We’ve all heard the phrase “the best camera to use is the one you have with you”. Well, that’s true for cameras, but not when it comes to deciding which is the best lens for portraits. Sometimes it’s 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’s 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 best lenses for photography and every photographer has their favourite lens within that range.
How to decide on the best lens for portraits
Without getting into exactly which portrait 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 lens for portraits. 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 effect the focal length will have on the appearance your subject. This will heavily impact your lens decision.
I think this is why the “nifty fifty” lens is so popular. 50mm is the minimal focal length for most 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.
That’s not to say that you can’t use a shorter (wider) focal length, but you need to know what you’re doing and the effect this will have on the image. Such as where you position your subject in the frame and how much of the frame they occupy.
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 f2.8 lens.
2. Light conditions for portraits
We don’t just need to think about focal length when choosing the best lens for portraits. 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’ll 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. This is why they’re also referred to as fast lenses.
The kit lens that came with your camera might not be fast enough to handhold at the maximum aperture of f5.6 in low light. This is because the shutter speed might have to be slower than you can safely handhold without camera shake being visible in photos. 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 of course.
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 portrait 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 lens for portraits taken candidly at 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’re 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.
Further reading: 7 portrait photography tips for better people pics
Shot at f4 with a focal length of 130mm on a 70 – 200mm f2.8 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. If you’re not careful, you could end up using a focal length that is too wide and therefore distorts your subjects.
Shot on a 24 – 70mm f2.8 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 the best lens for portrait photography is how much of your subject will be in shot: full length, three quarter length, or head and shoulders?
Best lens for portraits – headshots
The best 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’ll 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.
Best lens for portraits – three quarter length photos
For three quarter length photos, a lens with a focal length between 70 and 100mm is ideal. This could be a prime lens or a zoom lens, depending on the circumstances and your personal preference.
Further reading: The big question – 50mm vs 85mm for portraits – which is better?
Best lens for portraits – full length photos
If you’re shooting full length portraits, a lens with a focal length anywhere between 24mm and 200mm is good. Again, either prime or zoom.
Just be aware that to use 200mm 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.
Further reading: What’s the best focal length for portraits?
5. Background blur
Because background blur is such a big deal in portrait photography, it’s worth considering how the portrait lens you’re using affects the background. For beautifully creamy background blur in your portraits, a wide aperture and/or longer focal length is your answer.
Many feel that the best portrait lens for background blur is a prime lens with a wide aperture or a zoom lens with a wide aperture. However, I love the gorgeous blur I get on my my 70 – 200mm lens. Here are the best lenses for portrait photography with background blur:
- 85mm f1.4 (or f1.8)
- 105mm f1.4
- 135mm f1.8
- 70 – 200mm f2.8 used at the longer focal lengths.
You can read more about background blur here: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition
70 – 200mm f2.8 Nikkor lens
24 – 70mm f2.8 Nikkor lens
85mm f1.4 Nikkor lens
To see portrait lenses mentioned in this article, click on the images above to view on Amazon.
6. Is a zoom or a prime the best lens for portraits?
I don’t think it’s 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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