Nikon released its first portrait lens for the Z mount with the announcement of the NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct, but it was more of a “show off” lens to demonstrate the possibilities of the new system more than anything, especially considering its exorbitant $8K price-tag. The portrait lens everyone else had been waiting for was a reasonably-priced 85mm prime, which Nikon finally delivered in July of 2019. The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S arrived with a price tag of $800 USD – a significant increase over the price of its predecessor, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G.
While many got disappointed by the price of the new lens, it really should not come as a surprise for those who have been keeping track of the Z mount lens announcements. Basically, Nikon has completely changed the status of its f/1.8 lenses – each and every single one of them we have tested so far has been an optical marvel, and the Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S is not an exception.
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S is a professional-grade lens aimed at professionals and enthusiasts, who need a high-quality portrait lens to pair with a mirrorless Nikon Z body. Its large aperture of f/1.8 is great for low-light photography and subject isolation, rendering beautiful portraits with smooth backgrounds and background highlights known as “bokeh“.
Optically, the lens is comprised of 12 elements in 8 groups, two of which are extra-low dispersion (ED) elements. Nikon did not incorporate any aspherical lens elements into the design, because they are known to negatively impact the lens’ bokeh performance. The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S is coated with both Nano Crystal Coat and Super Integrated Coating to reduce ghosting and flare. There are nine rounded aperture blades, and the lens is fully weather-sealed, similar to other Nikon Z S primes.
In this review, I will provide a thorough analysis of the Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens, along with image samples and comparisons to other 85mm lenses on the market.
Lens Handling and Build
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S shares the same smooth, minimalistic design of other Z mount prime lenses. It has a plastic barrel with a plastic 67mm filter thread, although the rear part of the lens, the mount itself, and the focus ring are all made out of metal. The lens only has a single A / M switch for switching between autofocus and manual focus, so aside from the switch and the focus ring (which you can program for other tasks if desired), there are no other controls on the lens to worry about.
The lens feels fairly light when hand-holding, although it is definitely longer and heavier than its F-mount 85mm f/1.8G version. Still, unlike some of the big and heavy lenses like the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art, it is much easier to handle and balance on Nikon Z-series cameras.
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S attaches very securely on Nikon Z cameras, thanks to its four locking ears on the mount (vs three on Nikon F), and does not wobble at all. This is important, as it does not leave any chance to misalignment issues between the lens and the camera body, maximizing the performance of the lens. Similar to all other modern Nikkor lenses, there is a rubber gasket on the lens mount to prevent dust and other particles from entering into the camera body.
The focus ring is large and easy to rotate. Due to having a focus-by-wire stepping motor, the focus ring is not coupled mechanically to anything, so it can be set up to perform different functions such as change lens aperture. If you decide to manually focus with the lens, keep in mind that the experience is completely different when compared to Nikon F lenses. Personally, I am not a big fan of the way Nikon implemented manual focusing on the Z system – I wish there was a way to set up manual focus parameters, such as focus throw speed and acceleration.
Unlike most other 85mm lenses out there (including Nikon’s own 85mm primes for the F-mount), the Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S is fully weather-sealed, thanks to nine different rubber seals that protect different parts of the lens. Nikon says that the lens is both dust and moisture-resistant. I had the chance to use the lens in extremely dusty conditions of Death Valley National Park, as well as Southern California (where it rained a lot during my visit), and the lens held up just fine.
Thanks to the internal focus design, the front element of the lens does not rotate or move while focusing. This makes it easy to use circular filters on the Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S. Speaking of filters, if you are transitioning from the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G, make sure not to sell those 67mm filters with it, since the filter size is the same.
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S does not feature Vibration Reduction (VR), but if you use it on a camera body like the Nikon Z7 with in-body image stabilization (IBIS), you will be able to take advantage of all 5 axes. All other Nikon F-mount lenses, including Nikon’s own 85mm primes, will be limited to 3-axis IBIS.
Similar to other Z-series lenses, the Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S uses a “focus-by-wire” stepping motor (STM) for focusing, which basically means that focusing is fully electronic. While the camera is turned on, moving the focus ring does whatever it is programmed to do, but once the camera is turned off, it does absolutely nothing. While there are some current issues with Nikon’s implementation of stepping motors (for example, the focus gets reset when the camera is turned off), most of these issues are likely to be addressed via firmware updates in the future.
I believe the advantages of the focus-by-wire system far outweigh their current problems and limitations, and Nikon made the right decision by incorporating it into all the Z lenses. With the focus-by-wire system, it is possible to not only improve autofocus speed and accuracy but also provide more fine-tuned control of different camera operations. Thanks to this system, Nikon has already been adding several programmable rings and function buttons to its high-end lenses.
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S is a good example of the benefits of the focus-by-wire system. Its autofocus operation is extremely quiet (yes, far better than the “Silent Wave Motor” on Nikon F mount lenses), it is very fast, and autofocus precision is simply remarkable. As long as the target has enough contrast, the lens will lock on without any hesitation. I am yet to see situations in the real world where focus acquisition completely fails. Aside from experiencing it once when shooting a dune from distance with almost no contrast on it (which I took care of by zooming in and manually adjusting focus), I don’t remember coming across a situation where the lens continuously hunted for focus.
Shooting indoors can be a bit of a challenge in extremely low-light situations, but there are some tricks you can use to improve autofocus speed and precision. First of all, I found that turning on the “Built-in AF-assist illuminator” can help quite a bit in low-light. While the light is green and very annoying, it certainly does work. If light conditions are so bad that you can barely see, turning on “Low-light AF” improves autofocus accuracy at the cost of its speed, which will be reduced significantly.
Sadly, if you have been using the AF Assist beam trick with a speedlight when shooting indoors, it is not going to work with any modern mirrorless camera, including the Nikon Z system. The reason for that is the sensor filter stack that filters out infrared light, as well as the sensor-based phase-detection system that might not see the red light emitted from speedlights. Keep this in mind if you are an event photographer and you shoot subjects at relatively close distances in extreme low-light environments.