Which Lens for Portrait Photography?

Which Lens for Portrait Photography?

Here’s a quick video tutorial exploring the topic of focal length of lenses for portrait photography.

I think it’s important to emphasise (as they do at the end of the video) that there are times when it’s good to shoot with a wide angle lens – but there are also some real benefits of longer focal lengths.

The lens being used in the video is a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS – one of my own favourite lenses also not only because of the focal length but how fast it is.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Subhash Dasgupta April 15, 2013 03:34 pm

    thanks for helpful tips

  • ianthé wiehahn August 22, 2012 01:56 am

    I have a Pentax K20D and Pentax 100mm Macro. Any suggestions for lens upgrade to photographing wild and landscape?

  • Rrramirrrezzz March 2, 2012 03:06 pm

    it's best to look on lens specs on photozone.de then watch these false marketing videos. for portraits you need least barrel distortion and superb sharpness in the center.

    50mm f1.8 by canon is the best one for portraits. there is no need to shell out 2000$ for 70-200mm lens if you are planning to do portraits.

    50mm f1.8 ii is sharper and faster than 70-200mm f2.8. --> less noise , crisp image. universal truth in portrait photography.

    130$ lens is guaranteed to give a better portrait than 2000$ lens if used by the same photographer.

    the only advantage of using a gigantic lens is to create a false impression that the image quality will be amazing since such an expensive tool is used.

  • Mark Kirwan September 11, 2010 12:24 am

    i am trying to decide on which lens to cover when doing wedding photography i have canon 10-22 and 70-200 f4 IS usm but i am looking for a lens to between these to cover me doing wedding portraits on the day .I was looking at the canon 24-105 f4 is usm, and 15-85 f3.5-5.6 is usm ,and 24-70 2.8Land the 17-85 f4.5 IS usm,any advice would be appreciated.

  • Rajeev May 26, 2010 10:54 pm

    @ Annie: That's right! :)
    Thanks guys for sharing your experiences. I appreciate.

  • citmariñas May 25, 2010 03:39 pm

    Nikkor AF-S 35mm f1.8 I would say is one of the sharpest.. and the built-in motor is ultra silent.. The lens arrived the day when I was scheduled to attend a wedding, and it just blew me away.. Sharp images, fast focusing.. and very light..

  • Eeps March 30, 2010 11:53 pm

    I have a 50/1.8 and while it does separate the subject from the background nicely, I have some issues with the bokeh. I'd like my background lights to be blurred more roundly but the 50/1.8 only has 5 petals, thus making them slightly "pentagonish" in nature. I've since ordered a Tokina 535 (50-135/2.8) since I read so many rave reviews about them as portrait lenses. Can't wait.

    p.s. There's a rumor going around that the Tokina 535 has been discontinued. Not true. They're still being manufactured but the distribution has been limited to Japan.

  • Gregory Taylor November 16, 2009 02:47 pm

    I love taking portraits with my Canon 50mm 1.8 - this is probably the best $115 I ever spent. The depth of field allows me to focus in on my subject and capture something special.

    I was never much of a portrait photographer, I mostly shot concerts or local live music - but this lens made portraits fun again. If you don't have a prime 50mm look into one - you won't regret it.

  • mike November 11, 2009 10:45 am

    I started with 1.8 canon 50 mark I, got an smc 50mm 1.4, blows the canon away in every catagory, but no autofocus. Best way to get them are to find they on cameras, like smc 50 is ~100 by itself, but 60 on a spotmatic, crazy. Believe the quality of smc is somewhere between canon 50mm 1.4 and 1.2. Very close to 1.2 but for 60$. Also the kit lens for xsi rocks for price, not quite as good as 17-55 2.8, but really close for 900$ less. Anyway use all 3 for portraits, 50 mark I when chasing kids in low light, smc when people can be still. And kit lens for tight shots. Probably will actually spend some money when tamron comes out with 28-75 vc.

  • Jennifer Moore November 3, 2009 09:28 pm

    This is a great article, though I too am new and am just learning my equipment. All I can say is you all have given me serious lens envy! :)

    Great tips and advice here!

    Jennifer Moore
    JenniferLynn Productions, LLC

  • Doug McKay October 18, 2009 12:23 am

    I liked this very much, and make me feel good that I was not an island. The one lens I use 97% of the time is my 18-200 zoom lens (Nikon) on a number of my D-Type bodies. But I use it on my D300 even though it is a DX lens! While it tends to function more as a normal image pick up of a 18-200, as apposed to a 30 to 300 plus when used on a DX formate camera. It shows considerable loss of area (the unused portion of the sensor is shown blacked out.. Still the excellent results relative to what you see with your eye is worth it..

    I am old school and feel that the techno has sort covered over some of why it is facts. To start a 50mm lens is a nice even number that is closest to how your eye actually sees (your eyes see at 48 mm) Thus it was the standard lens on 35mm cameras for year and years. The 105mm lens are made for macro and portrait work because they capture the cleanest "Proportionally correct" at "True Size" magnification. [true for full frame 35mm]- if you have a DX formate then 85 to 90mm would produce the cleanest true size, in proportion images.

  • Annie October 15, 2009 12:27 pm

    I don't think there is a "wrong" lens to use for portrait photography or any other kind of photography. If we all had the same artistic styles and used the same equipment, then how boring would all of our art/photography be? This is an interesting topic though!

  • Holly October 13, 2009 10:22 pm

    Hands down favourite lens for portraits is my Canon 85 1.2L, for family/portrait sessions it's on my 1D MkIII most of the time. The Canon 70-200 2.8L IS is great for dog photography though! ;-)

  • Richard October 13, 2009 02:16 am

    Also, I believe I can use my zoom lenses for portraiture (say, 50 or 70mm @ f/5.6 or f/4 respectively). I can get pretty decent subject isolation and hopefully decent bokeh. The only issue is that I probably can't use natural lighting -- I'd need flash or artificial lighting. Such is photography on a budget...

  • Richard October 13, 2009 01:26 am

    Thanks, Vince! Very helpful tips!

  • Vince October 13, 2009 12:55 am

    "I’ve not seriously considered portrait work but can I do well with what I have?"

    Given the lenses you got, I'm sure you can do well in portraits with your 100 f2.8. Just try it and you should be pleased with the results. Open it wide @2.8 place your subject at least 1m off the background so you can get a nice bokeh. Use aperture priority mode to keep your aperture at 2.8. Shutter speed not under 1/160s to avoid potential camera shake. Higher would be better though.
    Make focus on the eye and take the shot. You might want to set your 40D to use just the central focus point.

  • Richard October 13, 2009 12:39 am

    "For me i usually use 3 lenses for my D3x Nikon: fisheye 10.5mm. f2.8 a 24-70mm f2.8 and a 70-300mm. f2.8."

    Where did you find a 70-300mm f/2.8 ??? Tell me more!

  • Richard October 13, 2009 12:09 am

    I'm relatively new to photography and I have a limited budget. I've already spent a bit too much on gear (40D, 17-85mm, 70-300mm, 100mm f/2.8 macro, 10-22mm). I've not seriously considered portrait work but can I do well with what I have? I only have one 'fast' lens (the macro) and I'm not sure I can achieve the desired angle of view, bokeh or subject isolation with any of my other lenses.

  • Vince October 11, 2009 06:31 pm

    I use a Canon 24-105 F4 L for portraits. I open wide at 4 and keep the focal @ 105mm and would place myself to frame the subject. I also get the subject further away from the background so I can get a nice bokeh.

  • terry October 11, 2009 09:10 am

    ok, this may seem like a stupid question i think lol. I just bought a canon rebel xsi it came with the 18-55 mm lens. Will the 50mm give a different style of picture? i am just gettting into photography and i don't totally understand the different lenses yet. Thanks to anyone willing to help!

  • donnie October 9, 2009 08:31 pm

    I shoot with a Sony a900...I absolutely love the Carl Zeiss 1.4 85mm lense....shots out of this world, and bokeh is like putting butter on bread...

  • Ross October 9, 2009 02:51 pm

    I also use the 70-200mm F/2.8 but love the stunning shots the 85mm F/1.2 produces an outstanding portrait lens

  • Michelle October 9, 2009 02:41 pm

    The best shots I've ever gotten have been with my 85 mm Nikkor f/1/4. I will use it over any of my others when I can. I am enjoying a new Tamron on my Nikon D300s but I kept my D100 just to use the 85 on. It's only downfall is the focal distance--min 6'. With kids I like to get a bit closer but alas, we can't have everything can we? Love this site!

  • danny October 9, 2009 01:50 pm

    I will never shy away from my 18-200mm lens. The flexibilty that I get without having to move around the target as much not only makes things easier for me, but calmer for the subject as well!

  • Don October 9, 2009 02:37 am

    Forgot to mention, LOVE this site.

  • Don October 9, 2009 02:37 am

    I use a Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 as my prime lens and love it. Fast, sharp and great control for depth of field.

  • Sime October 8, 2009 07:56 pm

    I tend to use a Canon L series 50mm f1.2 lens on my RED ONE, Then if I'm looking to change it up, the 100mm f2.2 on my Hasselblad H4D-60...Oh, wait, I'm dreaming...

  • Vicken October 8, 2009 04:03 pm

    For me i usually use 3 lenses for my D3x Nikon: fisheye 10.5mm. f2.8 a 24-70mm f2.8 and a 70-300mm. f2.8. for portrait i use a 120mm f2.8. all lenses are great fo any occasion
    I'm a wedding photographer in Lebanon...

  • Spencer Thomas October 7, 2009 12:10 pm

    For candids, I love the 50mm f/1.8 on my 1.5x crop D100. I can get relatively close -- important in a group situation such as a party, but still preserve decent perspective.

  • Ignas October 6, 2009 11:30 pm

    I am too new, just learning the ropes. I wish to thank all woh contribute as they are an education to me.

  • Can Berkol October 6, 2009 05:20 pm

    70-200 is an awesome lens. A friend had it. I borrowed it. I fell in love with it. I bought it :).

    Anyhow, I use a variety of lenses for portraits.

    70-200 is definitely a great one. Especially if you are taking the shot from a distance. The only problem with a telephoto is that you are somewhat limited in means of composition. The angle is too narrow. If you need to include other details, if you want to make a creative composition then a wide angle may be more suitable.

    I sometimes use my 17-40 mm. Nowadays; however, my most favorite portrait lens is 24mm tilt-shift. It's wide angle plus it's tilt shift. There are lots of experimental opportunities.

    50mm is also another favorite of mine. The aperture must be 1.4 or 1.2, because I really don't like to use 50 mm in daylight. I love the blur, the field of depth I get with 50 mm just bores me in adequate lighting situations. I use 50 mm usually at night events such as weddings etc. where there is action, energy and colorful and dynamic lighting. Oh, it is a very tough lens to use for action and low light situations. To get the right focus, you need to practice a lot. But it is a magical lens, and worth every effort.

  • Andrew Trembley October 6, 2009 04:07 pm

    Sensor size and crop factor is a relevant question. Its influence is misunderstood even by well-educated professional photographers.

    While some types of distortion are the result of the lens length and optical design, perspective distortion (which is what this tutorial demonstrates) is a function of the distance between the camera and the subject.

    It's easy to demonstrate (and I had an instructor show me this using film):
    1. Pick a scene that's got a lot of fixed detail extending out to the horizon.
    2. Put your camera on a tripod.
    3. Affix a lens with a "standard" angle of view (50mm on full-frame, 30-35mm on an APS-C frame) or zoom to that focal length. Stop down to a small aperture for a lot of depth of field, focus for hyperfocal distance, and shoot the scene.
    4. Affix a really long lens or rack your zoom way out. Repeat the shooting process (assuming what you're shooting now is in the center of the original shot).

    You've got two images now.
    1.Take the wide image, crop out the middle so you've got the exact same coverage as on the narrow image.
    2. Blow up your small crop to the same dimensions as the narrow image.

    Look at them side-by-side. The blow-up will be pixellated, but both images will exhibit exactly the same perspective compression. It's the distance to subject that influences, not any characteristics of the lens.

    The big difference an APS-C/DX sensor makes is that you can use a shorter lens than you would on a full-frame body while still maintaining an appropriate distance from the subject to control perspective distortion. From there it's just choosing the focal length or zoom range that lets you shoot the kinds of portraits you want...

  • Rick October 6, 2009 10:50 am

    50mm 1.4 would seem like a good fit between the two extremes shown here.

  • Pete Langlois October 5, 2009 11:57 pm

    I've been using the 35mm f/1.8G Nikkor on my D300s and it's a great lens. I also have the 50mm f/1.8D and the 85mm f/1.8D Nikkors.


  • Winston October 5, 2009 06:55 pm

    I use 35mm f/1.8 from Nikkor. It's really good. :D

  • Trevor Sowers October 5, 2009 02:12 pm

    Personally I find the 70mm range of lenses need a wider aperture than 2.8 to achieve nice bokeh. I have settled on the 200 2.8L and the 85 1.8 for most of my portrait work. I do think there is a place for wider lenses for portrait work such as environmental portraits and I may add the 28 1.8 or the 24 1.4 to my portrait kit. I use two 40D's so using primes is as simple as carrying two cameras.

  • Erik Burd October 5, 2009 12:44 pm

    I would go with the 50mm f1.4, which works very well for portraits, especially on a crop camera. I have a Canon XSi and it's about right, as it gives 80mm.

    Although he has some very good points in the video, his example of an 18mm is a bit extreme and not a good comparison. Something along the lines of the 50/85mm prime lens as compared to the 70-200 might be better.

    If you're doing weddings or other events where you can't get close, then 70-200 would be the way to go so you don't have to get too close.

  • johnp October 5, 2009 10:29 am

    I shot a wedding on the weekend - late afternoon by a creek in the Aussie bush with falling light, smoke from bush fires and dust from central Australia (not to mention snakes, 35c heat, flowergirls and the beer tent was 1klm away). My (cheap) 50mm 1.4 really saved the day for me as I was really struggling with my zoom lens and a dying flash. The 50 came up with some beautiful atmospheric portraits whereas I've got a fair bit of photoshop work to do on the others.

  • Pat Bloomfield October 5, 2009 07:02 am

    Opp my post got sent early accidentally!

    As I was saying I use the 70-200 lens on location and especially for weddings as it's possible to take a range of shots from 1/2 length to really tight head crops without moving and without getting close to the bride & groom. They are not models and being too close could make them feel uncomfortable.

    The longer lens also caused distortion, which was not mentioned in the video. This time the distortion is compression - making distant objects appear closer and not reduced in size.

    Sometimes a wide angle lens can be great for a really dramatic shot. You will see this used a lot in films at the moment.

    Inner Beauty Photography

  • Pat Bloomfield October 5, 2009 06:57 am

    @Jorge you must not think about the crop factor of your camera as a 50mm lens will still behave exactly the same as it does on a full 35mm sensor. Therefore if you are cropping in for a tight head shot it will be distorted.

    IIRC the ideal length is calculated from the diagonal distance across the film/sensor surface. The closed to ideal length for portraits for no distortion is 85mm. For portrait work I prefer my 85mm f/1.8 lens, however I also use a 70-200 f/2.8 Canon L lens especially

  • Ian Pack October 5, 2009 02:57 am

    My favourite lens on a full-frame sensor is the 100 mm f2.8 or on the smaller APS-C x1.6 sensor the 50 mm f1.4 which behaves just like an 80 mm on a full-frame sensor. Don't put aside either your wide angle or longer lenses for portraits they all have a place. Experiment and dare to be different.

  • GRL October 5, 2009 01:32 am

    Yes, the 70-200mm is excellent for bokeh, dof, and flexibility. I also really like an 85mm for portrait work. It allows me to get a bot closer to the subject for tighter shots. I have also had good luck with my 50mm f/1.4 for portrait work, especially on a cropped body like a Canon 30D.

    I also agree with Rosh: I never use a tripod for portrait work.

  • vikki October 5, 2009 12:59 am

    @Layo - it's ok... your first post gave me a good little chuckle... :)

    Just love DPS... always learning!

  • Layo October 5, 2009 12:40 am

    oh frick...on my post above, it's SHARP (not shart)

    what a bad mistake

  • Thais October 5, 2009 12:40 am

    Wonderful video, loved it!

  • Layo October 5, 2009 12:40 am

    the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II is the ultimate portrait lens...it's shart, it's fast, and produces the clearest pictures I have ever seen

  • Jesper Revald October 4, 2009 11:19 pm

    Agreed Chandu. Funny that the video didn't mention the depth of field possible with longer lenses (longer fast lenses at least :).

  • Rosh - New media photographer October 4, 2009 10:29 pm

    I have a 70-210 2.8. but, I use a 135 2.8 for my portraits. It's much lighter and flexible. The last thing I want is to have my camera on a tri-pod while taking portraits. I often hear photographers recommend the 105mm as their ultimate portrait lens.


  • Andre October 4, 2009 10:14 pm

    Of course don't use wide lens for portrait. My choice for portrait photo will be 85mm f1.2, 135mm f2, or 50mm f1.4 or f1.8 for Canon users.
    Good info though, thanks for sharing..

  • JP October 4, 2009 04:46 pm

    the 24-70 f/2.8 on any cropped body works well too. its translates to about 38 to 112 depending on if you're canon or nikon. I like it on my 50d for doing portraits but the 70-200 on my full frame is also fun too though I find myself in the 70 to 120 range anyways.

  • Christoph October 4, 2009 02:06 pm

    I think one important point is not to forget that while a fast prime is handy, great shots can be achieved with kit lenses as well:

    Curiosity - http://www.focx.de/2009/07/26/neugier/

    or the photos in my "People" set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/focx/sets/72157622416103014/ :)

  • Chandu October 4, 2009 02:06 pm

    I use a 70-200mm zoom lens for portraits, but for a different reason...
    i get a nice depth of field.....

  • Melissa October 4, 2009 01:04 pm

    I used to take most of my portraits with a longer zoom lens...until I got my 50mm f/1.4 and now I'm madly in love with that. Of course, that's not even close to a wide angle, especially with the conversion with my Nikon D80's sensor. There are times when a zoom is super handy, but if I can do a whole shoot with my prime lens, I will do it every time. It's just so much sharper and faster than the zoom. If I need to get a little farther away from my subject, I sometimes use a 35mm f/1.8 instead.

  • Peter October 4, 2009 12:57 pm

    I just got my friend Jaime hooked on DPS! He is new to photography... i told him that DPS is the if not the Best at photography instruction because they literally teach in a manner in which the majority of the people learn in today's busy societies.

    thank you again DPS for continuing to educate us, and for your hard work!

  • Jorge October 4, 2009 11:05 am

    Nice tutorial. Maybe I will reconsiderer to buy a long lens for portaits. But in a camera with a 1.6 crop factor, what's considered "long"? Maybe 50mm?

  • JK October 4, 2009 08:51 am

    Which lens is suitable for taking photos of pets?

  • PRH October 4, 2009 08:33 am

    oops. Should have read your comments Darren. I've just repeated what you said :D

  • PRH October 4, 2009 08:31 am

    A lovely tutorial about the pro's of long zoom lenses for portraiture. I particularly appreciate that the tutor specified that these are his preferences without shutting down any arguments for using wide angle.

  • memehuezo|photography October 4, 2009 07:08 am

    I have so many firends tell me and recommenden the 50mm for portrait but I see in some programs of fashionphoto udes a lenses with milimeter like U used in this video... an allway say to may friend this comment about it