Headshot photography doesn’t require specialized lenses, but there are a few important factors to consider when choosing the best lens for headshots. Because headshot photography is a sub-genre of portrait photography, all the best practices for portrait photography apply. These include:
- Isolating the subject from the background with background blur and other composition techniques to draw attention to the subject
- Lighting techniques (applicable to both natural light and flash)
In a moment we’ll get into the specifics of which lens is best for headshots (read to the end for my list) and why they’re considered the best option. First, I’ll explain what you need in a headshot lens and why different focal lengths work in different situations.
That said, the short answer is…
Focal lengths over 85mm are the most flattering for headshots. Prime lenses with a focal length of 85mm, 105mm or 135mm are the best single focal length headshot lenses. The best zoom lens for headshots, because it’s a versatile lens, has a variable focal length of 70-200mm.
What is a headshot photograph?
Traditionally a headshot is a portrait that includes just the head and shoulders. If you’re photographing an actor for their portfolio, this is how you would photograph headshots.
Social media has raised the profile of headshots (pardon the pun) and made them essential for professionals in business. Our online visibility has hugely increased over the years and with it the need for variety in a person’s headshots has increased. So, now headshots sometimes refers to three quarter length and even full body pictures.
But for accuracy in determining the best lens for headshots, I’m referring only to the strict definition of headshots – head and shoulders portraits.
Further reading: What is headshot photography – tips for different types of headshots
Ideal focal length for headshots
Focal length is the most important factor in deciding the best lens for headshots, because if you use the wrong focal length, you can distort a person’s facial features. Choosing the right focal length will even enhance a person’s facial features.
This is why the traditional focal lengths used by portrait photographers that I mentioned earlier are considered ideal:
But it’s not that simple.
A 50mm full frame camera lens on a crop sensor camera is effectively 85mm (roughly), not 50mm. To work out what the focal length will be multiply it by 1.5. Please note that this is a rough guide, not an exact measurement.
So the crop factor of a full frame camera versus an aps-c sensor camera (aka crop sensor) plays a big role in deciding on the ideal lens.
To avoid confusion, when I mention a focal length I’m referring to the lens focal length of a full frame lens on a full frame camera.
Further reading: What is focal length and how to use it in photography
Choosing the right focal length for you and your subject
All faces are different, so you should choose your lens and focal length according to your subject and not just use the current popular focal length. A focal length that suits one face might not suit another. For example :
- To slim down wider, rounder faces a focal length over 100mm is best.
- For a narrower face that a subject wants to appear fuller, a focal length closer to 85mm would work best.
The other factor is distance from your subject and how you feel about it.
The longer the focal length, the further away you’ll be from your subject. Some photographers feel that with a focal length over 105mm they’re too far away from the subject and lose connection with their subject, which shows in the images.
Focal length and background blur
It’s not as easy to blur the background with a wide angle lens and in headshot photography a blurry background is preferable. So telephoto lenses are best.
This goes back to one of the points I mentioned right at the start about isolating the subject in portrait photography. One way to isolate the subject is to blur the background.
Because our eyes goes to the sharpest point in an image, we are immediately drawn to the subject and we’re not distracted by the background. In headshot photography this is very important.
These focal lengths include:
So, not only will you distort the facial features of your subject with these lenses, if you’re shooting a traditional headshot of head and shoulders only, but you’ll also find it harder to blur the background.
A word on the “nifty fifty” – 50mm camera lenses- for headshots
While 50mm is a popular focal length, especially with new photographers, because it’s not too heavy or too pricey, it’s not ideal for headshots. Unless you also have a crop sensor camera, in which case it’s effectively an 85mm focal length. Although the background blur won’t be as good as with an 85mm lens on a full frame camera.
Further reading: The big question: 50mm vs 85mm for portraits – which is better?
But it’s not impossible, so if all you have is a 50mm lens, don’t despair – you have other ways to blur the background for headshots.
Also, you can avoid distorting your subject by photographing from further away and including more than head and shoulders, then cropping the photo in post production. Just be aware that cropping too much will affect image quality. That said, if they just want headshots for social media profiles, the photo will be small, so the loss of resolution caused by cropping won’t have any impact.
Best aperture for headshots
Aperture is the next most important factor in choosing the right lens for great results in headshot photography.
It’s also what drives up the price of both prime lenses and zoom lenses, because lenses with a wide aperture have more complex optics, so the build cost is higher.
However, using a really wide aperture is one of the easiest ways to create shallow depth of field, or background blur, in photos.
Many kit lenses have a maximum aperture of F4, which many photographers don’t consider wide enough to blur the background. But if all you have is a kit lens, don’t let that put you off, because aperture is just one of the ways to create shallow depth of field.
Another highly effective way is to ensure that you have a lot of space between your subject and the background. The further away the background is the more blurred it will be.
Further reading: Capture a blurry background the easy way – no Photoshop
Another advantage of a wide aperture is that you’re able to shoot in low light conditions, so if you use natural light only, this might be important.
A wide aperture is also referred to as a fast aperture, because a large aperture allows you to set a faster shutter speed than a narrow aperture. This is of course handy in low light conditions, or when you need to freeze motion.
On the other hand, when photographing outside on a sunny day, a wide aperture might be difficult to achieve, even with a fast shutter speed. When it’s too bright you might have to use a smaller aperture for an accurate exposure.
Popular apertures for portrait photography outdoors are:
For studio based headshot photographers using flash, a lens with a super wide maximum aperture is not as much of a concern.
Why image stabilization matters in lens choice
So far we know that a fast lens with a wide aperture a long focal length is the best option for headshot photography, if it falls within your price range.
But you also need to consider image stabilization, especially if you’re shooting at a long focal length. The longer the focal length, the more chance there’ll be of camera shake in photos. This is true for both prime lenses and telephoto zoom lenses.
To avoid camera shake you need to set a fast shutter speed. The ideal shutter speed will be twice the focal length number. So, if your focal length is 135mm, your shutter speed should be 1/270 or faster.
Image stabilization gives you a little bit of wiggle room. Literally! It helps to cut down on camera shake.
Many modern cameras and lenses are equipped with image stabilization. Mirrorless cameras in particular use in body image stabilization and higher end lenses for DSLR cameras are equipped with image stabilization.
This too adds to the build cost of the lens and/or camera.
Again, if you don’t have a high end camera or the best lens, you can still manage. Simply fit your camera to a tripod when photographing at long focal lengths.
What’s the best lens for headshots – prime or zoom?
Now we step into the prime or zoom debate, which can get heated, because many portrait photographers swear by prime lenses and just as many enjoy zoom lenses.
It comes down to:
- Personal choice
- Where you’re shooting
- What you’re shooting
- Circumstances of the shoot
There’s no right or wrong and what works for one photographer might not work for another.
For example, when photographing a wedding you might not have time to swap out different lenses for headshot style photos of the bride and groom or guests. So a zoom lens is often the best choice, because it’s a versatile lens.
It’s what I prefer. For weddings I have my Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 zoom lens on one camera body and my Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens on the other camera body. This way I’m always ready for close ups, as well as distance shots.
I also prefer using a zoom lens when photographing at the beach so that I don’t have to swap lenses and risk salt and sand getting inside my camera, especially on windy days.
That said, a fast prime lens is great for portraits outdoors and you can more easily produce blurred backgrounds with tack sharp subjects. Also, headshot photography isn’t a manic like a wedding or even a family photoshoot can be. So single focal length lenses are well suited to headshot photography.
For environmental portraits or headshots you don’t want to blur the background as much, because they’re as much about the environment – be it home, work or the outdoors – as they’re about the subject. So you wouldn’t use a very wide aperture, but you would want the wider field of view of a wide angle lens to capture more of the environment. Either a prime or zoom is an ideal lens in this situation.
Bearing all this in mind – what’s the best lens to use for headshots?
My recommendations aren’t necessarily for the top of the range headshot lenses. I feel they’re the best for photographers still learning the ropes of portrait photography, because they tick a few important boxes, specifically:
- Long focal length
- Wide aperture
- Image stabilization
- Minimizes chromatic aberration
- Good build quality
So, here are my recommendations for the best headshot lenses…
Best 85mm prime lenses for headshots
Canon EF 85mm f1.8
Nikon 85mm AF-S f1.8G
Canon RF 85mm f2 IS Macro
Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S
Sony FE 85mm f1.8
Sigma 85mm f1.4 DG DN Art Lens
Best 105mm prime lenses for headshots
Nikon 105mm f1.4E ED AF-S
Nikon Z MC 105mm f2.8 VR S
Sigma 105mm f1.4 DG HSM Art
Best 135mm prime lenses for headshots
Canon EF 135mm F2 LUSM
Nikon Z MC 135mm f2.8 VR S
Sony FE 135mm f1.8 G Master
Sigma 135mm f1.8 DG HSM Art
Best telephoto zoom lenses for headshots
Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 L IS III USM
Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR S
Canon RF 70-200mm f2.8L IS USM
Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S
Sony FE 70-200mm f2.8 G Master
Last word on the best portrait lenses for headshots
Choose the right lens for you and don’t feel that you have to have the best lenses to produce the best results.
If you don’t yet have the lens you want, don’t let that stop you learning headshot photography. As long as you know your limitations, and learn to work within them, you’ll be capable of producing great results.
In fact, you’ll be a better photographer in the end by pushing yourself to learn your craft.
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