There are plenty of ways to shoot portrait photography. Even the lenses you choose changes the mood and meaning your image may convey. That’s why it’s essential that you know which one to use when you’re taking pictures.
So, what type of lens is best for portrait photography? Let’s talk about your options and help you decide which one is the ideal lens for you.
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What Type of Lens for Portraits Should You Choose?
Portraiture is quite a subjective art form. Photographers often find plenty of ways to photograph people. And their choice of lenses vastly affects the outcome of the images.
For instance, some photographers opt for a standard or even a wide-angle lens for shooting environmental portraits. Some sports photographers shoot pictures with a 15mm fisheye lens. And I’ve also seen a few use a 500mm super-telephoto from a few dozen metres away.
If that’s the case, what are the best lenses for portrait photography then?
So why are they the best lenses for portraits? Here are the few reasons why: First, they let you achieve significant background blur and a shallow depth of field. Next, they allow you to position your subject comfortably far away. They also have a perspective that’s ideal for showing human faces and bodies. The minimal distortion they produce means they don’t make people look either fat or thin.
But as we mentioned before, that doesn’t mean a portrait lens is your only choice. In the next section, we’ll discuss a wide variety of options you can use for best lens portraits.
What Focal Length Is Best for Portraits?
The term ‘telephoto’ includes any lens from roughly 70mm to 200mm, which is a wide range. Meanwhile, a standard lens can be anywhere between 35mm and 70mm.
As a portrait photographer, you need to capture images in all sorts of situations. Therefore, your kit needs to reflect a 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 pros and cons.
Of course, you also need to take into account how you intend to use the lens. For example, a small, cramped studio space isn’t big enough to warrant a 70-200mm.
On the other hand, a long-distance shot of a couple at their wedding won’t work if you use a wide-angle lens. Horses for courses, the lenses you use will need to be versatile.
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.
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 combination of both lenses. 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 begin with a telephoto setting and zoom in even tighter.
The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM is an excellent example of this particular category.
Zoom lenses are versatile and allow you to keep your gear to a minimum. But they are also more cumbersome and more expensive due to other mechanisms and glass inside the lens.
The 35mm – The Most Popular Choice
Whether you are a Canon or Nikon user, here are the two best wide portrait lenses for both systems. The 35mm is the popular focal length for portrait photography.
It is an excellent addition for environmental portraits, for those detail shots at weddings and other events.
On a crop sensor camera, the 35mm acts like a 50mm, making it perfect for both full-frame and crop sensor cameras.
The f/1.4 makes it great for differential focus, giving you a wide aperture for shallow depths of field.
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, making it the middle ground between primes and zooms. We love it for its image quality, fast aperture, and zoomability.
The 50mm – The Best Low-Cost Option
The Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM lens is one of the cheapest options out there. Yet, it still represents a tremendous step-up from your kit lens. It boasts surprisingly good image quality. It’s the workhorse of many beginner and professional portrait photographers.
So you may ask, is 50mm good for portraits? Many photographers consider the 50mm to be the best portrait lens. The 50mm is the closest you will come to how you see the world with your own eyes. We mention this 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. But the images you get out of it are genuinely high-quality.
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 suitable 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 lens is well-known for the exceptionally sharp 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 solidly built lens. But it also comes at a higher price than other f/1.8 lenses from Canon and Nikon.
The 85mm – The Classic Portrait Lens
The 85mm focal length is the most classic portrait lens. When 35mm film cameras emerged in the early 1900s, these lenses became a popular choice. Today, every major manufacturer offers the 85mm lenses in their optics lineup.
Canon users are undoubtedly familiar with the old but trusted EF 85mm f/1.8. It’s been a workhorse of portrait shooters for 30 years and remains so to this day. 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 can now buy the 85mm f/1.8S. It’s somewhere between the original f/1.8 and f/1.4 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 – For a Greater Field of View
There are great choices above the 85mm portrait lens, too.
Canon’s 100mm f/2 it 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.
Many consider the 135mm f/2 to be a favourite among many portrait shooters. 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 lens portrait, 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. 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.
For third-party lenses, Sigma’s 135mm f/1.8 is a new, but a promising competitor. And the best part about it is that it has available mounts for all major camera manufacturers.
The 70-200mm – A Staple Lens
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.
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 option needs a 1/100th of a second plus shutter speed if not used with a tripod. The IS helps to reduce camera shake.
Both feature weatherproofing, 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 for sports photographers, but it’s perfectly suitable for portraits too. It features one of the most effective autofocusing systems we’ve seen in a third-party lens. Its images are sharp throughout its zoom range.
Sony’s 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 is the lens that you see everywhere all the time. It’s a sharp, versatile, but cheap zoom option. It didn’t lose a bit of its popularity over the past 15 years.
Which Is Better for Portraits: 50mm or 85mm?
Of all the portrait lens options we showed you, the 50mm and the 85mm remain the most popular.
So which one is the best lens for portraits?
Honestly, it all comes down to preference.
Most street portrait photographers like the 50mm because it’s small. Plus, it allows them to get closer to their subjects in tight spots.
Meanwhile, a lot of studio portrait or fashion photographers tend to prefer 85mm. It has minimal distortion, and they don’t have to be as far away from the subject to take pictures.
For others, it all boils down to the look of the photos they get from each lens. Some people love the bokeh from 85mm. While others enjoy the intimate mood that 50mm brings.
Buying Lenses for Portrait Photography On a Budget
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.
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. These focal lengths will cover most of what you need. Since they’re primes, they won’t let you zoom into a scene at all. But using them might just teach you something about framing, moving, and placements while you do so.
Buying Used Lenses
On a budget, you might also consider purchasing used lenses. Of course, going through this route has its pros and cons. But if you have enough experience, you’ll find some great deals.
On the 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.
Technically, you can use any lens available to you when taking portraits. So the best portrait lens all boils down to your needs and preferences.
Do your research and familiarize yourself with all your options. Camera optics can be expensive. So think about which one you will use the most, and invest in it.
To up your portrait photography business, check out our eBook – Profit from Portraits!