The Mirrorless Nikon Z system is the latest and greatest from Nikon.
With some incredible portrait features like eye autofocus, the Z system is ideal for Nikon portrait shooters looking for a mirrorless option.
But does the new Z system have enough of a selection of lenses to satisfy the most demanding portrait shooters?
Actually, it does.
So here are our picks for the best Nikon Z lenses for portraits.
50mm f/1.8S | Best Overall Z Portrait Lens
The 50mm 1.8, sometimes affectionately known as the “nifty fifty,” is often the first wide-aperture lens that a photographer will start with. That is mostly because it is the most affordable way to get a wide aperture.
The same is true for the Nikon Z camera system. Their 50mm 1.8 lens is one of the most affordable lenses in the lineup and easily the least expensive 1.8 max aperture Z lens.
The 50mm makes the top spot because of the affordability combined with the versatile nature of the 50mm focal length.
But the lower price tag certainly does not mean sacrificing quality in this instance.
The new Nikon Z mount is larger than the predecessor F-mount. This larger mount and shorter flange distance (the distance from the camera sensor to the rear glass element of the lens) allows for a much more advanced lens in terms of image quality.
The Nikon 50mm Z lens is incredibly sharp from edge to edge. I have been shooting the Nikon system for years and frequently use the F-mount 50mm. Often when wide open (shooting at f/1.8 you start to see a little sharpness loss on the edges of the frame. I really did not detect that on the Z version.
In addition, this lens does a great job of controlling vignetting. That means that even at the widest aperture (f/1.8), you aren’t going to see any darkening around the edges of the frame.
This lens also uses 2 Extra-low Dispersion (ED) and 2 Aspherical (AS) lens elements plus a Nano Crystal coating to control flare, ghosting, coma or chromatic, spherical and axial aberration. Those are things that you usually don’t notice right away but become apparent in the right conditions and can occasionally ruin a photo. This lens does an excellent job of virtually eliminating those issues.
If you like to shoot video as well, the lens also provides 5-axis image stabilization when combined with a Z6 or Z7 camera and has excellent autofocus.
85mm f/1.8 S | Runner Up
I picked this one as the runner up because it is slightly less versatile than the 50mm but it does create beautiful portraits.
Many professional portrait photographers use an 85mm lens for most of their portraits. If you tend to shoot a lot of individual portraits then this may be the perfect option for you.
The longer focal length tends to be more flattering for portrait shooting. When you use a longer focal length, it creates what photographers call compression. Compression is the effect that happens with longer focal lengths where objects tend to look flatter. Think about how faces become distorted with a wide-angle lens…the opposite happens with longer focal lengths.
Without getting into the physics of compression…suffice it to say that it tends to make people look better.
In addition, the 1.8 maximum aperture on a longer focal length means that you can achieve an even more shallow depth of field than the 50mm. While you may not want this all the time, it can be useful in certain circumstances.
This lens could easily be the top pick. But the added cost might put it out of reach for a lot of amateur photographers. So the cost combined with the more specialized focal length makes it a very solid runner up.
If you tend to shoot a lot of individual portraits and are willing to spend a little more money, then the 85mm could be the right choice for you.
24-70mm f/2.8 S | Best Zoom Z Lens For Portraits
Sometimes versatility is more important than perfect image quality. After all, if you miss the shot, it doesn’t matter how the background bokeh looks.
The 24-70mm lens is a favorite of professional photographers because it covers a range of focal lengths that are quite useful for portraits.
24mm is wide enough to shoot large environmental portraits and large groups and 70mm combined with the large f/2.8 aperture will give you that classic compressed portrait look for individual portraits.
Much of the same characteristics mentioned in the earlier sections apply to this lens as well. It does a great job of controlling things like chromatic aberration, coma, ghosting, and vignetting. Much of this is related to Z mount itself so it makes sense that all Z lenses would do well in that respect.
This lens also uses two autofocusing motors to help you achieve focus very quickly. Combined with the Z system’s excellent autofocus system (and the very impressive February 2020 firmware update), this makes it so you can focus just about as fast as you can point the camera at something.
In addition, it is one of the quietest focusing motors I’ve used.
So if you want a one-stop-shop kind of lens for your portraits, then the 24-70mm f/2.8 should probably be the one. The fact that it covers multiple focal lengths makes the added cost easier to deal with since it takes the place of 2 or 3 primes.
35mm f/1.8 S | Best For Environmental Portraits
Sometimes you need a wider look for a portrait, especially if you like to shoot environmental portraits.
These kinds of portraits are very useful for professionals and branding portraits where you want to shoot a person in their environment doing what they do every day.
So unless you already have the 24-70mm above, you’ll need something a little wider than 50mm to really make sure you capture the person’s surroundings.
A 35mm prime is perfect for that.
Crop Sensor Side Note: If you are looking for a portrait lens for the Z50, then it would probably be my top pick over the 50mm. On a crop sensor, the 35mm gives you an effective field of view of 52.5mm.
What I like about using a 35mm f/1.8 as opposed to other wide-angle lenses is that it is right at that sweet spot focal length where you can get a lot of the environment in the frame, but aren’t quite getting any of that unsightly wide-angle distortion.
Also, you get less background blur at wide angles, so the 1.8 maximum aperture will be an advantage over the 2.8 of the 24-70mm.
So if environmental portraits are your go-to type of shots (or you’re shooting a Z50), then the 35mm f/1.8 should be in your bag.
What To Look For In A Nikon Z Lens For Portraits
Wide Maximum Aperture
One thing every portrait shooter wants (needs) at their disposal is the ability to shoot with a wide aperture. You may not use it every time, but it’s quite useful to have.
A wide maximum aperture is what allows you to both let in a lot of light and create a shallow depth of field.
That shallow depth of field will create blurry backgrounds and separate your subject from the background by keeping them in focus.
Overall image quality is a major factor when selecting a lens of any type.
You have to look for things like blurry edges, lens distortion, vignetting at wider apertures, and overall sharpness and contrast (which tend to go together.
Overall, the Z series lenses are a very high caliber of lenses. You really don’t need to worry about poor quality with any of these lenses listed above.
Depending on what kind of portrait shooting you do, you may need to adapt quickly. Sometimes you don’t have the time to swap out lenses before you need to get that next shot.
Some lenses are more versatile than others.
Of course, zoom lenses are going to be your most adaptable lenses. The ability to change the focal length on the fly without changing the lens can be a very valuable