Looking for the best Nikon Z lenses? Our in-depth guide has you covered, whether you're in the market for a spectacular prime, a powerful zoom or an upgrade for your DX-format Nikon Z series camera.
Nikon was a late arrival to the full-frame mirrorless party, finally turning up in September 2018. But the company hit the ground running with two excellent Nikon Z6 and Z7 cameras, followed by the DX (APS-C) format Nikon Z50 body that crucially uses exactly the same lens mount.
All full-frame compatible Z lenses can therefore be used on the Z50 without any issues. And the Z-series lens mount itself has been big news. Nikon says that, compared with its F-mount system for DSLRs, the Z mount’s larger-diameter flange and its closer proximity to the image sensor gives much greater freedom in the design of Z-mount lenses, with the possibility of greatly enhanced image quality. Those claims have certainly been borne out in all of our lab-based and real-world testing of Z-mount lenses, right from the start.
A couple of years down the line, Nikon has now built up an impressive range of Z-mount prime and zoom lenses. There’s the ‘trinity’ range of wide-angle, standard and telephoto f/2.8 zooms that will appeal to top-end enthusiast and professional photographers. There are also some cracking f/4 constant-aperture and variable-aperture zoom lenses on offer.
For most of the prime lens line-up, Nikon has gone for a relatively modest f/1.8 rather than a faster f/1.4 aperture, which enables a reasonably compact and lightweight construction, in keeping with the slimline design ethic of its mirrorless bodies. The weighty, big-bucks Z 50mm f/1.2 S and the rather bonkers (and hugely expensive) Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct manual-focus lens are notable exceptions but, for our money, are not the best buys.
Naturally, you can use Nikon’s vast array of F-mount lenses on a Z-series mirrorless body, via an FTZ mount adapter. Indeed, this can be the best option to plug some of the holes that currently remain in the line-up. For example, Nikon is yet to release any native Z-mount macro or super-telephoto lenses. They’re coming soon but, in the meantime, let’s take a look at which lenses tick all the right boxes for performance, image quality and value for money.
Best Nikon Z lenses in 2021:
For most of us, the thoroughly excellent Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4 S should be all the wide-angle zoom that we’ll ever need. It has a compact, lightweight and space-saving retractable design, an 82mm filter thread, and delivers superb image quality. This Z 14-24mm costs around twice the price but is it twice as good?
It really boils down to how much you want that extra f/stop of aperture, the larger lens making f/2.8 available throughout the zoom range. It also has handling extras shared with Nikon’s other ‘trinity’ zooms, including a multi-function OLED display that can show aperture, focus distance, depth of field and the exact focal length. There's also a handy customizable Lens Function button.
Image quality and all-round performance are spectacular and, unusually for such a ‘fast’ ultra-wide-angle lens, it comes with two hoods, the larger of which enables the fitment of oversized 112mm filters without the need for a specialist filter holder. Ultimately, it’s the best wide-angle zoom for Z-series cameras, but you can’t beat the Z 14-30mm for value.
Nikon currently makes three wide-angle Z-mount primes, all of which have an f/1.8 aperture rating. The 35mm lens is great for street photography and the 24mm gives a more generous viewing angle, but the 20mm has the obvious advantage of going even wider than a standard 24-70mm zoom.
The design is typical of Nikon’s Z-mount primes, with a large, well-damped focus ring that can be assigned to other functions when you’re in autofocus mode. A simple A/M switch enables easy switching between the two. Even so, it lacks the additional control ring that’s featured on Nikon’s most up-market Z-mount zoom lenses.
For such a wide-angle lens, sharpness is epic across the entire image frame, even when shooting wide-open at f/1.8. The ultra-low level of barrel distortion and negligible color fringing are also highly impressive, while the combination of both Nano Crystal Coat and Super Integrated Coating are highly effective at minimizing ghosting and flare. The ultra-wide viewing angle enables exaggerated perspective effects, especially in close-ups where you can take advantage of the very short 0.2m minimum focus distance.
As with the choice of Nikon Z wide-angle zooms, there’s fierce competition from other own-brand options. The Z 24-70mm F/4 S is a superb lens that delivers excellent image quality from a compact, lightweight, retractable construction. The newer Z 24-50mm F/4-6.3 is even smaller but is relatively lacking in zoom range and has a narrower aperture at the long end. For the ultimate in image quality and handling, though, there’s no beating this f/2.8 zoom.
Like the Nikon Z 14-24mm F/2.8 S, it boasts the same fast and constant aperture rating, and the same layout of multi-function OLED display, tertiary customizable control ring and customizable Lens Function button. Pro-grade build quality and handling characteristics are therefore identical, making you feel right at home when swapping between the two lenses.
Autofocus is super-fast, based on two separate drive motors, manual focus works with smooth precision, and the third control ring works brilliantly well for stepless aperture control when shooting movies. Image quality is absolutely fabulous. There’s no denying it’s a pricey lens, but it’s a real gem.
- Read our in-depth Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S review
Big isn’t always beautiful. The slimline form factor of the DX format Nikon Z50 mirrorless camera is one of its main attractions, making this standard zoom the perfect partner. With its cunning, retractable design, it almost qualifies as a pancake lens, with a retracted length of just 32mm.
The plastic mounting plate is arguably less durable than a metal mount, but helps to contribute to the lens’s incredibly light weight of just 135g. Other downsizing features are that the zoom range and aperture rating are both fairly modest, equating to 24-75mm in full-frame terms and shrinking to f/6.3 at the long end.
The little lens might feel a bit plasticky, and it lacks any weather-seals, but it certainly punches above its weight in terms of performance. Autofocus is fast and near-silent, optical VR (Vibration Reduction) gives a 4.5-stop advantage in beating camera-shake, and image quality is super-sharp.
The look and feel of Nikon’s f/1.8 prime lenses is entirely consistent across the range, so handling feels entirely natural when you’re swapping from one to another. Similarly, they’re all well-built and feature weather-seals. The 50mm gives a natural viewing perspective on any of Nikon’s full-frame Z-series bodies, while also working well as a portrait prime on the DX format Nikon Z50. The only drawback with the latter is that the lens doesn’t feature optical stabilization and the Z50 has no sensor-shift stabilization, so camera-shake can be a problem.
The optical design features two aspherical elements and two ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements, which team up to deliver superbly sharp images with negligible distortion or colour fringing. Nano Crystal Coat and Super Integrated Coating combine to keep ghosting and flare to a minimum.
Some might miss the faster f/1.4 aperture rating of many 50mm primes for DSLRs, but this f/1.8 lens still delivers beautiful bokeh and only costs about a quarter of the price of Nikon’s top-notch Z 50mm f/1.2 S lens, which is also about 2.5 times heavier.
The most demanding portrait photographers often favor 85mm lenses with a super-fast f/1.4 or even f/1.2 aperture rating. This helps to give an ultra-tight depth of field as well as enabling pacey shutter speeds even under very low lighting, which helps to freeze any motion on the part of the subject.
The Z 50mm f/1.8 is two-thirds of an f/stop slower than an f/1.4 lens but it nevertheless delivers beautifully smooth and creamy bokeh, which is often the main goal when creating dreamy-looking portrait images. Moreover, it’s razor-sharp, so you can really bring out supreme levels of detail in the eyes.
It’s quite pricey for an 85mm f/1.8 lens but, whereas this aperture rating often signifies the ‘budget’ option in DSLR primes, the Z-mount lens is a high-quality item with a tough, weather-sealed construction and excellent handling. As we’re used to seeing in other Z-mount f/1.8 primes, the manual focus ring can be assigned to other functions when in autofocus mode, but there’s no additional control ring to enable this during autofocus. Ultimately, it’s a great lens for portraiture that delivers superb results.
We’re still waiting for an own-brand Z-mount macro lens from Nikon. At the moment, our favorite regular option would be the F-mount Sigma Macro 105mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM, which works really well via an FTZ mount converter. For extreme close-ups, this Laowa lens gives you even greater 2x or 2:1 magnification, so it can reproduce small objects at twice life size on the camera’s image sensor. The result is the capture of near-microscopic levels of detail, which are invisible to the naked eye.
A fully manual lens, the Laowa has no built-in electronics. As such it’s a purely manual-focus affair and the aperture also needs to be set using the lens’s control ring rather than from the host camera. However, it’s still possible to engage the in-body stabilization of Z-series full-frame cameras, by entering the lens’s details in the ‘Non-CPU lens data’ section of the Setup menu.
The lack of autofocus isn’t a deal-breaker, as manual focusing is generally preferred in macro photography anyway. Most importantly, the manual focus ring operates with smooth precision and image quality is excellent.
A so-called ‘superzoom’ lens is the last word in convenience, enabling you to sweep through a huge range of focal lengths from wide-angle to telephoto, without needing to swap the lens on your camera body, or carry additional lenses with you. As such, they’re hugely popular as travel and walkabout lenses.
The downside is that image quality usually takes a knock, with a relative lack of outright sharpness and some nasty distortion, especially at the short end of the zoom range, which can be irregular and hard to correct. By contrast, the Z 24-200mm delivers highly impressive sharpness at all zoom settings, along with negligible color fringing, while distortions are automatically corrected in-camera.
The aperture shrinks to a fairly ‘slow’ f/6.3 at longer zoom settings but that’s the trade-off for the lens having a fairly small, lightweight build. Although designed predominantly for full-frame Z-series cameras, the lens also works really well with the DX format Nikon Z50, where it has an effective zoom range of 36-300mm. The inclusion of optical VR (Vibration Reduction) is also a key advantage when using the lens on a Z50, which lacks in-body stabilization.
Setting up camp at the telephoto end of Nikon’s Z-mount ‘trinity’ lenses, along with the wide-angle Z 14-24mm f/2.8 and standard Z 24-70mm f/2.8 zooms, this 70-200mm really is something rather special.
Like the other two lenses, it features a multi-mode OLED digital display and a third control ring, which can be assigned to various functions like control of aperture, ISO and exposure compensation. It also features the usual Lens Function button, but adds a second rank of ‘L-Fn 2’ buttons between the zoom and focus rings. These are typically used for AF-On or AF-Hold but, again, can be switched to other functions via the host camera’s custom settings menu.
Two separate autofocus drive motors deliver super-fast AF speed with remarkable accuracy and consistency, even when tracking fast-moving objects. The lens also features highly effective optical VR (Vibration Reduction) which works superbly well in tandem with the in-body stabilizers of full-frame Z-series cameras. The optical path includes no less than six ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements, one short-wave refractive element and one fluorite element.
Overall performance and image quality is simply stunning. The only niggle is that the lens is a little larger than most 70-200mm f/2.8mm zooms, and it’s certainly no lightweight at nearly 1.5kg.
This lens is the obvious telephoto counterpart to the Z DX 16-50mm F/3.5-6.3 VR standard zoom. It’s so obvious, in fact, that the DX format Nikon Z50 camera is often sold in a twin-lens kit that includes both optics. Naturally, as a telephoto zoom, it’s not as tiny as the 16-50mm lens, but it’s still very small and lightweight, thanks to a retractable design and a weight-saving construction that employs a plastic rather than metal mounting plate.
Autofocus is fast and accurate, based on a stepping motor system that’s agile for stills and enables smooth, super-quiet focus transitions for movie capture. The five-stop optical VR (Vibration Reduction) is a massive bonus, considering that the Nikon Z50 lacks in-body stabilization. Although the lens has a slightly plasticky, low-budget feel and lacks weather-seals, it performs very well and delivers sharp, crisp image quality. All in all, it’s a highly attractive lens at the price.
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