Hands-on: Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 85mm F3.5G ED VR

The Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 85mm F3.5G ED VR that was recently announced received some fondling by me at this year’s Photo Plus. If you’re a Nikon shooter, you will appreciate quite a bit of the design, weight and engineering that went into the lens. Seemingly targeted more towards the lower-end prosumer audience, Nikon D300s users especially will love this lens.

Tech Specs at a Glance

  • Medium-telephoto 85mm Micro lens (picture angle is equivalent to a focal length of 127.5mm in FX/35mm format)
  • Closest focusing distance of 0.286 m/0.9 ft. (1:1 life size)
  • The optical system featuring an ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass element is optimized for DX-format digital SLRs
  • Vibration Reduction (VR II) enables sharper pictures while shooting at shutter speeds up to four stops slower than would otherwise be possible
  • Silent Wave Motor (SWM) ensures fast, quiet AF operation
  • Two focus modes available — M/A and M
  • IF (Internal Focusing) enables focusing without changing the length of lens barrel
  • The nine-blade rounded diaphragm opening gives out-of-focus elements a more natural appearance

Initial Impressions

The new 85mm lens is very light and still very compact for its specialty. It is quite a bit smaller than Canon’s new 100mm F2.8 L Hybrid IS lens that I also got some hands-on time with earlier in the season. The Nikon lens is seen here on the Nikon D300s.

The lens is very versatile allowing for portrait use, medium telephoto images and of course macro. Because of the F3.5 limit, it may be necessary to crank ISO up a bit or shoot in good light. As the lens begins to focus in closer and closer, the available light tends to decrease. In that case, the lens will do well in the hands of D700 and D3s users if they don’t mind the crop factor. Vibration Reduction does help to a certain point. Ditto for the internal focusing (which is very sharp.)

This is the result of focusing in very closely with the 85mm lens. Colors are rendered very accurately and a lot of sharp detail can be seen. Autofocusing at this distance can become problematic so you may need to manually focus. This experiences comes from two days of tests with the lens. Additionally, I had to retake this photo after cranking up the ISO a bit in order to achieve stability.  Obviously though, if you are doing detailed macro work, you will likely have a better setup with macro rails, or at least a tripod, instead of a counter to lean on at a tradeshow.

Medium telephoto work can be done very easily with this lens. This man was around ten feel away from me when he was testing out that behemoth of a lens, and you can see that the focus point hit the gentleman behind him, who seems to really like that lens too.

What is really nice is the silent focusing. This will come in handy when doing portraits, candids, street photography, well lit events, or even shooting little creepy crawly things. This is important because you do not want to disturb your subjects just for the sake of your picture.

Depth of field is rendered lovely from this lens for a prosumer audience. Professionals may want something that allows them to shoot wider open in order to blur the background some more and, of course, there are dedicated portrait lenses that offer this capability. For the price point, it seems fair as it is an ED lens and there is also VR in it. Additionally there doesn’t appear to be any serious issues with distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberration or other problems. The lens does feel plastic-like though, which is to be expected for a lens in the $500 price range.

Based on my initial impressions, the lens gets my recommendation with only a few drawbacks.