Every focal length reproduces a subject differently. Picking the right lens is as crucial, if not more crucial, than your choice of lighting and backdrop.
Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in our Summer issue and reflects the products available at the time of publication. To see our coverage of new lenses, visit our News section.
What makes a lens good for portraiture? Several factors come together to make a portrait lens. First and foremost is the focal length.
Most photographers will tell you they want a longer-than-normal lens for portrait photography—a short to medium telephoto. On a full-frame DSLR, that translates to lenses with focal lengths typically between 70mm and 200mm. Popular portrait lens focal lengths are 85mm, 100mm, 105mm and 135mm. Of course, as long as there have been photographs, photographers have made great portraits with shorter and longer lenses as well. But it’s this focal range into which most portrait lenses fall.
The good news is, this type of lens—a short to medium telephoto—is a great place to get a lot of bang for your buck. Many manufacturers’ portrait lenses are some of the sharpest in their lineups. They’re often able to make these lenses very fast (with wide maximum apertures) and even quite compact (because they don’t need the many elements that can hamper image quality and increase size and weight), and they tend to do it for prices noticeably lower than ultrawides, supertelephotos and extreme zooms of comparable quality.
One reason why telephoto lenses are preferable to normal and wide-angle lenses is distortion. With a normal 50mm lens, for instance, to fill the frame with a portrait subject’s head, the photographer would need to stand very close to the subject. This amplifies the lens distortion, which exaggerates features like noses and eyes and chins, making them look unnaturally large and stretched out. But because longer lenses compress the elements in a scene, features appear smaller and closer together.
So, if longer lenses are preferable for portraits, why not use the longest lenses available? Because, in practice, trying to photograph a person with, say, a 400mm lens on a full-frame camera, the photographer and the subject would be very far apart. With increased focal length comes increased distance from the subject, just as wide-angle lenses put the photographer and subject uncomfortably close together. Portrait lenses, however, tend to put the photographer a comfortable distance from the subject. Here they can still fill the frame, and the photographer can interact easily with the subject. Every photographer is unique in this respect, but it’s safe to say a comfortable working distance is typically not much less than 4 feet and not much more than 10—close enough to connect, far enough to stay out of their personal space. Interaction with the subject is, after all, a large part of the art of portraiture.
If you know you’ll be concentrating on a specific type of portrait photography, you can make an even more educated decision when shopping for the right focal length. If you mostly shoot small group photos, you may want to choose something wider than a typical portrait lens. Photographers who mostly shoot couples—engagement and wedding photographers, for instance—may want to stay at the shorter end of the telephoto range.
People who photograph primarily individual portraits, however, will likely want to use a medium telephoto lens. Are you a photographer who specializes in actor headshots or corporate portraits, which tend to be close-ups? Then you might want to look at something at the long end of the range—200mm or maybe even longer. Longer lenses make it easy to get up close and personal for the tight portraits the modeling and acting industries require. If your goal is to shoot full-length fashion models in your tiny studio, however, you’ll need to choose a wider lens since there’s only so far you can back up in a small space.
Beyond focal length is the consideration of fixed-focal-length lenses, or primes, and the ever-popular zoom lens. Zooms are certainly more versatile, providing a handful of useful focal lengths in a single package. A 70-200mm zoom, for instance, is a great portrait lens because every focal length it offers works well with faces. It’s the lens I use most often for head-and-shoulder portraits, typically standing about 8 feet from the subject and using the lens anywhere from 135mm to 200mm. By virtue of their versatility, zoom lenses make for great lenses for traveling photographers who want to carry less gear without sacrificing a variety of focal lengths on hand. Find a zoom with a variable maximum aperture, and it’s likely going to be lighter and more compact as well.
Users of APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras need to think about crop factor when considering a lens’ focal length. For instance, if shopping for a telephoto zoom for your Micro Four Thirds camera, know that the 24-70mm lens you’re considering will actually perform more like a 48-140mm lens—which is still great for portraits. The 150-300mm, however, becomes a 300-600mm lens, which may not be so ideal for portraits—unless you’re considering animal portraits out in the wild.
Prime lenses, on the other hand, are prized by portrait photographers, because they have traditionally been sharper than zoom lenses. Modern advances in optical design have made the zoom lenses of today exponentially better than the bad ol’ days, and in many cases there’s little to no sacrifice when using a zoom lens. Though if the truism about a lens with fewer optics performing better than one with more elements inside is accurate, then prime lenses do have a quality advantage.
Prime lenses are typically faster than zooms, with wider maximum apertures that remain constant. (As mentioned, some zooms save on size and weight by using a variable maximum aperture that stops down during zooming.) These ƒ/2 and faster lenses produce very shallow depth of field when used wide open. This shallow depth of field is a benefit because portrait photographers are always trying to isolate their subjects against simplified backgrounds. A 135mm lens used at ƒ/2 is going to obliterate all recognizable detail from the background if the photographer understands how to keep the subject away from the background in order to focus solely on the subject while letting all the background detail fall out of focus. Sure, these lenses are also particularly useful in low-light situations, but it’s primarily their ability to provide extremely shallow depth of field that makes them ideal for portraiture.
Speaking of depth of field, nowhere is the quality of the out-of-focus area in a picture given more attention than in a portrait. This out-of-focus area, or bokeh, actually gets its look from the optical design of the lens. In an ideal world, all out-of-focus parts of a picture would simply be smooth and graduated blurs. But, in reality, everything from the shape of the aperture blades to their quantity has an impact on the resulting shape and quality of the bokeh. Bad bokeh is typically out-of-round and with hard-edged blurs. Good bokeh, on the other hand, is typically soft and round and smooth. To produce soft, round bokeh, lens manufacturers use more diaphragm blades to construct the aperture, and they ensure that they come together to form a true circle. This is why you’ll see lens makers tout a higher number of aperture blades (for a rounder, more perfectly circular aperture) as well as the shape those blades form.
Other popular portrait lens features are beneficial for all types of photography. These include optical coatings for scratch protection on the front element, as well as internal coatings and elements that are engineered to reduce lens flare, ghosting and other aberrations. Vibration reduction is useful for photographers who handhold their cameras, and this is true in portraiture as it is for any other type of photography. Some portrait photographers prefer to move around while photographing their subjects, while others prefer to remain locked down to a tripod. Knowing which group you fall into will help determine if vibration reduction is a feature you should be investing in.
Fujifilm Fujinon XF90mmF2 R LM WR. Equivalent to 137mm in the 35mm film format, the XF90mm lens for Fujifilm’s X-mount series of APS-C mirrorless cameras is a great portrait lens. The WR abbreviation indicates the lens is weather-resistant, perfect for serious shooters who work in all sorts of challenging conditions without fear of sand, dirt or moisture infiltrating the lens and camera body. Comprising 11 elements in eight groups (including three ED elements), the XF90mm provides even illumination from edge to edge and minimizes vignetting. It also delivers beautiful bokeh because of its circular seven-blade aperture. The quad linear motor provides fast autofocus as well. Compact and light, this sharp ƒ/2 lens is perfect for portraits. Price: $949. Website: fujifilmusa.com
Lensbaby Velvet 56. Available in practically every lens mount imaginable, the Lensbaby Velvet 56 is a nontraditional prime lens that provides—as its name implies—a velvety, glowing effect when used at wide apertures. Based on an antique lens design, this lens’ softness lends itself well to expressive, ethereal portraits. The forgiving nature of the lens masks wrinkles, blemishes and fine texture, in general—all the things that portrait subjects often want to hide. The lens doubles as a makeshift macro lens, capable of focusing as close as 5 inches and providing 1:2 magnification for interesting extreme close-up portraits. Though it’s manual focus and requires manual aperture adjustment, this is no plastic lens. The barrel is all metal and can be used with 62mm screw-on filters, too. When mounted to smaller APS-C sensors, it provides a still-ideal-for-portraits 90mm focal length. Available in Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony A, Sony E, Fujifilm X, Micro Four Thirds, Pentax K and Samsung NX mounts. Price: $499. Website: lensbaby.com
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 105mm F/1.4 ED. This seriously fast new telephoto prime lens is an ideal focal length for pros who want to shoot portraits. The 105mm prime lens sports 14 elements and Nano Crystal coatings designed to reduce aberrations and improve image quality. The nine-blade aperture makes for smooth and beautiful bokeh, so the out-of-focus areas of portraits made with this lens will remain unobtrusive and allow the subject to take center stage. The Nikon 105mm is useful for professionals who work in extreme conditions thanks to its durable, weather-sealed construction. Price: $2,199. Website: nikonusa.com
Rokinon 100mm F/2.8 ED UMC Macro. For full-frame and smaller sensors (on which it performs like a longer 160-200mm telephoto), the Rokinon 100mm lens focuses as close as 12 inches for life-size reproduction of tiny subjects. Designed for macro applications, the lens works well for portraits, too, thanks to its 100mm medium telephoto focal length and circular, nine-bladed aperture that produces beautiful bokeh for appealing portrait backgrounds. ED glass elements with UMC coatings optimize image quality across the entire frame and minimize ghosting and lens flare, which rob portraits of color saturation and contrast. Available mounts include Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony A, Sony E and Fujifilm X. Price: $400-$549. Website: rokinon.com
Sigma 85mm F/1.4 DG HSM Art. The 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art lens from Sigma is an exceptionally fast, short telephoto prime perfect for portraits. In fact, the 85mm focal length is beloved by many as the ideal portrait focal length. And this Sigma model is particularly renowned for its image quality and performance. Built with an updated Hyper Sonic Motor capable of 30% more torque, the lens focuses quickly and efficiently. Manual override of focus is easy and doesn’t require any buttons or switches; just rotate the focus ring at any time. A nine-blade circular aperture provides smooth and rounded bokeh, which is particularly desirable in portraits where shallow depth of field is utilized to isolate the subject from the background. Sigma’s Art lens lineup is engineered for maximum optical performance, and the lens is available for Canon, Nikon and Sigma full-frame mounts. On an APS-C body, the focal length is equivalent to 136mm. Price: $1,199. Website: sigmaphoto.com
Sony FE 100mm F/2.8 STF GM OSS. Sony’s G Master lineup contains its sharpest, highest-resolution lenses for demanding professionals. A great portrait focal length at 100mm on a full-frame sensor, the brand-new FE 100mm F/2.8 STF GM OSS medium telephoto lens uses an 11-blade, rounded diaphragm to produce beautiful bokeh. It also has a trick up its sleeve to enhance the look of the out-of-focus areas in the foreground and background. A sophisticated optical design incorporates Smooth Trans Focus technology, which uses an apodization filter to produce especially smooth and soft bokeh. It’s almost like a graduated neutral-density filter built in to the lens that further softens the out-of-focus elements but has no effect on the sharpness of the subject. Dust and moisture sealing make the lens useful in difficult conditions, and close-up capability allows for focusing under 2 feet at 0.25x magnification. Optical SteadyShot image stabilization minimizes camera shake during handheld shooting. Price: $1,499. Website: sony.com
Zeiss Loxia 2.4/85. The compact, manual-focus Loxia 85mm ƒ/2.4 prime telephoto lens is designed for portraiture with the equally compact Sony a7 line of full-frame mirrorless cameras. Loxia lenses are designed specifically for the a7 series using the Sonnar optical design, a traditional Zeiss design noted for its simplicity, low weight and fast maximum aperture. The lens is optimized for image quality, with three anomalous partial dispersion elements to dramatically reduce chromatic aberration and color fringing. T* anti-reflective optical coating is also used to minimize flare and ghosting. The manual aperture ring can be “de-clicked” for stepless aperture adjustment during video recording, and a weather-resistant gasket at the mount helps prevent dust from reaching the image sensor. Price: $1,399. Website: zeiss.com
Canon EF-M 18-150mm F/3.5-6.3 IS STM. Equivalent to a 29-240mm lens when used with Canon’s EOS M-series APS-C-format cameras, the EF-M 18-150mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 IS STM zoom lens is a touch too wide on the short end to make it a true “portrait-only” format, but because it’s an all-in-one zoom, photographers interested in minimizing kit size and weight will love this lens. Besides, the vast majority of its focal range is still perfect for portraits. Built-in image stabilization provides a whopping four stops of shake reduction, and the stepper motor is designed for silent focusing during video recording, making the lens even more versatile. It’s available in graphite or silver tone to match the colors available in EOS M cameras. Price: $499. Website: usa.canon.com
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F/2.8 Pro. This 40-150mm fast zoom from Olympus for its Micro Four Thirds cameras offers an equivalent focal range of 80-300mm—an ideal telephoto portrait range. Though 300mm is typically a bit longer than a traditional portrait lens, it not only offers the ability to reach out and make close-up portraits without disturbing the subject, but it also adheres to the adage that the longer the lens used for portraiture, the smaller the subject’s features will be. The lens incorporates aspherical, HD and ED glass elements, as well as the ZERO lens coating for improved color, contrast and sharpness. Because it’s in the M.Zuiko Pro line, it also features weatherproof construction for long-term durability even in tough outdoor shooting conditions. The retractable lens hood helps to reduce flare and allows for quick stowing of the lens without removing the hood. Price: $1,399. Website: getolympus.com
Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm F/2.8 ASPH Power Optical I.S. This fast telephoto zoom for Micro Four Thirds cameras has an equivalent field of view to a 70-200mm zoom in the 35mm format. That range is ideal for portraits, from the fairly short telephoto of 70mm to the long telephoto 200mm end. The Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm F/2.8 II ASPH features Panasonic’s updated Power Optical Image Stabilization system as well as dust- and moisture-proofing and a freeze-proof design for stable operation even at low temperatures. The constant ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture works well for creating selective-focus portraits while extra-low dispersion and ultra extra-low dispersion elements reduce color fringing and chromatic aberration. It does all this at a lower price than the original version. Price: $1,099. Website: shop.panasonic.com
Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD G2. A great telephoto zoom for portraits is the 70-200mm. This one, the Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD G2, is a brand-new update on a popular telephoto zoom lens. It features closer focusing, faster autofocus speed and better accuracy, improved vibration reduction up to five stops, new eBAND, BBAR and Fluorine coatings to improve durability and reduce flare and ghosting, and moisture- and dust-resistant seals for shooting in challenging weather. The lens incorporates XLD (extra low dispersion) and LD (low dispersion) glass for edge-to-edge fidelity across the zoom range. It’s available for full-frame Canon and Nikon DSLRs. Price: $1,299. Website: tamron-usa.com
Tokina AT-X 70-200mm F/4 PRO FX VCM-S. Built for full-frame DSLRs, the highly affordable and relatively compact Tokina AT-X 70-200mm F/4 PRO FX VCM-S telephoto zoom can work with DX-sensor cameras, too, in which case it still remains a great portrait lens at 105-300mm. The lens features nine aperture blades to provide smooth beautiful bokeh. Tokina’s first image-stabilized lens (offering three stops of vibration reduction) is currently available to fit a Nikon lens mount only, though a Canon mount is a likely eventuality. Price: $899. Website: tokinalens.com