Despite what you may have heard or read there is no single best portrait lens, and the best portrait lens will depend on the style of portrait, your style of shooting and the budget you have available……
Best portrait lens if you want value for money
Many people like to get the most bang for their buck, and if this is you and you want the best portrait lens for value for money the 50mm f1.8 lens should be at the top of your list.
The 50mm f1.8 is small, light, discreet and being made almost entirely from plastic feels more like a child’s toy than a serious photography lens. Don’t let the inferior build quality put you off buying this lens because it is a top performer.
The image quality of this lens is superb however it is a little soft when used wide open. I don’t have a problem with this, in fact I think there are times when it is best to have a little softness, such as when taking portrait shots of ladies and children. Super sharp lenses show every spot, blemish and pimple and aren’t very flattering. A slightly softer lens hides any imperfections and makes for a more pleasing and flattering portrait. Since the 50mm f1.8 is slightly soft it is a flattering lens.
The 50mm f1.8 lens is cheap and chips, which makes it the best portrait lens if you want value for money. You will not get more bang for the buck with any other lens, trust me.
Several companies make 50mm f1.8 lenses including Canon, Nikon, Tamron and Sigma to name just a few. Many people argue that Canon and Nikon make the best 50mm f1.8 lenses, however the Tamron and Sigma 50mm lenses are very good and should not be discounted. I shoot a Canon and own a 50mm f1.8 lens, and have done so for many years.
During my ownership of this cracking lens I have managed to capture several photos I am very pleased with, as well as some that I have even managed to sell on various stock photography sites. In fact, the amount I have made from the sales of my images taken with the Canon 50mm f1.8 has paid for my lens several times over. For a full review of the Canon 50mm f1.8 please see Canon lens review – 50mm f1.8.
Best portrait lens if you want versatility
The best portrait lens for versatility has to be the 24mm – 70mm f2.8 lens.
With a 24mm wide end the 24mm – 70mm f2.8 is wide enough to get some unique and creative portraits but not so wide that distortion creeps in. The 70mm long end allows you to capture head and shoulder portraits, or just head shots from a distance that is close enough to the model/subject to direct them and capture an engaging photo without being so close and personal the model/subject feels intimidated.
The focal lengths in between, i.e. 28mm, 35mm and 50mm, are also the most popular focal lengths for portraits too.
The 2.8 aperture is perfect for intentionally throwing the background out of focus and capturing a sharp model/subject against a blurred out background. Whilst this may not be so crucial using a photography background in the studio being able to do this out on location or in the field is extremely useful. The 2.8 aperture makes the 24mm – 70mm a fast lens so keeping up the shutter speed for sharp hand held shots will only become an issue when the ambient light levels are very low.
Many photographers argue prime lenses have superior image quality over zoom lenses, and looking on paper I agree and can’t deny it. That said, the difference in image quality between modern day 24mm – 70mm zoom lenses and pries lenses is very small that it is hardly noticeable unless you scrutinise the photo on a computer and go “pixel peeping”.
A modern day 24mm – 70mm zoom lens is capable of capturing awesome portrait shots and many professional portrait photographers use one for commercial work, and are more than happy to sacrifice a small amount of image quality for the versatility of the 24mm – 70mm zoom and not having to faff around changing lenses and making the model/subject hang around and wait, which affects the shoot.
The 24mm – 70mm f2.8 zoom lens is a popular lens and there are a few models to choose from. Canon and Nikon both make 24mm – 70mm f2.8 lenses for their respective cameras. In addition to this there are third party manufacturer’s including Tamron and Sigma who create 24mm – 70mm f2.8 lenses with Canon and Nikon fit.
I have the Canon 24mm – 70mm f2.8L and I can confirm it is an excellent lens. Before I bought it I did some research and after trying the Canon, Sigma and Tamron lenses I settled on the Canon model but only because I managed to get one at such a bargain price I couldn’t refuse it. The Tamron and Sigma lenses were very good and I had no problems with the image quality, the build quality or anything else, but when I could get a brand new Canon L lens for less than the cost of a third party lens the decision to buy the Canon was a no brainer (for a quick review of this awesome lens take a look at Canon lens review – 24mm – 70mm f2.8L). Whatever 24mm – 70mm f2.8 lens you decide to buy I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed with the portrait shots you can get.
Based on the above I am sure you will see it is easy to see why I say the best portrait lens for versatility is the 24mm – 70mm f2.8.
Best portrait lens for group shots
The best portrait lens for group has to be the 16mm – 35mm zoom lens.
When taking group shots you are going to need something a little wider than a standard portrait lens, and whilst it is tempting to go ultra-wide and choose a 12mm or something like that you do need to be careful of distortion, which does not make a flattering portrait.
In my experience the best portrait lens is the 16mm – 35mm, and it is a lens I often use for wedding group photos. Okay, the 16mm wide end is classed as an ultra-wide focal length but I find distortion is not a problem shooting group shots. In fact, I have found that 16mm is the widest I can shoot with my camera without distortion rearing its ugly head.
When taking group shots I find I seldom go longer than 28mm, however since the 16mm – 35mm covers my preferred focal length (I can’t find a 16mm – 28mm) it is the lens I use for group portraits.
The 16mm – 35mm zoom lens is another popular lens and, once again, there are a few models to choose from, depending on what you shoot of course. As with every lens there are discussions over whether the Canon or Nikon brand is better than the third party brands, such as Tamron and Sigma so you do need to do a bit of research before parting with your hard earned money to make sure you are getting the best lens for your circumstances.
I shoot a Canon and had two 16mm – 35mm lenses to choose from, being an f2.8L model and an f4L IS. The 2.8 lens has the widest aperture, which is obviously useful for throwing the background out of focus, but the f4 has image stabilisation. After a lot of research, taking test shots etc. I decided the lens for me was the Canon 16mm – 35mm f4L IS. Whilst it doesn’t have the 2.8 aperture the f4 model has got 4 stop image stabilisation, it is smaller and lighter (and hence less intimidating to the models/subjects) and it is a fraction of the cost. Many photographers comment the image quality of the f4 is superior to the f2.8 although I can’t really comment on this, despite taking test shots with both models. What I will say is that the image quality of both the f2.8 and the 4f is superb, and you will not be disappointed with either. For a quick review of the f4 model take a look at Canon lens review – 16mm – 35mm f4L IS.
Best portrait lens for professionals
The best portrait lens for professional photographers is, without a doubt the 50mm f1.2 professional spec lens.
Whilst the 50mm f1.8 is a cheap and cheerful lens the 50mm f1.2 most definitely is not. In fact, you can buy several 50mm f1.8 lenses for the cost of a single 50mm f1.2 lens, and when you see, feel and use the 50mm f1.2 lens it is easy to see why.
The 50mm f1.2 lens is made out of the best quality materials, which means it is tough, durable and very sturdy.
The 50mm f1.2 lens is bullet proof and will easily cope with whatever a professional portrait photographer will throw at it, and some.
As well as being made from the best quality materials the 50mm f1.2 lens is constructed using the best optics, which means the image quality is second to none. This lens can be super sharp (from the centre of the frame to the edges) when you want it to be or you can intentionally create a softer image for taking portraits of ladies and children.
With the 1.2 widest aperture it is possible to throw the background out of focus so it doesn’t distract and take the focus from the model/subject. Creating non-distracting backgrounds is easy in the studio when you can use a photography specific background but when taking environmental portraits or portraits out on location problems often occur. Shoot with the 50mm f1.2 however, and it is easy to blur out the most distracting backgrounds.
The 50mm f1.2 lens is a superb lens and you will struggle to find one better for professional portrait shots. The 50mm f1.2 is stupidly expensive and you need deep pockets to buy one, which is why it is more or a lens for professional photographers than enthusiasts. I can’t justify the cost of the 50mm f1.2 lens however I have carried out some photo shoots where the models/subjects have specifically requested the shots are taken with this particular lens, and in these circumstances I have rented a copy for the day and obviously recharged it back to the client. All I can say is thank goodness for lens rental companies.
Best portrait lens for head shots
The best portrait lens for head shots has to be the 70mm – 200mm zoom lens. The 70mm – 200mm zoom lens is popular and there a loads of different models to choose from. Let’s take Canon for example. There are four 70mm – 200mm l series lenses available from Canon, and these include the f2.8L IS (which is the expensive flag ship model), the f2.8L, the f4L IS and the f4L (which is the cheaper budget model). Out of the four models the best portrait lens for head shots is the f2.8L IS by far.
If you don’t shoot Canon other camera manufacturers have their own brand 70mm – 200mm lenses and there are some third party brands (such as Sigma, Tokina and Tamron to name just three) available too. Whatever camera you shoot the best portrait lens for head shots am f2.8 70mm – 200mm zoom lens.
Some models/subjects find photographer’s intimidating and will clam up if a lens is stuck a few inches from their face, and the 70mm – 200mm zoom lens comes in to its own in these situations. With the 70mm – 200mm focal range you can zoom in nice and tight and get frame filling shots of the model’s/subject’s head without having to be real close and personal.
The f2.8 widest aperture is crucial for head shots since it allows you to use faster shutter speeds to eliminate camera shake (camera shake can start to be an issue when using longer focal lengths) and also have a shallow depth of field to isolate the model/subject against an intentionally blurred out background. The f2.8 aperture is easily the best option however it is possible to intentionally throw the background out of focus if you stand far enough from the model/subject and use the lens at 200mm. The bokeh effect (i.e. out of focus background) is exaggerated at longer focal lengths so use the lens at the long end and get a shallower depth of field.
Using the lens at 200mm is all well and good however at these sorts of focal lengths you are going to need to stand a fair distance from the model/subject to get everything in the frame you want, and the further you are from the model/subject the less engaging the portrait is going to be. If you don’t need an engaging portrait standing far away from the model/subject doesn’t matter but if you do want an engaging portrait you are going to have to shoot a bit wider and get closer to the model/subject.
The 70mm – 200mm lens I use for head shots is the Canon 70mm – 200mm f2.8L IS lens, which is the flag ship model. I can’t deny that this lens isn’t expensive but it is worth every penny and is awesome for head shots. Both the image quality and build quality of this lens is superb and second to none, and it is one I definitely recommend. For a quick review check out Canon lens review – Canon 70mm – 200mm f2.8L IS
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.