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On Broadway with the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8G

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday June 2, 2016

On Broadway

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway

They say there's always magic in the air

But when you're walkin' down that street

And you ain't had enough to eat

The glitter rubs right off and you're nowhere
                                             
    
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil


If you're looking for a great place to photograph strangers on the street, Times Square is the place to be. The compression of space of this 85mm medium telephoto has a nice effect when you're shooting over the crowds. I shot this from the famous red steps. Shot at 1/160 second @ f/5.6, ISO 500. 


It kind of kills me when the tourists are shooting with better cameras than me. This guy had his Nikon D810 working. He looked like he was taking his craft pretty seriously. Shot at 1/200 second @ f/4.5, ISO 400. 

Snapshot:

Full name:  AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G

Summary: Compact FX-format prime, medium telephoto lens (also works on DX)

Minimum aperture: f/16

Angle of view: 28°30' (18°50' with Nikon DX format)

Filter size: 67mm

Close-focus:  0.8 m/2.62 ft (from focal plane)

Length: Approximately 80 x 73 mm/3.1 x 2.9 in.

Weight:  Approximately 350 g/12.4 oz

Ships with: 67 mm front lens cap, rear lens cap, lens shade, soft lens pouch


Where XXX theater marquees once flashed 24 hours a day (and as a kid I walked by wondering what mysteries they beheld), today it's an advertising wonderland (or nightmare, depending on your perspective) and a souvenir-hunter's paradise. Top: shot at 1/160 second at f/8; bottom 1/125 second @ f/5, both at ISO 500. I bumped up the ISO as the clouds settled in and rain began falling. These images are sharp edge-to-edge and I found no chromatic distortion in any of the images. Very high quality lens design.

The Rebirth of Cool

Times Square has changed a lot since I was teenager in the 1960s and skipped school on a regular basis to train in from the Connecticut burbs and hang out there. In those days the Great White Way was an area that could only have been described as the debauchery center of the known universe and the Broadway theaters seemed more like a surrealistic backdrop to the far more profound real-life drama happening on the streets. Tourists (including myself) went there primarily to gawk, half in absolute horror and half in sheer disbelief. Drug dealers, hookers, pickpockets and pimps populated the street corners with what seemed to me like complete impunity—and maybe even a degree of pride. The only movie that has ever adequately captured the mood back then is Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now and if you’re never seen it, it’s available on dvd and it’s worth seeing. 

The square started to clean up slowly, and in fits and starts, about 30 years ago but probably really turned the corner when that famous mouse and his buddy Walt came to town. The glittering lights of adult marquees gradually exploded into what is today rightfully described as a canyon of lights—the biggest advertising display (or gimmick) in history. The sheer number and vastness of the lights there is enough to give you a good sunburn. Today, of course, Times Square is also probably the single biggest urban tourist mecca on the planet and on a good hot summer night there you will always find tens of thousands of starry-eyed travelers adrift in selfie paradise. (You can read more about the history of Times Square here and here if you want.)

What better place to sit with a camera and wait for great photo opportunities? Being the lazy travel photographer that I am, one of my favorite things to do is to just plant myself in one area and wait for life and photographs to come to me—and just let the surprises happen. It was with that philosophy and George Benson’s big hit song (also a big hit for the Drifters) blasting away in my head, that I planted myself in Times Square with just one camera and one lens and waited. 

While I had originally planned to spend my time taking this fast Nikkor prime lens out to shoot the bright lights, because it was still daylight when I arrived, I found myself totally swept away in the crush of tourists taking what had to be a few million selfies and family portraits. Moms, dads, young kids, old people, costumed characters fleecing the innocents and even a freshly married bride and groom having their wedding portraits shot were all mashed together in one big sea of swirling humanity. I couldn’t have been happier.


I'm usually not so bold when it comes to photographing strangers, but most of my subjects were so engrossed in their selfies that I was invisible. Both shot at 1/160 second @ f/4.5, ISO 400. 

The G Factor

OK, back to the lens. The AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G actually replaces an older model D version of the same focal length and speed. Because this is in the “G” lens series, there are several differences from the old lens: for one, it’s got a plastic barrel that makes it noticeably lighter. The filter ring is also made of plastic and that’s not something I’d be completely comfortable with—though I rarely use filters. 

The lens also lacks an aperture ring (as do all of the G-series lenses)—a move made by Nikon to save money. Since virtually all digital SLRs let you control aperture and shutter speed from the camera body, aperture rings are probably a bit superfluous anyway. I kind of miss the old depth-of-field scales on my manual-focus lenses, but it’s more of a sentimental thing than a practical matter. The lens has “always on” manual-focus override, so at any time you can take back control from the AF—and I used it often.

Also, the lens has internal focus, so the lens barrel itself never moves, nor does the filter ring, which is a nice thing if you’re using a polarizing or split-density filter. And it has Nikon’s “Silent Wave” motor, so it’s virtually noiseless (of course, with so many years sitting on club stages two feet from giant Marshall amps to photograph bands, I probably wouldn’t hear the lens if it backfired and sneezed). 

Incidentally, if you’re debating between this lens and Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4 version, here are two differences: This lens is significantly lighter and smaller than the faster lens and, more importantly (for me, at least) it costs less than one third the price of the faster version. Would I pay $1,200 more for a half stop of speed? I’ll get back to you on that if I ever win the Powerball jackpot. 


These days Times Square is completely family centric and people come from around the world to take family portraits in the heart of the Canyon of Lights. Top: 1/125 second @ f/4, bottom 1/160 second @ f/4. Both at ISO 500. 

The Prime Audience

So who is a prime of this focal length aimed at? I think the “prime” audience here is just what you’d expect: portrait, event and wedding photographers. On either an FX or DX body, 85mm is a perfect focal length for portraits (the equivalent focal length on a DX is about 120mm) and you can shoot head-and-shoulder portraits and toss the backgrounds nicely out of focus with either format. The bokeh of the lens, particularly wide open, is pretty nice. I was shooting a bit stopped down to keep a little depth of field going, but still the backgrounds in most of these shots are gentle and diffuse. Because of that, given a choice between a normal prime and this, I would really recommend going for the longer focal length.

I found the lens to be quite fast focusing and that’s something that came in very useful in such a crowded venue. Almost every time I picked out a subject, I had to wait (and hopefully not miss great moments) while the endless river of people passed by me. Almost all of the photos that I shot were quick grab shots and it was easy to lose focus on my targets, but as soon as my line-of-sight cleared up, the lens snapped right into focus. 


The costumed characters in Times Square started out years ago as a cute novelty and most were very well behaved, but today they are an inch short of being costumed thugs and they cluster around families (especially when they have young kids) and offer to pose and then harass them mercilessly for tips. Every five minutes or so they would gather in little groups (top photo) and count their booty, masks off, in full view of the people they had just fleeced. I found it repulsive, to say the least, and a bit of a flashback to the old days in Times Square. Top: 1/125 second @ f/4.5, bottom 1/125 second at f/7.1, both at ISO 500. 

Conclusion  

I had a lot of fun shooting with this lens and I am more than happy with my results. The lens is very sharp and any lack of sharpness that I encountered was based largely on slow shutter speeds and my subjects being in almost constant motion. The lens is very compact and lightweight which made it easy to frame and focus quickly even in a crowd and my arms never got tired from holding it to my eye (which does happen with some of my zooms). I would think a candid wedding photographer would soon rely on this lens, particularly at receptions. Overall, I think that for me 85mm is the new normal because it’s just so much more versatile and that bokeh factor is very sweet indeed.

Yep, I ignored the lights for most of the time I was shooting, but when you get down to it, people are so much more luminous.


My favorite shot of the day. A bride and groom brought their own photographer, but dozens of others (me included) hogged the moment and took our own shots. Shot at 1/125 second @ f/5.6, ISO 500.

Product News

Novoflex SL-EOS adapter. One of the things (other than the price tag) that may be holding you back from buying a Leica SL camera body is the lack of native lenses (the only two Leica SL lenses available now are the 28-90mm and a 90-280mm). Worry no more if you’re a Canon lens owner. Novoflex has introduced an electronic adapter that will let you mount 30 different Canon lenses and lens adapters (including all of their tilt/shift lenses). The adapter will interpret autofocus, aperture control and EXIF data signals and has an AF/MF mode. Apparently it does not support image stabilization. It’s priced at 499€ in Germany, which (if my math is correct) is roughly $550.

MindShift Gear Multi-Mount Holster 20. MindShift’s new Holster 20 (part of the Multi-Mount Holster series) seems to offer a promising combination of options for carrying gear. It will hold one standard-size DSLR (a Canon 5DM3 or Nikon D810, for example) and one standard zoom lens or two primes. The case can be used in five different carrying configurations, including shoulder, chest, front (attached to your backpack straps), belt or attached to the back of your backpack (cute, a backpack for your backpack) and comes with all necessary straps. The expandable front pocket includes organizer pocket, loops for memory card holder, etc. Probably room for a PB&J sandwich, too. It measures 10.5” H x 8.3” W x 6.5” D and weighs about 12 ounces. 

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