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.
The Best Lenses for Portrait Photography
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.
($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.
($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.
($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.
($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.
($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.
|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|
|Weight||2.3 lbs||3.3 lbs||10 ounces||1.7 lbs||1.8 lbs|
|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|
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.
($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.
($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.
($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.
($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.
($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.
|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|
|Weight||1.3 lbs||3.4 lbs||6.6 ounces||1.3 lbs||2 lbs|
|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|
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!
Latest posts by Vivian Liu (see all)
- What You Need to Start Shooting Tethered - April 4, 2017
- The 20 Best iOS and Android Apps for Photographers - March 26, 2017
- The 7 Best Mirrorless Cameras for Enthusiasts - December 27, 2016