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What is the Best Lens for Portraits?

11 min read

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When looking for the best lens for portraits, pro photographers have a few favorites. It doesn’t matter whether you are shooting with a Nikon or Canon, or another brand. When it comes to a portrait lens, there are a few top zoom lenses and prime lenses. Let’s explore the options here, so you can invest in what’s best for you.

What makes a good portrait lens?

A good lens for portrait photography is a mix of several factors. Let’s quickly take a look at each of them.

Long Focal Length

Long focal length is an important requirement when it comes to choosing lenses for portraits. A longer focal length will allow you to step back and create a tighter composition. This point is highlighted below in further detail under the section – Importance of the 85mm f/1.8 lens.

Fast Maximum Aperture

A fast maximum aperture denotes an aperture of f/4.0 or wider. The faster the lens is, the shallower the depth of field and the ability of the lens to blur the background. Although, it is possible to create a shallow depth of field using other tricks and a lens with a narrower aperture.

portrait of a women with bokeh behind her.

Great Bokeh!

The word Bokeh is taken from the Japanese dictionary. In photography, it refers to the quality of the out-of-focus effect in a photo. To capture the best Bokeh, you need a lens with a fast aperture and sharp focus even when the lens is wide open.

You may have noticed, a lot of the portrait photos have a blurry background. That is a synergy of several factors –

  1. Focal length
  2. The distance between the subject and the background
  3. The distance between the subject and the camera
  4. The working aperture you choose
  5. The number of aperture blades and the final shape of the aperture diaphragm (directly controls the quality of the out-of-focus effect)

Although, it’s not always necessary to have a fast aperture lens for achieving great bokeh. Yes, wide-aperture lenses make it easier to blur the background, but you can also achieve background blur if you carefully use the other parameters (stated above). For example, increasing the distance between the subject and the background can create a nice background blur even with a narrow aperture like f/5.6 or narrower. Even more, if you use a zoom lens, you can still achieve a blurry background as well.

Lenses for Portraits

So not that you are more aware of how portrait lenses work, let’s examine some of the top photographer portrait lens options.

85mm prime lens for portraits.

85mm Prime Lens

If you are searching for one of the best lenses for portrait photography, chances are you’ve heard of the 85mm prime. A majority of portrait photographers would agree that this is one of the best lenses for portraits, especially the f/1.8 lens. This option is available for most camera brands, including Nikon, Sony, and other mirrorless cameras.

When you mount an 85mm prime lens on a full-frame camera body, it gives the best perspective of a subject, including producing a flattering look to their face.

Lenses that are shorter than 85mm don’t offer the same perspective. The smaller the focal length, the more distorted the image appears. The reason is that with a smaller focal length, the lens covers a larger angle of view. In other words, your camera and lens put together capture a wider slice of the scene in front of it. For portraits, you ideally need a tighter composition. Something that does not leave a lot of space around your subject so that your portrait pops nicely.

50mm prime lens.

50mm Prime f/1.8

However, if you are shooting environmental portraits, you will need a lens with a shorter focal length, something like a 50mm f/1.8 (a standard prime), or even shorter like a 35mm f/1.4. That way, you can capture a larger slice of the scene. This lens also works great for street photography when producing a nice bokeh effect. Once again, you can find this lens for Nikon, Sony, and other popular brands.

70-200mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens.

70-200mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens

Many zoom lenses overlap the sweet focal lengths that we usually associate with portrait photography – 85mm, 105mm, and 135mm. These lenses are the 70-200mm, the 24-105mm, and the 70-300mm, to name a few. Among these, the 70-200mm lens is the most popular.

A majority of the manufacturers make this particular zoom lens. It comes in both f/2.8 and f/4 versions with and without image stabilization built-in. Many photographers prefer to use this lens because of its versatility.

135mm prime lens.

135mm Prime Lens

If you don’t have an 85mm prime lens, don’t fret. Instead, test out the 135mm prime. It is a beautiful portrait lens for those who typically shoot from a distance.

The difference between an 85mm and a 135mm, apart from the difference in focal length, is that they are suited to two different styles of portrait photography. An 85mm prime is primarily used by a portrait photographer who likes to have a personal connection with the subject.

As you know, the shorter the focal length, the closer you have to be to fill the frame. When it comes to portrait photography, a lot of photographers prefer a tighter composition. To achieve a tighter composition, you either use an 85mm lens and take a few steps forward or take a 135mm lens and step away from the subject. Some photographers prefer the first method, and others prefer the second.

35mm portrait lens.

Best Canon Lenses for Portraits

Canon is the largest camera and lens manufacturing company in the world. They make some of the best lenses for portrait photography. They have several lens line-ups that cater to the different lens mounts that they have. The EF-S mount (a subset of the older EF mount), the EF mount, the EF-M mount, the E-mount, and the latest RF mount.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

If you are looking for an image-stabilized 85mm f/1.4 lens for your full-frame Canon DSLR, this is the only one you can buy as of date. There are a bunch of third-party lenses though, made by Sigma, Rokinon, Zeiss, and Yongnuo, among others. None of them are image-stabilized.

This is a well-built lens. It comes with a special glass-molded aspherical element that negates the issues of spherical aberrations. This improves the overall sharpness and clarity of the images produced by the lens.

The dust and weather-resistant construction ensures that the lens can withstand an odd drizzle or exposure to a dusty environment without any major issues.

There are a bunch of other features, too. Together, they make this the best portrait lens for the Canon EF mount.

As a portrait photographer, if you are looking for the absolute best lens for portraits to pair with your Canon DSLR, then this is it. Your search ends right here. You don’t have to read through the rest of this discussion.

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM

The Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM is a new design for Canon’s new RF mount camera systems. So, if you own the EOS R5 or the EOS R6, this lens is for you. The biggest USP of this lens is the incredible f/1.2 aperture. That’s 3-stops faster than an f/3.5 kit lens and a full stop faster than an f/1.8 lens.

It can capture a lot of light when compared to other lenses in any given lighting condition.

But there is also a huge drawback to this lens. The depth of field is very shallow when you are shooting wide open. It isn’t easy to manage such a thin DoF. Even the slightest movement of the hands or any movement of the subject can impact the sharpness.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

Not everyone has the extra cash to splurge. At least not in these trying times. So a cheaper version of the most popular focal length with the associated benefit of a fast wide-aperture would seem like the best of both worlds. But let me tell you this – while the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is a good lens, its performance is not the same as the 85mm f/1.4L IS USM that I listed above. Its performance will put it somewhere in the middle of the list of compatible 85mm lenses for the Canon EF mount.

All that said, it’s still a decent portrait lens. When you consider that this lens is available for just a few hundred dollars and gives you a fast f/1.8 aperture to shoot with, plus it offers the right focal length, then all of a sudden, it becomes a value for money proposition for someone just starting in portrait photography, especially for someone who is on a budget. Considering that the next best – the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art- carries a price tag that is more than double the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, the latter makes a sensible choice.

portrait of a woman.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens

I love the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM. Telephoto lenses like these are versatile because they are useful in so many different portrait situations. The zoom range covers the best focal lengths for shooting portrait photos – 85mm, 105mm, and 135mm.

Yes, its maximum aperture is f/2.8, but there is more than one way of achieving a beautiful background blur, as we have learned above. Aperture is just one of them. So, this is not a huge deal-breaker for me.

Speaking of deals, this lens comes with a hefty price tag. At nearly 2K, this is not the cheapest piece of optical equipment you would ever invest in. But, this is an investment that will give you returns for as long as you shoot portrait photos. Lens technologies don’t change as quickly as camera technologies do. Considering that this lens came out in 2018, it could be at least a decade before this optical marvel will even feel outdated.

This lens has everything you need; great build quality (weather-resistant construction), ultra-low dispersion elements, fluorite element, and an air sphere coating for superior image quality.

A 3.5-stops of image shake compensation makes it easier to shoot blur-free while hand-holding the lens. Considering that this is a heavy lens (weighing 1480g), image stabilization is a must-have.

If budget is not a constraint for you, or you are looking for one lens to take care of a bunch of focal lengths for you, this is a lens that you can look at. You will never regret investing in this lens.

Best Nikon Lenses for Portraits

Nikon has lost the mantle of the second-largest camera brand in the world to Sony. Here is my list of the best portrait lens for Nikon cameras.

Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD Nikon (third-party choice)

This is a third-party lens from Tamron designed for the Nikon F mount. This versatile lens consists of one XLD element and five LD elements for improved image sharpness by suppressing chromatic aberrations.

Wide aperture lenses often suffer from lens flares and ghosting issues. Especially when working in conditions where the key light is close to being or is in the frame. Let’s say that you are photographing a subject, and the sun is pretty low on the horizon. This will create a reflection as the light hits the lens’s front elements or the inside of the camera. Sometimes reflections are caused by light hitting the reflex mirror. The result is a soft or hazy appearance that lowers color saturation and affects the overall image quality.

This is a common problem with wide-open lenses. To overcome this problem, lens manufacturers use special lens elements. E.g., in this lens BBAR and eBAND coatings have been used to overcome the problems of ghosting and flares.

To round up this dust and moisture-sealed design, it comes with five stops of camera shake correction and a host of other features, including full-time manual focus override.

portrait of a man.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G

If you are a Nikon user, the 85mm f/1.4 G is one of the best lenses for portrait photography. Many of you who might own the older 85mm f/1.4D would probably disagree with me. The older 85mm f/1.4D is an exemplary lens and one of the true Bokeh masters of all time.

However, it isn’t easy to find a copy of the 85mm f/1.4D lens in mint condition. If you already own one, there is no need to continue reading this discussion.

But if you don’t and you are looking for a prime lens to shoot portraits, the 85mm f/1.4 G is a great pick. Portrait photographers dig a fast wide f/1.4 lens, and this one ticks a lot of boxes.

A combination of Nano Crystal coating and Super Integrated Coatings helps prevent lens flares and ghosting, a common problem that plagues wide aperture lenses.

The lens also features Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor autofocusing technology with a full-time manual focusing override. This is useful when you want to grab the focusing ring and correct the focus without first switching the focus selector button to manual (M) mode.

Best Sony Lenses for Portraits

Sony has taken over from Nikon the mantle of the second-largest camera brand in the World. Thanks to their burgeoning mirrorless business and the amount of research and development they have put into this segment.

I love Sony’s mirrorless cameras. They are generations apart from the E-mount DSLT cameras that they introduced about a decade ago.

Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM

There are currently two Sony 85mm lenses sold in the market. One is the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM, and the other is the Sony 85mm f/1.8 FE. We chose the GM lens because it is by far the superior of the two lenses here.

If you look at the specifications of this lens, then the first thing that will draw your attention is the fast wide aperture of f/1.4. Portrait photographers love a fast 85mm prime lens because it is easier to produce those soft out-of-focus effects.

The construction of this lens consists of three extra-low dispersion elements that help suppress the effects of chromatic aberrations. The lens also includes one XA (extreme aspherical) element that helps counter spherical aberrations. The overall effect of that is that the lens has excellent image sharpness and clarity.

portrait of a bride.

Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS

I picked the Sony FE 70-200mm lens over some of the other choices available simply because I believe in versatility. I would love to have a single lens that does more than one job rather than a series of lenses. I have already expressed my love for the 70-200mm focal length.

This is a G Master lens, and the construction quality is appropriate for that tag. The construction of this lens includes one XA element, a pair of aspherical elements, a total of four extra-low dispersion (ED) elements, and finally, two Super ED elements. These take care of a range of aberrations and low contrast issues. Speaking of low contrast, the lens also incorporates Nano AR Coating. This suppresses the problems of ghosting and flares and further improves the contrast and colors.

portrait image of a girl showing her back.

Closing Thoughts

The most popular focal length for shooting portraits is anything that is 85mm and above but not exceeding 135mm. This is the sweetest focal length range for portraitures. That said, you can shoot compelling portraits with a shorter focal lens as well. But for the best results, anything between 85mm and 135mm is the most desired.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a Nikon or Canon or another type of shooter. There is a lens from our list above made for your camera. The lenses are ultimately more important than the camera body when it comes to being a portrait photographer. Take a hard look at your camera lens to see if it fits the criteria listed above. Make sure to invest in one of the best portrait lenses for superior image quality and wow your next photography client.

Want More?

The best way to learn how to photograph others is to practice yourself first. Also, make sure to check out these articles on how to take better natural light portraits and using props to create beautiful headshots and family portraits.

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Krystal Kenney is an award-winning photographer residing in Paris, France. She has been photographing for over 10 years and enjoys teaching others about the craft. She spends most days shooting events, portraits, and weddings around Paris and working on writing new books.
Krystal Kenney is an award-winning photographer residing in Paris, France. She has been photographing for over 10 years and enjoys teaching others about the craft. She spends most days shooting events, portraits, and weddings around Paris and working on writing new books.

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  1. Can you Test the SIGMA 105 ART Lens?? i am curious how it will do versus 85 1.4 lens ? sine both are similar however the 105 may be a bit tighter and have a better background blur?

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