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Which Nikon 85mm Lens Is Best For Your Portrait Photography Needs?
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Mason Resnick is the editor of the Adorama Learning Center and a lifetime photography enthusiast.

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Which Nikon 85mm Lens Is Best For Your Portrait Photography Needs?

Gear Guide and Lab Test. Updated for Holidays 2013

If you own a Nikon DSLR, you may be thinking about buying a portrait photography lens. This may help you determine which one is best for your budget and needs.


Most professional photographers recommend the 85mm lens for portrait photography, but if you're a Nikon DSLR shooter, you are faced with a choice of 8 different lenses available at Adorama Camera at prices ranging from $270 to north of $1,000. Which one is best for you? That depends on your budget, but also on what kinds of portraits you want to shoot. Test results courtesy DxOMark and used by permission.

Here are the key Nikon-mount 85mm lenses, with test results and selected online review highlights, from lowest to highest priced.

 

Pro-Optic 85mm f/1.4 Manual Focus

Pro-Optic 85mm f/1.4 Manual Focus (Adorama price: $239.95)
DxOMark Score: Not Tested

Overview: This upgraded manual-focus budget portrait lens did spectacularly well in Adorama’s own informal field/studio test. Upgraded optics includes an aspherical element to reduce flaring and ghosting.  The newer Pro-Optic 85mm f/1.4 with Focus Confirm Chip  (
Adorama price: $279.95; also not tested by DxOMark) tells Nikon users when focus has been achieved.

Web reviews: The Adorama Learning Center's Sandy Ramirez the notes that the lens's optics are vastly improved, and provides focus confirmation on the Nikon model. He says that "if I used Nikon Gear and I'm On a tight budget, I would certainly consider it on the basis of the fast aperture, focus confirmation, and temptingly low price"

 

Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherical Lens

Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherical Lens (Adorama price: $299)
DxOMark Score: 31

Overview:  With its low price and surprisingly high DxOMark overall score, the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 is a manual-focus only lens, but its aspherical multi-layer elements reduce flare and ghosting, producing sharp, contrasty images that in many ways (especially distortion)  rival those produced by pricer name-brand optics. The lens has 8 diaphragm blades, is moderately light at 19 ounces, consists of 9 elements in 7 groups, focuses down to 3.3 feet, and takes a 72mm filter.

Web reviews: Mark Golstein at Photography Blog says focus is a bit "dreamy" at the widest aperture but sharpens up by f/4, and calls it "a very affordable alternative to the OEM offerings." Photozone says that while image quality is not super-sharp, it is "certainly good enough for portraits," describing the lens as a "very affordable introduction to shallow depth of field photography."


DxOMark Measurements:

  • Sharpness 15P-Mpix
  • Transmission 1.7TStop
  • Distortion 0.1%
  • Vignetting -1.3EV
  • Chr. aberration 4µm

 

Nikon 85mm f/1.8D AF Telephoto Nikkor

Nikon 85mm f/1.8D AF Telephoto Nikkor (Adorama price: $459)
DxOMark Score: 28

Overview: Designed for use with both APS (DX) and full-frame (FX) DSLRs, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 is a compact, lightweight lens for general use. An older design than the recently announced 85mm f/1.8G, the 85mm f/1.8D has more metal parts and is of solid construction.  It would certainly deliver pleasing results and is a great deal. It is compatible with any Full-frame (FX) Nikon DSLR and APS sensor Nikons that have in-camera focus motors.

Web reviews: Ken Rockwell prefers this lens to the newer G version because of its solid build, 9-blade diaphragm, mechanical quality and metal filter threads. "I strongly recommend this lens if you want a superb fast prime portrait lens or general-purpose fast, short tele at a reasonable price." Pop Photo sums it up: "Does almost everything Nikon’s legendary 85mm f/1.4G does, but at half the price and a third less weight."


DxOMark Measurements:

  • Sharpness 15P-Mpix
  • Transmission 1.8TStop
  • Distortion 0.1%
  • Vignetting -1.5EV
  • Chr. aberration 4µm

 

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S FX Nikkor

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S FX Nikkor (Adorama price: $496.95)
DxOMark Score: 35

Overview: Nikon’s newest 85, the f/1.8G features 9 elements in 9 groups, internal focus for a more compact package,  a switch that lets you change from auto to manual focus, and Nikon’s quiet, fast Silent Wave Motor autofocus mechanism. Optimized for full-frame DSLRs, the lens can also be used on APS sensor cameras. With its improved Bokeh, close focus to 2.62 feet, and accommodation for 67mm filters, this lightweight (12.4 oz) lens is a great way for Nikon shooters to get started in portrait photography.

Web reviews: Camera Labs declares the 85mm f/1.8G's Bokeh to be superior to the D at full aperture, an important consideration for portraits. Photography Blog observes that while the lens has many plastic parts, the lens elements themselves are high-grade glass—and the lens itself is weatherproof, concluding that it "is a great choice if you are looking for a relatively affordable telephoto prime lens with excellent optical performance."

DxOMark Measurements:

  • Sharpness 15P-Mpix
  • Transmission 1.9TStop
  • Distortion 0.1%
  • Vignetting -1.7EV
  • Chr. aberration 4µm

 

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens (Adorama price: $894)
DxOMark Score: 30

Overview: Sigma makes the only Nikon-mount f/1.4 85mm portrait lens in the $500-1,000 price range, and it’s a good one. Test results put image quality very close to that of pro-end lenses. It has an SLD glass and elements with super multi layer coating, which reduces flare and ghosting, while the Hyper Sonic Motor focuses fast and quiet. The 9 aperture blades are rounded for pleasing bokeh. Closest focus distance is 33.5 inches and the lens accepts a 77mm filter.

Web reviews: SLR Gear's Andrew Alexander exclaims the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM is "as sharp as any of its contemporaries, even wide open at f/1.4." As Camera Labs points out, the lens is the cheapest 85mm f/1.4 with AF, but "you have to be very careful to focus optimally."

DxOMark measurements:

  • Sharpness 16P-Mpix
  • Transmission  1.7TStop
  • Distortion 0.1%
  • Vignetting -1.4EV
  • Chr. aberration 6µm

 

Nikon 85mm f/1.4D IF AF Telephoto Nikkor (Adorama price: $1,199)
DxOMark Score: 28

Overview: The popular Nikon 85mm f/1.4 is a lens of choice for portraits as well as photojournalism and wedding photography; its lack of an internal motor limits its use to higher-end cameras such as the Nikon D3x or D600, but unlike the pricer G lenses it has an external aperture ring, which should appeal to traditionalists. The lens consists of 9 elements in 8 groups, and is compatible with any Full-frame (FX) Nikon DSLR and APS sensor Nikons that have in-camera focus motors.

Web Reviews: Ken Rockwell notes that this lens "works great with almost every film and digital camera Nikon made since 1977." He says that while the 85mm f/1.4G is sharper and has better bokeh, it also costs twice as much. Tom Hagen says the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D's build is "rock solid" and that it autofocuses "with certaintly" and concludes with "I've never been disappointed when I've picked up the 85mm f/1.4D and shot with it...this lens will stay in my lens collection pretty much forever."


DxOMark measurements:

  • Sharpness 15P-Mpix
  • Transmission 1.7TStop
  • Distortion 0.2%
  • Vignetting -1.6EV
  • Chr. aberration 7µm

 

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZF.2 for Nikon

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZF.2  for Nikon (Adorama price: $1,283)
DxOMark Score: 26

Overview: With a distortion-free performance (thanks to a 9-blade circular aperture) and nearly circular diaphragm design, the manual focus Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* is  an updated classic. It focuses down to 3.3 feet, has 6 elements in 5 groups, and takes 72mm filters. This lens is chipped so it can transmit EXIF data such as manufacturer, date, metering system, and exposure settings to the Nikon body.

Web reviews: Photozone says the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar, as with so many other Zeiss lenses, represents "benchmark" in its class, and concludes that it "is capable to produce bitingly sharp results when stopped down a little. The color rendition is very Zeiss-like - very saturated and neutral." SLRGear observes that the lens "is built with an old-school appreciation to quality."

DxOMark measurements:

  • Sharpness 15P-Mpix
  • Transmission 1.7TStop
  • Distortion 0.1%
  • Vignetting -1.4EV
  • Chr. aberration 12µm

 

Nikon 85mm f/1.4G IF AF-S Nikkor

Nikon 85mm f/1.4G IF AF-S Nikkor (Adorama price: $1,649)
DxOMark Score: 34

Overview: The sharpest Nikon 85mm lens, the f/1.4G will work with any Nikon DSLR—full-frame, APS, internal AF or not—thanks to its built-in autofocus engine—and scored an excellent 34 on the DxOMark scale. It also scored a category leading 19 Perceptual Megapixels, indicating that sharpness is outstanding. Ghosting and interior flare are controlled via Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coat, and Nikon says this internal-focusing lens is optimized for edge-to-edge sharpness on both APS and full-frame cameras. As one would expect from a top-line lens, this one has a 9-blade diaphragm with curved blades for excellent Bokeh at all apertures. It weighs in at a moderatel 23 oz, is constructed of 10 elements in 9 groups, focuses to 3 feet, and accepts a 77mm filter.

Web reviews: Camera Labs reviewed the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G on a Nikon D800 and determined that its performance on this 36MP camera was still impressive, with "confirmed its excellent resolving power and buttery bokeh." Ken Rockwell says the lens is "simply astonishing" and "the first lens I have ever used in over 40 years...that excels at both the scientific aspects (sharpness and lack of coma, especially at f/1.4 in the corners), and the artistic aspects of defocus, all at the same time."

DxOMark measurements:

  • Sharpness 19P-Mpix
  • Transmission 1.7TStop
  • Distortion 0.2%
  • Vignetting -1.8EV
  • Chr. aberration 7µm

Nikon 85mm f/3.5G AF-S DX Micro ED (VR-II) (Adorama price: 536.95)
DxOMark Score: 15

Overview: This 85 serves two purposes: An inexpensive, moderate-aperture portrait lens geared towards DX (APS) sensor DSLR users, and a macro lens that provides life-size 1:1 magnification. Built-in Vibration Reduction is said to allow for handheld shooting at up to 4 stops slower than the recommended shutter speed for an 85mm lens, while an Extra-low Dispersion (ED) element minimizes chromatic aberration. On a DX sensor camera or when used on a full-frame sensor camera in crop mode, the 85mm shows approximately a 130-degree angle of view.

Web reviews: Photozone declares this is primarily a macro lens and not as well suited for portrait work because of its smaller aperture. However, "it's rather compact and light-weight. In comparison to 60mm macro lenses it offers a larger and as such more comfortable working distance. And last but not least, there's the added bonus of optical stabilization." Photographyblog says that "Nikon employed an iris diaphragm with 9 rounded blades for a pleasing bokeh, and we believe they have largely succeeded."



DxOMark measurements:

  • Sharpness 8P-Mpix
  • Transmission 3.9 TStop
  • Distortion 0.2 %
  • Vignetting -1.1 EV
  • Chr. aberration 3 µm

 

Return to Tested and Compared: 20 85mm Lenses for DSLR Portrait Photography

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