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5 Best Nikon Lenses For Portraits (…and 3 to avoid)

Creating stunning portraits where the subject pops and the background fades to beautiful bokeh can be tricky if you don’t have the right gear.

I’ve been a professional portrait photographer for years shooting Nikon, so I created this guide for you from my experience using these lenses and with the goal of showing you the tools you can use to create exceptional portraits.

If you want to skip all the details and get right to the top pick, it’s the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 (F-Mount) or the Z 85mm f/1.8 (Z-Mount). This focal length is my favorite for making portraits and these lenses will give you industry-leading sharpness and beautiful out-of-focus areas.

And for more don’t miss my breakdown of all the best Nikon lenses.

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Best Nikon Portrait Lenses

Top Pick

Nikon 85mm f/1.4 or Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8

85mm is a focal length you’ll find in almost every portrait photographer’s bag because of the great balance between compression and subject interaction it allows. These picks from Nikon are also among the sharpest I’ve ever used.

The 85mm lens is very popular among portrait photographers and for good reason. The focal length is long enough to give a flattering look to subjects but not so long as to take the photographer too far from them.

Combine this focal length with a wide f/1.4 or f/1.8 aperture and you have a lens that checks all the boxes for shooting beautiful, shallow depth of field portraits.

The 85mm focal length will allow you to fill the frame more and step back a few feet while shooting portraits compared to wider angle lenses.

This gives the appearance of something we call compression. This generally has the effect of making people’s faces look more flattering and also allows you to more easily eliminate background distractions from the frame.

Pros

  • Among the best in image quality and sharpness
  • 85mm is a great focal length for portraits

Cons

  • Prime lens can be limiting
  • 85mm might be too long in some settings, especially with groups

I’ve included links above for the F-mount and Z-mount versions. Nikon has not released an f/1.4 version for Z-mount yet, but the f/1.8 version is exceptional and it is quite rare that you would need to or even want to shoot with f/1.4 at the risk of losing focus on your subject’s eyes.

That being said, if f/1.4 is your thing, then the F-mount version is one of the best lenses I’ve used and can be easily adapted to your Nikon mirrorless camera with the FTZ II Adapter.

Budget Pick

Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G

The 50mm f/1.8 is the lens many photographers start with and is still one of the classic and most useful lenses you can own.

The 50mm f/1.8 (also known affectionately as the “nifty fifty”) is one of the most widely used lenses in photography because of the combination of low cost and exceptional image quality.

If you are looking for your first upgrade from the kit lens that came with your camera, then this should be the one. It’s the least expensive way to start shooting portraits with a wide aperture and shallow depth of field.

Pros

  • Excellent image quality
  • Very affordable
  • Light and compact

Cons

  • You may want a longer focal length for portraits

In fact, I started my portrait photography business with this lens and a Nikon crop sensor camera. The 50mm focal length is just wide enough to make it a good option for shooting family portraits with Nikon.

The Z-mount version also made my list of the best Nikon Z lenses for portraits.

Crop Sensor Pick

Nikon AFS DX 35mm f/1.8

The 35mm f/1.8 lens is a perfect upgrade from the kit lens. The wide max aperture will unlock opportunities to use shallow depth of field in your photography and shoot in low light conditions.

I recommend that all my students start with a mid-length prime lens like this 35mm lens. On a crop-sensor camera like the D7500, the effective focal length is 52.5mm.

The wide maximum aperture of f/1.8 also allows you to use a shallow depth of field to create background blur in your portrait photos or to shoot in lower light. This alone actually makes it much more versatile than most kit lenses with a maximum aperture of f/4 or f/5.6.

Pros

  • Excellent image quality
  • Versatile…can be used for a variety of types of portraits
  • Wide max aperture of f/1.8

Cons

  • Might be too wide for some
  • Will need a new portrait lens if you upgrade to full-frame

I also like the 35mm (52.5mm equivalent) focal length as a first upgrade from the kit lens. It’s a middle-of-the-range focal length and a great one to start learning how to compose an image with more skill.

This lens makes a great companion to the D7500 because it is affordable but still has some pro-level features like the f/1.8 maximum aperture and excellent sharpness at all apertures. This means that while you may be limited by the focal length, you can get very high-quality results in terms of image quality.

Finally, the small size makes this lens a great option for travel or simply just taking it with you on a day out for street photography. It pairs well with the smaller size of a crop-sensor DSLR like the D7500.

Most Versatile

Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 GII or Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8

The 24-70mm f/2.8 is a “do-it-all” lens and if you plan to upgrade to full-frame soon, this Tamron is one of the best options on the market and a fraction of the cost compared to the Nikon version.

You don’t have to limit yourself to crop sensor lenses if you’re shooting with the D7500. With this camera, you’re just one step away from a full-frame camera in terms of quality. So you can start planning your upgrade to a full-frame camera by getting a full-frame lens now. I recommend upgrading your lenses to full-frame before the camera.

To begin with, this lens covers arguably the most used focal lengths with a range of 24-70mm and it has a wide maximum aperture of f/2.8 that is useful for shooting portraits with a shallow depth of field.

Pros

  • Excellent image quality
  • More versatile than a prime
  • Less expensive than other 24-70mm options

Cons

  • 85mm prime is going to give you better image quality, more compression, and wider aperture

It also boasts excellent image quality with sharpness across the focal length range and minimal distortion. Even when shooting wide open at f/2.8 there is minimal edge softness. As a result, your images are going to be sharp whether you’re shooting portraits at 70mm and f/2.8 or landscapes at 24mm and f/10.

Lastly, it’s about half the price of its 24-70mm Nikon counterpart, so you’ll be getting tremendous value for your dollar with this lens.

If you have a Z-mount camera, you could use the Tamron with an adapter or you can go with the native Z Mount 24-70mm f/2.8 which is a step up from both the Tamron and Nikon F-mount versions in a big way.

Unfortunately, it’s also a big step up in price as well, coming in at double the cost of the Tamron. Using the adapter with the F-mount version is a great way to save some money.

For Environmental Portraits

Sigma 28mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

28mm is an excellent focal length for environmental portraits. This Sigma Art lens is exceptional in terms of sharpness and color and the f/1.4 max aperture is perfect for shooting wide-angle portraits.

Environmental portraits are a lot of fun because they combine elements of landscape-style photos into portraits. Generally, you would want a wider angle lens for these types of portraits so that you can showcase the environment around your subject (although you can use any focal length lens).

I chose the Sigma 28mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens (F-mount) as my top pick here for a few reasons.

The 28mm focal length is right in the sweet spot of being wide enough to feature the environment but not so wide as to introduce much distortion into the image.

Additionally, when you are shooting wider, it becomes more difficult to get the shallow depth of field that you may want for a portrait. The f/1.4 max aperture of this lens helps you get there and the bokeh is very pleasing, especially for a wide lens.

Pros

  • Exceptional sharpness even when wide open
  • f/1.4 max aperture is rare for 28mm lens
  • Can be used for other types of photography as well

Cons

  • Not great for other types of portraits
  • Large and bulky for a 28mm prime

Add to this the overall quality and sharpness of the lens and you will be very happy that it’s in your bag.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a Z mount equivalent to this lens. So you have a few options here.

  1. Use the Sigma lens with the FTZ II Adapter
  2. Try a wider focal length Nikon Z 24mm f/1.8 lens
  3. Use a smaller max aperture with the Nikon Z 28mm f/2.8 lens

I have been using the Nikon Z 28mm f/2.8 on my Z50 and have been very impressed with the quality of such a small lens, but it won’t give you the same results as using the Sigma with an adapter.

Of course, if you don’t want to add a lens specifically for wide portraits, then the 24-70mm lens above is a great way to get everything you need in one lens.

Lenses To Avoid

There are tons of excellent lenses to choose from for your Nikon camera no matter whether you are using a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

But not every lens is good for portrait photography and some popular lenses aren’t worth spending much money on at all!

Here are some of the lenses I’ve seen recommended for shooting portraits with Nikon that you may want to think twice about…

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8

First off, almost all of the 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses out there are exceptional lenses, whether you choose the very expensive Nikon version or the more affordable Tamron version (which is the one I use).

But, I don’t recommend this lens for portraits. Once you get much further than 100mm on the zoom range, you’re going to end up being quite far from your subject.

Of course, this is only my personal opinion, but good portrait photography is much less about optical extremes that can be created by shooting at 200mm and f/2.8 and more about interacting with your subject to capture true emotion and expression.

You just can’t interact with them when you’re far enough away to frame them at 150mm and up. I even made a video covering this exact issue…

Samyang 85mm f/1.4

I am surprised to even be mentioning this lens in the article at all but I saw it recommended on another site so I wanted to warn you that this is a manual focus lens and the quality is far below that of the other options on this list.

You may like using manual focus for portraits and if you want to save a little cash with this lens then go for it. But the first time you try to shoot a photo of a hyper child with this lens you’ll miss the autofocus. Manual may work for landscapes and still studio portraits, but it’s not great for most portrait photography.

If budget is a concern, skip the 85mm lenses altogether and go with the 50mm f/1.8.

Lensbaby Lenses

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these lenses, but you need to be aware that they are specialty lenses that create a “soft-focus” look. So you will not be able to get normal-looking images with this lens.

All of that is fine if you want to have one of these in your bag for a different look now and then, but I’ll warn you…it gets old after a while. In addition, you can get mostly the same effect with a little bit of photoshop skill.

I shot this with the Nikon 85mm at f/2.2

What To Look For When Choosing A Nikon Lens For Portraits

Some lenses are just better suited for some cameras and while all Nikon F-mount lenses would fit onto the D5600, there are some things you should consider before choosing one.

Maximum Aperture

The f/x.x number listed with any lens is the maximum aperture for that lens. A smaller number means a larger maximum aperture and, generally speaking, a larger aperture is better for shooting portraits because it allows you to have more control over blurring the background.

You can still reduce the aperture size if you want less background blur, but having the ability to open it up allows you to shoot portraits in locations that might otherwise have distracting backgrounds simply by blurring the background out.

I typically prefer using prime lenses with max apertures of f/1.4 or f/1.8 but zoom lenses with a max aperture of f/2.8 are good as well.

Image Quality

Portraits will always look better when the eyes are in sharp focus, so having a sharp lens will help you create portrait images that stand out.

Price

Higher quality lenses, zoom lenses, and wide aperture lenses will typically be more expensive but there are lower budget options like the 50mm lens above. So you can usually find a lens in your price range.

What I look at when evaluating these lenses is whether you are getting a good value for the money you spend. That’s why some of the options here are from third-party lens manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma.

These companies make exceptional lenses that are often much less expensive than their Nikon counterparts. So you’ll be getting a lot more value when you buy them.

Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of Nikon lens is best for portraits?

While you can shoot portraits with a variety of lenses, I recommend an 85mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens for the best quality portraits. The combination of the longer focal length and wide maximum aperture helps to make your subject look more flattering and also creates a shallow depth of field to help draw the viewer’s eye to them.

Are 50mm lenses good for portraits?

50mm lenses are great for portraits, especially if they have a maximum aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.8. The f/1.8 versions are typically very sharp but also quite affordable making them a perfect choice for anyone shooting portraits.

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