Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G Lens Review
With an f/1.8 portrait lens this sweet, who needs f/1.4?
When evaluating any lens, we focus on four key areas: sharpness, distortion, chromatic aberration, and bokeh. A perfect lens would render the finest details accurately, wouldn’t distort straight lines or produce ugly fringing around high-contrast subjects, and would create smooth out-of-focus areas.
The Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G is one of the best-performing lenses that we've tested to this point. Perhaps surprisingly, it handily outperforms Nikon's 85mm f/1.4G—a lens that costs over $1,000 more—in most of our tests. So not only is it a stellar performer, but it's one of the best values in the Nikon lens system.
A lens's sharpness is its ability to render the finest details in photographs. In testing a lens, we consider sharpness across the entire frame, from the center of your images out to the extreme corners, using an average that gives extra weight to center performance. We quantify sharpness using line widths per picture height (LW/PH) at a contrast of MTF50.
In the image center, the 85mm f/1.8G performs astoundingly well on the demandingly high-resolution Nikon D810. Though it manages just 1,875 lines at f/1.8, it quickly shoots above 2,000 lines as you stop down, topping out at a remarkable 3,000 lines by f/5.6—one of the best results we've recorded thus far.
Away from the center, sharpness is (predictably) a little less stunning, though the midway region (50% from the center) averages over 2,000 lines even wide open at f/1.8. and peaks at 2,960 lines at f/5.6. The extreme corners also provide exceptional performance, averaging over 1,880 lines at f/1.8 and shooting up well above 2,700 lines at f/5.6.
We penalize lenses for distortion when they bend or warp images, causing normally straight lines to curve.
There are two primary types of distortion: When the center of the frame seems to bulge outward toward you, that’s barrel distortion. It's typically a result of the challenges inherent in designing wide-angle lenses. When the center of the image looks like it's being sucked in, that’s pincushion distortion. Pincushion is more common in telephoto lenses. A third, less common variety (mustache distortion) produces wavy lines.
The 85mm f/1.8G, like most telephoto lenses, suffers from some pincushion distortion. It's nothing serious, however, barely topping 1%. That's well below the 2% threshold where distortion typically becomes noticeable, and perfectionists can easily eliminate it using photo editing software.
Chromatic aberration refers to the various types of “fringing” that can appear around high contrast subjects in photos—like leaves set against a bright sky. The fringing is usually either green, blue, or magenta and while it’s relatively easy to remove the offensive color with software, it can also degrade image sharpness.
Like many prime lenses, the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G handles chromatic aberration with aplomb. Even at f/1.8, there are hardly any visible traces of colored fringing, and at every aperture as you stop down CA stays well within the "insignificant" range.
Bokeh refers to the quality of the out of focus areas in a photo. It's important for a lens to render your subject with sharp details, but it's just as important that the background not distract from the focus of your shot.
While some lenses have bokeh that's prized for its unique characteristics, most simply aim to produce extremely smooth backgrounds. In particular, photographers prize lenses that can produce bokeh with circular highlights that are free of aspherical distortion (or “coma”). This is one area where the 85mm f/1.8 just falls short, as its out of focus points have a slight "busy" quality that shows up in some samples.
As a portrait lens, one of the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G's primary design goals is to produce attractive bokeh. If it doesn't, distracting backgrounds could draw viewer's eyes away from the subject. This is easily visible in the shot below, as your eye is drawn immediately to the subject instead of the background. Even with a tough backdrop like brick, the 85mm f/1.8G holds its own.
While we've tested lenses with smoother bokeh, this is one of Nikon's better efforts. It's nearly on par with the 85mm f/1.4G, though there's a visible difference between the seven-bladed diaphragm used here and the f/1.4G's nine-bladed diaphragm as you stop down. It's still on par with some of the best lenses that we've tested, however, making this an even better value for anyone who balks at the 85mm f/1.4G's asking price.
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