A lot of people wonder what to buy as their first Nikon lens. Most people who are new to digital photography end up purchasing a kit lens that they use for a year or two, only to realize that they want something better. Yes, kit lenses are a good deal, but are there better options for your first lens? While it makes sense for some Nikon photographers to buy kit lenses at first, I personally prefer a solid all-purpose prime lens instead. Read on to find out more about my personal recommendations, aimed at someone who is just getting into photography.
When I bought my first DSLR, it came with an 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Anything looked better compared to my Sony Cybershot point and shoot, so I was very happy for about 6 months. Then I started getting into photography more and more. I was reading books and spending a lot of time testing the camera in different conditions. I really loved the pictures in daylight out of 18-135mm when there was enough light, but low-light conditions kept on frustrating me, and indoor photography without a flash was quite challenging.
I ended up selling the lens for a lot less than I paid, and bought a more expensive lens. The new lens was better (the Nikon 18-200mm VR) due to image stabilization, and I was quite happy for a while, but I started encountering other problems such as sub-par image quality at different focal lengths. And the f/3.5-5.6 maximum aperture was still a limiting factor, just like on the 18-135mm lens.
As I read and researched more, I wanted to be able to shoot in low light, have better background rendering capability (or “bokeh“) and sharper image quality, so I got a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens next. This little prime lens taught me a lot of things and made me a better photographer, because I could not rely on zooming in and out anymore – the lens forced me to move and think about composing images.
I’m sure a lot of photographers go through a similar experiences, sometimes more or less painful. After testing so many Nikon lenses over the years for our reviews at Photography Life, I created my own basic list of “first lenses” that Nikon shooters should consider. Any time that someone emails me asking about the lens they should buy first, I always referred back to this list. So, I decided to publish my recommendations so that any Nikon photographers can reference them. But always remember – cameras and lenses are only tools, and it is the person behind the camera that matters!
I’ve separated the lists below into four categories: Nikon FX mirrorless cameras, Nikon DX mirrorless cameras, Nikon FX DSLRs, and Nikon DX DSLRs. (You can read more in our articles on Nikon DX versus FX, and mirrorless vs DSLR.)
Table of Contents
Lenses for Full-Frame Nikon Z Mirrorless Cameras (FX):
- Nikon Z 40mm f/2 – A very lightweight, fairly inexpensive prime lens that has great image quality. It’s the perfect “first lens” for a Nikon Z photographer, and at $300, it lets you test the waters of prime lenses without spending more money on one of Nikon’s S-line lenses. Two alternatives if you want maximum image quality at a higher price (and weight) are the Z 35mm f/1.8 S and Z 50mm f/1.8 S, which are two of Nikon’s best lenses. Another alternative, if you want a wider-angle lens on a budget, is the 28mm f/2.8, which is similar to the 40mm f/2 in weight, price, and image quality. (See our review.)
- Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S – The most typical Nikon Z kit lens. Although it “only” goes to 70mm, it’s a great lens in every other way, and it’s usually available at a steep discount if you bundle it with your Nikon Z camera or buy it used. One of the sharpest kit lenses we’ve ever tested. (See our review.)
- Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S – This is definitely a higher-end lens and more expensive at $1100, however, it fixes the biggest issue with the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 by going all the way to 120mm. It’s probably Nikon’s best do-it-all lens at the moment. (See our review.)
- Nikon Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR – Since it’s a superzoom, this lens loses some image quality, especially at the longer focal lengths. It’s also very dim at 200mm with a maximum aperture of f/6.3. However, it outperforms almost every other superzoom and is actually pretty sharp. If you need the reach of 200mm, this would be a great lens to pair with the 40mm f/2 as your first two Nikon lenses. (See our review.)
Lenses for Crop-Sensor Nikon Z Mirrorless Cameras (DX):
- Nikon Z 28mm f/2.8 – One of the best lenses for Nikon Z users with a DX camera. As a bonus, it also works with Nikon’s mirrorless FX cameras and presents a very nice focal length for landscape photography. One issue is that f/2.8 doesn’t let you blur the background too much, so you may prefer the 40mm f/2 instead. Also, this lens doesn’t have vibration reduction (VR). This means you need to be more careful with your shutter speed on Nikon DX cameras which don’t have in-body image stabilization.
- Nikon Z 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 VR – A great first lens if you want a zoom instead of a prime. It’s sharper than I expected, and it covers a great range of focal lengths, but doesn’t let in much light. Pair it with either the 28mm f/2.8 or the 40mm f/2, and you’ll be able to photograph almost anything in sight.
- Nikon Z 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR – The standard kit lens for Nikon Z DX cameras. It’s pretty sharp and small, but it doesn’t let in much light and doesn’t cover the longer focal lengths. If you have this lens and need anything beyond 50mm, I recommend getting the Nikon Z 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 DX as well.
Lenses for Full-Frame Nikon DSLRs (FX):
- Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G – A useful everyday lens with good sharpness, great low-light capabilities, and beautiful subject isolation at f/1.8. It’s sharper than the more expensive Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, as shown in my 50mm f/1.4G vs f/1.8G comparison article. And at just $220, you simply cannot beat the value! Check out my review of this lens for more information.
- Nikkor 24-120mm f/4G VR – A sharp, professional lens for photographing subjects at wider or longer focal lengths than the 50mm f/1.8G. It’s one of my favorite zooms in Nikon’s DSLR lineup, even though Nikon’s mirrorless zooms are sharper. Versatile focal lengths, image stabilization, and nano coating deliver good results. For more details, check out my 24-120mm lens review.
Lenses for Crop-Sensor Nikon DSLRs (DX):
- Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX – Consider this lens equivalent to the 50mm f/1.8G listed above, since it gives a similar angle of view when used on a DX crop-sensor camera. Perfect as a standard lens, low-light photography, or for blurring backgrounds.
- Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4E DX VR – A great and versatile zoom lens for situations where you need to go wider or longer than 35mm. Excellent sharpness throughout the range and vibration reduction (VR) for low-light situations. The f/2.8 through f/4 maximum aperture lets in more light compared to a kit lens.
- Any of the 18-XX kit lenses – Nikon has made so many of these lenses, ranging from 18-55mm kit lenses to 18-300mm superzooms. I’m not as impressed with the image quality of the 18-200mm and 18-300mm lenses. The others in this lineup are inexpensive, solid performers. They do suffer in low light, however, and can’t blur backgrounds very well. You’ll probably want to pair them with the 35mm f/1.8G DX.
In this article, I haven’t taken into account special type of photography (such as macro or super telephoto) but the above lenses are good for most types of photography. I also didn’t include rare / exotic lenses, because the article is targeted at beginners. If you want to start out using your Nikon camera with a good lens that gives you room to grow, the options I listed above will satisfy most of your needs.
If you can only afford one lens, I would start out with a prime lens. For Nikon Z mirrorless cameras, this could be the 28mm f/2.8 or 40mm f/2. For Nikon DSLRs, I would pick the 35mm f/1.8G DX for crop-sensor cameras or the 50mm f/1.8G for FX cameras.
If you have been shooting only with zoom lenses so far, give prime lenses a try – I promise that you will not regret it, and your pictures will have a completely different look and feel! Zoom lenses are great for some situations, but they often make us lazy, and they usually cannot match the performance of prime lenses.
I hope you found this article useful, and let me know in the comments below if you have any questions while searching for your first Nikon lens.