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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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?