Choosing Your Portrait Photography Lens (Top 5 Picks)

Best Portrait Photography Lenses

In this article, we shall be dealing with the best lenses for shooting portrait photos.

Portrait photography is a very interesting genre and you would be surprised to note how simple the tools are you need in order to shoot great portrait photos.

Never mind the camera, the thing that matters more is the glass (read: lens) that you use.

Before delving much further into the best focal lengths for portraitures we need to clear some conceptions as well as some misconceptions.

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Portrait indonésien by Ludo Rouchy
Portrait indonésien by Ludo Rouchy


A lot of photographers would incorrectly associate perspective with lenses. Perspectives are something that depends on a lot on where you position yourself relative to the subject and not only on the lens. A lens will only give you an angle of view. E.g., with a telelens you would get a very tight framing. You will need to step back in order to get the whole face in the frame.

Standing at the same spot if you now use a 50mm lens you will have a vast amount of empty spaces around the face. Resultantly, you will need to step forward to get a tighter composition. This is where the lens starts to wield its magic.

A wide angle lens tends to stretch things in the image, thus the elongated nose when you place a wide angle lens very close to a subject. This is why more photographers prefer the slightly longer focal length such as the 105mm and or the 135mm.

Background Separation

Some portrait photographers believe in background separation for all their images.

Almost all of their images would reflect a simple use of the widest aperture that their lens permit, to blur out everything but the face of the subject. If you really need background separation in all your images go for fast lenses, lenses with a wide maximum aperture. Also, ensure that the lens has rounded aperture blades as those tend to give a better bokeh (quality of the out of focus blur). Prime lenses are a better bet for such photographers as primes have a faster maximum aperture.

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Background Incorporation

On the other hand, not all photographers prefer to obliterate the background. Some do believe that the best way to liven up a portrait shoot is to show more of the background. They use background lighting and other techniques to emphasize the background.

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For such photographers, the ideal lens can be anything really. For them, lighting is the key to any type of portraitures.

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Background Compression

Background compression happens in tele lenses more than in wide angle lenses. As you zoom in using a larger focal length lens, the background seems to get sucked into the frame.

With a wide angle lens, we see subjects closer to us much larger than they actually are. To counter this problem we use telephoto lenses. But with telephoto lenses, we have to step back in order to keep the subject proportionally the same size as we see them up close. This causes a flattening effect.

The background and the plane of focus get compressed making the background appear larger than it is. Background compression is a type of distortion but it is creatively used in photography.

Tele lenses give you better background compression than wide angle lenses.

Review of the best portrait photography lenses

1. The ubiquitous 18-55mm kit lens

Lorraine by plaits
Lorraine by plaits

If you don’t have deep pockets and only have the 18-55mm kit lens don’t be disappointed. Your kit lens is a very versatile piece of glass and one that can produce extremely beautiful portraits if you know what you are doing.

The 18-55mm lens works very well when you need to shoot the whole person while he is standing up. If you frame the whole person this way instead of the face the facial features are not enlarged as a result.

2. The 50mm prime lens

Nomad with Yak at Drigung Valley Tibet by Lyle Vincent
Nomad with Yak at Drigung Valley Tibet by Lyle Vincent

The 50mm prime lens is a favorite with a lot of photographers primarily because of the fast wide aperture that it provides. These prime lenses are available in such fast aperture avatars as f/1.8, f/1.4 and even f/1.2. When you speak about shallow depth of field and out of focus quality, nothing comes close to the performance of some of these lenses.

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3. The 85mm prime lens

Canon-EF-85mm-f-1.2-L-II-USM by HENG FU MING
Canon-EF-85mm-f-1.2-L-II-USM by HENG FU MING

This is yet another less fancied lens. Canon makes an excellent 85m f/1.2L II lens which is one of the sharpest optics that you would likely come across. The 85mm stated above is designed to work on larger EF mount DSLRs, but it works equally well on smaller APS-C DSLRs as well as film cameras.

The advantage that you have with APS-C DSLRs is that the crop factor increases the effective focal length by a factor of 1.6.

4. The 135mm prime lens

Hu Jieqiong by Jonathan Kos-Read
Hu Jieqiong by Jonathan Kos-Read

Arguably the best focal length for portraitures, the 135mm lens comes in several iterations and all major manufacturers produce at least one 135mm prime lens, a testimony to the fact that this is a much-loved lens by serious portrait photographers.

You would be wondering what makes this a great lens for portraitures. Well, my friend, it is the focal length. With a 50mm lens, you will need to step back to not make your better halves’ ears seem smaller and the nose to not seem larger than usual.

With the 135mm lens, you can shoot great portraits with everything in the right proportion.

As I have already mentioned above, with the 135mm you will be forced to stand back if you need a good tight composition of the face. This immediately eliminates the possibility of distorted facial features.

Nikon FM2n w/Nikkor 135mm f/2 DC by E Magnuson
Nikon FM2n w/Nikkor 135mm f/2 DC by E Magnuson

Nikon makes an excellent 135mm lens, the 135mm f/2 DC. DC stands for defocus Control. With this functionality, you can control the degree of the out of focus blur in your images.

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5. The 105mm prime lens

Brothers by Vincent_AF
Brothers by Vincent_AF

The 105mm prime lens is another excellent focal length because it gives a better perspective as you are forced back to ensure that the whole of the face is framed instead of a small portion.

Again the discussion what we had in the paragraph titled ‘Perspectives’ holds true here. Nikon’s 105mmf/2 DC is an excellent lens in this category. DC, as we have already discussed, is for Defocus Control.

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