November 30

5 comments

Lens Review: Nikon 85mm f/1.8D Short Telephoto

By Dan

November 30, 2011

camera gear, landscapes, lenses, Nikon, outdoor photography, portraits, Reviews and Recommendations, travel photography

Although I do own and have owned a number of zoom lenses, I generally shoot with fixed lenses or primes in my photography. Why? Because they’re lighter and more compact than most zooms, and they’re sharp. Really sharp. A lens with elements that don’t move inside the lens barrel is optimized for one angle of view, and so it does one thing extremely well.

One of my favorite lenses is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8D short telephoto lens. I use it all the time; I rarely leave the house without it. It’s actually lens that I slapped on when I bought my very first digital body. I take it backpacking, hiking, biking, traveling and skiing, and it goes with me on every single assignment.

In fact, if you comb through the metadata in my Lightroom catalog, you’ll see that it’s my second most used lens. Over the years, many of my favorite images were made with that lens. Although I’ve mentioned it here on the blog, (See What Can You Do With a Short Telephoto Lens and 4 More Reasons Why I Love my 85mm f/1.8 lens.) but this is the first time I’ve done a formal review of the 85mm f/1.8.

Rather than include images in the post, I’ve created a gallery of photos at the end to illustrate all the ways that I use this lens.

Lens Speed

First of all, this lens is fast. With a f/1.8 maximum aperture, it’s fast enough to use inside and for many photography applications where you’re dealing with reduced ambient light. I’ve used it in my house, inside the garage, inside buildings, dark monasteries, flamenco bars, deep canyons and dimly lit forests, under overhanging boulders, under ominous overcast skies and just about everywhere else where the light sucks.

In all of those places, it performs extremely well. f/1.8 is fast and that kind of speed lets me use shutter speeds that would be impossible to get with something like an f/4 lens. This means getting the shot, whether you’re shooting a subject that’s moving or just standing there looking at the camera.

Even though modern DSLR cameras have high ISO capabilities, speed still matters, which is why I always advocate getting the fastest lens that you can reasonably afford. The Nikon 85mm f/1.8 definitely falls under the category of “fast.” In that regard,  it’s a lens that won’t let you down.

Depth of Field

The 85mm f/1.8 has an extremely shallow depth of field, which makes it an excellent choice for photographing portraits. Short telephoto lenses are generally ideal for portrait use because of the appealing way that they compress the features of the face. If you really look at a person’s features, you’ll see that our ears are too far back on our head to look all that good. A short telephoto flattens our features just enough to bring those forward a little bit and make us look that much better.

Although the 105mm is often considered the ideal portrait lens, the 85mm f/1.8 does the job really nicely, and it’s m go to lens for portraiture. Even on a crop sensor DX body, the 85mm effectively becomes a 130mm lens, which is still a great length for this kind of photography.

That shallow depth of field is also great for nature and landscape work, as well as any time you want to isolate your subject matter from the background. The 85mm f/1.8 really pulls your subject matter forward and makes it pop in the frame against a really soft backdrop. This makes for extremely nice bokeh qualities.

I take advantage of this aspect of the lens and apply it with nearly every style of subject matter that I shoot, whether I’m photographing people, landscapes, closeups, travel subjects, still lifes. In that way, the 85 1.8 is really a great all around lens. It will do just about anything, except of course, wide angle. However, you can still get in pretty close and just show part of the subject and include some out of focus elements to give your scene a sense of place.

Construction, Size and Specs

The Nikon 85mm f/1.8D is a durable, well built lens. Trust me. I’ve banged it around enough to have damaged the thing if it was a cheap piece of junk. It’s not, it’s built to withstand a reasonable amount of abuse and still perform flawlessly.

The lens weighs 13.4 ounces, and without the lens hood, it’s 2.3 inches long and 2.8 inches wide. However, I always use the HN-23 lens hood, it reduces flare and protects the front of the lens from my occasional recklessness in the outdoors. Overall, it’s compact enough to fit on the camera in just about any type of camera bag, even with the lens hood.

As I said, I rarely leave the house without my 85mm lens, and over the years, I’ve found it to be an extremely valuable and creative tool in my outdoor, adventure, location and travel photography. I highly recommend this lens to any photographer as an essential piece of solid glass that will get the job done in a variety of photography applications and produce professional quality work and exceptionally sharp imagery.

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About the author

Hi, I'm Dan Bailey, a 20+ year pro outdoor and adventure photographer, and official FUIJIFILM X-Photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.


As a top rated blogger and author my goal is to help you become a better, more confident and competent photographer, so that you can have as much fun and creative enjoyment as I do.

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  • Right on!!! I upgraded my old 85 f2 MF to the current 85 f1.8 AF shortly after our Nepal trip with Galen in ’93. When I went digital in 2000 the lens pretty much sat on the shelf as I found it a bit too long with the cropped sensor. I almost sold it but held out with the hopes someday of a full frame camera. The lens is now the body cap on my full frame D700. My particular lens always had a little bit of a back focus problem but that was easily remedied on the D700. Every Nikon user should have this lens in their bag.

  • Thanks for the great review. I bought the 85mm f/1.8D lens a few years ago mainly for portraits. But I haven’t done portraits in a while, and it seemed too long a tele for other uses, so it’s sat in the bag unused. But after reading your article, I’m ready to start using it again. I do like primes over zooms because of all the reasons you mentioned. But zooms are convenient. Thanks for getting me motivated to use my 85mm prime again!

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    Terry Bourk

    I have read you new book “Behind the Landscape.” I could not “put it down” meaning that I kept at it because each photo you presented/analyzed was interesting and informative. I am trying to develop an eye for composition (both the scene and the light).

    Thank you! The examples you present and the suggestions are very helpful. Purple Mountains, McKinley River and Wonder Lake are fascinating.


    Roger Sinclair

    You have done it again! Another triumph.

    Your generosity to share, the clarity of thought and concise explanation thereof is brilliant. Perhaps I should also mention the beautiful photos and the talent necessary to produce them.

    Thank you, Dan.