Nikon 105mm f/1.4E vs. 105mm f/2.8 AFS G VR Macro

As you may know, I’m testing the new Nikon 105mm f/1.4E ED Nikkor portrait lens. One of the main questions I’ve been asked over on my Facebook page is, “how does it compare to the 105mm micro-Nikkor?”

It’s a fair question, as I’ve long listed the 105mm f/2.8 AFS G VR micro-Nikkor as an excellent portrait lens. For this purpose, at least to me, there are really only two discriminators: VR (stabilization) and aperture. 

While Nikon’s vibration reduction (VR) system is a wonderful feature, I don’t find it to be totally necessary for portrait work. That’s because in these situations, you’re likely to be shooting wide-open or in a controlled studio setting with strobes. In both cases, you probably won’t need stabilization. The VR system on the micro-Nikkor is very useful for hand-held closeup shots where stopping down to get maximal depth of field is desirable.

The micro-Nikkor is a macro lens, and it uses a design that actually causes the aperture to shrink as you focus on close subjects. Even though the lens is rated at f/2.8, you’ll only really get that aperture when focusing from about 10′ (3m) to infinity. At minimum focus distance, the maximum aperture shrinks to f/4.8. For most portraits, this puts you around f/3 or so with the micro-Nikkor. The 105mm f/1.4E is indeed a fixed aperture, so you get f/1.4 at all focus distances. The big difference here is that it has a minimum focus distance of about 3.3 feet (1 m). If you want a macro lens, then the micro-Nikkor is the clear choice here.

The reason one would purchase the far more expensive 105mm f/1.4E really comes down to the ability to shoot this lens wide-open and get super-shallow DOF. I enlisted my trusty test subject (he will work for chocolate) and made a couple of portrait shots with each lens, wide-open. Here is where you can really see the difference of those extra f-stops:

Nikon D810 and 105mm f/1.4E ED Nikkor wide-open (f/1.4).
Nikon D810 and 105mm f/1.4E ED Nikkor wide-open (f/1.4).
Nikon D810 and 105mm f/2.8 AFS G VR Micro-Nikkor wide-open (f/3).
Nikon D810 and 105mm f/2.8 AFS G VR Micro-Nikkor wide-open (f/3).

Note the shallow depth of field and incredibly soft background (he was about one meter away from the side of the house) produced by the 105mm f/1.4 (top image). For serious portraits, that’s a look that is really hard to produce in post. The effect is more pronounced in full-length portraits, as the extra depth of field in the 105mm f/2.8 becomes more apparent in the out of focus backgrounds:

Nikon D810 with 105mm f/1.4E ED Nikkor wide-open (f/1.4)
Nikon D810 with 105mm f/1.4E ED Nikkor wide-open (f/1.4)
Nikon D810 with 105mm f/2.8 AFS G VR Micro-Nikkor wide-open (f/2.8)
Nikon D810 with 105mm f/2.8 AFS G VR Micro-Nikkor wide-open (f/2.8)

In conclusion, both lenses are sharp, well-corrected, and produce lovely portraits. The all-purpose photographer will be well-suited by having the 105mm macro lens, because it is dual-purpose. The VR system will certainly help in dim conditions, too. Wedding and portrait photographers, however, will definitely find the extra bokeh and softer backgrounds to be a major discriminator when producing professional portraits for clients.

 

4 thoughts on “Nikon 105mm f/1.4E vs. 105mm f/2.8 AFS G VR Macro”

  1. “Wedding and portrait photographers, however, will definitely find the extra bokeh and softer backgrounds to be a major discriminator when producing professional portraits for clients.”

    Unless you already have an 85/1.4. 😉

  2. I agree and also disagree. The extra focal length of the 105 f/1.4 allows you to get better OOF backgrounds on full-length shots as compared to the 85/1.4.

  3. Overall, for portrait work if you’re not in a studio or wide-open the shutter speed should be enough so the VR doesn’t change anything, even with a 105mm (maybe a little more useful with an APS-C?).
    I own both and I agree the f/2.8G is a good alternative, but the f/1.4E is really awesome for portraits. Nikon made a great work with the bokeh and the sharpness, the AF could be faster but it’s not a problem at all (subject doesn’t often jump from 3.3ft to infinite 😉 ).
    Compare to the 85 f/1.4, you also have sharper images wide-open and less CA.

  4. Hello,

    The micro lens does not in fact have a variable aperture, but it is giving you a more accurate f#. As you focus closer and closer to 1:1 you get light fall off because of the inverse square law 1/x(2). All lenses suffer from this, but the micro lenses acknowledge it more accurately.

    In large format, the distance of the front to rear nodal point is equal to the focal length of the lens, and as you focus closer and closer, the bellows extend. You are required to then measure this draw and put it into a logarithmic equation to figure out how much you have to compensate for the lost light.

    http://www.largeformatphotography.info/bellows-factor.html

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