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What Is the Best Nikon Portrait Lens?

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If you’re into shooting portraits and wondering what the best Nikon portrait lens is, read on.
We’ll compare some of Nikon’s best optics and show you the best Nikon portrait lens out there for your photography needs.
A Nikon camera a nd lenses resting on a map - best Nikon lens

What to Look for When Choosing a Nikon lens

There are a few crucial elements that you need to consider when you’re looking for the best Nikon portrait lens. Let’s go through each of them to help you decide which option to buy.

Distortion

Most lenses suffer from one type of distortion or another. Even some of the most expensive ones have it.
Ideally, you need to find the best optics with minimal warping. After all, you wouldn’t want your subject’s face to end up looking disfigured.

Sharpness

Every photographer wants their lens to be as sharp as possible. But the reality is that the quality of the optics varies a lot even if it comes from the same manufacturer. The best way to figure this out is to research the lenses you’re into, and find out if they’re prone to soft focus.
Or check out our list of lenses below.

Bokeh

When shooting portraits, it’s essential to separate your subject from the background. And the best way to do that is to blur whatever is behind them. Each lens produces a distinct background blur (a.k.a. bokeh).
In most cases, the fuzzier it looks, the better the photos it creates. Always look for options that can create that specific effect.

Size/Weight

The size and weight of your portrait lens can affect the way you work. You don’t want it to be too heavy because it can get tiring lugging it around all day.
But you also don’t want it too light because it could easily break while you’re working.

Price

Portrait lenses are expensive in general. Most of them cost between a few hundred to several thousand dollars. If you are planning to do professional work, then invest in a high-end lens. But it’s okay to buy an affordable lens if you’re starting out and want to dabble in portraiture.
We’ll show you different options to help you decide which one you want no matter your budget.

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G - best Nikon portrait lens
Want to get serious about portraiture but don’t have enough money to buy a professional portrait lens? Well, you can always start with the 50mm f/1.8. What makes this a fantastic option is the fact that it’s cheap. You can get one for about $200 brand new, and less than $100 for a used lens.
Another advantage of the 50mm is that it’s an all-around lens. You can use it for anything from street photography to portraiture. Its focal length is short enough to get you real close to your subject. But it’s also long enough that it doesn’t have the distortion shorter lenses such as the 35mm or 24mm have.
The downside is that it’s plasticky and it’s not weather-sealed. So you may have to keep it safe from the elements so you could use it for a long time. And although it doesn’t have the amount of distortion of other lenses, it can still cause some minimal warping.

Pros:

  • Consistently produces sharp photos;
  • Maximum aperture of f/1.8 lets you shoot in low light;
  • Small size means you can carry it with you anywhere.

Cons:

  • Although its distortion is minimal, it could still affect the look of your portraits;
  • Doesn’t allow you to get tight shots of the face;
  • Background blur isn’t as prominent as other portrait lenses.

Nikon 24-85mm F/3.5-4.5G

Nikon 24-85mm F/3.5-4.5G - Nikon portrait lens
Not used to prime lenses or crave the convenience of a zoom lens? Then the Nikon 24-85mm is for you. It’s not a kit lens per se, so it produces better quality photos. But at the same time, it feels familiar to most beginners because it’s so easy to use.
From another point of view, the 24-85mm is not the best lens for portraits. It has a maximum aperture of F/3.5 which makes it terrible for low-light situations. And also, it starts with 24mm, which distorts people’s faces.
So why is it on our list then? Because it’s affordable at less than $500 brand new and as low as $150 used. It’s also a quality portrait lens if you only shoot between 50 and 85mm.
If you don’t have enough money to buy expensive optics, you’ll realize the Nikon 24-85mm is a great choice.

Pros:

  • Price and usability is accessible to regular camera enthusiasts.
  • Range of focal lengths makes it perfect for different types of portraiture.
  • Portability and light weight makes it easy to carry around anywhere.

Cons:

  • Plastic body makes it look cheap.
  • Quality of optics doesn’t compare to prime lenses.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8

Nikon 24-85mm F/3.5-4.5G - best nikon portrait lens
Don’t like the fact that you can’t go any lower than 50mm when using the 24-85mm? If you want more flexibility with your portraits, then take a look at the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
Around $2,700 brand new, the 70-200mm is more expensive than the 50mm or the 24-85mm. But the price is justifiable because this is one of the best zoom lenses available on the market today. And if it’s way beyond your price range, you can still buy a used one for $700 or less.
The 70-200mm is a workhorse. Its zoom function lets you get close to your subject without much distortion. And because it can get up to 200mm, it’s capable of creating creamy bokeh for your portraits.

Pros:

  • A wide range of focal lengths to let you shoot up close or from afar;
  • Maximum aperture of f/2.8 makes it a great performer in low light;
  • Rigid construction equates to improved durability.

Cons:

  • Length and weight can bog you down if you’re shooting all day;
  • Focus ring is in a different position on the lens which can be confusing for long-time Nikon users.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4G

Nikon 85mm f/1.4G - nikon portrait lens
The 85mm is among the best Nikon lenses for portraits for many reasons. First is its ideal focal length. It allows you to take tight shots of the face without visible distortion. It also allows you to be far enough from your subject and still achieve intimate results.
The 85mm bokeh qualities are what makes it a favorite among portrait photographers. It creates sharp photos even when shooting at its maximum aperture of f/1.4. As a result, it creates a creamy background blur that makes the subject pop.
Another benefit of using the 85mm is the fact that it’s not a big lens. That means, it’s easy to transport, and it doesn’t weigh you down when you’re shooting all day. So it’s no wonder it’s the go-to lens of many wedding and event photographers. And at $1,500, it’s not a bad investment at all.

Pros:

  • The robust weather-sealed body makes it suitable for any condition;
  • Ergonomic design feels good on your hands even when shooting all day;
  • Minimal distortion ensures your subject’s face appears the way it should.

Cons:

  • Slow autofocus may cause you to miss a few good moments;
  • Lacks aperture ring which makes it incompatible with most manual cameras;
  • Fixed focal length can sometimes make it challenging to shoot up close.

Nikon 135 f/2 DC

Nikon 135 f/2 DC
The DC on this lens stands for Defocus Control, which is a fancy way of saying that it allows you to manipulate bokeh. So if you love background blur, this should be a part of your collection. It’s a one-of-a-kind lens, so it’s mind-boggling that it only costs less than $1,500 and not more.
The Nikon 135 DC has a unique ring that can control the bokeh of either your background or foreground. And you can even manipulate it to soften your main subject if you wish.
If you don’t want to use Defocus Control, you can always set it to zero and keep it locked. Once you disable this feature, it becomes an ordinary lens that creates sharp results.
People tend to misuse the DC a lot because they think it is only for soft focus images. What they don’t realize is that it’s one of the best Nikon portrait lenses they could ever own.

Pros:

Cons:

  • Confusing to use if you’re not familiar with the lens;
  • Old design means it lacks optical stabilization and other modern features;
  • All metal body can weigh you down.

Conclusion

The best portrait lens for Nikon depends on the type of photography you do. If you’re a hobbyist eager to take photos of people, you can start with either the 50mm or the 24-85mm. Once you’re ready to step up your game, you can invest in the 85mm, 70-200mm, or the Nikon 135mm.
Before you shell out some money, weigh the pros and cons of each option. That way, you get the most out of whichever best Nikon lens you choose.

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