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For many portrait photographers, the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is considered the key to great results. This lens seems like it covers all the bases that any portrait photographer would want: wide aperture, a range of good focal lengths, and excellent build quality. It’s the cornerstone of many portrait photography workflows – and with good reason too – but it also comes with a hefty price tag (nikon, canon, sony). The question, then, for many amateur and semi-professional portrait photographers becomes: do you really need a lens like this to get good portraits? The answer might surprise you.
Whenever you are thinking about buying new gear, it’s wise to perform a needs assessment. This can help you figure out exactly what you can do with your current camera equipment, what you want to do, and whether a new purchase is required to bridge that gap. You can do this using a variety of methods, but a good way to start is to ask yourself some simple questions such as:
Perhaps your current lenses are lacking in specific areas such as the ability to shoot in lower light, overall sharpness, or autofocus speed. In that case, it might be a good idea to look at upgrading your gear. However, it is also entirely possible that the lenses you have are just fine for portraits and you don’t need new lenses at all.
If you do decide to drop some cash on a new lens, you might think that a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is the be-all, end-all, ultimate goal to start saving for. Also, in many respects, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. However, you can get outstanding results with other lenses too and save a massive amount of money in the process. Here are some other lenses worth considering that produce excellent portraits for a lot less money.
Note: While I mostly mention Nikon and Canon lenses throughout this article, you can also get the same types of lenses for other systems like Sony, Olympus, Fuji, Panasonic, Pentax, and more.
One of the most amazing lenses you can get for portraits is a humble 50mm f/1.8. The Nikon version is around $200 and the Canon retails for about $125, and there are plenty of third-party options available as well.
These little workhorses, sometimes called the Nifty Fifty or Fantastic Plastic due to the nature of their construction, can produce absolutely breathtaking results. In some ways, they are actually better than a two-thousand-dollar 70-200mm f/2.8 pro-grade lens. A 50mm f/1.8 lens has more light-gathering ability which means lower ISO values or faster shutter speeds in low light, as well as shallow depth of field.
Autofocus speed on these lenses isn’t going to win any awards, nor are they designed to take a beating or function in the rain and snow. However, they shoot great images in low light, and their wide apertures let you get the type of creamy bokeh you might have always wondered about but never been able to achieve with your kit lens.
If you’re the type of person who delights in pixel-peeping or poring over MTF charts, you might turn up your nose at an inexpensive 50mm f/1.8 lens. That’s not the point of a lens like this though, and what they lack in technical specs they more than make up for with sheer results. Also, at less than one-tenth the cost of a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, their price-to-performance ratio is almost impossible to beat.
One downside to shooting with a 50mm lens is that you won’t get much background compression. Your subjects won’t appear any closer to the background elements in the shot. While you can use an f/1.8 aperture to make the background blurry, it won’t zoom in much which is one advantage of a lens with a longer focal length. If that’s what you’re looking for, then an 85mm lens might fit the bill quite nicely.
In exchange, you’re going to get a hefty piece of equipment that is a little sharper, a little faster to focus, and will give you a bit more flexibility in terms of your portraiture. Its longer focal length will make it seem like backgrounds are just a bit closer to your subject.
In addition to their ability to get super blurry backgrounds when shooting at wide apertures, this could be the answer you are seeking.
The 85mm focal length is ideal for many portraiture situations. I know professional photographers who choose to shoot with an 85mm lens instead of a 70-200 f/2.8 lens. 85mm lenses are smaller, lighter, and often just as capable as their big brothers.
Moreover, when you shoot at f/1.8, you can blur the background even more than a more expensive f/2.8 lens when shooting at similar focal lengths. While it’s true that the f/1.8 versions aren’t going to be as tack-sharp as their f/1.4 or f/1.2 counterparts, it’s hard to beat the value you get for your money.
While many people tend to think of longer focal lengths as being best suited for portraits, you can get good results with a wider lens too. The 35mm focal length is close to what our human eyes see and can help you capture in-the-moment shots that are highly sought after by many people who want portraits. You can get up close and personal with a 35mm lens, shoot in low light conditions, and even achieve the buttery-smooth bokeh that you have always been craving.
Best of all, 35mm lenses are so cheap that you’re never going to break the bank with the Nikon coming in at around $200. Canon doesn’t offer a first-party 35mm lens but the excellent 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens is almost the same and even less expensive at about $175. My favorite part about a 35mm lens is that you can use it to get intimate images the likes of what a 70-200 f/2.8 could only dream of.
For years I shot almost exclusively with a 35mm lens on my full-frame camera. It was a constant companion of mine on everything from formal portraits to casual everyday shots. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I now use a Fuji X100F for almost all of my photos is because it’s basically the same as using a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera but in a much smaller package.
I wouldn’t go so far as to do entire portrait sessions with only a 35mm lens, but if you’re considering a way to upgrade your kit you might be surprised at how much mileage you can get out of this lens. I would even go so far as to say that you’d be wise to have it even if you do opt for a 70-200mm f/2.8, simply because it’s nice to have the flexibility of shooting at a wider angle when you really need it.
The main takeaway here, before I get to an examination of the 70-200mm f/2.8, is that you can do a lot with other lenses. Whether it’s one of these less-expensive primes or a more professional-grade lens like the Canon 85mm f/1.2 or the Nikon 105mm f/1.4 or any number of other lenses especially from third parties like Sigma and Tamron, the point is you don’t always need the heft and focal range of a 70-200mm f/2.8.
But sometimes you do.
It’s impossible for me to say whether any individual photographer needs one of these lenses, but I can say that they are extremely useful in a variety of situations. They are professional-grade lenses designed to meet the demands of a variety of situations, especially for portrait photographers. If you really can’t get your work done with the gear you have, and if one of the other lenses I’ve already discussed isn’t going to meet your needs, then a 70-200mm f/2.8 might fit the bill quite nicely.
There are many times in which these lenses can outperform a lot of other options.
If you find yourself in situations like this, then a 70-200mm f/2.8 could be just what you’re after.
They are great for things like:
A 70-200mm f/2.8 lens isn’t always a necessity, but it can make a big difference if your needs aren’t met by other gear. They’re heavy and expensive, but the results can be worth it as long as you know why you want one and what you plan on using it for. You should also note that you might not need the sheer light-gathering capability of an f/2.8 aperture. In many cases, you would be well-served with a 70-200 f/4 lens which is going to cost significantly less and still produce good results.
Third-party options are a good choice too. You will often find 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses from Sigma, Tamron, and others available for about 50-75% of what you would pay for a first-party lens. These might not have the snappiest autofocus or same level of build quality, but for most portrait photographers they would work just fine.
Hopefully, this information, along with some of these pictures, helps you get a better sense of what different lenses can do. Of course, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is great, but if you examine your situation and think about your needs and goals, you might find that a different lens would suffice quite nicely. The point is to find something that works for you, no matter what it is and no matter what other people might use. As long as your gear helps you get the photos you want to take, then that’s all that matters.