Published September 9th 2006

Nikon 85mm f/1.8 D

A great and affordable short telephoto potrait lens with excellent image quality for the price. I bought one used, and I love it.

Myself holding the Nikon 85mm f1.8. See what I mean about a large hole...?
[Nikon D200, photo Henning Eskol]

This Nikon lens reminds me of one of my all-time favorite Minolta lenses: the Minolta 100mm f2 AF "beer-can style" that I owned for a couple of years before it was stolen from me. Like the Minolta this is a short telephoto lens with great sharpness all open and a good brightness.

I found this lens used at a very good price here in Copenhagen. A local shop had three of them: a really old non-D specimen and two D-types. I went into the shop a few days ago to "finger" the lenses and picked out the best one. I'll probably return to the subject of buying used gear at a later time, and concentrate on this nice Nikon lens right now.

[Nikon D200, Nikon 85mm f1.8]
More chairs
Nikon D200, Nikon 85mm f1.8]
Even more chairs
Nikon D200, Nikon 85mm f1.8]

Chrome fences
[Nikon D200, Nikon 85mm f1.8]

Bright primes

This is an f1.8 prime lens, and it has made me remember back when most lenses were bright primes. This is like stepping into a time-machine and revisiting my old gear. At one point in my Minolta career I had primes only, and the f2.8 ones were amongst the slow ones of the bunch. These lenses were short, dense, heavy pieces of glass and metal with really large holes through them. Compared to modern zoom lenses, the brightness almost seemed visible when looking through the lens. Now, I know this is an artifact, because the optical construction of the lens will distort the true physical size of the opening. No matter what, the sheer look of the aperture-opening in this lens does give you confidence that this is a bright lens. And it is.

The lens was originally constructed as a portrait lens. 85mm on a film or full frame camera is a short telephoto lens, well suited to give you a bit of distance to your subject and isolate the background. At the same time this lens has a sharpness characteristic, which ensures a tack sharp image with a very gentle, out-of-focus roll-off. The bokeh is not like cream, but definitely above average. That is not the only nice softness this lens has. It's also very sharp at full open with a very limited depth-of-field. That allows you to shoot a portrait with sizzling sharp eyes and eyelashes and a really gentle transition into the soft parts like the ears and hair. On a DX body you will also have the crop factor to take into account, it will force you a bit farther away from your subject and may increase depth-of-field a bit, but trust me: depth-of-field is not one of the strongpoints of this lens... and it shouldn't be.

The closest I have yet come to a real portrait with the 85mm: our Shetland sheepdog Divus
[Nikon D200, Nikon 85mm f1.8]

Rock solid

The construction is rock solid. AF is fast and precise and I really enjoy cranking this lens down to 1.8 and see what it does for the shutter speed. Bright lenses are just great.

I have barely taken this lens off my D200 since I bought it (the lens that is). Both because it's a great piece of glass and because it's fun to shoot with one prime lens only. I know that the 1.4 version of this lens is probably much better, but it is also significantly more expensive. There's also a newer AF-S version, which has a built--in focus motor and will auto focus on all Nikon bodies, but I'll be fine with this one as it is. I haven't shot any portraits as such with it yet, but the stuff I have done has come out really nice, and I enjoy both the focal length, the brightness and the sharpness characteristics of this 85mm. It's a lens that will be on my camera a lot in the future.

More samples

You can see plenty more samples of what this lens can do in these small galleries:
A wooden sailboat
A harbour walk
Another downtown and harbour walk

Gear mentioned: