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 useful video features like silent focusing and no 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: 85mmm|
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, low focus breathing, very smooth manual focus control.
What’s Bad – A lot of cats eye bokeh for an 85mm, not a lot of pop (micro-contrast)/a little clinical with rendering.
Table Of Contents
- Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 Impressions
- Build Quality
- Technical Characteristics
- Art & Character
- Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 Sample Photos
Note: In this review, like with my Z 50mm review, I’m going to run defense a little for Nikon just a little bit because they are still being attacked with so much negativity online and there is so much false information being spewed out by big influencers that is just blatantly wrong. Like these “f1.8 lenses are not professional.” Or, “they are cheap pieces of Walmart junk.”
I always feel like I have to undo the anti-Nikon propaganda in my reviews since Sony and Canon marketing has scrambled everyone’s brains these past few years. So here we go!
Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 Impressions
My Nikon Journey
Those that read my reviews probably know that my reviews of lenses are a personal journey and the best I can do is give you a view of the lens through my experience with it compared to what else I’ve been using and looking for or need at the time.
That’s all you can do with lens reviews because there is no one size fits all with lenses.
Now, this journey takes us to the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8, a lens I had to buy the day it came out because there was nothing else like it.
I needed a good, fast focusing, weather-sealed and lightweight f1.8 lens for under $1000 and this was literally the only option. The reason is, it rains all the time here in Japan in the summer, and I’ve been shooting a lot more night street photography in the rain.
The 85mm is just such an interesting and amazing lens from the specs alone, buying it was a no brainer.
Handling and usability to me are extremely important since I shoot for hours at a time. Sometimes up to 10 hours a day when doing street photography. This is a big reason why I’ve been spending a lot more time and money on the Z system. Big, high-resolution screen, great ergonomics, amazing button configuration for very efficient customization and control, well balanced, etc. All super important stuff for me.
What I expect from a lens or camera is probably not the same as the rest of the world. For example, I personally don’t think sharpness is the most important thing. Especially corner to corner sharpness. Crazy right?
There are a few exceptions of course, like when doing detailed oriented photography like macro, or landscape which I still shoot a lot of landscapes.
But in general, what I like is how the lens handles sharpness on the technical level. Scores here for me are more important than if Lens A is 6% sharper than Lens B.
For example, I want lenses that are decently sharp at close and at far distances. Some lenses, especially 35mm lenses will let you focus very close, but they always lack sharpness unless you stop down to f4, or you have to step back at least 5-7 feet (2-3 meters). Fujifilm X100F or the Anthy 35mm as examples.
Nikon is getting around this on their 35mm Z and their 85mm Z by introducing dual focus motors. This is great! It means the lens always produces predictable results and you don’t have to worry about what distance you are at and what aperture you need to use at that distance.
Another reason extreme sharpness is not that important is that the Nikon Z6 is 24MP and has an AA filter, so you’re already limited by how much detail it can even pull in on the sensor level. Combine that with some low light and high ISO and all detail is lost from noise from the reduction of the light. On the Z7, sharpness will be a little more important but only in bright environments at low ISO. Once you hit ISO 800 or 1600 everything gets fairly blotchy and grainy and the higher megapixel advantage is very quickly reduced or even completely lost.
When I’m editing photos I also like to liberally apply grain which strips the image of sharpness anyway. I don’t personally like that super sharp digital look and I like the texture that grain provides.
It sounds like I’m coping out about the Nikon lenses not being sharp or something. I’m not. This Z 85mm lens is stupid sharp and you’re going to see a lot of people say this in reviews. But there is so much more to a lens than sharpness.
Is f1.8 Good Enough?
I’m seeing a weird trend these days, whenever Nikon does something great (Cfexpress, ProResRAW, Good f1.8 lenses), people find reasons to complain. Nikon is the first company to make affordable but awesome f1.8 lenses that are weather-sealed, with an internal focusing system, with no focus breathing and people just complain.
A big thing I keep seeing people say is that f1.8 lenses are not professional.
Why can’t f1.8 lenses be professional? I talked to a good friend of mine, a creative director that does massive billboards for Netflix shows, turns out, they shoot all those at a fairly deep depth of field. Often on D850s or Phase One cameras.
The Fujifilm GFX system only has an f2 lens as their fastest with an f1.6 35mm FF equiv, but most are above f2.4. Is that not a professional system?
Everyone loves it when an APS-C manufacturer like Fujifilm makes an f1.2 lens (f1.8 equiv), they call them professional portrait lenses, everyone loved the Zeiss Batis lenses that are f1.8 and f2, but when Nikon makes near-perfect f1.8 lenses which have the same equivalency in terms of depth as an f1.2 APS-C lens, suddenly it’s not good enough. Weird I tell you.
What I Think About The Z85mm f1.8 As A Lens
This isn’t my perfect dream lens but it’s exactly what I need right now.
I love the weight, I love the size, the exterior design is a little boring, but functional and the weather sealing is good. I shot during a hurricane, my umbrella was quickly destroyed and the camera and lens were just relentlessly drenched throughout the night and there were no issues. The system performed perfectly.
From a technical point of view, there is just nothing really to complain about here.
But 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 Fujifilm will make a less than perfect lens in favor of a cooler “look.” And I miss that look a little with this lens.
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.
My second complaint is that lens hood. The lens is so massive with the hood attached that I find it 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. The lens coatings in 2019 virtually do not flare. Lens hoods do not need to be the same length as the lens. Maybe to keep water out for when it’s raining? But that doesn’t work when shooting in a typhoon. 🙂
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. At least it’s not a swirly bokeh though, that’s way worst.
Build quality is on par with all the other Z prime lenses. The lens hood firmly stays in place and doesn’t wiggle around (you hear that Fujifilm?). There is an autofocus to manual focus switch to quickly throw the lens in manual if you are shooting landscapes or video.
The lens also has a plastic outer shell. I use to see people say these lenses are cheap pieces of plastic Walmart junk. 🙂
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. Nothing feels cheap about these lenses though 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 follows 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 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 but I’ll get into below.
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 that seems like it would be about +15 on sharpness slider in Lightroom. Do I have proof of this? Yes, see my comparison between the X-T2 and X-T3.
Also, watch out for when you see people say, Sony’s so-and-so lens is sharper than Nikon’s so-and-so lens. Again there are default baked RAW sharpness settings that need to be taken into play.
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 functions the same as center sharpness. Very 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.
Some pincushion distortion, very stable, but 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 samples.
There is almost no flaring (see shot above).
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, yes 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 allows 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.
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 all 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. But I’m still evaluating the 35mm.
Autofocus For Video
There is very little focus breathing which is fantastic for professional videographers.
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.
This is not so much a lens issue as it is a camera issue and I need to point this out because some Nikon shooter buy into the system without realizing this happens only to find it unusable for their needs.
Nikon, as well as every camera designer, still needs to improve their firmware to make these fly-by-wire lenses even better for video or even landscape. For example, when you power off the camera and power it back on, it will not remember the focus position. This is a deal-breaker for a lot of people like astrophotographers who sometimes combine exposures over the course of 2-3 hours.
There is also no linear manual focusing that I am aware of. It will throw focus based on how fast you manually turn the dial.
It would be cool if you could adjust more settings like being able to set the focus throw to be more or less sensitive or to be linear or adaptive.
In general autofocus with this Z system is insanely good.
I’m also noticing a behavior in reviewers or photographers where because Lens or Camera A focuses faster than Lens or camera B, that suddenly lens B is unusable.
We have reached this amazing point in photographic where cameras are better than they have ever been, with absolutely insane focusing technology, but then suddenly never before seen in within the photographic community, all anyone is doing is complaining about how autofocus is not good between different systems.
Like 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 almost 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 any 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 pushes the majority of the shallow depth to 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 this gradient, it will create a focus falloff that looks like it’s coming from a faster lens since the transition happens with a quicker gradient. I mean, I think this is what’s happening anyway. 🙂
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 cats 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. Now I feel like a food critic. – “Rich, but smooth, with some woody notes and a hint of nutmeg.” 🙂
Cat’s Eye Bokeh Samples
This lens does have quite a bit of a cat’s eye bokeh. By a bit, I mean a lot.
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 a fairly close 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.
Here is the best I could get out of this lens at f5.6 during the sunset so I could keep the ISO low.
What I am noticing is that longer lenses typically have less micro-contrast. But yet my Kipon 75mm f2.4 is great. So is it an angle of view thing, a depth of field thing, or a number of elements/how much glass thing? Maybe it’s all of them. I’m still trying to figure this all out, but I have noticed that the Nikon Z 35mm f1.8 has significantly more pop and life compared to this lens and the Z 50mm f1.8 is somewhere in between.
Here is what a really high micro-contrast lens looks like by comparison. The Industar 50-2 (probably best in the world?). I kept the editing style the same, but the image actually looks sharper even though it isn’t. You can also see a very detailed tonal transition between the shadows to the highlights that we don’t get with the Nikkor.
I know this isn’t the best scientific comparison, I can’t upload big images to my site right now.
Industar 50-2 Sample
You can usually find this lens used for $30-$60 and adapts really well to the Z cameras. Actually the Z system is probably the best for adapting old lenses. Sharpest corners, least amount of vignetting, etc.
Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 Bottom Line
It’s a great lens, it really is. There just isn’t anything else out there that can match it on a technical level right now at this price.
It’s rendering is a little boring to me in general situations, but at least the bokeh is really pretty except that extreme cat’s eye bokeh, 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 work perfectly, especially after Z6 firmware v2.1 which improved low light autofocus.
Is the Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S A Professional Lens?
I would argue that these Z lenses are some of the most professional photography/video hybrid lenses ever made.
Here is why.
- Incredibly modern and sophisticated autofocus technology with dual focus motors.
- No focus breathing, so videographers can rack focus without warping of the image framing
- Single barrel construction for excellent weather sealing.
- Incredibly consistent and reliable sharpness at all distances and across the frame.
- Very smooth manual focus controls, great for videographers and landscape photographers.
- Excellent build quality, everything is solid, smooth and tight even the lens hood and lens caps.
- Excellent lens coatings for almost no flare.
Even though it does all those things very well and it’s technically a very good lens, there are a few things that make it not the absolutely perfect lens/system.
- Pretty intense cats eye bokeh
- Not a lot of pop / micro-contrast.
- Z6/Z7 cameras – issues with focus memory when the camera turned off.
- Z6/Z7 cameras – No option for linear focus when manual.
I would still argue that most professionals aren’t using faster than f1.8.
Portrait and wedding photography, yes, they need the low light capabilities of faster lenses in their toolkit. But, most wedding photographers are using f2.8 zoom lenses for the bulk of their work.
Everything else, product, landscape, cinema, billboard, print not so much. Even the legendary Zeiss Super Speed cinema lenses from back in the day were T1.5 or f1.2, but designed for Super 35mm, which means a full-frame equivalency of about f1.8.
If you are an online blogger / Youtuber / reviews, just please stop saying that f1.8 is not professional, it’s just not true and you are misguiding the new younger generation of professional photographers that are using f2.8 zoom lenses for all their professional 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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