The Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S is an extremely versatile lightweight, yet affordable 85mm f1.8 prime lens. This lens was designed for both photographers and videographers in mind with some useful video features like silent focusing, but unlike many of the other Z primes, this will show some focus breathing. The lens also uses a weather-sealed single barrel construction with all internal focusing elements and dual focus motors for improved close focusing capabilities.
|Focal Length: 85mm
Focus System: Auto
Aperture Blade: 9, Rounded
Aperture: f1.8 – f16
Elements: 12 Elements in 8 Groups / Two Extra-Low Dispersion Elements
Coatings: Nano Crystal & Super Integrated Coatings
Minimum Focus Distance: 2.62′ / 80cm
Filter Threads: 67mm
Weight: 1.03 lb / 470 g
What’s Good – Very sharp even wide open, sharp at all distances, nice corner sharpness, great build quality, quiet focusing, internal focusing design, weather-sealed, dual focus motors for close sharpness, good contrast, very smooth manual focus control.
What’s Bad – A lot of cats eye bokeh for an 85mm, focus-breathing with extreme racks, not a lot of pop (micro-contrast)/a little clinical with rendering – for a prime.
Table Of Contents
- Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S Review | Impressions
- Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S Build Quality
- Technical Characteristics
- Art & Character
- Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 Sample Photos
Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S Review | Impressions
The Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S is no doubt an exciting lens. It’s fairly lightweight, you get a very shallow depth of field because of the f1.8 aperture at 85mm and the thing is just sharp.
Nikon has done a pretty good job of keeping a consistent look between their Z lenses with the way they handle focus fall-off. The way the lenses render what’s in focus to what’s out of focus is very smooth and consistent.
The result of this is if you switch from 35mm to 50mm to this 85mm, there won’t be a dramatically different style to the feel of the images.
There are of course some differences in character like the 85mm has quite a bit of cats eye bokeh in some situations, it also doesn’t have quite as much punch as the 50mm or the 35mm and in general, the images do render tonally a bit flatter than the last generation of F lenses. But, technically these are much nicer and give you a lot more in terms of capabilities.
Is f1.8 fast enough?
I’ve been shooting a lot of low-light street photography throughout the life of the Z6 and as the camera gets better at AF with firmware, the lens also gets better. Today there aren’t really any issues with AF using this lens with the Z6 in reasonably low light unless you’re shooting in extremely low light conditions, then you might benefit from something faster if it ever comes.
In terms of the bokeh and rendering of f1.8, I kinda think f1.8 is the sweet spot for a general full-frame lens and I think any faster could potentially put you in a dangerous habit of always shooting wide open and losing your background, especially on an 85mm. And to be totally honest, even f1.8 is too shallow a lot of times. This makes f1.8 a great general purpose lens with a nice balance between price, size, and capabilities.
What else is great about f1.8 is it still allows you to shoot wide open in mid-day sun without an ND filter on the Nikon cameras, anything faster and you would then need to carry around ND filters to shoot wide open in the day on a mechanical shutter.
You can see in these samples, you get some really good subject separation, but also you can still get an idea of what’s going on in the background which is right about where I like it for street photography of this style.
If you’re doing full-body portraits, I could see an f1.4 or f1.2 lens being handy since you lose your depth the further away the subject is. But for general day-to-day stuff, I’m finding f1.8 to be totally practical.
I do have a few non-technical complaints, maybe three.
My first complaint is I shoot a lot with my Fujinon 56mm f1.2 and this 85mm f1.8 back and forth. Both lenses and camera systems create absolutely beautiful images. From a technical point of view, the IQ seems a little better on the Nikon, but, while Fujifilm makes a less than perfect lens, there is something about the look it renders I like more. The Fujifilm 56mm f1.2 has a slightly more classic feel with a bit more vibe.
The Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 still has a really nice sort of soft elegant rendering, but I would have to say it’s a little on the clinical side, for a prime.
My second complaint is the lens hood. The lens is massive with the hood attached. I find it almost unusable when shooting street photography. I wish they made a shorter hood just for protecting.
I don’t really understand why these companies use such massive hoods, especially since coatings are so good.
My third complaint would be the cat’s eye bokeh. Not a big deal for street photography but when shooting portraits, the cat’s eye bokeh tends to push the viewer’s eyes always towards the center of the frame, and sometimes you don’t want this. This isn’t something you’ll always see though.
Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S Build Quality
Build quality is on par with all the other Z prime lenses. The lens hood firmly stays in place and doesn’t wiggle around. There is an autofocus to manual focus switch to quickly throw the lens in manual if you are shooting landscapes or video, but the manual focus will be focus-by-wire.
The lens also has a plastic outer shell on the front near the focus ring and one ring of plastic near the base.
Everything else is metal. Aluminum I believe.
Some people think plastic is a cheaper material to use with the housing of lenses but it’s actually better than metal for regulating heat and for durability reasons.
Nikon is just using what feels like a thinner plastic with these lenses than what was used on some of the older F mount lenses so people mistake this for cheap. But nothing feels cheap about these lenses and they feel nice. I’ve always liked the build quality of these Z lenses even with my first 50mm Z lens.
The rear element comes right up to the rear mount, so Nikon is practicing what they preach here by using every bit of that shallow flange.
In general, I like the build of these Z lenses. They are very much form following function lenses.
Sharpness is actually really good on the Z6. It just about maxes out what the Z6 is capable of resolving with that 24MP sensor and the AA filter.
I know it would be better to review sharpness on a Z7 here, but I never bought the Z6 with the intent of reviewing lenses, but I kind of fell in love with the system so here I am.
Anyway, if you are a Z6 shooter you’ll be pleased to see that there is very little difference in sharpness between the corners and the center.
One thing I have noticed is Nikon does not artificially add as much digital sharpness to the RAW files as Fujifilm and Sony do. So if you start to see people comparing “sensor sharpness” between systems again as they did in 2014, just know that Sony and Fujifilm add a baked-in digital sharpness to the RAW files which would translate to about +15 sharpness on slider in Lightroom.
At f1.8 you can see the sharpness is slightly softer and progressively gets sharper as you stop down. At f2.8 and beyond the image has some extra crispness.
Sharpness looks to peak at f5.6, f8 even looks good and by f11 you start to see diffraction. You’ll likely see diffraction at f8 on the Z7.
Very little moire on the Z6 or false colors here which is good, especially for video shooters.
Corner sharpness is subtly softer at f1.8, crispness snaps in at f2.8 and the image progressively gets sharper until it peaks at f5.6. It’s pretty impressive how sharp the corners are when you compare them to the center.
Edges look really good, again f1.8 is slightly softer.
Vignetting, Distortion, and even Chromatic Aberrations are not really an issue when you’re shooting with Z lenses since the profile corrections carry with the RAW files. So the settings you use in-camera actually will load directly into Lightroom automatically. This includes things like sharpness, color profiles, vignetting controls, distortion controls, and noise reduction.
I’ve turned off all vignetting corrections to see what sort of vignetting we are dealing with. Correcting for vignetting is easy, but you have to apply gain to the edges to do that which can add noise and reduce dynamic range. So it’s good to sort of have an idea of what’s going on behind the scenes.
You could say this lens is pretty much distortion-free for anyone other than a pixel peeper. But there is some very minor pincushion, you’ll never see it because it’s always corrected in the RAW even if it’s turned off in the Camera. I had to load the RAWs into Iridient Developer and strip the profile to see it.
I never see Chromatic Aberrations so I don’t have any great samples. This is the best I can come up with. you can kind of see some green on that center branch.
There is almost no flaring.
I usually shoot without a lens hood or UV unless it’s raining. If you use a UV filter you will get some more flaring and a reduction in contrast sometimes, even using the best B + W nano filters.
What I do is mount my lens hood on backward to keep the system smaller while shooting, then when I get on the bus or train I pop the hood back in the normal position to protect the front element.
Also known as headlight stars. Looks good. I like nice clean star patterns like this.
Autofocus is very good. It has two focus motors built-in that allow the lens to better correct for the spherical aberrations from focusing at close distances. That’s what Nikon marketing tells us anyway.
I’m going to also speculate and say that I imagine they had to use a dual focus motor system to get this internal focus design to work with such a short lens.
How does autofocus perform in the real world?
If my little kids are running towards me it will keep up with them until they get fairly close then it starts to lag behind as the depth of field gets too shallow to work with the fast motion.
I shoot in AF-C and what’s important to me is how well the lens adjusts with movement. A lot of people talk about lens autofocus speed in AF-S mode, where they focus on a coffee cup, then focus on a far object, but in the real world that doesn’t matter so much because even a lot of slow AF lenses still do this fast enough. In the real world, you need the lens to communicate and drive the elements quickly making micro-adjustments smoothly as the object being tracked moves around, and this lens does that well.
Compared to the Nikon Z 50mm f1.8 / Z 35mm f1.8
The Nikon Z 50mm f1.8 does focus faster but not by a lot. It’s usually a little more difficult for a camera to focus a long lens since they have shallower depth and a tighter angle of view, so this could be what’s contributing to the slight decrease in performance from the 50mm f1.8. That 50mm is godlike though. Unbelievable.
Of the three I have, the Z 35mm f1.8 focus is the least consistent. I get a lot more out-of-focus shots with that lens. But again, it could be the nature of that lens. I’m often shooting way closer to the subjects (my kids) with the 35mm, and their fast unpredictable movements are a little more difficult to track at close distances.
Of what I have of the Z lenses, the Z 50mm is the fastest focusing in terms of just tracking, acquisition, and consistent performance, just behind that is the 85mm then the 35mm is behind that.
Autofocus For Video
There is some focus breathing, but as long as you don’t do any big focus racks from close to infinity you might not notice it.
The Nikon manual focus controls are also extremely smooth. I don’t see little steps when trying to fine-tune focus as I do with many of my Fujinon lenses.
In general autofocus with this Z system is very good.
I’m also noticing a behavior in reviewers or photographers where a lens or “Camera A” focuses faster than lens or “Camera B”, then suddenly everyone acts like camera B is unusable.
We have reached this amazing point in photography where cameras are better than they have ever been, with absolutely insane focusing technology, but then all anyone is doing is complaining about how autofocus is not good between different systems.
I saw one of the big blogs complain about how engaging the tracking system on the Z6 was too complicated. Guys, it’s literally one button. You press one button!
Art & Character
Rendering to the out-of-focus areas or the transitions from in to out of focus is extremely smooth and soft. It’s a very elegant look that is a little unique to this lens compared to my other 85mm equivalent lenses.
It’s hard to explain, but it’s a little more magical almost dreamy than many of my 85mm equivalent lenses I shoot with on my Fujifilm system or Sony system.
There is a different way that lenses do this and I’ve been finding it super interesting. Some lenses like the XF 35mm f1.4 and especially a lot of older retro lenses have a field curvature that the majority of the shallow depth in the very center of the frame where the edges have a deeper depth. But usually, it’s mostly in the center 60% of the frame. If the subject’s focus transition falls along the of this effect, it will create a depth that looks like it’s coming from a faster lens since the transition happens with a quicker gradient and different parts of the lens render this focus falloff transition differently.
The Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 doesn’t do that. Its focus falloff is even throughout the whole lens so it has more of a consistent look with the bokeh throughout the frame. Except it has cat’s eye issues.
Bokeh / Out Of Focus Areas
Lenses do render different styles of bokeh and some looks are better in some situations over others. This is why you can never have too many lenses.
Puffy, creamy, dreamy/ethereal, edgy and harsh, contrasty vibrant. One day I will build a list and demonstrations, there is another photographer review that uses some of these terms sometimes, and it would be useful to the community if we could get them locked in as acceptable terms.
Compared to my Fujifilm 56mm f1.2. which has a puffy bloomy bokeh, this Nikon 85mm f1.8 has more of a higher contrast bokeh that is very rich but smooth.
Cat’s Eye Bokeh Samples
This lens does have quite a bit of a cat’s eye bokeh.
I know this bothers some people, some people don’t care. But it’s fairly significant compared to other 70mm or 85mm lenses. This is likely a by-product of the lens being so skinny for an 85mm which I’m assuming was done to keep the design in line with the other Z lenses, which I do appreciate.
You don’t always see it but I will post some samples.
Bokeh Samples With No Cat’s Eye
Of course, you don’t always see it. It only shows up when you have little lights in the background along the edges of the frame and the subject is fairly close to the lens.
Here are some samples without the cat’s eye bokeh.
Color Rendering (SOOC)
Here are some straight-out-of-camera samples. I just left everything at default in Lightroom. Not the best samples in the world, but I chose them because they show some interesting characteristics.
The Nikon 85mm does lack the pop you get from some of the lower element lenses of the past. It’s just missing that tonal detail in the mid-tone contrast, but they’re still not bad and you can gain a lot when you go down to slower apertures like f2.8 to f5.6.
Personally, I’m using this lens for night street photography and in those low light situations, you won’t get a lot of pop with any lens since the light itself lacks coherency to produce great tonal detail, but if I wanted to max out the potential of the tonal rendering of this lens I would probably shoot more between 2.8 and f4.
Here are some samples at f1.8.
Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 Review | Bottom Line
On the technical side, this lens offers a lot – Weather sealing, internal focus design, great sharpness from close to far, great corner to corner sharpness, and rich creamy bokeh.
However, the rendering can be a little boring to me in terms of tonal pop, and there is a lot of cat’s eye, and some focus breathing videographers will need to watch out for.
Overall this lens isn’t perfect, but I’m very happy with its performance and there is just very little to complain about at this price. It’s just one of those lenses I know I can grab anytime and use it for anything it and it will just work.
Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 Sample Photos
Most of these shots come from shooting street photography during the Typhoon Tapah. I can definitely vouch for the weather sealing of the Z 85mm f1.8.
Some of the images are washed out because I was using a UV filter that was usually completely covered with water droplets or a dirty smudgy film, so I leaned into the look and added a little bit more post flare to give a dreamy effect.
I have had very little real issues with autofocus, except pre firmware v2.1 where it would sometimes take a second to get acquisition in the dark. V2.1 has improved that some but I’ll do some more testing, and I’ll keep this review fairly updated since it’s a lens I frequently use.
The best thing about the Z6, is how quickly you can change around autofocus modes once you customize the mount buttons to work with the dials. So if the camera is ever doing anything dumb, you can switch it instantly and not lose the shoot. So I bounce around a lot from eye AF and face detect to the focusing boxes and I get flawless performance.
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