Nikon AF-S 85mm f/3.5VR Micro

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: The prime equivalent of an 18-200 f/dark.

Counter Opinion: There are certain things that I don't understand, and the Nikon 85mm f/3.5VR Micro lens is one of them. The 85/3.5VR feels like Nikon's attempt to make a "do everything" prime lens. It's macro, it's portrait, it's stabilized – it ticks all the boxes, and ends up as a me-too entry on some already-crowded shelves.

Nikon currently makes six 85mm lenses, and I have two of them. There's the 85/2.8PC-E Micro, which is why I own Nikon in the first place, and the little 85/1.8D, which usually lives on my F5. Then there's the 85/1.4D, which remains one of their top portrait lenses, the incredibly sharp 85/1.4G, and the elusive 85/1.8G, which is nearly as good as the 1.4G but with slower autofocus.

The 85/3.5 is an AF-S and DX lens, so it's targeted at entry-level to mid-market cameras. Selling for under $500 at reputable stores in America and Canada, and $550 at Henry's, its price is in the same ballpark as the 85/1.8G and 85/1.8D. No, none of those match the 85/3.5VR's macro ability, but there's also Nikon's 60/2.8G, Sigma's 70/2.8, and the Tamron 90/2.8 that handle that task at a similar cost and size. The short telephoto range is a tough place to be.

I have used the Sigma 70/2.8 and Tamron 90/2.8 macros, but tried the 85/3.5 directly against the Nikon 60/2.8G because that's the one that I own. The 85mm is only slightly larger than the 60mm, and does have a substantially longer working distance at high magnifications, but also has more distortion on the DX frame than my 60 does on FX. The sharpness results were functionally identical across most of the focusing range, but at the maximum 1:1 magnification the 85/3.5 becomes significantly worse. By backing off just a little to 1:1.2 magnification the 85/3.5 improves substantially, and by 1:1.4 it's respectable once again.

Some of my test photos are here: 60@1:1 #1 and #2, 85@1:1 #1 and #2, 85@1:1.2 #1 and #2; all were shot at f/8 with the D800 set to DX mode. Focusing is with Live View on the number "6". Manually focused samples, other targets, and the centre of the lens all show the same quality drop at 1:1 versus 1:1.2.

Looking at Nikon's lens lineup, the greatest virtue of the 85/3.5 is that it's cheaper, smaller, and shorter than the 105VR. But it's not remarkable when compared to other short macros, gives up two stops of light over a similarly-priced fast 85 in exchange for that macro ability, and then fails badly at maximum magnification. It wouldn't be my first choice for either portrait or macro photography, and if I really needed to own one lens that would be used for both then I'd buy something else. Sure, it's a good lens, but sometimes that's not enough.

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 13 august 2012


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