Playing with the Nikon 85mm F/1.4G
I rented a Nikon 85mm F/1.4G prime lens to use at Photoshop World. It's respected in Nikon circles as a portrait lens with shallow depth of field and great bokeh. My primary reason for wanting to use this lens was for the 2-stop improvement it offers over my f/2.8 zoom lenses. With few exceptions, I used the 85mm for the entire show and then on a short outing to CityWalk by Universal Studios Orlando. That's where I got the idea to take the shot above.
Is This Art?
I see this kind of image all the time on Flickr. It's the kind of thing that's frequently featured on the Flickr Explore page (along with washed-out images full of flare). Honestly, I don't get it. With that in mind, I may well be doing it wrong. To me, blurry lights for the sake of bokeh highlight blooms is one of those things that makes you go “Oh, cool” for a moment, and then you get on with life. Having never done it before, this is one of my examples of the form. Please take an appropriate moment to admire the physics of light, the colors, and the effects created by the excellent optics and aperture blades of the Nikon 84mm f/1.4, and then get on with your life. I don't expect this will be a staple of my photography, but now it's something I can check off the list.
Shallow Depth of Field
Some photographers really love the shallow depth of field afforded by a fast prime. With a lens like this one, shallow DOF can have a very pleasing effect to isolate your subject. It can also be very challenging to use on some subjects. For example, photographing a person facing you at an angle may give you one eye in sharp focus while the other tends to blur because it's far enough away to be out of focus. In the image above, it's a bit of hit & miss. On the one hand, it blurs out much of the distracting background. On the other hand, it introduces those highlight blooms which serve as yet another distraction. I learned that there's much more to consider when trying to shoot at f/1.4 while out in the wild. Some aspects of the image may not be noticeable on your small display on the back of the camera – partly because you aren't looking for them. I was so happy looking at the nice bokeh that I ignored the circle of light by the neck of the bottle that's in focus (and other areas of the image). Reflections are amplified in a lens like this one.
Sharp as a Tack
So soft in the bokeh, yet so sharp where you need it. No wonder people love this lens. It draws your eye to the part of the subject where you focus and lets the rest gradually fade away. When you use it in the right place, with good light, the 85mm f/1.4 can deliver spectacular results. You can believe that I was unhappy to send it back when my rental period was over. I've used primes before, but this was the cream of the crop that have fallen in my hands so far. Despite the exorbitant price, I'll have to add this to my collection.
It Ain't Perfect
As much as I'd like to blather on about the great qualities of this lens, it definitely has some flaws. The image above is a 100% crop. Notice the green fringing around the blade and the metal parts of the helmet. There's a little purple fringing on the medallion, too. It doesn't disqualify the lens for doing what it does well, but it's something to bear in mind when selecting a lens for a subject. I shot the band at the After Hours party using only this lens and there's definitely some fringing on the drum kit. It's a bit disguised there, given the colorful house lights. In an image like this one under daylight balanced lighting, this fringing has nowhere to hide.
I Want One
Chromatic aberration aside, it's still a spectacular lens. That means it comes with a spectacular price – about $1700 and it's not in stock at either B&H or Adorama right now. At least I can generally rent it when I need one.