Have You Seen Our Wedding Training System?

Your content will be up shortly. Please allow up to 5 seconds
Gear & Apps

Nikon 50mm f/1.4 G versus 85mm f/1.8 G – Which Should You Buy? – Q&A

By Matthew Saville on October 28th 2013

Question

I get a lot of questions about lens purchasing, partly because I have a passion for so many different kinds of photography, (everything from weddings and portraits to landscapes and travel) …and partly because I have experience using almost every lens ever made. For Nikon and Canon DSLR mounts, that is.

At first I thought this question was an oddball, because they’re two different focal lengths and I use them for totally different purposes.  However I think there is something to be gained here, so bear with me. These two lenses actually cost about the same amount, (just under $500) …and they often go on sale with rebates for the exact same amount too!) (Just under $400)  They’re also pretty similar in portability and ruggedness, as well as sharpness.

So, while a very experienced photographer has probably picked their own favorite prime long ago, any beginner or amateur photographer who is looking to buy their first prime will be considering both for sure.  So, which one is right for you?

nikon-50mm-f1.8-g-vs-nikon-85mm-1.8-g

Answer

Among the more experienced photographers who already have a favorite prime, there always seems to be two camps – 50mm lovers, and those who love an 85mm+35mm two-prime combo.  It just seems to be personal preference.

I’ll be honest: personally I find that 50mm gets boring after a while. I like having two primes, a wide and a tele. As a wedding photojournalist 85mm is far more useful than 50mm for things like dimly lit ceremonies, and cavernous, dark reception halls.  Oppositely while we’re on the subject, 35mm (or 28mm) is just gorgeous for close-quarters type candids, group photos, and even detail shots.  50mm, at the end of the day, is too “middle of the road” for me.  Then again, that’s why some people love it!

Yes, I do own a 50mm, but I barely use it compared to the two-prime combo of the Nikon 28mm f/1.8 G and 85mm f/1.8 G. Those two babies are just crazy-sharp, and the perfect “team” for general photojournalism and portraiture.

Even if you shoot a lot of 3-5 person portraits where 50mm is a great focal length, I still might not recommend the 50mm 1.4 G.  Why?  Because the new Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G is so flippin’ awesome! It is incredibly sharp, maybe even sharper around the edges at f/2 than its f/1.4 sibling.

[Rewind:  Although it is aimed at professional wedding photographers, this gear guide HERE greatly expands on buying decisions for lenses such as these…]

The bottom line is that in my opinion you have to be absolutely in love with 50mm in order for the f/1.4 to be worth it over the f/1.8, and even then I feel like anyone who is obsessed with 50mm simply hasn’t “seen the light” yet.  ;-)  But again, that’s just my opinion.

So there you have it. If you’re on full-frame, a great investment for general portraiture is the 85mm f/1.8 G, as long as you also have something to cover the wider end.  Try to get your primes when there is a $100 rebate available from Nikon!

Of course the whole discussion goes out the window if you shoot on a crop sensor camera, and you plan to do so for a while. In this case you might consider the 50mm f/1.8 G or the 50mm f/1.4 G, for general portraiture.   Then, for something wider, consider a 20mm, 24mm, or 28mm prime. (Our review of the Nikon 28 1.8 is HERE.)

Oppositely, if you already know that you shoot more general candids and close-quarters type misc. shooting, then consider the 50mm f/1.8 G for full-frame cameras, or the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 G DX for crop-sensor cameras.  But keep in mind that in my opinion, you’re generally better off with a combo of wide+tele primes to begin with.

nikon-85mm-f1.8-g-sample-portrait-engagement nikon-85mm-f1.8-g-sample-wedding-detailThe Nikon 85mm f/1.8 G, on FX, has great compression for both portraits and details…

Question

…Okay, but don’t the Nikon 85mm’s focus kinda slow?

Answer

Unfortunately yes, generally all of Nikon’s 85mm primes are not going to be as fast and snappy as say, a 24-70mm f/2.8 or 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom.  However each Nikon 85mm (there are a half-dozen different versions!) may have slightly different autofocus characteristics.

For example, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G is just slightly slower than the f/1.8 G.  Generally speaking, all of Nikon’s f/1.4 G primes are slightly slower than their f/1.8 G siblings.  For that matter, all “AFS-G” primes are slightly slower than the “AF-D” primes they replaced.  This is just something that Nikon hasn’t seemed to work out yet with their Silent Wave Motor technology in general.

However the slight trade-off in sheer speed doesn’t come without a huge benefit.  The “G” primes are incredibly accurate in low light, whereas the older “D” primes (and earlier) all seemed to have a little bit of focus jitter in them that really hindered the keeper rate, especially using continuous focus.

Although when lighting conditions get abysmally dark, I must admit I opt for my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 or my 50 1.8 G, because those two lenses are just incredibly reliable with low-light focus.  Especially with that “laser beam” red light focus assist from an on-camera hotshoe flash!

The reason for all this is that “D” and “G” lenses have different types of autofocus motors in them. The AF-D lenses are an older, “clunky but fast” type of autofocus that relied on a motor drive inside the camera body itself, while the AFS-G lenses are the newer type of AF that has its focus motor built into the lens.

Basically, even if I were on a budget I would rather have a 50mm f/1.8 G than a 50mm f/1.4 D. The same goes for 85mm.

Bottom line- having shot in all sorts of ridiculous light, from pitch-black to absurdly bright sun / flare, I prefer the G lenses by a long shot, and the f/1.8′s suit my style very well- I prioritize focus speed and snappiness a little bit more than DOF.  Oppositely if you’re mainly a portrait photographer and your subjects hold relatively still, or an action photographer who craves shutter speed, then f/1.4 is the way to go and you might even wind up with multiple f/1.4 primes!  (Heck the new Nikon 58mm F/1.4 G might even be worth it to you…)

Either way, you need to pick the lens that defines your style as a photographer, and invest the most in that lens first.

Thanks for reading and take care,
=Matt=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

Please or register to post a comment.

  1. Hamzat Atta

    hi, i was told that the 85g 1.8 was plastic lens?

    | |
  2. David Siu

    Hi all ;)

    Thanks for this great article!! Recently found this website through youtube and I love how informative here is!!

    I have a question please that I have a D7100, with nikon 35mm f1.8g, nikon 50mm f1.8d, sigma 17-50 f2.8 and a nikon 70-300 af (no VR).

    I got asked by friend to do their engagement shoot recently while I am also thinking about to get more into prime lens shooting. Yesterday I went out practise while setting my 70-300 at 85 to have a feel of the focal length….while it maybe a bit tight but due to the aperture, i still cant really foresee how good a 85mm f1.8 will look like (i mostly shoot outdoor so i guess i can always just step back from the subject a bit) and for the engagement shoot, i think 35mm can do great for full body shot….i m just not sure if for half body and head shot of couple, 50 or 85mm will be better…..in terms of bokeh, iq and distortion

    So i m tossing between upgrading my 50mm f1.8d to f1.8g, or just add the 85mm f1.8 into the line up as i have only seen good review on the 85mm lens, thinking maybe good glass should come above thr focal length being tight on dx?

    Thanks heaps!! :)

    | |
  3. Lokesh Sapre

    Dear Matt,

    A wonderful article and analysis. I wanted some suggestions and thought if you could help. I have been using Nikon D90 for past few years. I mainly use 50mm f1.8 prime lens. Couple of months back I also bought Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 for ultra wide angle shots and I simply love the results of the same. My kit lens that came with D90 18-105mm now I hardly use. I am now planning to upgrade to D750 and retain D90 as my spare body. While I am not a professional photographer perse but I do keep doing odd assignements like weddings, event, product shoot etc and hence felt the need to upgrade to full frame. The 50mm I can utilize for my full frame. Besides that which 1 lens you would recommend for ‘all purpose’ shoots. Mainly I do portraits, landscapes, odd – weddings/events. Since i would be investing heavily in D750, the new lens should also not be ‘too’ expensive.

    thx in advance.

    regards

    Lokesh

    | |
  4. Jeff Butler

    In your article, you mention that the 85mmg.18 is a great lens if you’re using a full frame camera. I use mine on a d3200, which is a crop, and love it. I realize that I’m missing something here but I’m not sure what. Can you give me a bit more info on this? Thanks

    | |
  5. Ben Yosef

    I have my 24-70 2.8 do you think i need to buy any of the 35, 50 or 85? thanks for answer

    | |
  6. Matthew Vanover

    I’m loving my Nikon 28mm f1.8G and 85mm f1.8G combo. I recently bought the 50mm f1.8G because I thought, “why not? it’s so cheap!” I’m starting to question if I’d be better served to have bought either the f1.4 or the Sigma f1.4. I can still return it if I want! My thinking is that my 50mm would have a little better purpose (low light) rather than just sitting in the middle of 28 and 85. Im interested in the Sigma because I’ve read that it has phenomenal background blur – thought it might be a nice lens for effect. What are your thoughts?

    | |
  7. Owen

    Hey Matt, how is 28 85 comp comparing to 35 1.4/ 85 comp, i realize the Sigma 35 1.4A is so gd lens. Its hard for me to decide between 35 and 28G

    | |
  8. Texis Alfred

    Dear Matt! I would like to ask your help! This spring and summer I will go to weedings of my friends and I will make the wedding pictures. They asked me to make the maind wedding pictures. I have a D7100 camera. What do you think which is the better lens for DX format? 1.8 85 mm or 1.8 50 mm? I would like to use this lens for portraits. For inside pictures I will use 18-105 zoom lens with SB910 flash. From Nikon Customer service I received two suggestion. To buy one F/1.8 85 mm G. Or the other version to buy one F/1.8 50 mm and one F/1.8 35mm. Can you please send me your suggestion? Thank you

    | |
    • Matthew Saville

      If you’re taking the “formal” group photos, then you’ll want something wider than that most likely. For large groups on the D7100 I’d recommend a 2.8 zoom or similar, one that goes pretty wide.

      If you’re just shooting portraits of a couple, then yes a 50mm or 85mm would be perfect. The 35mm DX would be great for full-length full-body portraits, and environmental stuff, but not for close-ups of people’s faces because getting that close will distort noses and foreheads.

      Personally, I’d recommend a 2-lens kit such as the 35 and the 85, or a 17-50 and 85 combo.

      =Matt=

      | |
  9. Kristian

    I own both the 50mm f/1.8G, & the 85 mm f/1.8G and love both of them but the 85 is by far my favorite. Its a fantastic lens on my D800. I used to shoot most portraits with my 105 mm f/2.8VR but after purchasing the 85 I only use the 105 for closeup!

    | |
  10. Morgan Kennedy

    Hello Matthew,

    I really appreciate this article and the information provided candidly.

    I am shooting on a cropped Nikon D3100 and am debating on the right lens to buy. I recently rented a 85mm 1.8D (they didn’t have the 1.8G for rent) to try and I loved the effects it had for the portraits I was shooting. While my main focus and use for my new lens will be portraits, I also do newborn, boudoir, engagement, family with up to 8 people, and hope to do weddings soon too.. I found the 85mm to be quite long and it was difficult to get good results with my larger group. I want the most use out of the lens I buy next so I am not sure which to one to get. Currently I just have my kit 18-55mm.

    If I were NOT to get both a 35mm and 85mm 1.8 G at this time, would you suggest to get the 50mm 1.4 or just get the 85mm for now and use the kit lens until I can by a shorter prime as well?

    I appreciate your response in advance. Thanks for the post!

    Kindly,
    Morgan

    | |
    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Morgan,

      For that wide variety of subjects, you’ll definitely want more than one prime lens, or maybe another zoom.

      For large groups on the D3100, I’d prefer to have the 18-55 and/or something mid-range like the 35mm DX. For smaller groups, couples, and babies, a 50mm or 85mm would be great.

      It all comes down to “working distance”. Do you mind backing way up, in order to get the perfect shot framed and get beautiful bokeh? Or do you like to be closer and more “connected” with your subjects? The answer to this question will dictate whether you lean towards more medium-range primes, or longer telephoto primes.

      In other words, to answer your final question, yeah if you have to just keep using your 18-55 and then consider the 85mm to be your “ultimate portrait prime” for 1-3 people.

      =Matt=

      | |
  11. Siya

    Matt,

    I’m confused between AF 85mm f/1.8 and AF 50mm f/1.8 for my Nikon D90.
    THe 85mm one is aobut 3 -4 times the cost of the 50mm lens. My requirement of lens is for portraits & close-ups. Please suggest if the 85mm one is worth the extra cost?

    Thanks.

    | |
  12. Peter

    Why not do a fairer comparison and also look at third party lenses like the Sigma 85mm f1.4.
    Half the price of the Nikon equivalent and IQ is on par if not better according to some users.

    | |
  13. Daf

    I have both of these.
    Wouldn’t say it’s a favourite per-se but the 50mm get’s a lot more use. Usually in social circumstances e.g. sitting across a table from friends at a bar. For that the 85 would be too long. (on D800)
    It didn’t get much use on my APS-C – but does a lot more after going FX.

    Yeah – I get some jitter/focusing issues on the 85 1.8 – usually when trying to focus at extremes – it seems to get stuck.

    Am now looking at the 28 1.8

    | |
    • vincent

      I never cary my D700 or D800 without my 105 on it or in a pocket actually I set my bag down or leave it in the car and the 16-35 and 105 are all I use for 95% of my work… or even if am just photographing my family and friends.

      Unless you are using film in 1990 or doing something unique to youno need for that 28 1.8. The only reason I cary the 105 1.8 rather than the 105 2.5 or the new 85mm 1.8 G is I use it a lot wide-open or nearly so.

      | |
  14. frankdaniels

    Interesting post…i´m thinking of buying a 85mm since a while. Normally i use my 24-70 all the time. But i think 85mm 1.8 is even betten for sweet portraits….. I think i should try it :)

    | |
    • Tyler Brown

      If you shoot full frame get an 85mm you won’t regret the purchase

      | |
  15. Winston Mattis

    Yes my 50mm f/1.4 is slow, i wished I had bought the f/1.8 and saved

    What about Macro lens.

    | |
    • Tyler Brown

      Macro lenses are by far the slowest focusing lensing, they have to cover a great range from ∞ to Minimum focus distance. I have 50mm f/1.4 AF-S which is slower than my 85mm f/1.8 AF-D, but not by much. I rarely find the 50mm AF speed inadequate.

      | |
  16. Ricardo Consonni

    Wow! I’m more confused now than when I started reading the article. If I had just under $500 and asked your advice as to which lens to get, your answer would be get the 35+85mm f/1.8 combo, that costs almost $700 more, or get the 50mm f/1.8 lens, that wasn’t originally a choice. I must assume the 50mm f/1.4 is a stinker, right?

    | |
    • Matthew Saville

      Ricardo,

      Sorry for making it sound complicated. Simply put: if you’re looking to buy your first prime, test out all three first, buy your favorite, and then keep saving to buy your second favorite, etc.

      This article was simply an effort to help people think for themselves and decide based on their personal experience and creative preference, instead of blindly clicking “submit order” on something when they haven’t tested first. ;-)

      | |
  17. SIMON YONG WEE HAW

    Hi Matt

    I need you help. I’ve 35mm f/2D, 50mm f/1.4D and 85mm f/1.8D now.
    I’m using D800 and planning to sell my 85mm f/1.8D and change to f/1.8G
    Do you think I need to get 50mm f1/8G for D800? or you think just get 28mm f/1.8G better?

    Appreciate for your advice.
    Thanks!

    Regards,
    Simon

    | |
    • Matthew Saville

      Simon, what I would do is I would upgrade all three of those primes, in the order of your favorites. So probably for me, I would upgrade the 85 first to the 1.8 G, then I’d buy the 28 1.8 G and see if I like the focal range better than the 35 f/2, and then finally I’d consider either the Nikon 50 1.8 G or the Sigma 50 1.4 EX. Both are killer and cost less than the Nikon 50 1.4.

      All in all, the D800 is going to out-resolve ALL of your current lenses at their fastest apertures, (though they’re probably fantastic when stopped down to f/3.5-5.6 or so) …therefore yes, I would eventually upgrade them. But like I said, it matters which lens is your favorite!

      | |
  18. Timothy Isaac

    I couldn’t agree more. The 50mm is a great lens to have. But I prefer my 85mm so much more.
    Right now I’ve got my 85 on my D3s and my 28 on my D610. The two make a pretty efficient combo.

    | |