The classic portrait shot places a flattering view of the subject against a blurred background. This is very easy to achieve with the right lens and all the models below will do the trick.

The key behind a blurred background is having a lens with a large aperture, indicated by a small f-number. The best portrait lenses have an f-number of 2.8 or smaller, and the lower this figure, the more blurred you can make your background. Lenses with smaller f-numbers also gather more light which makes them ideal for taking photos in dim conditions without resorting to flashes or increasing the camera’s ISO sensitivity. See my Portrait Tutorial for more details.

The flattering view is achieved with a lens sporting a slightly magnified view, which typically means having an equivalent focal length of between 70 and 135mm. Shorter focal lengths can give unflattering results with single-person portraits, although are ideal for group shots, while longer ones force the photographer further from the subject, although this may be preferred for discreet, candid shots. Longer focal lengths also accentuate the blurred background effect. A zoom lens which includes both wide angle and short telephoto will be ideal for events like weddings where you need to capture groups and single person shots.

Almost every photographer will benefit from having a good portrait / low-light lens in their collection and for many it’ll be the second lens they’ll buy. Large aperture lenses can be expensive, but there are a few exceptional bargains. Here are the models I recommend.

Best Nikon Portrait Lenses

Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art review

The new Sigma 85/1.4 Art finally brings Sigma's 85mm prime up to the performance one can expect from a modern lens designed with 36+ MP sensors in mind: It offers the best performing FF/FX-corners and the softest Bokeh of any 85mm lens I know. Plus it is astonishingly resilient against strong contra-light. And although it is not the sharpest in the center, has a little more longitudinal CAs than others, and is a huge and heavy beast of a lens I'd award Sigma's new 85/1.4 Art a Highly Recommended. But this is under the caveat that the AF-issues are singular problems with my copy of the lens.

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Nikon 105mm f1.4E review

Nikon has taken on-board the feedback it received on its 58/1.4 lens: not only did they produce an f1.4 lens at a unique focal length of 105mm which has a 20% better reach over a 85mm lens and gets you better background isolation but they also endowed it with very good image quality to boot: Easy to focus, sharp across the full-frame sensor, and with only little CA. You can easily use this lens wide open and get sharp and contrasty shots right into the corners of a high resolution full-frame sensor. As such its optical performance is almost up there with the Zeiss Otus and it delivers a better Bokeh. It is a bit on the fat and costly side but all-in-all the Nikon 105mm f1.4E earns a Highly Recommended.

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Tamron 85mm f1.8 VC review

The new Tamron 85/1.8 VC is a unique lens: It combines very good optical performance with image stabilization at a reasonable price. In fact it's the only stabilized large aperture 85mm prime for Canon and Nikon users. Its autofocus is reliable (after some tweaking) and the package is not too large or heavy to become intimidating. As such it earns a Highly Recommended.

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Nikon 24-70mm f2.8E VR review

Having the most effective image stabilization and the best image quality across the FX-sensor in its class earns this lens a Highly Recommended. Be aware though that this performance comes at a price: literally and in an increase in size and weight. Good points: Good to very good quality across the full-frame area; weather sealing; quiet and fast AF operation; very good image stabilization. Bad points: Stronger vignetting and distortions than predecessor; large and heavy; very high price.

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Zeiss Otus 85mm f1.4 review

Sharpness, contrast, resistance against contra light, coma, loCA, purple fringing, Bokeh are all on a very good to exceptional level even at f1.4. So this is really the lens that you can use wide open with little to no compromise in optical performance and in that it is a unique short telephoto lens. It produces clearer shots than with any other 85mm lens I’ve seen. Plus there is its exceptional build: This lens exudes quality in every aspect of its physical presence. So optical plus mechanical quality make for a very compelling package. The only let-down being that it's a manual focus only lens. Still the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Otus has well earned a Highly Recommended.

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Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art review

If you want a truly high-end 50mm lens with autofocus, forget about Canon's own EF 50mm f1.2. For me, the best choice is Sigma's 50mm f1.4 ART lens. In my tests it delivers better contrast and crisper details across the entire frame, especially in the corners. And while the 'bokeh blobs' on the f1.2 are larger, I actually prefer the out-of-focus rendering on the Sigma. Admittedly the Sigma is bigger and heavier than any of the Canon 50mm lenses, but it costs only two thirds of the f1.2 making it a no-brainer in comparison, and that's before you even factor in the ability to switch its mount (at a cost) to a different system should you move from Canon in the future. For me it's the best 50mm with autofocus around.

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Zeiss Otus 55mm f1.4 review

Good points: Outstanding performance across the frame of a high-resolution full-frame sensor even wide open; excellent build quality. Bad points: Extremely high price; no auto-focus; large and heavy; light fall-off at apertures larger than f2.8; not weather-sealed at the lens mount.

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Nikon 85mm f1.8G review

The Nikon 85/1.8G is a very good lens and represents excellent value for money. It’s the cheapest 85mm large aperture lens with AF across all Nikon bodies that you can buy and it delivers an image quality that is actually better in some respects than its larger (and 3-4 times pricier) sibling – the Nikon AF-S 85/1.4G. Contrast and sharpness is very good even wide open over the FX image-circle and resistance to color aberrations is also better than with the other 85mm lenses from Nikon. Overall it is a worthy successor to the AF 85/1.8D (which I really wouldn’t recommend buying any more). So it’ll come as no surprise to learn the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G easily earns our Highly Recommended award.

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