with CLIPREVIEWED learn the articleThe Best Nikon Lenses for 2021
Get the Right Lens for Your Camera
In contrast to rival Canon, which uses different branding for its cameras in different regions, Nikon makes it pretty easy to identify which type of lens you can use with your camera. If you shoot with a full-frame camera, avoid lenses with the DX designation—it indicates that they only cover the smaller, APS-C sensor size—which is probably the sensor your camera uses if you aren’t sure.
Nikon’s current naming convention is pretty easy to wrap your head around. Most shoppers buy a camera from the entry-level (D3000), midrange (D5000), or enthusiast (D7000) families. There are some DX models that are geared toward pros—the D500 is the current one—but for the most part, cameras with shorter model numbers sport full-frame sensors. Current models include the D780, D850, and D6—there’s also the retro Df, but if you bought a Df you know it’s a full-frame camera.
Nikon used to have a third sensor format, CX, for its small 1-series mirrorless system. But the 1 series is dead. The current mirrorless system is called Z. It includes both full-frame models and an APS-C option, the Z 50. You can use native Z lenses, or SLR lenses via an adapter.
If you’re confused, just remember: You can (almost) always use a full-frame lens with an APS-C camera, although its angle of view will be narrower because the sensor is physically smaller. Nikon allows you to use its APS-C lenses on full-frame bodies too—you’ll either deal with a dark circle around the portion of the sensor the lens’ image circle doesn’t cover, or you can set your camera to automatically crop images to match APS-C sensor size. Doing so also drops resolution, as you aren’t using all of the pixels the sensor offers.
What Kind of Lens Do You Want?
Once you’ve sussed out your camera’s sensor size, you should think about the type of lens you want to buy. If you started with an entry-level camera, you’re likely thinking about upgrading or supplementing the bundled 18-55mm zoom lens. If you’re interested in capturing sports or wildlife, a telephoto zoom is a better fit. And if portraiture is your thing, there are lenses for that too.
A lens focal length—the mm number—tells you a lot about its purpose. With an APS-C system, the 18-55mm starter zoom covers a moderate wide angle to a short telephoto angle of view. It’s a very useful range—roughly full-frame matching a 28-80mm zoom—but it doesn’t get you ultra-wide views, longer telephoto reach, or the ability to really blur the backgrounds of images.
How shallow your depth of field can be—that is, how blurry your backgrounds are—is dependent on several factors, including the distance between your camera and subject and the distance between the subject and background. But the biggest factors are the focal length—it’s easier to get a shallower field of focus with a longer lens—and the aperture. A lens that can capture more light—one with a lower f-stop number—can blur a background more readily than a lens with a smaller one.
Optical stabilization is also something to think about. Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless cameras have built-in stabilization, which is a definite plus, especially for wider angles, but its SLRs and Z 50 DX mirrorless body don’t have the feature. Nikon calls its image stabilization system VR, so if you’re buying a Nikon lens, try to get one with the VR designation if it’s available.
There is one more thing Nikon owners should pay attention to, and that is autofocus. Nikon still sells a few manual focus lenses, but they are very specialized tools. Consumer Nikon SLRs—models in the D3000 and D5000 family—won’t focus older Nikon lenses that rely on a screw-drive system. Look for one with an AF-S or AF-P designation to ensure that it will focus with all current models.
Get a Better Standard Zoom
In some photography circles, “kit lens” is a dirty word. If you’ve had your Nikon for more than a few years, you may still have one of the older, not great, starter zooms that earned the stigma. Modern starters, including the current AF-P DX Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR, are better, but definitely not the best piece of glass you can attach to your camera.
There are different options at different price prices, but our favorites include the affordable Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM. It has image stabilization, a good macro capability, and strong optical performance. The Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 is another good one—it doesn’t have stabilization, but its bright, f/1.8 aperture is unmatched by the competition. Our other favorites for APS-C owners are listed below.
The Best DX Standard Zoom Lenses (SLR)
If you’re a full-frame owner, your standard zoom options are different. While some ship with a starter zoom, most are sold without a bundled lens, so it’s up to you to choose where to begin. Pros who shoot events will set their sights on a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom, while someone who prefers a lighter kit can think about an f/4 zoom instead. There are longer-zooming options, too—Nikon offers a 24-120mm f/4, while most third parties, including Sigma, sell lenses with 24-105mm f/4 designs.
The Best FX Standard Zooms (SLR)
If you have a Nikon Z mirrorless camera, you can use any SLR lens with the FTZ adapter, but you’ll be better off with a native option. Full-frame owners can choose between the compact 24-70mm f/4 and premium 24-70mm f/2.8. The Z 50 ships with the Nikkor Z DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR, but we’ve not yet had a chance to review it.
The Best Z Mount Standard Zooms
Interchangeable lens cameras have a big advantage over smartphones and dedicated point-and-shoots when it comes to capturing wide views of the world. Most compacts start around 24mm (full-frame equivalent), and your phone’s main lens typically covers the same angle of view.
If you’ve got an APS-C camera, you can buy a lens that’s as wide as 8mm (13mm full-frame equivalent), although most of your options start out at 10mm (15mm equivalent). These lenses capture a much larger swath of the world, allowing you to frame an epic landscape, or get close to a subject and capture both it and the vast background.
The Best DX Wide Angle Lenses (SLR)
You can actually get a wider angle of coverage by opting for a full-frame system. Here, zooms start at 12mm, giving you just a bit more coverage than an 8mm APS-C lens. You will have to go third party to get quite that wide, though, as Nikon’s widest native full-frame lens is a 14mm.
The Best FX Wide Angle Lenses (SLR)
As with APS-C lenses, some of the wide zooms available for the Nikon system do support optical stabilization, which is a big plus for keeping handheld video steady. But for the best video stabilization results, we recommend pairing a lens with VR with a body with IBIS, a feature currently limited to the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7.
Z owners have two current autofocus option, the Z 14-30mm F4 and the Z 14-24mm F2.8—we’ve just received the latter for review. There is some third-party support in this arena. We’ve reviewed the manual focus Venus Laowa 15mm, and the company sells other wide lenses for the system as well.
The Best Z Mount Wide Angle Lenses
A Curved, Fish-Eye Perspective
There are lenses that are wider than wide, but they get there by showing the world in a distorted, bulbous view. Fish-eye caught on as the term to describe the look and stuck. No manufacturer offers a large number of fish-eye lenses, but Nikon shooters have the bases covered.
There is one dedicated APS-C lens in the Nikkor family, a 10.5mm f/2.8 prime. It’s an older lens, but one that’s still fun to use—though it’s one of those Nikkors with screw-drive focus, so if you use an entry-level camera you’ll have to use it as a manual focus lens. That’s not a big deal for a fish-eye—typically most of your scene is in focus due to a large depth of field. But it’s definitely something to be aware of before buying.
The Best Fish-Eye Lenses (SLR)
Nikon also has its own fish-eye zoom, which can show a full circular image on full-frame systems. It’s an expensive lens, but also a very good performer, with compatibility for full-frame systems and autofocus support with all current Nikons. Third-party options are all manual focus, but are a good way to add a fish-eye to your bag without spending too much money.
Go Long With Telephoto
If you’re a photographer with a keen interest in capturing images of skittish wildlife, or dream of getting the shot of your kid scoring a winning goal, a telephoto lens is something you’ll want to invest in. Nikon offers a bunch, at varying prices. There are some you should avoid—don’t buy the version of the AF-P DX Nikkor 70-300mm that omits VR—and there are some very solid budget options, including the DX 70-300mm VR, which is lighter and smaller than comparable full-frame zooms.
The Best DX Telephoto Lenses (SLR)
If you do see yourself moving up to a full-frame camera, the only real reason not to buy a full-frame telezoom is to save some money, or cut down the weight of your kit. While the smaller sensor format cuts into wide-angle coverage, it effectively extends the reach of your long lenses. The benefit is lessened if you opt for a high-resolution model—remember the D850 may be a 45MP full-frame camera, but its APS-C sensor area is about 19.4MP. Most of Nikon’s APS-C models have 20MP or 24MP image sensors, so they don’t offer a substantial increase versus Nikon’s highest resolution full-frame camera.
The Best FX Telephoto Lenses (SLR)
Telephoto lenses come in all shapes and sizes, but event photographers will likely find their needs met by a 70-200mm zoom, while birders will want at least 600mm of reach. You can get a solid zoom lens for under $1,000, but there are exotic prime lens options with big apertures and big price tags—some more than $10,000.
We’ve yet to review any long lenses for the Z system, but the Z 70-200mm F2.8 is the obvious choice for pros. We just received it for review, and early testing shows it to be a top flight option, and its reach can be extended using either a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter.
More long lenses are planned for the system. Nikon includes 100-400mm and 200-600mm zooms on the development roadmap for Z.
Work in Dim Light and Capture Gorgeous Portraits
One of the reasons for using a big camera instead of your phone or a pocketable point-and-shoot is the ability to capture images in light that is less than ideal. But the f/3.5-5.6 starter zoom is not the best tool for capturing flash-free images in the artificial light under which we live our lives.
The Best DX Prime Lenses (SLR)
This is where a bright prime lens comes into play. Nikon has one that’s ideal for APS-C (DX) sensors, the DX 35mm f/1.8. To get an idea of its angle of view, set your kit zoom to the 35mm position—the prime lens will give you that angle of view at all times, so you lose the ability to zoom, but you’ll capture about four times as much light, and be able to blur out the background behind your subjects. If you find the standard angle too constricting, consider using a bright full-frame lens with a wider angle instead.
There are dedicated full-frame primes ranging from 14mm all the way to 800mm for the Nikon system, but for all-around use we tend to recommend lenses between 20 and 50mm in focal length. Nikon has a nice line of affordable f/1.8 primes in this range, but you can also opt for a pricier f/1.4 option to capture more light. There are a number of third-party options here as well, including several that are as good or better than Nikkor glass, and are priced more affordably.
The Best Prime Lenses (SLR)
If portraits are more your speed, look for a prime with a longer focal length, between 85mm and 135mm. For DX camera owners, the nifty-fifty—Nikon’s low-cost 50mm f/1.8 for full-frame systems—is a fine, inexpensive portrait option. Nikon doesn’t offer dedicated APS-C lenses in traditional portrait focal lengths, so keep the crop in mind.
The Best Z Mount Prime Lenses
To date, most prime lenses for the Z system have been F1.8 designs, and each that we’ve tested has delivered. The Z 50mm F1.8 is one of the best standard lenses you’ll find for any camera, and we’re eager to see how Nikon’s first autofocusing F1.2, also a 50mm, performs—we hope to review it soon.
In addition to the lenses listed above, Nikon offers the Z 20mm F1.8 S, with autofocus, and the manual focus Nikkor Z 58mm F0.95 S Noct, a lens that’s meant to show off what Nikon’s optical engineers can do. The Noct is a high-end option, priced around $8,000, with a design inspired by the Noct-Nikkor, a lens formula born in the 1970s.
Magnify the World
Honing in on the tiniest details of the world requires a special lens. And while most manufacturers will call lenses designed to focus very close macro, Nikon is different. If you want a macro lens, shop instead for a Micro-Nikkor.
There are a pair of DX Micro-Nikkor lenses designed specifically for APS-C cameras, the DX Micro-Nikkor 40mm and DX Micro-Nikkor 85mm f/3.5, but the bulk of alternatives are compatible with both APS-C and full-frame cameras.
There are few key factors to look for when shopping for a macro lens. One is the maximum magnification—just how big the lens projects subjects onto the image sensor at its closest focus distance. Most macros support full life-size, 1:1, magnification, but others are limited to 1:2—half-size projection.
The Best FX Macro Lenses (SLR)
The other thing you should look at is focal length. A macro with a longer focal length will allow for more distance between yourself and the subject. If you’re concerned about casting a shadow on your subject, or simply don’t want to have a bit more distance with which to work, consider a macro in the 150mm or 180mm range, but be prepared to add some bulk to your kit. Macros around 100mm—like the Tamron SP 90mm or Micro-Nikkor 105mm—offer the best balance of working distance, size, focal length, and magnification.
Nikon has yet to ship dedicated macro lenses for the Z system, but has 50mm and 105mm entries on its development roadmap.
Tilt and Shift
Entry-level owners aren’t likely to buy one, but architectural pros and studio photography specialists are likely to reach for a tilt-shift lens. Nikon calls it line Perspective Correction (PC). These PC lenses can shift up, down, left, or right, making panoramic stitching more practical and allowing you to get the entirety of a building in frame without introducing the keystone distortion that comes with tilting the camera.
These lenses can also tilt, changing the angle at which light hits the image sensor. This also tilts the plane of focus, so you can capture images with a bokeh look that is very different than what you get with a traditional lens. This can be used to artistic effect—the diorama effect filter, found in many cameras, mimics the optical effect of a tilted lens—or for technical reasons. A studio photographer may tilt the lens to keep all of a subject in focus, while blurring the background, and tilt is just as useful for separating backgrounds from architectural images as shift is for sidestepping the keystone effect.
The Best Perspective Correction Lenses (SLR)
These lenses are exclusively manual focus, and typically very expensive. If you’re a hobbyist and are interested in the design, but don’t want to make a huge investment, think about the Samyang T-S 24mm, which is available for Nikon systems and priced well under $1,000.
Arty, Throwback Glass
What if you don’t want pictures that look like they were captured with a modern lens? You have options. Lomography has made its mark with oddball toy and cult film cameras, but has cemented itself as a maker of throwback lenses in recent years. Its Petzval series is based on a 19th century optical formula and has a steampunk aesthetic in its industrial design.
The Best FX Art Lenses (SLR)
Likewise, Lensbaby has long been the go-to for lenses that can really isolate a subject in a small sweet spot of focus, but has expanded its offerings to include the soft focus macro Velvet series and offers its own take on Petzval optics with the Twist 60.
None of these lenses offer modern conveniences like autofocus or electronic aperture control, but they are all capable of creating images that are stunningly different than what modern lenses capture. They work just as well on Z cameras as on SLRs—you may find manual focus to be easier using an EVF, I know I do.
Don’t Waste Your Money
Now that you know all about the different types of lenses available for your Nikon camera, you can make a smart decision about adding some glass to your kit. You may want to upgrade your standard zoom first, or you may find yourself more more drawn to a portrait or macro lens.
There are other things that you can think about to get better pictures out of your Nikon. You might find that adding an external flash with some bounce capability is a better first step for indoor family snapshots, or a sturdy tripod and a set of neutral density filters if you find yourself interested in making long-exposure images.
For more on getting the most out of your Nikon, check out our photography tips for beginners. If you’ve moved beyond that stage, we also have some ideas for enthusiasts, and guides for capturing images of lightning strikes and fireworks.
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