Nikon 85mm lens group test - Verdict
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After taking over 3000 shots with the four 85mm primes, it’s time to get to grips with the harsh reality that no single lens will have the smoothest bokeh and the sharpest performance for the lowest price. But you already knew that. So let’s sum-up the characteristics of each lens before the final show-down.

Nikon AF 85mm f1.8D

Oldie but goody: The Nikon AF 85/1.8D is the oldest and cheapest of the bunch but can still perform some tricks. It is pretty sharp in the center if you stop it down to f4.0 and can give a demanding body like the D800 a good run for the money even in the corners if stopped down to f5.6. Use it wide open and you get some softness which may be intended for some purposes. Unfortunately bokeh is of the nervous kind so be prepared to do some post-processing or place your main subject strategically in front of a more forgiving background. And don’t forget: this lens needs a body with built-in focus-motor to do AF, so owners of the D3x00 and D5x00 lines will be manually-focusing with this lens.

Nikon AF-S 85mm f1.8G

New kid on the block: The Nikon AF-S 85/1.8G is the rightful successor to the Nikon AF 85/1.8D. It’s still pretty small and light on your camera not to mention priced affordably, but it performs beautifully. Sharp, contrasty, easy to focus, nice bokeh. So what more could you wish for? Well, better DX-corner performance is the only thing that comes to my mind.

Sigma AF 85mm f1.4 EX DG HSM

The challenger: The Sigma AF 85/1.4 EX DG HSM is certainly no lightweight and offers two-thirds of a stop larger aperture at almost double the price of the Nikon AF-S 85/1.8G. If you hit the focus spot on it delivers amazing sharpness combined with a softness of rendering that comes from a pretty massive amount of spherical aberrations. This may be considered a ‘feature’ that some may prefer over the “cold” and analytical rendering of the newer Nikon contenders. If you stop it down to f8 performance over most of the image circle is almost flawless.


Nikon AF-S 85mm f1.4G

King of the hill: The most expensive of the four, the Nikon AF-S 85/1.4G, is amazingly sharp and contrasty even wide open in the DX image circle. In the outer regions of a full frame a Nikon D800 body shows the limits of this lens which has to be stopped down to f4.0 to produce a good FX-corner. In that respect it is actually out-performed by it’s smaller sibling, the Nikon AF-S 85/1.8G. But it delivers even smoother bokeh wide open and thus is the “cream-machine” photography-wise. It is a bit more fickle to focus exactly than the 1.8G but much easier to get correct focus than the Sigma. But other than the Sigma it renders sharp images with high contrast, albeit a bit softer and less analytical than the Nikon 85/1.8G.

I have more details like build- or focus-quality in each lens’s individual review and I also put out the verdicts and recommendations for each lens. That is apart form the Nikon 85/1.8D where there is no separate review apart form the results represented in this comparison. Here are the respective links and recommendations:
– Nikon AF 85mm f1.8D: I wouldn’t recommend buying this lens any more.
Nikon AF-S 85mm f1.8G review: highly recommended
Sigma AF 85mm f1.4 EX DG HSM: recommended
Nikon AF-S 85mm f1.4G: highly recommended

So we end up with two highly recommended lenses and you may ask which one should you buy? Well, take a look at the price: The smaller 85/1.8G from Nikon costs only around one third of the 85/1.4G yet really delivers the goods: It gives you great results easily and in the most consistent way. No trouble to get the focus right plus great focus-reliability and repeatability and thus little defocus-induced CAs, very sharp and contrasty rendering of a scene, and the best of the bunch in the FX-corners. Of all the 85mm lenses I tested it was the simplest to get great results with. And boy, that means something to a lens-tester like me, but it should also make users happy: sort of instant gratification guaranteed!

Bokeh fanatics may ultimately prefer the creaminess of the AF-S 85mm f1.4G, but I’d urge you to take a close look at the comparison of this effect near the bottom of my main 85mm group test page as it’s a lot more subtle than you may think. Is it worth spending almost three times as much for this plus two thirds of a stop greater light gathering power? It’s your call, but ultimately it does not detract from the superb overall performance of the cheaper AF-S 85mm f1.8G, which lest we forget also out-performs its pricier sibling in the corners of a full-frame image. So overall, the Nikon AF-S 85mm f1.8G is the winner of this 85mm group test!

And the overall winner: the Nikon AF-S 85mm f1.8G


Good points
Very good image quality even wide open on DX and FX bodies.
Lovely bokeh.
Good quality build with weather sealing.
Quiet AF operation finally on an 85mm f1.8 lens from Nikon.
Excellent price/performance ratio.

Bad points
No image stabilization.

If you like to discuss the findings or post questions and add comments regarding this comparison, please head over to the discussion-thread at the Camera Labs forum.

Und wenn es irgendwelche Fragen, Kommentare und Anregungen zu meinem Review gibt, hier gibt’s die Möglichkeit auch für deutschsprachige Besucher des DSLR-Forums.


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