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The 8 Best Lenses for Portrait Photographers

June 24, 2016

When it comes to the most important piece of photography equipment, many photographers specializing in portraiture will tell you time and time again – it’s all about the lens.

Most will agree that choosing the perfect lens depends largely on each photographer’s personal taste, needs, and budget. After reading countless reviews, we’ve been able to narrow-down these lenses to 8 of the most popular and sought-after models for portrait photography.

In the following round-up you’ll find lenses to suit a wide array of budgets, camera models, and focal lengths – including wide-angle, normal, short telephoto, and telephoto lenses. But first, let’s quickly address the difference between prime and zoom lenses, as well as which one is the best to use for portrait photography!

Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses:

A prime lens contains a fixed focal length, whereas a zoom lens covers a range of focal lengths. Because of this, prime lenses are lighter and easier to manufacture as they tend to have fewer lens elements. Zoom lenses, on the other hand, are not only more difficult to build, but as a result, they’re often more expensive.

Because prime lenses are optimized for their fixed focal length, they often produce higher quality images than a zoom lens of the equivalent price. This is because the sharpness in a zoom lens will sometimes ‘drop off’ around the corners and the aperture is usually not fixed either, so it will get even smaller as the lens is zoomed in.

Andy Betts of MakeUseOf.com further explains: “[Prime lenses] also have a larger maximum aperture than zoom lenses, making them better for use in low light conditions as well as shooting with shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.”

While a large number of photographers (particularly those specializing in portraits) agree that prime lenses are the best for their craft, the zoom lens still has some plus points. Zoom lenses offer optical image stabilization (OIS or IS) and this helps you to shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds without your images being affected by camera shake.

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Wide-Angle Lenses:

Although most photographers think of standard or telephoto lenses as being best suited for portrait photography, some photographers still enjoy using wide-angle lenses to capture unique shots. Wide-angle lenses shouldn’t be used for front-on portraiture because they distort parts of the body or face which are closer to the camera, however the lens is really effective when used in environmental portraiture as it accentuates the feeling of distance around the subject.

The best wide-angle lenses for photographers include:

The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Lens: If you have a full-frame Canon system camera, then this wide-angle lens is for you. It has a f/2.8 maximum aperture, as well as 3 high-precision aspherical lens elements which produce superior image quality and a circular aperture which produces natural background blur at wider apertures.

The Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S Lens: This contains an incredibly wide wide-angle, so it’ll really create unique environmental portraits! Although you cannot use filters with it due to its wideness, this lens is still considered to be the best wide-angle landscape lens ever produced.

The Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens: Referred to as the “cheapest high-quality wide-angle lens available”, this Tokina lens has fast aperture and advanced optics which truly set it apart from the rest of the pack – especially at such a low price-point! It is made to fit Canon, Nikon, and Sony DSLRs, so you’ll want to first search for the lens in your model to find the appropriate purchase link.

beautiful woman in flowers

Normal Lenses:

A normal lens is one containing a focal length equivalent to around 50mm on a full-frame camera, or alternatively, around 35mm on an APS-C camera, or 25mm on a Micro four-thirds camera. These lenses provide the middle ground between wide-angle and short telephoto lenses.

The best normal lenses for photographers include:

The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 USM Lens: Not only is this one of the most affordable lenses, but the optical quality of the lens has also widely been celebrated. Despite many portrait photographers hailing this lens as one of their ‘go-to’ pieces of equipment for shooting their subject from around the waist-up, the manufacturer has discontinued this lens. The good news though is that you can still purchase it online (particularly on Amazon), so we thought the lens was still worth a mention!

The Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens: This is an updated version of the already popular 50mm f/1.8D lens and it contains a new silent-wave motor and improved optics.

The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM : Although it doesn’t fit into the typical “normal” focal length of 50mm, this lens has been hailed as the all-time most popular and sought-after lens by portrait photographers, so we had to include it somewhere! Be sure to read through the multiple reviews here to find out why it’s just so good.

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Short Telephoto Lenses:

Short telephoto lenses are perhaps the most popular form of lenses for portrait photography, as they are an ideal focal length for taking flattering photos of people. Andrew S. Gibson from Digital Photography School further explains: “You can move in close and take images without distortion, or step back and include the entire figure without moving so far away that it becomes difficult to communicate with your model.”

The best short telephoto lenses for photographers include:

The Canon 85mm f1.8 lens: This is renowned photographer Andrew S. Gibson’s all-time favorite lens for portrait and close-up photography. He states: “My 85mm gives me the freedom to get as close to my sitter as I want. It always takes a distortion free portrait, even if her face fills the frame. I can also step back to include her entire body in the frame.”

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Telephoto Lenses:

Telephoto lenses are often used by professional fashion and portrait photographers for the compressed perspective and their ability to isolate the model from the background. While these lenses can be on the expensive side, there are still some versions available to suit smaller budgets.

The best telephoto lenses for photographers include:

The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM Lens: This lens was awarded the Gold Award by DPReview.com, with Andy Westlake stating: “Its combination of exceptional optics and quirk-free design even manages to steal the crown of ‘Best in Class’.” Not bad at all!

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II Lens: Another recipient of the DPReview.com Gold Award, this lens received the following praise from Andy Westlake: “Overall this lens simply delivers the shot with the minimum of fuss, time after time after time – exactly what you need from a professional workhorse.”

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Which lens is best for you? After reading through this article, we hope that you have both a better understanding of the various lenses for use in portrait photography, as well as the outstanding lenses available in each of these categories!