Head to head comparison of the Nikon 85 f1.4 prime lens versus 70-300D and 80-400mm lenses

Here is a head to head comparison of the Nikon 85mm f1.4 D IF AF, 70-300mm f4-5.6D ED AF, and 80-400mm f4.5-5.6D ED AF VR lenses.

The D200 camera settings were:
JPG-Fine, aperture priority, Exposure Comp +0.7EV, ISO 100, WB Shade, AF-S, all images auto-focus, color mode Ia, Tone comp: Normal, Hue adjustment: 0 deg, Saturation: normal, sharpening: +1, JPG Compression: Optimal Quality, NR Off, shutter speed between 1/750th and 1/2.5th seconds depending on aperture. The tripod is a Bogen 3051 with a heavy pan/tilt head – a beast.

The 70-300mm D was done first, then 85mm f1.4 and then the 80-400mm. I made sure the zoom lenses were at 85mm by shooting and adjusting the lens until the camera LCD indicated the lenses were shooting at 85mm. The test was done in the morning with the sun behind the wall. The light was becoming progressively less blue and only 2-5 minutes passed between lens tests. The test was done while the wall was in the shade. The exposure was not changing rapidly at all. I used the histogram to to set the exposure to +0.7 to brighten the bricks without blowing out the highlights. The VR setting on the 80-400mm was turned off as it is a known issue that VR on degrades tripod mounted lenses.

The images were brought into Photoshop 7 for batch processing. A center selection of 400×300 pixels was chosen and the exact same position from each lens sample was repeated. Due to lens alignment, the exact same sample area of the wall was not shown but the same center position of the lens was the objective of this test. The resulting crop had an Image-Brightness/Contrast change of +10 Brightness and +10 Contrast. It was less complicated than going through the individual histograms, potentially causing an apparent improvement in sharpness or color. The image then had an Unsharp Mask of Amount: 150%, Radius: 1.0 and Threshold: 14 applied. Files were then saved as “Save For Web”, JPEG High (Quality 60). The resulting image is what you see on this page.

f-stop 85 f1.4 D IF AF 80-400mm f4.5-5.6D ED AF VR 70-300mm f4-5.6D ED AF
f 1.4 N/A N/A
f 2 N/A N/A
f 2.8 N/A N/A
f 4
80-400mm Done at f4.5
f 5.6
f 8
f 11
f 16
f 22 N/A
f 32 N/A

Sample images removed after site update
Using out of camera JPG size as a comparative base, the relative sharpness of the various apertures is shown in the graphs below.






Focus from 3 feet to 7 feet

Focus from infinity to infinity

No conclusion can be drawn from the file sizes between the different lenses because the images are not exactly the same, so the information difference makes it impossible for a direct comparison. The graphs only show the relative aperture comparisons for each lens.

Based on JPG file size, the 85mm f1.4 improved until difraction limited the image quality at f16. Looking at the images above suggests JPG size isn’t the complete determination of image quality but it is a good starting point.

The 80-400mm peaked at f8 and rapidly deteriorated into the f22-32 region. This is my primary surf photography lens and my experience of using it at f5.6 and f8 whenever possible bears out the images I have seen when subjects are closer. Another test will have to be done at the ~300mm focal length area, as that is where most of my surf shooting is done.

The 70-300mm D ED lens showed remarkably well in the above tests at the given focal length, though in actual performance the 80-400 beats the 70-300 handily at longer focal lengths. More tests to come.

Nikon’s 85mm f1.4 lens shows its value when photographing in very low light conditions or where shallow depth of field is required.

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