The Cream Machine – The Nikkor AF-D 85mm f1.4 ### outdated ###

The “Cream Machine” – using the AF Nikkor 85 1.4D IF (outdated!)

Review Versioning:

9.4.2008: Initial upload


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).

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: motion freezing shutter speeds! extreme selective focus with very good optical performance, very good “bokeh”

Portrait lens alternatives for the Nikon F-mount:

  • Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D IF (the lens that is reviewed),
  • Nikkor AF 85 f1.8D IF (9 blades, build
    quality isn’t breath taking with some plastic components that
    create a cheap feeling, heavily discussed if better sharpness than with the f1.4
    version at f2.8, seems to have less appealing bokeh compared to the
    f1.4 version though, but optical a nice performer and reasonable

  • Nikkor AF DC 105 f2.0D (Defocus Control feature, very highly
    rated resolution and build, integrated lens hood design and good
    bokeh, one of the lenses to check if you are thinking about the

  • Nikkor AF DC 135 f2.0D (a huge lens, rated comparable to the 105
    DC lens (though seems to be slightly inferior to the 105 DC and to long for portrait for most people),

  • Zeiss Planar T* ZF 85 f1.4 (the new manual focus star from Zeiss forthe Nikon F mount, supposed to become a legend but first reports
    showed optically a hazy f1.4 performance, some people reported
    superior  sharpness compared to the Nikkor AF-D f1.4 version.
    Especially the technical review showed a better corner sharpness wide open.
    The review of the Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D  at photozone caused some stir in some Nikon forums when it was published for the first time in 2006. In fact the review only showed what can be seen by everyone easily (colour aberration) and indicates lower corner sharpness at f1.4 (where it isnt very much of importance or is it?). The Zeiss lens is functionality wise on par with an AIS lens but as it lacks the auto focus one wonders if it can keep up with the good
    reputation of the Nikkor lens. With f1.4 you usually would prefer to have AF available. I’ll eventually do a direct comparison with the AF Nikkor if Ill get the ZF beauty – there are direct comparisons
    online already (search dpreview f.e.),

  • (PC Micro-Nikkor 85 f2.8D, the PC Nikkor is a special tilt&shift macro lens, not a low light device but with reported great optical
    qualities and legendary build quality).

    Used market only:
  • Nikkor AIS 85 f1.4 (nice lens with classic AIS build quality but
    supposed to be inferior than the AF-D version, needs screw-on hood HN-20)

  • Nikkor AIS 105 f1.8 (a massive lens with comparably small focus ring, most people seem to prefer the AIS 85 f1.4, this lens didn’treally became popular)
  • Nikkor AIS 105 f2.5 (a very high rated all-round lens, often used
    for portraits)

  • Nikkor AIS 135 f2.0 (heavy piece of a lens with integrated lens
    hood, performance wise not rated as high as the new DC version but
    has the same wonderful Nikon AIS build quality as the 105 AIS and
    the 85 AIS.

    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.
    [The DC105 topic is interesting never less: a fine lens but are you going to use the DC-feature? The integrated lens hood of the 105 important? optical performance at f2 better with the 105? … etc. The problem with the portrait lens choice with Nikon is: some of these lenses have been very highly rated, so you will have to think about the pro/cons of the different lenses; with the Zeiss 85 version there is a nice additional option avail. (although the Zeiss ZF 85 variant doesn’t seem to be as interesting as the Zeiss ZA 85 (for Alpha) version of this species as first tests indicated). The ZF line however comes as a AIS
    kind of equivalent. With extreme low depth of field you usually want AF as an additional option. Test shots available on the net also indicated a kind of hazy/dreamy f1.4 performance which is very much a matter of taste and portrait shooter probably will like it.]

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.

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).

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


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

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” ( 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 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.


Pros: very good optical performance, sharp wide open and gets terrific once f2.8 is reached, wonderful out of focus blur and good bokeh, great available light potential, perfect finish and superb metal build quality, great potential for OOF creativity

Cons: longitudinal chromatic aberration (red/green) at f1.4 in the OOF areas can be irritating and is difficult to correct, focus mode switch awkward to use and not up to date anymore / this is linked to the AF:AF is a tad noisy.

Should you get this lens? YES: if you are one of these  ‘bokeh’-extremists who like to play with OOF concepts and creamy color background blur, YES if you are working in lowlight situations often (on stage, in a church …), YES if you are a portrait freak or doing weddings and kids often, NO: if you cannot stand to find CA in your images, NO if you usually need lots depth of field and your world starts with f4 and higher.


Sample Images:

[Using a Canon 500D close up lens (the 77 mm filter thread fits to the 500D) its very easy to create close up compositions with lots of fading sharpness and creamy sharpness transitions. The lens has a huge potential for all kind of creative photographic ideas and Ill only show some of the recent tests I did to get a feeling for the lens.   The 85 f1.4 is
definitely not a dedicated Macro lens but as the depth of field can be controlled very nicely with this lens it can be used to create minimal sharpness depth pictures. The following shots were taken with a close-up lens (500D Canon) or a macro
setup combining (PB-4 and  PK-13 for use at the D1x).]

Canon 500D & Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D @f1.4

Canon 500D & Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D

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 (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“).