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Recommendation for a good portrait lens

Kristin Kruspe , Dec 03, 2010; 11:55 p.m.

I have a Nikon D5000 and am so confused wtih all the lenses out there. I am thinking about getting the 18-200 lens for just everyday shooting. But, I really need a recommendation on a good portrait lens. Thanks!


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Victor Wei , Dec 04, 2010; 12:22 a.m.

You can certainly start with a very worthwhile and yet affordable investment on a Nikon 50mm f1.8 lens (at about $110 US) - but this lens won't autofocus with your camera. Alternatively, you can also consider the 35mm f1.8 DX which will autofocus with your D5000 but this lens may be too wide for great looking portraits. The 18-200 lens is very versatile and can make a decent portrait lens but it will not give you the sharpness of the other two. So it really depends on how serious you are in taking portraits as there are other great but rather costly lenses like the 85mm primarily used for portraits.

Philip Tam , Dec 04, 2010; 01:13 a.m.

The Nikon 50mm 1.4 AF-S is $440'ish.

Roman Thorn , Dec 04, 2010; 01:33 a.m.

How tight do you want the Portraits? What kind of a working distance would you like. Anything from 50 - 85mm work well. Not sure about the D5000 but my likes are:
nikon 50 1.8 Ai
Voightlander 58 1.4
Nikon 60 micro
Nikon 85 1.8

Vince Passaro , Dec 04, 2010; 02:43 a.m.

Kristin, first, for your portrait lens, given the sub-set of lenses that autofocus on the D5000, the clear choice is the 50/1.4 AF-S. It's a really good lens and will serve many purposes for you, not least how to walk around with one focal length, a prime lens, and see the world and your own body positioning in a way that allows you to get the pictures you want. Having a 50mm even with the 1.5 crop camera teaches you an enormous amount.

Second if you want a walk around super zoom I'd look very carefully at the Tamron (for Nikon) AF 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di-II VC LD Asph (IF) Macro. Whew. I kid you not that's the name of it. It ahs the built-in motor that is required for auto focus on your camera. There's a $150 rebate on it at B&H til 12/31 which means it's like $469 or something. I've used it for extended periods twice (via a friend) and been really impressed. It has a longer reach than the Nikkor but is CONSIDERABLY smaller and lighter, which will mean a lot to you if it's your walk around lens; the image quality looks superior to me but let's call it even (DXO Mark hasn't tested this lens but I noticed that the Sigma 18-250 tested better than the Nikkor 18-200 so I assume this would too, since I think it's quite a bit superior to the Sigma, based on just a hint of real knowledge.... and it has vibration control or whatever Tamron calls their VR lenses.

Good luck. And really, check out the Tamron. You'll save mucho money and mucho fatigue over the Nikon.

Mihai Ciuca , Dec 04, 2010; 06:39 a.m.

I agree with Vince that Tamron 18-270 is a great alternative to Nikon 18-200... I have it and even I do not like all-around superzooms I must admit that this lens deserves every penny. What I do not agree is that Tamron is CONSIDERABLY smaller and lighter... than Nikon... That's simply not true.
On portrait issue, there are many lenses to pick. Make sure to choose one with AF-S or equivalent in order to have autofocus on your camera. While 50/1.4 is a good lens I'd rather advice for something in 60-90mm range. Here do you have mostly macro(micro) lenses but this is not a bad thing, you get two things for your money: portrait and macro! Each one from this list could be a good option, you have to decide according your budget:

  • Nikon 60mm f2.8 AF-S micro
  • Tamron 60mm f2 macro
  • Nikon 85mm f1.4 AF-S G (this is very expensive)
  • Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro

For less money you can get a stellar zoom that's really a steal for the money, with great applications on portraits for DX cameras: Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 (just make sure to buy the version with focus motor). While is not the most recommended lens for DX, it offers the most generous focal range for portraits, the equivalent of 42-112.5mm. This would be my first option.

Kevin Delson , Dec 04, 2010; 06:43 a.m.

But, I really need a recommendation on a good portrait lens

The word "portrait" covers a lot of ground.

Do you primarily want to shoot head & shoulders, full length, 1/4, groups?

I second the opinion for the 50mm. If money is not a problem, get the f/1.4, otherwise the f/1.8 is fine at around $100 U.S.

If you desire to shoot mostly portraits, I would steer clear of the long excursion zooms due to their slow speed. As you zoom in, this type of lens slows to about f/5.6...In my opinion, 5.6 is very limiting when DOF control is important, not to mention available low light shooting.

Regardless of what you eventually choose, you will find no greater disappointment if you purchase a low quality lens.

As we gain experience in photography, we find one truth is unavoidable; great lenses are not cheap.

When I shoot with my DSLR, the following is in my bag,

17-35mm f/2.8-4
50mm prime
85mm prime
80-200 AF-D f/2.8

I use them all for portraits and all produce wonderful results.

Wouter Willemse , Dec 04, 2010; 07:40 a.m.

I'd second looking at the 60mm macro lenses; the Tamron has advantage of being f/2, the Nikkor has a great reputation and in many cases, you will be shooting at f/2.8 anyway for sufficient depth of field.
And, just discontinued but still available in places: Sigma 50-150 f/2.8 HSM. It's a bit more expensive too, but versatile and users seem to be happy with this lens. Tamron 90mm macro, Sigma 105mm macro or Nikon 105mm macro lenses all are nice options too, if you do not mind a bigger working distance.

In my experience, a 50mm is just a tad short of being a great portrait lens on DX cameras, and none of the 50mm excels in nice, smooth out-of-focus rendering. They're affordable for fast lenses, though, but that does not automatically make them the best choice. Do keep in mind, as already stated, the cheap 50mm f/1.8 will not autofocus on your camera. Does not need to be a horrible problem, the price of this lens makes up for some inconveniences :-)

Benjamin Majcen , Dec 04, 2010; 08:22 a.m.

Nikon D5000 doesn't have built in AF motor, so you can use only AF-S or AF-I lenses if you want to have AF functionality. For portraits it's usefull to have at least an f/2.8 lens (prime or zoom) in the range from 50 to 85mm. I would recommend the AF-S 50/1.4 Nikkor.

Matt Laur , Dec 04, 2010; 08:25 a.m.

none of the 50mm excels in nice, smooth out-of-focus rendering

Bite your tongue, Wouter! Sigma's 50/1.4 HSM, which is priced very similarly to Nikon's, will auto focus on Kristin's D5000, and has absolutely beautiful OoF rendering. It's all about the bokeh, and is really engineered around shooting at wide apertures (Nikon's 50mm lenses are built as more all-around tools, but sure don't make pretty OoF backgrounds - if that stuff really matters, and to each their own on that front). While I understand some people's worries that 50mm is a little short for some portrait work, I've never found it to be a problem.

Below is an out-take from a session with a young subject and her beagle. I had a bag full of lenses along for the morning, and did use the 70-200 for a bunch, but used the Sigma 50/1.4 HSM for a lot of these, including this one. You're seeing almost the full frame, and I was working from perhaps seven or eight feet back for this particular shot. The lens is stopped down a bit to provide more than paper-thin depth of field.

50mm on DX can be very useful, and doesn't have to make crunchy backgrounds.

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