The optical properties of plasmonic dipole and bowtie nanoantennas are investigated in detail using the Green's tensor technique. The influence of the geometrical parameters (antenna length, gap dimension and bow angle) on the antenna field enhancement and spectral response is discussed. Dipole and bowtie antennas confine the field in a volume well below the diffraction limit, defined by the gap dimensions. The dipole antenna produces a stronger field enhancement than the bowtie antenna for all investigated antenna geometries. This enhancement can reach three orders of magnitude for the smallest examined gap. Whereas the dipole antenna is monomode in the considered spectral range, the bowtie antenna exhibits multiple resonances. Furthermore, the sensitivity of the antennas to index changes of the environment and of the substrate is investigated in detail for biosensing applications; the bowtie antennas show slightly higher sensitivity than the dipole antenna. (C) 2008 Optical Society of America.