Go-To Portrait Lens: Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d



Nikkor 85/1.8 K AI’d mounted to Nikon F2sb

A lens that has been a long-time staple in my Nikon kit, since about 2005 actually, is my Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d.

I chose the 85/1.8 for the reasons many people reach for an 85/1.8; available light portrait work and a little smaller, lighter, less expensive, easier to control lens than an 85/1.4.


I didn’t realise it at the time but this is one of those weird late model pre-AI lenses with the rubber grip but was apparently factory converted to AI, expanding its compatibility.  So this lens has the most well-coated optics of all the pre-AI 85’s but can still work with all newer model Nikons up to many current DSLR’s.  I imagine one would get very similar performance out of any of the three Nikkor pre-AI 85/1.8’s though as they share the same optical formula, differing only is barrel design and amount of coating.

Nikkor 85/1.8 K AI’d with correct Nikon HN-7 metal hood and Lensbling rear cap

Anyway, 13 years later, I would still recommend this lens.  I have no regrets even after purchasing longer, faster, more expensive portrait lenses, including Nikon’s much newer 85/1.4 AF-D IF, which, may be slightly optically superior in terms of corrected optical aberrations and corner to corner sharpness, but it’s a helluva lot larger and lacks that certain character for which pre-AI Nikkors are known.  And honestly, I gotta say the plastic bits on the 85/1.4 AF-D IF bug me!

Unlike the Nikkor 85/1.4’s, which are more than twice the cost, and newer 85/1.8’s, the barrel of the 85/1.8 k is closer to a uniform diameter and the filter threads are even a tame 52mm.  If you use filters, you can swap them with your other Nikkors or if you’re like me, you can just swap your hoods and caps.  Small considerations like these keep your camera bag neat and compact.

So you have a portrait lens that is fast but is still not much larger than a fast 50mm, particularly sans hood.  85 is a good length too because you’re only losing 1 stop in shutter speed compared to a 50 but you get considerably more out of focus drama and a flatter subject.

You get a faster/longer lens like this for bokeh, so let’s talk about that.  Out of focus areas on the Nikkor 85/1.8 k are pretty smooth for Japanese glass.  Not buttery or creamy or whatever other savory term that is usually applied to German glass, but reasonable.  The separation of in and out of focus area as one stops down and puts some distance between the subject and background is very distinct and makes the subject pop.

Nikon FE |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Fuji Pro 160S

At closer distances between in and out of focus areas and at wider apertures, things don’t pop as much but transition smoothly.

Nikon FM2n |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Ilford XP2 400

Out of focus points of light render in a hexagon, reflecting the simple, straight 6 blade aperture assembly.


Nikon FM |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Fuji Pro 400H

Of course this becomes more circular when shooting at full aperture.  In focus area is still acceptably sharp AND in most cases, focus isn’t as critical as with the 85/1.4 so you can largely rest assured that you got the shot.  Note that there is a bit of fringing at full aperture but not to the point of soap bubbling.

Nikon FE |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Fuji Pro 800Z

85mm focal length lenses are of course perfect for posed portraits…

Author, Sonia Shah | Nikon FM |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Fuji Pro 160S
Nikon F3hp |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Ilford XP2 400

…and candid portraits…

Nikon FE |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Kodak Portra 400 VC
Nikon FE |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Fuji Pro 800Z

…as well as event portraits.

PromiseLab at Recher Theatre | Nikon FM |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Fuji Superia 1600
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton | Nikon FM |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Fuji Pro 800Z

Then there’s weddings.  This is where I continue to get the most use out of my 85/1.8.  It’s good for covering small ceremonies but particularly great for filling the frame on candids

Nikon FE |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Fuji Pro 160S
Nikon FM |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Ilford XP2 @ 3200

…or just getting in tight for those personal moments

Nikon F2sb |Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Kodak Tri-X 400
Tricia | Nikkormat FT2 | Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d | Kodak Portra 160

So what’s your go-to portrait lens?  Something longer?  Shorter?  Faster?  Slower?  Tell me about your set-up in the comments!  And as always, thanks for reading and happy shooting!

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7 thoughts on “Go-To Portrait Lens: Nikkor 85mm 1.8 K AI’d

  1. I tend to shy away from 85mm and 35mm focal length lenses; moving closer or back from my subject when using a 50mm lens is usually sufficient. I don’t even own an 85mm lens and the Nikkor 35mm f1.4 AI-s I do own is rarely used. My go-to lenses for outside of the 50mm angle of view are the 24mm f2.8 and the 105mm f2.5. 85mm and 35mm are great focal lengths-I just happen to see the world from a different perspective.


    1. I wouldn’t recommend using a 35 as a portrait lens either! And I doubt anyone would argue the utility of a “nifty fifty,” my 50’s are certainly my most-used lenses. But like 35’s, 50’s can distort the face and of course one cannot always move closer, such as at a concert or during a wedding ceremony. These are situations when I reach for my 85, or as you mention a 105 which flatten the face and allow me to “cut into” a scene. How do you like the 105/2.5? I use the 1.8 version which I’m told performs much the same. I’d love to see a link to your 50mm portraits.


      1. I don’t have a website. I would welcome a critique of my work if you wouldn’t mind… Is there an email address I could use? Thanks again. (BTW, you don’t have to post this).


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