S ö r e n H e s e - P h o t o g r a p h y
- The "Cream Machine" - using the AF Nikkor 85 1.4D IF -
The Nikon AF 85 1.4D is a lens dedicated to low light photography and portraits. No question: this lens is for beauty photography - it renders reality at its wide open setting in a fashion that is best described with "magical". However low depth of field and soft bokeh should fit to your intentions. With this lens people come to very different conclusion. Some rave about the beautiful background blur and most of the full time photographers agree that the lens is sharp right from the wide open setting and just the perfect portrait lens with unrivalled abilities to throw the background into a soft and creamy soap of fading colours. Others however indicated that sharpness wide open isn't on a high level, but as you usually get this lens to use it at the wide open side of the ring, this is an important piece of the 85-story (actually my findings are that the lens is indeed unbelievable sharp at its wide open position at least in the centre of the frame, it seems however to be difficult to find the right focus point with a f1.4 lens opening with some DSLRs).
The AF 85 f1.4D mounted on a FM3A
I finally decided to get this lens because I find myself shooting mostly under avail. light conditions, I am not a flash type of photographer and I prefer to play with a blurred background. I rarely shoot closed down with a tele lens. So I expected to be able to broaden my creative work with unsharp and smooth backgrounds with this lens. Another aspect where this lens shines is portrait photography. Pointing a 70-200 mm f2.8 lens towards a person is intimidating and usually creates unspecific reactions that interfere with your photographic intentions - a dedicated people lens is much better suited for this task and gives an additional flexibility with faster shutter speeds you wouldn't have with a 2.8 zoom - especially with kids or on stage etc..
Lowlight photography is technically easy when a tripod can be used. If you want to freeze motions a tripod doesn't help much and using high ISO sensitivity values and fast lenses is a must. With increasing ISO abilities of the new DSLRs - as of march 2008: D3 and D300 - very fast lenses will allow to use available light with low light situations beyond good & bad. It just "defies limitations" to use Nikons clever slogan.
The lens comes with a massive metal hood that must be screwed on and with the lens hood mounted the whole lens/hood combinaton looks big - no question (and its not a lightweight: 550g). This is not a shy setup for church photos with an "I am not here!" attitude (though must be great for church events on a D3). The large and impressive front element of the lens looks kind of light hungry and the hood is also a good way to protect the front. The 85 uses the old AF-D design of the MF/AF-switch also used with the old two-ring 80-200 mm lens and with the old 20-35 mm AF-D lens design. The lens depends on the camera body screw driven autofocus system, therefore a quick manual change of the focus - overriding the AF system - isn't possible. You'll have to switch the AF/MF selector ring towards the MF-setting to override AF. Lots of comments in the net indicate that most people interested in that lens are waiting for an AFS version update of this focal length. Although I agree that an AFS version with N coating would be a nice update for this legendary lens - I am afraid to see this lens being "downgraded" to a G-type lens design with "lost" aperture ring. This would make this lens obsolete for the use on old FM-series cameras and would be a show-stopper for me. Others wouldn't mind to much probably. Because of the conversion towards G-type lenses [seems to be a trend these days] I am also watching what is happening to the 17-35 f2.8 lens which is at the moment (march '08) still avail as an non-G AFS incarnation with aperture ring (which is just the perfect functionality: non-G type + AFS).
However the AF/MF switch is something I don't like very much with this lens. I usually don't find the switch easily without removing the camera from my eyes (I noticed that you get used to find the switch after using the lens for some weeks regularly). The other aspect: when you are used to the AFS design you will automatically try to override auto focus occasionally - at least I do have this habit - and it annoys me when this is happening or better: when nothing happens because the lens is in AF mode. You might get used to turn the AF/MF switch - its not so much a problem if you have this lens mounted regularly.
The 85 mm f1.4 AF-D is one of these lenses that comes with the old fashioned crinkle paint that feels just perfect in your hands even when the conditions are hot and sweaty. Its a pure subjective feeling but I really like this surface finish and I regret that the crinkle paint disappears slowly with new lenses having a hammered painted finish.
The 9 aperture blades at f16 (as seen from the rear element).
The 9 aperture blades at f2.8 (as seen from the front element).
Focusing the lens in manual mode is a breeze but does not reach up to the feeling of the newer AFS 70-200 or older well dampened manual AIS lens designs. Its the tribute you pay for the AF coupling. Newer AFS lenses show a slightly smoother manual focus feeling imo. Its something worth to be mentioned but definitely not a show stopper. The lens comes with front and rear caps and includes a robust metal lens hood that has to be screwed onto the lens. On my sample the lens hood sits tight and doesn't seem to dismount easily but others have reported problems here, some had even problems to get the lens hood off the lens again. There seems to be agreement that the lens hood design is a problem with this lens. All new lenses use a snap on system that is locked easily.
The lens uses 9 curved aperture blades that form a nearly perfect round opening at least until f4. Some mentioned that the aperture closed down has no regular shape. As I also like these details I can confirm that but basically I don't care very much. This lens has to be used wide open between 1.4 and 2. I also thought (as many others out there) about the f1.8-version. If you rarely use the lens wide open the 1.8 might be the right alternative but build quality and the round diaphragm could be also important to you. You get the 85 f1.8 for a fraction of the price you pay for f1.4 and you could easily buy another AIS lens for what you saved with the f1.8 version (if you don't need f1.4 than maybe the 105DC f2 is the better option, see below).
The reasons to buy the f1.4 version are:
1. motion freezing shutter speeds!
2. extreme selective focus with very good optical performance
3. very good "bokeh"
4. extra joy to use a wonderfully crafted and performing lens :)
If you do not need 1, 2, 3 or 4 then just don't buy this lens! Its not really so simple, but think carefully (and for a while) what your dominant shooting style is (btw: on the used market the 85 value is high and as long as no update of the 85f1.4 design is announced the value of this lens will stay high, however if a G-type AFS N design will surface, the used market value of the AF-D version will very probably descend immediately - making this lens a bargain).
Portrait lens alternatives for the Nikon F-mount:
Used market only:
Something that came to my mind when I read all these "should I buy A or B"-kind discussions: do it once and do it right. Usually you end up with the real stuff in the end but lose some money on the way to find exactly what you need. Thats usually the case with tripods or ball heads. People buy 3 different tripods and ball heads until they end with a Gitzo and an Arca type of quality BH. Same story with portrait lenses imo.
Some other aspects are the format consequences. On a full format (35 mm) sensor the lens works different than on an APS-C sized sensor. You'll have to get closer if you switch to Nikons full frame chip (FX) with the same lens. There seems to be a trend towards the 105DC because of the conversion switch that makes people wonder how to get back "reach" with their lenses. For me motion freezing shutter speeds was the important aspect. I can get the rest done with the AFS 70-200 f2.8. But I agree: all this is very much a matter of taste and shooting style. The lenses that should be checked more in detail if you are unsure what to get are i.m.o. the Nikkor 105DC if you need AF or the Zeiss ZF if you don't. I believe it boils down to these three lenses (at the moment).
Just as a side note: Sonys Alpha lens catalogue lists a special 135 mm f2.8 /T4.5 lens with a lens element that is supposed to create a "perfect" bokeh. Sony calls it "Smooth Trans Focus" (STF). Would be interesting to see how this lens works under real shooting conditions. Looking at advertising material it seems to be the absolute bokeh king and gives THE perfect OOF blur circles. Well, we will see ... . The DC feature (Defocus Image Control Feature) of the DC-Nikkors should work comparably as it changes the spherical aberration in the out-of-focus areas. One should do a side by side comparison of the different bokeh concepts. The optical construction is very different. Sony f.e. is using a graduated neutral grey filter like optical element (Apodisation Element) together with a second aperture system for its bokeh lens, whereas Nikon changes the spherical aberration by moving a lens element.
For more technical information check the Nikon web page for this lens here.
Performance: (APS-C format):
With an APS DSLR it is indeed difficult to precisely focus that lens at f1.4. After some testing I believe that most of the disappointment of some people comes from focus errors (same might be true with the Nikkor 50 mm f1.2 AIS). The Depth of Field with this lens is just very small. Having a look into the lens manual reveals that if your subject is 85 cm in front of your focal plane you will have a depth of field of 8 mm at f1.4 (compare with Table 1)! Focusing the eyes of a child will throw the nose into the out of focus area and minimal movement of the subject will ruin your shot. Compare with the child portrait below. While his eyes and his mouth are in focus his nose remains defocused. With kids in motion its more a trial and error thing to get the shot that you want. The autofocus of the AFS 70-200 f2.8 is much more successful to keep up with motions in these situations and the lens also creates wonderful background blur (though its not as much a motion freezer and works only from a distance - best blur with 200 mm ... and its big!). One aspect not mentioned often is that the 85 makes lots of noises while auto focusing. Especially using continuous autofocus the lens tries to keep up with subject movements and creates lots of noises.
Shooting very distant objects with the lens set to f1.4 is also tricky in my opinion. The lens manual states that the infinite focus setting gives sharpness between 155 Meters and infinity. To be clear: I am a bit puzzled with this depth of field table as the focus doesn't seem to be there when I tested this with some sceneries and objects at least 150 meters away. After I checked the distance later in Google Earth I realised that the distance to the subject must have been in the area of 110 meters. So infinite focus was wrong. It should have been a wee bit in front of infinite but that was just not discernable for me in the viewfinder of my D1x and the autofocus indicator lamp was showing the "in focus" sign. My feeling is that the AF system at least with the D1x isn't precise enough for this lens, but I could be wrong or this lens/camera just needs some focus calibration done. Others mentioned however that some focus correction performed with the D300 and D3 brings up the full potential of some lenses. My impression is however that with the lens used wide open at f1.4 it is very difficult to manually focus the lens in the .. lets say: 100-150 m range and also the autofocus performance with the older systems (tested with a D1x) has some tolerances that might play a role here (on a focus chart the lens was spot on).
Table 1: Depth of Field in Meters (source: Nikon Instruction Manual AF Nikkor 85 mm f/1.4D IF)
For the sharpness tests with my sample I did focus bracketing with manual focusing and shooting 4 frames with each frame closer to infinite. As the lens was build for short distances these tests shouldn't be taken too serious but in fact I was surprised that the lens is so sharp at f1.4. Closing the lens down to f4 or f5.6 doesn't change the world for the centre sharpness. Obviously longitudinal chromatic aberration disappears and contrast increases.
A comparison with my AFS VR 70-200 f2.8G lens at 85 mm clearly shows that the AFD 85f1.4 does deserve the praise. It is very similar to the 70-200 at 85 mm but the chromatic correction of the 70-200 is definitely superior. Just klick on the following thumbnail (1 Mb) to open the comparison JPG in full resolution. This is the 100% resolution from the (somewhat boring) subset image below. But the chimney was interesting for this comparison. All photos were made using a tripod mounted setup, VR-off and shutter speeds shorter than 1/200 of a second. Both lenses get tack sharp at f5.6.
Far-range resolution test: AFS VR 70-200 f2.8 vers. AFD 85 f1.4, klick on the thumbnail above for a full res comparison with various aperture settings.
Nikkor AF-D IF 85 f1.4 at f1.4; 2.8; 5.6; 8; RAW NEF processed in Lightroom 10MP output from D1x RAW, sharpening: amount=25, radius=1. Note that this shot shows some purple fringing at f1.4 (totally gone by 5.6) with the D1x sensor. The situation might be even better with the newest DSLR generation.
Close focusing sharpness and contrast in the centre is great even wide open at f1.4 and is increased closing the lens down to f4. The potential might be more visible with a 12+ MPixel sensor. But even with the D1x native 5.3 Megapixel sensor the difference is visible (shown are subsets from the 10 MP mode of the D1x data).
Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D focused close (left at f1.4, right at f4), D1x RAW NEF processed in Lightroom, sharpness: amount=25, radius=1.
In-focus comparison (left: AF 85 f1.4D, right: AFS VR 70-200 f2.8 G (for a full resolution version klick on the figure above).
Out-of-focus CA comparison (left: AF 85 f1.4D, right: AFS VR 70-200 f2.8 G (for a full resolution version klick on the figure above).
Comparing the AFS VR 70-200 lens with the AFD 85 mm at 2.8 with close range focused objects I could hardly see any differences in sharpness or resolution between these two lenses. At least I can hardly find these differences or the D1x does not resolve them. One difference is clearly visible: colour fringing is much better corrected with the 70-200 mm lens again (you will hardly find any CA in out of focus areas). The direct comparison might also indicate that the 70-200 is designed for the close- to midrange focus areas. The lens seems to perform much better here. You might want to compare some results at photozone.com (for APS-C based formats) for that purpose. Interesting is that the Nikkor 85 f1.4 D seems to create images with a wee bit colder colour rendition.
You find the full resolution files (D1x 10 MP-mode files) of the rope-pictures from above for the Nikkor AFD 85 f1.4 here: @f1.4 (2Mb) and here @f8 (3Mb). Resolution is fantastic - you can easily see the fine hairs of the ropes that have only fractions of a millimetre diameter. (The 10 MP-mode of the D1x is double interpolated in one direction. The original CCD dimension is: 4,024 x 1,324 Pixels. The 10 MP-modes just creates a 4,024 x 2,648 Pixels image. On a real 10+ MP chip you will probably see even more details.)
As I mentioned earlier its is under specific circumstances difficult to find the right focus point. Checking a new lens for decalibration is easy if you use a focus test chart as the one provided f.e. by Jeffrey Friedl. At his site you will also find a very good explanation how to use this test chart.
Using this test chart with strong black/white contrast with the AFD 85 mm f1.4, you will find that CA in the out of focus areas is extreme. However the detail the lens resolves at f1.4 is great and it gets even better when CA disappears when the lens is closed down. At f2.8 in the centre the lens resolves a bit more than the AFS 70-200 at f2.8. Clearly chromatic aberration covers the out of focus areas but the test chart is clearly not the thing your are going to photograph with this lens frequently.
The original setup with the focus chart shot under approx. 30 degree:
You find the subsets from the area where the in-focus "cuts" through the focus chart here:
Notice that this is a comparison of the respective f-numbers with the AFS VR 70-
200 f2.8, both lenses seem to be on par up from f2.8, but I find the overall sharpness of the 85 mm lens to be wee bit better. The area bar signatures at the right border of the chart is much better plotted than with the 70-200. Its difficult to conclude here because the D1x 10MP files are interpolated in the y-direction. Its clear that the 85 resolves somewhat more here imo. Looking at an ISO resolution chart the situation is comparable. The CA is masking the resolution somewhat at f1.4. Under practical shooting conditions this CA doesn't necessarily have to be relevant, as I said before.
This is a subset of the zipper (in focus) (D1x RAW, Lightroom processing: sharpening: amount 25%, radius = 1, defringing =all edges)
This is a subset of the out of focus area behing the focus. The greenish out of focus chromatic aberration is obvious and typical for this lens (shot on D1x RAW, Lightroom processing: sharpening: amount 25, radius = 1, defringing =all edges), it can be indeed field relevant for large prints but if you know about it its easier to avoid it.
The lens makes a very different impression on "full format" camera bodies, for me namely 35 mm cameras. I cannot judge border sharpness or light-fall-off here yet but due to the wider angle of view unsharp background is more dominating in my compositions with film.
Obviously the web is full of good explanations of "Bokeh" but there still seems to be some confusion concerning this specific property of a lens. Probably mainly because it is hard to measure bokeh. And some find it just ridiculous to discuss this lens property at all. Anyways, I believe that its an important part of character of a lens and should be taken into account, especially when discussing the Pro&Cons of a dedicated very fast portrait lens. "Bokeh" describes how a point light source is rendered in the out of focus area. Usually bokeh relates to the appearance of the "circle of confusion". The "circle of confusion" should not look like a doughnut (mirror lenses create doughnuts) and should show a gradual smooth transition. With very good bokeh usually the background blur will not distract from the subject in focus. I actually like the intro to bokeh that Ken Rockwell gives at his website (although his website is often the subject of hot controversial (and unneeded) debates). You will find a very good and more technical introduction to aberrations with optics at http://www.vanwalree.com/optics.html.
The AF-D 85 f1.4 shows very smooth transitions of background blur and the unsharpness is simply best characterised with "creamy". The defocused background is imo. comparable with the defocused background of the 70-200 AFS lens zoomed to its 200 mm position at its wide open setting (the 70-200 is perfectly corrected and you will hardly find any chromatic aberrations). Both lenses show wonderful background blur and very nice blur circles and this is what gives most shots a very specific and attractive appearance. Due to the fact that the aperture has nine blades closing down the lens leaves the round circle of confusion mainly intact and polygonal features are hardly visible.
Longitudinal chromatic aberration: "inability of a lens to focus different colours in the same focal plane" (www.vanwalree.com) is the only "real" problem of this lens imo. It might not be a problem for everyone but under specific circumstances it can be kind of annoying. In fact its all about how this lens is used. All of the very fast tele lenses in the 85 mm focal length area (without ED glass elements) seem to have this aberration problem.
Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f1.4 at closest focus distance. Typical application of this lens and exactly where it shines. Note how the nose is out of focus in this shot while the left eye is partly in focus, a tiny bit green chroma aberration (behind focus) here with the hairs is typical for this lens.
Nikkor AFD 85 f1.4 @f1.4 - the circles of confusion look nearly perfect with very homogenous brightness values although the borders could be softer. There is a minimal greenish tint at the borders of the circles.
Nikkor AFD 85 f1.4 @f2- the circles of confusion show slightly polygon edge shapes but you have to look carefully to detect the aperture shape here. There are no ring artefacts and the glow looks nice.
Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f4
Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f5.6
Ok, these wine bottle shots don't have much artistic value. I made these pictures just to analyse how the blur circles change when you stop the lens down. In principle the circle of confusion should not have any double rings and should fade into the surrounding colours. This is not the case with this lens but the circles have a nearly perfect round shape.
Canon 500D & Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f1.4
Canon 500D & Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f1.4
Canon 500D & Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f1.4
Nikkor AF-D 85 f1.4, Nikon PB-4, PK-13 combination with D1x, @f1.4 (note the color fringing behind the focus (green) and in front of the focused area (in red)). OK I know :), this lens was not made for macro artistics.
Nikkor AF-D 85 f1.4, Nikon PB-4, PK-13 combi, @f1.4 (note the color fringing behind the focus (green) and in front of the focus (in red)). Yep, this lens wasnt designed for macro photography (s.a.).
Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f1.4
Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f1.4
Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f1.4
Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D (shown is the floor of the "Heilands-Church" with some remains from the 2nd World War at the south western former border to West-Berlin/Germany ("Sacrower Heilands Kirche").
Sören Hese (c) 2006