Viltrox 85mm f/1.8 Lens Review

What is It?

The Viltrox 85mm f/1.8 is the first autofocus lens from a third party to appear in the Z mount, and thus of interest if for no other reason than to portend how third party lenses might fare on the mount. 

It should be noted that the Z-mount version of this lens is the equivalent to the Mark II version that first appeared in the Sony world. The primary benefit of that update was some weight reduction and better autofocus motor performance. I don't think that the optical aspects changed.

Some of you will be happy about one thing: the Viltrox 85mm is a metal body lens, solid in build quality, and modern looking. That rugged build quality, though, means that the lens weighs in at 19 ounces (540g), so the lens has some heft to it. 

In size (3.6” long, 3.2” diameter; 92mm/80mm) and weight the Viltrox is not a lot different than the Nikkor f/1.8 S. The Nikkor is a little longer, a little lighter, but I doubt most of you would really care about those differences.

Inside we have 10 elements in 7 groups, with five of those being low dispersion elements (akin to Nikon’s ED). The overall lens design isn’t particularly complicated, and appears to be a modification of one that’s been used by others for some time. Viltrox claims that the lens has Nano coating, but doesn’t specify anything more about that. 

Apertures range from f/1.8 to f/16, and are only set from the camera (no aperture ring). A 9-blade aperture ring is featured, but my sample’s blades were not geometrically symmetrical, which caused some obvious bokeh issues at certain apertures. 

There are no controls on the lens other than the fly-by-wire focus ring, which is wide and easy to find. 

The lens takes 72mm filters and comes with a PL-07 petal type bayonet lens hood. The lens hood on my sample had a tendency to detach from the bayonet a bit too easy, meaning bumping the hood sometimes released it.

Close focus distance is about 32” (0.8), which is meh for 85mm (maximum magnification ratio is 1:8, also meh). Focus is performed via a stepping motor, exactly like the Nikkor, and is done completely internally (no lens extension during focus).

Curiously, the Viltrox 85mm doesn’t identify country of origin on the lens anywhere (China). The lens sells for US$399. 

Viltrox’s Web site for the lens

Source of the reviewed lens: purchased

How’s it Handle?

Not much to say. The lens balances on the Z6/Z7 type bodies quite well, and the focus ring is very smooth, though a little slippery to grip when damp. 

The focus indicators all perform as expected (in other words, the rangefinder guide tells you which way to turn the top of the focus ring when out of focus), and I couldn’t find anything that didn’t work exactly as we’ve come to expect with the Z Nikkors. 

I would caution you to make sure you’re on the current firmware for the lens, though. Viltrox has had six firmware updates for this lens, and they all have had small changes to make it operate properly with the Z cameras. While the lens has a USB port (Micro-B), the firmware update instructions are a bit fiddly, and only document how to do it with Windows. 

How's it Perform?

Focus: Surprisingly fast and quiet, given that this is the first third-party company that's "cracked" the Nikon Z autofocus system. Indeed, I can't always distinguish the Viltrox from the Nikkor in this respect: both usually respond quickly to the camera's directions and seem as precise. I tried throwing different focus area modes at it, and those all seem to work as expected, as well. I will say that the Viltrox seems a little slower to obtain focus in low light with the smaller AF-S Area mode options, but only slightly so. If this is the level of autofocus performance we're going to see from third party lenses in the future, I say bring it on. 

Off-center, Auto Area (Animal) eye detect autofocus used. The Z6 II placed the focus on the frog’s left eye (right as you view), and this is the result (actual pixels):

Dead on. I tried other tricky autofocus aspects with the lens, and it passed those tests similarly: works like the Nikkor.

Note that the Viltrox lens focus breaths, but so, too does the Nikkor.

Sharpness: Center sharpness is very good wide open. At f/2.8 it improves to excellent. Corners are good wide open in terms of acuity, but contrast is clearly lower. That's a trait that can be post processed, if needed. Moreover, given that the lens is likely to be used for portraits and other more central subjects, I'm not at all bothered by the change from center to corner. Best aperture overall on a Z7/Z7 II is probably f/4, but I'm more than willing to use this lens at faster apertures. 

The Nikkor f/1.8 S, by comparison shows higher acuity and contrast, particularly in the corners. The Viltrox reminds me of older F-mount designs.

Chromatic Aberration: As with most fast primes, there's clear and strong longitudinal chromatic aberration. Back focus goes green, forward focus goes magenta. Unlike a lot of fast primes, it seems to take more stopping down than I'm used to to eliminate this trait: I still see some at f/4; it isn't until f/5.6 that I'm seeing the tends go away. Lateral CA was better controlled. It's present, but easily corrected. 

Again, compared to the Nikkor f/1.8 S, the Viltrox lags just a little and seems more like the older 85mm f/1.8G.

Vignetting: Wide open vignetting is not particularly strong, but wide in area. Some lenses "clip" corners when they vignette, others just have gradation from some area in the center of the frame towards the corners. The Viltrox 85mm f/1.8 is one of the latter. Stopping down to f/2.8 will reduce the vignette to insignificant levels, particularly for portraiture.

Linear Distortion: Very minor pincushion distortion, easily corrected. But generally, it's low enough that I wasn't particularly compelled to correct it. 

Flare: With in-frame light sources, veiling flare is higher than I'm used to, particularly at maximum aperture. There's no particularly objectionable aspect to the flare, mostly just contrast reduction, though there's also mild ghosting. Sun stars are a little vague.

Bokeh: I'm going to extend my comments here a bit from normal. Normal would be this: little to no onion-skinning, a very minor edge ring on out of focus highlights, but serious cats eye issues as you move from the center of the lens. A lot of folk will regard the bokeh as "better than average.” Some might see the bokeh of the Viltrox as slightly better than the Nikkor f/1.8 S, but I wouldn’t go that far; both have slight glitches that might distract.

Detail from a larger image showing transition from focus in each direction from the focus plane when wide open. Generally a nice falloff without nervous or busy energy you see in some lenses.

Since this lens will be used for portraits, one of the things I looked at a little harder was background blur. Recent Nikkors have a graceful and unobjectionable transition from focus to out of focus. What I found on the Viltrox was as you got to strong blur in the background, it tends to "smear."  Some folk will find that useful, as taken to the extreme (lots of blur) you get a literal swath of color rather than any implication of detail.  Where I have some minor issues is when there is a lot of depth to the background and you see the full focus-to-blur "fade": this can be more obvious and call attention to itself more than I'm used to with the Nikkors. But it’s still quite good, as you can see from the above detail.

Final Words

The Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 S is US$800 (less at times on sale). The Viltrox 85mm f/1.8 is US$400. So what's the difference? The Viltrox is a little heavier, but a little shorter. Focus performance seems very similar to me, enough to probably ignore. For most it will come down to optics. 

The Nikkor is better behaved from center to corner, and has a more graceful fade to out of focus. The Nikkor has less veiling flare with in-frame light sources, slightly fewer longitudinal CA issues, and doesn't have the clear corner contrast drop the Viltrox does. In terms of acuity, the Nikkor is a winner in the center, but are you sure you want the pores of your subjects to snap with acuity? ;~) 

Thus, you might say this: for most people who want this lens for portraits, you're saving half the price but not really getting giving up a lot. The Viltrox feels a little "old school" to me, in that its modest faults all tend to not make a lot of difference for portraiture and subject isolation use. This lens gives you an inexpensive way to extend your lens set into specialized areas. Since I already have the Nikkor, the Viltrox isn't going to replace it. But if there wasn't an 85mm f/1.8 Nikkor, I wouldn't hesitate to stick the Viltrox on my cameras. 

Note that this lens has had firmware updates (currently at 1.1.4). See the Viltrox site for the update and instructions on how to perform it. 

Recommended (2021)

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