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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87 Comments

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Alex Akamine's picture

Thanks for this article, I feel like this was aimed at me at the right time since I was considering getting a solid portrait lens aside from my 70-200. I was little surprised to hear that the 135 wasn't as sharp since its very highly regarded on other reviews. What I also like doing is consulting is the DXO mark for equipment reviews and what was also surprising was the Nikon 85mm 1.4 was only ranked below Carl Zeiss lenses:

http://www.dxomark.com/Lenses/Ratings

Thanks to Dani Diamond, I think I'll be getting an 85 1.4.

I would love to see this exact same article but for a Canon 5D3 and the applicable lenses. This was very well written Dani, thanks! My top priority is surgical scalpel sharp with beautiful bokeh in that order. Not too worried about price as I just bought a 5D3 and 70-200 which is glorious at 200mm because of the nice compression. I have the 100mm Macro F2.8L IS USM as well. Will have to see how that performs. Considering the 85mm F1.2L next

Sean T's picture

Dani wondered if you tried the 58mm it renders color beautiful. Great booked also.

I own the 200 f2 and would agree that if the lens is going to be used for anything other than shooting full length portraits at f2 or f2.8 than you aren't utilizing the lens to its fullest potential.

1/2 body or less I reach for either my 85 or 28-70 f2.8.

But if I have room to use the 200 it is the goto lens each and every time.

just realized how old this thread was, disregard...

Sean T's picture

Dani have you tried the Nikon 58mm has its own magic and bokeh. Nice option over regular 50 for something different

Luis Cardona's picture

That 58 seemed interesting but not interesting enough for the $, you own the lens? On which body do you use it mostly?

Sean T's picture

I have used it on a D750. I rented a few times and am planning to do so again. The focal length is great. The color rendering you have to compare for yourself. I agree. It is too expensive. IF I finally can afford one it will be from Ebay. Price range is $1300 there

Ocean Blue Photography's picture

I would love your take on the Nikon 105 2.8 Macro as well.. Does this lens deserve to be considered ?
Thanks!..

Sean T's picture

If you wanted to do a full body shot using a 200mm how far back would you be compared to the 85mm?

How would you compare your Nikkor 85mm 1.4G to the Nikkor 85mm 1.8G?

Michael Markovitch's picture

105mm Macro is top notch. Sharpest Nikon lens made. Great bokeh. Not too pricey. If you want razor thin with less cost the 50mm 1.4 does an outstanding job too.

arun prasath's picture

Compare to nikon and canon, shall i can try for zeiss planar 85mm f1.4?

Christian Crabtree's picture

Man this would have been an awesome review had the 135 been fine tune adjusted. I'm just guessing here but I doubt the reviewer fine tune adjusted it. The only reason I say that is because he didn't mention it and almost every 135 DC needs to AF fine tune adjust to get sharp photos. Mine looked soft just like his until I did the AF fine tune adjust. Also if you shoot it at 2.8 or 3.2 it still has way better bokeh than the 85, mostly because the 135 focal length and the DC have such creamy bokeh. Destroys my 85 1.8G in my opinion. Here is a shot with the 100% crop and the original, just as sharp as my 85 1.8G. I would love to see him do an AF fine tune adjust and update the review if he didn't do that originally.

Thanks for the article.

I have the Nikon D750 with the Nikon AF 85mm f1.4D IF Lens, which I think focuses faster than the G lens. Very happy with this. (What do you think of this Nikkor lens?)

I also shoot Fuji X-T1 and have the Fujifilm XF 56mm f1.2 and 90mm f2 and also the 50-140mm f2.8 and I have to say that I prefer shooting these to the Nikon for portraiture.

Any thoughts on these?
-paul

Babar Swaleheen's picture

There are many legendary lens i see are not mentioned when it comes to portrait in Nikon line up of lenses .... Like 105mm f/2.5 AI-S and 135mm f/2.8 AI-S. And Dani is right about 135m f/2 DC it is not sharp at all. The 135mm f/2.8 & 135mm f/2 AI-S are far far better but of course they are manual focus lenses.

But when it comes to Auto Focus, portability, sharpness, price .... 105mm f/2 DC is the best among them all.

BTW .... among this list in addition to the one mentioned by Dani ..... the best of the best is the 105mm f/2.5 AI-S for the portraiture. Check out the SOOC image and its sharpness right from the camera i took from 105mm f/2.5 AI-S lens. And this is the same lens which took the world famous portrait of the "Afghan Girl" by Steve McCurry for National Geographic .

Babar Swaleheen's picture

Zoom version of the SOOC

Babar Swaleheen's picture

Another sample that i took from 105mm f/2.5 AI-S

I have the Nikon AF-S 85mm/1.4g and the AF-S 200mm/2.0 VR2 and I agree this report : the 200mm/2.0 is heavy and I think it will follow the same change as the 400 and 600mm, with fluorite lens and less weight.
But it will stay an heavy lens like the Canon's one and I mostly use with a monopod.
I use il on musical show where the f/2.0 is a nice to have with low light. See my last post
https://patrickcligny.wordpress.com/2016/06/28/artzimutes-brigitte/
where these pictures are taken.
I use also for sports, but to take portraits I prefer the 85mm/1.4g

This is my Nikkor 135mm F2 AF DC (non D) wide open. Sharp as blade.

Hanl Taylor's picture

Interesting however there are 2 lenses I really like using for portraits Nikon's 135 mm 2.8 AL-s extremely sharp and good bokeh small and can be picked up for around $100. Then there is the Nikon Micro 60mm 2.8 set up for DX making it a 90mm also very good.

Hanl Taylor's picture

No mention of 2 excellent lenses I find very good the Nikon 135 2.8 AIs and the 105 2.5 not only great but can be found for under $100.

Hello, was wondering if you were able to try the new SIGMA 85mm ART? your thoughts about it and how does it compare to the NIKON 85mm 1.4G. Thanks!

Honestly, none of the above. I like the 105 focal length for portraits. To me it is "perfect". Not too long for indoors, not too short for outdoors. I think if you go 85 or 135, you really need "the other". I feel similarly about the 35mm focal length at the wide end... though some people like a 28/50 combo. I prefer 35 for everything in that range and make it work. I don't like carrying too many lenses.

I'd advocate for the Nikon 105 DC, the Carl Zeiss 100mm f2, or the newer 105 1.4

The 85mm 1.4 is for people needing indoor low light events and quick AF, the 135 is an outdoor only lens IMO. The ones I mentioned above are almost purely designed for portraits.

Most working pros doing portrait sessions and weddings just seem to use the 70-200 though and get in/get out. It's good enough for almost everybody. I'm not a working pro, but an amateur "perfectionist." I take time and stage my shots, I usually manually focus, wait til golden hours, have time to retake, etc.

Most of my published stuff is for magazine which can be really critical, and personal stuff (also critical) not clients.

Nice article, well written. I have had a 135 2.0 many years. It was amazing on film and digital up to around 12MP, but when I upgraded to the D800 I almost sold it. I was advised to try AF fine tune before selling it. Now I still use it regularly on my D850 and it is cut your fingers sharp. This is a temperamental lens and not for everyone, but learn its moods and there is nothing like it. It is easily as sharp as my 85 1.4, but not so simple to live with.

For head shots a 300 2.8 is a great option, one I prefer to the 200 2.0, primarily because I like the handling of the lens better and sharpness is equal.