Choosing an 85mm Prime - adamleesimmons

Choosing an 85mm Prime

Just before I moved to the United States, I sold my only zoom lens: a slow but fairly versatile 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 optically-stabilised Sigma. The two remaining lenses in my bag - a 24mm f/2.8 and a 50mm f/1.4 - were the only glass I used for my (D)SLR photos over the next three years.

Fast forward to 2014 and I got the itch to expand my collection.

Spoilers: I went with the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.5 ZF.2 lens.


Preamble

Sad as it may be, I really enjoy reading reviews, watching videos and really researching the pros and cons of any expensive item I have my sights set on. From the car I bought to the lenses that record the memories of the day, I like to hear what others have to say and make an informed, if somewhat subjective decision before trying it out and finally purchasing for myself.


Requirements

As those of you who follow here or my Flickr page know, I shoot film and digital. My film bodies (Nikon FE2, Nikon FM2) require lenses to have an aperture ring.

While a fast 35mm lens was tempting, my sights were set on 85mm. While a little too long for my DX digital body, 85mm looks great on full-frame cameras, such as my two film bodies.


The Contenders

From low price to high:

Rokinon / Samyang 85mm f/1.4 - My coworker has the Rokinon version of this lens. For the price, it's actually quite good. It's sharp, has decent enough bokeh, and has an aperture ring for use on film cameras. My main gripe was with the lens coating, which flared up and produced muted colours in many situations.

Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-D - Optically too similar to the 50mm f/1.4 AF-D that I own. Harsh bokeh. Pretty sharp though.

Nikon 85mm f/1.8 G - Very nice lens. Probably the best price to performance ratio in my opinion. Online reviews and sample photos seem to show a fair bit of chromatic aberrations, but it looks like nothing that can't be fixed in post. Sadly, no aperture ring knocked this out of the competition.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF-D - Almost bought this one, actually. Right now it's slightly cheaper than the Zeiss ZF.2. Beautiful bokeh, sharp enough in the center, has auto-focus (for my digital body), but very neutral, clinical, Nikon colours.

Carl Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZF.2Very sturdy, build quality with almost all metal design. Buttery smooth manual focus. Saturated but not unnatural colours. Subjectively, images have that "Zeiss 3D" look and feel. Very nice bokeh.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4 GA little too expensive for my tastes. No aperture ring. Didn't try this one out, but I have no doubt it's a great lens.

Carl Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 OtusWhen I have a spare $5,000 USD I might consider this one. But I don't imagine that happening any time soon.


The Winner: Carl Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZF.2

After spending so long at 24mm and 50mm focal lengths, suddenly walking around with an 85mm prime was a strange experience. It took a few rolls of film to familiarize myself with how to compose an image and get everything I wanted in shot.

Especially when used with Kodak Ektar on a hot Texas day, images come out sharp and vibrant. The dampened, metal focus ring is a joy to use and helps slow me down to focus (pun sadly intended) on the image I want to take.


Adam Simmons

December 21, 2014