We’ve all heard the phrase “the best camera to use is the one you have with you”. Well, that is true for cameras, but not when it comes to deciding which lens to use for portrait photography. Sometimes it is actually better not to take the photo than to use the wrong lens.
That’s talking about extremes though. For example, you couldn’t use a 600mm lens when taking a photo of a person in a lift. Or a 200mm lens either, unless it is a really big lift. You also wouldn’t want to photograph a person with an extreme fish eye lens. You could, but they’d look weird.
Every genre of photography has its favoured lenses and every photographer has their favourite lens within that range.
Without getting into exactly which lens you should buy, here are the factors to bear in mind when choosing the best lens for portrait photography. In no particular order:
- Where you’re photographing
- Lighting conditions
- What your subjects are doing
- How much of your subject is in shot
- Background blur
- Zoom or prime
Let’s have a look at each of these elements.
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1. Where you’re photographing impacts lens choice
As I mentioned above, space can be a big deciding factor in choosing the right portrait lens. If you’re photographing in a small space, you’re going to have to use a lens with a shorter focal length. However, you also need to bear in mind the affect the focal length will have on the appearance your subject.
I think this is why the “nifty fifty” is so popular. 50mm is the minimal focal length for portrait photography. Also, a 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera is equivalent to 75mm lens on a full frame camera, which is closer to the ideal focal length of at least 85mm for portraits.
You can read more about lens focal lengths here: 5 focal length facts you need to know for good photos
Shot at a focal length of 150mm on a 70 – 200mm lens.
2. Light conditions for portraits
We don’t just need to think about focal length when choosing the best lens for portrait photography. If you’re photographing with natural light, the amount of available light has a big influence on lens choice.
When photographing at the beach during daylight, you don’t need a fast lens, because there will be loads of available light. Even on an overcast day. However, if you’re photographing at sunset and beyond, light levels will be a lot lower and you’ll need a lens with a wide aperture.
The kit lens that came with your camera will not be fast enough at the maximum aperture of f5.6 in low light. You’ll probably want to go to f4, f2.8 or wider.
You can read more about aperture here: The exposure triangle – what role does aperture play?
Remember too that the longer the focal length you use, the faster your shutter speed will need to be to avoid camera shake. Unless you mount your camera on a tripod.
You can read more about avoiding camera shake here: Sharp photos are not just about sharp focus
3. What your subjects are doing
People’s activity also dictates the best lens to use. Sometimes we don’t want to “get in their face” with our lens and ruin the moment. Other times, the portrait is not about capturing a moment.
When taking candid photos of wedding guests, or guests at any event, I like to stand back and be as unobtrusive as possible to capture natural, unposed photos. The moment a guest becomes aware of the photographer’s presence, they either freeze up, turn on their camera smile, or tell everyone around them to look at the camera. In that instant the candid moment is lost.
So, for me, my 70 – 200mm lens is the best portrait lens for weddings and events.
I photograph for connection and personality, so I like to photograph families in a documentary style. In this sense, I approach family portraits in the same way as an event.
I don’t hang back quite as much though. With young kids I’ll position myself in an area where they are playing so that they have the freedom to interact with me and my camera, or simply carry on doing their thing.
Instead of getting in their way and being intrusive, I use my 70 – 200mm lens so that I can choose to zoom in to get closer to them, or zoom out when they get close to me.
The other fantastic advantage of the 70 – 200mm lens when used at a longer focal length is the resulting background blur. It’s great for separating subjects from the background. Photographing with a narrow depth of field is also really handy if you’re in a busy place, or the background is not ideal.
Although I can use an aperture of f2.8 on my 70 – 200mm lens, I photograph children at play at f4. Because they never stop moving, this gives me the extra wiggle room in the depth of field for sharp photos that f4 offers.
Shot at f4 with a focal length of 130mm on a 70 – 200mm lens to blur the busy background of crowds.
For environmental portraits I use my 24 – 70mm lens. The wider angle allows me to capture the area around my subject, placing them in the context of their surroundings to tell more of a story.
A word of warning… When using zoom lenses for portraiture, it’s easy to get carried away in the moment and not pay attention to your focal length.
Shot on a 24 – 70mm lens at a focal length of 40mm to capture the environment.
4. How much of your subject is in shot
Another factor to consider when deciding on which lens to use is how much of your subject will be in shot: full length, three quarter length, or head and shoulders?
The ideal portrait lenses for headshots are 85mm and 105mm prime lens. There are two main reasons for this. The first, and most important one, is that there will be no distortion of the subject’s face. A shorter focal length would distort the image.
Secondly, to fill the frame with the subject’s head and shoulders, you don’t have to back up too far away, which a longer focal length would require. So, you still have a connection with the subject, which is important to the overall look of the image.
Three quarter length portraits
For three quarter length photos, a lens with a focal length between 70 and 100mm is ideal.
Full length portraits
If you’re shooting full length portraits, a lens with a focal length anywhere between 100 and 200mm is good.
Just be aware that you’d need space to be able to shoot from a distance and enough light to have your shutter speed set to at least 1/200.
5. Background blur
Because background blur is such a big deal in portrait photography, it is worth considering how the lens you’re using affects the background.
You can read more about background blur here: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition
For beautifully creamy background blur in your portraits, a longer focal length is your answer. Ideal lenses are 85mm, 105mm and 135mm, as well as the 70 – 200mm used at the longer focal lengths.
To see portrait lenses mentioned in this article, click on the images above to view on Amazon.
6. Zoom or prime lens for portraits
I don’t think it is fair to say that a prime lens is better than a zoom lens, or vice versa. The perfect portrait lens for the job is the one that suits you and your style best.
Yes, prime lenses are lighter, faster and often sharper. However, top quality zoom lenses are also fantastically sharp and fast, albeit heavier.
I favour zoom lenses on busy portrait shoots, because of the variety they offer me. However, the most important factor for me is being able to keep up with changing situations without having to stop and change lenses.
When photographing families on location, I shoot with two cameras. On one camera body I have my 24 – 70mm f2.8 lens and on the other my 70 – 200mm f2.8 lens.
Also, because I photograph on the beach and next to the sea a lot, I’d rather not be changing lenses and exposing the inner workings of my cameras to salty sea air and sand.
The combination of these two lenses gives me the perfect portrait lens for my style of photography, where I photograph and what I photograph.
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