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What Is the Best Lens for Portraits?

Portrait photography requires good equipment and a keen eye. But what is the best lens for portraits? This article is here to help you.
We’ll start with what’s available on the market, then lenses on a budget. And finally our pick for the best wide angle, standard and telephoto lenses for Canon and Nikon DSLRs.
A close up portrait of a red haired young man - best lens for portraits
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Types of Lens

Fish Eye Lens

A fisheye lens has the widest focal length of all lenses at between 4.5mm and 14mm. The angle of view is 180°, allowing you to see half of a full rotation.
They suffer from heavy lens distortion, as they cram in as much information into the sensor as possible. You can use these lenses for skyscapes and wide panoramas.
The Rokinon HD8M-C 8mm f/3.5 HD is a great example. 

Wide Angle Lens

A wide-angle lens is similar to the fisheye, just not as wide. The fall between 14mm and 35mm. Their angle of view typically runs from 64° to 84°.
These lenses also suffer from distortion. Their perspective is one of the largest and generally used for interiors and architecture.
The Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM is a good example. 

Standard Lens

A standard lens is a lens that is closest to the human eye in terms of angle of view. It is a 50mm lens with its angle of view of around 58°. 
Anything below this lens’ focal length is a wide angle, and anything above is a telephoto. These are the most versatile lenses, used for portrait, landscape and street photography.
The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM is a great example. 

Telephoto

A telephoto lens is used to photograph subjects from far away. They go from telephoto (70mm – 300mm and 34° – 8°)  and super telephoto (300mm – 600mm and 8° – 4°).
The telephoto is great for portraits, the super is perfect for action photography and astrophotography.
The Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM is a perfect example.
A diagram explaining the different focal lengths for different lens types

What Focal Length Should You Choose

When it comes to portrait photography, the focal length is important when choosing the best lens for portraits. You need to take into account what you will be using the lens for.
For example, a small, cramped studio space isn’t big enough to warrant a 70-200mm lens.
In the reverse, a long distance shot of a couple at their wedding won’t go down well if you are using a wide angle lens. Horses for courses, the lenses you use will need to be versatile.
This is because as a portrait photographer, no doubt you will be capturing the many types available, such as events and studio sessions.
Your kit needs to reflect the wide range of styles. you can either go for two zoom lenses that cover all the lengths or have prime lenses for each one. Both have their good points, and of course, the bad.
More prime lenses take time to use and cost more than zoom lenses, which may not give you the best quality.
The best bet is to have a mixture. Leave the ones at home that you won’t use for that particular session.
Start small, work your way up in acquiring equipment and once you start getting a regular client base, upgrade what you have to the best quality.
Atmospheric black and white portrait photo of a female model in low light - best lens for portraits

Zoom or Prime

All lenses come in either a prime version or a zoom version. A prime lens has a fixed focal length, meaning you have to get closer to a subject by moving physically.
They are generally lighter, faster, cheaper and produce better quality images. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM is a great example. 
A zoom lens has a variable focal length, so you can move from a wide angle, through a standard focal length to a telephoto in one lens.
These are very versatile, allowing you to keep your gear to a minimum. They are heavier and more expensive, due to extra mechanisms and glass inside the lens.
Their quality is surpassed by prime lenses, as these are very much a jack of all trades, master of none. The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM is a great example. 
Image of a wide angle lens resting on a rock - best lens for portrait photography

Buying Lenses On a Budget

If you are just starting out, you’ll find you can’t afford the top portrait lenses. That’s ok, many photographers didn’t start by buying the most expensive pieces of equipment.
They bought what they could afford, and acquired more as they made more bookings.
For the photographer on a budget, don’t go straight for Canon or Nikon lenses. Look at Sigma, Pentax, Samyang, Rokinon, Tokina or even Yongou. They offer the same focal lengths, for a big difference in price.
For example, I bought a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens as it was cheaper than the Canon alternative. I read reviews that said the glass was either just as good or superior to the Canon telephoto.
It was also 500 Euros cheaper, allowing me to put that toward another lens.
Start with a 35mm or 50mm, and grab a telephoto lens that goes from 24-70mm. This will cover most of what you need, making you move rather than rely on your lenses.
You might just learn something about framing, moving and placements while you do so
A black and white portrait of a man buttoning his tuxedo jacket - best portrait lens

How Will the Lens Affect a Cropped Sensor Camera

A full frame DSLR or mirrorless camera has a sensor the same size as the 35mm format (36mm x 24mm). 35mm was always considered small format, compared to medium and large format cameras.
These sensors will give you the highest resolution and image quality unless you move to a larger format camera.
Cropped sensors are smaller than the 35mm format. They include APS-C (Nikon, Sony), APS-H (Canon) and four thirds (Olympus, Panasonic).
The APS-C has a sensor size of 23.6mm x 15.7mm, APS-H has 28.7mm x 19mm and the four-thirds system has 17.3mm x 13mm. These are generally cheaper to manufacture and buy.
These affect your lens’ abilities. A full frame-lens working with a cropped sensor will multiply the focal length by x1.6 (APS-C),  x1.5 (APS-H) and x2.08 (four-thirds).
So, a 50mm full-frame lens will effectively become a 75mm lens on a Nikon DX camera, an 80mm on a Canon 7D and a 104mm on an Olympus camera.
This is great for getting closer to a subject without buying an extra lens. The 50mm turns into a telephoto lens on the Olympus, or a macro lens if you turn it around using adapters.
The only problem is that you are cropping into the image, so the resolution will never be the same as the full frame version.
A portrait of a girl leaning against a wall with sensor size diagrams over the image

Best Wide Angle Lens

Whether you are a Canon or Nikon user, here are the two best lenses for both systems. The 35mm is the popular focal length for portrait photography.
It is a great addition for environmental portraits, for those detail shots at weddings and other events.
On a crop sensor camera, the 35mm becomes a 50mm standard lens, making it perfect for both full frame and crop sensor cameras.
The f/1.4 makes it great for differential focus, giving you a very wide aperture for short depths of field.
On top of this, the bokeh is magical. There is no reason this shouldn’t be part of your camera gear. The lenses are Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USMNikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G
Two wide angle lenses on white background - what is the best lens for portraits?
 

Best Standard Lens

The standard lenses, such as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USMNikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S are great for portrait photographers who want to give prime lenses a try without remortgaging their house.
Many photographers consider the 50mm to be the perfect focal length for portrait photography. The 50mm lens is the closest you will come to how you see the world with your own eyes.
This is in terms of focal length and field of view. There is almost no lens distortion (there is always lens distortion), making it perfect.
Two examples of a standard best lens for portrait photography on white background

Best Telephoto

If there was ever a staple to the portrait photographers kit, this is the lens. The Canon is the most popular L series lenses and the Nikon was the answer to that fantastic lens.
This lens allows you to get further away from your subjects. By staying outside of the person bubble, you don’t intimidate, but rather capture a candid and personal shot.
This is great for those events where emotion and feelings play a big part. Clearly, I’m referring to sporting events.
Other attributes from these lenses include image stabilisation. As this lens offers you a different perspective and field of view, this is important.
The 70-200mm lens needs a 1/100th of a second plus shutter speed if not used with a tripod. The IS helps to reduce camera shake.
The Nikon has weatherproofing, and the Canon’s iconic white coating helps the lens cope with the hot weather. Don’t be surprised if this lens is your last ot purchase, as they are the most expensive.
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USMNikon 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S ED VR II
 
Two telephoto lenses for portrait photography on white background - best portrait lens

Conclusion

There we have it. The best lens for portrait photography options are all laid out, from wide angle to telephoto.
Even the manufacturers you should look to for those portrait photographers on a budget. There is something for everyone, now get out there and shoot.
For more on what the best portrait lens is, check out this video.

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