Lens Sharpness and Contrast
With quite a complex lens construction comprised of a total of 14 elements, 3 of which are of “Extra-low Dispersion” (ED) type, one can tell that Nikon was aiming to produce a lens with superb resolving power, capable of yielding extremely sharp results. Unlike the design of the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, which was optimized more for its unique look and feel rather than sharpness, the 105mm f/1.4E is made to be extremely sharp at its widest aperture.
That’s not to say that the lens does not produce beautiful depth like the 58mm f/1.4G does though! With this lens, the feel of depth is controlled more through the focal length of the lens and a very wide aperture, which already does a tremendous job at isolating subjects and making them “pop” from the scene. The Nikon 105mm f/1.4E was the first autofocus lens I held in my hands under $5K that combined extreme sharpness with soft, creamy and beautiful background rendering. The last time I saw such amazing sharpness combined with the special look was from the superb Nikon 200mm f/2 VR and if I were to explore manual focus lenses, a close contender would be the Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar, which is a class on its own.
I have owned the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G pretty much ever since it was released back in 2010 and while I love the way the lens is capable of rendering images wide open, it is nowhere close in sharpness to the 105mm f/1.4E – that’s how big the difference between the two is. Take a look at these images shot wide open, using the 105mm f/1.4E and 85mm f/1.4G lenses:
You can probably tell which one is which by looking at these two images. Since the field of view is vastly different, I had to step back with the 105mm f/1.4E a bit to have similar framing. As you can see, while the subject remains the same size in the frame, the rendering of the background is quite a bit different between the two, with the 105mm f/1.4E enlarging the background more, due to a much larger entrance pupil. And that’s one of the main reasons why one would want a longer focal length vs a shorter focal length lens, as the longer focal length allows the subject to be isolated more from the background and allows for a more intimate look, without any surrounding distracting elements. That’s why portrait photographers often prefer shooting on the long end of their 70-200mm lenses, since at 200mm they can separate their subject much more from the background than at 70mm.
But we were talking about sharpness, weren’t we? Let’s jump back to the above images, and this time, we will look at 100% crops from each image sample:
Obviously, web-sized images cannot really show the extreme detail of images, unless they are presented in 100% as I have done above. With a fairly good amount of sharpening applied in Lightroom to both images (just a rough 50/1.0/50 setting), you can see just how different the two look in terms of sharpness – the 105mm f/1.4E is vastly superior compared to the 85mm f/1.4G. To make sure that I did not miss focus, I asked the model not to move, while I switched to live view, zoomed in to 100% and focused on the model’s eyes before taking each shot. So even if you can nail focus on the 85mm f/1.4G, that’s the best you can get wide open with that lens. Some people might argue that they prefer to have a softer image from the 85mm f/1.4G, because it hides the skin features one might not want to see, but I disagree. If one desires to hide skin features, it easy to do so in post, provided all the details are there. However, if one wants to make a soft image sharper, it is impossible to extract more detail out of those images, because that information simply does not exist…
To make the comparisons more scientific, I went ahead and put the lens in my lab and measured its MTF performance using Imatest. Here are the results:
To appreciate just how amazing the above numbers look, take a look at some of the comparison charts below, where I put the data from the 105mm f/1.4E against the 105mm f/2 DC and 85mm f/1.4G. In short, this lens is one of the sharpest ones I have ever tested. Its wide open performance is stellar and once stopped down to f/2.8, you get insane amount of detail that you typically cannot get from most other Nikon primes. The Nikon 105mm f/1.4E’s center performance matches the performance of the superb Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 and even surpasses it in the edges! The 55mm Otus is still a reigning champion when it comes to overall performance though, thanks to practically non-existent chromatic aberration, less vignetting and less distortion, but still, the 105mm f/1.4E is an absolutely amazing gem of a lens.
One thing to note, like many other primes, the lens does exhibit some field curvature. It is not bad by any means, but because of it, shooting a test target at large apertures would yield strong center performance at the expense of the corners. Obviously, the effect of field curvature is greatly diminished when stopping down, which is why the mid-frame and the corner performance figures above increase significantly as I stopped down. However, it also means that if you were to focus outside the center area of the frame, say towards the edges of the frame where your subject might be at, the sharpness might look drastically different than the presented chart above – it is likely to look much better! So don’t let the above chart lead you into thinking that this lens does not resolve enough details towards the edges at wide apertures, it certainly does.
The Nikon 105mm f/1.4E is so sharp wide open, that I would not hesitate to shoot it at its maximum aperture all the time when shooting portraits. Only stop it down when you need to increase depth of field, or if it is too bright out and you are maxing out on your camera’s shutter speed.
To give you an idea of what kind of sharpness you can expect from maximum aperture when shooting a landscape at infinity, take a look at the below image:
By now, you have already seen plenty of examples of how beautiful the lens is capable of rendering bokeh. Compared to other lenses I have used in the past, including the 85mm f/1.4G, I would say that the 105mm f/1.4E is probably one of my top picks for its ability to yield pleasant-looking background highlights, certainly in a way that can be described as “creamy” and “dreamy”.
The bokeh highlights look really good, with no thick borders around the circular shapes or onion-shaped rings inside those shapes, which typically happen when aspherical lens elements are used (and this lens has none). What happens when you put three world-class portrait lenses and compare their bokeh? Take a look at the below crops from the 105mm f/1.4E to the 105mm f/2 DC and 85mm f/1.4G at f/2:
Well, there are no real surprises here – all lenses look stellar, producing very pleasing bokeh. I looked hard between the different areas of the frame and apertures and to be honest, I could not pinpoint one lens that did better than others. All three look about the same! However, it is worth noting that the wider f/1.4 aperture certainly does make a difference in the size of bokeh highlights and how the background is rendered, since it has a full stop advantage over f/2. Also, note that there are always going to be differences between lenses shot wide open vs stopped down. The bokeh highlights from the 105mm f/1.4E and 85mm f/1.4G do not appear fully circular, since the aperture blades start impacting them.
Now keep in mind that the lens will yield “cat’s eye” bokeh towards the edges of the frame and that’s very normal (every prime lens will do that), since the shape of the background highlights will change in shape due to optical vignetting (caused by variations in angles of light):
In fact, if you place the subject in the center and you have background highlights surrounding your subject, you will find these elliptical shapes swirling around your subject, which can give that special, pleasing look to your images. It might not be as extreme as the swirling bokeh produced by Petzval lenses, but it is definitely there.
As expected with any fixed f/1.4 lens, there is a considerable amount of vignetting present when shooting wide open @ f/1.4. Imatest measured 2.67 EV of vignetting for close focus and 2.90 EV of vignetting when shooting at infinity, as can be seen from the below chart:
And here is the worst-case scenario represented visually via Imatest, with the image shot at f/1.4, infinity focus:
Now keep in mind that the vignetting characteristics of a lens are often part of the lens design. Vignetting can be beautiful and it can help draw the viewer’s eye towards the center of the subject. However, if you happen to place your subject towards the edges of the frame and you want to address the vignetting issues, it is very easy to do so using post-processing software like Lightroom, which is capable of taking care of those issues with a single click.
Personally, when shooting with portrait lenses like the 105mm f/1.4E, I rarely ever correct vignetting in post, since I find their vignetting characteristics to be beautiful.
Ghosting, Flare and Chromatic Aberration
Thanks to the Nano Crystal Coat that is applied to the lens elements, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E is able to handle ghosting and flare really well in most situations. However, due to the long focal length of the lens, one should take precaution when shooting without the lens hood – with very bright sources of light at particular angles of the frame, light rays can really impact images negatively, adding some ghosting and flare to images. It is not bad by any means though and Nano Coating certainly does perform really well when shooting with the sun in the frame, even if you happen to leave the lens hood behind. Take a look at the below two images, captured with the lens at f/1.4 and f/5.6 apertures, without the hood:
As you can see, if you shoot with the sun right behind your subject, ghosting and flare might show up in your images. The effect gets a bit more amplified as you stop down and that’s very normal. And as expected, there is a definite drop in contrast as well, which might actually look far worse if you have a lot of dust on the front element of the lens, since light particles get bounced all over the place.
I would recommend keeping the lens hood on at all times to prevent accidental flares from showing up in your images. Also, if you use a low-quality filter, you might get some nasty flare even with the hood on when pointing at a bright light source, so make sure to use only high-quality multi-coated “MRC” filters from B+W, Hoya or Tiffen for digital cameras.
When it comes to lateral chromatic aberration, the Nikon 104mm f/1.4E demonstrated fair results, on par with both the Nikon 105mm f/2 DC and the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G at large apertures. Imatest measured chromatic aberration right under a pixel, which unfortunately did not get any better as I stopped down the lens. Longitudinal chromatic aberration (LoCA) can also be pretty pronounced in images, especially in high contrast situations. If you take a closer look at the above image of a Star Wars stormtrooper shot at f/1.4, you can see quite a bit of that purple and green fringing on the helmet and the hands, which is a typical case of pronounced LoCA.
Here is how Imatest measured lateral chromatic aberration at different apertures:
Distortion-wise, the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E exhibits very little of it. Imatest measured 0.84% barrel distortion, which is a bit worse than both the Nikon 105mm f/2 DC (0.28% pincushion distortion) and the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G (0.46% pincushion distortion). Anything under 1% is nothing to worry about and you won’t even notice it in images. If you are shooting straight lines and the lines appear a little curved, you can easily fix it in post-processing software like Lightroom, which already has a built-in profile for the lens.
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