Which Is The Ultimate Nikon Portrait Lens? 200mm, 135mm or 85mm ?

Which Is The Ultimate Nikon Portrait Lens? 200mm, 135mm or 85mm ?

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.

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Taken with the 200mm. Nothing special that the 85mm 1.4 can't achieve. At f2 the bokeh is so creamy, it's basically flat which lacks depth. If you're stopping down the lens you might as well use a 70-200.

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)

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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)

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Conclusion

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. 

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83 Comments

R W's picture

I REALLY like my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro lens for portraits. It is razor sharp on my 5D3 wide open, gets better stopping down slightly and produces some great color and bokeh too. It is definitely more than just a macro lens for me.

Alex Cooke's picture

I use that lens for headshots constantly.

Daniel Lee's picture

I couldn't agree more. So many people just view it as a Macro only lens but it really excels at portraits too. The 100L is my go to portrait lens and as much as I'd like an 85 1.8, I feel the 100L would still outshine it for my uses.

Dani Diamond's picture

Its razor sharp but the bokeh has nothing on the 85. Might as well use my 70-200 which is equally sharp and has 3x faster AF.

Spy Black's picture

While generally speaking an 85 is a comfortable portrait lens to work with, I think you chose two bad lenses to represent the other focal lengths. For the 200, you should have gone with an f/4 lens. The 200mm f/4 D Micro-Nikkor would have been much easier to handle. The max aperture would still give you good bokeh, since we're talking about 200mm here. The distance thing kinda points out that this lens is best used outdoors where there is considerable distance to deal with. ;-)

As for the 135, you should check out the new Samyang 135 f/2. I don't know if manual focus gives you hives or not, but for portrait work it's not that big an issue. I come from the manual focus world so it's no big deal for me. :-) I would look into it if you're curious.

One thing I will say about the 85mm f/1.4 G Nikkor is that, although it has been engineered for sharpness across the principle point of focus, that sharpness come at the expense of bokeh. The G lens has a stratified bokeh which I don't find attractive (you can see it in your closeup portrait). It predecessor, the D model, while not as sharp at the principle point of focus, is still sharp and has bokeh second to none. You could compensate for the 85 G's bokeh in post production if need be, just as you can compensate for sharpness on the 135 D.

You also overlooked the 105mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor. The 100mm focal length is another great focal length for portrait work.

Your opening line is the most important mindset to keep throughout it all however. ;-)

Interesting. I, for one, love the 85/1.4G for portraits, especially the bokeh. Nevertheless we often use the 70-200 for the majority of shots. However, f4 is usually not wide enough outdoors, as one often gets harsh distracting backgrounds if there are a lot of branches and trees. Recently we used the Sony A7ii with Sony/Zeiss 135/1.8. A great combination, too.

Alex Cooke's picture

Great comparisons, Dani!

Dani Diamond's picture

Thanks Alex.

David Parish's picture

I worked with 200mm as well, I agree with both the weight and the distance assessment. The lens is a beauty, is tack sharp, but I agree, I will keep my 85mm 1.4G.

Luis Cardona's picture

Another interesting article Dani! For Nikon, what are your thoughts on the 85 1.8G? I have the 50 1.8 and it's been wonderful for couples and group shots, no need for the 1.4, same for the 85?

Thomas Wickl's picture

A lot of Photographers favor the 85mm 1.8 over the 1.4. For example, Chase Jarvis ( http://blog.chasejarvis.com/blog/2014/02/top-5-lenses-for-your-nikon-camera ) is one of them. It's a beautiful Lense, very sharp, sharper as the 1.4 (but sharpness is not everything!) and has a wonderful Bokeh. If you don't need 1.4 you can save a lot of money by using the 1.8.

Luis Cardona's picture

Thanks Thomas, price is right for sure. I guess because I don't own either 85s and I'm certainly at a point where I will be making the choice whether to splurge or not, I'm wondering how come Dani mentions bokeh @ f1.6-f1.8 and it being special on the 1.4 as the sweet spot for bokeh.

Thomas Wickl's picture

The Bokeh on the 1.4 is better as on the 1.8. But the Bokeh of the 1.8 is wonderful, the Bokeh on the 1.4 is better. But in my opinion, you will only see the difference in a direct comparison. Both are really wonderful Lenses! If possible, you should test both lenses. You won't regret you decision, regardless if 1.8 or 1.4 :)

Dani Diamond's picture

At 1.4 the bokeh is ridiculously good. But it's far too shallow and unless its a full body portrait you will notice the shallow DOF and it'll be too distracting.

Dani Diamond's picture

Never shot with the 1.8 but have heard great things about it. Nikon's 50s cant be compared to the the 85. The 85 is a whole new ball game in terms of sharpness. Sigma art 50 is up there with the 85.

Michael Kormos's picture

I've used the 135/2 throughout all of last year (some 200+ portrait sessions), and that puppy's got teeth. Temperamental focus, alright. And unlike you, I shoot kids (translation: moving subjects). You gotta fine tune the AF in your camera, and use defocus control with the same setting as aperture value. Remember, that lens was designed back during film days, and it still provides the creamiest bokeh around. If (and when) Nikon updates it with the latest and greatest tech (VR, Nano coating, ED glass, etc.), I'd buy it in a heartbeat. For now, I'm flexing my biceps with the 200/2.

Bryan Dockett's picture

Good write up Dani, would have liked to see the 105mm DC thrown in the mix.

Especially considering it has a slight sharpness advantage over the 135mm. :)

Mike Buongiorne's picture

I had the 135mm f2 DC and really wanted to love it but ended up drawing the same conclusion; too soft wide open. Very sharp stopped down and using the DC feature seemed to exagerate the bokah more so than otherwise at say f4. But I found myslef preferring my 80-200 wide open with the added versatility of going out to 200 when there's space to do so.

Thomas Wickl's picture

Thank you for this great Article. I always dreamed of owning the 200 f2 for Portrait work. Now I can sleep much better and spend my money on more important things :)

Brandon Silvera's picture

I shoot a Nikkor 85 f/1.8. I love the lens but I'd love to have that 200 f/2. I'd trade my f/1.8 for the f/1.4 honestly. Im a shallow DOF whore :(

Erik Siekkinen's picture

I feel there is also the thing as your comfortable zone. Some of us like to be some distance away from the subject and not be in their private zone so to speak. I feel to myself that the 200mm f2 would be the lens that I would be most comfortable and it would suit my shooting style. Maybe for full body shots 85mm is better as you don't need to be that far away but for head shots and 2/3 body shots I feel that I would choose 200mm. At this moment I am using 70-200 f2.8 and I am planning to get the upcoming Sigma 85mm 1.4 art as I want to have that bokeh.

ALEX ~'s picture

Well, not all 135mm are created equal, right? :)

The CZ 135mm 1.8 that I use for portraiture usually walks all over just about any other 135mm out there. Tack sharp wide open (though I've not mastered working at such a shallow DOF with it). If Sony ever comes out with an updated high mpx A-mount body, this will sing even more. Though it's not just about the sharpness - light fall-off, contrast, and bokeh is where it really shines.

I was an 85mm guy before with it's little brother CZ 85mm 1.4 but ever since I got this puppy it stays on 90% of the time :)

Here's a recent shoot with it on an aging 24mxp A99 body, along with a 100% SOOC crop. Slightly front focused, but that's operator error as I used MF.

EDIT: ugh, didn't realize how much FS shrink the images here. Here's a better example of how sharp the CZ 135mm is, wide open at 1.8: https://500px.com/photo/84698225

Austin Rogers's picture

That lens almost made me go Sony. Almost. :D

Dan Ostergren's picture

It's certainly making me consider it.

Ali Pearson's picture

im glad you wrote this, I have just received today the nikon 85mm 1.8, I wish I could afford the 1.4, but for now the 1.8 will have to be.
Im excited to get using it and get some portraits posted using it.

Ali, we tested both the 1.8G and the 1.4G and the 1.4 performed a bit better :-). It is probably the best value you will ever get from a Nikon product (except maybe the 50 1.4G).

Ali Pearson's picture

I have the 50 1.4 and it is a lovely lens, i just find it a bit to upclose and personal sometimes!
awesome walkabout lens tho, I have theatre group shoot tomo so will be using the 85 for first time.

I agree, it is a bit too close but it's a great lens. And it weigh nothing, you can carry it all day.

My boyfriend has both Nikon DC lenses, the 105mm and the 135mm. Both lenses are razor sharp once you get used to using them properly, there is a learning curve but these are definitely some of the best made lenses out there! I'll be getting a 105mm myself pretty soon!