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A question we often get asked at Digital Photography School is which lenses are best for portraits. It’s a tricky question because the answer is subjective. It depends on your budget, personal style of photography and the make of camera. It is further complicated by the relationship between sensor size and focal length.
Let’s start by exploring some of the things you need to think about when choosing the perfect portrait lens.
It may be that you already own a lens that you haven’t thought of using to take portraits, but could actually do the job quite well. Do you have a 50mm prime? Or maybe a 100mm macro lens? A 70-300mm zoom? All of these are capable of being great portrait lenses.
Even if your only lens is a kit lens, you may still be surprised by how well it performs (within its limitations). You can read more about that in my article Why Your Kit Lens is Better Than You Think.
Getting to Know Your Lenses will also help.
Prime lenses are great for portrait photography. One advantage is that they have a wider maximum aperture than a zoom lens covering the same focal length. This is useful for creating images with shallow depth-of-field (a common technique in portraits). It is also handy in low light, as it lets you take photos with faster shutter speeds or lower ISO than you could with a zoom with a smaller maximum aperture.
Another benefit is image quality. Prime lenses tend to have less elements than zooms, and the result is that image quality is better, and they produce sharper images with more contrast and less lens flare. If you’re on a budget (see next point) then an inexpensive prime will give you better results than an inexpensive zoom.
This is an important consideration because, as with most things, good quality lenses cost more. The best example of this is Canon’s 50mm lens range. There are four models, ranging from around $110 to $1600 in price. That’s a big difference, and your budget determines which model makes it to your shopping list.
More expensive lenses usually produce sharper images with less flare. The construction quality is better, they may be weatherproofed and have better or quieter autofocus mechanisms. The difference in image quality is usually greater between expensive and cheap zoom lenses than it is between expensive and inexpensive prime lenses.
The other trade-off (besides cost) for better quality built lenses, is extra weight. Top of the line lenses are usually made of metal and are heavier than the less expensive plastic lenses.
Bear in mind that good camera lenses should last decades, and sometimes spending more up front is beneficial in the long run. In the words of Sir Henry Royce (of Rolls-Royce):
“The quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten”.
The answer to this question depends on the size of your camera’s sensor (our article Crop Factor Explained tells you why). Rather than discuss specific focal lengths it’s easier to split lenses up into four categories. Once you’ve figured out what category of lens you’re interested in, and whether you would prefer a prime lens or a zoom, you can investigate which models are available for your camera.
Wide-angle lenses are good for environmental portraits – those where you keep your distance a little from the subject and include their surroundings. They are generally not as good for close-up portraits as they distort your subject. Here are some examples:
A normal lens is one with a focal length equivalent to around 50mm on a full-frame camera (that’s around 35mm on an APS-C camera, or 25mm on a Micro four-thirds camera). You may have read that these lenses give a similar perspective to that of the human eye. It’s a debatable point, but there’s no doubt they are interesting for portraits, occupying the middle ground between wide-angle and short telephoto lenses. They can be used for close-up portraits, although not completely without distortion (see image left, below)
These lenses are often called portrait lenses because they are an ideal focal length for taking flattering photos of people. You can move in close and take images without distortion, or step back and include the entire figure without moving so far away that it becomes difficult to communicate with your model. If your short telephoto is a prime lens, you get the additional benefit of wide apertures. Best of all these lenses, especially primes, tend to be reasonably priced.
My favourite lens for portraits is an 85mm prime lens (you can read more about it in my article How a Humble 85mm Lens Became My Favourite). (see image right, above)
If you have an APS-C camera then a 50mm prime lens is effectively a short telephoto. Yes, I’ve written about 50mm lenses too – let me point you towards Nifty Fifties – Why I Love 50mm Prime Lenses and Why a 50mm Lens is your new best friend.
Telephoto lenses are often used by professional fashion and portrait photographers for the compressed perspective and their ability to isolate the model from the background. The downside of telephoto lenses is that they tend to be more expensive than shorter focal lengths, especially if you’d like one with a wide maximum aperture. They are definitely heavier as well. Having said that, there are plenty of relatively inexpensive lenses, especially zooms, in the 100mm-200mm range.
If you’re unsure which focal lengths appeal to you, try this exercise. Go onto Flickr or 500px and do a search for portraits. Mark any you like as favourites. When you have marked at least twenty, go and have a look at them together. Examine them carefully and think about why you liked each one. Are there any common themes? Which focal lengths are used the most? Are the photographers using wide apertures for shallow depth-of-field? Are they predominantly black and white or colour? Is the photographer using natural light or flash? Are they predominantly close-ups or environmental portraits? The answers to these questions may help you decide which lenses to shortlist. Read more: 5 Easy Steps to Choose the Perfect Prime Lens for You
I’m going to be specific and tell you exactly which lenses I use. My favourite lens for portraits is my Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 prime lens. I use it for approximately 80% of the portraits I take. I also use my Canon EF 40mm f2.8 pancake lens (it’s a moderate wide-angle) on my full-frame camera and, occasionally, a Canon EF 50mm f1.4 or EF 17-40mm f/4L zoom. The next lens on my list is a 24mm prime, and when I buy one I’ll no longer use the 17-40mm zoom for portraits. I favour primes over zooms because of image quality and the wider maximum apertures.
Now it’s time to share your personal experiences. Which lenses have you purchased for taking portraits, and how did they work out?
I’ve written two ebooks for Canon EOS users about camera lenses. Click on the links to learn more about each one:
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