“Hello, I would like to buy a lens that would allow me to take pictures in low light and make beautiful portraits. I need a fast lens. Which would you recommend? I have a Nikon D5100.” asks Emelyne. Here is my answer :
85mm lenses : AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G and AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G
Usually, a portrait focal length is considered as ideal at 85mm, but depending on the distance and composition that you want, you can go for 50-105mm focal lengths from. If the focal length traditionnaly presumed as ideal for portraits is an 85mm lens. And Nikon’s lens range has 2 main high-performance 85mm lenses : the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G and AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G . The APS-C sensor of such a DSLR like a Nikon D5100 / D5200 crops the photos with the effect of extending the focal length of the lens of 1.5x. So, if you were to purchase a 85mm, it would become a 85mm x 1.5 = 127.5 mm on your camera. A little long for a portrait lens but it is quite possible to capture beautiful portraits with this lens, which also favors a smoother background blur (bokeh), but may have the disadvantage of you being too remote from your subject. The use a long focal length lens will effectively refine the subject’s face. The version f/1.8 of the 95mm lens in Nikon’s range does not demerit against the f/1.4, for a fraction of its price … Reasonable vs pleasure buy….
50mm: AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G vs AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G
In your case, and it will be good news for your budget, you can go for a 50mm or 60mm lens that will provide you with respectively 1.5 x 50mm = 75mm and 1.5 x60mm = 90mm focal length in 35mm language. The advantage of these standard prime lenses is that a 50 and 60mm lens is be much more affordable than expensive 85mm lenses of Nikon’s lens range. The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G is sold around $190 and the high-end AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G is usually found around $350-400. I have done a full review of both lenses which I need to translate into English now. (AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G vs AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G). I will have it translated ASAP to help you find the right choice for you and make the best possible buy. These two lenses both offer a very good image quality and have the advantage of beoing fast lenses with a large aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4, which will allow you to take pictures in lo- light without the need ot the flash but then beware of the shallow depth of field when the diaphragme ring is wide open. For example, if you shoot a subject with a 50mm lens at f/2 and that the subject is 1.5m away from you, the depth of field will be only 6cm deep ! Also keep in mind that a lens barely gives the best of itself (I am talking about the optical quality) at its fastest apertures.
If your choice is one these lenses, you can then use them on a full frame camera (FX mount in Nikon’s vocabulary) with a 35mm sensor with is what they are designed to be used on actually.
The case of the 60mm macro
For a little more versatility and a little longer focal length which can’t hurt your portraits, you may want to choose a 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. Of course, the lens is optimized for macro photography and close distance subjects, of course, you lose two f-stops in brightness, but your lens is more versatile and that can be quite usefull if you interested into small world photography and very close shots. I’d say a macro lens could make sens for you, also to shoot your portraits.
Independent brands Sigma and Tamron
I have been talking about Nikon lenses only, but of course, do not forget that independent lens manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron produce excellent prime lenses and most often at attractive prices. This is the case of the professional range in Sigma’s catalog like the 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM, far from being really cheap with a selling price of around $1000, but still 20-30% cheaper than the equivalent in Nikon’s brand, or the Sigma 50mm or F1 .4 EX DG HSM.
Why not a zoom lens : AF-S DX 17-55mm F2.8 ED-IF
And why not going for a zoom lens like the beautiful, fast, crisp, but frankly freaking expensive AF-S DX 17-55mm F/2.8 ED-IF that offers a generous maximum aperture of f/2.8 throughout its entire focal range from 17mm to 55mm, meaning 27mm to 82.55mm once mounted on an APS-C DSLR like the Nikon D3200, D5100, D5200 and D700 (which I used with this killer lens for a while) and always open to f/2.8. Its sharpness is excellent at all focal lengths and can advantageously replace several prime lenses like a 28mm, a 50mm and a 85mm. But the price tag of $1,399 may frighten you, and I would understand ! Obvisouly, nowadays, Canon and Nikon do offer high-tech cameras that lure photographers into their universe so that they can sell you expensive glass for years….
What portrait lens : reason purchase vs. pleasure purchase
When comes the time to make your choice, you can hesitate between a 50mm and a 85mm. I do recommend that you test which option you prefer with a zoom like the 18-105mm 50mm. Once you know if your instinct guides you more often on a longer focal length which will mean you would rather buy a 85mm or a more medium focal length then you’d get a 50mm. Then what to choose an f/1.4 or f/1.8 ? It depends of course on your budget, but be aware that stopping down a little will most often cancel any visible sharpness quality between the cheaper f/1.8 lenses over the f/1.4 which are 2-3x mroe expensive. Both f/1.4 lenses are “prestige lenses”, they are beautiful objects, which we all often dream of having in our camera bag. But ultimately, it is the eye of the photographer that makes the difference and not your equipment! Do me a favor : keep this in mind.
Lens f / 1.8 = smart purchase.
Lens f / 1.4 = purchasing pleasure.