Friday, September 13, 2013

The Best Portrait Lens for Nikon

Another topic where opinions are divided. We all have ours, and we all think we're right. The funny thing is, we actually might just be indeed!

Today's topic is about portrait lenses. Which is the best portrait lens for Nikon? Well, if you have been following this blog for a while, you probably are able to see through my shamelessly misleading title. No, I do not believe in "best lenses". Perhaps a more accurate way to phrase the sentence would be: "Choosing the right portrait lens for your Nikon".

You see, people (especially beginner and intermediate photographers) believe that there is a certain focal length that is magically perfect for portraits. Or, that there is a certain aperture that should be used. Worse still, there are people who think there is a specific lens that is "the best" for portraits. None of these hypotheses is true - although they all have an element of truth in them.

First of all, we have to define what exactly we mean by "portrait photography". This could mean different things for different people, but mostly we refer to photos like this one:

Portraits, unless otherwise specified, usually refer to "head & shoulders" images, and not to whole body photos.

So, what kind of lens should you choose for such a portrait? Well, there are these things we need to consider:

  1. Focal Length
  2. (Max) Aperture
  3. Distortion Characteristics

Focal length is what most people think when they talk about "portrait lens", or "best portrait lens". The reason is that we need a focal length that would allow a good working distance. That's all there is to it.*
*almost; read below about distortion!

A focal length of 300mm would mean you would have to be several feet/meters away from your subject in order to frame properly. That could occasionally be inconvenient, if not impossible in tight spaces. In addition, distance poses several problems with regard to lighting, especially with flash. The general compromise is that the "best" focal length is somewhere between 50mm and 105mm (in DX think between 35mm and 85mm). That surely doesn't mean you can't take awesome portraits with a 200mm lens. Just that the dynamics involved are different.

Max Aperture is also an important factor, as it allows us a shorter depth of field. However, keep in mind that, unless for some quite specific artistic compositions, an aperture of f/1.4 isn't the norm. For most of my portraits - like the one of the photo above - I choose f/4-f/5.6. You need some depth of field. Depending on the distance and the focal length of the lens in question, choosing f/1.4-f/2.8 will result in some of the subject being out of focus. Again, this might be actually desirable. But not always.

Often we need a very large aperture, to throw much of the subject out of focus. But not always

Distortion is the least talked about issue of a portrait lens, although in many ways it's the most important! At least from the professional's perspective, I value whatever makes my job more convenient and hassle-free. And a lens with complex distortions is always a problem and time-taking to correct.

Also keep in mind that distortion inevitably is present in certain types of lenses. Wide-angle lenses have barrel ("bloating") distortion, that can be catastrophic for portraits (big noses, small ears). Long teles have pincushion, which is less intrusive but can also be equally peculiar. Again, normal or short tele primes (so, the "magic" 50mm-105mm I mentioned earlier) are usually - but not always - distortion free.

So, in conclusion:
  • It generally depends on what kind of portraits you're talking about. One-person or more? head & shoulders or wider? Consider your working distance
  • Max aperture is good to have, but don't fret about it. f/2.8 is fine, really
  • Distortion is important. Too wide-angle is a no-no, and long teles aren't optimal
So, bottom line, do I have some suggestions for a portrait lens? Alright, I can give you an idea or two, thinking in terms of value (a $1200 Nikkor 85mm AF-S f/1.4 is a great lens, but not what everyone needs).

- If your camera has a focus motor, get the old AF-D 50mm f/1.8. No questions asked, best portrait lens ever for 95% of the people, for 95% of the occasions. No distortion, small and light, lighting-fast focus, great performance. Only downside is the unpredictable bokeh stopped down, but for its price you can't go wrong.

- If your camera doesn't have a focus motor, get the AF-S 50mm f/1.8. Better resolution, bit better bokeh closed down, but worse distortion characteristics. Considering it's more expensive, I prefer the AF-D, despite the bokeh shortcomings. But still, a great option, and you can find plenty of good used models.

- For FX users, the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8 is all they need for portraits. If I had to suggest only one lens for portraiture on FX, it'd be this one. Again, you can find plenty of great deals on used models.

Also take a look at the best traveling lens for Nikon, the best macro lens for Nikon, and the best lens for baby photos - always for Nikon ;)


  1. I do agree. The old AF-D50mm 1.8 takes some beating.

  2. Do you suggest AF-S 50mm f/1.8 lens as the best portrait lense for DX camera or FX camera?

    1. 50mm is a tad short for FX, although still usable. It's great for DX. The specific lens in question is a great choice - perhaps it distorts a bit more than I'd like, but this easy to correct (especially on DX)

    2. For FX, in the same category, I would recommend the AF-D 85mm f/1.8, you can find them around $200-$400 and just as the 50mm, they just have an unbeatable quality/price/usefulness ratio for portrait.

  3. Anonymous3/11/2014

    Perhaps the 50mm or85mm will work for most people but with out a doubt the Nikkor 135mm AF/DFC f2.0 is the most amazing lens I have ever used. Problem is finding one. These were special order only from Nikkor. $$$$$

  4. Anonymous5/11/2014

    Thanks for this, really helpful article!
    Between the 50mm and the 85mm, which one would you recommend for DX?

    1. The 50mm would probably be a better all-around solution - the 85mm might be a bit too tight for some occasions (i.e. indoor shots). Still, it's an excellent lens.