Looking for the Best Nikon Portrait Lens? We Can Help

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Choosing the perfect lens is a difficult thing to do for any photographer. Selecting the best Nikon portrait lens is especially challenging. There are so many choices for Nikon shooters when it comes to a good portrait lens, that you have to look at many factors.

Best Nikon Portrait Lens

Another obstacle you will face as you research your lens is the actual definition of a portrait lens. What some feel are necessities others think is merely a convenience. So first, you have to determine what you want or need in a portrait lens.

In this article, we will look into what makes a good portrait lens and why a dedicated portrait lens is essential. We will talk about Nikon’s specific considerations such as lens formats and compatibility issues. Finally, we will look at the six best portrait lenses currently available.

Best Nikon Portrait Lens

  • Nikon FX 50mm f/1.8G
  • Nikon 85mm f/1.8G
  • Nikon 85mm f/1.4G
  • Sigma 135mm f/1.8
  • Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8
  • Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8
Nikon FX 50mm f/1.8G
BEST BUDGET 50mm LENS

Filter Diameter: 58mm, Nikon F, Weight: 187g, Size: 72.1×52.4mm

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G
BEST BUDGET 85mm LENS

Filter Diameter: 67 mm, Mount: Nikon F, Weight: 350 g (12.4 oz), Size: 80 mm x 73 mm

Nikon 85mm f/1.4G
BEST ALL AROUND PORTRAIT LENS

Filter Diameter: 77mm, Mount: Nikon F, Weight: 595 g (21.0 oz.), Size: 86.5 x 84 mm (3.4 x 3.3 in.)

Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art
BEST THIRD PARTY PORTRAIT LENS

Filter Diameter: 82mm, Mount: HSM DG, Weight: 1,130g (40.9oz.), Size: 91.4mm×114.9m

Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8
BEST PORTRAIT ZOOM LENS

Filter Diameter: 67mm, Mount: Nikon F, Weight: 1,130g, Size: 91.4mm × 114.9mm

Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8
BEST PORTRAIT TELEPHOTO LENS

Filter Diameter: 77mm, Mount: Nikon F, Weight: 1470g, Size: 85.8mm x 196.7mm

What is a portrait lens?

A portrait lens is a lens that has the correct aperture and focal length to take good portraits. While any lens can be used to take portraits, some are better suited than others. To be better means they have specific features that we will discuss below.

Focal Length

Ideally, for a portrait lens, you want a focal length between 50mm and 135mm. The longer focal length allows you to take close-up photos of your subject without having to be uncomfortably close to them. A short telephoto lens is excellent in this role and will allow you to make small adjustments without having to move your feet. Look for a focal length of 35mm+ for APS-C cameras and 50mm+ for full-frame.

For example, the 85mm is considered to be a classical focal length for portraits.

This recommendation doesn’t mean you can use something shorter. Some people like to use shorter lenses, but most feel comfortable not going below 50mm.

Aperture

For a portrait lens, you need a wide aperture. This aperture allows you to create shallow depth-of-field photos, blurring out all of the background. By blurring the background, you will create a visual separation between your subject and the background.

An aperture of f/2.8 or larger will give you a moderate depth of field and will allow you to blur the background enough to separate your subject from the background. You can also go up to f/1.4 which will give you a much shallower depth of field. The downside to an f/1.4 is that you have to work harder to ensure your focus is perfect or you will risk blurring your subject as well.

Nikon portrait lens was used to create travel portrait of a young woman
Portrait lens was used to create a visual separation between the subject and the background

Why you need a dedicated portrait lens?

Regardless of your niche of photography, everyone needs to learn to take good portraits. Portrait photography is an art that takes some time to master. However, while you are learning how to make good portraits, you are working intensely with exposure, light, aperture, metering, shutter speeds, composition, and ISO.  Basically, you are learning how to use the camera in full manual mode.

All photographers should learn and practice shooting in full manual. A log of professional photographers and hobbyists alike tend to fall into a groove of using the built-in modes of the camera. Using these modes is fine, but you still need to learn and practice how to control the different aspects on your own.

Having a good portrait lens gives you a lens to go to when you are shooting an isolated subject. This makes the lens much more flexible than just for portraits. On the other hand, if you do not have a lens that will work for portraits, you have a gap in your collection of lenses that you will almost certainly encounter.

Zoom vs Prime

One consideration when looking for a portrait lens is whether to use a prime lens or a zoom lens. There is no right or wrong answer to this question as both lenses each bring something different to the table. You must look at the particular kind of photography you are doing and make your decision based on that.

Prime Lenses

A prime lens means that it has a fixed focal length. You will not be able to “zoom” in unless you move the camera closer to the subject. The most significant advantage of a prime lens is better image quality. Prime lenses have more contrast and provide sharper images when compared to zoom lenses. This is because prime lenses have fewer glass elements than a zoom lens, meaning the light coming into the front of the lens doesn’t get as distorted as it passes through the elements.

Another advantage is that prime lenses are often cost much less than a zoom lens. You can purchase an excellent prime lens new for under $300 in most cases. Most zoom lenses start at around $500 and can run into the $2000 to $3000 range. The zoom lenses are more expensive because there are more moving parts and elements involved.

Prime lenses are also much smaller and lighter than the zoom lenses, which make them better for shooting without a tripod and make it easier to carry a more comprehensive selection of lenses.

Zoom Lenses

The most significant advantage of having a zoom lens instead of a prime lens is the versatility it gives you. Being able to shoot a full body shot, a shot from the chest up, and a close up without changing positions can help in certain situations.

A significant downside to zoom lenses is their cost. Zoom lenses can cost as much as three times more than a prime lens. The additional cost is due to the extra elements and hardware necessary for the zoom lens to function correctly. All of these extra components also make zoom lenses much heavier and bulkier than primes lenses.

Some photographers find the extra weight and size to be too cumbersome to shoot with comfortably. Others feel the difficulty in comfort is a worthy trade-off for the increased versatility.

Young woman with the backpack hiking in the forest shot with Nikon portrait lens

Understanding Nikon’s DX and FX Lens Formats

Nikon cameras come in two different formats, DX and FX. The format is referring to the image sensor, and specifically the size of the sensor.

The image sensor detects the light and records it to create an image. To do this, the sensor measures the intensity of light hitting the sensor as the shutter opens. Therefore the size of the sensor itself determines how much data is recorded about a specific scene.

In today’s modern and digital cameras, we still use measurements from traditional 35mm film. A sensor that is the size of a 35mm film frame is called a full, or full-frame sensor. A sensor that smaller than the 35mm film frame is known as a cropped sensor.

Related: Best Macro Lens for Nikon

With Nikon, the FX-format is a full-frame sensor, and the DX-format is a cropped sensor.

Nikon lenses that are designed for the DX-format cameras will have the DX in their name, for example, “AF-S DX Zoom NIKKOR 50-85mm f/4G. ” Lenses without this DX designation are designed for the FX-format.

DX and FX Lens Compatibility

Even though there are two separate formats for Nikon lenses, you don’t necessarily have to match the lenses to the camera format. It does, however, help you to get the most out of the lens if it is the format.

When you are using a DX lens on a DX camera, the light is going to hit the sensor and cover it completely, matching up correctly. If you use an FX lens on a DX camera, the light is going to be larger than the sensor. However, the camera will compensate for this by capturing the light in the center of the picture. This compensation means you can still take excellent pictures, but you will not be using the full extent of the lens.

Related: Best Low Light Lenses for Astrophotography

Likewise, if you use a DX lens on an FX camera, the light projected will not cover all of the FX sensor. To compensate for this, the camera is programmed to identify a DX lens and crop the images accordingly. Once again, you can still take great pictures, but will not be using all of the sensor.

Best Budget 50mm Nikon Portrait Lens

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras

1. Nikon FX 50mm f/1.8G

First, on the list is the style of lens known as the original “nifty fifty.” The Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G is one of the most popular choices for a portrait lenses for a large portion of Nikon shooters.

The AF-S Nikkor 50mm f1.8G is the latest of the 50mm f/1.8 FX lenses designed by Nikon. The new lens features a new optical formula that consists of seven elements. It has a built-in Silent-Wave motor and includes a manual focus override ring. The lens also has an”iris diaphragm” with seven rounded blades and a weatherproof lens mount.

The AF-S Nikkor 50mm f1.8G is a perfect choice for a small, lightweight, sharp, affordable portrait lens for most all Nikon shooters. This lens delivers impressive optical performance and has virtually no chromatic aberrations. It also has a nice bokeh and is easy to use.

Pros

  • Small and Lightweight
  • Low cost
  • Easy to use
  • Impressive sharpness

Cons

  • No aperture ring
  • Some vignetting f/1.8 to f/4

Check Latest Price & Reviews


Best Budget 85mm Nikon Portrait Lens

Nikon AF S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G Fixed Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras

2. Nikon 85mm f/1.8G

Next on the list is the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G, a medium telephoto portrait lenses designed for FX (full-frame) cameras. This lens features a Silent Wave Motor, an “iris diaphragm” with seven rounded blades, both manual-priority autofocus and manual focus modes, and a weather-sealed lens mount.

The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G is a great medium telephoto lens that provides excellent sharpness in the images with great clarity and limited chromatic aberration. The lens performs well as a portrait type lens and its use for portraits means that its two major cons, slow autofocus, and no built-in vibration reduction, are less of an issue.

This lens is also lightweight, compact, and affordable when compared with similar lenses of the same category. A nice choice for most portrait shooters looking for a primary lens.

Pros

  • Lightweight and compact
  • Affordable
  • Compatible with entry-level cameras
  • Wide, grooved focus ring

Cons

  • Slow autofocus
  • No vibration reduction

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Best All Around Nikon Portrait Lens

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras

3. Nikon 85mm f/1.4G

The third lens on the list is the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G. This lens is the newest model of a long line of portrait lenses. This version, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, was released in 2010 and replaced the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D that came out in 1995.

The Nikon 85mm f/1.4G is a medium telephoto professional grade lens that produces extremely crisp and sharp photos on both FX and DX cameras. It sports many features such as Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating, Silent Wave Motor, 9-Blade Diaphragm, manual override autofocus, and a weather-sealed mount.

This is the best all-around lens for any photographer looking for a primary portrait lens. It has been proven over 30 plus years of dedicated use by professional photographers the world over.

Pros

  • High MTF figures
  • Lightweight and compact
  • Internal focusing
  • Incredible Bokeh

Cons

  • Slow autofocus
  • Cost

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Best Third Party Portrait Lens for Nikon

Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art Lens for Nikon F

4. Sigma 135mm f/1.8

  • Filter Diameter: 82mm
  • Mount: Nikon F
  • Weight: 1,130g (40.9oz.)
  • Size: 91.4mm × 114.9mm ( 3.6in. x 4.5in.)
  • Price: Check the latest price here

The Sigma 135mm f/1.8 is the first lens on the list from a manufacturer other than Nikon. This lens is also the first at the 135mm focal length.

This powerhouse lens from Sigma has quickly become a favorite among portrait photographers and especially wedding photographers. This is due in part to its ability to a lighting fast focus and impressive minimum focusing distance of 2.7ft. This allows the lens to be used in a wide variety of portrait situations.

The Sigma 135mm f/1.8 is a large and well-built lens that tips the scales at 1,130g (40.9oz.) and has an 82mm front objective. That can make the lens difficult to shoot offhand for some and should be taken into account before purchase. However, the lens makes up for its heft with impressive speed, sharpness, and clarity.

Pros

  • Fast focus
  • Minimum focusing distance
  • Variability
  • Impressive Bokeh

Cons

  • Cost
  • Size and weight

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Best Portrait Zoom Lens for Nikon

Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8 SP XR Di LD Aspherical (IF) with Built-In AF Motor for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras (Model A09NII)

5. Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8

Number five on the list is the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 Lens. This zoom lens manufactured by Tamron features the ability to zoom which gives additional freedom of movement for a portrait photographer.

This lens provides acceptable performance across the entire focal length range and performs well on Full Frame and APS-C cameras. For most portrait work this lens would prove more than adequate. Its compact size, ease of use, and a rather low cost add to the attraction.

Pros

  • Cost
  • Compact size
  • Zoom ability
  • Center sharpness

Cons

  • Soft edge sharpness
  • Harsh Bokeh

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Best Portrait Telephoto Lens for Nikon

Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC G2 for Nikon FX Digital SLR Camera (6 Year Tamron Limited Warranty)

6. Tamron SP 70-200mm

The last lens on the list is the Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD. This lens features an f/2.8 constant aperture in a fast telephoto zoom lens. It has built-in image stabilization and has minimal chromatic aberration. The lens performs well throughout its zoom range and contains an impressive 23 elements mounting in 17 groups.

The lens is large and weighs 1470g and measures 85.8mm x 196.7mm. It comes with an included and detachable tripod mount and secures to the camera well with a moisture-resistant mount. The Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD, while large, is still smaller and more compact than lenses of the same type from other manufacturers. This is also generally a more expensive lens than other, similar lenses on the market.

Pros

  • Durable construction
  • Built-in image stabilization
  • Zoom range
  • Image quality

Cons

  • Size and Weight
  • Decreased sharpness at 200mm

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