When Nikon introduced the Z line of cameras, they were admittedly a bit late to the party. They were roundly criticized for not only being behind, but also for releasing a camera that felt one or two generations behind the latest Sony’s. I remember my first impressions of the Z 6 and the Z 7, and they were not positive. One memory card slot — Nikon choosing XQD cards over SD cards — a lack of redundancy most pro wedding photographers aren’t willing to forgo. An initial line of lenses that were considered anything but “professional.” The Nikon faithful definitely felt let down.

As Nikon’s Z line has grown, the company has come in as the “prosumer” value leader. Today we’re going to take a look at one of those “prosumer” offerings from Nikon, the Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens.


  • Outstanding image quality
  • Well built, mostly metal, weather sealed body
  • Focus accuracy is decisive and accurate — especially wide-open


  • Price is relatively high for an f/1.8 lens
  • The Stepper focus motor is noticeably slower than ultrasonic and hypersonic motors from competitors
  • Some noticeable vignetting wide-open

Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S — Technical specifications

All technical specifications for this lens are from the product listing page at B&H Photo:

  • Focal length: 85mm
  • Aperture range: f/1.8–16
  • Aperture blades: 9, rounded
  • Elements/Groups: 12/8
  • Dimensions: 2.95 x 3.9″ / 75 x 99 mm
  • Weight: 1.03 Lns / 470 grams
  • Angle of View: 28° 30′

After trying the lenses, the Nikon strategy came into focus

85mm is one of my all time favorite focal lengths. I love it in weddings and for classic portraits.

One of my clients is a Nikon loyalist and he insisted the Z 6 was a “really good camera” and that I should try it out. He’s one of those gear acquisition guys who buys cameras and lenses for the heck of it. He bought the original Z 6 and all the original primes and I agreed to test out the Z 6 with the 85mm f/1.8 S.

I filmed a video last summer on my YouTube channel using the 85mm, I walked away impressed. Not just with the lens, but the Z 6 was considerably better than I had anticipated. I still didn’t feel compelled to buy a Z camera, because in my professional work, I require two card slots for redundancy.

Now that Nikon has introduced the Z 9 to overwhelmingly positive reviews, there’s suddenly renewed interest in the initial line of lenses Nikon introduced with the Z line of cameras.

Bring on the Z 5 and “Mark II’s”

In October 2020, Nikon revised and released the mark ii versions of the Z 6 and Z 7. Though largely unchanged, they did give us two memory card slots in addition to a bunch of performance improvements. Professionals like me then considered it was time to upgrade from the aging Nikon DSLR lineup.

I’ve been a long time loyalist to Nikon DSLRs, in particular the D750, D4 and D810. I wanted to stay with Nikon for my professional work and interestingly, Nikon also released the Z 5 in September 2020. A lower priced, full-frame camera targeted at serious enthusiasts with two memory card slots.

I pounced on the Z 5 and called it the single most underrated camera of 2020. I still stand behind that claim. It’s a wonderful camera at a nice price point. The Z 5 also allowed me to break into Nikon mirrorless. I’ve since purchased an additional Z 5, and two Z 6 Mark II’s.

Initially, I used my legacy Nikon glass with the Nikon FTZ adapter. I found they worked fairly seamlessly but as many a camera guy will tell you, there’s nothing quite like “native glass” for your camera. Having had a great experience with the legacy 85mm f/1.8 G in my wedding and portrait work, I knew what was going to be my first Nikon Z lens.

Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S — Build quality

First up is the build. Like many of Nikon’s “prosumer” lenses, the 85mm is built to a nice, solid standard. Mostly metal and relatively heavy — just over 1lb — especially for an f/1.8 prime. About the only thing that feels prosumer about this lens is in fact the f/1.8 max aperture.

The lens mount is metal, the multi function ring (the focus ring) is smooth and buttery with a nice quality resistance. I say multifunction ring because it can be programmed to control exposure compensation and aperture. The bulk of the lens barrel is also made out of metal. The front filter thread is a common 67mm.

On the inside, it’s a complex formula of 12 elements arranged in eight groups. The optical formula includes two extra-low dispersion elements, which greatly reduce color fringing and chromatic aberrations in order to produce greater clarity and color rendering. That, according to Nikon marketing literature.

The aperture ranges from f/1.8 to f/16, and speaking of the aperture, there are nine rounded aperture blades for some very nice bokeh rendering. Lastly, the lens is dust and moisture resistant for use in inclement weather conditions.

All in, apart from it’s rather hefty weight and slower maximum f/1.8 aperture, build quality for a lens in this category doesn’t get much better.

Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S — Autofocus performance

Nikon employs a multi focus system that incorporates two separate stepping motor focus units. Nikon claims when these two systems work together for fast, accurate focusing performance. In fairness, I found the AF to be smooth and quiet, but not especially fast. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not so slow that you’ll miss many shots, but it’s not as lightening quick as I would like either. It’s a good balance that doesn’t hunt or jackhammer around. Which means it’s decisive. Combined with Nikon’s Eye Detect AF, I found AF to be stunningly accurate.

When shooting static subject like portraits, then AF speed isn’t usually a make or break decision. A fraction of a second of improved focus acquisition is appreciated, but it’s not likely a deal breaker if AF speed is a bit slower. I haven’t missed many shots with this lens due to it’s AF. I just wish it were a tiny bit faster.

All in, it’s quiet, smooth and stunningly accurate, but it’s not going to win the 100 meter dash.

Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S — Optical quality

If there’s one area where Nikon has just nailed it, it’s in the 85mm’s optical performance. Though many a pro may be put off by the max f/1.8 aperture, I can tell you from experience the lighter weight is appreciated on a long wedding day. I used to shoot weddings with Nikons f/1.8 “G” primes — the 28mm and the 85mm — and my results were stellar. I’m having a similar experience with the 85mm S, except my images are even sharper. They look and feel more 3-dimensional and life-like — it’s as if you can reach into the computer screen and touch the subjects.

The nine blade rounded aperture gives us very pleasing and smooth out of focus bokeh rendering. Terms like “buttercream” to describe bokeh get a bit overused, but in this instance it’s a perfect description. The subject isolation and bokeh are just beautiful.

Though a faster aperture would be nice, the reality is with the ISO capability of today’s camera bodies the extra 2/3 of a stop is no longer a deal breaker. Not to mention the price difference between f/1.8 and f/1.4 lenses is very significant. Not only are f/1.8 lenses more economical and generally lighter, the resulting images are nearly indistinguishable. Show a portrait taken at f/1.4 and the same subject taken at f/1.8 (or even f/2) and see if a non-photographer or client can tell the difference.

Other positives, chromatic aberrations are irrelevant, center performance is exemplary and distortion is negligible. The only optical negative is a bit of vignetting wide-open, but that’s something that can be fixed with a single click in Lightroom or Capture One. Sometimes, I like vignetting. All in, the optical quality of the 85mm f/1.8 S will quickly make you forget that it’s “only f/1.8.” Optics are outstanding!

Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S — Pro-level results in a compact footprint

Though more expensive than it’s f/1.8 DSLR compatible counterparts, the 85 “S” certainly can hold it’s own against much more expensive f/1.4 offerings. Compared to previous 85mm f/1.8 lenses, build quality is definitely better and we get the added bonus of weather sealing. Optical quality is improved over the G lens, which was already great.

In the end, the 85mm S is a higher quality optic at an elevated price point. If you’re a pro, you’ll appreciate the lighter weight and price-wise, it won’t break the bank. In fact, if Nikon comes out with an 85mm f/1.4 or faster optic, I’m not sure I feel compelled to buy it. The 85 f/1.8 S is just that good.

Nikon has packed a lot of attributes normally reserved for more expensive lenses into the 85mm f/1.8 S. It’s everything a pro wold want except for a faster aperture. As mentioned previously, with the latest camera bodies, I haven’t viewed an f/1.8 lens as much of a handicap like a I used to. Give me great build and great optics and the 85mm f/1.8 S from Nikon is a very compelling option!

Nikon NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S Lens

Popular for portraiture, the NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S from Nikon is a short-telephoto prime characterized by its flattering focal length and bright f/1.8 design. The maximum aperture strikes a balance between size, weight, and speed, offering suitable speed for working in difficult lighting yet remaining sleek enough for handheld use.