Source: photographytalk.com

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.

  1. Sharp, high-res­o­lu­tion image at the point of focus to cap­ture fine details.
  2. 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.
  3. Wide aper­ture for max­i­mum con­trol over depth of field and the abil­i­ty to smooth out dis­tract­ing fore­ground and back­ground objects.
  4. Aper­ture with sev­en or more round­ed blades to improve bokeh and min­i­mize arte­facts.
  5. 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.

Our choice:

1. Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM

Source: bhphotovideo.com

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

Source: bhphotovideo.com

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

Source: bhphotovideo.com

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

Source: bhphotovideo.com

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

Source: bhphotovideo.com

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

Source: bhphotovideo.com

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

Source: bhphotovideo.com

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.