The best Nikon portrait lens to buy will depend on two things: the first is whether you have a Nikon Z mirrorless camera or a DSLR, and the second is whether it has a full frame sensor or an APS-C (DX) sensor. We cover all the bases in our buying guide!
The best Nikon portrait lenses have the two chief characteristics of portrait lenses everywhere. First, they have a focal length of 85mm or thereabouts (or its APS-C equivalent), and this gives you a good working distance from your subject while eliminating any unflattering perspective distortion from getting too close with a regular or wide-angle lens. Second, they have a fast maximum aperture so that you can blur the background and focus all the attention on your subject.
APS-C cameras like Nikon's DX format DSLRs (D3500, D5600, D7500, for example) and the Nikon Z50. They have a smaller sensor which magnifies the effective focal length of the lens. So while 85mm might be the ideal 'portrait' focal length on a full frame camera, you can get away with a 50mm lens (75mm equivalent) on a Nikon DX model. This opens up a whole selection of 50mm full frame lenses that can be used as 'portrait' lenses on these cameras.
You can also use regular 85mm portrait lenses on Nikon DX cameras. The only factor to remember here is that this effectively increases the focal length to around 130mm, which means you will have to move further away from your subjects, which might be tricky in a small room.
All of the lenses in this guide are compatible with both Nikon full frame and DX 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 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 Nikon Z lenses for full frame and APS-C, and Nikon F DSLR lenses, likewise for full frame and DX format Nikons.
Best Nikon portrait lenses in 2021
Nikon Z full frame
The Nikon Z lens range is still in its infancy compared to some more established systems, but already there are some great 85mm portrait lens options. If you've invested in Nikon's Z50 with its APS-C sensor, then there are three excellent 50mm lenses to choose from, but out of these we think the Nikkor Z 50mm f/1/8 S is the best choice.
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.
Read more: Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S review
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.
Read more: Samyang MF 85mm f/1.4 Z review
If you're looking for something a little different, then check out the Lensbaby Velvet 85. The term 'Velvet' is as a synonym for 'soft focus', and while that might set alarm bells ringing for some, it's a little misleading. That's because the lens is designed to render image detail tack-sharp, but your photos will benefit from a soft velvet glow that will permeate the image and intensify towards the edges. Something that can be really nice for portraits. This f/1.8 lens can also has a rather handy 1:2 macro mode, meaning that it can double up as a neat close-up lens (with the same ethereal soft focus, if you so choose, or you can deactivate if you prefer). It's not for everyone though and most will be better served by Nikon's 85mm lens, but this manual focus only lens does have a certain charm.
Nikon Z DX
Nikon's APS-C mirrorless camera range has only just got started with the Nikon Z50, but we are expecting more models in the future and the Z50 can use any Nikon Z full frame lens. It's rare to get 'portrait' lenses designed specifically for APS-C cameras, but as usual with this format a 50mm full frame lens will do the job just as well, and we've picked what we think is the best portrait lens right now for Nikon Z50 owners.
50mm f/1.8 lenses are often regarded as the poor relations of f/1.4 standard primes. But despite its modest aperture rating, this Z-mount lens delivers sumptuous image quality, with amazing levels of sharpness across the whole image frame and negligible distortion or colour fringing. The f/1.8 aperture also enables a reasonably compact and lightweight build, in keeping with slim-line mirrorless camera bodies. Even more impressively, the quality of bokeh is remarkably good for a 50mm f/1.8 lens, with particularly smooth rendition of defocused areas. Autofocus is very fast and virtually silent, and the lens is well-built with a weather-sealed construction. The key point here that it's a great portrait lens for the Nikon Z50 and other Nikon Z DX cameras to come, offering a 75mm equivalent focal length and an f/1.8 maximum aperture for softly blurred backgrounds.
Read more: Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 S review
Nikon DSLR full frame
These lenses all give the 'perfect' portrait focal length of 85mm on full frame Nikon DSLRs like the D780 and D850. 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.
Sigma’s 85mm f/1.4 Art lens seemed to have been a long time coming. So, was 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 it also features weather seals. The 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.
This big brother to the Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD, which could, at a pinch, be quite a handy portrait lens for a DX format Nikon. The 85mm lens is actually a fraction shorter, despite its longer 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 smooth, 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. It's one of the best portrait lenses around. If money is no object, here's where to put your cash.
Like the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G below, this is the smallest and lightest lens in its (full frame) 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. This lens is superbly sharp, even shooting wide open, although naturally the aperture doesn’t go as wide as in the Nikon f/1.4 lens. 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 Nikon D5600, 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 lens does lack 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.
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 (the lens is also full-frame compatible), so you'll be a bit closer to your subject than with a classic 'portrait' lens. 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.
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 only slightly smaller than the f/1.4 version, but it’s 50 per cent lighter and a lot cheaper, and the 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
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