Lenses for Portrait Photography

Portraits are images that attempt to reveal a person’s soul. Humans are probably the most photographed subject on the planet. We love photographing ourselves and each other, and the art of the portrait will probably never go out of fashion as long as photography exists. That is why you should pick your portrait lens carefully. The right lens choice will ensure that your portraits are not distracted by little niggles.

Features of a Portrait Lens

A good ‘Portrait lens’ is one that shows their facial features in a pleasing way, one that doesn’t distort their features, and makes them look recognisable at the same time. Too wide a lens, or too narrow a lens will result in unrealistic rendering of the person. Often, the photographer also wants to separate the person being photographed from the background by using a shallow depth of field.

Imagine that you’re taking a photograph of a beautiful model outdoors near a forest, under the shade of some massive evergreen trees in the background. Picture this in your mind. You’d want to get the model in sharp focus but if the trees are also in focus, they’d just add clutter to the photograph.

Using a telephoto lens at a wide aperture gives you a shallow depth of field. This allows you to visually separate the model and the background, and reduce visual clutter.

If you’re just using natural light with some reflectors, the added advantage of having a fast lens is that you’ll be able to shoot at faster shutter speeds!

The Best Range of Focal Lengths

You’ll want a portrait lens that enables you to stand a reasonable distance away from the subject. Staying away from the subject, and taking portraits with a 70mm or 135mm lens has two major benefits:

  1. It gives the sitter’s face a pleasing perspective. Noses are not enlarged and sticking into the camera while ears disappear into the distance; instead they are nicely proportionate to each other.
  2. You will be able to give the model or sitter some space, and not be intrusive. This always makes the sitter more comfortable, making for a more productive portrait shoot.

At the same time, you don’t want to be too far away from the sitter, making it difficult to communicate. Also, you may not have all that much space! Taking a full length portrait of a 5’ 10” model with a 200mm lens would need you to stand about 30-40 feet away! So, avoid extremely long focal length lenses. If you’re doing some really tight close-ups, just move closer. 

Photographing using a wide-angle lens and going in close is generally considered a no-no because of the way it distorts facial features. It makes facial features look disproportionate.

That is why a portrait lens is generally in the 85-135mm focal length range. Some of the faster lenses in this range of focal lengths come with apertures as wide as f/2.8 and f/1.8, while cheaper lenses have aperture ranges that shift from f/3.5-5.6 as you zoom.

Alternate Focal Lengths

Group portrait by Jason Armstrong using a non-standard, wide-angle portrait lens. by Jason Armstrong

The 70-200mm lens we talked about earlier is great if you’re doing half-length or close up shots, but if you’re taking full length, or group portraits, you may want to add a wider zoom to your repertoire of lenses to give your photographs some variety. A wide-to-medium-telephoto lens is usually good for this usage.

I use the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens but have to keep reminding myself to stay at the telephoto end of the lens. Remind yourself not to go too wide by setting a marker at a safe distance away from the model and staying behind it. This will make sure that you don’t distort the sitter’s features beyond their most pleasing proportions.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and sometimes a portrait taken with a wide-angle lens could emphasise a certain quirky aspect of your sitter’s personality, so remember, there is always room for a couple of pictures taken with non-standard focal lengths and angles…

Portraits With a Prime Lens

Some photographers prefer to use ‘Prime lenses‘ (also called block lenses) for portraiture because of the increased sharpness over zoom lenses. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L is one of the major candidates for this as many photographers feel that the perspective and bokeh. Many photographers also like using 105mm and 135mm prime lenses for their portrait photography. However, using a prime lens means that you have to keep ‘shunting’ forwards and backwards to get your framing right.

Here are Some Popular ‘Portrait Lenses’ for Nikon and Canon Cameras

Canon Portrait Lenses

Nikon Portrait Lenses

Find out more about lenses for different kinds of photography at The Lens Resource index post.