Nikon 105mm f/1.4E ED AF-S Nikkor
Lab Test Results
October 17, 2016
by Andrew Alexander and Dave Pardue
One of the most eagerly-anticipated Nikkor lenses of 2016, the Nikon 105mm ƒ/1.4E ED was announced in the summer of 2016 and hit store shelves in the fall. The fastest 105mm lens to date, capable of razor-thin depth-of-field, the Nikon 105mm uses all of Nikon's latest technical innovations, including the Electromagnetic Diaphragm Mechanism, Nano-Crystal coating, and no less than three ED glass elements.
The lens was designed to work with Nikon's full-frame cameras, but also works with Nikon DX cameras, which will produce an effective field of view of 160mm. The lens' primary feature is its giant ƒ/1.4 aperture, an aperture I expect this lens will probably spend most of its time set on.
The price tag for this lens is not small: $2,200. The lens ships with a round lens hood, accepts 82mm filters, and is available now.
For $2,200, the Nikon 105mm ƒ/1.4E doesn't disappoint. Used wide open at ƒ/1.4, the lens is almost tack-sharp across the frame. Stopping down to ƒ/2 actually introduces a slight amount of softness - we are talking micro-adjustments, here - but stopping down further to ƒ/2.8 improves on this sharpness ever so slightly. It's all a matter of slight incremental improvements until you hit maximal sharpness at ƒ/8, where the lens is essentially as sharp as it can get across the frame.
Diffraction limiting sets in at ƒ/11, but you'd be hard-pressed to note any real-world impact on performance: fully stopped-down at ƒ/16, you may notice that it's not as sharp as it is at ƒ/1.4, but then, you probably are not buying this lens to shoot at ƒ/16.
It's not terribly surprising to see that the 105mm ƒ/1.4E produces very little in the way of Chromatic Aberration. When used wide open we do note some magenta fringing in the center of the frame, in areas of high contrast.
The Nikon 105mm ƒ/1.4E does produce some significant corner shading when used at the ƒ/1.4 aperture - in this case, the extreme corners are just under a full stop darker than the center of the image. Stopping down reduces this amount of shading: at ƒ/2 it's a half-stop differential, and at ƒ/2.8 and smaller, it's a quarter-stop or less. It's worth noting that modern Nikon digital bodies also include vignette control options to reduce the impact of corner shading.
There's a little bit of complex distortion at work in shots produced by the Nikon 105mm ƒ/1.4E: throughout the image we see on average 0.1% barrel distortion, but in the corners we have -0.3% pincushion distortion. These aren't huge numbers (noted on full-frame results) and can be easily corrected in Photoshop.
The Nikon 105mm ƒ/1.4E uses an AF-S designation and is relatively fast to autofocus, racking through its close-focus to infinity distance and back, in just over one second. The 82mm filter ring of the lens does not rotate while focusing, and the lens is also very quiet during focus operations. Full-time manual focusing is available, as well, by just turning the focus ring at any time.
The Nikon 105mm ƒ/1.4E doesn't excel at macro shooting, but really, you don't buy a lens like this for that. Maximum magnification is just 0.13x, and the minimum close-focusing distance is 1 meter (just over 3 feet).
Build Quality and Handling
The last time Nikon had a lens almost this fast was its manual-focusing 105mm ƒ/1.8 AIS: I've owned and enjoyed that lens, but when you're focusing with a razor-thin depth-of-field, you really do pine for autofocus. The new Nikon 105mm ƒ/1.4E gives you autofocus and the fastest aperture available, making the lens quite huge as a result. The lens weighs in at just over 2 pounds (985g) and is quite girthy for a prime lens. Mounted on the D800E however, it made for a well-balanced package.
The 105mm ƒ/1.4E is well-built, with durable plastic components and a metal lens mount. The lens barrel is composed in a black semi-roughed finish, and the rubber focus ring shows a ridged pattern that is easy to grip. The lens features nine rounded diaphragm blades to make up the aperture for pleasing out-of-focus results. Nikon also uses a new aperture control system (the "Electromagnetic Diaphragm Mechanism") which replaces the swishy mechanical control lever that you've seen on the back of numerous older Nikon lenses. We've done some testing and can confirm it will work on Nikon cameras back as far as about 2007.
The lens bears a distance scale that is recessed and windowed, its markings set in feet and meters. There is a single depth-of-field indicator at ƒ/16, which I can almost guarantee no one will ever use or need. There is only a single switch on the side of the lens to control autofocus (marked as "M/A | M").
The focus ring is 1 1/4 inches wide, with raised rubber ribs for texture. The ring turns nicely; it is well-dampened, if just slightly stiffer than necessary. There are no hard stops at either close-focus or infinity, though there is a slight increase in resistance to let you know you've reached a limit.
The lens ships with the HB-79 lens hood, a circular-style bayonet-mounted hood that adds 2 1/2 inches to the lens' overall length when mounted. The lens reverses for storage on the lens.
Nikon 105mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR Micro ~$900
It's not really in the same league as the 105mm ƒ/1.4E, but if you're looking for a capable 105mm lens, the 105mm ƒ/2.8G is a macro lens that doubles as a competent portrait lens. It won't give you near the same out-of-focus backgrounds as the ƒ/1.4E, especially given that you'll want to stop down to get something approaching the same sharpness (the ƒ/2.8 macro isn't that sharp when shot wide open).
Nikon 105mm ƒ/2D AF DC ~$1,200
An intriguing lens developed in the 90's, the DC stands for defocus control, essentially changing how the lens produces bokeh. It's not super sharp at ƒ/2, but it does well when stopped down to ƒ/4. While an interesting feature, DC isn't as compelling as the fast aperture, and its performance there is surely bested by the 105mm ƒ/1.4E.
Sigma 105mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro ~$620
It's not as fast as the Nikon 105mm ƒ/1.4E, but this is another case of a macro lens offering a palatable portrait length. It's fairly good when shot wide open at ƒ/2.8 (and tack-sharp by ƒ/5.6), and the lens offers image stabilization to boot. Finally, it's much less expensive than the Nikon.
This is one of those lenses that costs a lot of money, but lives up to its price tag: its optical quality is outstanding. We've reviewed fast prime lenses in the past that don't hit their stride until they've stopped down significantly. This lens was designed to be shot at ƒ/1.4 and it shows: everything about it just works. It may be expensive, but it's one of those lenses that will go down in the books as a classic Nikon, and thus, worth every penny.
The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
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Shooting with the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E
Incredibly shallow depth of field and enticingly rich bokeh for portraits
By Dave Pardue | Posted: 10/12/2016
There's surely a wealth of subject matter you might choose to shoot with the new Nikon 105mm f/1.4 lens, but it was undoubtedly made with one thing in mind: Portraits! Released six years after Nikon's 85mm f/1.4G, which was designed to fit the bill at one of the most classic portrait focal lengths, the new 105mm f/1.4E Nikkor is designed to push the limits and offer even shallower depth-of-field potential at a longer focal length that many consider the sweet spot for portrait shooting.
Before we move to real-world images let's take a quick look at the lens itself. We're not the least bit embarrassed to admit that when a product of this caliber arrives at the front door to IR headquarters, we often unbox it together and pass it around, literally gawking at it. One of our top reviewers took one look while holding this lens and said, "It looks like they poured the whole thing full of glass!" Indeed, it is a rather impressive lens simply to look at.
Show me the light: The Nikon 105mm f/1.4E ED AF-S Nikkor as seen with lens hood and mounted to the new Nikon D3400. OK, so this is not the classic camera with which to pair this lens, but we thought it would best showcase the impressive look of the lens itself.
To date, this is the world's first 105mm full frame lens that offers an aperture as bright as f/1.4, therefore putting it into a rather unique position at this time. Nikon previously offered several variants of 105mm f/2.8 lenses as well as a 105mm f/2D, making this lens a full stop brighter than even that one. Doing the math for the lens wide open at f/1.4 with a depth of field calculator is somewhat staggering. In order to get a full foot of image depth in focus you need to be at least 21 feet from your subject! Reversing this and moving to the closest focusing distance of roughly 3.3 feet, your depth of field becomes almost razor thin, as seen below.
Walking a thin line: This is the depth of field from the 105mm f/1.4 shot wide open at the closest available focusing distance of roughly 3.3 feet. This also gives a good representation of just how quickly the elements removed from the focus distance fade into an unreadable sea of blur.
Of course, for anyone accustomed to shooting primarily in the mirrorless world you may be in for a bit of a shock once you feel the weight of this rig. Tipping the scales at 34.8oz (985g) and placing it onto a Nikon D800E brings the total rig weight (with battery) to almost 4.5lbs (2020g) -- that's quite a handful for one focal length. It's also certainly not a budget lens, costing as much as many enthusiast camera bodies themselves at around $2200.
Looking glass: Most of the 34.8 ounces of this lens are to be found in the copious amount of glass poured into it, and it's a thing of beauty to see up close, turning us reviewers into true geeks when it arrived.
And yet, weight and budget cautions aside, one glance at the images you're capable of achieving quickly dispels these issues. Yes, you might have to save up to be able to afford one, and your biceps may need a bit of advance time in the gym, but the ability to make the ordinary look extraordinary is cause enough to overlook these obvious constraints for anyone needing the best lens available for the job.
Nikon 105mm f/1.4: Portrait Images
(Editor's note: All images in this piece were shot using a Nikon D800E, and have been resized to fit this page. Some have been cropped for composition and edited in post-production, primarily to balance shadows and highlights where needed. As always, clicking on any image will take you to a carrier page for access to the original, unedited version as delivered straight from the camera, as well as providing access to EXIF data. To download the RAW images please visit our Nikon D800E Gallery and look for "105mm" in the filename.)
1/160s / f/2 / ISO 100
No distractions: Relaxing at sunrise on a Saturday morning with hot cocoa in Dad's adirondack chair, while the background elements fade into works of art.
Nikon 105mm f/1.4: Getting calibrated
With only a few exceptions in my time here at Imaging Resource, I've primarily reviewed mirrorless cameras, and am therefore attuned mostly to the needs and quirks of those. As such, when this lens arrived and I threw it quickly onto our D800E body and headed for the hills, I didn't even think to check the focus alignment. (Silly me!) I shot for a whole weekend with it to my heart's content, happy with the results I was seeing on the LCD, and only on Monday did I realize that more than half of my images were... backfocused!
I called in our lens expert Rob Murray, who did a quick check with our handy LensAlign aid, and he reported that it was indeed backfocusing to the tune of more than an inch (when shot from the fairly common distance of 12 feet). Wow... over an inch can mean the difference between a good portrait and a lousy one with a lens that has such shallow DOF potential. Fortunately, and as I'm sure most reading this already know, this is easily fixed in-camera by simply micro-adjusting for that lens (if you camera body supports such a feature). By dialing in "-2" for the micro-adjust setting, we were able to remedy said back-focusing issue altogether.
[1:1 crop from above image]
At first I was sorely disappointed at the missed images and what felt like a wasted weekend, but in a lengthy discussion once again with Rob Murray he assured me that this was all very normal, and that most all high-end DSLR shooters need to micro-align from time to time. In discussing the shallow depth of field as it relates to nailing focus, and my wanting every shot to be dead on, he said: "You're trying to balance from a high wire between two skyscrapers in the breeze and yet wondering why it's a little wobbly sometimes." I guess that sums it up pretty well. Align your lenses to your camera body and then concentrate on your focus point, and your keeper rate will certainly increase a great deal.
(For more on lens aligning via AF micro-adjustments in-camera, see this helpful article from our friends over at LensRentals. And to purchase a lens alignment kit such as the one we use here in our lab, see our friends over at B&H Photo and they'll fix you right up!)
Nikon 105mm f/1.4: Of hot dogs and mailboxes
Shooting with this lens often felt more like painting than photography. At times I felt like it was daring me to take a bad photograph! I decided to stop trying to be as creative with the subject matter, and to just shoot random objects like mailboxes and hot dogs, perhaps some leaves that weren't overly interesting to the eye in person. This proved to be the closing argument for attaining this lens for me, that it can literally take random objects and give them more life than they otherwise have in the normal reality in which most of us live.
1/640s / f/2 / ISO 100
1/125s / f/2.8 / ISO 160
1/640s / f/1.4 / ISO 100
1/125s / f/1.4 / ISO 360
And so, my attempts to create a "plain" image were often botched by the intense bokeh and the three-dimensionality that the lens creates. This of course allows for much less concern over what your background happens to be for any given shot, at least when shooting wide open or close to it. As can be seen above and from even more images in our D800E gallery, the lens, when at the wider apertures, can take the background, whether near or far, and simply sponge it out of existence! Or, perhaps to be more exact, impart to it a rather surreal texture that lends a character to the images not attainable with most of the more common lenses out there today.
1/125s / f/1.4 / ISO 2000
Is this the new Top Gun of portrait primes? It is for me.
View more images from this lens as well as RAW files and EXIF data await your inspection in our Nikon D800E Gallery (images tagged with "105mm").
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Nikon 105mm f/1.4E ED AF-S Nikkor
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