Fstoppers Reviews the New Best Portrait Lens, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4

Fstoppers Reviews the New Best Portrait Lens, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4

Canon has always been known for its fabulous portraits lenses: the 85mm f/1.2 and the 135mm f/2. I used to own and love both of them, with a preference for the first. When I bought into the Nikon system, I was afraid I would miss these two optics. But truth be told, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 is at least as good as its Canon equivalent if not better! Regarding the 135mm, that’s a whole different story as the Nikon’s is quite old now. However, they recently announced the 105mm f/1.4, and I had the chance to put my hands on it for a few weeks! Let’s see how it compares with other portrait lenses and if it could potentially replace a 135mm.

Many people regarded the 105mm f/1.4 announcement as very bizarre. The new portrait lens is not extremely different from the 85mm in terms of focal length and most people probably expected a 135mm replacement instead. Nonetheless, the 105mm in itself is an interesting focal length for many uses, especially for someone who owns a 58mm even though they don’t share the same image quality or look at all.

Build Quality

When taking the lens in your hands for the first time, you immediately notice its weight and size. It’s not small by any means. For someone used to the Canon 85mm f/1.2, it’s nothing very surprising, but for Nikon users, it might feel beefy.

Canon 5DII with 85mm f/1.2 vs. Nikon D810 with 105mm f/1.4

Canon 5DII with 85mm f/1.2 on the left and Nikon D810 with 105mm f/1.4 on the right

I used this lens for portrait, weddings, and tried to use it for beauty. For portraiture, its size and weight don't bother me all that much. It’s rare that my sessions last for more than one or two hours, and I usually can put the camera down quite often. However, when shooting weddings, my back definitely felt the difference. The first wedding I shot with it, I forced myself to keep using it and not put my 85mm on instead. On the second wedding, I used the 85mm almost all day long, and only used the 105mm when I needed the little extra reach it offers.

The Nikon 105mm f/1.4 doesn’t have image stabilization (VR) and my feelings are quite mixed in that regard. While having VR would make it the perfect lens for many scenarios – wedding’s reception and ceremonies, natural light portraiture, or even video –, it would also add more weight on the scale.

All in all, the build quality is what you would expect from Nikon at that price: beefy and rugged. I’d advise people that are interested in this lens and would use it for journalistic style photography, including wedding, to try it before buying it. I know many Canon photographers disliked the 85mm f/1.2 for it’s weight, so I guess it will be a similar "issue" with this beautiful piece of glass.

Overall Performances

I didn’t do any scientific test with this lens: no chart, no pre-defined scenes, and no laboratory comparison. There are more than enough specialized websites that publish such reviews. Instead, I used it for a few weeks like I would if it were mine. My main question was: should it replace my Nikon 85mm f/1.4 or would it complement it?

Autofocus

Let’s start with autofocusing. This is yet another point where people used to the Canon 85mm f/1.2 won’t get disappointed, but I can hardly say the same for Nikon 85mm f/1.4 users. AF is not lightning fast though extremely accurate. It’s not a surprise that focusing is slower than its little brother as there is much more glass to move. I had very few pictures where focusing was not on point, a rate I would compare to what I get from the 85mm f/1.4 actually. So yes, this lens may not be the fastest one on earth, but if you are a wedding photographer, you can learn to live with it if you can anticipate the scenes. For portrait photographers, I don’t see the focusing speed being an issue at all. What could be, however, is the minimum focusing distance.

Focus can be achieved from one meter all the way to infinity. When Nikon announced the 105mm f/1.4, I kind of wished I use it for close portraiture and beauty photography and stop relying on a macro lens. But the one meter focusing distance is just too long for that. The 105 f/2.8 macro still has its place in my bag.

Sharpness

Regarding sharpness, there is nothing to complain about here! It’s sharp wide open and extremely sharp once closed down a bit. I tried to compare it to the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 and had trouble saying which one was the sharpest, and that was when shooting with a D810. Keep in mind, however, that the depth of field is razor thin at f/1.4 especially at this focal length when shooting up close. So wide open, if any front or back focusing happens, the resulting image will be soft and most likely unusable. But it’s that shallow depth of field that makes you want to buy this lens… I don’t see people buying this to shoot at f/8 or f/11.

The Look

So far, technically speaking, as you can understand, it doesn’t justify its price compared to the 85mm f/1.4. Then why should you pay over $2,000 for a lens that is not way better than what you already have or could have for less? The compression, the bokeh, the razor thin depth of field, or to make it simple: the look it renders.

The 105mm is to the 85mm what the 58mm is to the 50mm in terms of focal length: one that some will love and others hate, but one that creates less distortion. Because it’s longer, it will be a bit more flattering than the 85mm for portraiture, and won’t give the more flat result of a 135mm. I’d argue that it’s probably the best focal length for portraiture! In fact, when I used to shoot Canon, I would shoot most of my portraits with the 85mm or the 100mm macro, but very rarely with the 135mm.

Now, what about the bokeh. Perhaps you are wondering if it has a similar look to what the 58mm offers. I’ll stop you right there. It’s nothing like the 58mm. I mean yes, it’s still magical, but it’s another artsy lens that so many hate. Perhaps you are wondering if is anything like the Canon 85mm f/1.2… well… it’s hard to say. The bokeh is dreamy and butter smooth, but it just doesn’t have that "Canon feel." I find it more contrasty and less soft, but that may just be my opinion. Below are two sets of pictures, shot wide open with both lenses. The distance from my model was approximately the same (roughly one meter away). Both photos have been processed with similar settings in Capture One, but no further retouching was done. I want you to be able to see what the image looks like without any editing that could change the pictures. I’ll let you be the judge and chose your winner:

The bokeh of the Nikon 105mm f/1.4 shines when you want to shoot portraits on location but need to remove any distraction from the final image. The shallow depth of field of this lens and its incredibly smooth bokeh do a fantastic job at blurring the background.

Other Technical Fluff

I won’t go into much details regarding the technical aspect of the lens as most of the things that used to be an issue are corrected in camera nowadays. Just know that vignetting is strong when shooting wide open; chromatic aberration is very minimal, and so is distortion. I could spend a few other paragraphs showing you images of the vignetting, fringing I have had in some strongly backlit situations, but honestly, with the raw processing software and cameras we have nowadays, most of it is corrected by default by lens profiles. No need to hate me in the comment section if you wanted to see white background pictures with vignetting, I’m sure DxO or other lab websites will give you the opportunity to see all that as well as fancy numbers that don’t matter in the real world.

Price

Priced at $2,196.95, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4 is everything but cheap. I wish it were $500-700 less expensive, but at the current price, if you own an 85mm f/1.4, it will be hard to justify adding it to your kit. In all honesty, I loved this lens. It’s stellar for portraiture and serves its purpose for weddings when you need more reach and don’t want to lug around a 70-200mm. So who is this lens for? Well, I would say either for people that have $2,000 lying around or for those that don’t already own an 85mm and are looking for the best current portrait lens on the market.

What I Liked

  • Beautiful bokeh
  • Perfect length for portraiture
  • f/1.4 very useful in low light
  • Very sharp

What I Didn’t Like

  • A tiny bit hefty, both in weight and price
  • Great AF, but not as fast as the 85mm f/1.4
  • Minimal focusing distance a bit long for my taste

Have I Sold My 85mm?

Reading my review, you may think that I have mixed feelings regarding 105mm f/1.4 – Not so fast AF, 1m minimum focusing distance, no VR, heavy lens… but honestly, I loved it despite these minor issues! The reason why I pointed out these problems is that I know that for some users it will be issues that will refrain them from buying this glass. The last thing I want is reading comments from disappointed photographers because they didn’t know about it. But at the same time, these negative points may be positive ones for other users. The slower AF slows you down and forces you to take your time, the minimum focusing distance makes you work on your framing differently, the weight replaces biceps curls at the gym…

The size differrence between the Canon 85mm f/1.2, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4, and the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 is quite noticeable

I love my 85mm f/1.4 for fast paced work. It’s an incredible lens, but it lacks the character I liked so much about the Canon 85mm f/1.2. It’s almost too perfect. The v is much more similar in that regard, and I think it’s a beautiful thing!  My 85mm f/1.4 is staying in my bag for now because it’s more practical for weddings, but if I were ever to stop shooting weddings, I would probably consider trading my 85mm for the 105mm as I find it just a tiny bit more interesting for portraiture, especially in combination with my 58mm f/1.4.

What do you guys think about this lens? Have you tried it? Do you still hope Nikon will get a 135mm lens on the market soon?

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36 Comments

Would consider selling my 85mm f1.4/D

JUSTIN SISSON's picture

I really wish Nikon would do a 100MM macro, the canon version is pure magic!

Nikon has a 105mm f2.8 Macro, came out long before this 105mm f1.4 Portrait lens.

Robert Slowley's picture

Surely (among Nikon primes) the 200mm f2 is the better portrait lens? I thought it was famed as the best (or 'one of the best') for that purpose? The 85mm being a close second.

Anonymous's picture

Sometimes you just don't have the working distance for the 200.

Plus $7K vs $3K.

Anonymous's picture

Well yes... there's that! :-)

Ryan Cooper's picture

I will always remember Zach Arias' story about why the 200mm f/2.0 actually is a crappy option for shooting portraits.

He had always lusted after that lens. He had been amazed by the photos it took and secretly wished he could justify purchasing one for his business. Then one day he was at a conference of some sort and a contact of his was shooting with one. He eagerly walked over to get a chance to play with it and as he came forward the photographer lifted the camera and snapped a photo of Zach.

Zach's desire for the lens immediately disappeared. Why? because the photographers entire head disappeared behind the enormous lens. The lens is so large and it forces such a wide working distance that it obliterates any connection the Photographer has to his or her subject. No matter how great the lens is at actually taking photos if a portrait lens blocks a photographer's ability to connect with and coach the subject of the portrait it becomes a barrier to creating great portraiture.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

I'd chose 35 or 50mm over a 200mm for portraiture any day! 200mm is probably fantastic for beauty or fashion work where models are used to it and the compression might be welcome.

Was really excited when they announced this lens. Can't really use as Canon user though... I'm using the old manual Nikon 105 F/2.5 but can't compare those two!

Wayne Denny's picture

Definitely my dream lens. I'm currently using an 85mm 1.8 but I would love to get my hands on this thing. Thanks for the (real life) review. Technical testings tend to make my brain shut down, but I love reading stuff like this...

Spy Black's picture

In all honesty I don't think it matters much which 85 or 105 you use. It really comes down to how you use them. I think someone also threw the Tamron 85mm f/1.8 into a comparison test and it did quite well. The depth of field thing I think gets pretty blown out of proportion. I think anything from f/2.8 out works quite well.

Patrick Hall's picture

You know, I tend to agree with you. I'm finding it hard to tell a major difference between these two lenses from all the test images, and the differences you do see are like 5% max.

The biggest thing I've learned being in the photography world is that the most successful photographers are often shooting on pretty basic gear but their concepts and final images are way beyond what 95% of the photo community is producing. Photographing interesting people, concepts, fine art, new and unseen compositing, etc is ultimately what separates those that struggle and those that are making a pretty easy living at photography.

Another thing I find funny is how obsessed photographers are with shallow depth of field. If you flip through ANY magazine on the newstands or look at photos that are bought and sold through advertising agencies, you will be shocked at how few photographs are shot at f /1.2 - f1.8. Of course some of the low light stuff require this but whole genres like studio, fashion, architecture, landscapes, composite work are not shot wide open. Heck, even most "portraits" of celebrities and environmental portraits aren't even shot that wide.

The shallow depth of field look IMO is the easiest trick a photographer can pull out to make their images look "professional" yet the actual buyers of art and media aren't flocking to that look in general.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Totally agree. I guess the depth of field trend started with so many people trying to imitate the "medium format look" with 35mm cameras. Also, shooting at f/2.0 and wider is extremely forgiving in terms of composition as long as the light is somewhat decent and focusing correctly done. More and more photographers do not know how to use artificial light or even just see light… shooting wide open is great to hide many possible technical mistakes.

Rob Mynard's picture

I picked up a copy of the 105mm just over a week ago, and so far I've run it through 2 weddings, a pre-wedding shoot, a location scout, and a little mid week street shooting in Bali. I can happily say that it has taken pride of place in my bag, replacing both my 85mm and 135mm. Taking the place of 2 lenses means that the weight and size of the beast is offset, and now I can sell both redundant lenses to ease the cost. In fact I approached last Sunday's wedding with just two lenses, the Sigma 35mm Art, and the Nikon 105mm.
It's a truly beautiful bit of glass. One thing not touched on during this review is the swirl to the bokeh when shooting wide open, giving a fairy-tale, romantic look to portraits shot in the right environment.

Nice, helpful review. Tempting lens to get. I can't quite get past the brunette though. She's stunning!

Robert Johnson's picture

I would like to upgrade a couple lens, but just can't justify the prices that Nikon is asking for them. There appears to be a pricing shift where the prices are getting closer to the upper $2000 - $3000. Does it appear that Nikon has a pricing scheme for professionals that earn their living solely as a professional photographer. I am a part time professional and would like to upgrade my lens but just can't justify the cost, I am not solely dedicated to using only Nikon I also have Tamaron lens too. Nikon is slowly working it's way up to the $3000 - $4000 range on their standard primes in the next generation. Would it be surprising to see a $2500 50mm f1.4 prime?

If you are part time professional then modt probably you have other part time job where you need less gear and can sponsor photo part of your career?

Robert Johnson's picture

No I wish I did have another part time job, I have a full time job as a Deputy Clerk of the Circuit Court in Electronic Data, that's where my real money comes from and often serve as the photographer. My complaint was with the upward pricing of the new lens, as with the release of the new 70mm - 200mm f2.8 many professional photographers have expressed concern about the pricing of Nikon's lens and the 70mm - 200mm being almost $3000 without taxes and here in Illinois it's 10%, it causes me to wonder, who is Nikon marketing this lens to? And thanks for your quick reply.

Most probably to high paid pros, who need this lens and rich amateurs, who else? :)

Rob Mynard's picture

I believe part of the problem lays with the currently weaker American dollar, and Nikon, despite being a Japanese company, tend to buy and sell in $US. So even where I am in Australia, where the $AU and the Yen are quite consistent, a fall in the $US causes a price rise in Nikon gear.

Anonymous's picture

What strikes me the most is the Nikon still has that very yellow cast to the skin tones whilst the Canon is more neutral/magenta.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

White balance was matched in post using Capture One. But still, the color rendering is slightly different. I noticed going through my test files that Canon files tended to be more neutral in terms of colors and less contrasty than the one I got from my Nikon D810 with either the 85 or 105.

Jim Bolen's picture

Unfortunately, this test between the lenses isn't scientific at all. You also have to take into account the different sensors. One of the reasons I shoot Nikon is because I feel skin tones look a lot better than Canon. What would be an interesting test is to see the comparison on the same body- like a Sony A7 series camera using an adapter.

Sean Berry's picture

I am in love with my 105mm f/1.4 - I actually shot an NBA game with it the other night, and yes the focusing is slow but not slow enough to where it wasn't usable. I got some beautiful images from the baseline with it.

A great lens, well done from Nikon. However, I prefer the rendering of the Sony 85/1.4GM. 11 aperture blades and larger diameter than necessary produce less catseye bokeh and make for nice transitions stopped down. Very sharp, too. Additional benefit: eye-autofocus.

I bought this yesterday 🙌🏻 Couple photos here: Instagram.com/glassworkscreative

Aaron Gang's picture

Can anyone compare this lens to 105 f2 DC? How come no mention of that? I shoot headshots exclusively with the 105 DC and the 135 DC. I actually prefer the flatter 135. Anyone else? Just curious why I don't see anything on the DC pair of portrait lenses.

Stop making me want to spend more money! haha

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