If you want to take decent, high quality and professional looking portrait photos you need to choose the right lens for the job. The perfect portrait photography lens varies from person to person, and what is the perfect portrait lens for me is highly unlikely to be the perfect portrait lens for you. Because of this you need to exercise a little caution when choosing a portrait photography lens and consider a few issues before parting with your hard earned cash.
Before buying a portrait lens I would recommend you consider the following………..
Maximum widest aperture
Having control over the aperture is crucial in portrait photography and one of the most important considerations when choosing the ideal portrait lens is the maximum widest aperture. The widest aperture needed depends on the situation and will vary accordingly. For example, if you are shooting a portrait in front of a plain photography background you can get away with shooting at f5.6. If, however you are shooting a portrait against a busy background you will have to shoot a lot wider, and may even need f1.4 or f1.8 to intentionally blur it out.
Some photographers have a “wider is better” attitude when taking portraits, but this is not always the case. The depth of field using very wide apertures, such as f1.2 or f1.4, is slight and you need to make sure you nail the focal point to get everything sharp. There are times when using apertures this wide is too much and it is not possible to get all the features as sharp as they should be. In these situations you may need f2 or f2.8 to get everything in focus.
Only you know your shooting style and the type of portraits you want to capture, and only you can determine how wide the maximum widest aperture should be.
The typical focal lengths used for portrait photography comprise 35mm – 105mm. Some photographers shoot wider than this, at focal lengths of around 28mm, however shooting this wide can create problems regarding distortions and out of proportion features, neither of which result in flattering portrait shots. I can’t recall any portrait photographers shooting with focal lengths in excess of 105mm, other than the paparazzi who use super long tele lenses to snap candid portraits (without permission) from long distances, but I don’t consider the paparazzi portrait photographers.
Popular focal lengths for portrait photography seem to be 35mm, 50mm and 85mm depending on the type of portrait being taken (headshot, head and shoulders or full body), and the photographers style of shooting. None of the focal lengths are better than the others and the final decision is down to personal preference
Prime or zoom lens
Many portrait photographers will use nothing but prime lenses for portrait photos because “prime lenses are fast and prime lenses have better image quality”
Prime lenses are definitely faster than zoom lens, and I cannot dispute this fact. If you want or need to shoot at very wide apertures (from f1.2 – f2) the only real choice of lens for portrait photography is a prime lens. If you can shoot at f2.8 or narrower you then have the option of a zoom lens as well.
With regards to the superior image quality I would say that the difference in image quality between a prime lens and a top end zoom is negligible and the only way to tell the difference is to go pixel peeping on the computer or create super large prints. The image quality of the top end zoom lenses is very good. When it comes to budget and mid-price zoom lenses the difference in image quality is more noticeable, and a prime lens wins hands down every time.
Both prime lenses and zoom lenses have their advantages and disadvantages and you need to identify these, weigh them up and consider each one before going out and buying a lens for capturing portraits.
If you are in the fortunate position where money is not an object and you have lots of disposable income available to splash out on a lens you won’t need to consider this. If money is a deciding factor, as is the case with most of us, you need to work out how much you can afford to spend on a lens and set your budget accordingly.
Prime lenses are typically cheaper than zoom lenses and it is worth remembering that a decent prime lens costs the same as a budget zoom lens. A top end zoom lens isn’t cheap, but then you are getting multiple focal lengths (several lenses in one) so it is pretty much swings and roundabouts.
Your budget will have a big impact on the type of portrait lens you get and before going shopping for a new portrait lens you need to set yourself a budget and stick to it. When buying a lens you should never be persuaded to spend more than your budget or more than you wanted to be a pushy salesman. No matter what “deal” the salesman can do or what “free” accessories the salesman offers you it is important to stick to your guns and say no.
Buying a lens on finance is very expensive and the lens ends up costing a lot more than it should of in the first instance. Credit is not a good thing when buying a lens, unless you are a professional photographer and need a particular lens to pay the bills and put food on the table, so never be persuaded to buy a lens on finance. Set your budget, shop accordingly and ignore the salesman’s patter and you’ll be fine.
Top rated portrait lenses
CANON EF 24 MM - 70MM F2.8L
Focal Length – Full frame/APS-C:- 24mm - 70mm/ 38.4mm - 112mm / Aperture:- 2.8 - 22/ Min focus:- 15"/ Dimensions:- 3.48" x 4.45"/ Weight:- 28.4 oz/ Image stabilization:- No/ Price (approx.) $USD/£ GBP:- $1,750.00/£1,000.00
This lens is the workhorse of many portrait photographers and when you scratch beneath the surface it is easy to see why. Being an L series lens this lens is made out of the best components and materials, which means it is robust and tough enough to deal with the abuse of professional photographers. This lens is also weather and dust sealed so it is ideal for outdoor use.
The image quality of this lens is superb and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. This lens is sharp wide open, however stop it down a bit and it gets even sharper. Images taken with this lens are bright, crisp and colourful but not oversaturated.
The maximum widest aperture of this lens is f2.8 so if you need or want to shoot wider this lens is not going to be what you need. If you can get away with slightly narrower apertures this lens is going to be ideal, and for studio work or situations where you can use a plain background, it is perfect.
The 24mm – 70mm focal length is ideal for a variety of portrait photography situations, including group portraits, whole body portraits, head and shoulder shots and also headshots. With this lens you can do it all.
This is not a cheap lens but all things considered (build quality and image quality) it is top value for money and well worth the money. It is also worth pointing out that to get the same range of focal lengths would require several prime lenses.
The Canon 24mm - 70mm f2.8L is available from Adorama, Amazon (US), eBay, Amazon (UK)
CANON EF 85MM F1.8
Focal Length – Full frame/APS-C:- 85mm/136mm/ Aperture:- 1.8 - 22/ Min focus:- 33.5"/ Dimensions:- 2.95" x 2.83"/ Weight:- 15 oz/ Image stabilization:- No/ Price (approx.) $USD/£ GBP:- $370.00/£340.00
This mid-priced Canon branded prime lens is a great lens and ideal for portrait photography. The build quality of this lens isn’t the best, and it is nowhere near the same build quality of the L series lenses, but it isn’t that bad. If you look after this lens and don’t give it too much abuse it will provide years of trouble free service.
The image quality of this lens is superb and as good as lenses several times more. It isn’t up to L series lens quality but it’s not too far off. Images captured with this lens are great and the bokeh, i.e. out of focus background you can get with it, is awesome.
This lens is a little soft at f1.8 however if you are after the soft focus look or want to take portraits of kids and women (where a softer lens often results in a more pleasing photo) this shouldn’t be an issue. If you stop this lens down the sharpness significantly improves, right up to the sweet spot of f8. The image quality of this lens is great on a crop sensor camera is exceptionally good but if you really want to see what this lens is capable of you need to get it on the front of a full frame camera.
Overall this is a great lens, and whilst it may be a little on the long side for a crop sensor camera (although you can still use it for portraits) it is perfect for full frame cameras.
The Canon 85mm f1.8 is available from Adorama, Amazon (US), eBay, Amazon (UK)
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.