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

The “Cream Machine” – using the AF Nikkor 85 1.4D IF

Review Versioning:

  • 9.4.2008: Initial upload


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

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.

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).

However the AF/MF switch is something I don’t like very much with this
lens. I usually don’t find the switch easily without removing the camera
from my eyes (I noticed that you get used to find the switch after using
the lens for some weeks regularly). The other aspect: when you are used to the AFS
design you will automatically try to override auto focus occasionally –
at least I do have this habit – and it annoys me when this is happening
or better: when nothing happens because the lens is in AF mode.  You
might get used to turn the AF/MF switch – its not so much a problem if
you have this lens mounted regularly.

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).

reasons to buy the f1.4 version are:

motion freezing shutter speeds!

extreme selective focus with very good optical performance

very good “bokeh”

joy to use a wonderfully crafted and performing lens :)

you do not need 1, 2, 3 or 4 then just don’t buy this lens! Its not
really so simple, but think carefully (and for a while) what your dominant
shooting style is (btw: on the used market the 85 value is high and as long as
no update of the 85f1.4 design is announced the value of this lens will
stay high, however if a G-type AFS N design will surface, the used market
value of the AF-D version will very probably descend immediately – making
this lens a bargain).

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 for
    the 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).

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’t
    really 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.

more technical information check the Nikon web page for this lens



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
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).

Table 1: Depth of Field
in Meters (source: Nikon
Instruction Manual AF Nikkor 85 mm f/1.4D IF)

Distance (m)




















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.

comparison with my AFS VR 70-200 f2.8G lens at 85 mm clearly shows that
the AFD 85f1.4  does deserve the praise. It is very similar to the
70-200 at 85 mm but the chromatic correction of the 70-200
is definitely superior. Just klick on the following thumbnail (1 Mb) to
open the comparison JPG in full resolution. This is the 100% resolution
from the (somewhat boring) subset image below. But the chimney was interesting for
this comparison. All photos were made using a tripod mounted setup, VR-off and shutter
speeds shorter than 1/200 of a second. Both lenses get tack sharp at

Far-range resolution
test: AFS VR 70-200 f2.8 vers. AFD 85 f1.4, klick on the thumbnail above
for a full res comparison with various aperture settings.

AF-D IF 85 f1.4 at f1.4; 2.8; 5.6; 8; RAW NEF processed in Lightroom 10MP output from D1x RAW, sharpening: amount=25,
radius=1. Note that this shot shows some purple fringing at f1.4
(totally gone by 5.6)
with the D1x
sensor. The situation might be even better with
the newest DSLR generation.

Close focusing sharpness and contrast in the
centre is great
even wide open at f1.4 and is increased closing the lens down to f4. The
potential might be more visible with a 12+ MPixel sensor. But even with
the D1x native 5.3 Megapixel sensor the difference is visible (shown are
subsets from the 10 MP mode of the D1x data).

Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D focused close (left at f1.4, right
at f4), D1x RAW NEF processed in Lightroom, sharpness:
amount=25, radius=1.

comparison (left: AF 85 f1.4D, right: AFS VR 70-200 f2.8 G (for a full
resolution version klick on the figure above).

 Out-of-focus CA
comparison (left: AF 85 f1.4D, right: AFS VR 70-200 f2.8 G (for a full
resolution version klick on the figure above).

Comparing the AFS VR 70-200 lens with the AFD 85 mm at 2.8 with close
range focused objects I could hardly see any differences in sharpness or
resolution between these two lenses. At least I can hardly find these
differences or the D1x does not resolve them. One difference is clearly
visible: colour fringing is much better corrected with the 70-200 mm
lens again (you will hardly find any CA in out of focus areas). The
direct comparison might also indicate that the 70-200 is designed for
the close- to midrange focus areas. The lens seems to perform much
better here.  You might want to compare some
results at (for APS-C based formats) for that purpose.
Interesting is that the Nikkor 85 f1.4 D seems to create images with a
wee bit colder colour rendition.

find the full resolution files (D1x 10 MP-mode files) of the
rope-pictures from above for the Nikkor AFD 85 f1.4 here:

@f1.4 (2Mb)
  and  here

@f8 (3Mb)
. Resolution is fantastic – you can easily see the fine
hairs of the ropes that have only fractions of a millimetre diameter.
(The 10 MP-mode of the D1x is double interpolated in one direction. The
original CCD dimension is: 4,024 x 1,324 Pixels. The 10 MP-modes just
creates a  4,024 x 2,648 Pixels image. On a real 10+ MP chip you will probably see even
more details.)

As I
mentioned earlier its is under specific circumstances difficult to find
the right focus point. Checking a new lens for decalibration is easy if
you use a focus test chart as the one provided f.e. by
Jeffrey Friedl.
At his site you will also find a very good explanation how to use this
test chart.

Using this test chart with strong black/white contrast with the AFD 85
mm f1.4, you will find that CA in the out of focus areas is extreme.
However the detail the lens resolves at f1.4 is great and it gets even
better when CA disappears when the lens is closed down. At f2.8 in the
centre the lens resolves a bit more than the AFS 70-200 at f2.8. Clearly
chromatic aberration covers the out of focus areas but the test chart is
clearly not the thing your are going to photograph with this lens

original setup with the focus chart shot under approx. 30 degree:

find the subsets from the area where the in-focus “cuts” through the
focus chart here:

the AFD 85 mm f1.4:




for the AFS VR 70-200 f2.8:



Notice that this is
a comparison of the respective f-numbers with the AFS VR 70-

200 f2.8,
both lenses seem to be on par up from f2.8, but I find the overall
sharpness of the 85 mm lens to be wee bit better. The area bar signatures at the right
border of the chart is much better plotted than with the 70-200. Its
difficult to conclude here because the D1x  10MP files are
interpolated in the y-direction. Its clear that the 85 resolves somewhat
more here imo.  Looking at an ISO resolution chart the situation is
comparable. The CA is masking the resolution somewhat at f1.4. Under
practical shooting conditions this CA doesn’t necessarily have to be relevant,
as I said before. 

This is a subset of
the zipper (in focus) (D1x RAW,  Lightroom processing:
sharpening: amount 25%, radius = 1, defringing =all edges)

This is a subset of
the out of focus area behing the focus. The greenish out of focus
chromatic aberration is obvious and typical for this lens (shot on D1x RAW,
Lightroom processing: sharpening: amount 25, radius = 1, defringing
=all edges), it can be indeed field relevant for large prints but if you know about it
its easier to avoid it.

lens makes a very different impression on “full format” camera
for me namely 35 mm cameras. I cannot judge border sharpness or
light-fall-off here yet but due to the wider angle of view unsharp
background is more dominating in my compositions with film. 


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 AF 85 f1.4D @f1.4 at closest focus distance. Typical application
of this lens and exactly where it shines.

Note how the nose is out of focus in this shot while the left eye is
partly in focus, a tiny bit green chroma aberration (behind focus) here
with the hairs is typical for this

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

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.



  • 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


  • 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.

you get this lens? YES: if you are one of these  ‘bokeh’-extremists
who like to play with OOF concepts and creamy colour 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

Canon 500D & Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D

Canon 500D & Nikkor AF 85 f1.4D

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  @f1.4

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