REVIEW: Nikkor 85mm f1.4 AIS vs. Polar 85mm f1.4 


The images I've posted are either unprocessed JPEGs or NEF (RAW) files directly converted to JPEGs via Picture Project. I used no post-processing. I am in no way associated with Samyang optics, nor am I Korean. I am a certified high school teacher who is teaching in Seoul, South Korea.

Like many of you out there, I was curious to see how these lenses would fare against each other. Here are my findings. If you'd like to access the original files (full size), just click on the image as it plays.

Please note, all images are copyrighted by J.S. Velasquez. If you'd like to post them someplace else, shoot me an email with a request by filling out the "Contact me" form (it goes straight to my email).

Build

 

Nikkor:

Full metal body

Rubber focusing grip

Metal hood

f1.4-f16 with 1 EV stop between each aperture setting

9 bladed diaphragm

Multi-coated glass

Huge front element, slightly recessed

Front element moves out; this causes a slight magnification effect

Takes 72mm filters

Heavy (especially on a D40)

 

Polar/Samyang:

Hybrid metal/plastic body. From the mount to the end of the focusing barrel it has a metal body; after that it becomes a gun-metal finish plastic. I believe the aperture ring is plastic.  

Rubber focusing grip

Rigid plastic hood (same finish as plastic part of lens)

f1.4-f22 with 0.5 EV stops after f2. It clicks three times at 2.8. Once at the two, then again at the decimal, and finally between f2.8 and f4 before you actually reach f4. It continues this pattern till f16. I have never come across a lens that did that. Between f16-f22 there is only 1EV stop.

8 bladed diaphragm

Multi-coated glass

Slightly smaller , more recessed, front elemen, though still takes 72mm filters

Internal Focusing; there is no magnification effect

Light (compared to the Nikkor on a D40)


Lens Build Comparison



Sharpness:

 

Nikkor:

The Nikkor is soft wide open, and can produce blown highlights outdoors due to its greater light transmission (it overexposes on my camera at the same settings as the Samyang). It sharpens up once stopped down. While it exhibits more light transmission, it comes at the cost of sharpness.  

 

Polar/Samyang:

The Polar is sharper wide open, and produces fewer blown highlights outdoors due to lower light transmission. It sharpens up much sooner than the Nikkor. While it does exhibit less light transmission, it comes with the benefit of sharper images where it counts.

 

By f5.6 the differences between the lenses becomes less noticeable, other than the Nikkor being a little brighter, but it also comes at the cost of some sharpness. The Polar still retains the sharpness title. I took the city shots twice because I had to be sure that my eyes weren't deceiving me. The Polar really outperformed the Nikkor in that scene. And lest you think it was a faulty test, please note that I was using a properly calibrated Katzeye in my camera. 


Leo Foo has this to say about the the Nikkor 85mm f1.4 AIS lens: "Optically, this lens is able to provide high contrast images with high definitions across all aperture range. The edge of the two maximum apertures at f/1.4 and f/2.0 is still considered slightly soft, a normal behavior in high speed telephoto lenses. But since the lens is specifically designed for handling low light shooting..."


Those soft images I've taken aren't something I made up. It's what the Nikkor delivers. The Polar/Samyang lens I think is designed for brighter situations, hence the ease of use in bright environments. However, in low light situations, such as a concert, my hunch is that it's workable, but the Nikkor will be much easier to focus, though, again, at the expense of sharpness. The Samyang is sharp from the get-go, but at the expense of light transmission.

 

Sharpness Samples

 
 
 
100% Crops--Brick Wall Images at f1.4

These images are crops from the brick wall. I shot those images by getting the exposure reading off an old Toshiba light meter (which thanks to C.R.I.S. cam it works as great as it did when it was first made). That way any differences between the lenses would be shown correctly. The Polar is sharp everywhere at f1.4.
 

100% Crops of Brick Wall

 

 
Hues dominant in each lens:

Nikkor:
The Nikkor tends to render images with a blue hue to them (cooler colors).

Polar:
The Polar tends to render images with warmer colors (red?).

If you look closely at these images, you'll notice that the statue in the image taken by the Polar looks better, but at the expense of black colors having a "grainy" reddish look to them. The statue in the Nikkor isn't as sharp, but the black colors have a more uniform look to them.

Dominant Hue

 

 

Bokeh comparison:

This particular aspect of photography has nearly caused a rift in the "Dark Side", as an acquaintance of mine likes to call Nikon users. I believe it's a matter of taste. Some people love the rings, others hate them.
 
Nikkor:

Wide open, the Nikkor produces bokeh that has more rings/donuts to it.  

 

Polar:

Wide open, the Polar produces bokeh with a more Gaussian blur. Though this feature seems to revert back to rings when the lens is stopped down (as the statue images above demonstrate--look at the buildings in the background). 

 

Bokeh Comparison


 
 


Chromatic Aberrations:

 
These are crops from the city images. They're not the greatest examples, but they demonstrate that the Polar has better control over purple fringing. Take a close look at  the snow on the sloping roof (the triangle shaped snow). Both images were shot at f1.4.

I've added a few more images that show chromatic aberrations, both are 100% crops from the originals.

From these shots it's easy to see that both lenses produce chromatic aberrations, though again, the Polar has produced a much sharper image than the Nikkor.

Both of the evergreen images were shot at f1.4. Green CA appears throughout both images.

 

Chromatic Aberrations

 
One thing that these crops don't show is how the Nikkor is more prone to produce blue CA, while the Polar sometimes produces green CA in shadows.


 

Flare:

Nikkor: There's no doubt the Nikkor has better flare control. The images speak for themselves. I tried changing angles to see if it would improve anything, but the Nikkor still came out on top. I believe it has to do with the NIC coatings on the Nikkor glass, but that may also come at the expense of softer images at f1.4 and more light transmission.


Polar: The Polar had poor flare control. Perhaps that's why it's front element is more recessed, and why its hood is about the same size as the Nikkor's.

Flare Control

 
Low light comparison:

I finally got around to doing some low light comparisons. 

The spring concert at my school wasn't the best place for this comparison, as it was very dark, except for the stage. From the back of the auditorium (where the concert took place), neither lens would've produced decent bokeh...

For those of you have been following the pictures of this Korean lens on Flickr, you've probably seen how it performed compared to other lenses. I don't believe those tests were done in a fair manner, because if you look at the exif data of the pictures, you'll notice that they were all shot at different shutter speeds while the apertures remained constant. 

In those tests the Vivitar version of this lens was shot at a faster shutter speed than the Canon EF f1.8 with both lenses set at f2. That's not a very good test, as all variables need to be equal in order to show what each lens is truly capable of doing. And the focus seems off. The Korean lens has an insanely thin DOF, as does the Nikkor.  

Anyway, enough of my ramblings, here are my results and my final conclusion:

Nikkor:
Amazing low light capabilities. Its trade off for sharpness is a bonus in low light, as its greater light transmission provides a slightly brighter image in the viewfinder, as well as brighter, cooler colors. It's magnification effect is also a plus, as the bokeh rings produced by the Nikkor are slightly larger than what the Polar produces. 

There are a few artifacts outside the bokeh rings (often a harsh green glow around the ring), and the fact they barely show up is probably the result of my D40's low pixel count. In the pictures with flash, the artifacts are not visible (at least to my eyes).  I reckon they would become more pronounced if the sensor had a higher megapixel count.


Polar/Samyang:
Surprisingly great low light capabilities. It still retains the sharpness title, but at the expense of light transmission. My hunch that it produces warmer tones is highlighted by this comparison, as the Nikkor bokeh is brighter and of a cooler hue than the Polar/Samyang's bokeh. 

There are a few artifacts inside the bokeh rings produced by the Polar ("onion bokeh"), and they are slightly more visible than the Nikkor's own artifact. In the picture with flash, the artifacts are barely visible. 

I have noticed that if the light source is small (e.g. Christmas lights) and taken from a distance (i.e. smaller bokeh rings) artifacts become more pronounced. If the light source is larger (or you're closer to the Christmas lights/light source) the artifacts are less visible and often negligible.
 
Over all, the Polar is a highly usable portrait lens for indoors/low light situations, though I do believe in this instance the Nikkor is slightly better (though not by much--and not to the extremes as shown by their flare control).

See my final conclusions below the image player. 


 


Conclusions:

The Polar/Samyang is a much sharper lens wide open, and handles highlights better in natural daylight due to its lower light transmission (i.e. you don't end up with blown highlights due to overexposure). And if you're careful to note--both lenses were tested at the same settings--this just shows that the Nikkor is a light eating beast, and was allowing too much light in at f/1.4 @ 1/4000. With 1/8000 things may be different, but I don't know I don't have a camera that fast. 


The Nikkor has a much better build, and handles lowlight situations better than the polar; however, finding a Nikkor 85mm f1.4 AIS in pristine cosmetic, mechanical, and optical condition is becoming more and more difficult, and more expensive. Lately, I've seen some very nice ones go for nearly the cost of a brand new 85mm f1.4 AF! 


By f5.6--/f8 the differences between the Nikkor and the Polar become less obvious in natural daylight, other than the Nikkor being brighter and the Polar slightly sharper. In low light the Nikkor comes out on top at f1.4, though not by a huge margin.

Stopped down the Polar's bokeh is terrible in low light, though I can't really see anyone stopping down an f1.4 lens in low light, as the f1.4 aperture is the whole point of these lenses.

Both lenses suffer from chromatic aberrations, but they exhibit these in different ways. The Nikkor tends to have blue CA around highlights, while the Polar/Samyang, sometimes, exhibits green CA in shadows and dark areas. Both of them suffer from purple fringing, though the Polar seems to have better control over it. 

With respect to color rendition, both produce bright, punchy colors. However, I have found the Polar produces better skies than the Nikkor at f1.4. This makes the Polar a great option for shooting outdoors. I have also found that the Nikkor tends to render cooler colors, while the Polar leans towards warmer colors. This could be due to the differences in coatings, but I can't say for certain.       


The Nikkor definitely handles flare better than the Polar, which partially explains why the front element of the Polar is more recessed and why the hoods of both lenses are about the same size. 


The Polar/Samyang lens has an interesting approach to light control, with 0.5 EV aperture steps and it's ability to hit f22. I doubt anyone would use these lenses at their smallest apertures (largest f stop number), as both of them are designed to be used at the larger apertures (smallest f stop numbers).   


Optically (sharpness), the Polar/Samyang is the winner wide open. Buildwise, the Nikkor wins hands down. With respect to flare control, CA, bokeh, and light transmission, each has its own strengths.


They both seems to produce some artifacts in or outside the bokeh rings, though these artifacts mostly disappear when both lenses are used with flash. Again, the Nikkor comes out on top in this test, though not by much. On a sensor with a lower megapixel count these artifacts aren't really pronounced, though I reckon on a sensor with a higher pixel count they would become more visible. That goes for both lenses, though my hunch is that the Nikkor's artifacts would show up less frequently, and not be as pronounced as the Polar/Samyang's. 


Although in low light situations (nighttime) the Nikkor wins, it comes at the expense of sharpness. The Polar is still sharper in low light shots.

 

Were someone to offer me both lenses and told me I could only pick one, I would go for the Nikkor because of its heritage and its legendary status and its build quality. However, it would have to be a copy with no flaws that could affect IQ, copies which are becoming more and more difficult to find.


Were someone to offer me two images and told me that the image I picked would determine which lens I would receive, I would definitely go for the image produced by the Polar/Samyang lens.  

 

I believe the Polar/Samyang lens offers the most bang for your buck at f1.4; however, as someone pointed out, people used to the Nikkor would probably miss the feel of a fully metal Nikkor lens.


Whatever you decide to go with, keep in mind that Nikon stopped producing the AIS manual focus 85mm f1.4 lens around 1988/1989. Finding an 85mm f1.4 AIS lens in great mechanical and optical condition is becoming more difficult, and expensive. I've come across people selling theirs for $600-$1300US, ranging from lenses with all kinds of problems such as oily aperture blades to residue on the inner elements to a nearly perfect sample. Finding a new Polar is cheaper, though probably as difficult as you have to hunt around for them.** 


One thing to keep in mind is the Polar's build quality. It is not the same as the Nikkor 85mm f1.4. This has been verified by me (see the review above) and by others. I recently (September) had to get my Polar fixed due to a blade that stuck out while set to f1.4. Stopped down it wasn't a problem, but wide open it showed up as a minor bump at the edge of the circle of nighttime bokeh. In daylight pictures it never showed up.


If you are interested in ordering one online, Gmarket global market place is a good place to start, especially if you're European, as the same lens, the "Wallimex Pro" goes for about 400-500 euros. You can use Paypal at Gmarket, and there's also an English version of the site. If you're in the US, you can pick up the same lens re-badged as the Vivitar Series 1 lens at Adorama, Ebay, and various other places.

My advice is go with a reputable seller that accepts returns/exchanges. Some good vendors are Cameta Cameras (US) or Photo-Tip (Europe). Build quality seems to be worst with the Rokinon badged lenses, whereas the Vivitar/Polar/Samyang branded versions seem to have fewer, if any, problems. If you're in a position to inspect the lens before you buy it, do so. That's what I did. And don't think this is a problem related to this lens only. All manufacturers from Nikon, to Tokina, to Canon, to Sigma, to Zeiss suffer from sample variation. Here's a good article that discusses this issue.

Closing Thoughts:

For outdoor portraits, indoor portraits with sufficient lighting, and sharpness, the Polar/Samyang is the winner and is the best bang for your buck.

For low light portraits, sun behind your subject portraits, and build quality, the Nikkor is the winner, though they're becoming rarer and more expensive.

I've decided to keep both. I can't shoot outdoor portraits wide open with my Nikkor (due to blown highlights @ f/1.4), and the flowers are almost here, and kids, and flowers, and the outdoors make for great portrait opportunities. My Nikkor is king for low light situations, and I found it easier to focus than the Polar (but that's due to it's greater light transmission--but at the expense of sharpness). As I stated earlier, I wouldn't hesitate to use the Polar in low light situations.  


Again, I am in no way associated with Samyang/Polar, nor am I associated with the Samyang/Polar wholesaler (who also sells Crumpler million dollar bags, Bausch & Lombe binoculars, and Tamron, Tokina, and Sigma lenses), nor am I associated with Ipark mall.  


I am just an amateur photographer who was curious to see how these lenses would fare against each other. I have to say that I was surprized, considering the price. While build quality isn't the greatest, optically it is the sharpest lens I have when shot wide open.


If you do buy a Polar/Samyang/Vivitar lens, feel free to check out this Flickr group dedicated to this lens and its various overseas incarnations. I didn't start the group. Someone else did (Angrycorgi); he invited me to submit my images and be a moderator. I'll post images made with the Polar/Samyang there. Any portraits or shots made with either the Nikkor or the Polar will also appear on my site.