The first thing that many first-time photographers do when they get a shiny new camera is to have someone pose for them – simple and accessible. Sometimes they even get requests for a profile shot from friends and family.
Family portrait photography is also relatively easy, considering that you can shoot portraits with just natural light, some DIY reflectors, and knowledge of posing. You can shoot great family pictures with just an entry-level DSLR and a kit lens like the 18-55mm.
Professional portrait photographers, however, require better equipment, and this discussion is about this better equipment. This article is aimed at both serious enthusiasts as well as professional photographers. Whether you’re getting started in portrait photography or you are already shooting portraits commercially, this list will be of interest to you.
However, I will limit myself to only lenses in this discussion. Perhaps in a separate discussion, I will talk about lights, set-ups, and posing ideas.
Why do professional portrait photographers require better photography equipment?
Let’s first talk about cameras. I wouldn’t say you cannot shoot great portrait images with entry-level cameras because this genre is not so dependent on a specific camera. You can shoot portrait photography with a simple, entry-level camera that allows you to swap lenses.
What’s more important, though, is the lens. The lens determines the perspective and is thus crucial in capturing the subject of the portrait sharply at the right distance while creating the perfect amount of bokeh. But how do you choose the right lens? Let’s find out.
Why do we choose lenses longer than 50mm for portraits?
The simple answer is that a focal length of more than 50mm renders a face correctly with little distortion. But that’s the simple answer. Let’s break that simple answer down.
This can be attributed to a phenomenon known as “lens compression.” You have probably heard about this and even seen how it affects photos. But for those not aware of lens compression, here is a quick refresher.
Let’s imagine that you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens. With a wide-angle lens, you would naturally step closer to the subject to fill the frame with your subject’s face. When you do that, anything that’s closer to the lens starts to appear larger than usual.
This is the prime reason why the facial features of a subject appear much larger than they are if the subject is closer to the lens (wide-angle lens). For instance, the nose may seem significantly larger than the ears.
With longer lenses, you have to take a few steps back to fill the frame with a subject’s face. This is because of the smaller angle of view of a longer lens. When you take a few steps back, the distance between the lens and the subject becomes larger. That larger distance has the effect of pushing the subject against the background. This can also be utilized to make the background appear larger than it is.
Even though it appears that the subject’s distance from the background has decreased, in reality, it hasn’t. All you have done is increased the subject-to-lens distance to avoid distortion of facial features and maintain the right amount of contrast between the background and subject.
Okay, without further ado, let’s talk about the best Nikon lenses for shooting portrait photography. If you would like to get straight to the list, here it is:
Best Nikon zoom lens for portraits
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
Best Nikon lens for outdoor portraits
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f.2.8G ED VR II
Best Nikon Z lens for portraits
- Nikon NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.2 S Lens
Best Nikon prime lens for portraits
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G
- Nikon AF-S Nikkor 105mm f/1.4E ED
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
BEST NIKON ZOOM LENS FOR PORTRAITS
BEST NIKON LENS FOR OUTDOOR PORTRAITS
BEST NIKON Z LENS FOR PORTRAITS
BEST NIKON PRIME LENS FOR PORTRAITS
Best Nikon Zoom Lens for Portraits
1. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
Nothing beats the convenience of a zoom lens with a fast wide-open aperture that’s constant across the focal length. With a constant wide-open aperture, you can shoot the same exposure across the focal length without worrying that your maximum aperture is going to drop. You don’t have to keep pushing the ISO or slowing down the shutter speed to compensate.
For this very reason, constant aperture lenses like the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR are a joy to work with.
Let’s take a look at the construction of the lens. The lens includes 22 elements arranged in 18 groups. These include a total of six extra-low dispersion elements along with one fluorite element.
The fluorite element is primarily used in Nikon’s high-end photography lenses. This element and the ED elements ensure that the effects of chromatic aberrations are suppressed.
Fluorite elements also keep the overall weight of a lens low because they’re much lighter than traditional glass elements. So, Nikon tends to use this element in their heavier (and longer) lenses.
The 70-200mm covers the sweet spots for shooting portrait photography. It covers 85mm, 105mm, and 135mm. So, you can experiment with different focal lengths with a single lens and a fixed aperture. The lens comes in handy in a wide variety of shooting situations.
For example, apart from shooting family portraits, you can also use this lens for shooting fashion portraits, and for artificially lit studio portrait sessions. Of course, the lens would also be ideal for corporate headshots and wedding portraits.
The long end of the focal length fulfills the requirement of background compression. You can make elements in the background appear larger than they are and completely change the look and feel of the image, for instance, shooting against a renowned landmark and using the long focal length to “suck in” the background.
But having a lens that can survive the demands of a photographer on the move means it needs to meet a certain build quality standard. The 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR does not disappoint in that regard. The lens is very well made. A bit of hard plastic is used in the construction, but underneath, it’s mostly metal.
One major design issue with the lens is that the zoom ring sits at the front of the lens. With that, the problem is that the positioning feels unnatural during shooting. Ideally, the zoom ring should have been right in the middle of the lens where the weight would balance out.
Barring this issue, which also creates the problem of inadvertently touching the lens’s focusing ring, everything about the lens design is fine.
Overall, the lens is very sharp across the focal length and even when shooting wide open at f/2.8. It’s no wonder the lens is sharpest at the center, right across the focal length.
Best Nikon Lens for Outdoor Portraits
2. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
The only reason I did not pick the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR discussed above as my choice for outdoor portraits is because of the swapped position of the zoom ring and the focus ring. Using that design handheld in an outdoor setup for an extended period of time would be uncomfortable.
The weird position of the zoom ring means there would be more stress on the hand. In a studio setup, one can still set down the lens on a table for a breather (not a big fan of dangling expensive equipment on a harness). This is why I decided to choose the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II as the best Nikon lens for outdoor portraits.
One more thing I like about this lens is that the manual focusing ring is very smooth to operate. Though, for portraits, you likely won’t use the manual focusing ring unless the lens is consistently getting the focus point wrong.
But it’s still reassuring to know that you can grab the manual focusing ring and adjust the focus accurately at any time.
Speaking of focus, Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) technology powers the lens’s autofocusing. The AF motor is quiet and very fast. It’s accurate too, which ensures a sharp photo of your subject at every click of the shutter button.
I love the build quality of this lens. It’s built to last. It has weather sealing that makes this lens ideal for outdoor use, even in bad weather. It can survive a bit of rain and snow without any issues. So, for an on-location or outdoor portrait photography session, this is a great lens.
I can’t imagine a long lens without image stabilization built-in. The 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR II comes with 3.5 stops of shake reduction that comes in handy when shooting handheld.
The greatest benefit of lens stabilization is seen when you are shooting in dimly lit conditions. You can try out very slow shutter speeds without having to worry about image blur.
One of the reasons photographers use long lenses with fast wide apertures is so that they can experiment with background blur. It is a critical component of portrait photography – isolating the subject from the background. This is referred to as bokeh, which means the quality of the focus effect. With this particular lens, the bokeh quality is extremely good.
Overall image quality is exceptional. Even with a wide-open aperture, the lens produces excellent results. Lens sharpness improves when the aperture is stopped.
Center sharpness is highest at f/5.6 and all through the lens’s focal length, except between 135mm and 200mm. Between 135mm and 200mm, the lens is sharpest at f/4.
Best Nikon Z Lens for Portraits
3. Nikon NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.2 S Lens
When I first read the specs of this lens, the one thing that captured my imagination was, you guessed it, the f/1.2 maximum aperture. Having used an 85mm f/1.4 and a 105mm f/1.4 lens and experienced their incredible bokeh, I was excited to see what the f/1.2 could do.
This is a brand-new lens, appealing to family portrait photographers as well as those shooting fashion photos, weddings, and everything in between.
The 85mm f/1.2 is the sort of lens that natural light shooters will fall in love with. The solid build quality, the autofocusing reliability, the low light crushing f/1.2 aperture, and the large front element using an 82mm front filter. What’s not to like about this lens?
The construction of the lens includes 15 elements arranged in 10 groups. Two aspherical elements take care of spherical aberrations and one ED element takes care of chromatic aberrations and color fringing.
On top of that, the lens also has a nano crystal coating. As we know, this coating ensures that the lens can withstand the effects of flares, ghosting, and internal reflections.
In real-life conditions, the lens shows no practical indication that flares and ghosting affect it, which is a great thing for backlit portraits and shots where the source of light is also in the frame.
To make the deal even sweeter, the lens comes with proper weather sealing, tackling any moisture, dust, and dirt the lens may encounter.
The thing that sets this lens apart is the Dual STM motors. It really changes the definition of autofocusing speeds. It’s fast, like really fast, it’s accurate to boot.
Paired with cameras that have capable autofocusing, this lens can handle moving subjects as well as those that are stationary. Never mind the razor-thin depth of field. You will not have much of a problem getting more than your required number of frames tack sharp.
I feel the only reason a photographer will not want to buy this lens is that it is very expensive. Other than that, and with the impressive spec sheet the performance, if you’re a professional portrait photographer using one of the Z-mount cameras, this is a great lens to have.
Best Nikon Prime Lens for Portraits
4. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G
Nikon makes two 85mm lenses for F-mount full-frame DSLR cameras. Both are very good in their own right, and you could pick any one of them and shoot fantastic images. One is the 85mm f/1.8G, and the other one is the 85mm f/1.4G.
I have chosen the 85mm f/1.8G as the best Nikon prime lens for portraits. It’s also my pick for the best Nikon lens for weddings and portraits with a Z-mount camera.
The construction of the lens includes nine elements arranged in nine groups. The lens features a super integrated coating that takes care of the issues of image flare and ghosting. This is one area of difference between the f/1.8G and the f/1.4G.
The f/1.4G comes with a nano crystal coating, which has better performance when suppressing flares and ghosting. I would thus recommend that when you’re shooting in an outdoor situation, you use the lens hood because that helps immensely to control flares and ghosting.
Also, ensure that the front element of your lens is clean of dust and fingerprints, as that can accentuate the effects of flares and ghosting.
In terms of center sharpness, the 85mm f/1.8G does not disappoint. As a matter of fact, it’s far better than the 85mm f/1.4G! Obviously, the 85mm f/1.8 starts at 2/3rd stops slower than the f/1.4G lens. But the best performance of the f/1.8G lens is at f/4, where it beats the more fancied f/1.4 lens.
Where the f/1.8G loses out is in the area of corner sharpness. The f/1.4G lens is slightly superior in this category. If you can work around this, then the f/1.8G is going to give you better returns for your investment.
But if you need the absolute best throughout the frame and don’t mind dropping significantly more money, the f/1.4G is more up your alley.
In terms of autofocusing, which is yet another one of my priorities, the 85mm f/1.8G outperforms the f/1.4G.
The bokeh produced by the f/1.8G is very good. If you compare the bokeh quality of the 85mm f/1.4G and the 85mm f/1.8G, surprisingly, there isn’t much of a difference.
You would think that the f/1.4G would be the clear winner because of the larger aperture and increased aperture blades, but this is not the case. This could be because both the f/1.8G and the f/1.4G have a rounded aperture diaphragm.
The f/1.8G suffers from a bit of vignetting and pincushion distortion. I don’t think this is a dealbreaker because it is easily rectifiable in Photoshop or Lightroom. Also, when you pull the aperture to a smaller diameter, vignetting tends to go away.
5. Nikon AF-S Nikkor 105mm f/1.4E ED
The 105mm f/1.4E ED is an exceptional lens. Sure, the 85mm f/1.4G that I mentioned above is also a fantastic lens, and so is the 85mm f1.8G But, the 105mm offers a slightly longer focal length and, with it, a narrower angle of view.
You might ask if the longer focal length is at all required. Those who have shot with the 85mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 would say that focal length is perfectly fine. The extra 20mm of focal length may be overrated for typical family portraits but, personally, I love the longer focal length and the resulting background compression.
But that’s not the only reason I prefer the 105mm f/1.4E ED over the 85mm f/1.4G. The 105mm is insanely sharp and captures a lot of detail. The 85mm f/1.4G is nowhere near the 105mm f/1.4 in that respect.
The lens design includes 14 elements arranged in nine groups. Three ED elements ensure that the lens can handle the effects of chromatic aberrations effectively.
The big advantage of the 105mm f/1.4E ED over the 85mm f/1.8G I mentioned above is that the 105mm lens has a nano crystal coating. Nano crystal coatings are more efficient when suppressing light flares, ghosting, and internal reflections.
So, when you’re working in harsh lighting conditions, this lens is likely to get you more contrast and, at the same time, sharper results with more accurate colors than a lens that does not feature a nano crystal coating.
Another advantage of the 105mm f/1.4 lens is that it comes with fluorine coating. The presence of a fluorine coating ensures that cleaning the lens is a lot easier. If you’re constantly shooting portrait photos in outdoor conditions, this is a must-have.
The 105mm f/1.4 is a heavy lens. At 985 grams, it’s significantly heavier than the 85mm f/1.8G. That said, it feels solid in the hands. There is a rubber gasket at the rear where the lens mount is. This is done to prevent the influx of dust, debris, and moisture through the rear of the lens.
The lens’s specifications mention that it has SWM technology. However, the lens does not use the latest ring-type ultrasonic motor but rather the older gear-type one.
Does it make a lot of difference in terms of how quickly it reacts during autofocusing? No, it does not. The autofocusing performance of the lens is very accurate and quiet. Another good thing about this lens is that the front element of the lens does not rotate or extend when it autofocuses.
6. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
As I mentioned above, each photographer has their preference when it comes to shooting portraits. The Nikkor 24-70mm allows the photographer to use a single lens to cover a wide focal length range. This also makes it a useful lens for shooting family portraits where you often need to include several people in the same frame and therefore shoot with a wider angle of view.
This lens can shoot a wide-angle perspective that will capture the atmosphere of a venue, special moments shared between family members, and plenty of treasured memories.
The same lens can then be used to zoom in and produce a tight portrait composition of the individuals when needed. The 24-70mm is a very versatile lens that deserves mention.
All through the focal length, the shutter speed and ISO can remain unchanged. The same exposure is maintained across the focal length, saving time and ensuring every important moment can be captured.
Having said that, the only major qualm that someone would have against the 24-70m f/2.8G is the maximum aperture. The maximum aperture is more than one full stop slower than something like the 85mm f/1.8. In low light, that can be a serious handicap.
But if you use artificial lighting in your family photography, which I presume you do, you can always overcome this problem. If you don’t use artificial lighting, I recommend picking up a Nikon flash and a remote trigger and practicing off-camera lighting techniques.
In terms of construction, the lens features 15 elements arranged in 11 groups. There are three aspherical elements used in the lens to tackle spherical aberrations. Extra-low dispersion elements have also been used to suppress the effects of chromatic aberrations and color fringing.
On top of that, the lens features Nikon’s nano crystal and Super Integrated coatings. These coatings help to avoid the effects of flares, ghosting, and internal reflections.
Additionally, the lens features weather sealing. The 24-70mm f/2.8 is built like a tank and will be able to withstand a bit of abuse and still perform as expected.
The weight of the lens is 900 grams which means it’s on the heavier side. As I have mentioned, I am not a big fan of harnesses but if you’re going to use one, I strongly recommend the Black Rapid. I have used this for many years, and it gives me the confidence to move around without being conscious of my camera and lens.
In terms of optical performance, the lens is superb. It delivers sharp results at f/2.8. Corner sharpness is an issue when shooting at the widest aperture. A little bit of vignetting is also present.
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