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Q&A: Good Portrait Lens for Nikon DX Camera?

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When answering emailed photo questions extensively, I have decided to post my replies to this blog!

I’m not the foremost authority on cameras, but I am perhaps one of the most talkative… Like Ken Rockwell!  Haha… Oh, burnnn…


Hey Josh:

I have a Nikon D300s and am looking to purchase a new portrait lens. I have been using a 35mm/1.8, but the focus is a touch too soft. Any recommendations?  Thanks!


Ah, the 35mm f/1.8G.  I have that lens too, and it remains one of my favorites, being relatively inexpensive, light and small, with AF-S and rounded bokeh.  It sharpens up considerably from f/2.8 up, in my experience. However, as a portrait lens, sometimes I would find myself working veeery close to my subjects, and there is slight facial distortion at that distance too, so I see your point. 🙂

Depending on your budget, I think you might like some of the following prime lenses – Two budget zoom recommendations at the bottom:

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D

$140 – The Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D is a great budget choice, and renders very pleasing bokeh. From f/2.8, f/4 and up, it’s quality is basically indistinguishable from lenses that cost 4x as much. This is probably the lens you want.  Just look at what one of my Flickr contacts does with it. (Annie, you’re awesome.)

Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D

$340 – The Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D is a small step up in build quality. Also screw type. Lets in almost twice as much light as f/1.8, wide open. But! If you’re shooting people and it’s not dark outside, you don’t really need the extra light. Sharper at f/2 than the 1.8D, but again, can’t tell the difference from 2.8 on.

Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G

$440 -The Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G is the newest AF-S version of the lens. More rounded bokeh wide open because of it’s aperture design. Better color (which doesn’t matter if you post-process images anyway.) Better performance on FX cameras. (Slight. And doesn’t matter at all on a D300s.) For this price, you could get better compression, more background separation, and more comfortable working distance with:

Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D

$430 – The Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D – Screw type. Classic portrait length, for full frame, and simply amazing on DX cameras (a bit more reach) Subject isolation is beautiful, and very very sharp at f/2.8 and up.

For some reason (more light and glass!), the lens prices take a humongous jump here, as the next choices in this range are:

Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D LEGEND.

AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G - New Legend, Nano-Coated

$1200 – Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D, $1700 – Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G – Sorry for the smaller pic on the G:
Disgustingly expensive legendary dream lenses. They will perform above and beyond all expectations, create double rainbows of happiness and turn everything you photograph to gold. Ok, maybe not that good, but they are very, very nice, sharp even wide open, and can isolate your subjects completely from a background a foot behind them. Buy only if portrait photography is your business, and business is going good. 😉

Hope that helps! If you are considering a zoom lens for portraits, you might like a Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 zoom, or Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 zoom.  Rare:  Tokina 50-135mm f/2.8.  My cousin and I both had/have this lens, and love it to bits.  For the price of the 85mm f/1.8G above, you could get both, and still have lots left over. Haha.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aw, i was reading it and I got a pleasant surprise with my mention! Thanks a bunch!

    January 13, 2011
    • Oh yeah Annie! Love your 50mm stuff. You’re like an emissary for that lens! Very welcome.

      January 13, 2011
  2. My question is, i’m going on my honeymoon and have a 5100. I only want to take 2 lenses. I will take the DX 35mm 1.8 but i’m not sure if also take the DX 55-200mm or buy another DX lens. The kit 18mm will stay at home. What would you recomend for sharpness of me and my fiancee with buildings behind us in europe? Thanks!

    May 16, 2012

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