Written by 8:00 am Canon, Gear Reviews, Nikon, Photography • 42 Comments

The 10 Best Canon and Nikon Lenses for Portrait Photography

Picking the perfect portrait lens can be a challenge. Here are some of the things to look for when choosing a lens for portrait photography.

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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 when investing in good glass than in just a good body.

Picking a lens for portrait photography is a tough decision, but we are here to help make it easier. 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

There are two major types of lenses: zooms and primes. Zoom lenses come in variable 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 often provide superior clarity and image quality (but you pay for it in lack of flexibility). They are also typically smaller and lighter to carry around than a zoom lens, but not always – some prime lenses are quite beefy. Many professional portrait photographers prefer primes because they tend to have faster maximum apertures.

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 capture various framing styles without ever swapping lenses or even changing positions. 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.

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, such as a 35mm. It is important to remember, however, that wider lenses will cause more distortion – especially when you get wider than 35mm. 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 if you have a lot of room to work but inside someone’s house you will probably want a shorter focal length. 50mm is a good standard length for most environments.

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 lower 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, f/1.8, or even f/1.2. 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.

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.

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Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II Lens ($58 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II  is very high quality and has a very fast maximum aperture that is perfect for low depth-of-field portraiture and still life work. It features a Super Spectra coating to suppress flare and ghosting and is also weather-sealed for safe outdoor shooting. It can be paired with both full frame and with crop frame sensor cameras. This lens supports Power AF and video shooters will not able to adjust focus on this lens while video is rolling, so it might not be a good choice for hybrid shooters. At nearly 3 lbs, it’s also on the larger side.

Be sure to also check out Sigma’s 85mm f/1.4 Art lens, available in both Canon EF and Nikon F mount. The fast, quiet AF is good for video shooting and a special Super Multi Coating allows for higher contrast and color fidelity. With a fast maximum aperture of f/1.4, this lens is well suited for beautiful out of focus backgrounds for portraits as well as natural and low-light shooting – though it’s not quite as fast as the Canon’s f/1.2L version. Canon also has their own f/1.4L version that ditches the Power AF feature and includes Images Stabilization.

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Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II Lens ($53 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

Equipped with panning-friendly Image Stabilization modes and a Focus Range Limiter, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens is ideal for wildlife and sports shooters. But it’s also one of Canon’s most popular L series lenses for portrait work. The subject-to-background distance potentials of this lens provide exceptional out-of-focus backgrounds for beautiful separation of your model and the environment – even in busy, distracting locations. This makes the lens perfect for outdoor portraits. It’s long length makes it less suitable for small studios.

For an updated version of this lens with enhanced clarity and greater flare suppression, be sure to check out the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III lens. The primary advantage of the Mark III version is seen when shooting back-lit subjects. Otherwise, the Mark II performs just as well and remains one of our top rentals of all time.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III Arrives: Review, Rental Price, and More

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Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L Lens ($40 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

This lens is the quintessential portrait lens. It has very high optical quality, beautiful bokeh, and has a nice weight and shape to it, making it a joy to shoot with. It features a Super Spectra coating to suppress flare and ghosting and is also weather-sealed for safe outdoor shooting. It can be paired with both full frame and crop frame sensor cameras. This is a “normal length” prime, meaning that its field of view feels “natural” and best approximates – basically – how the human eye sees. For this reason, a 50mm is an ideal lens to start out with in photography, giving you the freedom to learn composition and style using a kind of “universal starting point” for imaging. This lens in particular is a favorite among portrait and street photographers.

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Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II Lens ($56 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

The original Canon 35mm f/1.4L is a beloved lens for group portraits and events and excels for low depth-of-field and low light shooting. This newer version is constructed with Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics, which refracts shorter wavelengths of the visible spectrum (blue light) in order to significantly reduce chromatic aberrations and color fringing and also allows for better low-light results. It also features a slighter better minimum focusing distance and maximum magnification for closeup subjects. Built specifically with the quality and resolving power necessary for the latest high megapixel cameras, this lens will remain a popular choice for years to come.

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Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II Lens ($43 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

The 24-70mm zoom range is among the most versatile available. For this reason, it’s a superb choice for shooters who just aren’t sure what to get. You will likely end up falling in love with the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II like so many others already have. Along with the 70-200mm, it’s our most popular lens. It’s as powerful for everyday candids as it is for specialty work, including landscapes, events, portraits, and still life. A high-speed CPU with optimized AF algorithms ensures a fast and silent AF, making it a good choice for vloggers and videographers as well. For the coverage it offers, this lens is remarkably portable and easy to handle. It’s a great choice for novices and seasoned shooters alike.

Best Nikon Lenses for Portraits

Photographers who shoot Nikon 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.

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Nikon 85mm f/1.4G ($53 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

The Nikon 85mm f/1.4G is a high performance classic portrait  lens with an internal focusing mechanism that keeps the lens stable during use and won’t change the direction of a polarizing filter or lens hood. Quickly change between manual focus and autofocus silently for video recording thanks to the M/A switch and Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor. This lens can be paired with both full frame and with crop frame sensor cameras. This is prime is well suited for beautiful out of focus backgrounds for portraits as well as natural and low-light shooting – though it’s not quite as fast as the Canon’s f/1.2L version. This is due to the narrower style of Nikon’s F mount, allowing modern F mount DSLRs to pair with even some of the oldest Nikon lenses.

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Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II ($83 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

Nikon’s innovative Vibration Reduction system reduces the appearance of camera shake even when shooting at slower shutter speeds – which is a great feature to have on a longer lens like this one. The subject-to-background distance potentials of this lens provide exceptional out-of-focus backgrounds for beautiful separation of your model and the environment – even in busy, distracting locations. This makes the lens perfect for outdoor portraits. It’s long length makes it less suitable for small studios. For portraits, the f/2.8G will serve you well but if you’re heavy into sports and wildlife, you may want to take a look at a slightly updated version of this lens, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E, which offers enhanced handling, better weather sealing, improved image stabilization, and a more consistent exposure during burst shooting thanks to a newly-designed electromagnetic diaphragm system that syncs with your camera’s shutter (versus the mechanical linkage levers of blades in D/G lenses).

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Nikon 50mm f/1.4G ($19 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

This lens is a definitive portrait tool with very high optical quality and beautiful bokeh. It can be paired with both full frame and crop frame sensor cameras. The Silent Wave Motor keeps the autofocus quick and quiet and the Super Integrated Coating delivers superior color rendering and suppresses ghosting. This is a “normal length” prime, meaning that its field of view feels “natural” and best approximates – basically – how the human eye sees. For this reason, a 50mm is an ideal lens to start out with in photography, giving you the freedom to learn composition and style using a kind of “universal starting point” for imaging. This lens in particular is a favorite among portrait and street photographers.

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Nikon 35mm f/1.4G ($54 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

With a classic semi-wide angle of view, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is very versatile for a fixed-length lens. It’s wide enough to capture scenery but long enough to produce pleasing portraits without distortion. It sports an internal focusing mechanism that keeps the lens stable during use and won’t change the direction of a polarizing filter or lens hood. Fast enough for low-light shooting and quiet enough for ceremonies, this is a must-have tool for those who shoot scenery as often as they do people.

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Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ($63 for a 3 Day Rental, See More)

The 24-70mm zoom range is among the most versatile available. For this reason, it’s a superb choice for shooters who just aren’t sure what to get. You will likely end up falling in love with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G like so many others already have. Along with the 70-200mm, it’s our most popular lens. It’s as powerful for everyday candids as it is for specialty work, including landscapes, events, portraits, and still life. Super Integrated and Exclusive Nano Crystal Coatings reduce ghosting and flare for enhanced image clarity while a direct manual focus override gives you precise control for fast and simple focus changes. It’s a great choice for novices and seasoned shooters alike.

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.

Tags: , , , , Last modified: June 4, 2020
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