Ever since it was introduced back in 1993, the DC Nikkor 105mm f/2 DC has been a classic – it was one of the most favored lenses for film portrait photographers and when digital came about, many photographers continued using the stellar lens to create stunning portraits. It took Nikon 23 years to bring out an update in the form of the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED – a drastically different lens in every way. Although Nikon decided to eliminate the de-focus control feature on the new 105mm, the biggest change is, in fact, the maximum aperture: at f/1.4, it is a much brighter lens compared to its predecessor. A full stop brighter, which is a huge difference for a portrait lens of this class. With this update, Nikon claimed another “world’s first” title, since no other manufacturer has ever been able to make a 105mm telephoto lens with such a wide aperture.
Keep in mind that it is very challenging to optically design f/1.4 telephoto lenses without making lenses outrageously big and expensive. It took Nikon engineers quite a bit of effort to balance size, weight and cost to make the 105mm f/1.4E, so that it is not significantly bigger and heavier compared to its predecessor. The Nikon 200mm f/2G VR II is one heck of a lens, but it is a monster – at 3 kilos and a price tag of $5,699, it is a hard lens to justify for many portrait photographers.
Nikon obviously beefed up the 105mm f/1.4E with all the new technologies, including an electronic diaphragm, Nano Crystal Coat, fluorine coating and a total of 3 extra-low dispersion (ED) lens elements to make it a very sharp lens. In order to achieve ultimate sharpness and contrast, Nikon had to more than double the number of optical elements used in the lens – the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E has a total of 14 elements in 9 groups, whereas the 105mm f/2 DC only had 6 elements in 6 groups. All that extra glass obviously resulted in a lot more weight, some of which Nikon was able to shave off by using a plastic barrel vs a metal barrel used on the 105mm f/2 DC. Still, even with a plastic barrel, the 105mm f/1.4E ended up being 345 grams heavier in comparison. The price has also seen a rather noticeable increase, with the new 105mm costing $1K more. A pretty noticeable change for sure.
Build Quality and Lens Handling
Despite its plastic shell, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E is built very well, similarly to all other recent high-end Nikon prime lenses. Aside from a boatload of glass, there are plenty of metal components in the lens, as noted by our friend Roger Cicala in this article, where he took the time to disassemble the 105mm f/1.4E. Unlike the 105mm f/2 DC (which also has quite a bit of plastic on its barrel), the finish of the lens is quite smooth and covered with some texture for a solid grip.
The focusing ring is very large, which is very useful, as it not only helps with the grip, but also allows for easy focus override using the thumb, index and middle fingers. Similar to other high-end primes, the lower section of the lens has the distance scale with a large “N” imprinted in gold to the right of it, indicating Nano Crystal coating. To the left of the distance scale there is a switch that allows switching from autofocus with manual focus override to manual focus. The back of the lens has “Nano Crystal Coat SWM ED IF”, which basically re-iterates the coating, then the Silent Wave Motor type (SWM), extra-low dispersion optical glass used in the lens (ED) and Internal Focus (IF).
There is also a mark for an 82mm filter size. Speaking of which, the 105mm f/2 DC has a much smaller 72mm filter thread, so there is huge jump in filter size between the two lenses. In addition, there is also a pretty big difference in terms of the size and the location of the front element between the two lenses. The 105mm f/2 DC’s front element is buried deep inside the lens barrel and its size is fairly small when compared to the much larger front element on the 105mm f/1.4E, which sits pretty close to the edge of the barrel. When focusing, the front element of the 105mm f/2 DC does not move and you cannot see any movement from the front of the lens, since all the focusing takes place with the rear lens group, which is located past the diaphragm of the lens. In comparison, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E seems to have its focusing group located closer to the front of the lens barrel. It is also worth noting that due to the electromagnetic diaphragm used on the new 105mm f/1.4E, there is no more aperture lever on the rear of the lens and by default the lens is going to be at its widest aperture. Both lenses are protected with a rear lens element, which is great, as it can play a pretty significant role in reducing potential dust and other debris from getting into the lens from the rear opening. Compared to the older 105mm f/2 DC, the 105mm f/1.4E also has a rubber gasket on its mount, which can help a great deal in reducing potential dust from collecting around the rear element of the lens or getting into the camera. Another difference is the lack of the aperture ring, which has been eliminated on all modern “G” type and “E” type Nikkor lenses.
The home of manufacturing for the Nikon 105mm f/2 DC has always been Japan, but the new Nikkor 105mm f/1.4E clearly reads “Made in China” on the lens barrel. This can be disappointing news for those who are considering the 105mm f/1.4E and traditionally own Japanese-made lenses. To be honest, having tested various Nikon lenses made in Japan, Thailand and China, I have not seen much difference in quality between them. Nikon has pretty rigorous quality assurance standards in every manufacturing plant, no matter where it is located, so it should not be an issue. I have tested two 105mm f/1.4E lens samples and both of them seemed to have pretty similar performance overall, so the quality of manufacturing and assembly looks fairly consistent. In fact, I had to send the Japanese-made Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR back while testing it and replace it with another copy, since the first sample was very inconsistent in terms of AF accuracy – even after dialing -15 in “AF Fine Tune” camera settings, I was not able to get good AF performance out of it. So in this particular case, a Chinese-made 105mm f/1.4E turned out to be better in terms of quality assurance compared to the 70-200mm f/2.8E VR, which is proudly made in Japan!
When it comes to lens hood, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E comes with a plastic HB-79 bayonet lens hood, whereas the 105mm f/2 DC has a built-in metal hood that you can easily extend and mount by counter clock-wise rotation. Personally, I like the metal hood on the 105mm f/2 DC a bit better for its convenience and quality, since it is one less object to carry and mount in the field. It is also worth noting that since the 105mm f/2 DC’s front element is buried so deep inside the lens barrel, one rarely needs to worry about extending the lens hood, which is certainly an advantage when compared to the 105mm f/1.4E. Since it is expected to see ghosting and flare on long telephoto lenses, the 105mm f/1.4E should ideally have the lens hood attached when shooting in daylight conditions, as its front element will surely get a taste of sun rays due to its proximity to the front area of the lens barrel. While mounting the HB-79 lens hood on the 105mm f/1.4 is relatively easy, the plastic tends to bend when pushing the hood into its place, giving it a cheaper feel.
When handling both lenses, the 105mm f/2 DC is obviously more convenient to hand-hold, thanks to its thinner barrel and lighter construction. The 105mm f/1.4E is a noticeably heavier and bulkier lens in comparison, but not that much worse in terms of handling, since its large barrel nicely sits on the left hand and the focus ring naturally aligns with the fingertips, allowing for quick AF override when needed.
Overall, the build quality and the handling of the 105mm f/1.4E are superb. Aside from the cheap feel of the bayonet lens hood, it feels like a high-quality lens that is built to last a lifetime.
Before I talk about autofocus speed and accuracy, it is worth noting that the Silent Wave Motor used in the 105mm f/1.4E is of older, gear-based type instead of ring ultrasonic, as evidenced by Roger’s findings in the article linked above. While many found this news to be quite disappointing, I am personally not bothered with this, just like I am not bothered with recent lens releases that still have the old aperture lever on the back of the lens instead of the newer and more reliable electromagnetic diaphragm. One thing that certainly did bother me though, was the dishonesty about Nikon’s marketing about the SWM used in the 105mm f/1.4E, where they pointed out the advantage of the motor compared to “geared” motors. Thanks to Roger’s findings, Nikon quickly removed the wording and fixed the description on Nikon’s website, but still, it definitely did leave a bad taste in the mouth, didn’t it? Makes me wonder how many lenses that Nikon labels as “SWM” actually contain the ring ultrasonic mechanism…
Anyway, like I have already pointed out, I personally don’t care all that much for the type of AF motor used in the lens, as long as the motor is quick, silent and responsive. And it surely is on the 105mm f/1.4E – it feels no different compared to other primes I have used in the past. Unlike the “D” type lenses such as the 105mm f/2 DC, focusing is very quiet – all you hear is a little bit of “chirp” as the focus is adjusted. It does take a little bit of time to go from close distance to infinity and vice-versa, but that is expected, given that it is an f/1.4 lens with a much finer motor than found on older Nikkor lenses. Autofocus speed is quite fast and I found it to be good enough to photograph not only still portraits, but also moving subjects. Tracking fast, erratic movements can be a bit of a hit and miss depending on lighting conditions, but in very dim environments, I found the 105mm f/1.4E to focus better than both the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G and 85mm f/1.8G lenses. Similar to all other modern Nikkor lenses, the front element of the lens does not rotate when focus is adjusted.
The finer motor definitely does a good job at delivering quite accurate focus. Keep in mind that there is a huge difference in depth of field between an f/2 and an f/1.4 lens. The full stop of advantage on behalf of the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E translates to paper-thin depth of field, which when put to use at very close distances can be very challenging in terms of nailing the focus. Both of the samples of the 105mm f/1.4E that I tested performed admirably in terms of AF accuracy and I did not have to dial any AF adjustments in the camera to nail focus, which is great. If your sample requires more than +- 10 adjustment, I would either send it back for a replacement, or send it to Nikon for re-calibration, since extreme AF values dialed through the camera never provide consistent, reliable autofocus. As you may already know, AF micro adjustments only work for a particular focusing distance, which can make it tough when switching from head and shoulders type portraits to a full body portrait. AF accuracy definitely goes down in poorly lit environments and you can expect the lens to behave very similarly to lenses like the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G.