35mm vs 50mm Nikon DX lenses! (and telephoto too)

Question from longtime friend RW:

Hey JD,
I’m settling in with the Nikon D5100 and have been using the 18-55mm kit lens to get a feel for using the camera, and I think I am ready to upgrade and buy 1-2 more lenses and wanted to get your opinion.
First I am looking at a decent portrait lens for snapping shots of the little one when she arrives and am either going with a 35mm or 50mm. I am kind of leaning towards the 50mm, but honestly I dont know that 50mm would be a better lens than the 35mm or vice versa. Both are the same price point. Thoughts?
Second I am considering going ahead and just purchasing a telephoto lens and am looking at these 2 options:
The 200mm version is going for $150 where the 300mm version is going for $250. Other than the focal length the lenses are identical. Is it worth spending an extra $100 to get the 300mm lens? Neither is a high end lens but should be adequate for an amateur use I think?

My response:

Hola RW!
Glad to hear you have been getting in some good quality time with the D5100 🙂

We got the Nikon 35mm for Christmas, and of course we’ve had the 50mm since day one, so I feel like I can give some accurate feedback on both it and the 50mm.

NOTE: While writing this I realized that I truly prefer the 50mm in almost all aspects.

Prime (fixed focal length) Lens Options:

50mm Prime Lens
Pros of the 50mm
The 50mm is definitely my favorite for very pleasing imagery, the focal length is just very nice for flattering portraits. Focusing speed is fast. Build quality is good. This is just a lovely lens all around.

Cons of the 50mm
In tight spaces (indoors, in a car, etc.) it can be difficult to fit the subject in the frame. Sometimes you just don’t have the physical space to get back far enough and with the 50mm you really need to be able to move back a bit for many shots.

I did a few simple tests a moment ago seeing how far back I had to go to fit Hazel into the frame. She’s about 32 inches tall right now and to fit all of her (and a bit of border) into the frame I had to get back a good 5 feet. With the 35mm lens that figure was closer to 3.5 feet.

However, going for just a head/face shot you can get in closer and both lenses would work great. So, if after baby W is born you think you’ll be good with nice closeups and/or scooting back a bit to get the shot, the 50mm should work splendidly.

Conversely, if you need to capture a bit of a wider view without having to back up a large distance… you would be better served to stick with the 35m.

35mm Prime Lens
Pros of the 35mm
You can get a little closer to your subjects.

Cons of the 35mm
In all other aspects (focusing, image quality, etc.) I prefer the 50mm

There is nothing wrong with the 35mm Nikkor, it simply suffers from having a more ‘boring’ focal length than the 50mm Nikkor. With the 50mm people look great, with the 35mm they look normal 😉

35mm Nikon DX Lens (left) size comparison vs 50mm Nikon DX lens (right)


Buy the 50mm and also sometime consider picking up the Nikon 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G Autofocus Nikkor Zoom
http://www.jdhodges.com/blog/best-cheap-nikonnikkor-lenses/ (scroll down a bit)
it is very cheap  I got mine for $43 including shipping on eBay and I really like the image quality… It starts around a similar width to the 35mm (i.e. 28mm vs 35mm) and it also has a bit of reach at 80mm. Of course at F3.3 on the wide end it does not let in as much light as the 35mm F1.8 but with the D5100 having nice high ISO quality that can compensate for less light, it is not a deal killer IMHO.

However, I do understand that since you already have the 18-55mm you might not need the 28-80mm but it is still worth investigating at such a bargain price!

Telephotos Lens Options
You can probably find better answers on this topic from other people, as I do not have personal experience with those two lenses, but I can say the following:

+If you think this will be your only telephoto (long zoom) lens for the foreseeable future, go with the 55-300mm. The extra reach will really be useful and as you said neither one is a high end lens, so splurge a little and get a lot more reach.

-Conversely, if you anticipate needing a high-end telephoto lens in the future, save the $100 by getting the 55-200mm and apply it toward the higher end lens in the future.

Finally, the nice thing about Nikon gear is that it holds its value well. If you buy a lens and end up not liking it, then down the road you will likely be able to easily sell it for 70-75% of its original purchase price.

Email if you have any questions or need to see sample images. Also, keep me posted on what you decide!

Best regards,


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