I'm a Singapore event photographer; specializing in corporate events, weddings and birthday parties.


Nikon Prime Lenses for DX Cropped DSLRs: 20mm to 135mm

So, you've studied the kit lens versus prime lens versus f2.8 zoom issue ( http://sgsnaps.blogspot.com/2011/06/nikon-kit-lens-versus-prime-versus-f28.html ) and have decided on a prime lens.

It's time to examine Nikon prime (non-zoom, large aperture) lenses, corresponding to the 18-135mm focal length range of many DX (1.5x crop) zoom lenses. The largest aperture lenses of each focal length, is considered. The f2.8 Micro Nikkors are not included. These are specialized macro lenses, with a smaller aperture.

If you're not sure as to which lens to get, the 35mm f1.8 is a low cost way to start. It's cheap, light, and a good compromise focal length.

20mm, 24mm

These are super wide-angle focal lengths on DX DSLRs, equivalent to 30mm and 36mm on a full frame camera, close to the classic 28mm and 35mm wide-angle focal lengths. There are best used in a two-camera system, with a longer lens on the second camera. With either the 20mm f2.8 or 24mm f2.8, this two-camera setup will be roughly equivalent to a 17-55mm f2.8 zoom lens in a single-camera system, but with a smaller and lighter lens.

The 24mm f1.4 is ridiculously expensive. The f1.4 aperture is also difficult to use properly because with such a wide lens, there are more subjects in the scene, requiring a deeper depth-of-field than is available at f1.4. You'll probably end up stopping down to f2.8 or f4 most of the time anyway. Leave this lens to the professionals.

28mm, 35mm

On a 1.5x crop DX DSLR, these are "normal" lenses, equivalent to 42mm and 50mm on full frame. Either focal length will make a good general purpose lens for a single-camera system. While it won't be wide enough for some situations (especially group photos indoors, photographing buildings when sightseeing), it's a good compromise focal length if you only want to use one lens.

For DX cameras, the 35mm f1.8 is definitely the one to get. It's the only DX prime lens (all the other primes are FX), cheaper and lighter than an equivalent FX 35mm lens. For FX cameras, the 35mm f2 is double the brightness of the 28mm f2.8, which is a significant advantage.   

Like the 24mm f1.4, the 35mm f1.4 is an expensive and heavy lens, best left to professionals.

50mm, 85mm

These are portrait lenses on DX cameras, equivalent to 75mm and 128mm, close enough to the standard 85mm and 135mm portrait lenses.

They are called portrait lenses because they are used for posed photos of one or two people, standing and smiling at the camera. When taking portraits, the large aperture is used more to throw the background out of focus (concentrating the viewer's attenton on the people) than for available-light (taking photos without flash). The out-of-focus area is called "bokeh."

I find them good for available-light photography at events (I don't take many posed portrait photos). You can get close-up photos of people from 10 to 30 feet away, without getting too close and making them conscious of the camera. The lenses work best with a wide-angle or kit lens on a second camera body.

For me, the 85mm is more useful than the 50mm. It allows me to take photos from further away, especially in larger venues. If you're photographing inside homes a lot, where the rooms are smaller, the 50mm will be a better choice.

An alternative would be to use either the 17-55mm f2.8 or 70-200mm f2.8, or both (on two bodies).

105mm, 135mm

Still within the portrait lens focal length range for FX cameras (I had a manual focus 135mm f2 on my film camera, loved it, which is why I love 85mm on DX), these are equivalent to 158mm and 202mm on DX cameras. This makes them telephoto lenses (though strictly speaking, "telephoto" is a type of lens design, not the focal length), typically used for covering sports and other outdoor (or indoor stadium) events.

On DX, this is an awkward focal length for prime lenses. Photographers prefer the more flexible 70-200mm f2.8 zoom for this range (for both DX and FX), which is probably why Nikon hasn't yet modernized these lenses to G and AF-S. The 70-200mm f2.8 is only one stop darker, so the f2 aperture isn't as compelling.

Both of these are DC (Defocus Control) lenses, with an additional control ring to control how the out-of-focus area looks. That's because they are optimized portrait lenses, designed for good bokeh. They are still good portrait lenses on FX, but they are too long for portrait use on DX.

Comparison Table

Lens VR AF-S FX / DX Weight (grams) US List Price Mount Ring Focus Scale Max. Mag. Average Amazon .com rating (max. 5) Average Fred Miranda .com rating (max. 10) Average Nikonusa .com rating (max. 5)
20mm f2.8 D no no FX 270 $625 metal yes 0.12x 4.5 8.4 4.1
24mm f2.8 D no no FX 270 $395 metal yes 0.11x 4.5 8.5 4.3
24mm f1.4 G no yes FX 620 $2200 metal yes 0.179x 5 8.8 4.1
28mm f2.8 D no no FX 205 $290 metal yes 0.18x 4 7.6 4.8
35mm  f2 D no no FX 205 $390 metal yes 0.24x 4.5 9.4 4.7
35mm f1.8 G no yes DX 200 $200 metal no 0.16x 4.5 9.5 4.8
35mm f1.4 G no yes FX 600 $1800 metal yes 0.2x 4.5 8 4.8
50mm f1.8 D no no FX 155 $135 metal yes 0.15x 4.5 9.2 4.7
50mm f1.8 G no yes FX 185 $220 metal yes 0.15x 5 - 5.0
50mm f1.4 D no no FX 230 $370 metal yes 0.15x 4.5 9 4.6
50mm f1.4 G no yes FX 280 $485 metal yes 0.15x 4.5 9.2 4.7
85mm f1.8 D no no FX 380 $490 metal yes 0.11x 4.5 9.4 4.7
85mm f1.4 D no no FX 550 $1,360 metal yes 0.11x 5 9.7 4.9
85mm f1.4 G no yes FX 550 $1,700 metal yes 0.11x 4.5 - 4.8
105mm f2 D no no FX 640 $1,200 metal yes 0.13x 5 - 4.7
135mm f2 D no no FX 815 $1,395 metal yes 0.48x 5 9.9 4.9

G or D Lens?

If there's a G version, get the G version. The G versions are newer, usually have AF-S autofocus, and cost more. They don't have a mechanical aperture ring (that's the official meaning of G), so they can't be used on old film cameras.

The D lenses are the older autofocus lenses that don't have a built-in motor and aren't AF-S. They need a rotating screw in the camera body to turn the focusing ring in the lens. This means that they won't autofocus on the D3000, D3100, D5000, D5100. They will autofocus on the D80, D90, D7000. They are also noisy and don't lock focus as quickly as the AF-S lenses.

f1.4, f1.8, f2 or f2.8?

A few years ago I would have said, definitely the f1.4 if you can afford it. But with the high-ISO capability of today's DSLRs, I'm now not so sure. The f1.8 and f2 lenses are a lot cheaper and lighter. I'm sticking with both my 50mm f1.4 and 85mm f1.4, but if I were starting out again I'd probably go for an f1.8 or f2.
There's only 1/3 of a stop difference between f1.8 and f2, not enough to worry about. The f2 is one stop slower than f1.4, half the brightness.

The f2.8 prime lenses are either wide-angle or telephoto (like the 180mm f2.8, not listed here as it is too long). At the wide-angle end, you don't need as much light (both camera-shake and motion-blur are reduced as the magnification is reduced), so f2.8 is okay.

The Micro Nikkor lenses in the 45mm to 105mm range, are f2.8 or smaller. Unless you need a macro lens, it's better to go for one of the f1.4, f1.8 or f2 conventional lenses.


Unfortunately none of the prime lenses in the focal length range have VR image stabilization. I think this is a mistake on Nikon's part. Sometimes, you do need to stop down the aperture for greater depth of field, especially with wide-angle lenses, forcing you to use lower shutter speeds. This is when a VR kit lens can out-perform a prime lens. So don't sell the kit lens.


Most AF-S lenses are G lenses.

FX or DX

FX (full frame) lenses can be used on DX DSLRs (1.5x cropped sensor: D90, D3100, D5100, D7000). However the lenses will be larger, heavier and more expensive. In any case, there's currently only one Nikon DX prime lens, the 35mm f1.8, so there's not much choice anyway.


The prime lenses can be surprisingly light, about the same weight as the kit zoom lenses. The 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 VR weighs 265 grams, the 18-105mm f3.5-5.6 weighs 420 grams.   

US List Price

This is to show the relative price of the lenses. You should check your camera
shop for actual prices.

Mounting Ring

Some of the Nikon consumer lenses have a plastic mounting ring, but all the prime lenses have a stronger metal mount.

Focus Scale

This is a mechanical window in the lens that shows the distance that the lens is focused to. To reduce cost, consumer lenses don't have this feature. All prime lenses do have a focus scale.

Maximum Magnification

These aren't macro lenses. For higher magnification, a macro lens is the way to go.