If you like to shoot portraits, an 85mm prime lens could be one of the best investments you'll ever make for your DSLR. Richard Sibley and Michael Topham put five models through a rigorous test
As can be seen in this group test, when it comes to 85mm f/1.4 lenses there is a lot of choice, and regardless of which lens mount your camera uses, there is something for you. Obviously, the Canon 85mm lens stands out in this group as it has a slightly larger maximum aperture of f/1.2, but in practice this only makes a difference of 0.3EV when all the lenses are at maximum aperture. The larger aperture also makes only a very small difference in terms of depth of field. Add to this the price of the Canon lens, along with its weight and the fact that it doesn’t offer much advantage optically, and suddenly some of the third-party lenses start to look a lot more attractive.
The Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 is a high-quality lens that handles well and is good optically across a range of apertures, but it is also fairly expensive when you consider the third-party options on test here. Having said that, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* is around the same price, and despite having excellent image quality at f/5.6, it is manual focus only, which may put some enthusiast photographers off.
The Samyang 85mm f/1.4 is also manual focus, but at a price of under £300 and with a resolution that, at its best, can match the Sigma, Nikon and Canon lenses. It is fantastic value for money, especially for those who just want a lens for the occasional portrait. As such, it is a worthy winner of our Good Value award.
Although the Sigma 85mm lens does not feature the premium style and build of the company’s new lenses, its build quality is still good, and it is available in all the major lens mounts – and priced at £669, it offers great value for money. The image quality is excellent, and only bettered when the Zeiss lens is performing at its best. As such, the Sigma lens is well deserving of our Recommended award.
Best in Test Award: Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
Good Value Award: Samyang 85mm f/1.4 IF MC
A new 85mm lens comes at a premium price, so what are the alternatives?
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
Price: £295 (new)
If you’re a Canon user struggling to come to terms with the price of the EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM, the f/1.8 version here is an affordable alternative. It is an old lens design (it was released in 1992), but it remains in demand and features excellent build quality, delivers sharp results and is still available to buy new from most retailers. It is known to produce chromatic aberrations when it is opened to its maximum aperture, but there are few better options for those on a budget. Used examples often go for around £250.
Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 D AF
Price: £660 (used)
THe Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 D AF is the predecessor to the Nikkor G lens on test here. As with all D lenses, the 85mm f/1.4 D offers a manual-aperture ring behind the focus-distance indicator on the barrel, and its excellent build quality befits a lens that, in its day, was one of the finest Nikkor prime lenses going. Whereas excellent examples of this lens can be found for around £660, mint examples can go for £100 more. Constructed from nine elements in eight groups, a 77mm filter thread allows the use of filters and adapters.
Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 D
Price: £230 (used)
Nikkor users are spoilt for choice when it comes to 85mm prime lenses, with the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 D being the forerunner to the two-year-old Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 G AF-S lens. As there’s no Silent Wave Motor, this lens isn’t as quiet in terms of its AF performance as most modern day Nikkor optics. When you consider that a mint-condition example can cost up to £292, it’s worth the extra £83 to pick up the newer Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 G, which features a new optical design as well as quieter and smoother autofocus operation.