/8000 shutter speed isn't always fast enough to shoot wide open.) The vignetting is essentially gone by f/2.8, and its complete absence of geometric distortion is enough to move me to tears. I feel very strongly about straight lines.

While its big f/1.4 brother is supposed to be the bokeh king of the family, the 1.8's not too shabby. I'm not a huge connoisseur of this aspect of lens design - I hear a lot of people pronounce it bouquet, as if photographer rhymes with sommelier - so it's not my greatest concern or something that I'm gifted at evaluating. It does have a bit of an annulus (donut) shape to its OOF highlights, but take a look at the headlights on the subway train above. Shot at f/5.6, the nine-bladed aperture does a great job of keeping the highlights circular. For what it's worth, the next photo is also shot at f/5.6.

The autofocus is a traditional screw-drive, so its speed will depend on the camera for both the momentum and the math. For example, on a D700 with its fancy MultiCam 3500 system, it focuses quickly enough to track a cyclist who's hopping his way up a flight of stairs. On a DXXXX series camera, the autofocus is going to pretty much suck - but maybe I can't hold that against the lens. It's not the zippiest, but for general use it shouldn't be an issue. If focusing speed is critical, then as always, try it yourself with the camera that you'll use it on. That will answer far more questions than reading any number of reviews will.

This is the first photo that doesn't include the colour red, so it's an apt introduction to my counterpoint: not everything is rosy with the 85/1.8. Photo 13, above, is the full frame at f/2.0. There's moderate falloff, and the image isn't as sharp as it could be. But nitpicking aside, it's a dated design, boasting neither image stabilization nor a speedy Silent Wave focusing motor. Adding those things to an optical formula that's essentially flawless is asking for trouble, can only increase the cost, and will essentially turn the 85/1.8 into a completely new lens. If they're doing all that anyway, I'd also want a minimum focusing distance that's much shorter than the three feet that the AF-D 85/1.8 has. In my usage, that's turned out to be my biggest and most consistent complaint with this short telephoto lens, and it's one that can't be overcome by shooting technique or a better camera body.

So: my ideal short telephoto would be medium-small, and have AF-S, VR, a high reproduction ratio, and a fast aperture. Now that I think about it, that sounds a bit like a lens that Nikon has already made.


  1. A very thoughtful review as always. I enjoy reading your experiential lens reviews much more than trying to interpret MTF charts or what-have-you.

    You wrote:
    My ideal short telephoto would be medium-small, and have AF-S, VR, a high reproduction ratio, and a fast aperture. Now that I think about it, that sounds a bit like a lens that Nikon has already made.

    Or that Olympus has: the 50mm f/2 macro (If you accept in-body stabilization in place of VR). If Olympus added a focus limit switch to the 50mm, it might be the perfect lens.

    But while I'm daydreaming, I'd also request the more advanced SWD motor, and a camera that can autofocus like a D700. :)

  2. I completely agree about the Olympus 50mm - positive and negative. It's a fantastic lens, and if it has a refresh with a focus limiter and SWD, I'd likely buy it all over again. I'm stifling a laugh on this one - but perhaps the 100mm macro will be The One?

  3. "On a DXXXX series camera, the autofocus is going to pretty much suck"

    No wonder, since they (D3000/D5000 and also D40/X/60) don't have an AF motor....

    Not once have you mentioned that the 85mm is a portrait lens - and it does remain one, albeit a little long, in the DX world as well. For that purpose, it's perfect, and to call it poorly conceived suggests, with respect, that you don't know what you're talking about

  4. Hi; thanks for explaining that bit about the AF on a motorless camera body. When I write things like that I worry that people will miss the joke.

    Thanks also for taking the time out of your day to post an anonymous ad hominem attack on the internet. Not enough people bother to do that anymore. I looked for the part that you're quoting, but the only place where the words 'poor' or 'conceived' appear are in your comment, so I genuinely don't know what you're talking about. (Please read the sidebar before you reply, should you be so inclined.)

    But on to your main point - the 85/1.8 is not a portrait lens. It's a short-to-medium telephoto lens. If you want to use it for portraits, that's great. Personally, I'm more likely to use it for landscapes, and it works for that too. Yes, it seems that every single other review of this lens thinks that it's somehow specifically gifted for portraiture, and my failure to repeat the common themes might be a tragic flaw in my thinking. Personally, I try not to define limited tasks for my equipment, just as I don't want my equipment to define my photography.

    If it makes you feel any better, I do address the question of a "Portrait Lens" in my review of Stumpy. In it, I said "[d]epending on the camera body and the working distance, for FX I'd be looking at the 85/1.4, 105/2.0 DC, or 135/2.0 DC as the top pick, with the 85/1.8 trailing behind as the budget choice. For cameras that need motorized lenses to focus, the 50/1.4 AF-S is about the only reasonable choice."

    So there you have it - what you think is the perfect portrait lens is the fourth one that I'd recommend for the purpose, and only if there's no money for the better ones. But for a general-purpose short tele lens, I'd pick the 85/1.8 (or Stumpy) over the others without hesitation.

    I hope you enjoy the rest of `thewsreviews.

  5. I can't believe you just said that 85mm is not closely associated with
    portrait work, hahaha. But it doesn't seem like you shoot much portrait work, so no surprise there ;)

    ps: check out ken rockwell's review for a good explanation of the lens' characteristics.

  6. A good friend, who I trust absolutely, once gave me some very solid advice. "Matthew", he said to me, "never take pictures of people. Or nature." How could I argue? He'd seen my photos.

    I'm really not sure why people are so fascinated with the concept of a "Portrait" lens. It's one of the requests I hear most often at the camera store where I work part-time - although it's less frequent than people wanting "more zoom". But as I said before, the 85/1.8 is not a "portrait" lens. It's a short-to-medium telephoto lens, and a fairly fast one at that. That makes it one of the most useful general-purpose lenses ever made, and thinking about it as only being good for one task is a huge self-imposed limitation. I've seen great portraits taken with a fisheye lens, and I've seen amazing landscapes - they do exist - taken with long telephoto lenses. Any lens can be used for any subject, it just takes knowledge, skill and creativity. Thinking that Wide = Landscape, or 85mm = Portrait is just another way of ensuring that your photos will look like ones that everyone has already seen.

    (And while I'm at it, "telephoto compression" is a myth, too. It's just perspective and relative distance.)

    And I do realize that people use lenses for more than their self-imposed task; there's a reason why the Canon MP-E 65 is outsold by almost every other 'Macro' lens on the market. In fact, a lot of people want macro lenses for portraits. Useful things, those medium telephoto lenses.

    I checked out K-Rock's page on the 85/1.8, and his three comparisons pages as well. Never ever does he use the word "portrait", and his test subject is a landscape. What's up with that?

  7. I find the 85/1.8's smallish size and fast autofocus performance (D700) ideal for street photography. Throw a 24/2.8 in the bag and you're golden.

    If or when Nikon updates its 85/1.4 lens with a quieter AF-S motor, I might be tempted to upgrade.

  8. Nice review. The 85/1.8 is just good (not outstanding) lens , especially for the price.


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