Head to head
We pit a versatile zoom lens against a fast prime to see which is the best for portraiture
Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
Elements/groups 21/16 Diaphragm 9 blades Optical stabiliser Yes Focus type Ultrasonic (ring-type) Min focus distance 1.4m Max reproduction ratio 0.12 x Filter size 77mm Accessories included Hood, soft case Diameter x min length 87x206mm Weight 1.54kg Price £2000/$2100 With its 2.9x zoom range, this lens gives you great versatility for portraiture at weddings and other events, where you might need to react quickly and won’t necessarily have the time to manoeuvre yourself and others when composing the shot. This feature-rich zoom also boasts dual-mode optical stabilisation, a whopping seven Extra-low Dispersion (ED) elements, nano crystal coatings, an autofocus limiter switch and more besides – all wrapped up in a rugged, weather-sealed magnesium alloy shell. There’s no disguising the fact that this is a big, heavy lens. It’s 206mm long, not including the lens hood, and weighs more than 1.5kg. It’s a weighty proposition for lengthy periods of handheld shooting, and can seem intimidating for portrait sitters. Usually, top-notch prime lenses are better than zoom lenses for outright sharpness. In our tests, however, this 70-200mm zoom matches or beats most pro-grade prime lenses for sharpness, throughout its entire zoom range, even when shooting wide open. Bokeh, or the quality of defocused areas, is often an essential part of portraiture. At a competing focal length of 85mm, this lens is no match for the f/1.4 prime when it comes to minimising depth of field, but it’s very good at the 200mm end of its zoom range.
Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G
Elements/groups 10/9 Diaphragm 9 blades Optical stabiliser No Focus type Ultrasonic (ring-type) Min focus distance 0.85m Max reproduction ratio 0.12x Filter size 77mm Accessories included Hood, soft case Diameter x min length 86x84mm Weight 595g Price £1350/$1600 85mm is an ideal focal length for portraiture with a full-frame camera, since you can give your subject plenty of breathing space while not being too distant and remote. There’s naturally no zoom facility, so you’ll just have to use your feet. This lens doesn't feature any ED or aspherical elements, or vibration reduction (VR). However, it does boast fast ring-type ultrasonic AF, a well-rounded aperture based on nine diaphragm blades, nano crystal coatings and pro-grade build quality with weather seals. At much less than half the physical length and weight of the 70-200mm lens, the prime is more manageable for handheld shooting. It’s also a lot less threatening for timid portrait sitters, who might feel nervous in front of a big telephoto zoom. Fast lenses tend to lose sharpness at their widest apertures, and this lens is no exception. While it beats the 70-200mm at f/2.8, it’s quite soft at f/1.4. That’s not altogether a bad thing, though, as it gives the option of beautiful, dreamy-looking portraits. The 85mm focal length and f/1.4 maximum aperture enable an extremely tight depth of field. This offers the potential to blur not just the background, but everything apart from the subject's eye. The rounded aperture also results in wonderfully creamy bokeh.