LENSTOPIA Part II – The 5 Top Lenses For Your Nikon Camera

Hopefully you caught this popular post last quarter. And so it continues here with another review of the top lenses – this time of the top Nikon lenses – my preferred weapon of choice when shooting stills. You already know I rarely write about gear since there are entire websites dedicated to that sophistry but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a top request I get from you, so the way I mitigate these divergent forces is by occasionally highlighting the tools that I actually use, lust for or have used extensively in the field…for years. The benefit of this approach is that I shoot almost EVERY camera brand for one thing or another. There is no brand loyalty here – just a loyalty to quality. Nikon for stills. Canon dSLR for video. Hasselblad for high end studio / fashion, GoPro for POV etc etc. So between yours truly, my video guru Erik, and my gear editor/research pal Sohail we’ve logged some real effort here to aggregate our thoughts on these lenses with the hope that you get at least 1 or 2 juicy takeaways. The images are Sohail’s since he is more of a gear “tester” – and wrangling thru millions of images to find one of my fav’s with each lens would kill me. So there you have it. Finally…a “top anything” list always stirs some debate – but that’s welcome and appreciated. Think we’re off by a lens or two? Let us know below – and why.

Oh and as a reminder – this isn’t a list of ‘the 5 lenses everyone should have’. It’s ‘these are the top 5 lenses in the Nikon lineup… Reminder you can rent or buy at very different price point ;)

So here’s Lenstopia Part II: Nikon.

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G

Nikon makes a very nice f/1.4 version of the standard 85mm portrait lens, but for my money (and yours), the smaller, cheaper, and lighter 85mm f/1.8G is where it’s at. Aside from the small difference in aperture, this lens dominates its more expensive counterpart. This is one of the best portrait lens I’ve ever used, and I can’t speak highly enough of it. It boasts 7 diaphragm blades make for a nice, buttery bokeh, and the optics are simply outstanding, providing tack sharp images even when the aperture is wide open. We’ve all got friends who made their start as portrait photographers with this lens and continue using it well after they could have afforded the more expensive 85mm f/1.4.

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

Shot with a Nikon D800E and an 85mm f/1.8G lens. © Sohail Mamdani

Shot with a Nikon D800E and an 85mm f/1.8G lens. © Sohail Mamdani

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G Lens

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G Lens

This lens needs no introduction. To say that it’s legendary is to hit it right on the mark. It is a veritable workhorse for me – when I ask for the “wide” from my assistant, he knows to hand me this lens, period. For landscape photographers, it’s always a tasty lens to have.

Another tasty bit that makes this lens remarkable is how incredibly sharp it is, corner-to-corner. Wide-angle lenses –especially those with the bulbous front element that this one has– often lose some of that sharpness in the corners. At 14mm, you’ll definitely see some distortion and there will be some vignetting at that range as well, but both are easily corrected in software. If you use Lightroom, it has a built-in lens profile to correct for those.

Canon users have a serious case of lens envy when it comes to this beauty. There simply isn’t anything out there in this zoom and aperture range that can come close to it in the Canon inventory; in fact, a number of photographers (including Sohail) have stuck this baby onto a Canon body to get the most out of both worlds – especially when shooting video.

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

Delta Farm. Shot with the Nikon D800E and 14-24mm f/2.8G lens. © Sohail Mamdani

Delta Farm. Shot with the Nikon D800E and 14-24mm f/2.8G lens. © Sohail Mamdani

Nikon 135mm f/2DC

Nikon 135mm f/2DC

Nikon 135mm f/2DC

Erik, Sohail and I rapped about this and two things came up. One: this is the sharpest portrait lens out there. It slays. And two: to the best of our recollection, Nikon and Sony are the only manufacturers that make these “Defocus Control” lenses. Simply put, they allow you to control the “look” of the out-of-focus areas (see this article for a good example of what that means), and that gives you an added amount of creative control over that aspect of your images.

#2 is a nice to have. For #1, this lens is the undisputed heavyweight champ of the Nikon line and perhaps the world. The Nikon 135mm f/2.0DC lens has pure rock-solid optics. Another bonus is the metal hood. The design is tops and helps us avoid those pesky (breakable) plastic ones that dominate the market these days. The only detriment to this lens making this list? It’s very hard to find. They are a limited-run lens and often out of stock. Rumor has it that a shipment is on it’s way to Adorama right now. Literally. If you have the means to pick one up you won’t be sorry. For the record, I don’t own this lens, but I wish I did and may get on this next shipment ;)

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

Shot with a D800E and a Nikon 135mm f/2

Shot with a D800E and a Nikon 135mm f/2. © Sohail Mamdani

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII

This lens is the workhorse of the Nikon lineup. No lens has spent as much time on Nikon bodies – including mine – as this one, and every single one of my Nikon-shooting buddies swear by the 70-200mm. Version One of this lens was no less of a workhorse, but when the VRII came out around 2009 or 2010, Nikon upped the game considerably. Largely gone were any issues that plagued the version I – the vignetting at certain focal lengths, the slight softness at certain apertures, the chromatic aberration that showed up from time to time. This lens does everything the version I did, and then some. Focusing, btw, is legendary and almost bulletproof.

VR is better as well, giving you up to four stops of vibration reduction. Nikon also added nano-crystal coating to this lens’ elements and the lens is weather-sealed with compatible bodies. The focal length is useful for just about every kind of shooter (Sohail even uses it for landscape, as you can see below), and most wedding and portrait shooters will typically have this one on hand for important shoots.

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

Fog-shrouded Bay Area. Shot with the Nikon 70-200 f.2.8 VRII © Sohail Mamdani

Fog-shrouded Bay Area. Shot with the Nikon 70-200 f.2.8 VRII © Sohail Mamdani

Nikon 800mm f/5.6

Nikon 800mm f/5.6ED

Nikon 800mm f/5.6ED

Okay, let’s be clear; this isn’t a lens a lot of folks will be able to afford. It’s sweet if you are loaded and have one laying around to use at will – but confession; I do not own this lens (both you and I can rent it from our pals at BorrowLenses.com, though). But it does belong on this list, and here’s why.

Until recently, Canon’s 800mm f/5.6 lens has been about the longest lens currently in production by one of the big manufacturers. The longest lens on the Nikon side has been the 600mm f/4, which is a rather good bit of kit on its own.

Until recently Nikonians have had to put up with Canonites flaunting their 800mm. Well, Nikonians now have their own cannon (yes, pun intended) to play with, and oh, what a cannon it is! The 800mm f/5.6 is a beauty of a lens, and is certainly the finest super-tele optics I’ve had the pleasure of shooting with and perhaps tops overall. It IS the lens on this list that I have the least experience with, but I can confirm that it focuses every bit as fast as Nikon’s 600mm f/4 does, and faster IMHO than the Canon 800mm f/5.6. The optics are yummy, and you’re more likely to notice atmospheric distortion caused by focusing on objects far away than you are optical distortion – which is a feat of physics.

Again, this is not your everyday lense (or even every month) but when you gotta go long, this is absolutely delicious. While TC’s are not my thing, Sohail says if you throw on the included 1.25x teleconverter (now you’re rockin’ a 1000mm f/7.1 lens) this sucker is so powerful, it’ll give you a slightly uneasy feeling as you point it at distant building. From across the San Francisco Bay, standing on Treasure Island, you can take an image that will let you actually see into the windows of the top floors of the Transamerica Pyramid Building well enough to make out the green glow of an “Exit” sign, some art on the walls, and a doorway. Whoa.

Closeup of the Transamerica Pyramid Building © Sohail Mamdani

100% crop of the image of the Transamerica Pyramid Building © Sohail Mamdani

Creepy? Yeah. Cool as heck? Definitely!

Buy it here.
Borrow it here.

That’s it for this edition of Lenstopia. In the next installment, we’ll take on the best lenses Hasselblad has to offer.

99 Responses to LENSTOPIA Part II – The 5 Top Lenses For Your Nikon Camera

  1. Scott Reither February 5, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

    That 800 could be fun to rent and play around with. I can’t even imagine how my “eye” would see at that focal length…

    Thanks for the report.

  2. Matthew Kieffer February 5, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

    I am actually surprised that the 24-70 did not make the list. Sure, it is not all that sexy, but it makes up for it in versatility vs. quality. Looking forward to your review of the 58mm 1.4.

    • Chase February 10, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

      Matthew – see my note below on the 24-70. In short, I love it, but its not “tops”.

  3. Malinda Hartong February 5, 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    I so agree with the 85 and the 70-200. There are 3 more i LOVE on my D300s (yes its a crop frame and I love that about it)
    50mm f1.8
    24-85 2.8-4 – AWESOME walk around lens. This old style is discontinued and I will miss t dearly if I ever need to replace mine – it has a macro setting that lets me get close enough to bump the lens hood on whatever I’m shooting before I get too close. That in my book makes it perfect for me – 2 lenses in 1 for under $600. You can still find a refurb here & there.
    12-24 – again perfect on my camera. I use it all the time literally shooting from the hip, especially for news shooting kids events – looking the other way they are more ‘candid’ and less camera-aware.
    Thanks for posting your faves. Oh, and 1 more I miss from my staff days – 200-400 – great for SWAT & highway crashes shot from far away

    • David Snyder May 16, 2014 at 10:23 pm #

      I see you use a d300., can you help me decide between a d7100 and a d610 ? Dx or Fx ? I currently have a d40x and want to upgrade . Thank you !

      • frank September 30, 2014 at 9:08 am #

        No contest crop frame right now the ruler of the kingdom is the Nikon D7100 by far and wide… you will be extremely hard pressed to jump to FX bodies once you see the quality of image you get with this body and FX lenses… its mental.

        Perfect in every aspect for the on the go photographer … nice res… great frames per second, very acceptable low light performance and dual sd card slots ( and no matter how much you jump cry or scream SD cards ARE the future) slap a battery grip an FX lens and you will be very hard press to find a better combination.

        • Lindsey October 31, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

          I own a D80 and was looking on upgrading as well. So the FX is a lot better then? I was going to stick with the DX because I have 3 lenses for it and just buy new lenses. But if the FX is better ill look into it. I shoot portraits, pets, kids sporting events etc.

          • Mike December 18, 2014 at 10:49 am #

            No Lindsey, he said ‘FX Lenses on a DX body’.

  4. Alex February 5, 2014 at 5:29 pm #

    I love the 50 mm1.4 too !,

  5. Packer February 5, 2014 at 5:34 pm #

    With Matthew on the 24-70 not making the cut. Surprising knowing how much you praise it elsewhere and how versatile it is. In general though, a very interesting list. I’d never heard much about the 135mm. Will check it out.

    • Chase February 10, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

      i LOVE the 24-70. Def my most ‘used’ lense. but that’s cause the focal length is popular and the zoom gives me flexibility…not necessarily because it’s one of Nikon “top” lenses. It’s not bad, and i use the thing every damn day, but the other 5 are higher in quality.

      • Anonymous March 12, 2014 at 6:03 am #

        SO THE 24-70 Would be in your must have list?

        What would be your must have list as this is your top 5 best quality list.

      • Scott Ramsey November 18, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

        I’m thinking of getting the 16-35mm f/4 for my landscape go to lens since you can use a filter with it. What are your thoughts vs. the 14-24? I’m thinking the filter would be the deciding factor. Thanks for your insight.

  6. Jason February 5, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    I’ve not used the 135 DC, but I have the 105 DC and it is phenomenally sharp. If you can’t find the 135mm, or that length is a little long for you, consider the 105. It will not dissapointed.

    • Chase February 10, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

      That, ladies and gentlemen, is great advice from Jason…

  7. João Almeida February 5, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    I own the 105mm f2 DC (much similar to the 135mm) and it’s one my favourite lenses ever, it has got one of the nicest bokehs I’ve seen and love it as a portrait lens or as a street tele. It even was one of the reasons why I bought an F mount adapter for my newly bought Fuji.

  8. bwana February 5, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    You buy it here for Nikon 800mm f/5.6 goes to a Sigma lens?

  9. JoeyB February 5, 2014 at 8:15 pm #

    I’ve been curious about the 135… now I’ll have to rent one and see if I like it!

  10. David Wai February 5, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    I’m a Canonite. I think I can say the same for the canon equivalents.

  11. Lester February 6, 2014 at 5:28 am #

    I absolutely love my Nikon 200mm f/2.0!

    • Chase February 10, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

      I do totally dig the 200 f2. also love the 200-400 f4. both those are delicious

  12. si morgan February 6, 2014 at 8:47 am #

    Must agree on the 135 f2, I own it , i love it , its a bitch to use, but my god the photos are fantastic. That lens is the daddy. 85 1.4 is also superb and easier to use so I have that on my cam most of the time.

    • Chase February 10, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

      yes. it needs an update – but the optics…. right?!

  13. faisal February 6, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    Some really cool lenses.

  14. Mark February 7, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    The 135mm f/2 is an aging CA filled lens about 10 years overdue for an update. The canon version (and just about every 70-200) bests it easily. Let’s just hope sigma come up with a modern alternative soon.

    • Chase February 10, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

      Aging ain’t always bad Mark ;) But I agree. Love to see an update to this sucker.

  15. Alex Chambers February 8, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

    Thanks for sharing us about this review! Which among them is the cheapest and yet have a good quality and can be used by a professional photographer? I’m there are new model of lenses coming this year so we’ll be looking forward for them.

    • Chase February 10, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

      not sure about “cheapest” but I think you can get good prices on the 135, and the 70-200 – given that these are very very “useful” lenses.

      But click around on the Adorama links under “buy” and see what you get w price…

  16. Linda February 11, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    I love my Nikon cameras and lenses. With that said, I adore the 70-200 mm and am quickly falling in love with my 85mm which has taken me over a year to use more often than not. Thanks for the tips.

  17. Amin Riadh February 15, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    “Nikon 135mm f/2DC”

    If you do not have the money . . . buy a Carl Zeiss Jenna DDR Sonnar f/3.5 135mm – it is cheap and you will need an adapter. Quality? It can come very close to that lens mentioned above . . . yes you only have manual control.

    However – it does suffer longitudinal CA.

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  19. David Ewers February 18, 2014 at 1:11 am #

    the Nikon 800mm is a fantastic lens but unless you are shooting wildlife at extreme distance or very serious bird photography. I can’t see much use for it. It is even too long and hefty for sports photography. I think the 200 F2 would be a better lens on this list

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  21. Daf February 20, 2014 at 5:33 am #

    Is there a Wide Prime prime that you’d suggest ?
    Think I’d prefer a short DOF prime over the 14-24.

    Have the 85 1.8 – lovely lens although it’s struggled to focus on occasion. Have missed a shot or two.
    Much slower than my 50 1.4 or 24-70

    • Daf February 20, 2014 at 5:34 am #

      I mean shallow DOF not short

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    Nikon is great…..

  23. Tom Mason March 1, 2014 at 4:34 am #

    Sweet list of lenses, the 70-200 is certainly on my list for 2014 after my 24-70 purchase soon!
    Got to say one lens that I own and Totally LOVE is the 300 2.8 VR II!
    Saved for 4 years, bought it on my 18th Birthday. Love it and use it every day basically. Sharp as tack, built like a tank and with the 1.4 and new 2.0 TC’s gives an awesome set of 300 420 and 600mm focal lengths on FX. Oh and the AF is sexy fast.
    One for the consideration if long lenses are your bag!

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  43. Foto Nunta Brasov July 8, 2014 at 5:59 am #

    I use for wedding this lenses:
    Canon 35 f2 IS
    Canon 100 f2.8 Macro
    Canon 24-105 f4 IS
    Canon 70-200 f 2.8 L IS II

    Thank you for the review.

    • C September 30, 2014 at 9:23 am #

      We don’t care for Canon over here :)

    • C September 30, 2014 at 9:24 am #

      24-70mm is my favorite! It’s great.

  44. int64 August 8, 2014 at 3:05 am #

    Great post !

    I would never recommend the 800mm. Instead, the 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR with a tele-converter.

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  50. Stephen R September 30, 2014 at 8:14 pm #

    I couldn’t quite afford the luscious 14-24 so I got the 17-35mm f2.8 instead, not as good but great value!

  51. Dan October 14, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

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  57. Terry December 18, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    I have two of these lenses. The 70-200mm (my fav) and the 14-24mm.
    Both have there places in my camera bag and never leave without them.
    The 70-200mm is 75% or more of the time on my D800. I also have a 35mm 1.4 which is super sharp also.
    My least used lens is the 50mm 1.4G but it does get used for specific looks.
    I’d sure love to add that 800mm to my arsenal. I’m accepting all donations to make it happen! lol
    Thanks Chase!
    Cheers :)

  58. Brian Davis December 18, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    I’ve got the Nikon 135 F/2 and it’s a great portrait lens for isolation and buttery bokeh, but it’s definitely not crazy sharp. I’ve actually found its pretty soft especially around F/2 – F/2.8 where I normally shoot it. If you stop down to F/4 – F/5.6 it does get a bit better, but still not the sharpest. I recently picked up a Sigma 50 F/1.4 Art and that thing is amazingly fast/sharp. It’s my new fav….totally beating out my pro Nikon glass.

  59. Brad Chaplin December 18, 2014 at 6:37 pm #

    Thank you for the review. This is very useful information. I will keep this in mind as I add lenses to my bag.

  60. Kirkland BYARS December 23, 2014 at 1:09 am #

    I went to Rochester in 1979. Held the first digital camera, a 1.0 mp Sony Mavica. The instructors said it was the “wave of the future”. Google these names, Walter Heun of Leica, Bernie Boston, chief of White House photography, Fred Maroon, Elie Adams of National Geographic. These guys these things, never use a filter, always use a tripod if possible, low light mornings and evenings make greatest textures and color, anticipate, shoot many frames, never be afraid to get the right shot, dress and behave in the proper protocol.
    Then I moved into my professional career. Shot with Rowland Scherman, Walter Iooss, Neil Leifer, Bernard Troncale, among others. I’m moving back into photography. Watch out, I’m not afraid anymore, well maybe of ISIS knives. Photographers, it is an exciting time to never have to step into a darkroom. I guess Adobe took care of that. There is an ethical line there.
    But for equipment, toughness and on the gold standard Nikon and Leica are hard to beat.

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