Nikon 85mm F/1.4 G

Today we're looking at the Nikon 85mm F/1.4 G!

It has been a few weeks since I've reviewed a lens, so I'm excited to jump back in with another modern classic.  This one is one of the two most iconic primes in wedding photography and much like the 35 F/1.4 I reviewed it's a bokeh beast.  I'm not an engineer, so let's view this as more of a real-world, non technical, and completely biased review based on my own experiences with the lens as a military photojournalist and wedding photographer.

 
 

Single Sentence Summary

It's sharp and shallow, but slow on the draw.

Why I Bought It

I love taking photos of people.  No disrespect intended to landscape and product photographers,  but I have an issue 'clicking' with photos that don't focus on the human element (or at least reference the impact of the subject on humans).  The fact that 85mm is the industry standard focal length for portraits, and is the go-to for so many of my own favourite wedding photographers like Cliff Mautner and Ryan Brenizer, it kinda made sense that I wanted to play with it.  After taking it for a test drive, shooting some events with it in low light, I realized that this was a must-have lens.  Weddings, military exercises, and conflict zones are often dark when the best photo opportunities arise, so I needed something that F/1.4 or wider that was tighter than the 35mm, small enough to toss in a pocket on the fly, and lightweight.  This one was all of those, plus it was also super quiet in focusing, which was an added bonus as a wedding photographer.

What I Like

I like the focal length.  85mm is perfect for not warping images at the edges like wider lenses do, which means faces actually look like they do in real life, not stretched.  The out of focus areas are surreal at F/1.4, which isn't something that I love in military contexts, but certainly adds a 'dreamy' element in wedding photography.  It's small and lightweight, which is phenomenal. I have a 200mm F/2 and that bad boy is a carry-on nightmare, but this thing is barely a consideration when I'm traveling.  Its low-profile size also makes me more comfortable when I'm in areas where crime is a concern; it's less likely to draw the wrong kind of attention, so I don't mind strolling about with it on my camera body.  It's super sharp.  Like SUPER sharp.  When it hits focus it really knocks it out of this world, and in fact I kinda wish I'd had two when I was shooting the imagery for it for this post.

The 77mm threading is incredibly convenient for using my ND filters, it's great in studio work, and it allows me the convenience of being less invasive than I sometimes have to be when I'm shooting with my 35mm.

What I Don't

I feel like I should preface this section by saying that most of my gripes with this lens are in military and photojournalist, “peak of action,” contexts.  My biggest single problem with this lens is how slow it is in autofocus mode.  It struggles.  It's not something new either, I've used the previous generations and they were incredibly slow themselves.  This generation is admittedly much better than the previous, but in low light or low contrast situations it's still a brutal lens to focus sometimes in a clinch.  As a result I don't rely on it during the ceremony sections of weddings, I use my 70-200mm F/2.8 VR II instead.  It's one thing to use it in the getting-ready stages of a wedding (as I always do) as seen in shots like this:

 
 

But it's entirely another to risk it when a bride's coming down the aisle.  Ultimately getting the shot trumps everything else in my opinion.  That's sadly why when my section at work bought half a dozen of them I cringed(Why, oh why couldn't we have bought a half dozen of the 35mm F/1.4?).  If anyone appreciates a good prime, it's me, but this one is inhibiting in military contexts because of how slow it is to focus.

The only other thing I could say that I don't like is the price.  I'm a big fan of trades, and as I'm very experienced with lenses I don't mind getting used equipment because I know how to examine and test it. That being said, if it weren't for the fact I trade from astrong position where it is never a need, I would probably never have bought this lens new.  Most of these primes are a 'nice to have' at best, and not absolutely a 'need.'  ...except for the 35mm F/1.4 that is.

Bottom Line

It's an incredible lens, and I certainly don't regret getting it. It's definitely in my top 3 favourite lenses, but even recognizing how far it's come, the speed in focus is really the only issue I have with it in using it the way I would want to.

Score

8.5/10

Again, this is completely biased, and not particularly technical.  It's my opinion, and it's not endorsed.  If you're in the market, I'd definitely support investing in this gorgeous piece of glass, but if you're on the edge I'd suggest renting one and testing it out for a bit in contexts that are more aligned with your common usage.

 -Wes.