Quality camera lenses are expensive—really expensive. One lens could set you back more than double the price of your camera. And for most people, that’s reason enough to steer clear of pro gear. But Nikon’s portrait AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D lens (item 1931) changed all of that. Yes, that’s past tense. It’s been around for over a decade, but the tack sharp portraits it produces for under $500 are still a worthy first step for the advanced amateur photographer.
It’s priced at about the same cost of an entry level DSLR, and if that utterly shocks you, this lens is probably more than you require. But Nikon’s 85mm F1.8 lens produces results that are hardly distinguishable from $1,000+ lenses. And if you can find a used one, you might even get it for closer to $300.
I first shot this lens with a Nikon D40x. Basically, that means two things: I was using the cheapest Nikon Dx camera available; and the lens wouldn’t auto-focus since my camera body has no internal focusing motor (most newer lenses have their own internal focusing motors). But the camera still confirms accurate manual focusing with a green dot. And the portraits it produces are absolutely superb.
- Small and compact.
- F1.8 aperture produces blurring of background essential for evocative portraits.
- Rear-focusing allows quick auto-focus on better Nikon models.
- Auto-focus is incompatible for the least expensive bodies like the D5000s, D3000s, D60, and D40.
There are a few third party companies out there that make decent portrait lenses for Nikon. But if you’re beginning portrait photography, it’s more important to look at the different types of lenses available than the third party brands that make them.
Before using this lens, the best thing I had for portraits was the AF-S DX VR Zoom-Nikkor 55-200mm 1:4-5.6 ($250). I could never shoot indoors without a flash and I could never shorten the depth of field enough to get focus only at someones eyes and have blur back at their ears. But that’s part of the magic that had always intrigued me about professional portraits. With Nikon’s AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D I was able to make the subject pop easily putting everything else out of focus. Click on the photo below to check out the shallow depth of field the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is capable of.
This lens is simply the most affordable of Nikon’s portrait lenses. The next step up in cost is a rather dramatic one when compared with the difference in performance. Take the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D, for example. There are two main differences between this lens and the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D. The f/1.4 is 2/3 stop wider and it costs you an extra $900. That is way too much for a first portrait lens.
Other options include the Nikkor AF 105 mm f/2 DC. The DC stands for defocus control, which means the type of blur in the out-of-focus area can be controlled by a separate ring on the lens. This feature is reported to yield excellent results, but its price tag is right around $1,000.
For those interested in getting into portrait photography there are a number of medium-telephoto large aperture lenses on the market. But for the money the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D (item 1931) for Nikon is the best deal out there. It will take your portraits to a whole new level. And if one day you should decide you’re ready for the more nuanced results of the higher-end portrait lenses, you should still be able to sell it for close to what you bought it for.