The photographer makes the photo, not the gear. That being said, it’s essential to have the best tools for your career. Would a doctor go into surgery with a blunt scalpel? There's a lot of debate when it comes to the topic "best portrait lens." Personally, my choice of lens until now has been the Nikon 85mm 1.4G. A few months ago I decided to rethink my choice of lens and tried the Nikon 200mm f2 and Nikon 135mm f2. Here are the pros and cons for both lenses and examples of what they can do.
Just like everyone else, I woke up one morning thinking my portraits aren't as good as they could be…I blamed it on my gear. I already have one of Nikons top portraits lenses (85 1.4g) so I was limited to only a few options. I already have the 70-200 2.8, but it's heavy and the bokeh is incomparable to my 85mm. So I asked B&H to send over a Nikon 200mm F2 and 135 F2 for a comparison and review. I know what you must be thinking right now, “ how can you compare such different focal lengths, at vastly different prices?” I started by asking myself few different questions.
What do I look for in a portrait lens, listed by priority?
1) Razor sharp focus at very wide apertures (f1.6-f2.2)
2) Creamy, soft bokeh with a hint of contrast
3) A focal length that is flattering to my subjects face and body features yet doesn't flatten those features. A focal length that allows me to be a comfortable distance from them yet not far to the point that I have to yell to talk to them.
4) Lens quality and durability
5) Price (Notice this is last because if you're looking for the best of anything, being cheap will likely close many doors)
Nikon 200mm F2 VRii
Let's start off with the 200mm F2. (Here's an article that covers in depth technical details and pictures of this lens.) I'd like to concentrate on practicality of using the lens for portrait work. Many have this lens on their dream list. Good news for you dreamers, there's a 70% chance this lens is not for you. While this lens is razor sharp wide open, I wasn't thrilled by the focal length or it's insane weight. I was wearing it attached to a Rapidstrap and couldn't carry it outdoors for more than 20 minutes at a time without taking a few minute break. Honestly, I am willing to bear the weight if it's producing amazing results -- so was the weight worth it? Not really. When it came to half body/headshots I was not impressed, it wasn't producing mind blowing results. My 85mm is 1/3 the price,1/5 the weight and does an equally good job. Another con - when it came to composing anything full body I found myself standing so far away that I had to hand signal and yell to direct my subject. I like interacting and standing 10-12 feet from my subjects when directing them, in this case I found myself 35+ feet away. That being said, the 200mm really shines with the full body portraits, the compression is amazing and the DOF is unreal. Everything in front and behind your subjects just melts away. If your style of portraits is full body, then you're going to love this lens. They don't make them sharper then this bad boy. Keep in mind that it's extremely heavy, so it's not the ideal walk around lens, and you will find yourself taking many steps back when composing for anything more than a headshot.
Nikon 135 f2D DC
Next in line is the Nikon 135 f2. (Here's an article that covers in depth technical details and pictures of this lens.) I've heard so much about the 135, mainly from the canon shooters so I HAD to give this lens a try. Turned out as much as I wanted to love this lens… I couldn't. I found the 135 to be soft wide open in comparison to the 200 and 85. While the sharpness might be good enough for people out there, it's not for me, especially when using the D800, a 36MP monster. Soft at wide apertures is uncool in my book, it's a deal breaker for me. Is it likely that I had a bad copy? Probably not, because I did come across a handful of reviews that felt the same. Ideally, this is the best focal length for headshots. It gives you enough space from you subject 10-12ft. The focal length is also much better than the 85 for headshots, the 85 is a tad too wide and cannot focus that close if you're trying to get a tight headshot. This lens shines when it comes to bokeh, the DC ring allows you control just how much is in focus behind and in front of your subject. But who needs sexy bokeh if your subject is soft? This lens is for headshot photographers who are on a tight budget and don't have "sharpness" at the top of their priority list. For the record, my images were still soft when stopped down to f4. What really stood out to me was the build quality of the 135, it's a hunk of metal which was impressive. (Canon user disregard this review, your 135 is amazing and cannot be compared)
NIkon 85mm f/1.4G
This brings us to our last lens, the 85mm 1.4G. This has been my favorite portrait lens and most likely will always be. The majority of my images on 500px and Facebook have been taken with this lens. It's super sharp at wide apertures, comparable to the 200mm. The sweet spot for bokeh is f1.6-f1.8. The bokeh has just the right amount of contrast which the 200mm lacks at f2. The lens is super light weight and small compared to the 200mm. The down side to this lens is the slow autofocus and its focal length is not telephoto enough for very tight headshots. I have taken hundreds of headshots with it but I was never able to get really close, it will not focus that close and it starts distorting features like the nose. This lens really shines when it comes to half body portraits. The sweet spot for this lens is half body and 3/4 portraits at f1.6-f2. What I love most is the fact I can stand not too far or too close from my subject. This gives them space to breath and close enough for me to interact with them. (cover image for article was taken with the 85mm 1.4g)
The 200mm is a heavy, but very sharp lens that shines for full body portraits at f2. If this lens was half its price I'd own it and call it a specialty lens in my bag.
The 135mm is very well built lens that gives you creative control of the bokeh. However, because it’s soft at wide apertures I likely will never own the lens even if it was given to me as a gift. There are rumors of a "G" version in the future, which I'm excited about and would love to try.
The 85mm 1.4G is already a popular choice and for a very good reason. The focal length, sharpness, weight and bokeh are all top notch. It does unfortunately hunt for focus in the dark, and if I was a studio photographer I'd stay far away from this lens, especially since I likely will not shoot at wide apertures. (The 70-200 2.8 is my choice of lens in the studio.)
The tools you use are essential. It's up to you to find the ones you like and that work for you in your process of creation. Sometimes it's good to try something new and move out of your comfort zone. But sometimes you may be able to achieve anything with just one lens, and we can get caught up in the constant want and need for more. I recommend renting some lenses and finding what works best for you.