Nikkor 85mm f/3.5 AF-S DX VR Lens Review


DX's "middle" macro lens

Copyright 2012 Thom Hogan

Lens Formula
14 elements in 10 groups; 1 ED low dispersion elements.
Other Features
Optical stabilization (no active setting), Internal lens motor (AF-S equivalent) focus, Internal focus, 52mm filter size. Comes with HB-37 hood, 9-blade aperture. Focuses to 11" (0.29m).
Size & Weight
About 3.9" (99mm) long from mount, 12.5 ounces (355g).
Price
US$530

The Basics
In the FX world, Nikon makes 60mm (originally 55mm), 85mm (PC-E), 105mm, and 200mm Micro-Nikkor lenses. The 105mm is the most popular, as it is a nice balance between working distance and cost, and tends to be a focal length that is valued by many.

In DX, we have the 40mm, 85mm (the lens being reviewed), plus all the FX options, which means we have a plethora of choices. The question is which makes the most sense.

Right up front we have one thing that causes some to react negatively to the 85mm: the f/3.5 maximum aperture, which puts us a half stop slow on a system that's already a stop worse off than FX. The 127.5mm equivalent focal length is also at the long end of where most people want a prime telephoto lens. The combination means that the 70-200mm may be a better choice for 127.5mm, at least in some people's minds just looking at specs.

Like all the current Micro-Nikkors, this lens gets down to 1:1 (lifesize). That means objects at close focus are recorded the same size as they exist in nature. Given that the DX sensor size is about 24mm wide, that means if you focus on a 24mm-sized object at the closest focus distance, your object comes out full frame.

Which leads me to an aside: some Web sources incorrectly write that a 1:1 lens gets 1.5:1 reproduction on a DX/APS body. Nope. 1:1 is 1:1. At 1:1 an object is rendered at it's actual size. Of course, if you had a 36mm object that rendered at 1:1 and full frame on an FX body, you would end up with a crop of that object in DX. But 24mm of the object would be recorded across the 24mm width of the DX sensor (leaving off 12mm: "the crop").

One nice thing about the lens is that it has higher end attributes. Specifically, AF-S that can be overridden from the focus ring (M/A), and VR. The VR does not have an Active mode, but it is switchable on and off on the lens. There's a focus distance scale, but no markings for DOF or IR. Like all ED lenses, you can set manual focus positions beyond infinity.

The lens uses 52mm filters and is made in China.

Handling
The focus ring is large and easily found on the front of the lens. In terms of smoothness, it is mid-range. I wouldn't call it smooth, I wouldn't call it rough. It has that classic Nikon economy feel to it, but not outrageously so. The switch positions are all on the left side, as you'd expect.

In terms of overall size, the lens is significantly smaller and lighter than the 105mm Micro-Nikkor, which makes it a more comfortable fit on the smaller DX bodies:

Copyright 2012 Thom Hogan

The lens doesn't extend during focus, even when going 1:1: all focusing is handled by moving elements internally, which is another nice touch (the older 105mm extends, the 105mm VR doesn't). Working distance at 1:1 is almost about 5", not a huge margin to work with, but enough that getting light onto the subject shouldn't be too difficult.

Another aside: working distance is the distance from the front lens element to the subject at 1:1 (or whatever the maximum reproduction ratio is for the lens). When working distances get too short, it's hard to light (or keep from shading) your subject, and insects will easily spook.

Performance
Autofocus: If this lens has a performance weakness, autofocus would be it. There's no focus limiter switch, so if the focus system is unsure, as in low light or low contrast, I often see large moves and overshoots in the focus mechanism. It's not that the focus mechanism is slow--though it's not snappy by AF-S standards--it's that big swings of focus take time with this lens. For some users, that's going to be an issue. For example, consider the situation where you're taking a photo of a plant and there's a bit of unpredictable wind: if the thing you wanted to focus on moves off the autofocus sensor and you're in close, the lens may go to a longer focus point and take it's time in doing so. And if the plant now moves back onto the sensor, we may move back again. With completely stationary subjects, of course, this isn't a problem. But I found several times in slightly windy conditions shooting close up that I was getting some slow "hunt focus" situations.

This is certainly nothing to be worried about, but it is something to be aware of.

Sharpness: My copy isn't exceptional, but it's pretty darned good. On my D7000 the center is in what I'd call the "excellent" zone (and which Imatest agrees with) right out until diffraction starts taking away MTF. The corners are never bad, but they don't get to peak until about f/8, while the center peaks at f/5.6. I'd characterize the corners as being very good for a telephoto lens. Almost, but not quite, good enough to be that mythical edge-to-edge sharp landscape telephoto.

Up close the lens seems a little better. Nikon doesn't specifically mention close field correction in the attributes of this lens, but it's a darned good performer in close. Slightly better than it is at normal distances.

Considering the price, considering all the things the lens does (general telephoto, stabilized shooting, close focus macro work), I'm more than happy with the performance here.

Light falloff: Unfortunately, my happiness ends with the vignetting. You really need to get to about f/5.6 on this lens to get to negligible corner darkening at general shooting distances. Up close, it's better, as the image circle widens enough that the falloff isn't dramatic wide open. But f/3.5 at normal focus distances produces almost a stop-and-a-third vignetting, with a distinct darkening into the corners.

Chromatic aberration: Well handled, period. Lateral chromatic aberration is near constant across the apertures, with it barely being measurable on my D7000. That's easily corrected both by the recent Nikon DSLR bodies, but also in post processing. Longitudinal chromatic aberration, however, is strong and easily visible. Unfortunately, that's not easily correctable. Be prepared for mild magenta in front of your subject, mild green in back.

Flare: The lens comes with a reasonably deep hood, so flare generally isn't an issue. It pretty much takes sun-in-picture to trigger any objectionable flare, which is true of even the best lenses.

Distortion: Not exessive, but a slight barrel distortion is present, which is unusual for a macro lens. (Why does it feel like I'm repeating things from my Tamron 60mm review? ;~). Overall, the linear distortion is about a half percent, which puts it right on my border for correcting or not correcting. For most macro subjects, you probably won't bother to correct it.

Bokeh: The second bummer about this lens, and it's that longitudinal chromatic aberration that's partly to blame. Bright highlights will tend to have distinct color edges to them, even stopped down. At wider apertures the diaphragm is mishapen, especially so at between f/4 and f/5.6, which produces some edge issues, as well. I've seen other tests that show distinct oblong shapes at small apertures, but my sample actually rounds up as the physical aperture closes. At minimum aperture, the nine blades form an only slightly elongated circle. Basically, bokeh is bleh for the most part. Not a strong performance here, but it's also not a fast lens where you'd be watching carefully for that.

We've got two areas to cover here in the wrap-up:

Macro: As a macro lens, the 85mm f/3.5 is actually quite good. Good enough that it could certainly function as the mid-range macro for DX. It's a few hundred dollars less than the 105mm f/2.8, so it fits the curve well there. It's also smaller and much lighter than the 105mm, another good DX trait. But the build quality is lower and you don't have f/2.8, so it's a bit off the expected "DX curve" there. Still, if you're looking for a good mid-range macro, there's nothing wrong with this lens.

General Purpose: Unlike the Tamron 60mm f/2, the 85mm f/3.5 does a bit better job as a general purpose telephoto. It's not great in the corners, but it's not overly weak once you stop down, either. VR II is also very useful for a moderate telephoto. But the lens is not really suited to portraits (bad bokeh, longitudinal chromatic aberration, not very fast aperture), but for other moderate telephoto work it's a reasonable performer. But watch that vignetting wide open: you really need to get to f/5.6 if you're looking for corner to corner usefullness.

Versus the Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor: No questions asked I'd take the 85mm f/3.5. More working distance, plus the VR are both big pluses in my book. The 60mm is more sharp edge to edge, but not by enough to get excited about. Most people will like the extra reach of the 85mm and appreciate the ability to turn VR on when needed.

Versus the Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor: Tougher question. The 105mm is tough to top. On a DX body the 105mm is nicely sharp edge to edge right at f/2.8, and edges are never really a big issue. But it's a bigger, heavier, more expensive lens. Also, 105mm is getting a little long for general purpose telephoto (150mm+ equivalent) and starting to be an isolation lens.

Drawbacks

  • Longitudinal CA. Why is your nose more purple than your green ears?
  • Consumer build quality. High consumer, true, but still more plastic and less precision than the high end lenses.
  • f/3.5. We really don't want to be losing another half stop with our DX cameras when we're already down one. Would have preferred f/2.8.

Positives

  • Nicely sharp. Doesn't knock it out of the park, but a nice triple.
  • Very DX. As one would expect with a lens made for DX compared to one for FX, smaller, lighter, less expensive, but not giving up a lot otherwise.
 
Quick Evaluation


features
performance
build
value

What, four stars and no recommendation? This is a lens you either need or you don't. If you need it, I can recommend it.

Limitations


The 85mm lens has limitations you need to be aware of:

Converters: no converters are recommended.

G: Since this is a DX lens, it's not likely that you'd mount it on an older 35mm body that can't handle the lack of aperture ring or makes restrictions because it is missing.

Coverage Area: at close focus covers the full FX frame with some vignetting, but black corners appear as you focus towards infinity.

Version of Review:
10/16/2012: initial post.

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