The Best Lenses for Portrait Photography

Portrait of a woman Photographer: Guide to Buy: Portrait Lenses

If you’re taking a portrait, you want it to be the most pleasing image possible of your subject. Portraits are images that attempt to reveal a person’s soul, and humans are probably the most photographed subject on the planet. So it’s no surprise that photographers spend a lot of time contemplating the best lenses to take on a portrait photography session.

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. The right lens choice makes all the difference to a portrait of a person.

What Are The Features of a Good Portrait Lens?

A good ‘Portrait lens’ is one that does not distort the model’s facial features. This means using a medium telephoto lens in the 70mm to 135mm range. Lenses in this focal range show the subject’s facial features in a pleasing manner.

These focal lengths don’t distort the sitter’s features or compress them excessively. The result is a pleasing and flattering look.

Another feature that portrait photographers look for in their main lenses is a pleasing bokeh. Bokeh is a fancy term for the areas in the background that are out of focus and blurred. This blurring creates separation between the model (the subject) and the background, giving the subject importance by blurring out everything that is not important to the photograph.

Skip to the list of lenses that we suggest.

An Example Scenario:

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!

Different Types of Portraits

Having said all that, we should acknowledge that there is more than one type of portrait and more than one type of usage for portraits. Here are a few that come to mind.

  • Formal Individual or Group Portraits
  • Fashion Portraits
  • Corporate Headshots
  • Artist Portfolio Headshots
  • Environmental Portraits
  • Casual/Lifestyle Portraits
  • Glamour/Boudoir Portraits
  • Fine Art/Interpretational Portraits

What Focal Lengths are Best for Portraits?

An ideal portrait lens is between 70mm and 135mm for a full-frame 35mm camera format. Sometimes this extends to 50 mm, or 200mm depending on the situation, but it’s rare to see formal portraits taken at focal lengths that are wider or longer focal lengths. In fact, you’ll see many camera and lens manufacturers make very wide aperture lenses at 85mm just for portraits.

Why do Photographers Prefer 70mm to 135mm lenses for Portraits?

  1. It gives the sitter’s face pleasing proportions. When using a telephoto lens perspective is not forced. When using a wide angle lens noses get enlarged and lookd like they’re sticking into the camera while ears disappear into the distance (when looking at relative distance to the lens). When using lenses longer than 200mm, the opposite happens, and the perspective seems squashed. With 70mm, 85mm and 135mm primes, they are nicely proportionate to each other, and flattering.
  2. They offer shallower depth of field. This separates the model from the background. Wide angle lenses on the other hand, have much more depth of field (more areas are in focus) at the same aperture as a telephoto lens.
  3. It gives the model or sitter some personal space, and is less intrusive. This keeps the model comfortable, providing the setting for a more productive portrait shoot.
  4. The photographer is not too far away. Taking a full-length portrait of a 5’ 10” model with a 200mm lens would need you to stand about 30-40 feet away. This is sometimes required… for example in fashion. However, for more personal portraits, longer focal lengths can make communication difficult. If you’re doing some really tight close-ups, just move closer. Also, some studios are just not big enough for these focal lengths.

Should You Choose Lenses With Wide Apertures?

A portrait of a smiling man taken with a wide-open aperture.
Portrait taken with Shallow Depth of Field

We’ve already spoken about Bokeh and why it is especially relevant for most portrait images. It’s the pleasing out-of-focus area that is behind your subject.

Using a lens with a large aperture like an f/1.2 and a long-ish focal length could be useful for more things than just making your sitter look good. It can change cluttered backgrounds into soft blurry goodness. Using one of these lenses at its widest aperture setting could sometimes rescue a shoot that isn’t going too well.

A word of caution: These lenses tend to have a razor-thin depth of field, and getting your model’s eye in sharp focus is sometimes tricky at wide apertures. Be sure to zoom on the camera screen and check your hero shots before you settle on one.

What Wide Apertures Contribute To A Portrait

  • Creates a pleasing background
  • Brings the portrait sitter into sole focus
  • More light means faster, more accurate autofocus
  • Brighter viewfinder, and easier to see every nuanced expression by the sitter

Remember to Use Eye-Focus Mode On Your Camera

Today’s Digital SLR and Mirrorless cameras can recognise and focus on a subject’s eye. This is critical when using wide apertures and shallow depth of field. You will have to ensure that the subject’s eyes are sharply in focus, and this is probably the only surefire way to achieve it…

A crop of the previous image. Only the eye is in focus.
A crop of the previous image showing detail of the eye in focus and other areas out of focus

Just look at the photograph above to see how soon focus falls off, even his nose, and the left end of his eye is out of focus. This is why eye focus is critical.

Is a Prime Lens, or a Zoom Lens Best for Portraits?

Prime lenses have a single focal length and are highly optimised for it. Some photographers prefer to use prime lenses for portraiture because of their increased sharpness and wide apertures when compared to zoom lenses. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L is a huge favourite for this purpose as many photographers feel that the perspective and bokeh are just perfect. Many photographers also like using 105mm and 135mm prime lenses for their portrait photography.

When Should You Choose a Zoom Lens for Portraits?

Using a prime lens means that you have to keep shuffling forwards and backwards to get your framing right. Zoom lenses bring an ease of use that prime lenses may not have.

With Zoom lenses, you pay for this ease of use by having to settle for smaller apertures (less bokeh), and sometimes, more weight.

In some cases, using a zoom lens may be critical to getting a successful portrait. For example, in a wedding, a press meet, or some other event where being adaptable is crucial to success. So, a zoom lens is an option that you may want to consider seriously, especially if you shoot multiple genres of photography.

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

Using Alternate Focal Lengths

The 70-200mm lens 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 for group photos but have to keep reminding myself to stay at the telephoto end of the lens. Remind yourself not to go too wide. Set a marker at a reasonable distance away from the client and stay behind it. This will help you to make sure that you don’t distort the facial features beyond their 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…

Environmental Portraits

A smiling woman in a black top, in an office setting.
An environmental portrait of a woman in an office.

Environmental portraits include some of the person’s surroundings into the portrait to add some context. As a result, you see photographers using wider angle lenses for these images, sometimes ranging from 24mm to 50mm.

They needn’t always be with the background blurred, but in this case, it is.

This photograph of a woman in an office setting tells a story of what she does. Yes, it is more or less a typical business stock photography image, but there’s more to it than just the person. The framing of the photo includes the office environment and makes it a part of the subject.

You can see the setting in which the photograph is taken, but it is blurred sufficiently that it does not distract too much.

Looking at the EXIF data, we see that this image was taken on a 35mm lens at f/2. Thankfully the photographer has stayed away from her face, and as a result, her features are not distorted – unlike the baby in the photo below.

What Kind of Lens Should You Avoid Using for Portraits?

A photograph of a baby who is almost touching the camera's lens. Wide angle portrait
A Baby Portrait Taken With A Wide-Angle Lens

Avoid using a wide-angle lens and going in close to your subject. It is generally considered a no-no because of the way it distorts facial features and makes your model look ugly.

The ratio from the tip of the nose to the lens and the ear to the lens is quite different with a wide-angle lens, making the face distort quite a bit. So stay away from these kinds of lenses. 

That is why a portrait lens is generally in the 70-135mm 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.

Popular Portrait Lens Suggestions

Canon EF Portrait Lenses

Canon is the manufacturer with the widest range of lenses, currently. Their L series of lenses is legendary (Does ‘L’ actually stand for ‘legendary’? Let me know in the comments if you know). These lenses are the quick go-to options for photographers.

Canon RF Mirrorless Lenses

Nikon Portrait Lenses

Nikon’s Nikkor lenses are no less legendary than their Canon counterparts. Both Japanese companies have vied for a spot in photographers’ bags for ages, so don’t feel shy if you shoot Nikon. 

Sony Portrait Lenses

Sony lenses – though new to the game – are quickly proving themselves to be no slackers when it comes to working hard, and in harsh environments. However, they still have to prove themselves in the field. But their G Master lenses are giving everyone else a run for their money.

Zeiss Portrait Lenses

Zeiss lenses are best known for their association with the Hasselblad camera medium format system. However, Zeiss are also a contender for a spot on this list with multiple lenses in their lineup. They make lenses for different camera mounts, so you’ll find them with Nikon, Canon and Sony mounts. Be sure to check them out. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, each manufacturer is likely to provide an excellent set of lenses for their platform, and there are third-party alternatives if you’re not satisfied with the native lenses. 

What you must take away here is that Portrait lenses are determined by their characteristics. Focal length/perspective, and depth of field/bokeh.

So which lens is the right one to buy? That answer is something that you will determine as you shoot with the lens, and get a feel for the results it delivers and its ease of use. 

I hope that you found this article useful. If you need any more information about lenses for specific applications, you’ll find more info at The Lens Resource index post.

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Published: April 24, 2007 | Last Updated: July 30, 2021

3 thoughts on “The Best Lenses for Portrait Photography”

  1. “A good way to remind yourself not to go wide is to set a marker at a safe distance away from the model and to remain behind it at all times. ”

    Is there a chart of come kind that helps you determine the “distance” with the lenses? Or is this something you have to play with and determine?

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