This is Nikon's first 1:1 Micro Nikkor in the DX (APS-C) format. With a street price of $500, it offers D3000, D500, D300, and D90 shooters true close-ups--with Vibration Reduction II--at a much lower cost than Nikon's other VR macro, the $890, full-frame, 105mm f/2.8G.
This 85mm, an unusual 127.5mm full-frame equivalent, is well suited both to close-ups and to portraits. Internal-focusing, it's stippled barrel looks, but doesn't feel, similar to Nikon's pro-grade lenses.
In the field, its light weight swift and silent autofocus, and stationary barrel were all major boons. And it''s compact: The lens cast no shadow when used with the built-in flash on our Nikon D300s--even at 1:1 close-focusing distance of about 11 inches. We also appreciated the large distance and macro scales, the latter rare on non-pro glass.
Even more--and especially in the macro range--we liked the VR. We often hear that stablization is irrelevant in macro, because the small apertures you use to maximize depth of field require shutter speeds too slow to forgo a tripod. This may be true for product shooters and other pros, but more casual photographers who don't mind a little defocus in close-up backgrounds will like the VR on grab shots.
Negatives? Focusing would have been much easier if there were a focus-range limiting switch. And we didn't love the plasticky feel of the barrel and the less-than-well-damped action of its MF ring.
In our Test Lab, the lens turned in Excellent-range scores in SQF tests of sharpness and contrast. Our DxO Analyzer Version 3.2 tests found imperceptible barrel distortion (0.08%), a superior performance, and light falloff leaving the corners by f/5, just an average showing.
In macro it did noticeably better, with barrel distortion a mere 0.03% and vignetting disappearing entirely. Maximum subject magnification was 1:0.89--much stronger than Nikon's claimed 1:1.
In our tests of the VR II system, three users took sharp pictures at shutter speeds 2 to 3 stops slower than was possible without VR. As is typical, in the macro range the average gain dropped to about 2 stops.
Although this f/3.5 lens is priced like an f/2.8, what you're paying for is the VR, for much sharper images in dim light. We think it's worth it.
Distortion: 0.08% (imperceptable) barrel
Macro distortion: 0.03% (imperceptable) barrel
Light falloff: Gone by f/5
Close-focusing distance: 11.12-inches
Maximum magnification ratio: 1:0.89
Image stablization: 2-3 stops in normal range focusing, 2 stops in macro