Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 S Review
In the history of Nikon (Nikkor) lenses, very few f/1.2 lenses have ever been designed, and each one has been a major milestone for the brand. The original “Noct”, a 58mm f/1.2, is quite possibly the most-revered lens in all of Nikon history! Today, I am presenting a similarly impressive lens, and yet a highly modern one: our Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 S review!
The Nikon Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.2 S is even bigger than the Nikon Z 50mm f/1.2 S, but not as big and heavy as the new “Noct”, the 58mm f/0.95. That is to say, it isn’t your average portrait lens. It is big, heavy, and clearly aimed at serious portrait photographers who have very high standards.
It’s incredibly sharp, even wide open at f/1.2. The aesthetic of the bokeh or background blur is just utterly gorgeous, and the overall clarity and contrast are beautiful, too. If you’re a portrait photographer, especially if you mainly focus (no pun intended!) on one or two subjects by themselves, (fashion, maternity, newborn, seniors, etc.) …then this will be your holy grail lens.
I don’t think I can “spoil” this lens review, however, because you really must scroll through the photos to see just how unique the “look” of f/1.2 at 85mm can be. Simply put, this lens utterly destroys your background/foreground. Even in the most challenging conditions, you can trust this lens to give incredibly shallow depth, with a beautifully soft aesthetic to the bokeh. (Alternatively, to be quite honest, if you prefer to always capture portraits at f/2 or f/2.8, then I will flat-out recommend passing on this lens and looking instead at the Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S!)
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 S is certainly not for everyone, though; if the price tag doesn’t discourage you, the physical heft still might give you pause. This is absolutely a specialty lens; it shines for portraits, of course, but also makes an incredible fine art lens for literally any subject, and is capable as an astrophotography lens, too. If you want to play with selective focus and/or work in extremely low light, then almost no other lens on the market comes close to this one.
While I have been talking a lot about how Nikon Z mirrorless is a great system for all levels of photographers and videographers, this lens is definitely not for everyone. It represents the highest pinnacle of portrait photography; I can only recommend its price tag and weight to those serious photographers who are highly discerning, and know exactly what they’re getting into…
If you’re a portrait photographer, then of course you know how valuable a good 85mm lens can be. Many portrait shooters literally pay their bills with an 85mm prime and rarely reach for any other lens!
However, I should dive in a bit further, because for the price of this one lens, you could afford at least three other excellent portrait primes instead, or a pair of decent f/2.8 zooms even.
So, exactly which types of portraits might be optimal with an 85mm f/1.2 lens in particular? Portraits of just one or two subjects, of course, as opposed to large group portraits. Also, consider the soft, smooth aesthetic of such a lens: it’s a look that lends itself to subjects that benefit from softness and smoothness, of course. Maternity, newborn, boudoir, etc. Meanwhile, other types of portraits may simply not find f/1.2 and the bokeh it offers to be very useful.
Fashion and editorial or commercial portrait photography can certainly be considered as high-caliber enough for a full-time pro to invest in a lens such as this. However, there are a few considerations: If you’re selling a line of clothing, then having almost everything be slightly out of focus usually isn’t a good thing; you’re going to spend a lot more time stopped way down from f/1.2 On the other hand, if you’re selling a line of makeup, then the ultra-soft, buttery-smooth focus on eyelashes, for example, might be perfect!
Simply put, this is a consideration that you as a working professional have to keep in mind.
This won’t be a lens you reach for all the time at a wedding, as it is very heavy and not as “snappy” to focus as, say, the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8. However, bridal portraits and wedding days in general absolutely do lend themselves to the beautiful, soft aesthetic that this 85mm f/1.2 portrait prime offers.
The bottom line is this: even if if I had the budget for this lens, as a wedding photographer I would still prefer to reach for the Nikon Z 95mm f/1.8. Sure, the shallow depth is absolutely not the same, but the lens is just so much more comfortable to work with on very long (12+ hour) days.
There is nothing svelte or “incognito” about this lens, so forget trying to “blend in with the crowd” or anything. If you’re hoping to take this lens out in public, or just hang out with friends & family, then be prepared to get attention.
Having said that, it’s obviously a fun lens to get creative with; having f/1.2 at your disposal opens up a whole world of possibilities in terms of creativity!
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 is by no means a high-speed lens because there’s just quite a bit of glass for the AF motors to push back and forth. Having said that, this Nikkor does do an impressive job of focusing both fast and precisely, even on moving subjects. I wouldn’t consider it a go-to lens, however, unless you’re working in truly terrible light very often. (For example, photographing nocturnal animals by moonlight!)
I can keep this statement very simple: If you’re going to spend all your time at f/8, then don’t buy this lens. Literally any other of Nikon’s Z-mount lenses, especially the S-line, are going to be better choices for you as a landscape or outdoor adventure/travel photographer. I’d go so far as to say that this is basically the antithesis of the type of lens you’d want to bring on most types of trips. Having said that, it is of course an incredibly sharp lens, virtually flawless from f/2.8 through f/8 where diffraction will begin to overcome your sensor’s resolving power.
The opposite is true for those nocturnal landscape photographers, who may be trying to photograph a nightscape by moonlight, or the stars themselves. In this regard, the Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 excels in terms of its sheer light-gathering capabilities, as well as the more subtle details of its optical prowess. In other words, this lens is incredibly bright, incredibly sharp, and relatively free of any aberrations such as color fringing or coma & astigmatism.
The technical, objective portion of this review can be summed up very simply: The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 S is an optically superb lens with virtually no flaws to report, in terms of its image quality and overall performance. Nikon did an impressive job with this lens, not cutting any corners, indeed. Nor did they “spare any expense”, obviously, as the price tag shows. At nearly $2,800, this lens is a serious investment, plain and simple.
This is one of those lenses where, by the time you stop down to “normal” apertures such as f/2.8 or f/4, it becomes obvious that the optics are even more high-resolution than any current megapixel count! I bet you could put this on a 100-megapixel Nikon full-frame mirrorless camera, and still see the lens out-resolving the sensor. (Or being obscured by diffraction, of course!)
Even at f/1.2, as you can see above, this lens is absolutely tack sharp, center-to-corner. In fact, in the below landscape sharpness test, I won’t even label what is f/1.2 and what is f/8; you can barely even see a difference in sharpness as I stop down the entire way! This is truly an impressive feat:
Obviously, let’s be honest: Bokeh is the main reason why you’re here! The background blur you can achieve with this lens is a powerful tool for any artist. (Not just portrait photographers!)
Not only is f/1.2 a relatively unprecedented level of blur in general, but also, the aesthetic of the blur, or the character of the bokeh, is soft and smooth at any aperture.
Although the sensor of the camera obviously plays an important role in every image’s colors and contrast, optics are still very important, too. In that regard, I can report that with the Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 S, I find myself applying zero contrast or saturation boosts to my images; they are clear, crisp, and vibrant.
It’s hard to judge any modern mirrorless lens differently from others because they all have some level of “profile corrections” going on under the hood. This is an ongoing concern of mine because while the average photographer may never notice that software is being used to correct distortion or vignetting, highly discerning photographers will certainly notice as they push their gear to its limits in challenging conditions.
Therefore, I am happy to report that the distortion correction this lens needs appears minimal, although I would still turn it off completely any time extremely high ISOs are being used, especially in astrophotography where even the slightest distortion corrections can create a nasty banding pattern that makes images utterly un-usable.
The vignetting, on the other hand, is a beautiful aesthetic of this lens, and I will leave it to your subjectivity to decide whether you like the correction on or off. When photographing portraits, I prefer the subtle vignette this lens produces.
Due to the optimization for smooth bokeh, this lens’ 11-blade (rounded) aperture is inherently not optimized to create classic sunstars. However, they’re still present from f/5.6-8 and onward, of course.
Flare is beautiful with this lens; “flare dots” and other ghost effects are virtually nonexistent, and the faint wash of warm haze that you can get when placing the sun in or near the image frame is beautiful yet unobtrusive.
For those most highly discerning photographers who plan to utilize the maximum performance possible from this optic, here’s the most impressive test possible: the coma / sagittal astigmatism test. In case you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at, that is a 100% crop from the extreme corner of the lens, at f/1.2, f/2, and f/2.8. What this means is, the lens exhibits virtually zero coma, and astigmatism. Below is a central crop, also at f/1.2, to demonstrate the nonexistent color fringing:
One area where this lens is simply not optimized is macro or close-up photography. The optical formula just doesn’t allow users to focus very close, in fact, the “working distance” as it’s called can be a bit of a surprise to anyone who is used to being able to get right up in a subject’s “personal space”.
Having said that, here’s the good news: The Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.2 S doesn’t show any signs of getting soft when focusing at its closest distance, and with the extremely shallow aperture, you won’t want to get any closer; the shallowness is already downright impractical!
So, I’d love to use this lens for close-up detail shots such as the eyelashes or veil of a bride, or basically anything fine-art related where maximum background blur is a desirable creative tool.
Physically, not only is this lens big and heavy, but it is also strong, sturdy, and professionally weather-sealed. The main complaint that I sometimes have with the larger Nikon Z-mount lenses is this: When the lenses get this large, the AF/MF switch almost feels “lost” because it’s so small and close to the mount. I wish the AF/MF switch was a touch bigger, and somewhere near the L-Fn button on the lens barrel.
Other than that, it’s hard to complain about such a well-made lens. I’d expect to get a decade-plus of serious professional use out of such a lens.
“Portable” just isn’t a word you can use to describe this lens, at all; it’s the opposite of portable. Ergonomically, though, it does handle quite well, if you have strong wrists and focus more on holding the lens itself with your left hand as if it were a shorter, chunkier 70-200mm lens.
For how much glass the AF motors need to push back and forth, this lens is surprisingly fast and precise in terms of autofocus. It’s not a speed demon, but it absolutely is fast enough to nail focus at f/1.2 on most subjects, even active ones. In other words, it’s perfect for models and other portrait subjects who may be moving around quite a bit, however, it may lag just a little bit if you’re trying to track high-speed subjects.
Manual focus is controlled electronically, as with virtually all modern mirrorless lenses. The sensitivity and precision do make manual focus totally usable even at f/1.2, though.
I will say one thing, however: I really wish that Nikon camera bodies would offer the full array of focus peaking options, including while capturing photos and not just video. This would make focusing manually so much easier, of course!
As with NIkon’s other big S-line lenses, the Nikon Z 85 1.2 includes both a L-fn button and a “command ring”. Both can be programmed to do various things, and my personal preference is to use the L-fn button to perform either AF-ON or sometimes AF-Lock. I use the command ring to dial my ISO sometimes, and other times I’ll use it for controlling the Kelvin WB. All in all, this represents what most flagship modern lenses can offer in terms of customization features.
On the one hand, I like the command rings that have a “click” to them, such as Canon RF lenses. On the other hand, I much prefer this type of fully customizable ring over the Sony aperture (only) control ring, even though it can be clicked/de-clicked. If your’e a video shooter, you might feel differently, but either way Nikon lands somewhere in the middle with a good balance for everyone.
It’s hard to define the value of a lens like this, because it is almost entirely in a league of its own. The only other Nikon mirrorless 85mm prime, the f/1.8 version, is nearly ¼ the price! So, the word “value” is absolutely subjective here. What I can say definitively is this: If you’re a full-time pro who uses an 85mm prime to literally pay your bills, then there is incredible value in this f/1.2 prime. However, if you’re a beginner, a hobbyist, or even just a full-time pro who uses a wider range of lenses to pay the bills, and you don’t find yourself constantly reaching for an 85mm prime, …then the value is simply better with the much more modest option!
At $2,796, there just aren’t many portrait prime lenses that are a fair comparison to this Nikkor. The only obvious, direct competitor is the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2, which costs $3,000. If you’re already a professional portrait photographer, then you’ve probably already committed to one system or the other, but I will say that I have a similar “love/hate” relationship with both lenses. They’re both expensive, obviously, and they’re both enormous and far heavier than I prefer. However, they both deliver truly stunning results, and if I were a full-time portrait photographer specializing in something specific such as maternity, newborn, boudoir, etc, then I’d absolutely invest in one of these lenses.
With that being said, the next-best comparison would be a good 85mm f/1.4 prime, however, there are none native (with autofocus) for the Nikon Z mount yet. There are loads of great 85mm f/1.4 primes out there, however, and many of them can be adapted to Nikon. I can sum up the entire comparison this way: they are all excellent lenses, from the aging Nikon F-mount 85mm f/1.4 G to the modern, cutting-edge Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN. However, whether you’re dealing with the name-brand FTZ adapter or a third-party E-to-Z mount adapter, they just aren’t going to offer the same imagery, nor the same easy user experience, as this native lens.
Indeed, quite honestly, the best alternative to this lens is Nikon’s native Z-mount 85mm f/1.8 S, a truly modest lens by comparison. (It costs just $696, and weighs just ~1 lb / 470g!) Why would I rather have this lens instead of any adapted DSLR (or mirrorless) lens? Because Nikon is taking full advantage of their enormous diameter Z mount with their native optics, as no other company can, and this opportunity provides some of the smoothest, softest bokeh I have ever seen. So, yes, I’d rather have the beautiful bokeh of a modest f/1.8 prime! (And its portability, and petite size…) As a final word on competition, I will say that it appears to only be a matter of time before Sigma is making native Z-mount (FX) lenses, and their mirrorless-designed 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art is a great lens. It may eventually arrive for the Z mount, however, being originally a Sony-compatible optical formula, it will still be optically constrained by the much smaller diameter mount, and I could/would therefore still make a strong argument in favor of the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 S instead.
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 S is one of the best portrait primes I’ve ever used. However, “sparing no expense” means exactly what you’d think! Heck, even finding space for it in your camera bag is a challenge, especially with the enormous hood!
Indeed, it’s a behemoth, and many photographers would be justified in calling it “overkill” for their particular creative needs. Having said that, all in all, I feel comfortable highly recommending this NIkkor portrait prime, with the only main caveat that it’s not for everyone. It offers perfection, and unmatched capabilities both in terms of resolving power and creative freedom. Perfection comes at a price, though.
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 S can be found for $2,796 at recommended retailers.
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PROS and CONS
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.2 offers unparalleled images and creativity, if yuu're willing to pay the price. (And carry it around!)
Follow his wilderness nightscape adventures on Instagram: instagram.com/astrolandscapesFOCAL LENGTH & ANGLE OF VIEW: 85mm, 18° 50′ angle of viewLENS MOUNT(S): Nikon Z (Full-frame mirrorless)APERTURE & RANGE: f/1.2-16, 11 rounded bladesSTABILIZATION: NoAUTOFOCUS: Dual-Motor STM AFMANUAL FOCUS: Yes, electronically controlled, distance & DOF scale on LCD displayOPTICAL CONSTRUCTION: 15 elements in 10 groups, 2 aspherical, 1 ED elements, Nano crystal coatingMECHANICAL CONSTRUCTION: Metal, fully weather-sealedMAGNIFICATION & FOCUS DISTANCE: 0.11X magnification, 33.46 in. / 0.85 m closest focusingFILTER THREADS & HOOD: 82mm filter threads, Locking plastic hood w/ rubber gripSIZE: 4 x 5.6 in (102.5 x 141.5 mm)WEIGHT: 2.6 lb (1160 g)PRICE: $2,796(B&H | Adorama | Amazon)