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14 Best Canon Lenses for Portraits (RF, EF, EF-S)

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When choosing the best Canon lens for portraits, you have to consider many factors. Most portraits are shot at a focal length of between 85 and 135mm, so that’s the range we’ve focused on for this list. We’ve factored in how versatile the lens is (does it zoom?), as well as image quality and additional features such as stabilization. And perhaps most importantly, the maximum aperture and bokeh.

If you’re looking for a popular and versatile lens that’s great for portraits but also has other uses, we love the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM. However, if you’re only focusing on finding a lens for portraits, our top pick is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8. It’s small and lightweight, has a fast maximum aperture and smooth bokeh.

Our Top Pick
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Prime Lens
Looking for a Canon lens for portraits? Look no further than this fast, silent, and super-smooth lens with built-in image stabilization and rapid AF speed.

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What is the Best Canon Lens For Portraits?

As a quick clarification, this review covers Canon portrait lenses with an EF-mount or an RF-mount. EF lenses can be used on RF-mount cameras, but you will need to use the Canon EF to RF adaptor. The range of RF-mount lenses is much smaller, so this is a useful option.

EF-mount lenses will fit directly into an APS-C Canon EF-S mount. They will also fit a Canon M-mount camera with an adapter. In both these cases, you will need to apply a crop factor of 1.6 to get the effective focal length. 

Before we look at the lenses in detail, here is a summary of our recommendations for EF-mount lenses.

Our Top Pick
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Prime Lens
  • Fast f/1.8 aperture
  • Compatible with Canon EF-mount cameras
  • Incredibly sharp optics
  • USM motor for fast, silent autofocus
  • Lightweight and compact design
Best Value Sigma Prime Lens
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 APO EX DG OS HSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 APO EX DG OS HSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 APO EX DG OS HSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
  • Exceptional image quality
  • Fast f/2.8 maximum aperture
  • Smooth, quiet autofocus
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Compatible with Canon EF-mount cameras
Best Value Canon Prime Lens
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Prime Lens
  • Fast and accurate autofocus
  • High-quality image stabilization
  • Professional L-series optics
  • Durable construction
  • Lightweight and compact
Best Canon Prime Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Prime Lens
  • Fast and silent autofocus
  • Image stabilization for sharp images
  • Professional grade quality
  • Ultra fast f/1.4 aperture for low-light shooting
  • Compatible with full frame cameras
Best Budget Prime Lens
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 LSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 LSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 LSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
  • Super fast f/1.4 aperture
  • Weather-resistant design
  • 85mm focal length for flattering portraits
  • Compatible with EF-mount cameras
  • High-quality optical construction
Best Sigma Prime Lens
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art DG HSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art DG HSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art DG HSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
  • Fast f/1.4 maximum aperture
  • Aspherical lens element
  • Special Low Dispersion Glass
  • Silent HSM motor
  • weather-sealed body
Most Versatile Canon Zoom Lens
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Zoom Lens
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Zoom Lens
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Zoom Lens
  • Image stabilizer for clear, crisp shots
  • Lightweight design for on-the-go shooting
  • Fast and quiet autofocus
  • Superb image quality
  • Versatile zoom range for close-up and distant shots
Best Mid-Range Canon Zoom Lens
Canon EF 24–105mm f/4.0L IS II USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 24–105mm f/4.0L IS II USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 24–105mm f/4.0L IS II USM Prime Lens
  • Wide zoom range of 24-105mm
  • Bright f/4.0 aperture
  • Image stabilization for sharper shots
  • High-quality L-series construction
  • Ultra quiet USM autofocus motor
Best Sigma Zoom Lens
Sigma 24-105mm f/4.0 Art DG OS HSM Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Sigma 24-105mm f/4.0 Art DG OS HSM Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Sigma 24-105mm f/4.0 Art DG OS HSM Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount
  • Wide 24-105mm focal range
  • Fast f/4.0 aperture for low-light photography
  • Optimized image stabilization
  • High-performance Hyper Sonic Motor
  • Durable dust and splash-proof construction
Best Everyday Zoom Lens
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Zoom Lens
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Zoom Lens
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Zoom Lens
  • Professional-grade lens
  • Constant f/2.8 aperture
  • 24-70mm zoom range
  • Image stabilization
  • Ultra fast USM autofocus
Best Budget Zoom
Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount
  • Fast and accurate autofocus
  • Vibration Compensation technology for sharp images
  • Constant f/2.8 maximum aperture throughout zoom range
  • Fluorine coating for protection against water and dust
  • Lightweight and compact design
 

Choosing the Best EF-Mount Canon Lens for Portraits

You’ll find mainly prime lenses here, but also some zooms. All of them will deliver pleasing images for your portraits.

 

1. Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Prime Lens

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Prime Lens
Brand Canon
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 1.8
Focal Range 85 mm
Image Stabilization No
Key Features USM for silent AF, compact design
Best For Anyone looking for a Canon prime lens on a tight budget

This Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 isn’t an L Series lens. It won’t look as impressive on your camera. And it doesn’t offer the same level of environmental sealing. But the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM does offer 9 elements in 7 groups and an Ultrasonic Motor (USM).

Bokeh will be affected slightly by the eight diaphragm blades. However, at the full range of apertures, it’s pretty good. Wide open, it’s a thing of beauty. The plastic lens body is not as robust, but it is light.

At about 1/3 the cost of the L Series lens, this is still quite a lot of money. But it will repay the investment with great image quality and accurate rendition. It is notable for its lack of spherical aberration and pin-sharp focus. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 is a good portrait lens and great value for money.

 

2. Sigma 105mm f/2.8 APO EX DG OS HSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount

Sigma 105mm f/2.8 APO EX DG OS HSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Brand Sigma
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 2.8
Focal Range 105 mm
Image Stabilization Yes
Key Features Image stabilization and weather sealing
Best For Anyone wanting an excellent value prime lens

This is about as long a focal length as you want for portrait work. The Sigma 105mm f/2.8 boasts image stabilization, a 9-blade iris, and 16 elements in 11 groups. It is not weather sealed, but that’s not surprising at this price point.

The build is good. And the image quality is excellent. At wider apertures, edge definition fades away quite a bit. High f-stops are not handled as well as the Canon L Series. But this is a much cheaper lens.

The image stabilization is switchable for static and panning modes and is rated for four stops. That’s very useful in an f/2.8 lens. This is a solid choice if you can cope with the 105mm focal length. Especially if macro photography is appealing to you.

 

3. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Prime Lens
Brand Canon
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 2.8
Focal Range 100 mm
Image Stabilization Yes
Key Features Image stabilization and weather sealing
Best For Anyone after a professional Canon 100mm lens

As the name tells us, this Canon EF 100mm is also a macro lens. Some argue that a 100mm focal length is a little short for macro. But this lens at least opens up some possibilities for you. It’s also a decent length for portraits. You’d need a pretty big studio to use it. But if you’re shooting outdoors, that’s not a problem.

It has 9 blades on the iris, which means that down to f/5.6, the aperture is round. Even after that, it’s pleasingly smooth. The lens contains 15 elements in 12 groups. Image stabilization and a USM make this a well-specified lens.

The bokeh produced by those 9 blades is excellent across the aperture range. Sharpness is also excellent, with some falling off at the edges when it’s wide open. The image stabilization will help reduce camera shake and motion blur.

The build quality is excellent, as you’d expect from an L Series lens. It is a little unfortunate that the body is plastic. I feel the same about my L Series 16-24mm lens. It somehow seems wrong. But after shooting a 12-hour wedding, I’m actually quite in favor of plastic!

This is a great lens with excellent image quality. It is useful if you want to try some macro but also need a portrait lens.

 

4. Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Prime Lens

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Prime Lens
Brand Canon
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 1.4
Focal Range 85 mm
Image Stabilization Yes
Key Features Up to 4 stops of IS, fluorine-coated element
Best For Professionals looking for a fast prime lens

This Canon EF 85mm lens is one of only a few Canon portrait lenses. The L series of Canon lenses are not for the financially faint of heart. They are built for daily professional use. They feature dust and moisture resistance and have an impressive build quality.

The 1.4L was the first 85mm focal length Canon portrait lens to use image stabilization. This is rated at four stops and will help in many natural light shoots. 

The 9-bladed iris makes attractive sun stars from bright points of light. It also means that the bokeh produced from the lens when stopped down is smooth.

Canon’s Ultrasonic Motor (USM) means whisper-quiet focusing. It’s renowned for its speed and accuracy.

You would expect glass elements from a professional lens. The Canon uses a molded glass aspherical lens with 14 elements in 10 groups. The front element has a fluorine coating to repel moisture and oil, which reduces smudging.

You’ll get great results from this lens in a whole range of situations. Image quality is reliable across the aperture range. The Canon EF 85mm is, without a doubt, one of the best Canon portrait lenses.

 

5. Samyang 85mm f/1.4 WR Prime Lens

Samyang 85mm f/1.4 LSM Prime Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Brand Samyang
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 1.4
Focal Range 85 mm
Image Stabilization No
Key Features Fast f/1.4 aperture and weather sealing
Best For Anyone looking for a budget prime lens

Depending on where you live, this Samyang 85mm f/1.4 is branded as Samyang or Rokinon. It’s not a name that immediately springs to many minds. But Rokinon is building a fan base with its well-made lenses.

At a similar price to a cheaper Canon portrait lens, the Rokinon boasts a nine-blade iris and weather sealing. It even looks like an L Series lens with a red ring around the body. Although it’s made of plastic, the Rokinon has a quality feel to it.

That’s all very well, but how does it perform? Focusing is quick and accurate. The manual focusing ring only works when the camera is awake. Sharpness from f/2.8 is excellent but less so up till that point.

Bokeh is really impressive at all apertures, as is contrast. If anything lets the Rokinon down, it’s some pincushioning and dropping off of sharpness away from the center.

Overall, this Samyang 85mm f/1.4 is a good lens with reliable image quality if portrait photography isn’t your main gig. Or if your budget is tight.

 

6. Sigma 85mm f/1.4 SLD Art EF HSM Prime Lens For Canon EF-Mount

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 SLD Art EF HSM Prime Lens For Canon EF-Mount
Brand Sigma
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 1.4
Focal Range 85 mm
Image Stabilization No
Key Features Low-dispersion elements and weather sealing
Best For Professionals looking for excellent quality and value

This Sigma 85mm f/1.4  SLD Art is part of the Sigma Art range. They have a deserved reputation for great image quality. Aimed at the professional, Sigma Art lenses deliver sharp, true images. And the 1.4 DG HSM is no exception.

There are 14 elements in 12 groups. They include an aspherical lens and two elements made from Special Low Dispersion (SLD) glass. This is Sigma’s own technology that is designed to reduce lens flare.

The AF motor is a Hypersonic Motor—the “HSM” in the name—which has proved to be quick and quiet in operation. Like the L Series of Canon portrait lenses, Sigma Art lenses are designed to withstand dust and moisture.

This Sigma Art 85mm lens will provide outstanding image quality at a lower price than the Canon portrait lens. I have a friend whose wedding and portrait photography is breathtaking. And she uses nothing but Sigma Art lenses on a Canon body.

 

7. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS STM Zoom Lens

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Zoom Lens
Brand Canon
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 2.8
Focal Range 70-200 mm
Image Stabilization Yes
Key Features Superb image stabilization and professional build quality
Best For Anyone looking for a wide-ranging zoom lens

The performance of this Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.84 is excellent all across the board. Sharpness, vignetting, and distortion are all superb. Bokeh is as smooth as with a specialist prime lens, and image stabilization runs to five stops. That opens up a whole lot of possibilities.

Everything about the lens is great. Weather sealing helps to protect it, and the build quality is excellent. It will work well year after year, and the focal length range gives it so many uses. You’ll see many wedding photographers using these lenses to get stunning, intimate shots without being intrusive. It will consistently deliver high-quality images.

It’s a pretty steep price, but the EF 70-200mm f/4 is a versatile lens. It could be the best Canon lens for portraits for you if you’re willing to spend the money.

 

8. Canon EF 24-105mm f/4.0L IS II USM Prime Lens

Canon EF 24–105mm f/4.0L IS II USM Prime Lens
Brand Canon
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 4.0
Focal Range 24–105 mm
Image Stabilization Yes
Key Features Image stabilization and weather sealing
Best For Anyone wanting a top-quality multi-purpose lens

I have the Mark I version of this Canon EF 24-105mm f/4.0L lens, and it is my go-to. It has some shortcomings, especially in distortion at the wide end. But you can fix this with presets, and it produces wonderful, bright, and clear images.

The Mark II fixes the shortcomings and improves the strengths. For example, it has improved the coatings on some elements and a 10-blade iris.

Bokeh is superb at all apertures, and sharpness is generally good. It is stronger at the shorter ranges of the zoom but never unsatisfactory. Weather sealing is what you’d expect from a professional lens.

The 24-105mm focal length range is a great lens to have on your camera. A 24mm lens is probably my favorite prime lens. With this lens, I have that as well as standard, plus portrait. The Canon EF 24-105mm f/4.0L is a great performer, but pricier than some options.

 

9. Sigma 24-105mm f/4.0 Art DG OS HSM Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount

Sigma 24-105mm f/4.0 Art DG OS HSM Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Brand Sigma
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 4.0
Focal Range 24-105 mm
Image Stabilization Yes
Key Features Weather sealing and optical stabilization
Best For Anyone looking for an excellent value multi-purpose zoom lens

This Sigma 24-105mm f/4.0 Art is another one of Sigma’s Art lenses that offers very similar specs to the Canon. It has the same focal lengths and aperture. Although the main body isn’t metal, it is a composite material with a very solid feel. It helps make the lens feel like it belongs in the professional league.

Sigma’s HSM focusing is a good match for Canon’s in speed and accuracy. And the image stabilization performance is about the same.

In tests, the Sigma seems sharper in the middle of the frame. But this advantage is reversed as you go to the edge, especially the corners. Pincushion and barrel distortions are broadly similar between the Sigma and the Canon.

This is another lens that will give great flexibility and impressive performance. Choosing between this Sigma 24-105mm and the Canon might come down to handling and personal preference with the results.

 

10. Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Zoom Lens

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Zoom Lens
Brand Canon
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 2.8
Focal Range 24-70 mm
Image Stabilization No
Key Features Fast constant maximum aperture and weather sealing
Best For Anyone looking for a daily use workhorse zoom

This Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens is a bit of an outlier. It doesn’t get up to that magic 90mm focal length figure. And it’s expensive. But it is loved by many professionals as their everyday lens. It hits the 24mm and standard lens targets, plus a little bit extra. And it does it all with a constant f/2.8 aperture.

And the results it returns are excellent. They’re at least a match for equivalent prime lenses. The bokeh is consistent and smooth and works across the whole range of apertures and focal lengths.

Perhaps the only shortcoming is the lack of any image stabilization. Perhaps the professional’s practiced hand and steady eye is less in need of it. But it certainly feels lacking in a lens of this quality and at this price.

As a Canon lens for portraits, the argument is a tad weak, except for that exceptional clarity, smooth bokeh, and fast maximum aperture. But as an everyday lens that can take occasional portraits, the Canon EF 24-70mm is definitely a top contender.

 

11. Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount

Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 Zoom Lens for Canon EF-Mount
Brand Tamron
Lens Mount EF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 2.8
Focal Range 24-70 mm
Image Stabilization Yes
Key Features Vibration compensation and fluorine-coated elements
Best For Anyone looking for a top-value, fast zoom lens

The Tamron SP 24-70mm offers a cheaper option as a counterpoint to the Canon. It is well-built and has fast and quiet autofocus. And it has the advantage of 5 stops of image stabilization.

Images are sharp and contrasty. Three glass molded aspherical elements and a front element fluorine coating are all signs of a premium product. Bokeh is smooth and pleasing across all apertures and focal lengths.

The sharpness of the images from the Tamron is exceptional. But there is some vignetting on full frame, wide-open shots.

There is a substantial price difference between this and the best Canon portrait lenses. A tighter budget might lead you to choose this. Or you might prefer the pictures it takes or the way it handles. Whatever the reason, this Tamron 24-70mm would be a sound choice for a general lens that can stand in as a portrait lens when needed.

Choosing the Best RF-Mount Canon Lenses for Portraits

 

If you’re looking for an RF-mount Canon portrait lens, your choices are more limited. But there are still some excellent lenses. Here are our recommendations.

Our Top Pick RF lens
Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM Prime Lens
Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM Prime Lens
Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM Prime Lens
  • Improved autofocus speed and eye detection AF feature
  • Blue spectrum refractive optics
  • Control ring and one aspheric and one UD element
  • Fast f/1.2 maximum aperture
  • Weather-sealed lens body
Best for Macro and Portrait
Canon RF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Prime Lens
Canon RF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Prime Lens
Canon RF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Prime Lens
  • World's first medium telephoto macro lens
  • High image quality and bright f/2.8 maximum aperture
  • Optical Image Stabilizer with up to 5 stops of shake correction
  • Hybrid IS compensates for angular and shift camera shake
  • SA Control Ring for adjusting bokeh shape and character
Most Versatile Lens
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Zoom Lens
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Zoom Lens
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Zoom Lens
  • Fast f/2.8 constant maximum aperture
  • Up to five stops IS
  • Ultra-quiet AF with dual nano USM
  • Close minimum focusing distance
  • Weather-sealed lens body

And now let’s take a look at our top RF-mount picks in more detail.

1. Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM Lens

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM Prime Lens
Brand Canon
Lens Mount RF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 1.2
Focal Range 85 mm
Image Stabilization No
Key Features Fast constant maximum aperture and weather sealing
Best For Anyone looking for a hardworking, fast portrait lens

The Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM lens is about as good as you can get for an RF-mount portrait lens. With such a wide maximum aperture, the focus is not as lightning-fast as some other lenses. But the images are sharp, and the bokeh is smooth and pleasing.

The lens has the build quality we would expect from an L-series lens. These are designed for hardworking professional use. It is pretty big and heavy, so you will be aware of it after a long day of shooting.

The lens is almost distortion-free, with sharp images from corner to corner. This Canon RF 85mm is our top pick for a Canon portrait lens because it delivers everything you need superbly.

 

2. Canon RF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM Prime Lens
Brand Canon
Lens Mount RF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 1.2
Focal Range 85 mm
Image Stabilization No
Key Features Up to 1.4x magnification and hybrid IS
Best For Anyone looking for a versatile lens for portrait or macro work

The Canon RF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM is quite a remarkable lens. It would be impressive just as a portrait lens. It is fast, sharp, and the AF is truly quick. But it also is an excellent macro lens.

Canon occasionally labels a lens as “macro” when it doesn’t manage true 1:1 reproduction. This lens, however, goes way beyond that—40% beyond it! The 1.4x magnification means you can get some remarkable shots.

Add to this the edge-to-edge sharpness and super-fast AF, and you have a wonderfully versatile lens. Bokeh is as good as you can get. But the lens has one more trick up its sleeve. There is Spherical Aberration (SA) control. This means you can add soft focus to the shot by turning the SA dial.

All in all, this Canon RF 100mm is a fantastic and versatile lens.

 

3. Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Zoom Lens

Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Zoom Lens
Brand Canon
Lens Mount RF-Mount
Maximum Aperture f/ 2.8
Focal Range 70-200 mm
Image Stabilization Yes
Key Features Constant f/2.8 maximum aperture, versatile zoom range
Best For Anyone looking for an incredibly versatile, fast zoom lens

Like the EF version but better, the Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM is a superb lens. It is lighter, faster, smaller, and focuses closer than its EF cousin. The build quality is as good. The optical quality is outstanding.

It’s not a macro lens, but it will focus so close at 200mm that you can get some stunning close-ups. And with all the popular portrait focal lengths available, it’s very flexible.

The f/2.8 delivers a very narrow depth of field and pleasing bokeh. Some users feel that the autofocus is faster than their own eyes when moving from close to infinity. 

The Canon RF 70-200mm is great for weddings and portraits. And it’s super for events and even small-court sports. Check out our full list of the best 70-200mm lenses in this article.

 

Which is the Best Canon Lens for Portraits?

Conventional wisdom was that a portrait lens should have a focal length of 90mm. Perhaps 100mm. Conventional wisdom has said a lot of things over the years. But this idea is rooted in some realities that have not changed.

 

Focal Length

The human nose, even in its cutest form, can be a problem for portrait photographers. Get too close with a wide-angle lens, and your subject will look like they’re waiting outside your hotel room.

Distorted closeup of man in glasses
© Simon Podgorsek (Depositphotos.com)

Get too far away, however, and two things happen. First, that nose and everything else can become flat and uninteresting. And you won’t be able to maintain your witty repartee with your subject. So, a 90mm focal length portrait lens gives a pretty accurate rendition of facial features. And it keeps you close—but not too close—to your subject.

So a 90mm focal length prime lens or similar would be the go-to lens for portrait photography. This was in the days when zoom lenses were pretty rare and pretty specialized. Zooming and focusing at the same time takes quite a bit of skill. So zoom lenses really only took off when autofocus became common.

But who uses prime lenses these days? And if they do, why? Prime lenses tend to be lighter and have fewer distortion issues. Most importantly, they are almost always faster. Their widest aperture will be wider than a zoom lens.

Many prime lenses come with image stabilization. This makes a significant difference to your shooting. All the lenses reviewed here deliver great image quality.

 

Aperture

Remember, the wider the lens aperture, the faster the lens. A fast lens has a wide aperture. Helpfully, the size increases as the f-stop decreases. So f/2 is wider than f/5.6. (An f/2 aperture lets more light in than an f/5.6 aperture.) We call it “faster” because we can use a faster shutter speed and still get the same amount of light.

This is important for portrait photography for several reasons. As the aperture increases, the depth of field decreases. The band of distance that is in focus becomes smaller. This is why your eyes get tired reading in low light. Your iris enlarges, the depth of field reduces, and your muscles have to hunt more often to keep the book in focus.

So for portrait photography, we can exploit this. By using a wide aperture, we obtain a shallow depth of field. This helps to keep the attention on the subject. The background is out of focus and is not a distraction.

A black and white photo of two actors in a theatre
© Trevor Marshall (Gregory Gudgeon and David Fisher at The Bear Theatre)

It gets better. The out-of-focus background becomes a feature. Bokeh is a term that describes not just how out of focus the background is, but how pleasingly out of focus it is.

Bokeh is influenced by the lens iris. A cheap iris, with perhaps six blades, produces very geometric patterns. I praise many of the lenses in this review for their smooth bokeh.

The other factor that affects depth of field is the focal length of the lens. A telephoto lens has a shallow depth of field compared to a wide-angle lens. You can see this easily by taking pictures with a zoom lens at different focal lengths.

 

So What Lens Should You Choose for Portraits?

If portrait photography is going to be a major focus, and you have the budget, then get a prime lens in the 85-100mm focal length range. If not, then don’t despair. An f/4 zoom lens with two stops of image stabilization is, theoretically, as fast as an f/1.4 lens.

Your DSLR has ISO capability undreamed of in the days of film. So that combination of factors means you can take perfectly good portraits with today’s equipment.

Perhaps you’re also looking for a new camera for your portrait work? We can help you there as well with our review of the best cameras for portraits.  

 

Conclusion: The Best Canon Lens For Portraits

In a strong field, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 is one of the best Canon Lenses for Portraits. Its features are impressive. We like its wide aperture, attractive price, and fast autofocus.

Our Top Pick
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Prime Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Prime Lens
Looking for a Canon lens for portraits? Look no further than this fast, silent, and super-smooth lens with built-in image stabilization and rapid AF speed.

 
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