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 portrait lenses for Canon and Nikon DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
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What Type of Lens Should You Choose?
Very generally speaking, photographers prefer telephoto prime lenses for shooting portraits. This is because they combine several factors that help portrait images.
With a telephoto prime, you can
- Achieve significant background blur and a shallow depth of field,
- Have your subject positioned comfortably far away,
- And have a perspective that’s ideal for showing human faces and bodies.
Of course, there are many exceptions to this guideline. You can achieve any two of these with basically any lens.
Many photographers opt for a standard or even a wide-angle lens for shooting environmental portraits. We’ve seen sports photographers shoot portraits with a 15mm fisheye lens. We’ve also seen mad lads shoot portraits with a 500mm super-telephoto from a few dozen metres away.
In this article, we’ll recommend options for every type of lens that can possibly be used for portrait photography.
So, let’s dive in. The first thing you want to consider is your focal length.
What Focal Length Should You Choose
The term ‘telephoto’ includes any lens from roughly 70mm all the way to 200mm – a very large range. A standard lens can be anywhere between 35mm and 70mm.
When choosing your focal length, you need to take the crop factor of your camera before anything else. It will determine how a lens will behave and look on your camera. Read our article here to learn what it means and how it works.
Then, 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 wider-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 in turn 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.
Zoom or Prime
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. It might start at a wide angle and work its way up to telephoto. Or, it could start at a telephoto setting and zoom in even tighter.
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.
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 Yongnuo. 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.
You can start with a 35mm or 50mm. This will cover most of what you need, making you move rather than relying on your lenses.
You might just learn something about framing, moving and placements while you do so.
Buying UsedOn a budget, you might also consider purchasing used lenses. This has its own pros and cons. But if you’re experienced enough, you’ll find some really great deals. On one hand, you might get a lens for half of its retail price. But it’s best to get your hands on it before actually buying it. You need to watch out for any hidden problems, dirt or dust, issues with the coatings, the rings, the autofocus, and many more.
Whether you are a Canon or Nikon user, here are the two best wider portrait 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 USM & Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G.
If you don’t love the 35mm focal length, but still want to keep it around in a powerful lens, we recommend the Sigma Art 24-35mm f/2. This lens has one of the shortest zoom ranges we’ve ever seen. It’s the middle ground between primes and zooms. We love it for its image quality, fast aperture, and zoomability.
The Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM lens is the one of the cheapest options out there. Yet, it still represents a great step-up from your kit lens. It boasts surprisingly good image quality, especially a little bit stopped down. This lens is the workhorse of many beginner portrait photographers. Don’t let its price fool you – it’s a lens professionals, too, use, because of its small size.
The standard lenses, such as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM & Nikon 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.
If you like the 50mm view, you could also invest in more and get better quality 50mm lenses.
On the Canon side, there is the EF 50mm f/1.2 lens, a lens that we love to use in our studio. It’s expensive, that’s true. But the images you get out of it are unique, and it’s a versatile lens despite being prime.
Canon’s new RF system also includes an RF 50mm f/1.2 lens. It’s an outstanding piece of glass, with fantastic sharpness, a much quicker autofocusing system, and a function ring. If you’re on the R system already, it’s a remarkably good option.
If you’re a Nikon user, you might consider getting a 58mm f/1.4. It’s not the sharpest in Nikon’s lineup. But it has the most characteristic look we’ve seen from a modern lens. Your subjects almost pop out of the image, as if they were in a 3D photo.
Nikon’s new mirrorless Z system contains the 50mm f/1.8S. It’s a convenient, sharp, midrange option for users of the Z system.
If you’re going for sharpness above all, you can’t go wrong with the Sigma Art 50mm f/1.4. This is a lens well-known for the exceptionally clear images it produces. It’s also significantly cheaper than the previous two. You can get it for all types of cameras, from Canon through Nikon to Sony.
Sony offers the FE 50mm f/1.8 for casual portrait photographers. It’s a well-rounded, sharp and strongly built lens. But it also comes at a higher price than other f/1.8 lenses from Canon and Nikon.
The 85mm focal length is the most classic portrait lens. When 35mm film cameras emerged in the early 1900s, they’ve already been a popular choice. Today, every major manufacturer offers 85mm lenses, usually several of them.
Canon users are surely familiar with the old but trusted EF 85mm f/1.8. It’s been a workhorse of portrait shooters for 30 years and still is. Because of its low price and the great results it delivers, it’s also the first 85mm that comes to mind.
Canon’s new 85mm f/1.4 IS USM is the first 85mm prime to include stabilisation. It’s expensive, but fantastic in all qualities.
If you don’t need stabilisation but rather a hint of extra background blur and character, the 85mm f/1.2 USM II is a fantastic option.
Users of the new Z system are offered an 85mm f/1.8S. It’s somewhere between the original f/1.8 and f/f1.4 in terms of image and build quality.
Sigma’s 85mm f/1.4 Art lens has been a rising star in the past few years. Its relatively low price and exceptional sharpness raise it above its direct competition.
Primes Above 85mm
There are great choices above the 85mm focal length, too.
Canon’s 100mm f/2 is considered to be one of the sharpest lenses in the manufacturer’s lineup. Yet, it’s never been as popular as its 85mm sibling, with which it shares most of its traits.
The 135mm f/2 is a favourite among many portrait shooters. Personally, I love the field of view of 135mm, and the backgrounds I get from it are amazing.
If you have the budget and aim for the very best and rarest possible, I have an easter egg for you. Canon’s old 200mm f/1.8 is a beast of a lens that you can only get on the used market anymore. Having used it several times, I can say it’s worth the asking price.
A few years ago, Nikon released a 105mm f/1.4G lens, which has since been considered one of the best lenses in Nikon’s entire range.
An older offering is the Nikon 135mm f/2D, a legendary option with defocus control.
Sigma’s 135mm f/1.8 is a new, but promising lens, which I haven’t tried yet, but every review shows it to be fantastic.
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 personal 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. A 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.
Both have weather proofing, and the Canon’s iconic white coating helps the lens cope with the hot weather.
But there’s more to 70-200mm zooms than the two most expensive and well-known ones.
Tamron’s 70-200mm f/2.8 G2 is a much less expensive, but very comparable alternative. It was one of the first to achieve the same outstanding image quality as its Canon counterpart.
A younger member of the 70-200mm family is the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8S. It’s primarily made for sports photographers, but it’s perfectly suitable for portraits too. It features one of the most powerful autofocusing systems we’ve seen in a third-party lens. Its images are sharp all the way through the zoom range.
Sony’s own 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is a rare sight, but if you’re deeply invested in Sony gear and want to buy the same brand, it’s a fantastic option too.
On the cheaper side, we find some 70-200mm f/4 lenses, most notably Canon’s 70-200mm f/4 USM.
This is the lens that you see everywhere all the time. A sharp, versatile, but cheap zoom lens. It didn’t lose a bit of its popularity over the past 15 years.
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.