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 insights into the portrait sitter’s persona.

What are the Features of a good Portrait Lens?

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 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.

A Sample 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!

The Best Range of Focal Lengths

Your portrait lens should allow 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.

An additional problem is that, you may not have all that much space! Some studios could be rather small.

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.

What Kind of Lens Should You Avoid for Portraits?

Photographing your subject 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.

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 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.

Using Alternate Focal Length Lenses

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

Lenses with Wide Apertures

We’ve already spoken about Bokeh. It’s the pleasing out-of-focus area that is behind or in front of 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 be good for throwing 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.

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

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. But… Anything to get the best shot possible… Right? Right? 

Popular Portrait Lenses sorted by Manufacturer

Canon 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 that? Let me know in the comments if you know). These lenses are the quick go-to options for photographers

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.