Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G review: An awesome prime that doesn’t cost the earth

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DxOMark Lens

Introduction

The Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G is the third and latest incarnation of Nikon’s popular short telephoto prime lens. Originally launched in 1987 as the 85mm f/1.8 Nikon released an updated D version in 1994, which you can read a full review of here.

Designed primarily for the Nikon FX lens mount and full frame cameras like the Nikon D800 the 85mm focal length slightly compresses perspective, which is great for portraiture. Redesigned with a new optical arrangement and built-in SWM Autofocus Motor the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G is compatible with all Nikon D-SLRs, including entry-level options, like the Nikon D5100, which don’t have a built-in autofocus motor. Bear in mind however when mounted on a Nikon DSLR with an APS-C sensor the 1.5x ‘crop factor’ increases the focal length to 127.5mm, which is still okay for portraiture but means you’re going to have to stand a bit further back. The maximum aperture of f/1.8 also makes the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G ideal for low-light photography and will produce creative depth-of-field and attractive bokeh effects, too.

At just $500 it’s set at a good price point but with a plethora of options from third party manufacturers like Sigma, Carl Zeiss and Samyang available there’s plenty of choice for 85mm primes. Let’s take a closer look at the DxOMark Scores for the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G and see what you get for your money.

Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G: The best 85mm prime on a NikonD3x?

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Achieving an Overall DxOMark Score of 35 the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G prime lens is the best 85mm lens we’ve tested on the Nikon D3x DSLR. Scoring 17P-Mpix for sharpness, which is above the average of 15 P-Mpix on our database for 85mm primes, with a good 1.9TStop Transmission score and virtually no distortion, optically this is a very good lens. At just 4um Chromatic Aberration is well controlled too, although the weakest aspect of the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G is vignetting, which is strong when shooting at the maximum aperture of f/1.8. 

That DxOMark Lens Metric Score for Sharpness of 17P-Mpix places the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G 3rd out of the 14 85mm prime lenses on our database (Full Frame mount for Canon, Nikon and Sony camera). This is just behind the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G with a score of 19 P-Mpix and the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM for Canon also with 17 P-Mpix.

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Scoring 17P-Mpix for sharpness when tested on a Nikon D3X the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G prime lens is the 3rd sharpest of all 85mm lenses on DxoMark.

As you’d hope from a prime lens the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G delivers excellent sharpness at all aperture settings up to f/11 with only a minimal dip in performance at its minimum aperture setting of f/16. Importantly sharpness is also homogeneous across the frame, which means photographers can expect great edge-to-edge sharpness at all aperture settings from f/1.8 to f/16.

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Excellent Sharpness is maintained on the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G at all apertures up to f/11 with only minimal drop off at f/16
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Image sharpness on the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G is homogenous across the frame at all aperture settings from f/1.8 to f/16.

One of the weaker aspects of the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G lens however is corner shading, or vignetting, when shooting at wider aperture settings.   Between f/4 to f/16 it’s well controlled but stopped down to f/2.8 the undesired effect starts to become visible and at the maximum aperture of f/1.8 it’s positively heavy.

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Corning shading on the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G is evident using apertures of f/2.8 and wider with shots at f/1.8 requiring correction in post-production.
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Shooting at the widest aperture vignetting encroaches well into the frame and is only removed completely with the aperture stopped down to f/4

85mm portrait lenses for Nikon DSLRs battle it out: Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G Vs Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G Vs Sigma 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Nikon

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With all three lenses mounted and tested on a Nikon D3x DSLR the Overall DxOMark Scores demonstrate no significant difference between the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G, which scores 34, and the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G with 35. With a Lens Metric Score for Sharpness of 19P-Mpix, compared to 17P-Mpix and a Transmission Score of 1.7TStop compared to 1.9TStop the f/1.4 version of these two Nikon 85mm primes just edges out its f/1.8 rival. However, in terms of distortion and vignetting the cheaper f/1.8 version just has the edge, although the difference is so small it shouldn’t be noticeable. Of course if you’re working in very challenging low-light conditions or would like the stronger depth-of-field effects possible with the f/1.4 version then this is the better lens, but costing $1649 all that extra money only buys a minor improvement in overall sharpness.

The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM also boasts some very good Lens Metric Scores but it doesn’t perform quite as well as the two Nikon lenses and finishes 3rd in this comparison with an Overall Score of 30. In terms of Transmission, Distortion, Vignetting and Chromatic Aberration the results are similar and although the Sigma only just loses out to the Nikon f/1.8 version for Sharpness, 16P-Mpix to 17-P-Mix, results are not as homogeneous across the frame at the wider aperture settings, which has cost the Sigma f/1.4 EX DG HSM in the Overall DxOMark Score.

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With the aperture wide open at f/1.4 the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G is sharper and delivers better edge sharpness compared to the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
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f/2 both Nikon 85mm lenses put in an excellent performance across the frame while the Sigma 85mm continues to drop off at the edges
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Using apertures of f/2.8 and smaller all three lenses deliver a similar performance in terms of sharpness across the entire frame.
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This homogenous performance is consistent at all aperture settings from f/2.8 through to f/16 with excellent sharpness for such a small aperture
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Although at f/1.4 vignetting is evident using both lenses the Sigma 85mm performs better compared to the heavy corner shading on the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G
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Shooting at f/2 the same problem occurs on the Nikon f/1.8 version losing 2/3 Stop compared to the Nikon f/1.4 and 1 Stop compared to the Sigma f/1.4 EX DG HSM, which has almost completely solved the problem at this setting.
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With some vignetting still visible from the 2 Nikon 85mm lens at f/2.8 you need to stop down to f/4 to remove the problem completely.

Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G: Maybe the best 85mm for Nikon and great value for money

With an Overall DxOMark Lens Metric Score of 35 the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G is the best 85mm lens in the DxOMark database and well exceeds the average DxOMark Overall Score of 28 for this type of lens. 

Costing $500, a whooping $1149 cheaper than the Nikon f/1.4 version at $1649, it also represents excellent value for money if you can live without the f/1.4 maximum aperture. In terms of sharpness the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G finishes 3rd on the podium out of all 14 85mm primes lenses we’ve tested and again surpasses the average score for this category of 15 P-Mpix. Its best characteristic is homogenous sharpness with no edge softness even with the aperture wide open at f/1.8. It holds its own in our other Lens Metric Scores too with the notable exception of vignetting, which is where the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G falls down. Heavy corner shading that requires correction in post-production is evident at f/1.8 and the problem isn’t totally eradicated until the aperture is stopped down to f/4.

If you can live with this one downside however the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G is a cracking piece of glass for portraits and low-light photography. Nikon shooters into portraiture get the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G towards the top of your camera gear ‘wish-list’.

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The table for DxOMark Overall Lens Metric Scores for 85mm prime lenses on a Nikon DSLR shows the AF-S 85mm f/1.8G to be the best performer.
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Finishing 3rd for sharpness the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G is only a whisker behind the more expensive f/1.4 versions from both Nikon and Sigma.
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Plotting the DxOMark Overall Score for 85mm prime lenses against price it’s clear to see the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G lens offers the best value for money compared to the competition.