Nikon 85mm f/1.8 S Lens Review

bythom nikon 85mmS

What is it?

The 85mm f/1.8 S is the third in a series of moderately fast Z-mount prime lenses to appear. At least two more such lenses will eventually arrive (20mm and 24mm focal lengths). 

Like the 35mm and 50mm versions before it, the 85mm f/1.8 S takes a very simple form: a modern polycarbonate lens barrel with few distinguishing features and a wide focus (or control) ring. The lens barrel, while polycarbonate, disguises the underlying magnesium alloy frame holding the lens elements. That helps with weather resistance (the lens also has the rubber gasket at the lens mount that Nikon’s new designs use to keep water ingress out of the camera).

You’ll find only one switch on the lens, controlling whether the lens is set to manual or autofocus (A_M). Focus itself is handled by two stepper motors, something that is becoming more common as we get new lens designs where more than one group moves during focus.

The 85mm f/1.8 S is neither particularly small, nor is it large for a fast 85mm optic at approximately 3 x 4” (75 x 99mm). The lens doesn’t extend or rotate with focus. Weight comes in right around one pound (470g). 

Inside, we’ve got a slightly more complex optical arrangement than we’ve seen from Nikon in this focal length in the past, with 12 elements in 8 groups, 2 of which are ED elements. Nano coating is present to control flare. Apertures are handled by a 9-blade rounded diaphragm mechanism, with a minimum aperture of f/16.

Minimum focus is about 32” (0.8m), which is the same as the F-mount version. Maximum reproduction ratio is the same, too, at 1:8.3. Focus is, of course, by wire, as is the case with most mirrorless products.

The front filter ring is 67mm, and the lens comes with a bayonet HB-91 lens hood. 

The lens is made in China and sells for US$799. 

Source of the reviewed lens: purchased.

Nikon’s page for the lens

How’s it Handle?

Not much to say about the S primes. The switch switches, the ring rotates smoothly. 

The barrel of the 85mm f/1.8 S is mostly just that, a straight barrel most of which is focus ring, so there’s nothing your hand is going to find odd when holding it.

The lens hood is probably the only handling thing I’d point out: there is very little knurl to give you grip when trying to twist the hood on and off the lens. You’re often left trying to turn the hood with your fingers on smooth plastic. But even if your fingers do find the two small knurl strips, they don’t provide a lot of grip help.

How's it Perform?

Autofocus: Nikon touts the fast focus speed on this lens due to its dual motors. Certainly compared to the 85mm F-mount lenses, the 85mm f/1.8 S is a very snappy performer. At this focal length, with many lenses you often see a little slide-to-focus-point when you move between near and far focus points. Even in low light on my Z50 any focus slide with the 85mm f/1.8 S is so fast most people won’t notice it. In bright light, the lens focus is quite snappy.

Note that the 85mm f/1.8 S focus breaths (angle of view changes slightly as you rack focus). This makes it unusual in the Z-mount lineup, as virtually all the other Nikkors do not exhibit this tendency.

Sharpness: More so than any other telephoto I've seen recently, this lens is difficult to find any real shortcomings for. Yes, technically f/4 is about the best aperture at which to use the lens, where I would call it superb from edge to edge (I rarely use the word superb with lenses). But it's clearly excellent edge to edge at any non-diffracted aperture. I don't recall another lens with such a well balanced across-the-frame sharpness.

One caution: you’re used to central area sharpness but fade-to-blurry corners with telephoto lenses. So much so that some of you think of that as the “look” of an 85mm (or 105mm). If so, the 85mm f/1.8 S is not your lens, and you’re likely going to make (false) claims that it looks wrong to have sharp corners. Vignetting and corner softness are indeed flattering things that keep viewer’s eyes on the face with portraits, but that’s a learned look based upon the traits of older lenses. Put another way, a head and shoulders portrait taken with the 85mm f/1.8 S is going to look a little different than the portraits you got from any 85mm lens on your DSLR. Personally, I like acuity. This lens has it in spades, no matter where you look. But I know of photographers who actually avoid acuity in portraits.

Linear Distortion: A very low level of barrel distortion closer to 0% than 1%, which was surprising (typically telephoto lenses are designed in ways that produce a bit of pincushion distortion). Most people aren't going to want to correct this low level of distortion.

Chromatic Aberration: Latitudinal? Low. Very low. To the point where even if you were to turn the lens corrections off you probably wouldn't bother to correct it. Sure, at f/11 and f/16 there's a bit more latitudinal CA at the edges than at the faster apertures, but it's still at a very low level. Longitudinal CA tends to produce purple on high contrast edges wide open, and is present in observable and tough to correct ways on the 85mm f/1.8 S shot wide open, as is usual on a fast prime.

Vignetting: You knew there had to be a catch, right? Just under 2 stops of vignetting wide open, with clearly more than a stop across all apertures. That’s not terrible performance considering what we've been getting from the zooms lately, but still represents a significant amount of darkening that, dependent upon subject and composition, may prove problematic for some. Of the possible lens artifacts that can be corrected in post processing, vignetting is probably the one that has the gentlest impact on the pixels. Just be careful of the potential for noise popping up in the corners if you do a full correction.

Bokeh: Bokeh is always difficult to evaluate, as even though I try to outline things that are objective, true bokeh evaluation is really subjective. Objectively, out-of-focus highlights have rim brightness, though it doesn't seem to change color as I would expect from the longitudinal chromatic aberration. Onion skinning is near non-existent, and the aperture diaphragm, for once, seems well formed and symmetrical when it captured. There is a little bit of cats eye on out-of-focus pinpoint light sources in the extreme corners, but I’ve seen far, far worse. Subjectively, the rendering is much like we've seen from other recent high-end Nikkor primes: there's a gentle and un-busy roll from focus to out of focus, coupled with very little astigmatism and coma. Indeed, I'd place the out-of-focus rendering of this lens more like the 58mm f/1.4 than the f/1.8G primes. 

Final Words

The usual pushback I get on the Nikkor f/1.8 S primes is this: "they're too big for their focal length and they cost too much." Okay, I'm going to push right back at you: so far there's not a Z-mount prime that doesn't blow the F-mount version out of the water

I don't find the Z prime lens sizes to be objectionable, though yes, these f/1.8 S lenses are not particularly small. But they're also not portly as are some of the f/1.8 F-mount lenses, which seem wider in diameter than they need to be. The 85mm f/1.8 S feels very well balanced on my Z6/Z7 bodies, and even on the Z50.

Finally, I'd tend to argue that you get what you pay for. US$800 is more a Batis-level price than a Sony non-G price if you're going to go off trying to do comparisons. But the performance of this Nikkor is also clearly at Zeiss' level, too (actually even better in several respects).

As far as I'm concerned, Nikon can't release 18mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, and 105mm f/1.8 S primes fast enough if they're going to perform like the first three (35mm, 50mm, 85mm). And if we're getting this good a lens at f/1.8, I can hardly wait to see what the f/1.2 series will bring.

Nikon is a lens company, for sure. And it's clearly showing again. We went through a period of a lot of lens mediocrity with Nikkors, but in the last few years every new F-mount and now Z-mount lens has been a top performer. The 85mm f/1.8 S can be added to that list.

Highly Recommended (2019, 2020, 2021, 2022)

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