Is This Nikon's Best Value Portrait Lens?

Very often when there are two price options for a lens that has slightly different specs, the cheaper lens comes out on top in many peoples' eyes. In this review, two Nikkor 85mm prime lenses are put to the test against each other, so which one wins?

Unfortunately, photography is not a pastime or profession that is cheap. Between camera bodies, lenses, filters, software, and miscellaneous other gear and gadgets, we need deep pockets. So it's always nice to have the choice of a cheaper option for certain things such as lenses. But how much do you sacrifice in quality when you go for the cheaper version? As the old saying goes "you get what you pay for," but is that really the case in the camera lens world?

In this review, Matt Granger puts the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G lens up against its more expensive counterpart, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G. As he explains in the video, the f/1.8 version is about three times cheaper than the f/1.4 version, and about half the weight. The price and weight might be significantly different but what about image quality, which is really what we care about?

Granger puts four sets of similar photos taken with both lenses side by side, and even when I paused the video and really had a long look at each I couldn't tell much difference between them. Of course, how you define "difference" is very subjective but Granger makes a salient point which I wholeheartedly agree with: 99 percent of consumers and buyers of prints are not pixel-peepers who care about that extra bit of bokeh or that tiny bit of extra sharpness. Really, they don't. We might, but they don't. And as this review shows, the f/1.8 stacks up very well against the f/1.4.

Granger clearly states that in almost every aspect, the more expensive f/1.4 lens is better. But not so much better to warrant paying almost triple the price. And that's the conundrum we have to face as consumers, or professionals, or serious hobbyists: is the extra money really, really worth it when to the naked eye of most people, there really is very little variance between different priced versions of lenses?

What do you think?

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31 Comments

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

I'm pretty sure the whole 1.4g vs. 1.8g was beat to death shortly after Nikkor 85mm 1.8g was announced in 2012 so Matt is a bit late to the party. While Nikon was initially trying to push sales for very good but ridiculously priced 1.4g line of primes the company quickly understood that 1.8g primes is where the real money is. With virtually all new cameras operating very comfortably at ISO 6400 or higher most non-pro photogs cannot justify prices of 1.4g primes. The 1.8g line of primes is a product which IMO is greatly benefiting both Nikon and many end users.

I think it’s a smart move by some people to review older products and put them up against each other to give the topic some “fresh legs”. And Granger has a big enough following that his reviews will always rank well in Google/Youtube algos. If you’re just startig out trying to monetize a site, it’s probably better to review newer products but for those with big follower numbers and email lists, anything is fair game really.

And thanks for your insights on both lenses. The key word you used is “justify”. Exactly right.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Oh, I'm not trying to bash good ol' Matt of course. I was rather surprised why he would make this review now but as you explained it makes a lot of sense.

Yes, when you have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of subscribers, you can pretty much review anything and monetize it.

How we get that many subscribers is a different issue but Granger puts out lots of helpful, informative videos so good on him. :)

And DxO already reviewed the 1.8 better than the 1.4.

Vincent Alongi's picture

With the number of new photogs entering the market and stocking up on lenses, I don't think you can ever pooh-pooh a new review of products that have been out for a few years. After all, you're going off a number of years of the product in use by countless photographers, there is a nice amount of usage to refer to. I don't think this is time or effort wasted.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Having owned both, I spoke with my dollars and sold the 1.4G and kept the 1.8. Both are excellent lenses, but the money and weight savings are significant with the 1.8 enough for me to keep that one instead. No one I’ve shot for has noticed any difference in my work.

I’ve found the same and dollars always speak loudly to me! I know it’s slightly off-topic but it’s precisely why I haven’t jumped to a mirrorless system yet: 1) my clients and purchasers are still happy with what I’m producing for them 2) I can’t justify the hike in price with accompanying lenses etc in going to mirrorless when I just don’t see such a *massive* difference in quality. Plenty of others disagree, however.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Interesting way to look at it - I guess if you're going to Sony, yeah it could get expensive, but I've found that buying into Micro 4/3 and Fuji has excellent lenses at much less than DSLR (I'm looking at you, Fuji 56mm f/1.2 and you, Olympus 75mm f/1.8).

Yes my own life circumstances currently dictate what is or isn't feasible. New house, young daughter, another on the way etc etc all mean that switching systems and everything that goes along with it just doesn't make sense right now. Perhaps in the future, when my kids have graduated from Harvard, I might revisit things.... :)

Crystal Johnson's picture

I used to own that lens, I sold it and got the Sigma 85mm. I had major issues with it hunting, and missing focus plenty of times, even stopped down. I tend to shoot wide to f/2.8 so sharpness is a major factor, and the f/1.8 was not the best. The IQ is jut not there, but it would work as a starter lens. I would choose the older Sigma 85mm over the Nikon 1.8 any day of the week, and for roughly the same price too.

I take it you’re not talking about “hunting” literally?

A lot of “older” lenses, even from third party manufacturers, still stack up very well next to newer, supposedly more advanced versions.

Crystal Johnson's picture

Hunting as in the lens was trying to focus but wouldn't. Didn't matter if it was a contrasting area , light area, dark area... it would hunt for focus. It wasn't even a body issue, but the copy of lens I had, which is sad as I have quite a few Nikon lenses. The copy I had at the time was bought new from a camera shop, so not sure what was wrong.

The older Sigma I am talking about is amazing, even though the new Sigma 85mm Art is badass. The older copy too had major issues depending on the batch you got your lens from. Some back focused, some front focused.

It's sad that manufacturing can be an issue. Funnily enough (which I didn't mention in the article) the f/1.8 85mm is made in China whereas the f/1.4 85mm is made in Japan. That may be neither here nor there but it's true nonetheless.

Matt Williams's picture

I've actually found the Nikkor 85 1.8 to be *better* than the 1.4 in most regards. In the center, with both the 1.4 and 1.8 shooting at f/1.8, the 1.8 is sharper. It's also sharper at the edges. But, the 1.4G suffers from much worse lateral CA and bokeh fringing. Biggest issue with the 1.8 (in fact, one of the only issues) is flare (I assume because the 1.4 has Nano crystal coating, which the 1.8 does not).

I used the Nikkor 85 1.8 for a very long time, until I found a good deal on a Tamron SP 85 1.8, and I tried it out and knew it was a keeper. At least as sharp as the Nikkor, better bokeh (the Nikkor suffers from cat's eye bokeh wide open), more pleasing color and tonal rendition, and VC. Required zero focus calibration on my D810, which is highly rare. No AF issues with the outer focus points like my Sigma Art. I love it.

Very interesting and informative. Funnily enough, I own a couple Tamrons and love them both too....

I have a couple Tamrons and will dump them as soon as practical. Several years ago I had a Sigma and will never have another one of those, either. I do like my two manual focus Rokinons, though.
I love my Nikkor 85 f/1.8G. I'm sure there are better 85s out there but I'm in the business of taking photos, not rating or collecting lenses.

What have you found wrong with the Tamrons? And which ones do you have? I have the 16-300mm and love it paired up with an APS-C format camera like the 7dmkii. It's the only lens I take when I go on a family holiday. I also have the 150-600mm and I use that a lot for surf photography. Very pleased with its performance to date.

150-600 G1: It's not a bad lens but nothing special, which is probably to be expected based on the price. It usually gets the shot but I rarely care about the results. Not its fault but I'm not interested in that and so will replace it when I can afford to. Since I'm looking at the Nikkor 180-400, it may be a while.

Last version of 90mm macro: I bought it for portraits and macro. It's good for macro but the portrait photos were too contrasty, to the point of being "nervous", for my liking. Again, nothing special. After a couple years, the AF motor stopped working. I sent it in to Tamron and they fixed it under warranty. Now it works but isn't reliable. I tried adjusting it but I settle on +5 and then it's -7. Next it's spot on. Then it's +20. So I bought the 85 1.8 which works great and I love the results. I could finesse a good portrait out of the Tamron but the Nikon just gives it to me. Since I don't do a lot of macro, I hate to keep it just for that but don't know what I would replace it with.

To summarize, neither lens is bad. Just blah.

Hmm I wouldn’t be happy with all those problems either. My 150-600mm lives in my car in the back of my SUV. I tend to use it pretty much only at sunrise just before I go for a surf. I pair it up with my Canon 7dmkii which makes it effectively 900mm+.

I love that coz it means I can stand a long way from surfers and still get interesting action/lifestyle shots without being that annoying guy pointing a camera and bazooka lens at you barely more than 15 mins after you’ve woken up.

I haven’t had any trouble with it and would say it probably outperforms the 16-300mm at similar ranges.

Always good to hear other experiences though.

G1 or G2? I thought about trading mine out for the G2 but know I won't really be happy until I've bought a lens that costs more than my car! :-)

G1. Haha the state my car is in these days I think my plastic nifty fifty would fetch more

;-)

Matt Williams's picture

I'm also not in the business of rating or collecting lenses. The Tamron SP 85 that I tested simply out-performed my Nikkor 85. They are pretty much on par, it's very close, but I prefer the rendition of the Tamron vs the more neutral transmission of the Nikkor, and definitely prefer the bokeh on the Tamron.

I thought about the Tamron and especially because of the VR. If I have a reason to do so, I'll consider it.

Matt Williams's picture

I probably would never have gotten one if I hadn't found such a good deal on mine. The Nikkor 1.8 is already fantastic, and the differences aren't really objective; it's more which look you prefer, neither is better or worse.

Aside from the VR, which is obviously an objective benefit.

Very true about the “look” you like. I love backlit, almost washed out photos with stong lens flares going on. Other people tell me it’s overexposed or that should use fill flashes etc.....

You have to find what you like. If a particular lens happens to help that process then go for it in my world

The 1.8g is a very decent choice for its price, but not a stellar performer. It has the same problem as many other Nikkors wide open: purple CA. No way this lens is some kind of miracle performer, certainly not on the high res sensors - it is what it is at its price level, also having a very lightweight concept vs. f.i. a Zeiss or Sigma Art but don't let us exaggerate on the image quality. Nikon really has to improve the design standard of their lenses - Sigma f.i. is outperforming them already a while on the optical quality - which is really a shame. I've never been blown away by most of the AF/S G fixed focus lenses anyhow and many are also very cheapish (take f.i. the 50mm F1.4, the 28mm F1.8, really not up to today's expectation). I suspect that all effort in the coming years will go to the mirrorless range and will show a completely different kind of quality approach. That's not good for Nikon F.

A lot of what you say is subjective. I absolutely do NOT like the Sigma "look". I know a lot of people do so I don't disparage them. Especially as readily as those who do like it go after other lenses that other photographers happen to like. To each, their own.

Spy Black's picture

A couple of years back there was a review in Nikon Rumors of the then relatively new 105mm f/1.4. While the article was really about the 105, the author also had a Tamron 85 f/1.8 VC, and he included it and compared it along with the 105, the 85mm f/1.4 Nikkor, and the ancient 135mm f/2 DC. In the identical image comparisons, it was clear how much sharper and better corrected the Tamron was to the Nikkors. Although the 105 was as sharp and even sharper in some examples, the Tamron dusted the 85mm f/1.4 Nikkor and, not surprisingly, the ancient 135. It has less CA than ALL of them. Even though the article was about the 105, I came away quite impressed with the Tamron.
https://nikonrumors.com/2016/12/25/nikon-af-s-nikkor-105mm-f1-4e-ed-lens...

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