Most people starting out in photography are interested in portraiture (people photography). So, it makes sense that of your first few lenses, you should choose one lens that is the best lens for portraits with your camera system.
We love photographing ourselves and each other. And as a result, Portrait Photography will never go out of fashion as long as photography exists. In this article, we dive into what features make up the best portrait lenses and also suggest a few of the best lenses for portraiture, with Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Fujifilm Cameras.
What Challenges Must a Portrait Photographer Overcome With Their Lenses?
A good ‘Portrait lens’ is one that shows the subject’s facial features in a pleasing way; one that doesn’t distort their features, and makes them look recognizable at the same time. That’s a quick summary of what a portrait lens should be able to accomplish, but there’s a lot left unsaid in that one line. Let’s look at a scenario that a photographer may encounter.
A Sample Scenario:
Imagine that you’re taking a photograph of a model outdoors, near a forest. You’re under the shade of some massive evergreen trees, with their trunks seen in the background. Picture this in your mind. How do you visualize it? Let’s say that you’d want to get the model in sharp focus (of course!) … but if the trees are also in focus they’d just add clutter to the photograph, so you need a shallow depth of field to blur out the background.
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 while also giving the model a pleasing look.
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 the portrait at faster shutter speeds, to ensure that it is tack sharp!
What Features Do The Best Portrait Lenses Have?
So, now we have a scenario to work from. Let’s reverse-engineer the requirements for a good portrait lens. Portrait photographers have a mental checklist when they choose a lens and evaluate its suitability for portrait photography. I’ll write down that list of requirements here, along with explanations for why photographers look for these particular features.
- A portrait lens should be a Medium to Long Focal Length lens
- It should be easy to carry and have quick autofocus
- Portrait lenses usually have a wide maximum aperture – f/1.8 or wider
- Portrait lenses should have pleasing bokeh
1. A Portrait Lens Should be of Medium to Long Focal Length (70-200mm)
Lenses in this focal range show the subject’s facial features in a pleasing manner – one that we are used to seeing in real life. These focal lengths don’t distort the sitter’s features or compress them excessively. While contemporary portrait artists sometimes use 35mm lenses for dramatic effect, they are best used for a full-length or wide environmental portrait. Close-ups or headshots with a 35mm lens will distort the sitter’s facial features.
You’ll find that professional portrait photographers find that the best focal lengths for prime portrait lenses are usually 85mm, 100mm, 135mm, or 200mm lenses. Alternatively, they may choose to use a zoom lens that encompasses that range of focal lengths for ease of composition.
2. A Portrait Lens Should be Easy to Carry and Focus
The lens should be easy to work with. It should not be too large, or too heavy. At the same time, it should focus quickly and accurately. Lenses with excessively wide apertures like f/0.95, or f/1.2 may seem like good ideas for portrait photography, but they’re difficult to use continuously for extended periods of time.
Because of the trend to use a very shallow depth of field, the lens should be able to keep up with the camera’s eye autofocus too.
3. A Portrait Lens Should Have a Wide Maximum Aperture
Prime lenses usually have larger maximum apertures (also called fast lenses) compared to a zoom lens of the same focal length. Portrait photographers like wide-aperture prime lenses for this reason. Fast prime lenses provide a very shallow depth of field if needed. This allows the portrait photographer to create a great deal of separation between the subject and the background.
4. A Portrait Lens Should Have Pleasing Bokeh
Another feature that portrait photographers look for in their main portrait lenses is the smooth, creamy out-of-focus backgrounds that some wide-aperture lenses create. 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, but the effect is not always pleasing to the eye. Sometimes the bokeh has crescent outlines or halos which can be distracting. A pleasing bokeh is something that is always in demand. Some lenses (including some old Russian manual focus prime lenses) create beautiful swirling bokeh that gives the image a unique look.
Should You Buy a Prime, or Zoom Lens for Portraits?
Many professional portrait photographers will tell you that the best lens for portraits will always be a prime lens. The reasons are already listed above. However, there is a lot to be said about the convenience and flexibility that a zoom lens offers. Today, the quality of a zoom lens can be quite exceptional, with the expensive, high-end zoom lenses requiring little to no compromise in terms of quality.
If you’re a photographer who specializes in a particular style of image that requires a prime lens, then, of course, you would choose a prime. However, a zoom lens may be a more logical choice for a photographer who has a more varied style of photography, or who photographs multiple types of sitters (maybe both full-length as well as close-up, and group portraits), to help them achieve their desired result. With a zoom, you can easily reframe the portrait, but with a prime lens, you must move physically to switch from close up, to midshot, to full-length portrait.
Using a Tele-Macro Lens for Portraits
If you’re exploring photography and would like to buy a dual-purpose lens, you could explore macro lenses in the 80-100mm range. Canon, Sony, Sigma, Laowa, and many other manufacturers produce excellent cost-effective macro lenses. Many of these can double up as portrait lenses because of the wide aperture and focal length. In addition, they produce very sharp results. In fact, some photographers say that they are too sharp for portraits, and add some softening effects to mitigate this. One of my favorites is the Canon EF 100mm USM. I write about it, and other macro lenses at the link earlier in this paragraph.
Popular Portrait Lens Suggestions
Best Portrait Lenses for Canon EF Mount
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.
Best Portrait Lenses for Canon RF Mirrorless
- Canon RF 85mm F1.2 L USM
- Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM Lens – Value + IS + Macro
- Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM
Best Portrait Lens for Nikon
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.
- Nikon 85mm f/1.8D AF
- Nikon 135mm f/2.0D AF DC
- Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom
- Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom
Best Portrait Lens for Sony FE
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.
- Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens
- Sony FE 135mm F1.8 GM
- Sony FE 24-70 f/2.8 GM
- Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens
Best Zeiss Portrait Lenses
Zeiss lenses are best known for their association with the Hasselblad camera medium format system. However, Zeiss is 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.
So, Have You Chosen the Best Lens for Your Portraits?
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 in The Lens Buying Guide index post.
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