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, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. He's written over 25 popular photography ebooks (use the code DPS20 for a 20% discount on your first order). Download his Composition PhotoTips Cards now for free!

  • Barry Robinson

    I mostly use the Canon f1.4/50mm EF USM lens for portraits. I’ve also got an old Pentacon f2.8/135mm M42 mount lens with focus confirm that I bought off eBay and I love because of the crisp images it gives me! Also it’s great for street photography because you’ve got a pretty good aperture, and a nice focal length for candid shots. The manual thing just makes you a better photographer!

  • mma173

    When it comes to perspective, I thought 25mm lens is 25mm regardless of the ‘full frame’ equivalent.

  • Phil

    Perspective is set by where you stand relative to your subject, and nothing else. When you change sensor size, you have to move closer or further from your subject to maintain the same framing. Hence a 25mm will yield different perspectives dependent on the sensor size as long, as I said, you move to maintain the same framing.

  • mma173

    Thanks for the explanation.

  • Jeremy

    Using a 50mm lens on a crop sensor changes the apparent FOV, but does not change the physics of the lens glass. You will get the same distortion with close up portraits, so don’t think because the apparent FOV is 80mm (with a 1.6 crop factor) you will get the same compression as an 80mm lens on a full frame sensor. Furthermore because of the distance of the sensor from the lens, you get more shallow depth of field with a full frame compared with a crop sensor using the same aperture.

  • marius2die4

    My favorite lens for portrait is zuiko digital 50mmf2. I also use Leica 25mmf1.4, sigma 150mmf2.8 or lensbaby. Depending where I am (outside, inside), headshot or ambient shot, I chose one lens.

  • mma173

    This is the idea that I originally had in my mind, but after reading the comment that @Phil posted above, I changed my mind now.

    According to him, when using lenses of same focal lengths on different crop factors, the distance to the subject will compensate.

  • Jeremy

    That’s true. It is explained in this thread: http://photography-on-the.net/forum/showthread.php?t=672913

  • Joe H

    I enjoy primes because they make me think more about the portrait. I need to move and design my shot, not try to adapt a focal range with a zoom. I have a Canon 6D camera (FF) and it took me a while to get used to my lenses after coming from a Canon 7D… not too long. A friend lent me a Canon 135mm f2L and about one day after using it I bought my own. A superb comniation of camera and lens.

  • MikeyB

    I have recently purchased a canon 70-300 L series lens used on my canon 5D Mk 111 the results are fantastic with the Image stabilizer it is quite easy to hand hold

  • Johan Bauwens

    Distortion is due to the altered perspective (getting closer to the subject), not due to the focal length.

  • true, however . . . due do the nature of wide angle lenses you need to get closer to the subject to make them an appropriate size – so it does factor in

  • Raghu

    Nice Article…

  • Thanks for the feedback, everybody. It’s interesting that most of the lenses mentioned are primes. But not surprising as they are ideal for portraits.

  • Michael Alexander

    Just another article that rehashes what has been written ad nasuem. I can’t believe how much time I’ve wasted here, reading the same old stuff that you can anywhere.

  • Michael Owens

    I like using my telephoto lens (300mm) for some portraits, but the lack of detail is worrying.

    I sometimes dig out the 1.8 pancake lens (50mm) for the more intimate of shots with a greater DoF.

  • Michael Owens

    The difference here, compared to say PhotoTuts+, is that they care about their readers. They actively want us to interact, good or bad.

    Other sites berate people for having an opinion, pro or con, towards the subject. That doesn’t happen here!

  • Dรถrthe Externest

    Agree on the 85 mm, and also love the 70-200mm 2.8 for portraits

  • Dumie

    MA no1 is forcing u 2 read this.

  • Kara

    I have been asked to do an outdoor wedding. I have a Canon 3Ti, a kit lens, and a 50mm 1.8. I’m thinking of renting a zoom lens (either 200mm or 300mm) because I am worried about how close or far I will be getting to the bride and groom during the ceremony. Of course I’m the photographer so I can get as close as I want, right? But I don’t want to be right on top of them and block the audience during the ceremony. What lens would you suggest I use for the ceremony? And what lens would you suggest I use for the group shots afterwards (wedding party, etc). I plan to use the 50mm for bride and groom portraits. I’ve never shot a wedding before and I’m a new photographer so I just want to be prepared! ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for any advice!!

  • Johan Bauwens

    A Canon Rebel is not suited for weddings as it’s no good in high Iso and it hasn’t got 2 memory card slots. I’d suggest you hire a 5DIII for a day.

  • Johan Bauwens

    I use my 24-70 mm f2.8 90% of the time at weddings.

  • Johan Bauwens

    If it’s your first time, I’d inform myself very well, follow a course, get decent gear … After all you can’t take the shots again if they are no good. I wonder why your friends ask you if you are new to photography ?

  • Johan Bauwens

    If your friends or relatives only ask you because you do it for free, that’s not a good motivation. They will feel frustrated because the pics are no good and you will feel sorry because you agreed to do it. Don’t forget, it’s hard work and you need a back up for everything : camera, lens, flash.

  • Kara

    They did not know I was doing it for free. She likes my work because it’s natural and not fake or airbrushed. She knows I am new and have never done a wedding but she insisted I do the pics. I will give it my best shot!

  • Johan Bauwens

    Good luck

  • Need guidance to choose my next lens according to my interest in photography.

    I do Food Photography and Automotive Photography (Landscapes sometimes) mainly.
    I own Canon 600D, 18-55m kit lens, Canon 50mm f/1.8 now.

    What should be my next lens for my interest i.e. Food, Portraits and Automotive?

  • doras

    depends if the data is still in tact .
    ????? ?????????? ???????????? ???????

  • tore

    I haven’t used this product before. How many times can I use the same sensorklear pen for cleaning the sensor??? If I use same pen again and again won’t the dust from pen’s tip stick back to the sensor or Is there anyway I can clean pen’s tip????
    ????? ????
    ??? ???????
    ????

  • Mr. Fevrier

    Man I really love this blog. Thank you! Im a relatively new freelancer and this is helping me loads with information and tips. I was about to purchase a 28mm wide angle to start taking portraits and after reading this I know now that I would prefer use that 85mm (I had actually stored it for later purchase but I think it should be my first choice considering the types of portraits I aim to shoot.). Thank you!

  • Elayne

    Great article! Where do is the best place you suggest to purchase the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 prime lens?

  • Mary Ingham Dimitriw

    I purchased a Canon 50mm 1.2 which I loved for portraits and still life comps but I really wanted the 85mm 1.2 initially but didn’t want to spend the money at that point. I ended up waiting a few months and got the 85mm 1.2 and I was blown away although it is pretty hefty in weight. I also like the 70-200mm 2.8 which isn’t so intrusive.

  • Pat Adolfo

    At first, I really liked using my 50mm for portraits, because of the wider aperture. However, I got into off camera flash right after, so the wide aperture didn’t really work out for me. I borrowed my school’s Canon 55-200mm 4.5-5.6 USM II for a several shoots, and I found it more flexible than my 50mm. I recently just bought a 70-210mm 3.5-4.5, and it’s sharper than the previous telephoto I used!

  • nurlana

    Hi, I would like to know for which photos should i use lens 18-135 mm,,, I have so bad portrait and macro photos with it, is the problem with me or with my lens? ๐Ÿ™ i am waiting for ur answer pls

  • Radu

    Hi,
    So, on DX, must use 35 mm to have 50 mm?

  • 50mm distorts. So for closer portraits as in head and shoulders or closer for beauty, 85mm and up…up as in 100mm, 200mm; 50mm distorts badly; Go on a Shoot Like A pro tour with Scott Kelby, he actually exemplifies live why a 50mm is a bad idea…and a 50mm on a crop is even worst.

  • Rab McLaughlin

    Hi Radu

    The short answer is yes. On a DX sensor you multiply the focal lens of the lens by 1.5 (for Nikon) or 1.6 (for Canon) to get the effective focal length. So a 35mm lens on a DX sensor is in effect 52.5mm.

    Hope that helps.

  • Csaba Gloner

    Is it better to have a prime portrait lens with image stabilisation or it’s not a problem if a lens doesn’t have stabilization? Your favorite lens, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 also doesn’t have stabilisation, that’s why I’m wondering about this.

  • This is a personal choice based on taste and wallet. You could subscribe to KelbyOne, and they have tons of classes talking about different lenses, and their purposes so that when you’re ready to start shooting portraits you can make an educated choice when purchasing gear. A “must have” lens for one, could be a “no no” for someone else for a ton of reasons.

  • No it’s not an issue to have a portrait lens without image stabilisation. I wouldn’t recommend IS for portraits anyway in most cases, as people are not really good at holding still and may move slightly during the exposure. If you use IS and are shooting at 1/50 second or slower you may have a problem with subject movement. Bear in mind that’s my personal preference and I don’t mind using high ISOs. If your priority is to use low ISOs, you may prefer a lens with IS and run the risk of subject movement.

    Also, if you’re a Canon user, IS isn’t available on either 85mm prime, so if that’s the type of lens you’re interested in you don’t have a choice.

  • Yes, 50m distorts on a full-frame camera. But not on APS-C. It won’t flatten the image as much as a longer focal length, but it doesn’t distort it either. I have used a 50mm for portraits many times on an APS-C camera without distortion.

  • Csaba Gloner

    Thanks, this is very helpful.

  • Amresh Kumar

    loved the Article..

  • Peter Grifoni

    if you compare just the lens against another wide angle lenses do have more distortion so yes this does add to the unsuitability of these for portraiture especially for close up work. focal length is not just about avoiding distortion its about compression as well.

  • Graham Houston

    I’d second that .. 50mm multiplied with 1.6 is 80mm not a shot of 85mm .. of course you lose the light on a cropped sensor

  • Jose A Ortiz

    I have 28-85mm lens but don’t have any idea when should I use it; for what kind of subject
    should I use it??

  • Jacek Jarzabek

    I have all primes 24, 35, 50 sigma art, 85mm Nikon 1.8G and 105 sigma ex macro OS. Once Sigma releases 85mm 1.4 A and 135 f2 A I will have these as well (primes beat the c..p out of zooms – only zoom I use is Tamron 150-600)

  • jason

    Everyone has to start somewhere. No need to be condescending.

  • Johan Bauwens

    i wasn’t being condescending.

  • Patrick O’Connor

    While there are no end to guidelines, you can use any lens for anything. Try it for different subjects. For those subjects where it works well, keep doing it; for those subjects where it doesn’t work so well, try mixing it up a little (settings, distance to subject, etc.). If it still doesn’t work, move on. Good luck!

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