GEAR REVIEW - NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G
The Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 has long been a favourite lens of portrait photographers since it was first introduced 50 years ago, in 1964. The focal length gives flattering facial compression, good subject/background separation and a wide aperture offering a very shallow depth of field and is ideal in low light situations.
The latest incantation has seen many changes over the AF-D version which was released in 1994. It now sports an internal focus motor, making it fully compatible with Nikon's entry level DSLRs. As most entry level bodies lack a focus motor, prior to the launch of the f/1.8G, the only fully functional 85mm available to amateurs was the professional Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G, which has a price tag of almost £1200 or the Sigma version at £650! This left many shooters a bit disgruntled for the lack of wallet-friendly glass.
It has also undergone an optical overhaul that has resulted in fantastic image quality. So much so, that it actually out-resolves the considerably more expensive 85mm f/1.4G AF-S version! Nikon really has gone to town with this lens. Surprisingly enough, there are no low dispersion, aspherical or fluorite glass elements to be found inside, yet wide open the 85mm f/1.8G is impressively sharp. You have to stop the previous version (AF-D) down to f/4 to get equivalent performance. That's 2 1/3rd stops of light loss!
In recent years, the trend with Nikon lenses has seen a move away from metal components in favour of lightweight, composite plastics. Although reduction in weight is generally a welcome thing, you do lose the robustness of a metal barrel. Having said that, if you drop either type of lens onto a hard surface, you'll probably damage both irreparably anyway. The new version is about 15g lighter than its predecessor, so not hugely different. Despite the plastic construction, the 85mm f/1.8G still feels sturdy enough in the hand and will easily survive the occasional minor bump.
Being a gelded (G-type) lens, the aperture dial present on the AF-D is absent from the new version. Not a major issue for most people but it does make the f/1.8G incompatible with manual focus camera bodies, as there is no means to stop the lens down. Along with the missing dial are two less aperture blades. Nikon has reduced the number from 9 to 7 curved ones. Despite this, the bokeh is still very pleasing in the out of focus areas.
Nikon are still nice enough to leave us with a manual focus barrel, which is precise and well dampened. At any time you can grab the focus barrel and tweak focus. This is a nice addition, as on the previous version the motor drive shaft had to be disengaged on the camera body to facilitate this. All time consuming and annoying.
I do have a bit of a gripe though. Considering the Micro-Nikkor 85mm f/3.5G has Vibration Reduction, it is somewhat surprising to see that Nikon didn't include VR on the new f/1.8G. The prices of the two lenses are pretty similar so keeping costs down, shouldn't really be a justifiable reason. Don't get me wrong, this lens is fabulous but, with such fierce competition in the form of Sigma and Tamron, who are no longer considered the poor man's alternative, Nikon really should be doing everything to make their glass be every Nikon owner's first choice. There is also a new threat in the form of Yongnuo who have ventured into the arena with a 50mm f/1.8 for Canon, which is about 1/3rd the price and optically out-performs it. If they start producing Nikon mount glass, this will definitely be something to keep an eye on!!
As already mentioned, the 85mm f/1.8G is a superbly sharp lens, easily on a par with the 105mm Micro-Nikkor at maximum aperture and actually better stopped down. Considering the latter is £589 after cashback and the 85mm £375, it is definitely great bang for the buck, even without the VR present on the 105mm. It delivers crisp, highly detailed images on even the most demanding of sensor resolutions, which will inevitably continue to rise in the future. Nikon are currently sitting on 36MP with their D8xx line. However with Canon announcing not one, but two sensors in excess of 50MP, it is likely Nikon will follow suit at some point.
Focus is very fast and accurate due to the internal AF-S motor and wide aperture that lets in lots of light. It's also a lot quieter than the older AF-D version, making it useful for candid moments, when you don't want to disturb your subject. It is fast enough to keep up with moving kids, although on a APS-C body, the focal length is a bit tight. I find the 105mm a bit restrictive when photographing my nieces and nephews, so the 127.5mm equivalent on a DX body would only be more difficult. Still, if you can get them in the frame without cropping a limb off, or get the little buggers to sit still for 10 seconds, you'll be rewarded with great image quality.
The wide aperture makes the 85mm f1/8G great for posed portraiture as it allows you to isolate the eyes if you so desire. The depth of field is very shallow, so bear this in mind when photographing fidgeting kids. On the 50mm f/1.8 I tend not to shoot lower than f/4 and about f/5.6 on the 105mm VR. Nailing focus is much too difficult wide open with moving targets, so increase your chances of getting keepers by increasing your depth of field when you need to. Again, if your subject is motionless you can shoot whatever aperture you like and you'll get stunningly detailed images as a result.
That's pretty much it. For the money the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G is hard to beat and makes for a great addition to your camera bag. It is razor sharp, fast focusing, has pleasing bokeh and great for portraiture. The wide aperture allows for creative control and accurate focusing in low light. Compare it to something like the 24-85mm VRII kit lens, at the same focal length it is almost 3 stops slower at f/4.5. You'll have much more success in dim light scenarios with the 85mm prime. If it had VR, this would be an absolute beast of a lens. Perhaps we will see this on a latter version but for now, this is certainly a worthwhile purchase!