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I know that comparing lenses is a subjective and often futile effort, but I hope that if I convey my priorities and current understanding (as a relative beginner), I can still gain a lot of insight from your takes and opinions.

I currently own a Nikon D500 and the one lens I have for it is the Nikon 16-80 mm f/2.8-4E ED VR. I've found it mostly suits my needs as someone who mostly prefers to (casually) do portrait, group portrait, urban, and travel photography.

Since most of what I do is covered by the 16-80 mm range, I'm having a hard time figuring out what lens would be a significant contribution to what my current lens already does. It seems to me that at an amateur level the most significant upgrade in a lens that's worth shelling $$ on is going for a faster lens.

So I've started testing out the Nikon 50 mm f/1.8G and although I'm a fan of the results it produces, I'm not sure if I'm just convincing myself they're actually better, as on paper the DOF for the two lenses are pretty similar. The actual comparison of DOF at 5 meters is:

Prime 50 mm: .71m

Zoom @50 mm: 1.5m

Zoom @80 mm: .62m

Now here comes the really subjective part: with this 2x decrease in DOF at 50 mm being the seemingly sole contribution of this lens, is it the "best" next addition, or would I better off (with some difficulty) paying double for the Nikon 50 mm 1.4/g or going for something else entirely?

  • "portrait, group portrait, urban, and travel photography" does not really narrow anything down! – Please Read Profile Jan 11 at 2:59
  • The f1.8G is superior to the f1.4G in some aspects: dpreview.com/forums/post/62050573 ... f1.4G is a conventional design, f1.8G is aspherical. The difference shows whenever you have in-focus point light sources involved (which isn't only an issue in astrophotography, but with urban nightscapes, with specular highlights in metal objects and other situations). – rackandboneman Jan 11 at 13:11
  • However, if you want a dedicated low-DOF lens, the 85mm f1.8G is going to have EVERY suggestion, including 1.2/50 lenses, beat :) – rackandboneman Jan 11 at 13:15
  • ...however, not quite at the same subject size.... – rackandboneman Jan 11 at 19:10
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I currently own... the Nikon 16-80 mm f/2.8-4E ED VR. I've found it mostly suits my needs...

Buying lenses you don't need is an insidious affliction that is best avoided before it begins.

So I've started testing out the Nikon 50 mm f/1.8G and although I'm a fan of the results it produces, I'm not sure if I'm just convincing myself they're actually better...

Depth of Field, bokeh, and background blur are different concepts. Regardless of DOF, lenses can produce differing amounts of background blur. To approximate the amount of background blur, calculate focal-length/F-number.

  • 16/2.8 = 5.7 – The wide end of your zoom produces the least amount of background blur.
  • 80/4 = 20 – The long end of your zoom produces a decent amount of background blur.
  • 50/1.8 = 27.8 – The prime you've been using produces more background blur than your zoom. (But not 2x.)

  • 50/1.4 = 35.7 – A faster prime produces even more background blur.

See Does amount of background blur change with focal length given equal framing?

... is it the "best" next addition, or would I better off (with some difficulty) paying double for the Nikon 50 mm 1.4/g or going for something else entirely?

Since you like the results, purchasing a 50/1.8 lens would be reasonable. But if you're chasing background blur, it's a never-ending quest.

Some options to consider:

  • Old "vintage" lenses – may give you the opportunity to try out different focal lengths and apertures at reasonable prices.

    Nikon F mount has been around since 1959 with various modifications over the decades, so there are a lot of options. You'll have to research lens compatibility issues, mostly associated with focus and metering.

  • "Normal" focal-length lenses – are about 28-40mm on crop sensor. A 35mm lens may be more "useful" for general photography.

  • Telephoto zooms – cover focal lengths your current lens doesn't. If budget allows, consider a 70-200/2.8 zoom.

    If a telephoto zoom is too expensive. Consider a 135/2.8 prime. They used to be more common, but are now undervalued because they have been supplanted by zooms.

  • Assess your photographic needs and desires more accurately. Perhaps your next lens (or other equipment, such as lighting) will become more apparent.

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  • What kind of shots do you wish to take that your current lens does not allow?
  • What kind of lens is needed to produce those shots?

Until you can answer both of those questions, you don't need to buy anything.

For more along these lines, please see:

When should I upgrade my camera body?
Does the camera matter?

The questions and answers hold equally true for lenses.

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Generally, obsession with decreased DoF comes from people who are looking to justify purchasing gear which can provide decreased DoF. (See What is GAS and how can I avoid it? for a deeply-related topic.)

If you don't have a specific need that you know additional gear will help with, do not buy additional gear. You say "I'm having a hard time figuring out what lens would be a significant contribution to what my current lens already does."

This is great! You are winning. Work with what you have and what you can do until you know you're at a limit. Then you'll know what you want next — if anything ever!

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Don't get too obsessed with DOF or Bokeh. That 50mm f1.8 is an awesome lens and there is not much more to want in the 50mm focal length. No need to go for the more expensive f1.4 unless you're a professional or really into low light situations.

I would drastically change the way you're looking for a new lens. You like that 16-80mm lens and you want a faster prime. Nothing wrong with that. At what focal length do you use that zoom the most? If you don't know you can look at the EXIF information of your current pictures taken with that 16-80mm. That should be a good starting point for picking a fixed focal length lens.

(I stepped away from Nikon so I don't recall all model numbers but) I think the D500 is a so called DX or crop camera right? In that case you could check the Nikkor 35mm f1.8 DX lens. Very affordable and being crop with an equivalent of around 50mm way more flexibel than that 50mm (equiv. of around 80mm) lens.

You'll be able to obsess over bokeh with that lens but you can also use it for a lot more once you get over that obsession. You could get a full frame version of 35mm but you'll pay a lot more and by the time you want to upgrade your body Nikon will have probably dropped DSLR all together in favour of their Z-series.

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