So, you’ve tried all the different types of photography—and discovered your passion for portrait photography! Awesome. Once you’ve got yourself the perfect portrait camera and picked out a few key portrait photography accessories, it’s time to invest in the best portrait lens for your budget. Working with the right lens will ensure that the portraits you’re adding to your online photography portfolio look amazing—which will, in turn, help you market and promote your portrait photography business.
Not sure where to start with portrait lenses? This list will help you figure out what the best portrait lens is for you, no matter your style or budget. First, let’s recap the basic different kinds of portrait lenses.
Zoom Lenses vs. Prime Lenses
There are two main types of portrait lenses: zoom lenses and prime lenses. The former covers a wide range of focal lengths, so you can choose your focal length. Prime lenses, however, have a fixed focal length; they’re simpler, but this means that they can be optimized for a single focal length, which gives you a more high-quality image. What are the pros and cons of each?
Zoom Lenses: Zoom lenses are extremely versatile and come with a range of focal lengths. This enables you to switch between a variety of styles and perspectives —no lugging around and switching between multiple lenses. It can be beneficial for beginners to invest in a zoom lens and see what focal length best suits their style.
Prime Lenses: Ask any professional portrait photographer and they will tell that they prefer prime lenses and have crowned them the best portrait lenses. Why? Because a prime lens is not only lighter and faster to use, but it offers sharper and better images. The quality and performance are light-years ahead of zoom lenses when it comes to portrait photography. The only downsides are prime lenses are more expensive, and you’ll have to carry more of them.
Don’t Forget About Sensor Size
Keep in mind when shopping for portrait lenses that your camera’s body and sensor size will affect the focal length of your lens. If you’re shooting on a more entry-level, crop-sensor camera (like the Canon Rebel series, for example), a 50mm will act more like a 80mm lens. Then again, if you use a full-frame camera like the 5D Mark IV, the 50mm portrait lens will be fully optimized.
Now—let’s get to the best lenses for portrait photography!
The Best Canon Lenses for Portraits
Canon 50mm f/1.2L
When it comes to the best Canon lenses for portraits, they’re won’t be many that match the power and quality of the Canon 50mm f/1.2L. The 50mm focal length on this lens equipped on a 35mm or full-frame camera produces a very natural look to portraits. This focal length is very similar to what the human eye sees. This makes it a very ideal lens to use for portrait photography and any professional portrait photographer is going to want one of these in their camera bag. Yes, it’s quite pricey, but, if you’re a veteran, this investment will have your images looking phenomenal.
The images taken at f/1.2 aperture will have a very shallow depth of field. Subjects will pop out of a background that melts into a dreamlike, ethereal milky way of blurred colors and bokeh.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
If you’re new to photography and don’t want to spend a thousand dollars more on the 50mm f/1.2L, but still want that beautiful focal length for portrait photography, this is the best Canon portrait lens for you. Though its quality, sharpness, and speed don’t quite match its more expensive sibling, its performance is still striking, and it’s an overall good portrait lens to get your portrait photography career started.
Canon 70 - 200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
If you’re a professional portrait photographer who needs to capture portraits at large ceremonies or sporting events, this Canon portrait lens will work wonders. By far one of Canon’s most popular L series lenses, it offers powerful precision zoom and clarity. You’ll be able to isolate a subject from a distance, while maintaining an unbelievable amount of sharpness, thanks to image stabilization, as well as create a beautiful, blurry bokeh.
Telephoto lenses like the 70-200mm f/2.8 will compress the backgrounds of your pictures, bringing a unique perspective that you would not see in the portraits captured at 50mm. Longer focal lengths also have a more flattering effect to photos where the subjects look more thin.
Watch out, though: this may be a good portrait lens, but it’s heavy!
Canon EF 35mm f/1.4 II USM
If you’re a street photographer who captures portraits of city dwellers, or a storyteller who wants to capture as much of the environment around the subject as the subject themselves, then the 35mm focal length is what you want. As far as the best Canon lenses for portraits go, this might be the most versatile prime lens on the market.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L USM
Rated one of the most flattering lenses, the Canon EF 85mm offers the best of both worlds—it has fantastic image stabilization, as well as an insanely fast f/1.2 aperture. With a price like this, you better believe it delivers: this Canon portrait lens has a nine-blade diaphragm and advanced ASC (air sphere coating), which is a fancy way of saying it minimizes glare and ghosting.
Compared to its 1.8 counterpart, it’s twice as heavy, but it’s still one of the best portrait lenses Canon has to offer.
The Best Nikon Lenses for Portraits
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G
The 85mm f/1.4G is, hands down, one of the fastest lenses created by Nikon. The images this glass creates are totally ethereal—and magazine-calibre. It’s smaller and lighter than its competition (Sigma/Tamron), the build feels better than most other Nikon portrait lenses, and it’s sleek and beautiful. In fact, it’s known as Nikons premium portrait lens. When it comes to price, however, it definitely isn’t budget-friendly. Some portrait photographers argue that it’s just simply not worth the price (thanks to the less-pricey Sigma 1.4 Art being up for grabs).
Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
The “nifty fifty” 50mm f/1.8 is potentially the top seller when it comes to Nikon portrait lenses, thanks to its extremely cheap price, light weight, and wonderful optics. Don’t let the price fool you, though: some of the best portrait photographers out there started with this lens—and you’ll hold onto it for years to come. After a solid year or so of getting used to the f/1.8, you may think it’s time to upgrade to the f/1.4, but, considering the serious price difference, you may begin to wonder if it’s even worth it!
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G
The 35mm focal length is a storytelling lens: one that allows the photographer to get the subject in their environment, creating a more holistic portrait than just a simple close-up. The Nikon 35mm f/1.4 is quiet, sharp, and quick, giving it an edge on many of the other Nikon portrait lenses.
If you’re shooting on a crop-sensor, it acts as 50mm portrait lens and can create sharp, beautiful images. On a full-frame body, you’re going to get some of the most brilliant portraits you can imagine. Think about it this way: instead of taking a few lenses while traveling, you could theoretically just take the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 and capture everything from landscapes and street photography to intimate portraits of the locals.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8
At f/2.8, the Nikon 24-70mm lens is going to deliver fantastic image quality as well as enable you to choose your focal length on the go. The lens is a workhorse in that its optics can overcome most lighting and space constrictions.
Do a little wedding photography on the side? This is a good portrait lens for weddings too—from close-ups to group portrait shots, this lens is the definition of versatile!
Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
When considering this Nikon portrait lens, keep in mind it’s not for the beginner portrait photographer—especially one on a budget. The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G is for the portrait photographer who’s itching to build on their already distinguished style by adding a creative element that only the best portrait lens can provide.
This focal length is very special: the built-in imperfections of the 58mm—images with inherent vignette and strange in-focus-but-not-in-focus qualities—create unique, gorgeous shots.
The Best Sony Lenses for Portraits
Sony 35mm f/1.4 ZA
From intimate portraits to more environmental portraiture, this sharp, quick, and sleek lens will do wonders for any portrait photographer shooting on a Sony system. With the intuitive Zeiss anti-reflective coating, you’ll be blown away by how clear the in-camera image is before you take it into any editing software.
This Sony portrait lens is pretty expensive and quite heavy, but you can effectively build an entire portrait photography business off the shots you’ll get from this guy—without having to purchase any other lenses.
Sony 55mm f/1.8 ZA
The Sony 55mm f/1.8 ZA is a prime lens that many photographers claim is the best Sony portrait lens, and that, like the Sony 35mm f/1.4 ZA, it can be your one-and-only. Why? It works beautifully across many kinds of portrait photography, including wedding, travel, and event photography.
It’s small, light, and perfect for the portrait photographer traversing miles upon miles, searching for interesting subjects and environments. It boasts a focal length and optics that many other manufacturers just haven’t seemed to grasp. This makes it by far the most versatile lens for any Sony body.
Sony 85mm f/1.8 GM
Price: $600 At this price, it wouldn’t make sense for a portrait photographer to not have this Sony portrait lens in their bag. We know that 85mm lenses offer a fantastic focal length for flattering portraits, but, with the the Sony 85mm f/1.8, your subject jumps out, leaving rich, beautiful bokeh in its midst.
The sharpness alone captures deep, rich colours, and the design of the lens is weather-sealed, plus dust- and moisture-resistant, so you can shoot portraits in a variety of situations. The only downside to this lens is that it doesn’t have image stabilization, so, unless your Sony body has built-in image stabilization, you’ll be stuck shooting with a slower shutter speed and at a higher ISO.
The Best Sigma Lenses for Portraits
Sigma 50mm F/1.4 DG HSM Art
Though it’s almost three times heavier than both its Canon and Nikon counterparts, this Sigma portrait lens boasts an insanely fabulous image quality. It also has a very complex optical layout, thanks to its newer, more high-tech design. It’s fast, quiet, and has a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system, putting it above its competition in many ways. As far as a 50mm portrait lens goes, it’s worth every penny.
Sigma 35mm DG HSM f/1.4 Art
Sigma portrait lenses are generally cheaper than Nikon portrait lenses and Canon portrait lenses, yet they often offer even more stunning results. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art is one of these lenses, and far cheaper than the Nikon, Canon, and Sony versions. It’s more accurate, sharper, and simply far superior than its competition in many ways.
Like every other 35mm lens we’ve discussed, this is a lens that you can take anywhere, making it extremely versatile, and hands down, one of the best lenses for portrait photography.
Sigma 85mm DG HSM f/1.4 Art
Though it’s heavy compared to most 85mm lenses, for this price, you’re getting one of the fastest 85mm lenses on the market. It’s weather-sealed (dust- and splash-proof), and its ring-type autofocus system is unbelievably quick and quiet. But, like its 50mm portrait lens sibling, it lacks image stabilization. In spite of this, the images this portrait lens produces are phenomenal as its sharpness fills the entirety of the frame. So, for a portrait photographer ISO something slightly cheaper, it’s your best bet.
10 More Favorite Portrait Lenses
There are so many lenses on the market that portrait shooters live by, so here’s a few more of the best lenses for portrait photography!
- Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 DI VC USD for Canon and Nikon
- Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 DI VC USD for Canon and Nikon
- Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8G OSS
- Sony FE 50mm f/1.8
- Olympus Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8
- Olympus Zuiko 25mm f/1.2
- Fujifilm 56mm f/1.2 R XF
- Fujifilm 35mm f1/4
- Panasonic Lumix G 25mm f/1.7
- Panasonic Lumix G 35-100mm f/2.8 Power OIS
Best Vintage Lenses for Portraits
There’s something about vintage cameras and lenses that create a sense of warmth that modern technology can’t offer.
Modern portrait lenses are all about speed, clarity, and, most importantly, creating that perfect image. But the best vintage portrait lenses stamp their own unique imprint on an image. The fact that it’s all manual and you really take your time to think about the portrait you want to take—instead of snapping 40 photos in a row and sorting through the best one—means each shot can be something really special.
For the lenses above, you can usually easily find adapters online, but the most common mounts are the Nikon (Al-Al-S), M42 Screw Mount, Adaptall, Pentax, and Canon FD/FL.
Though there are many different mounts for different lenses, here are some general rules to keep in mind when thinking about mounting vintage lenses on new bodies. Always make sure you look up specific adapters for your specific lens/body combinations.
- You can usually mount Nikon Lenses on Canon DSLRs, but not always.
- A M42 lens can be mounted on almost any camera.
- When it comes to Sony, Panasonic (or any micro four-thirds or mirrorless) cameras, most lens are mountable.
- Canon lenses cannot be mounted on Nikon DLSRs.
With all that in mind, here’s a great list of some of the best manual-focus portrait lenses that will spice up your portraiture.
Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 SSC
With a large, fast 1.4 aperture, solid build, and a versatile focal length, this beast is one of the best lenses for portrait photography ever built. With the power of a Sony A7 body, this lens will perform brilliantly in low-light situations. This is a premium lens from the 70s and 80s and is still widely used today by both digital and film portrait photographers. (Adapter-wise, it won’t work on a Nikon or Canon DSLR without extra adapters that diminish the quality, but it mounts beautifully on a Canon EOS-M system or Sony A bodies.)
With an all-solid-alloy build, it’s made to last, thanks to an all-metal exterior, metal focus ring, metal filter threads, metal mount, and all-metal barrel. This portrait lens is extremely fast, and offers a short tele-lens for close-ups of your subjects. The lens is perfect when paired with Minolta MAXXUM cameras, but the beauty of it is, is that it’ll do wonders on your Sony Alpha camera body. With the Sony A99, it’s even got image stabilization and fast autofocus!
Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5 Macro
Still one of the best third-party lens creators, Tamron has a strong tradition in crafting fantastic lenses. The Tamron 90mm 2.5 macro can be used with an Adaptall Mount, which means it works on a Nikon, Canon, or Pentax, making it quite the transferable lens. As a macro lens, it gives portrait photographers a wider aperture, close angle capabilities and sharp optics. Definitely a unique perspective for a portrait.
Zenit Helios 85mm f/1.5 40-2
While it looks like a Soviet piece of machinery from a bygone era (it was actually originally a Russian remake of a Leica lens), the Helios 85mm f/1.5 creates a swirly bokeh that dreams are made out of. While the subject jumps out at the viewer, the background melts into what looks like lovely, blurry brush strokes, giving this lens its unique and unmatchable style.
When searching for good portrait lenses in the vintage section, here are some tips that may help you find the right fit:
- Never cheap out on an adapter. Always spend the extra cash for a high-quality lens adapter because the better the quality, the better it will enable your vintage lens to maintain its integrity.
- Older lenses can be surprisingly dirty and unmaintained, so always (if possible) try it out before you go ahead and purchase one.
- Frequently check sites like Craigslist, eBay, Etsy, and Kijiji: you’ll never know what you’ll find. Sometimes you can find a premium lens being sold for $20 bucks! But be careful: sometimes cheap lenses suffer from fungus and glass separation that will render the lens useless.
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