Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “When you photograph a face, you photograph the soul behind it.” The Aborigines believe that photographing someone can steal their soul. No doubt, portraits are among photography’s most powerful pictures. Fortunately, one doesn’t have to break the bank for a high-quality lens that allows them to blow out their background and bring their subjects features, expression, and personality to life in a still image.
Depending on your needs and uses, one can spend from just over a hundred dollars to thousands of dollars on a portrait lens. Fortunately, achieving very high quality is available even in the most affordable lenses. While it’s true that you do get what you pay for, there are diminishing returns as one spends more and more money. Be sure to check out the “Editor’s Choice” on our list, where this writer believes that price and value converge perfectly. That said, there are no bad choices on this list. Each and every lens is highly capable and far above the capabilities of any kit lens for taking beautiful portraits.
One thing to notice: for some of the lenses, at the end of the specs, you’ll notice a DXOMark Overall Benchmark score. DXOMark is a popular and valuable “objective” source for measuring lenses on these qualities: Sharpness, transmission, distortion, vignetting, and aberration. While DXOMark uses consistent testing, in the end, these are just numbers. We include this figure for thoroughness, but the best judge of a lens’ quality is by using your eyes and checking out image samples. Beauty, style, and character can’t be reduced to numbers. It’s all about what you like.
One other final consideration: with all of the lenses on this list, their focal length is described on a full frame camera (which Nikon has deemed “FX”). If you have a “DX” Nikon with a smaller sensor size, the lenses will have an effectively higher focal length. For instance, on the first lens on our list, it’s a 35mm lens intended for DX cameras; thus it is must like a 50mm lens on a full frame camera. Beyond the focal length, however, other attributes of lenses stay the same such as color, contrast, and sharpness.
With all of that in mind, here’s the top 10 best portrait lenses for Nikon cameras from lowest to highest price.
1. Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f1.8
Warranty 1 year standard Nikon warranty plus 4 years of Nikon Extended Service at no charge | Minimum Focus Distance .98 feet | Weight .44lbs | Focus Type Silent wave motor (AF system) | Lens Type Prime (DX only) | Image Stabilization None | Release Year 2010 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: 36 (DXOmark) |
The 35mm f1.8 is a great lens for DX shooters (see see list of DX cameras here) as it gives users a reasonably tight feel, comparable to 50mm on a full frame camera. On an FX camera, it will likewise look a 50mm with its crop factor of 1.5x. This is the only lens on this list intended for DX cameras specifically, and it’s a solid work-horse for a beginner.
At f1.8, all the way open, it permits for solid bokeh and sharp images. F1.8 is also fast enough to function indoors and in low light. Users love the build quality, manual to autofocus override, and fast, quiet internal focusing.
While it’s not strictly speaking a professional lens, it is certainly good enough to pass for one in the right hands. While it wouldn’t work for a professional model, for standard headshots and other portraiture, it’s a suitable pick. For beginners who are ready to start advancing their photography, this is a good foray into prime lenses. That said, if you’re serious about your photography, you may be better off starting off with a more expensive and optically powerful lens.
Price: $196.95 (17 percent off MSRP)
- M/A mode means one can override manual focus
- Excellent value lens, sharp and tight
- On a DX camera (smaller sensor) 35mm is praised as just right: natural and reasonably flexible,
on FX camera this if 50mm
- Fast, accurate internal focusing
- Performs well in low light and indoors
- Not good on FX (full frame lens)
- No manual aperture if camera can’t communicate with lens
2. Nikon 50mm f1.8G
Warranty 1 year standard Nikon warranty | Minimum Focus Distance 1.48 feet | Weight .41 pounds | Focus Type Internal (silent wave motor) | Lens Type Prime | Image Stabilization None | Release Year 2011 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: 34 (DXOMark) |
Nikon’s nifty fifty may not be as talked about as Canon’s famous model, but for users of full frame Nikon cameras or DX cameras (where its focal length is roughly 80mm), this lens offers great bokeh, value, and solid auto-focus. It’s a great beginner lens. In the right hands, it captures attractive pictures of people, animals and other subjects. One minor drawback is that some users had issues with aberration . Still, for most, this prime piece of glass with its silent wave motor and edge-to-edge sharpness is a great buy for people looking to get started with portraits.
Some minor contraindications include users on DX cameras who don’t want such tight shots (some feel 80mm is too snug for portraits) and users who want a lens to grow into might want to get something nicer. Still, it’s a widely capable lens loved by many.
- Praised as one of the best beginner lenses
- Solid bokeh effect, comparable to more expensive lenses when well-executed
- Called a must-have prime lens
- Excellent value
- Auto-focus is solid
- Aberration is noticeable to some users
- Only closes to f16
- Can’t be used for macro photos
3. Nikon 85mm f1.8
Warranty 1 year standard Nikon warranty | Minimum Focus Distance .8m | Weight .77lbs | Focus Type Silent wave motor (internal) | Lens Type Prime | Image Stabilization None | Release Year 2012 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: 44 (DXOMark) |
With outstanding optical quality (peep that DXOMark score!), high quality optics, and fast focusing, this is the portrait lens for those who want a reasonable price, but a professional’s lens. While 85mm on DX is a bit snug for most at 136mm, for FX shooters this lens offers stunning images and fast focus. Users love its durability and bokeh and the manual focus override is a nice touch for those rare moments when the AF can’t find its mark.
Some minor drawbacks include a small percentage of users noting chromatic aberration and its plastic build which left some feeling like it was cheap. Still, for many users, this lens offers superb optics at a great price. It’s definitely the second choice for editor’s pick.
- Praised as offering superb “bang” for one’s buck
- Claimed to be “99% of the f1.4G”
- Includes lens hood
- Durable lens, survived drop on concrete
- Stunning bokeh, override manual focus
- Focuses faster than 85mm f1.4
- Made of plastic not metal
- Some users had issues with chromatic distortion
- A small percentage of users reviewing this item said they wanted for more optical quality
4. Nikon 105mm f2.8G VR
Warranty 1 year standard Nikon warranty plus 4 years of Nikon Extended Service at no charge | Minimum Focus Distance 1 foot | Weight 2.325lbs | Focus Type Internal, silent wave motor | Lens Type Prime Macro | Image Stabilization Vibration reduction (4 stops) | Release Year 2009 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: 36 (DXOMark) |
For those looking to kill two birds with one stone: this lens is a portrait and macro beast. Boasting excellent speed, amazing color and contrast, and great sharpness, it’s a solid dual-use lens. With its focusing distance of a mere one foot, its macro shots aren’t just sharp, they’re in your face.
Users say it’s great for events and handles low light well. 105mm is a bit dialed in (lens is 168mm on DX), but some people report that portraits look better at this focal length. It’s all about taste, be sure to check out some additional sample images on flickr to see if it suits your fancy.
This lens may not be the best of the best for portraits, but it is a great one. Being able to take insanely sharp macro photos isn’t exactly a bonus perk, but rather a whole dimension for the lens. For someone who wants these two uses, it’s very hard to get them both at this quality and at this price, let alone in one convenient package.
- Attractive portrait and macro lens
- Superb and long-lasting build quality
- Amazing color, contrast, and bokeh
- Great for event photography, can handle indoor and low light well
- Short minimum focusing distance of one foot
- Some learning curve
- On the heavy side
- One user had an issue with focusing
5. Sigma 85mm f1.4 HSM Art (Editor’s Choice)
Warranty 4 years | Minimum Focus Distance 2.79 feet | Weight 1.7lbs | Focus Type Hypersonic motor (internal) | Lens Type Prime, artistic | Image Stabilization None | Release Year 2017 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: 51 (DXOMark) |
The Sigma 85mm f1.4 is an outlier. It’s rare in consumer products to find this much of a gap between a product and its competitors. While this lens can hardly be called cheap, for the money, it blows any of the competition away. If I could have any lens on this list, it’d be the last one that costs over $5,000– so I could sell it and buy this lens and have around $4,000 cash.
If you’ve been paying attention to the DXOMark scores, you can stop now. This one is by far the highest at 51. That said, a score is just a number, subjectively this camera simply takes beautiful shots (check out this flickr album).
If you’re not sold on the pictures and their subjective and objective quality, well, I’m not sure what you’re after. That said, this lens also delivers on a practical front. It’s dust and splash proof and claimed to be “built like a tank.” Its bokeh is creamy, and it has very little chromatic aberration. F1.4 is fast enough for both indoors and low light. For portraits, this lens truly has it all.
This lens is the editor’s choice not just because it’s the best value on this list; this is a rare instance where the best value is simply the best.
Check out many amazing images captured by this lens on flickr.
- Dust and splash proof lens
- Praised as fast focusing and blowing out background beautifully
- Built like a tank, rugged
- Minimal chromatic abberation, better than Nikon 105mm f1.4
- Creamy and dreamy bokeh
- Highest rated lens on all of DXOMark with a max price of $13,000
- Compatible with Mount-Converter MC-11 so it can be used on E mount cameras
- One user found AF to be a let down
- On the heavy side
6. Tamron 70-200mm f2.8
Warranty 6 year Tamron limited warranty | Minimum Focus Distance 4.2 feet | Weight 3.28lbs | Focus Type Ultrasonic silent drive | Lens Type Zoom (medium telephoto to far telephoto) | Image Stabilization 5 stops image stabilization | Release Year 2017 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: 33 (DXOMark) |
Spending over $1,000 just to shoot portrait shots can seem a bit ridiculous. For those who that resonates with, this Tamron 70-200 f2.8 may be multipurpose enough to please your needs. For one, having a consistent f2.8 across its range means it’s good for video. Another perk is that 200mm f2.8 is considered a solid focal length for full body portrait shots. Needless to say, 85mm f2.8 will clearly suffice as well.
Of course, to some extent “a jack of all trades is the master of none” is partly valid here. This lens isn’t the best zoom or portrait lens on the market, but image samples speak for itself: it’s a great performer. Another perk here, it has image stabilization, a feature rarely seen in portrait lenses.
It’s not the best one can buy for any market, but if you want a lens that can do more than a few things at a reasonable price, this is the way to go.
Check out more amazing image samples on flickr.
- Praised as sharp and fast
- Quick autofocus
- Great contrast and colors, slightly warm
- Bargain in price compared to Nikon’s comparable offerings
- Solid performer in low light
- Vibration reduction (image stabilization) is better than Nikon
- One user had an issue with the placement of the switches, on a sling strap they were in the way
- Build quality isn’t as good as Nikon
- Zoom ring is at the front of the lens, some found this odd
- One user found it noticeably less sharp than Nikon model
7. Nikon 135mm f2D
Warranty 1 year standard Nikon warranty plus 4 years of Nikon Extended Service at no charge | Minimum Focus Distance 1.1 meters (3.61 feet) | Weight 1.8lbs | Focus Type External, not silent | Lens Type Prime (Fixed Focal Length) | Image Stabilization None | Release Year 2007 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: Not analyzed |
Ken Rockwell calls it, “The King of Bokeh.” This lens (best used on an FX camera) shoots creamy bokeh and stunning shots. At this focal length, it’s also a viable contender for macro photography. That said, this lens isn’t for everyone. Remember that opening paragraph about DXOMark scores? Well this lens certainly wouldn’t do well. It’s not very clinical nor sharp, but for certain people, it’s unbeatable. There’s just something special about the color, contrast and bokeh, but beyond that, this lens has a special feature rarely seen in others: defocus control.
Defocus control is a feature that allows one to adjust the unfocused parts of an image. It lets one adjust the quality of the blur in terms of what’s in front or behind a subject. It adds a subtle flavor, but some people can’t shoot portraits without it. Learn more here.
The 135mm f2 isn’t for everyone, but if going through some image samples piques your interest and you can afford to spend this kind of cash on a macro/portrait lens, the Nikon 135mm f2D will give you something most lenses can’t: character.
- Defocus control allows one to affect the intensity of the bokeh
- Praised as rendering images in a beautiful and artistic way
- Well built and great for still lifes, portraits, and macro
- Sharp distortion-free shots
- Built-in lens hood
- Produces pleasant skin tons
- AF can be sluggish, not good for sports
- Somewhat soft at f2
8. Nikkor 85mm f1.4
Warranty 1 year standard Nikon warranty plus 4 years of Nikon Extended Service at no charge | Minimum Focus Distance 3 feet | Weight 594 grams (21 oz) | Focus Type Internal, silent wave motor | Lens Type Prime (Fixed Focal Length) | Image Stabilization None | Release Year 2010 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: 36 (DXOMark) |
At a very fast f1.4 and with just as fast autofocus, this is the 85mm lens to beat for a mix of practicality and optics. What it lacks in terms of raw quality compared to the Sigma 85mm, it makes up for with its outstanding build quality, rugged exterior, and edge to edge sharpness. One user who owns 22 lenses and 15 cameras said, “This is my most-used lens. If I could only have one lens, this would be it.” By my eyes, the Sigma is an overall better lens, but Nikkor’s offering is hardly a risky bet. It boasts better durability, construction, and very nice images. Many swear by it.
More image samples at flickr: portrait and macro.
- Has quick switch for changes between manual and autofocus
- Takes stunning images that blows out backgrounds perfectly
- Faster autofocus than famous Canon 85mm f1.2L, this reviewer found it be of overall high quality
- Some of the best portrait quality for FX (full frame) bodies
- Edge to edge sharpness
- Rugged exterior can resist extreme weather conditions
- Lens hood is a little loose
- On a DX body, this lens is 127mm, may be best for FX (full frame) bodies
- May be overkill for some users
9. Nikon AF-S FX 24-70mm f2.8
Warranty 1 year standard Nikon warranty plus 4 years of Nikon Extended Service at no charge | Minimum Focus Distance 14.9 inches | Weight 1.98lbs | Focus Type Ultrasonic (internal) | Lens Type Zoom (wide to telephoto) | Image Stabilization None (but there is a pricier model that has it) | Release Year 2008 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: 29 (DXOMark) |
Mixing up the list a bit is this wide to telephoto range zoom lens. While it’s not sharpest lens around, it gets the job done well and comes with beautiful bokeh through its entire zoom range. Its autofocus is fast and accurate and it’s built to last. Since it has consistent aperture, it’s also a great lens for video.
If you’re not sure about going all in on a fancy portrait lens, but want something that’s capable of more or less everything, this is a massive step up from a kit lens and 24-70mm is a range that will work the vast majority of the time. It’s not the sexiest choice on this list, but it shoots great pictures, wide and close. For someone who wants flexibility, this is a very nice portrait lens with a lot more to give.
Price: $1796.95 (6 percent off MSRP)
- Quick manual/auto focus switching
- Great lens from wide to telephoto
- Superb “all-in-one” glass, sharp portraiture and beautiful wides
- Praised as great lens for wedding photographers
- Autofocus is fast and accurate
- Built to last
- Heavy and large
- Corners can be a bit soft
- One user said lens is extremely fragile
10. Nikkor 200mm f2G ED VRII
Warranty 1 year standard Nikon warranty plus 4 years of Nikon Extended Service at no charge | Minimum Focus Distance 6.2 feet | Weight 6.46lbs | Focus Type Ultrasonic (internal, silent) | Lens Type Prime, telephoto | Image Stabilization Vibration Reduction II (4 stops) | Release Year 2011 | DXOmark Overall Benchmark Score: 44 (DXOMark) |
This is Nikkor’s Ferrari. Needless to say, this lens is out of the range of being a practical buy for just about anyone, but it does take amazing pictures. Note that DXOMark score, however, it appears that it doesn’t quite stand up to the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art’s optics. Still, it’s the size of a small cannon and it takes pictures that are out of this world. 200mm is a great focal length for full body portraits and at f2, they’re beyond stunning. All the way open, this lens is sharp as a tack. It’s a must for well, probably no one except extremely busy action photographers, but it’s out there, for anyone who is willing to drop a quarter of a Camry on a lens.
Check out more amazing images captured by this lens on flickr.
- Best lens for action photography
- Captures out of this world full body shots
- Sharp as a tack all the way open
- Social proof: massive lens size
- Excellent colors and contrast
- Overkill for all but professionals
- Very heavy lens
Still looking for the right Nikon portrait lens? Browse more top-rated Nikon portrait lenses on Amazon.
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