How to Choose the Perfect Portrait Lens

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Portrait taken with 85mm lens

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.

1. What about the lenses you already own?

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.

2. Do you need a zoom lens or a prime?

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.

Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens

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.

3. What’s your budget?

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”.

4. What focal lengths do you require?

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

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:

Portrait taken with 25mm lens Portrait taken with 17mm lens

Normal lenses

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)

Portrait taken with 50mm lens

A “normal” 50mm lens portrait

Portrait taken with 85mm lens

A short telephoto 85mm lens

Short telephoto lenses

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

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.

Portrait taken with 150mm lens

Selecting a focal length

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

Canon EF 85mm f1.8 lens

My thoughts

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.

Your thoughts

Now it’s time to share your personal experiences. Which lenses have you purchased for taking portraits, and how did they work out?


Understanding Lenses

Understanding Lenses: Part II ebook coverI’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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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • Patrick O’Connor

    I use a 90mm macro lens for portraiture. I finally broke down and got an 85mm f/1.8 but saw little to no difference. Sure the macro has more contrast but the shots taken with the 85 needed a trip through Photoshop anyway so it was a simple matter to deal with. The 85 went back. Maybe if I primarily shot portraits, I would have kept it but not for occasional use since I was going to keep the macro lens in either case.

  • Mosquitolemon

    I will agree with that 24-70mm F 2.8 Gold Pro Lens however the 1-2k price is often too much for someone starting out like above. That being said, I am a Nikon user so that lens is one of the Trifecta lenses for pro Nikon users so if you can afford the price (assuming it’s the same with canon in terms of quality) it will be a lens you can use for life. I am getting a 35mm Prime 1.8 for 100 and a 70-300 for 200 but then again it’s from a friend who is heading to The Rocky Mountain School of Photography so he has to buy all new gear. If you are using a crop sensor. The APS-C on a 35mm 1.8 Prime the outcome is extremely crisp however your field of view will be shortened significantly creating great Bokeh but will make it so you will be close to the subjects. I suggest this type of lens for the individual/couples portraits. For the general ceremony portraits I would suggest somewhere along the lines of 70-105mm anything further than that in a zoom lens will begin to thing things out like long looking noses etc. A lens like a 18-55 for example will do the opposite, make things a little bulbous etc. If using a zoom from the dozens of portrait photography books, practicing with other photographers, and practicing myself, I would highly recommend staying in the 70ish range as that tends to create a decent even image. This will vary on a Canon though as Canon’s have AA filters on the sensor so things come out smoother and not as sharp as with Nikon. This may make the lens choice quite different. I do know with Nikon and portraits (studio style with close encounters with the clients etc) the 35mm Prime 1.8 gives incredible detail with some of the most amazing Bokeh (background formation/distortion/blurr etc) of any lens I have ever tried. Part of this is the Prime part of the lens as well as the fact that the field of view is quite tight but still lets in large amounts of light so less harsh flash etc is needed. One thing I would highly recommend (don’t know if you can with that model canon) is working with a speed flash. Either rent or buy something like an SB600 or if your camera is like mine. I can adjust the flash down to 1/32 on the built in flash which means if you are using a longer/heavier lens the extra weight of an external flash isn’t necessary and can make things a lot less awkward in terms of moving around etc. I also recommend using a camera bag for your gear rather than a backpack, for pretty obvious reasons. I wouldn’t bring more than about 2 lenses or you are going to end up tired and with shaky images more often. I really hope that helps and I wish you tons of luck and hope it comes out awesome. I’ve been approached by high level professional photographers to shoot with them even when I was using a 100 dollar point and shoot. Try to remember it is about 85% your natural eye for photography and about 15% technical/mathematics. Remember you were chosen because your eye and natural technique and the way you see and compose images is desirable by that person or persons. Do not forget this. “Digital SLR Settings and Shortcuts for Dummies” is an excellent rent from your local library to give you a starting set of settings to start from and adjust accordingly for a large variety of photography situations, including group and wedding photography. Another thing, remember to get there EARLY so you have time to practice and get “primed” for your shoot so the least amount of settings will need to be adjusted. Getting “primed” basically means you’ve setup the camera for the type of situation you are going to be in with some sample practice shots. This significantly reduces the awkward, “one sec, gotta adjust some settings real quick” type of situations. Again, congrats on the offer and I hope you do well. I’ve shot a wedding before with disposable cameras and had amazing results. With some practice and some of your natural talent and reading up on a few techniques you can do amazing things with whatever camera you are using. The difficulty with SLR cameras is that the variety of lenses and settings require significantly more skill than a point and shoot, bridge, or mirrorless camera. REMEMBER (if you have it), Lightroom is an excellent way to make quick and very significant adjustments to photos (not making them look like paintings necessarily but creating a more realistic effect since you aren’t using film). If you don’t have Lightroom or your camera cannot take RAW images…I recommend either GIMP (basically photoshop in basic form, most of what you would use with slightly different names and free) or their are a few others that aren’t too bad but most cost money. Lightroom will give you the ability to put in your camera model and lens and have it do some auto adjustments based on those stats. MAKE SURE you don’t use the auto white balance very much. Situations like weddings tend to have a wide variety of lighting situations so I would recommend highly (if you can) manually setting the white balance by taking a shot of a pure white piece of paper. This will give it a sense of what the baseline should be. Good luck friend and keep up the ambition! Photography is an amazing therapeutic and artistic activity. Hope that helps give you a little bit of readiness. Also hope this isn’t coming WAAAAAY after the wedding haha. Just saw this post. Rock on!

  • WilliamMathews ByrdMagic

    I have used a rebel t4i with 24-70mm lens for several weddings, myself along with my clients were very pleased with the results.

  • Kalle

    With prime lense, I assume you mean a static lens not a dynamic one (like zoom). Right?

  • Kalle

    Yes you were. I took it that way and it was hurtful just to read it.

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