Gear Appreciation: Nikon 85mm f/1.4

I love the way Nikon's 85 f/1.4 renders backgrounds.

I love the way Nikon’s 85 f/1.4 renders backgrounds.

It’s not about the gear, but…there’s a reason certain lenses are so expensive. When I was about twelve years old, I got my first single lens reflex camera. My brother-in-law, who taught me how to work in a darkroom, said that Ansel Adams could make a better picture with a pinhole camera than either of us could with our fancy 35mm cameras. It’s true that vision trumps technique, and many extraordinary images have been made with less than top-of-the-line gear, but there’s also a reason that top-of-the-line gear is top-of-the-line.

Sometimes I photograph famous celebrities, and sometimes I photograph my cat.

Sometimes I photograph famous celebrities, and sometimes I photograph my cat.

Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4 lenses are legendary. The sharpness, color, contrast and bokeh combine to make this a go-to portrait and photojournalism lens for professional photographers all over the world. It’s a tricky lens, because when depth-of-field is razor thin, so is the margin of error for focus accuracy. But when you get it right, there is no mistaking where the viewer is supposed to look. As Thom Hogan writes in his review of the previous version, “If you nail the shot with this lens, you really nail it, and oh boy, that background sure looks dreamy.”

With the 85mm f/1.4, where it's sharp, it's very sharp.

With the 85mm f/1.4, where it’s sharp, it’s very sharp.

I’ve more often experienced buyer’s remorse from trying to save money than from saving up for “the best.” As a friend and former coworker used to say, “When you buy the best, you only cry once.” A great lens won’t make you a better photographer, but understanding the pros and cons of different types and levels of gear will help you on your journey. And if you can afford it, why not?

Not everyone can afford the 85mm f/1.4 "cream machine," but you can improve subject isolation by increasing the distance between your subject and the background.

This background is a good example of why pros refer to the 85mm f/1.4 as “the cream machine.”