Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G Lens Review
With an f/1.8 portrait lens this sweet, who needs f/1.4?
One of the most exciting parts of getting into photography is building out a lens collection. For people without infinite financial resources, this means getting the most out of what you have to spend. And for the budget-conscious photographer, there’s simply no better value than wide-aperture prime lenses.
While the 50mm f/1.8G is perhaps the best choice for a new Nikon DSLR owner's first prime, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G should follow close behind. Designed as a portrait lens, it produces sharp images with excellent bokeh, even in dim light. Those traits also makes it a good (if slightly limiting) fit for sports and wildlife photographers—especially those with entry-level Nikon DSLRs.
But more than anything, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G is special for its ability to produce excellent portraits at a very affordable price point. Whether you’re taking photos of your cat or your kid, this is one of the best sub-$500 lenses around.
Who's It For?
Though more experienced portrait photographers may want to step up to the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G for its faster aperture and smoother bokeh, the 1.8G is plenty of lens for just about anyone else. The f/1.8 aperture allows not only for sharp photos in dim lighting, but creates creamy background blur that helps isolate your subject from its surroundings.
The 85mm focal length is considered ideal for portraits. It preserves realistic proportions while compressing the background even as it puts it out of focus. This creates backgrounds that envelop your subject, making for some excellent headshots and environmental portraiture (if you take a few steps back).
It’s important to note that while the AF-S focus motor makes this lens fully compatible with all of Nikon’s DSLRs, on a DX-format Nikon body it will function more like a 127mm lens—still useful for portrait work, but requiring a longer working distance.
Look and Feel
A few years ago, Nikon began refreshing many of its lenses, updating film-era designs for the digital age. The new lenses were given a "G" designation, trading metal bodies and physical aperture rings for more lightweight plastic and on-body control. The 85mm f/1.8G follows this pattern.
Though the plastic feels cheaper than metal, it's also a lot lighter. Compared to the older "D" version, Nikon was able to add its SWM autofocus motor and still shave a full ounce off the weight. It's quicker, and also much quieter. To engage the motor and allow for autofocus, there's an AF/MF switch on the side. Even when AF is on, you can override it by turning the manual focus ring—a useful fallback for times when the autofocus simply isn’t behaving the way you want.
The focus ring rotates smoothly, with a useful little “click” response when you’ve reached either end of the focus range. (Since this lens uses focus by wire, it doesn't actually stop rotating at either end.) There’s a focus scale on the top of the lens with markings to indicate depth of field at the minimum aperture of f/16, making snap focusing a little easier for street photography, too.
Before you buy the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G, take a look at these other lenses.
Even without taking its sub-$500 price into account, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G put in a remarkable performance in our lab testing, and backed it up with stellar real-world results. This is a lens that can boast minimal distortion, negligible chromatic aberration, and superb bokeh. But what really stands out is its ability to render the finest details—when paired with a similarly high-resolution camera.
On the 36-megapixel Nikon D810, this lens was able to resolve more fine detail than virtually any other lens we've tested—only the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art has impressed us more. It even outgunned the more expensive Nikon 85mm f/1.4. Though the bokeh from the f/1.4 version is generally considered to be superior, there's no getting around the simple fact that this lens is sharper at every aperture.
We took the 85mm f/1.8G out of the lab and used it for an impromptu portrait session with the D810, where it performed admirably. As you'll see below, the results were razor sharp, with generally smooth bokeh and excellent subject isolation.
Though not nearly as flexible as high-end zoom lenses, wide-aperture primes can get you beautiful bokeh, awesome edge-to-edge sharpness, and minimal distortion, often at a fraction of the price. For beginner photographers who want to get the most out of their DSLRs, that’s hard to pass up.
The Nikon 85mm f/1.8G is one of the best values around if you're looking for a tack-sharp portrait prime. In our lab testing it outperformed almost every other Nikon-mount lens we've tested, including the faster, more expensive 85mm f/1.4G—particularly in terms of sharpness.
Even if you're using an entry-level Nikon "DX" DSLR, this is one of the best ways to spend your dollar. Though a Nikon D5500 or D3300's smaller sensor will cause the 85mm f/1.8G to act like a 127mm lens, it's still a useful portrait focal length—you'll just have to back up a few feet.
If you're looking for alternatives, consider the $220 Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. It acts like a 75mm f/1.8 lens on Nikon DX-format DSLRs, but you'll still be able to use it as a 50mm walkaround or short portrait lens if you upgrade to a FX body down the line. It's just not nearly as sharp as this lens, though few lenses are.
Deciding which of these prime lenses is right for you will depend on your budget as well as your short- and long-term goals. But either way, you're going to get a fantastic lens without having to spend a lot of money.
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