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Nikon 85mm Center Sharpness Comparison
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NEW: 85mm Lens Specifications Compared 23 June 2009

85mm Center Comparison (this page)

85mm Corner Comparison

105mm Center Comparison    

105mm Corner Comparison   

200mm Center Comparison   

200mm Corner Comparison

 

June 2009     More Nikon Reviews

 

Introduction

Let's take six different Nikon 85mm lenses and see which is the sharpest.

These are all shot on a Nikon D300, which has the same sensor as the D90 and D5000, and the same pixel pitch as the D3X. These results should apply just as well to the center of the D3X and the other cameras.

This is just like a traditional Greek wrestling match. Every competitor is butt naked and competing on the same ground. There are no handicaps to help the weak. Some of these lenses are brand-new out of the box, while others are over 30 years old.

Warning One

All of these lenses are very sharp. I'm doing stupid things to exaggerate the differences.

See Lens Sharpness for why none of this really matters.

Warning Two

I'm only showing a tiny central section of an image.

Frame

Full DX image, Yucca Arboreal Test Range. Red box shows crop area.

On a D3X, the crop will remain the same but the full image would be larger and cover more.

These images are all crops from 100% images shot at ISO 200 on my D300. The full images would be 43" (110cm) wide at this magnification. I never print this large; do you? On the D3X, the full images would print 60" (1.5 meters) wide!

These are so highly magnified and made under such special conditions that I'm showing differences too minute to be significant for almost any sort of photography.

Warning Three

This stupid tree is 600 feet (200 meters) away, and even in the suckiest enlarged images below you still can see every leaf!

Warning Four

I only have three hands. Not all the exposures match, so please don't confuse a lighter or darker image with one that's less sharp.

 

Guide to the Lenses Compared          top

Nikon 85mm f/1.8 (1964-1977)

Links take you to my reviews of each. If there's no link, then I'm working on a review. Years are the dates of production of each optical design.

 

Technik          top

The use of a natural target is intentional. Leaves have a fractal nature which means they have sharpness at all spatial frequencies at all magnifications in all axes. This makes sharpness obvious at every level and magnification and in any direction, and makes any smearing obvious.

Artificial objects, like buildings and classified ads, have sharp lines. Lines have detail only at some spatial frequencies (usually at odd-ordered harmonics) and only in some directions. Sure we can see differences in sharpness with these targets, but we can't see as much at the same time.

I put the camera on a tripod. There was no wind and there was no heat shimmer over this classified test range where specially grown reference trees are used to calibrate defense sensors.

 

At Maximum Aperture          top

 

At f/2.8        top

 

At f/5.6        top

 

Summary          top

This shows me that most lenses look alike, even when blown up the equivalent of poster-sized and looked at too closely.

Some types are obviously worse and some are much better wide-open, but 90% of them look identical to each other shot at a normal apertures. The biggest differences are the small differences in exposure, which relate to the mechanical calibration of each sample's diaphragm.

None of this really matters for serious photography. All of these can be used to create incredibly great photos.

This also shows the futility of attempting to express technical image quality in precise numerical terms. Before your eyes gave out, I'm sure you noticed that even though many of the lenses look different in various ways, they were all about as good.

I'll let you make your own choice of which lenses you prefer.

 

As my eyes see it:          top

At f/5.6, they're indistinguishable.

At f/2.8, I prefer the 85mm f/1.8 AF and the 85mm f/1.4 AI-s.

Wide-open, I prefer the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D and the 85mm f/1.8 AF.

Want to know a secret? Focus is so critical at f/1.4 that I got more variation from shot to shot as I arrived at the best focus manually for the manual lenses than there was variation between different lenses.

The Vivitar is slightly behind the others wide-open, but honestly, your ability to focus will be a greater limitation than the lens.

 

Color Balance          top

I think the Vivitar 85mm f/1.4 is a little cooler than the others, but nothing that setting your WB one small click warmer (A3 instead of A2 for instance) wouldn't equalize.

 

Recommendations          top

For ultimate sharpness, as well as price and practicality, I prefer the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF, which sells new for $460. It works great on all manual and autofocus cameras. With unlimited budget, the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D is the choice of the pros.

On manual focus cameras, I prefer the 85mm f/2 AI-s for its small size and great quality. f/2 is still twice as fast as any Nikon zoom.

None of these lenses autofocuses with Nikon's cheapest D40, D40x, D60 or D5000 cameras.

I'm surprised at how well they all perform. Even the cheapest Vivitar isn't that bad. There isn't a bad lens in this bunch.

 

PLUG         top

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Thanks for reading!

Ken

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