Portrait photography is an art that many photographers try and master. Being able to take a photo that encapsulates a person’s personality, charm, and very essence requires a lot of dedication and practice. To achieve the soft background blur, known as bokeh, the photographer must have the right equipment and settings. One of the essential pieces of equipment is a suitable lens; this can go a long way to creating the right effects in a portrait picture. In this article we’ll take a look at seven of the best Nikon portrait lenses and their key features, as well as give some advice on how to choose the right one for your needs.
Nikon Portrait Lenses: Top Picks
Why it’s great:
- Affordable yet high-quality lens.
- Maximum wide aperture for f/1.8.
- Excellent optical performance and image sharpness.
50mm lenses, or nifty fifties as they’re commonly referred to, are hugely popular among photographers. They’re quite often the first additional lens that’s purchased by aspiring photographers thanks to their versatility and performance. The 50mm focal length gives a shallow depth of field and lovely soft bokeh, whilst maintaining sharpness and clarity on the subject. Nifty fifties like this Nikon model are lightweight and robust, making it easy to throw one in your camera bag when you’re going out and about. They perform well at portraits, landscapes, and general street photography. What’s more, the cost of this definitely makes it affordable for newcomers to photography.
- Some barrel distortion is visible at the wider aperture settings.
Why it’s great:
- Maximum aperture of f/1.8.
- SWM, Silent Wave Motor autofocus system.
- Super Integrated lens coating.
Although it’s an FX format lens, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm can take great portrait photos on both DX and FX Nikon cameras. It gives an equivalent focal range of 50mm, making it capable of capturing a viewpoint similar to that of the human eye. The f/1.8 maximum aperture produces a solid bokeh as well as sharp image quality. It’s also fast enough to shoot indoors or in low-light settings. Features such as a Silent Wave Motor make autofocusing fast, accurate and near-silent. The Super Integrated lens coating reduces ghosting and flare, ensuring your portraits will come out looking fantastic. All these positives combine to make it our top pick of the Nikon portrait lenses available.
- At wider apertures there is some noticeable falloff in terms of image quality, particularly at the edge of the frame.
Why it’s great:
- Medium telephoto FX format prime lens.
- f/2 aperture creates sharp images.
- Defocus image control ring gives greater flexibility.
Nikon’s 105mm f/2 DC lens is a medium telephoto lens that’s perfectly suited to portraiture. The reason it’s so good for portraits is its f/2 aperture that gives incredibly sharp focusing in a range of light situations. Bokeh and depth of field can be controlled by the defocus image control ring on the lens, giving incredible flexibly when it comes to creating the desired effect. A built-in lens hood keeps glare and unwanted light under control. Overall this is another in top selection among Nikon portrait lenses.
- This is quite an expensive lens and will likely only be affordable by enthusiast-level and above photographers.
Why it’s great:
- 85mm focal length with wide f/1.4 aperture.
- One of Nikon’s sharpest ever lenses.
- Excellent depth of field control and bokeh.
This is the second 85mm lens we’ve seen on our list, and this one has a hugely wide maximum aperture of f/1.4. Portraits come out with fantastic sharpness on the subject, whilst background blur and depth of field fade out in a nice soft contrast. This is a lens that really feels like it was built with portrait photographers in mind, with features such as SWM autofocusing, a manual focus override, and Nano Crystal lens coating all contributing to its excellent performance.
- This lens is considerably more expensive than some of the other lenses on this list, including the 85mm f/1.8 mentioned above. It’s worth the cost if you can justify it though.
Why it’s great:
- Huge focal length range with constant f/2.8 aperture.
- Excellent performance across focal length range.
- Vibration Reduction technology increases stabilization.
The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 is a lens that stands out somewhat on this list. Its huge focal length range makes it a telephoto lens that’s perfect for portraits from afar. This professional-grade lens performs fantastically well across its range. An f/2.8 maximum aperture gives incredible optical clarity and sharpness, and Nikon’s Vibration Reduction technology increases image stabilization when shooting in low-lighting. It’s a lens that’s suited to those portrait photographers who like to get some distance between themselves and their subject.
- This is a professional-level lens that has a price tag to match.
Why it’s great:
- 35mm focal range on DX cameras, equivalent to 50mm on FX.
- Inexpensive option for portrait photographers.
- SWM for quick and quiet autofocusing.
The great thing about this DX format lens is that it gives the equivalent field of view of 50mm on an FX camera. We’ve already discussed the versatility and benefits of a 50mm field of view, and this is a lens that has all the same. The wide maximum aperture of f/1.8 produces crystal clear images with a soft bokeh. The SWM technology means that when focusing, operation is fast and very quiet. Both portrait and street photographers will find a lot to love about this lens, and its light and sturdy build make it effortless to carry with you.
- It lacks features such as a distance scale and depth of field marks, which some users may find frustrating.
Why it’s great:
- 24-70mm focal length range covers a variety of shot types.
- Excellent resolution and contrast throughout its range.
- Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coating control flare and ghosting.
Thanks to its wide-angle to telephoto range, this is a lens that’s a favorite amongst wedding photographers. It’s a versatile lens that’s suited to the variety of shots such an occasion presents. It performs incredibly well throughout its focal length range, consistently producing images of a high resolution with excellent color and contrast. Nikon’s patented SWM autofocusing system also produces fantastic results, quickly and quietly focusing on a subject. The glass of the lens has a Nano Crystal and Super Integrated coating which means that ghosting and flare are practically illuminated. It’s a robust lens that’s well made and versatile.
- This is another professional-level lens with a high price tag. It’s also a very long and heavy piece of equipment.
Nikon Portrait Lenses: What Makes a Good Lens?
We’ve seen some excellent examples of Nikon portrait lenses in the list above, but what is it that makes them so well suited to this type of photography? The two most important factors in taking a great portrait photograph are the focal length of the lens, and the bokeh it produces.
Focal length is important as it determines how far away from the subject you can be, and how that will affect the final image produced. 85mm tends to be the preferred length of portrait photographers, as it allows the subject to be a comfortable distance away whilst still getting a great shot. Prime lenses are generally preferred as they quite often are capable of having a wider maximum aperture, but as we saw in the list above, zoom lenses have their benefits too. The focal length you use will also be determined by the type of camera you have, as the field of view will differ between full-frame and crop-frame DSLRs.
Although having the subject in clear, sharp focus is desirable, portrait photographers will often want to have the background softer by comparison. This is referred to as bokeh. Have a softly blurred background is achieved by the depth of field control and maximum aperture of a lens. Generally speaking, the wider the aperture the more blur you can achieve.
Nikon Portrait Lenses: Making the Right Choice
By now you should have a fair idea of the type of features you need to look for in Nikon portrait lenses. How do you know which one to choose though? There are a few factors you need to consider:
What Lenses Do You Currently Have?
Your next choice of lens should complement the glass you already own, try to choose something that will open more options than you currently have. Also, carefully consider whether what you currently have is capable of portrait photography. You may be surprised how well your existing lenses could work.
Zoom or Prime?
As we mentioned above, prime lenses are sought after for portraiture due to their often wide maximum aperture and image sharpness. Their fixed focal length forces you to move around to get the right shot. A cheap prime lens will often outperform a cheap zoom lens in this type of photography. However, depending on the type of shots you want to take, a zoom lens has its benefits.
What’s Your Budget?
From our list of top lenses for portraiture, you can see that there is a wide range of price ranges. Make sure that you have firm budget in mind, as well as a list of features you really want. It’s possible to spend a lot on a portrait lens; however you have to decide whether the cost is justifiable for your level of experience.
What Focal Length Do You Need?
We’ve already determined that focal length is a major factor in portrait photography. Here’s some details on the effects different types will achieve:
- Great for taking environmental photos, where you have some distance from your subject and include the surrounding area.
- A 35mm length gives the user the same field of vision as the human eye on a full frame camera.
- This length gives a huge amount of flexibility when it comes to the distance you are from your subject. You can move further away or closer without distorting the subject. A 50mm on a crop frame or 85mm on a full-frame fits in this range.
- Telephoto lenses are great at isolating the subject from their surroundings and give a compressed perspective.