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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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!

John Hernlund's picture

Yes, there are so many incompetent reviews of the DC lenses on the internet, by people who thought they could just pop the lens onto their cameras and start shooting without learning and thinking first. There is a definite learning curve, once you know what you're doing it is very rewarding and fun. There is no question that I get the best results from my DC lenses for portraiture, but I've shot over 100K exposures with these lenses and I know them very well. I own the 105/2DC and 135/2DC, as well as the 85/1.4. The 105/2 is the best balance of sharpness and bokeh and perspective flatness for me, the 135 is definitely the sharpest of these three but needs more background separation to produce great bokeh, the 85 is the softest of these wide open (but f/1.4 rather than f/2) though it also allows closer working distances. Basically the ideal portait distances are torso and head (85), head and shoulders (105), and head shots (135). The 105 and 135 handle color better than the 85 in my experience, the 85 comes out a bit muddy in comparison. Also, the 105 and 135 stopped down make superb modestly long landscape lenses, whereas the 85/1.4 does not perform so well in this category, even when stopped down.

Vincent Munoz's picture

Dani, if the 135 is as sharp as your 85G, would you prefer the 135 focal length instead?

Dani Diamond's picture

Hard to say. For headshot work absolutely. If I was on a budget, yes.

Vincent Munoz's picture

so your love affair with the 85G continues ha....lol. thanks for the article Dani. Yesterday I was testing a Samyang 85mm and Nikkor 105mm F1.8 AI/s to decide which one I should keep. I think I'm going with the 105. Although it's longer, the minimum focus distance is closer than the 85.

The 135mm or 105mm has the best build quality of any Nikon lens still sold today. Sure it doesn't have weather sealing but back in the 90s when this gem was designed it was built to last. The 85mm focuses a bit faster but I don't think it is sharper and the hull feels plasticky. Sometimes the DC lenses require calibration, ours didn't and they are the sharpest lenses we have ever tried, in fact I sold my 85mm 1.4g to get these little babies. Note that the 105mm has a slight edge in sharpness over the 135 (if the 135 is a samurai sword then the 105 is a scalpel!). Only drawback to the DC lenses is focusing distance if you are doing close up beauty work of say an eye or the lips (you will need spacers)

Vincent Munoz's picture

Thanks for giving us more info. My Nikkor 105mm is the classic AI/S version. Built like a tank. Suffers with CA and flares a bit though. Though it's manual focus, the focus peaking and zoom focus assist of my camera(Sony A7R) makes manual focusing a breeze.

They don't build 'em like they used to.

Would like to see a comparison between the 85 reviewed here and the Fuji 56.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I just bought the Nikon 180mm f/2.8 used and i have to say I am very impressed. I honestly did not expect such amazing results when paying $300 (CDN). The lens is very quick to focus and very, very sharp. I also love the colors it reproduces.

I also have the Nikon 85mm 1.8G. We did some tests comparing it to the 1.4G and we all agree that it actually performed a bit better. On the D750 I did not find it hunting for focus, however, I did not have the chance to use it a lot yet.

Good article! I use my 70-200 most of the time. When I can I enjoy my 85mm F1.4. There is a lens that I think is an overlooked Gem! The nikon 105 F2.5 my copy is fantastic. Enough so that it keeps the desire to own the 105 DC @ bay.Sharp wide open & killer bokeh.

Nissor Abdourazakov's picture

I love my Nikon 85 1,4 but 200 f2 is a much better lens . Yes it's heavy but result is outstanding.

Dan Ostergren's picture

I'd be interested to see this comparison made using the Canon counterparts. My 135mm f2L is tac sharp wide open and I'd love to see how it compares to the 85 1.2L and the 200mm f/2L.

I think that perhaps you could edit the title of the article to clarify that you are testing the best NIKON portrait lenses. Just a thought though.

135mm f/2 is soft to f/2 ? Try to calibrate your camera ! I had both, 105 and 135, and are tack sharp wide open !

Michael Kormos's picture

I had used both. The 105 handles lens flare much better than the 135. They're both low-contrast lenses, but man, does the 135 go apesh*t with even a hint of stray light!

Exactly! People think the DC lenses aren't shap but it's because the are used to high contrast which gives the illusion of sharpness. Contrast is easy to control in post.

Did you try to use a deeper lens hood, other than built-in lens hood ?

Christian Crabtree's picture

I posted about this also, I don't think the 135 DC wasn't calibrated for AF fine tune adjust in this review. Sad, it's not a true representation of what this lens is capable of.

Kristi Woody's picture

Even though I'm a Canon shooter, I found this super helpful! I've been wanting to try a 135mm, even though I love my 100mm. My 100mm is getting old and autofocus is starting to slow a lot. I like my 85mm, but I agree about it not being great for tight headshots.

joel germain's picture

I've already had the chance to test the 200mm f2 and like you said, the weight can be comfortable for the first few minutes, but before long, you linger for a break.

Howerver, for the 135mm, I'm not completely with. Yes, with the D800, this lens is not that good wide open (and yes my version is pretty soft too). But F4 is not that bad when you are dead on the eyes. I've bought it and ever since, the only time this lens came off my D800 is for a wide shot, otherwise that lens is my portrait go-to. For studio photo, when you start to close down a little, this lens is heavenly sharp.

For every one, keep in mind that the 135mm f2 DC is an old lens, with old optic quality (being created fro film in 1995), so it is not meant t be used with digital. I didn't had chance to try it that much on film (only 2 photo) but so far, this lens have completly different image quality on those 2 mediums.

Rogier Bos's picture

No doubt all three of these lenses are great for portraiture. I own two of them. but I find it odd the 70-200mm/f2.8 was not included in the comparison. That's my favourite portraiture lens! I guess you wanted to stick to primes...

Dani Diamond's picture

Yes stuck to primes. 2.8 is not wide enough for me.

sorry, but this article was as basic as it was boring.

Valdemar Hemlin's picture

Nice review touching upon what is very important factors in choosing a lens for me. As a canon shooter I'd love to have one with the canon equivalents.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

I use the Nikon 180mm f2.8 for most of my portrait work. Love that lens.

I had the Nikon 85mm 1.8G and I didn't like that one at all. I the D-type 85mm is way sharper. Looking to get one of those soon

I have no experience with the 135mm, but the Nikon 105mm DC is a beast. Even at F 2.0 like this example: http://www.mortenhatlevik.com/book-1

I have never had any experience with the Nikon 135mm, but Nikon 105mm DC is a beast, even at f 2.0. This picture was shot with 105mm DC at f 2.0: http://www.mortenhatlevik.com/book-1

Kendra Paige's picture

Speaking from the Canon side, I've used the Canon 100mm 2.8L Macro, 85mm 1.2L, and 70-200 2.8L II for portraits and headshot. While I love my 85mm to pieces, I find that the telephoto is the one that I now use most often. I find its versatility to be worth more than the creamy bokeh of my 85mm.

Loved the article, I always enjoy examples like these!

I shoot with the 235 DC and a D800 all the time and I don't see the softness being as bad as outlined here... it is softer than a 70-200 or 85 1.4 for sure...but not that soft.

Peter Evans's picture

As mentioned in the article, being a Canon user, I love my 135mm and it's my favorite portrait lens. Its quality and sharpness is outstanding, apparently some call it a "Lord of the Red Rings" :)

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