Nikon 85mm 1.4G — What’s So Special About It?

Steven McConnell, contemporary family photographer
By STEVEN MCCONNELL

I’ve tried to not use this lens. I’ve told myself that whatever image quality advantages a prime offers are pretty much matched by modern zooms. To support that theory, I’ve taken the 70-200mm F2.8 with me on shoots instead. I’ve told myself that it’s a better choice because it’s more like “two lens in one” — it lets me grab portraits at between 85mm-120mm plus it’s also useful for reaching in with those long, narrow paparazzi-style shots.

And yet the 85mm F1.4 G is back on my camera — for about half the time during an average shoot. The only time it comes off is them I swap it for a 50mm 1.4G (can you see a pattern emerging here?) when I need a wider shot.

And there’s no other long lens in sight.

So, what’s going on?

I could tell you about the superior sharpness, the image quality, the amazing bookeh and the flexibility that aperture of F1.4 gives you.

But those are pretty cliched features — I’m pretty sure you’ve read about them in other reviews by now.

What I want to tell you about this time is a feature that I have missed until recently.

The Nikon 85mm F1.4 G -- what's so special about it?
The Nikon 85mm F1.4 G — what’s so special about it?

There’s a certain and unique 3-dimensional “look” to photographs that the 85mm 1.4G produces. It’s subtle, it’s not immediately obvious and it’s not present in all photos.

And you really have to get your lighting right for it to come though.

But when you do get it right and you shoot portraits and full body shots at around F2-2.2, there’s a distinct “pop” in the images that I find magic. It’s almost like you’re looking at a freeze frame of a 3-D movie with 3-D glasses on.

The 85mm might be too long for you if you often find yourself in the midst of fast action and need to grab situational shots — which is why having a 50mm or a 35mm on standby is a life-saver.

Family | Steven McConnell with Nikon 85mm 1.4G
Family | Steven McConnell with Nikon 85mm 1.4G

But I photograph mostly kids and families and I don’t find myself in the middle of a crowd in the same way as a wedding or an event photographer might. But creating dreamy, beautiful and yet fun portraits is the key part of this job and for that purpose I find the 85mm 1.4G essential.

It has all the other features you’d expect from a high-end prime — fast and precise autofocus, quiet operation and crisp optics.

Though, as a side note, I do think that build quality could be better — it’s not as flimsy as the cheap 50mm lens out there, but it’s not quite as rock-solid in feel as Nikons 14-24mm 2.8 zoom, for example.

Girl | Steven McConnell with Nikon 85mm 1.4G
Girl | Steven McConnell with Nikon 85mm 1.4G

The main thing here is to remember that this lens is not a “magic bullet” that will create better photos for you. As always, it helps to keep in the back of your mind that it’s not your equipment that creates a great photograph, but you. Your lens will only help you emphasise the great qualities of a photograph — it will not create them for you.

When I said that you have to get the lighting right before, I really meant it. To get the most out of this prime lens, you need to really nail getting a shadow and a lit side on your subjects’ faces.

It may be a barely noticeable difference in lighting or a dramatic one, but it needs to be there.

And don’t forget that zoom here is fully manual, it involves using your feet. If you don’t like to be light on your feet, then get a zoom instead.

+++ You can order the Nikon 85mm 1.4G from Amazon.

Bench | Steven McConnell with Nikon 85mm 1.4G
Bench | Steven McConnell with Nikon 85mm 1.4G

Steven McConnell is a professional family photographer based in Sydney, Australia.

He is passionate about creating photographs which communicate real stories and creating a business which creates real value.

His website is www.familyphotographysydney.com.au.

  • Drazen B.

    Wow, you read my mind Steven…exactly my thoughts. I owned for a short time both Nikon’s latest 85mm versions – a ‘pedestrian’ f/1.8G and a pro f/1.4G. Money was kind of an issue back then and I tried really hard to justify owning the cheaper model and selling the f/1.4G to recover the $$ cost but that extra pop and photo tri-dimensionality I could get with the f/1.4G lens I could never replicate with the 1.8 lens, no matter how hard I tried.
    And you’re right – it’s not always there, you really need to ‘find’ it and ‘fight’ for it…light has to be perfect, subject focus plane alignment to the camera and isolation from the backgound at those wide and tricky aperture values, even more important. Needless to say, f/1.8G variant is now with a new owner and no one will be able to pry the legendary f/1.4G lens off my hands anymore…ever ;)

    You won’t see this mentioned in web reviews of the 85mm f/1.4G lens, reviewers are focusing more on a technical aspects and characteristics of this lens rather than what you described above. There is a reason why the glass in 1.4G is larger than in 1.8G lens and why there are more elements and groups, as well as being a nano-coated wide-aperture lens, which is almost unmatched photo IQ in any other 85mm lens produced so far.

    • Rosco Tanner

      Pretty much sums up my own observation about this lens. Neither of my other f1.4 Nikon lens produce such a beautiful subject isolation in almost “3D” appearance Steve mentions in his article.
      A keeper lens, for sure.

  • Marko

    I have owned until recently 5 pro-level Nikon lenses. Curently reduced to only two, 14-24mm f/2.8 and 85mm f/1.4G.

    These two are just too sweet to let go as I’m sure I will feel sorry if I do so. I also ‘feel’ the 85mm f/1.4G lens…I really do. It’s something about the photos coming out of the camera taken thru this glass that I cannot descibe, something trully magical.

  • genoid

    Nikon 85mm f/1.4G is a trully magnificent piece of kit.

    No other Nikon 85mm nor even Canon 85mm f/1.2L glass comes close, IMO, sorry.

    And I have pretty much owned them all from Nikon and Canon, 2 Canon pro 85mm L glass variations and 3 Nikon pro 85mm versions.

  • Tim

    Wow very nice photos! May I ask how much aperture was actually used on these photos?

  • bertbopper

    Just try a 2.8 85mm PCE sometime. It is the magic bullet! The 1.4 is awesome, but the PCE is astonishing. It is the best portrait lens ever made by Nikon.

  • Nathaniel

    I am also one of those who has briefly owned both the 1.4G and 1.8G versions, and kept the f/1.4G pro version. Just as others, I found images from 1.8G compared to 1.4G a bit flat and definitely not up to its older brother in dynamic range my D800 offers and demands from the glass.
    However the output from both lenses will look most likeley close to 1:1 to an untrained eye, hence the sales of 1.8G version will surpass the sales of the expensive 1.4G.

  • Ozkan Ozmen

    Thank you Steven for this interesting review.
    I have just uploaded a video comparing Nikon
    85mm f1.4 g vs Canon 85mm f1.2 for those who
    are interested : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbWFTVX0OhI&hd=1