Many photographers consider fast medium telephoto lenses to be the absolute standard for portrait lenses because many professional portrait photographers use them. Lenses with a focal length in the region of 85–105mm and a maximum aperture between f/1.4 and f/2.8 allow head and head-and-shoulder shots that fill the entire frame from a fairly moderate shooting distance, thus minimizing the visible perspective distortion that is the effect of the “big nose” in close-ups. They also provide a shallow depth of field at wide open apertures, allowing the subject to stand out effectively against a pleasingly blurred background. In addition, they allow you to double the working distance from the camera to the model compared to standard lenses, creating a more comfortable working environment.
While fast, moderate telephoto lenses do make great portrait lenses, they are not the only option. Many legendary photographers have used lenses ranging from 21mm to 200mm equivalent focal lengths to capture some of history’s most famous portrait photographs. Countless shots have been taken with both standard and telephoto lenses ranging from 135mm to 200mm, which produce sharp images with high detail and minimal distortion.
Source: Colin Morley/colinmorley.photography
A huge number of lifestyle portraits are shot with wide-angle lenses with a range of 24–35mm, allowing you to include a person’s surroundings in the photo and thereby tell their story in more detail with visual methods.
Source: Colin Morley/colinmorley.photography
If not only the focal length determines what exactly is a portrait lens, then what determines? There is no easy answer to this question, but there are a number of optical and performance characteristics that experienced portrait photographers look for when choosing a lens.
- Sharp, high-resolution image at the point of focus to capture fine details.
- Beautiful bokeh, especially wide open — smooth, natural transitions from the focus area to the out-of-focus area without sharpness and artifacts in it. Lenses with good bokeh also maintain the correct shape of objects in out-of-focus areas of the image.
- Wide aperture for maximum control over depth of field and the ability to smooth out distracting foreground and background objects.
- Aperture with seven or more rounded blades to improve bokeh and minimize artefacts.
- Ability to focus close, preferably to 0.5m or closer with a wide angle or normal lens, 1m with moderate telephoto lenses and 1.5m with longer lenses.
1. Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM
This lens is praised by advanced amateurs and professionals alike for its unsurpassed sharpness at f/1.4 and equally beautiful picture at f/2. With an optical design of 17 elements in 12 groups, this moderate telephoto provides even illumination at the corners of the frame and very beautiful bokeh. The optical design contains low dispersion elements (3 FLD and 2 SLD) and one aspherical element to minimize axial chromatic aberrations and increase resolution. The housing is weatherproof and the ultrasonic motor ensures fast and quiet autofocusing. The lens focuses up to 1 meter for close-up shots. Among the minuses: it is quite heavy (more than one and a half kg) and uses 82mm filters.
2. Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM
An excellent choice for both portraits and sports photography. This is a full-frame L‑series telephoto prime with a sturdy weatherproof body and a relatively wide f/2.8 maximum aperture. The 9‑element optical design features two Ultra-Low Dispersion (ULD) elements in 7 groups to minimize chromatic aberration for good clarity and color reproduction, while the elements have received Super Spectra Coated. The 8‑blade diaphragm contributes to pleasing bokeh. The Canon fixed telephoto is equipped with a highly efficient ring-type ultrasonic motor, focuses at a distance of up to 1.5 meters and weighs a very sane 765 grams.
3. Nikon AF‑S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G
Many classic 35mm SLRs were equipped with 58mm lenses rather than the standard 50mm. Some examples are: 58mm f/1.4 Nikkor‑S Auto on early Nikon F cameras, 58mm f/2 Zeiss Jena Biotar on old Exacts, 58mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 RE Auto Topcors on Topcon Super D in the 60s. The Nikon AF‑S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is a modern take on these classic lenses, with much better picture quality wide open, more uniform brightness across the frame, and great bokeh (thanks also to the rounded 9‑bladed aperture). It also provides an 87mm equivalent focal length on Nikon DX-format cameras, great for portraiture. The 9‑element, 6‑group optical design features two aspherical elements to reduce aberrations, while the Silent Wave Motor (SWM) makes autofocus fast and virtually silent. Perhaps the only negative (except, of course, not the lowest cost) is the minimum focusing distance of 58 cm (0.13x).
4. Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART
This is a great lens for lifestyle portraits, allowing you to show the environment in which they are located along with the person. The fast, medium wide-angle prime uses a range of special lenses in its floating lens design, including low dispersion (one FLD element, four SLD elements) and two aspherical elements, resulting in excellent sharpness throughout the entire focus range down to a minimum distance of 30cm. A rounded 9‑blade aperture contributes to beautiful bokeh, while a maximum aperture of f/1.4 delivers beautiful visuals. A special Super Multi-Layer coating minimizes glare, improving overall image clarity. The Hyper Sonic AF ultrasonic focusing motor works quickly and almost silently, rubber seals protect against moisture, and a durable brass bayonet mount ensures precise attachment to the carcass and durability.
5. Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM
Well known among users of Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras, this moderate telephoto prime boasts outstanding resolution and exquisite bokeh. It features an advanced 11-element in 8‑group optical design with one aspherical XA element, three ED elements, and a custom Nano AR coating for unrivaled sharpness and clarity even at wide open apertures. With a minimum focusing distance of 80cm, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM can capture close-up portraits that fill the entire frame. On the body there is an AF / MF switch button, as well as a focus hold key. The lens also boasts a rounded 11-bladed aperture, a focus ring with the ability to turn off clicks for video, and a weather-resistant body.
6. Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD
The latest version of Tamron’s classic, the 90mm Macro is a versatile multi-purpose lens that’s also great for portraits. Floating elements in the optical design maintain excellent image quality from 30 cm (1:1) to infinity. A total of 14 elements in 11 groups, including one low dispersion LD and two XLD elements, minimize chromatic aberrations and achieve maximum clarity and sharpness, while proprietary BBAR and eBand coatings improve light transmission. As befits a lens suitable for portraiture, the Tamron features a 9‑blade aperture that produces pleasing bokeh. The lens also uses optical stabilization (except for the Sony version), which allows you to compensate for 3.5 stops of exposure. Other key features of the 90mm Macro include internal focusing, a dual focal length limiter (macro and normal), a weatherproof body, and a front element fluorite coating that makes it easy to clean.
7. Nikon AF‑S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II
The most expensive but very impressive telephoto on our list. We can talk about the advantages of this fast 200mm prime for Nikon full-frame SLR cameras for a very long time: excellent focusing distance, excellent quality and natural look of the picture, very beautiful bokeh (9‑bladed aperture again). A wide aperture gives you effective control over depth of field, while optical image stabilization provides up to 4 stops of handheld exposure compensation. The optical design of 13 elements in 9 groups contains three ED glass elements and one Super ED element, all with a Nano Crystal coating. The main difficulty in working with this lens is its weight (2930 grams), so it is highly recommended to use a fairly strong tripod. But this lens is worth it, from sporting events and wildlife to truly professional portraits.