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Nikon 85mm Bokeh Comparison
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March 2008


This comparison grew out of a request to compare the bokeh of the Nikon 16-85mm VR to the Nikon 18-200mm VR, with each set to 85mm for portraits.

Bokeh is how out-of-focus areas look. Even if a background is out of focus, various optical issues can cause unwanted details to appear and make the background distracting. I have a whole page explaining bokeh.

Honestly, either of these lenses is a poor choice for serious portraiture if you want to lose the backgrounds, but let's see what happens anyway. The reason these two lenses are poor choices simply is that 85mm is too short (you have to get too close), and f/5.6 is too slow to throw much of anything out of focus. See also Selecting Portrait Lenses.

I started to design the test procedure, and realized I could throw 9 images up 3x3 for comparison. Thus, in the true spirit of American science and exploration, I grabbed a few other relevant lenses to see what happens.

Lenses Compared      top

The nine lenses are:

You may click any image below to get to details and my complete review of that individual lens, as well as the links above.

The 85mm f/2 AI-s is a reasonably common and reasonably inexpensive (around $200) professional manual-focus lens. It works perfectly on the D200, D300, D2 series and D3. (see Nikon Lens Compatibility for more about what works on what with manual focus lenses. Manual focus lenses don't do much on the D80 and below).

The 70-300mm VR is a very popular amateur telephoto zoom (about $500).

The 85mm f/1.4 AF-D is a professional autofocus lens (About $1,000).

The 55-200mm VR (about $220) is an excellent and inexpensive telephoto.

The 16-85mm VR and 18-200mm VR are expensive (about $700 each) multi-purpose amateur zooms.

The 70-210mm f/4 AF was Nikon's very first autofocus zoom from 1986. It has a constant f/4 aperture. They sell used for about $175.

The 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-s was Nikon's flagship professional telephoto zoom from 1999 - 2004. They sold new for $1,600 and sell used today for about $1,200.

I threw in the Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1 because I suspected it would work much better than either of the expensive 16-85mm VR or 18-200mm VR lenses, and the Vivitar can be bought at garage sales for about nothing. Mine set me back $35; and I didn't bother haggling with the seller.

I didn't include the very relevant 85mm f/1.8 AF-D (about $400) or either of the current 70-200mm f/2.8 VR or 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D simply because I didn't have any floating around. I work with what I can borrow at the time. I suspect the 85mm f/1.8 AF-D would probably be almost as good as the superb 85mm f/1.4 AF-D, but 85mm lenses are usually too short for anything serious except for whole-body shots (see also Selecting Portrait Lenses).

The Set-Up     top

I used my Nikon F2AS as a model. I set it on a tripod and set the camera with which I shot these examples, a DX-format D300, on another tripod six feet (1.8m) away. Portraits should be shot from at least 15 feet (5m) for the most natural rendering, which shows you why 85mm (or 105mm) is too short for great head shots.

In actual use at six feet, different lenses set to what seems like the same focal length give different image sizes.

I set the 16-85mm VR and 18-200mm VR to 85mm.

I set the 70-300mm VR and 55-200mm VR each to 72mm to get the same angle of view.

I set the 70-210mm f/4 AF and Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1 each to 70mm to get the same angle of view.

I set the 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-s to its shortest setting, 80mm, and it had a much tighter field of view than any of the others. A 70mm setting probably would have matched like the others.

Each of the fixed 85mm lenses had a slightly smaller angle of view, suggesting that the 16-85mm is cheating a bit at close distances.

Don't pay attention to the sharpness of the Nikon F2AS; that depends more on how carefully I aligned the AF sensor to the Nikon logo or the lens that was on the F2AS.

Results: Full Images     top      

Here are the full images from my D300, shooting each lens at f/5.6.


Shooting at f/5.6 is a silly idea if you want to lose the background. f/5.6 is the widest aperture of the 16-85mm VR, but a middle aperture for a serious lens. Let's see the full images with each lens shot at its maximum aperture:


Results: Crops      top

Crop Guide

Cropping Guide for the images below.

If you printed a complete image at the same magnification as each crop below, your print would be 10 x 16" (25 x 40 cm)

Here are the results with each lens shot at f/5.6:


And here are the results with each lens shot at its maximum aperture:

Recommendations      top

I'll let you make your own observations from the images above, so I shan't comment on them here.

If you want to lose the background, get as far away from your subject as possible and shoot with as long a lens as possible. This applies even when shooting point-and-shoots. Pro outdoor portraitists usually use at least a 300mm f/2.8 ($4,500 and up new) and stand very far away. This gives the most natural rendition and makes the background disappear into a solid wall of soft color.

For more practical use, I use a 135mm f/2 DC (about a grand) which is especially designed to defocus the background. DC means Defocus Control. The DC lenses are extremely sharp and designed for extraordinary bokeh. I would have included one above, but they don't come as short as 85mm, since 85mm is to short for serious head shots. The 105mm f/2 DC does the same thing and costs somewhat less. For people on a more reasonable budget, the $400 85mm f/1.8 AF-D is an excellent way to go at 85mm.

Because using a longer lens always helps blur the background, any of the longer tele zooms, even the very inexpensive 55-200mm VR, is superior because you can stand farther away and zoom in. Even without zooming in, the $220 55-200mm VR zoom is superior simply because it can open to a wider f/stop than f/5.6. The focal length is much more important than the f/stop: shooting a zoom at its longest setting and f/5.6 will blur the background far more than at its shortest setting and f/4.

For cheapskates, pull out a manual focus lens, especially longer than 85mm, and have at it. A used Nikon manual focus 135mm f/2.8 or 200mm f/4 can usually be found for about $100, or even a superb 300mm f/4.5 runs about $150 used. Any of these are far better for throwing out backgrounds than any sub-$1,000 zoom at 85mm.

For better defocus at a super-low price, also try the 50mm f/1.8 AF-D, only about $110 brand-new!

Also not shown is that the 18-200mm and other zooms go to 200mm, at which settings and standing further away would greatly increase the defocus of the background. These comparisons were stuck at 85mm to make this page and test practical.

EIther of the 16-85mm VR or 18-200mm VR lenses is the worst possible way to spend $700 for head shots. For about the same $700, the 105mm f/2 DC (not compared here) is several worlds apart in performance, and for half the price, the 85mm f/1.8 AF-D (also not shown here) is far better than either of the multi-purpose zooms.


If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

Thanks for reading!


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