The best portrait lenses for Nikon cameras are not all made by Nikon. There are some very good third-party lenses out there, and we'll cover a few of them in this buying guide.
A good portrait lens should flatter your subject, and also provide you with the means to produce images with shallow depth of field (i.e. a stylishly blurred background). For flattering your subjects, you need a decent focal length far exceeding that of regular kit lens.
The best Nikon portrait lenses are typically 85mm or longer. This will enable you to shoot head-and-shoulders or half-length portraits from a natural distance, without invading your subject’s personal space. If, however, you’re using a DX-format camera with a 1.5x crop factor, you can get away with using a 50mm lens, as this will give you a similar effective focal length of 75mm.
All of the lenses in this guide are compatible with both FX-format and DX-format cameras, and we've included focal length conversions in the specs so DX users can get a sense of the angle of view of the lens on their camera.
There are a variety of 50mm and 85mm portrait-friendly prime lenses on the market, typically with a widest aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4. An f/1.4 lens will typically be more expensive than its f/1.8 counterpart. In order to let in more light, the forward elements in a faster lens need to have a larger diameter, so faster lenses are bigger and more expensive to manufacture. However, the quality of glass and construction can still be just as good in slower lenses, or maybe even better.
That's enough preamble from us – let's get to the lenses! We've divided our selection up into lenses around 85mm for the full-frame crowd, and shorter 50mm(ish) optics for APS-C DC-format users. So let's get cracking!
Nikon DSLR (FX)
These lenses all give the 'perfect' portrait focal length of 85mm on full frame Nikon DSLRs. However, you can also use them on smaller format APS-C Nikon DSLRs – you still get the great background defocus effect but an even longer 'effective' focal length of 127.5mm.
Given that its 50mm sibling was unveiled three years ago (at the time of writing), Sigma’s recently-unveiled 85mm f/1.4 Art lens has been a long time coming. So, has it been worth the wait?
It certainly feels the part; at 1130g, it’s only 300g lighter than Nikon’s new 70-200mm f/2.8E VR! Like Tamron’s 85mm, this optic features an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm for greater accuracy in high-speed continuous mode. And, unlike its 50mm sibling, it also features weather seals.
Autofocus is extremely fast and accurate, and image quality is excellent, with a wonderfully soft and creamy bokeh, although the lens isn’t as sharp as some of its rivals. Colour fringing, coma, distortion, ghosting and flare are all negligible. All in all, the Sigma 85mm packs a heavyweight punch that’s in keeping with its construction.
The big brother to the Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD is actually a fraction shorter, despite its longer 85mm focal length, and has the same 67mm filter thread. It also shares the same combination of an f/1.8 aperture rating and VC image stabilization, while the styling, build quality and weather seals are also the same.
At 660g the 85mm lens is heavier as it features 13 elements, compared with just 10 in the 45mm. Both XLD (eXtra Low Dispersion) and LD elements are included to reduce aberrations, and two types of nano structure coatings are included to combat ghosting and flare.
Bokeh is even smoother than in the Tamron 45mm lens, but coma is a little more noticeable at apertures wider than f/2.8. Centre sharpness is impressive when shooting wide open, but it’s also excellent right out to the extreme corners of the frame.
This lens is one of Nikon's finest achievements in engineering, and most pro Nikon photographers reading this probably own it already and bought it as soon as they could. If your budget stretches this far then the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G is a near-perfect portrait lens, producing images that are faultlessly sharp in all the right places, with beautiful bokeh in their backgrounds.
Constructed of ten elements in nine groups, the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G also has Nano Crystal Coat to control for flare and ghosting. Its rugged construction ensures it can stand up to travel and outdoor shooting. Depth of field is so shallow when shooting wide open that it can take some practice and a good eye to ensure that your focus is precisely correct.
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Like the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G, this is the smallest and lightest lens in its class, measuring just 80mm long and weighing a modest 350g. Build quality feels much the same, too, down to the weather-sealed mounting plate, and the inclusion of a single aspherical element.
Autofocus is faster than in the both of Nikon’s 50mm lenses, thanks in part to the fact that it involves the movement of the smaller rear elements, rather than the larger front ones.
This lens is superbly sharp, even shooting wide open, although naturally the aperture doesn’t go as wide as in the f/1.4 lenses. Vignetting is noticeable, while bokeh is beautifully soft, stopping down gives specular highlights a heptagonal appearance – a consequence of the diaphragm having seven rather than nine blades.
Nikon DSLR (DX)
Nikon DX format DSLRs have a 1.5x 'crop' factor, so a 50mm lens will actually have an effective focal length of 75mm in full frame camera terms, and this is enough to make them very good portrait lenses that are more compact and more affordable than regular 85mm 'portrait' lenses for full frame cameras. Here's a run-down of some the best choices.
This Art lens from Sigma’s Global Vision line-up is a heavyweight contender, one that’s almost twice the length and three times the weight of Nikon’s competing 50mm f/1.4 lens. It’s full-frame compatible, but undeniably hefty for a portrait lens on lightweight DX format bodies such as the D5500, tipping the scales at 815g.
The relatively complex design incorporates 13 optical elements in all, including an aspherical element and three SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements. Construction feels reassuringly robust, but this is the only lens on test that lacks a weather seal on its mounting plate.
An upside of the large front element is that vignetting is comparatively minimal here. Bokeh is deliciously creamy at f/1.4 and remains of exceptional quality even when stopping down a little. This is helped by a well-rounded aperture, based on nine diaphragm blades.
Read more: Nikon D850 review
If you want to take advantage of prime lens image quality at medium aperture settings, stabilization can be a real help – hence the inclusion of Tamron’s Vibration Compensation (VC) system in this lens.
The modest f/1.8 aperture rating in this ‘standard’ prime helps keep the size down and the weight off, and the lens is nicely engineered, with premium build quality and weather seals. At 45mm, the focal length is a touch shorter than the more standard 50mm. This equates to 67.5mm on a DX-format body, though the lens is also full-frame compatible.
Autofocus isn’t superfast, but it was highly accurate in our tests. The stabiliser gives a benefit of about four f/stops, and manual focusing benefits from greater travel in the focus ring than with the other lenses on test. Sharpness is excellent, even when shooting wide open, while bokeh is impressively smooth, both at f/1.8 and when stopping down.
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It’s the most upmarket option in Nikon’s 50mm line-up and remarkably compact for a 50mm f/1.4, being only 1.5mm longer and wider than the f/1.8 version, and with the same diameter filter thread of 58mm. Furthermore, while it's noticeably heavier than the f/1.8 version, it’s just a third of the weight of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 A.
It feels similar to the f/1.8 in terms of build quality and handling, but with an additional optical element, plus two extra iris blades, the aperture is more rounded when stopping down.
Even so, bokeh isn’t altogether pleasing when shooting wide open, as bokeh fringing and coma are quite visible. However, contrast and sharpness are impressive, vignetting is fairly minimal, and bokeh becomes much smoother when stopping down to f/1.8, beating the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G at the same aperture.
This AF-S optic is much newer than the older AF-D version, and features a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system that works on any Nikon body. Though only slightly smaller than the f/1.4 version, it’s 50 per cent lighter, but build quality feels pretty good, right down to the weather-sealed metal mounting plate.
Optical finery includes an aspherical element. The front element is deeply recessed, especially at longer focus distances. As with the f/1.4 version, AF speed is a little pedestrian, but sharpness and contrast are impressive, even at wide apertures.
Defocused points of light take on a visible geometric shape at smaller apertures, as the seven-blade diaphragm isn’t that well rounded. Barrel distortion is also a little worse than with the other lenses on test, but this is much reduced when the lens is used on a DX body.
Read more: Nikon D3300 vs D3400: Specs compared
Nikon Z mirrorless
The Nikon Z lens range is still in its infancy, but already there are two great 85mm portrait lens options. The Nikon lens is the fastest and simplest, but the Samyang is a lot cheaper. Both will also fit the APS-C Nikon Z 50, where they will give an effective focal length of 127.5mm.
The Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S is the optimal portrait lens for the full-frame mirrorless Z-mount cameras. Incredibly sharp thanks to a sophisticated internal construction, it produces images with dynamic, natural-looking bokeh and produces gorgeous detail even at its minimum focus distance of 0.8m. Other great features include full weather-sealing and an ergonomic control ring designed for tactile operation.
The lens benefits from the wide Nikon Z mount, allowing it to gather as much light as possible for smooth operation even shooting in natural light, with Nano Crystal Coat helping you out by controlling for flare and ghosting. For environmental portraits, this lens is a godsend, and you'll find it allows you to fully realise the potential of your full-frame Nikon mirrorless camera.
This recently launched Samyang lens is designed for the very latest Nikon Z-series mirrorless cameras, but it’s a purely manual affair. As well as being manual-focus, you can’t set the aperture from the camera body, so have to use the control ring on the lens itself. By default, stabilization is disabled in the Z 6 and Z 7 cameras, but you can enable it by entering the lens information in the Setup menu’s ‘Non-CPU lens data’ section. Focus peaking display in the electronic viewfinder and rear screen helps with accurate manual focusing, which can be critical considering that the depth of field tends to be very tight at f/1.4. Image quality is excellent, handling is very good and it’s great value at the price.