Review: Nikon 85mm 1.4G Lens

The Nikon 85G is my most used telephoto lens, and I've shot thousands of photos with it, since purchasing it this past March. It's been to weddings, senior portrait sessions, model shoots, and everything in between. When I am going shoot anything remotely related to weddings, this lens is with me, cranking out ridiculously amazing bokeh. 

Build Quality
One element of lenses that I am very critical of is the build quality. As a professional photographer, I put all my gear through a lot of use, and I need them to hold up in any situation. Nikon made an interesting move to give their new primes polycarbonate casings and magnesium alloy interiors. I'm guessing this was to cut down on weight (and possibly on cost), but the combination works perfectly for me. The plastic exterior is more resistant to temperature extremes, and in my eyes, is easier to clean. 

The focus ring is nicely dampened, and can turn past infinity and the close focus mark. Out of all the other 85mm variations that Nikon produced, this lens is the most weather-sealed. The 85G has very tight shutlines, and nothing moves externally when the lens is focusing. The lens also has a rear gasket to keep out moisture and dirt. 

*a quick side by side shot of the 85G and Sigma 85 before I sold the Sigma*

The 85mm has long been my favored focal length for portraits, but it took me a couple years to finally settle on this lens. These are the other 85mm lenses (and brief assessments) that I bought and eventually sold prior to the Nikon 85G. 

Nikon 85mm 1.8D: nice bokeh wide open, and decently sharp, but 7 bladed aperture meant you get polygon-shaped bokeh stopped down. AF was moderately fast, build quality was mediocre. Only 85mm where the focus ring turned during AF operation. 

Nikon 85mm 1.4D: wonderful bokeh, and lens rendered skin tones remarkably well. Very sharp wide open, even better stopped down. Built like a tank, full metal. AF was very fast, although not as precise as the AF-S lenses. The 1.4D failed miserably during backlit situations and would hunt for AF lock. My lens also had trouble tracking subjects moving towards me. I hated the lens hood.

Sigma 85mm 1.4 (pictured above on right): wonderful bokeh, just slightly behind the 85G. The fastest AF out of all the 85 versions I've ever used (including the 85G), although I found the AF to be "fidgety" and would struggle with initial AF lock at times. Lens rendered colors warmer than the other versions. Build quality was very good, considering it was a mostly plastic/polycarbonate lens. Inconsistencies with AF performance after months of heavy use resulted in me finally selling my copy. 

The 85G is as sharp wide open as my Nikon 70-200 VRII and Nikon 24-70. 100% crop is below. 

Stopped down past f8, this lens is the sharper than anything I own. Photo is from a studio shoot I did for Face Art Beauty. 100% crop is below. 

This lens renders bokeh (esp. tree/foliage) better than any 85mm I have ever used. Yes, I think it's better than the widely revered 85mm 1.4D :) The smoothness and transitions between the circles of confusion, in my opinion, are the best I've ever seen in a lens. (f1.8, D700)

Color Rendition
The 85G produces very rich and contrasty colors. What I admired about the 85 1.4D was its ability to render color, especially skin tones, remarkably well, and the 85G improves on this formula. (f2, D700)

I take this lens to every engagement shoot! Here's some images with the 85G on the D300...

f2, D300. 

While the 85G is great on DX, it really shines on FX, especially in the bokeh department...
f1.6, D700

f1.6, D700

Night bokeh...f1.4, D700

f1.4, D700

The 85G is also my workhorse telephoto during weddings. I do use the Nikon 70-200 VRII for ceremonies (flexibility in case I cannot move), but for everything else (getting ready, formals, reception) I generally use the 85G.
f1.6, D700

f1.8, D700

Thanks to the Nikon's magic Nano Coating, this lens handles backlit situations very well. A big part of my style is using the sun as a rim/accent light, so it matters a lot to me that my lenses can perform well when shooting towards the sun. 
f2, D700

Depth of Field
After months of use, this lens remains the most difficult (but most rewarding) to use out of all the glass I own. The depth of field is so paper thin (especially at f1.4), that due to the nature of my work (mostly weddings) I shoot 90% of the time between f1.8 and f2 to assure that my subject's faces are completely in focus. 
f2, D700

AF Performance
In my experience, the 85G's focusing speed* is slower than all the other 85mm versions, especially the Sigma 85. However, the 85G is the most accurate. It can track subjects well (as pictured above in my rare use of the 85G during a ceremony), and can focus remarkably well in low light (with an exception, which I will cover shortly). The 85G hunts the least out of all the 85mm versions that I have tried, and doesn't possess the "fidgety" AF tendencies of the Sigma 85. The 85G is no sports lens at all, but it is quick enough for my mainstay: weddings. 

*If you would like a ballpark idea, the 85G focus speed is the same as 50mm 1.8G, and is faster than the 35mm 1.4G. 

Tungsten Light
It may just be my copy, but this lens has a strange tendency to occasionally backfocus in tungsten light. Even with AF fine tune, sometimes this lens backfocuses just enough to make the image soft. I've shot with this lens enough to notice that this generally happens when someone's face is in shadow, and the main source of light in the scene is tungsten. I'm guessing since the tungsten is orange, it somehow reduces contrast of the person's face, making it hard for the AF to read. In these situations, I will either switch to manual focus, or reach for the body with the 24-70.
f1.8, D700

f2, D700
The 85G is also the lens I use for my Brenizer Method panoramas :)
f1.8, D700. 12 frames

f1.8, D700. 20 frames. Click for a larger view!! 

More than 50% of my model work is shot with the 85G. The lens comes with me to every model shoot, as it affords me the perfect balance of working distance, subject isolation, and compression.
f1.4, D700

f1.4, D700

Morning light with Heather...f1.6, D700

f2, D700

f2, D700

Experimenting with McNally's bedsheet-in-doorway lighting on Marissa's boudoir shoot...
f2, D700

Late afternoon with Juelles...most of the images from this shoot were taken with the 85G
f2, D700

f5, D700


+IMO, renders people the best, in terms of subject isolation and compression. 
+solid build quality, and is the only weather-sealed 85mm that Nikon offers. 
+very very sharp wide open, comparative to the 70-200 VRII and 24-70.
+rich, contrasty color rendition compared to the old Nikon 85mm versions. 
+AF is very accurate, especially in tough situations like backlighting. 

- AF is slower than all the other 85mm versions. Definitely not a sports lens. 
- sometimes backfocuses in tungsten lighting...could be my copy though. 
- expensive. At $1800 USD, this is not a lens that you buy on a whim. 

As I said before, this is my most used telephoto lens. The way it renders people, while smoothing the background is remarkable, and it's both a joy and a challenge to use on shoots. While it is very expensive (2X cost of the Sigma and almost 4X cost of the 1.8D and 1.8G versions), the image quality, and consistency of the AF make the lens definitely worth the investment for me. 

Thanks for listening to my rambling, and hope this review was of some help to you! Feel free to comment below if you want to share any thoughts or have any questions!


  1. Thanks for the review. It amazes me that Nikon makes new AF lenses that are slower to AF than one needs. I have the new 85mm F1.8G and the new 50mm F1.8G. Both of these lenses are improvements over the previous versions and there is less flare than before. The new 35mm F1.8G(DX) hunts too much to suit me. There are still so many comparisons to be made.

  2. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)



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