The 10 Best Canon and Nikon Lenses for Portrait Photography

The 10 Best Canon and Nikon Lenses for Portrait Photography

When it comes to photography equipment, good lenses are one of the best things you can spend your money on. An entry-level camera with a high quality lens can take stunning pictures but the reverse is not necessarily true. In other words, you get way more bang for your buck from investing in good “glass” than in a good body.

Picking a lens for portrait photography is a tough decision, but we are here to help make it easier. In this article, we’ll talk about some of the things to look for when choosing a lens for portrait photography and tell you about some of our favorites.

Things to Consider When Choosing the Best Lens for Portraits


Zoom vs. Prime Lenses – Before we get into the different features to look for in lenses for portrait photography, let’s talk about the two major types of lenses: zooms and primes. Zoom lenses come in a variety of focal ranges (such as 24-70mm, 70-200mm, etc.), making each lens extremely versatile. Zoom lenses make it easy for you to take a wide variety of photos without ever having to switch out your gear. Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths (24mm, 35mm, 50mm, etc.) and provide superior clarity and image quality. What they may lack in versatility they make up for in performance. They are also typically smaller and lighter to carry around than a zoom lens. Many professional portrait photographers prefer primes due to the sharp, beautiful images they create. For even more convincing, see Prime Lens Basics and Why You Should Ditch Zoom Lens Photography.

Focal Length – One of the first things you will need to decide is what focal length is right for your needs. The best focal length for portrait photography depends on many things, including the available space where you will be shooting, the number of people in the frame, how much of the nearby environment you want to include, and how close you want to be to your subjects. Focal lengths from 35mm to 200mm are common for portrait photography, depending on the subject, style, and preferences of the photographer.

Number of Lenses You Want to Carry – If you only want to carry around one lens, you may want to look for a zoom. Zoom lenses will give you a lot of options when it comes to focal lengths. A lens like a 24-105mm will let you take a large variety of photos without ever swapping lenses. If you plan to shoot primes and want to use various focal lengths, you will have to carry multiple lenses. Many professional photographers get around having to constantly swap out prime lenses by using two camera bodies with different focal length primes mounted to the front.

How Many People Will Be in the Photo – If you are planning to shoot larger groups of people, you will probably want a wider lens that is able to capture more people in a frame. It is important to remember, however, that wider lenses will cause more distortion. If you don’t want the people on the outside edge of your photo to look bigger/more stretched than those toward the middle, don’t use a super wide lens. Remember, if you’re shooting outside or in large spaces you can always just move back to include more people in the frame.

Available Space Where You’re Shooting – If you will be shooting outdoors in wide areas, you have a lot of options for lenses but if your sessions will be taking place in a more confined environment, you will want something wider. A 70-200mm zoom or 85mm prime lens will be great where you have a lot of room to work but inside someone’s house you will probably want a shorter focal length.

Bokeh – You know how sometimes in portrait photography the subject is in focus and the background has a beautiful blur? That blur is called bokeh. The larger the aperture (and, thus, the smaller the f-stop number), the more bokeh you will get. If that blur is important to you, look for a lens that can shoot at a wider aperture such as f/2.8 or f/1.8. A larger aperture will give your images a shallower depth of field and allow for better low light performance.

Your Camera’s Sensor Size – An important thing to remember when picking out a lens for portrait photography is that the body you will be shooting on will impact the effective focal length of your lens. In other words, the same lens will act longer on a crop sensor camera than on a full frame one. For example, a 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera will give you an effective focal length of around 75mm. Keep this in mind when deciding how long you want your lens to be. Get more advice in New DSLR Owners: What You Must Know About Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors Before Choosing a Lens.

Price – Price is important but, with lenses, it isn’t a place where you should skimp. Investing in a high quality lens will get you more bang for your buck than putting that money toward a new body. If you can only afford to splurge on one thing, it should be your lens.

Best Canon Lenses for Portraits

Once you’ve figured out what you’re looking for in a portrait lens, you have a lot of good options to choose from. These are some of our favorite portrait lenses for Canon shooters.

Best-Canon-Lenses-BorrowLenses

1. Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM

($83 for 7 day rental / $1,900 retail)

Canon’s “L” series lenses are some of the best in the industry. This 85mm f/1.2 prime lens is perfect for photographers who like using longer focal length primes for portrait photography. This lens produces beautiful bokeh, sharp images, and flattering compression.

2. Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

($83 for 7 day rental / $2,100 retail)

The 70-200 focal length is a staple in the kits of professional photographers of all stripes. This is one of Canon’s most popular L series lenses and an excellent option for portraits, especially for photographers who like to shoot their subjects from farther away. It is also a fantastic ceremony lens for those who shoot weddings in larger venues. This lens will let you isolate your subject with beautiful, blurry bokeh. Built-in image stabilization allows you to capture sharp handheld images even at 200mm. Discover what longer lenses do for portraits in Use Wildlife Style Super-Telephoto Lenses on Children for Beautiful and Unique Portraits.

3. Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

($26 7 day rental / $350 retail)

The 50mm f/1.4 is the best Canon portrait lens for those who want to give prime lenses a try without breaking the bank. Many photographers consider 50mm to be the perfect focal length for portrait photography. Canon also makes a 50mm f/1.2L, which is slightly faster and has a better build quality but also costs around a thousand dollars more. This 50mm f/1.4 lens strikes a good balance between price and quality.

4. Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

($80 for 7 day rental / $1,800 retail)

35mm is a very popular focal length for portrait photography and the 35mm f/1.4L II lens is one of the best options for Canon shooters. This lens is ideal for environmental portraits, for detail shots at weddings, and as a walk around lens at events. On a crop sensor camera, this is effectively a 50mm lens, making it the perfect portrait lens for crop sensor cameras. If you love the idea of a professional level 35mm prime but don’t want to spend quite this much money, consider checking out Sigma’s top-of-the-line and excellently priced 35mm f/1.4 Art.

5. Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

($76 for 7 day rental / $1,800 retail)

This may be the best Canon portrait lens for photographers who shoot in a variety of settings and lighting situations. The 24-70mm focal length is extremely versatile—wide enough for environmental portraits but long enough to get a decent amount of zoom. For many portrait photographers, this is the lens that lives on their camera the majority of the time. This 24-70mm features Canon’s legendary L glass, sharp optics, and fast autofocus.

Canon EF 85mm f1.2 Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 Canon 50mm f1.4 Medium Canon EF - 35mm f/1.4 Canon EF - 24-70mm f/2.8
Lens Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Aperture range f/1.2-16 f/2.8-32 f/1.4-22 f/1.4-22 f/2.8-22
Weight 2.3 lbs 3.3 lbs 10 ounces 1.7 lbs 1.8 lbs
Weather Sealed Yes Yes No Yes No
Image Stabilization No Yes No No No
Bokeh Good Exceptional Fair Fair Fair to good
Distortion Very minimal Very minimal Very minimal Very minimal Very little distortion at 24mm, gets worse near 50mm
Sharpness Very sharp Very sharp Sharp in the middle at f/1.4, gets sharper when stopped down Very sharp Very sharp
Falloff (on DSLR) Visible at f/1.2 Somewhat visible at f/2.8 and gone by f/4 at 70mm, not visible at 200mm Strong at f/1.4, gone at f/2.8 Never visible Never visible
MSRP $1,900 $2,100 $350 $1,800 $1,800

Best Nikon Lenses for Portraits

Photographers who shoot Nikon bodies have a wide range of quality portrait lenses to choose from. As with the Canon options above, these lenses all produce beautiful images in a variety of settings. These are some of our favorite portrait lenses for Nikon shooters.

nikon-lenses-portraits-borrowlenses

1. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G

($89 for 7 day rental / $1,600 retail)

The NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G lens is the perfect portrait lens for Nikon shooters who like the 85mm focal length. This is one of the sharpest lenses ever made by Nikon. Photographers who like shooting portraits with a shallow depth of field will love this lens and the beautiful bokeh it produces. If you want your subject to be in sharp focus and the background to simply melt away, this is the lens for you.

2. Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S ED VR II

($107 for 7 day rental / $2,200 retail)

The 70-200mm f/2.8G is Nikon’s answer to the fantastic offering by Canon—and it’s a good one. This is the best Nikon portrait lens for photographers who like to shoot photos farther from their subjects. This lens features all the things that you want in a professional-level telephoto: image stabilization, weather sealing, and the ability to take gorgeous images throughout its focal range.

3. Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S

($19 for 7 day rental / $177 retail)

The 50mm f/1.8G is a good option for portrait photographers who want to give prime lenses a try. What this lens lacks in build quality and weather sealing it makes up for in value. This little baby’s quiet motor, clear optics, and amazing price make it the perfect starting point for many portrait photographers. It’s also considerably lighter than the other lenses on our list. Nikon shooters who want an even faster lens may want to consider upgrading to the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G.

4. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G

($78 for 7 day rental / $1,700 retail)

The 35mm f/1.4G is an excellent Nikon portrait lens for those who like shooting wider-angle portraits. This lens is fast, quiet, and sharp. It works well on both full frame and crop sensor cameras (where it has an effective focal length of around 50mm). This lens is wide enough for environmental portraits but not so wide as to cause a lot of distortion on the sides of the frame.

5. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED

($79 for 7 day rental / $1,700 retail)

This is one of the most popular lenses around for Nikon-wielding portrait and wedding photographers due to the quality of the optics and versatility of the focal length. This lens is a reliable, capable workhorse for those who find themselves shooting portraits in a variety of lighting and space situations. If you want this same lens with Vibration Reduction, check out the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E AF-S ED VR Lens.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G Nikon 70-200 f/2.8G AF-S ED VR II Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f2.8G ED Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f1.4G
Lens Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S ED VR II Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
Aperture range f/1.4-16 f/2.8-22 f/18-16 f/1.4-16 f/2.8-22
Weight 1.3 lbs 3.4 lbs 6.6 ounces 1.3 lbs 2 lbs
Weather Sealed Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Bokeh Exceptional Exceptional Very Good Fair Fair to poor
Distortion Very minimal Minimal Moderate Fair Fair to poor
Sharpness Sharp at every aperture Exceptional Very sharp at every aperture Very sharp at every aperture Exceptional
Falloff (on DSLR) Some but barely noticeable in photos Only visible at f/2.8 at 200mm Some through f/2.8, gone by f/4 Visible at 1.4, gone at f/2.8 Slight at f/2.8, gone at f/4
Vibration Reduction No Yes No No No
MSRP $1,600 $2,200 $177 $1,700 $1,700

With so many options on the market, picking the perfect portrait lens can be a challenge—and a lot of the time the choice comes down to personal preference. If you are trying to decide whether to go zoom or prime and what focal lengths are ideal for your portrait photography, it may be useful to take a few lenses for a spin before making your purchase. Nothing gives you an idea of how a lens will work for you quite like mounting it to the front of your camera and trying it out in the real world. Renting lenses is a great way to be sure that you are making smart decisions with your money. If you’re looking for more lens comparisons, visit our guide for the best lenses for Sony A6000 and more.

In addition to having the right gear, assure that you have the right body for your needs by referencing our camera comparison guides featuring the Nikon D3300 vs D5300, the Nikon D7200 vs D7100, or the Canon 70D vs Nikon D7100. We hope that this article has given you a good starting point for making the right choice!

Thank you for reading this post. Leave a comment or subscribe to the RSS feed and have future articles delivered right to your feed reader. Love BL? Become an affiliate today!
The following two tabs change content below.
Vivian Liu specializes in family and pet photography. She also spent 2 years as a photographer for Rebuilding Together Peninsula, which rehabilitates homes and community facilities for low-income homeowners and neighborhoods. Her passion is making photography accessible to everyone with straightforward recommendations and approachable tutorials.

12 Comments

  1. Sorry to say but you forgot 135L for tight head shot portraits or portraits where there are more open spaces. The bokeh is spectacular! If you have to list only 5 for canon, I think 135L beats 50, 35 and 24-70 II. So the worst of these three can be removed and replaced with 135L. My 135 portraits are very personal so I dont share, but bokeh is astounding.

    Reply
    • Hi! Shankar, I likes your explanation. I’m planning to buy soon this EF 135mm f/2L USM. Please tell me. Is EF 135mm applicable for shooting video? I’ll use it mostly for video capture with 5D Mark III. Currently using EF 24-105mm f/4 IS USM. Is it worth buying 135mm after having 24-105mm?

      With regards…

      Reply
  2. Hello Pfokrelo,

    I recommend not to buy 135L since you have 24-105L IS USM for Video unless you take portrait more than video. Most Video photographer like their 24-105L IS USM.

    If you plan to shoot video at night then consider looking into lower F-Stop like f1.2 to f2.8. Are you going to use Zoom for video or going to use Prime mostly? Consider what you need to do Video.

    I shoot with my Canon 5D Mark 4 with Canon 24-70L f2.8 mark 2, Canon 70-200L f2.8 mark 2, Canon 35L f1.4 mark 2 and 50 f1.4 and 85 f1.8 and 24-105 L f4.

    I like all of my canon lens and each one has it own purposes. I recommend you should rent the lens before you tried to purchase Canon 135L.

    Just my suggestion, rent the lens first before buying. Go to your nearest camera store to see if you can rent the lens from them or go online and rent the lens.

    Photograhper

    Reply
  3. Canon lenses are better for portraiture, as anyone who has carefully used both Canon and Nikon lenses can attest… Nikon glass has its place, particularly for wide angle (12-24) or macro work, but it can’t compare to the likes of the 85mm 1.2 L ii lens for portraits and bokeh. Sorry Nikon fanboys, you can’t fool me — I own BOTH systems with their respective lenses and know whereof I speak….

    Reply
    • Assuming you’re right, I don’t know having never shot Canon, it’s just too bad you can’t mount it on a better camera! 😉

      Reply
  4. Hi,

    Newbie here! I have one doubt –

    When you say that lens #3 ‘Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S’ is a good option for portrait photography, do you mean it is ideal for full-frame camera or crop-sensor camera? I suppose on crop-sensor camera such as D5100, it will be equivalent to 75mm lens, right? So, would it be good with full-frame or crop-sensor camera?

    Similarly, is all explanation in the article for full-frame camera or crop-sensor camera?

    Thanks,
    Shiva

    Reply
  5. Sir Nikon 24-70mm 2.8 Kaisi He? Street Photography Ke Liye?

    Reply
    • It is a brilliant lens! You cant go wrong with OEM 24-70/2.8 lenses (that said, even the third party lenses in this zoom range are excellent). Now the only thing is if you have a crop body and are looking towards 24-70 as standard lens, it mostly works, but it does not provide you with a wide angle view. If however you are looking to use the 24-70 on a full frame body, the lens is perfect! If you already have a wide angle lens and are looking to complement it with 24-70, then again you are on the perfect track. So bottom line – lens quality and performance is brilliant, target use – you need to determine!

      Reply
      • Amateur portrait photographer here. Because of the amateur status, I don’t have a lot to spend to upgrade my equipment. I’m crossing over to Canon from nikon so I have to buy all new lenses, too. Would you recommend something like a rebel t6i or should I go with an older full frame? I was set on the t6i and a great lens or two but now I’m not so sure. I really need this nailed down so that I can move on to the real fun of finding lenses. I’d be super grateful for any and all recommendations on this subject.

        Reply
        • Do you have an idea of the style of portraits you want to pursue? If you really like shooting at wider apertures and enjoy that bokeh (out of focus background) look, you may want to get a full frame instead. Here is some reading material on that: How Crop Sensors Affect Depth of Field – https://www.borrowlenses.com/blog/crop-sensors-affect-depth-field/. Are you interested in shooting mostly with natural light or with artificial light? Full frames tend to have better light-gathering power but there are ways around this with APS-C, too (after all, you can still shoot with fast-maximum-aperture, full frame glass on a crop frame camera). With the release of the 5D Mark IV, you might be able to find good deals on 5D Mark IIIs (we’re selling a few: https://www.borrowlenses.com/product/gear-for-sale/Canon_5DIII). But many people put all their eggs in the camera basket when the real investment is with lenses. If you decide to save a little money with a crop frame camera, then counterbalance that with getting a really nice portrait lens. Hope this helps!

          Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 17 Portrait Photography Tips Every Photographer Should Master - BorrowLenses Blog - […] more static, prime lenses may be a great choice for you. You can also visit our full guide for…
  2. Small Subjects with Big Impact: 5 Photography Techniques for Better Kid Portraits - BorrowLenses Blog - […] portraits. Apply these techniques to any photography challenge, make sure you’re using the best lens for portraits and grow…
  3. The 5 Best Wide Angle Lenses for Canon - BorrowLenses Blog - […] you may be interested in visiting one of our other comparison lens guides for information on the best Canon…

Leave a comment, a question, or show us your work!