The Best Lenses for Portrait Photography
This post has been updated to reflect recent portrait lens recommendations.
Most of the lenses in this original list from 2016 are still great choices for portrait photographers but we wanted to check in on the exciting lenses that have been released in 2021 and 2022 and give you some updated recommendations for portrait photographers. We also wanted to expand the offerings and include models from Sony. It’s also important to note that Canon and Nikon have finally become formidable Sony competitors in the full frame mirrorless space, with lenses from their new mount systems, RF and Z.
Best Lenses for Portrait Photography in 2022 (So Far)
For Canon EF and Nikon F mount shooters, the list is largely unchanged. There aren’t as many iterative updates coming from lens models as there are camera models. If you are using a 24-70mm f/2.8 or a 50mm f/1.2, then that is probably still the best choice for your particular brand. That said, here are a few EF and F mount lenses worth looking at. It’s also worth noting that, as of 2020, Canon is no longer manufacturing new EF mount lenses in order to put more resources into expanding their new RF mount line. There hasn’t been the same messaging from Nikon regarding their F mount lenses but they have recently discontinued a number of beloved older models, including the 16-35mm f/4G.
Offering a significant boost in AF performance over the prior model, Sony’s 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II telephoto zoom has a 3-mode stabilization system, an Iris Lock with a de-click mechanism for video shooters and is 25% lighter than competitors.
If you already own the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, it probably isn’t really worth upgrading. The Mark II is still an incredible lens and this version is barely different. But if you’ve been eyeing getting a zoom like this, then it’s exciting that there is a Mark III out now. The main upgrade is in the coatings for better contrast and suppressed flare.
As with the Canon version, the newer Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E VR is largely the same as the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, with the key difference being that the newer E version offers a specialized electromagnetic aperture mechanism for greater exposure control stability that is especially good for working with fast continuous shooting rates.
Best Mirrorless Portrait Lenses for Sony E Mount, Canon RF Mount, and Nikon Z Mount in 2022
If you view all of our lenses in order of newness, the first 4 or so pages of results will be populated entirely by new full frame mirrorless options. While DSLRs shooters are still extremely prevalent, it’s clear the world is shifting to a mirrorless one. There are honestly too many new options to choose from, so we’ve narrowed it down to only our 3 most popular renters for portrait shooters. It’s worth noting that there are nearly 3 times as many Sony E mount lenses to choose from vs Nikon Z or Canon RF – though expect that gap to narrow in 2022 and 2023.
24-70mm lenses ruled the DSLRs world and are still the leading choice among mirrorless users. It’s just really hard to beat a good 24-70mm lens. It offers nearly all of the focal ranges one would use for portraits of all styles, eliminating the need for multiple lenses. At f/2.8, they are fast enough for most lighting and artistic purposes. Not convinced? You can rent these lenses for as little as $100 a week:
Each mount also offers new takes on the quintessential 50mm f/1.2 lens:
Nikon Z 50mm f/1.2 S (Stepping Motor, OLED Info Panel, Weather Sealed)
Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L (Customizable Control Ring)
Sony FE 50mm f/1.2 GM (De-Clickable Aperture Ring, Quad Linear Motors)
10 Great Lenses for Portrait Photography for Canon and Nikon Shooters in 2016
Things to Consider When Choosing the Best Lens for Portraits
There are two major types of lenses: zooms and primes. Zoom lenses come in variable focal ranges (such as 24-70mm, 70-200mm, etc.), making each lens extremely versatile. Zoom lenses make it easy for you to take a wide variety of photos without ever having to switch out your gear. Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths (24mm, 35mm, 50mm, etc.) and often provide superior clarity and image quality (but you pay for it in lack of flexibility). They are also typically smaller and lighter to carry around than a zoom lens, but not always – some prime lenses are quite beefy. Many professional portrait photographers like primes because they tend to have faster maximum apertures for beautiful out-of-focus backgrounds. If that blur is important to you, look for a lens that can shoot at a wider aperture such as f/2.8, f/1.8, or even f/1.2. A larger aperture will give your images a shallower depth of field and allow for better low light performance – an important quality if you are shooting primarily with natural lighting as opposed to strobe/LED lighting.
One of the first things you will need to decide is what focal length is right for your needs. The best focal length for portrait photography depends on many things, including the available space where you will be shooting, the number of people in the frame, how much of the environment you want to include, and how close you want to be to your subjects. Focal lengths from 35mm to 200mm are common for portrait photography, depending on the subject, style, and preferences of the photographer. 50mm is a very common starting point for most portraits. If you are unsure what you need, a zoom lens is great to learn on.
Your Camera’s Sensor Size Will Affect Lens Choice
An important thing to remember when picking out a lens for portrait photography is that the body you will be shooting on will impact the apparent focal length of your lens. In other words, the same lens will act “longer” on a crop sensor camera than on a full frame one. For example, a 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera will give you an effective focal length of around 75mm. Keep this in mind when deciding how long you want your lens to be. Get more advice in New DSLR Owners: What You Must Know About Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors Before Choosing a Lens.
Best Canon Lenses for Portraits
Once you’ve figured out what you’re looking for in a portrait lens, you have a lot of good options to choose from. These are some of our favorite portrait lenses for Canon shooters.
The Canon 85mm f/1.2L II is very high quality and has a very fast maximum aperture that is perfect for low depth-of-field portraiture and still life work. It features a Super Spectra coating to suppress flare and ghosting and is also weather-sealed for safe outdoor shooting. It can be paired with both full frame and with crop frame sensor cameras. This lens supports Power AF and video shooters will not able to adjust focus on this lens while video is rolling, so it might not be a good choice for hybrid shooters. At nearly 3 lbs, it’s also on the larger side.
Equipped with panning-friendly Image Stabilization modes and a Focus Range Limiter, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens is ideal for wildlife and sports shooters. But it’s also one of Canon’s most popular L series lenses for portrait work. The subject-to-background distance potentials of this lens provide exceptional out-of-focus backgrounds for beautiful separation of your model and the environment – even in busy, distracting locations. This makes the lens perfect for outdoor portraits. It’s long length makes it less suitable for small studios.
This lens is the quintessential portrait lens. It has very high optical quality, beautiful bokeh, and has a nice weight and shape to it, making it a joy to shoot with. It features a Super Spectra coating to suppress flare and ghosting and is also weather-sealed for safe outdoor shooting. It can be paired with both full frame and crop frame sensor cameras. This is a “normal length” prime, meaning that its field of view feels “natural” and best approximates – basically – how the human eye sees. For this reason, a 50mm is an ideal lens to start out with in photography, giving you the freedom to learn composition and style using a kind of “universal starting point” for imaging. This lens in particular is a favorite among portrait and street photographers.
The original Canon 35mm f/1.4L is a beloved lens for group portraits and events and excels for low depth-of-field and low light shooting. This newer version is constructed with Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics, which refracts shorter wavelengths of the visible spectrum (blue light) in order to significantly reduce chromatic aberrations and color fringing and also allows for better low-light results. It also features a slighter better minimum focusing distance and maximum magnification for closeup subjects. Built specifically with the quality and resolving power necessary for the latest high megapixel cameras, this lens will remain a popular choice for years to come.
The 24-70mm zoom range is among the most versatile available. For this reason, it’s a superb choice for shooters who just aren’t sure what to get. You will likely end up falling in love with the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II like so many others already have. Along with the 70-200mm, it’s our most popular lens. It’s as powerful for everyday candids as it is for specialty work, including landscapes, events, portraits, and still life. A high-speed CPU with optimized AF algorithms ensures a fast and silent AF, making it a good choice for vloggers and videographers as well. For the coverage it offers, this lens is remarkably portable and easy to handle. It’s a great choice for novices and seasoned shooters alike.
Best Nikon Lenses for Portraits
Photographers who shoot Nikon have a wide range of quality portrait lenses to choose from. As with the Canon options above, these lenses all produce beautiful images in a variety of settings. These are some of our favorite portrait lenses for Nikon shooters.
The Nikon 85mm f/1.4G is a high performance classic portrait lens with an internal focusing mechanism that keeps the lens stable during use and won’t change the direction of a polarizing filter or lens hood. Quickly change between manual focus and autofocus silently for video recording thanks to the M/A switch and Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor. This lens can be paired with both full frame and with crop frame sensor cameras. This is prime is well suited for beautiful out of focus backgrounds for portraits as well as natural and low-light shooting – though it’s not quite as fast as the Canon’s f/1.2L version. This is due to the narrower style of Nikon’s F mount, allowing modern F mount DSLRs to pair with even some of the oldest Nikon lenses.
Nikon’s innovative Vibration Reduction system reduces the appearance of camera shake even when shooting at slower shutter speeds – which is a great feature to have on a longer lens like this one. The subject-to-background distance potentials of this lens provide exceptional out-of-focus backgrounds for beautiful separation of your model and the environment – even in busy, distracting locations. This makes the lens perfect for outdoor portraits. It’s long length makes it less suitable for small studios.
This lens is a definitive portrait tool with very high optical quality and beautiful bokeh. It can be paired with both full frame and crop frame sensor cameras. The Silent Wave Motor keeps the autofocus quick and quiet and the Super Integrated Coating delivers superior color rendering and suppresses ghosting. This is a “normal length” prime, meaning that its field of view feels “natural” and best approximates – basically – how the human eye sees. For this reason, a 50mm is an ideal lens to start out with in photography, giving you the freedom to learn composition and style using a kind of “universal starting point” for imaging. This lens in particular is a favorite among portrait and street photographers.
With a classic semi-wide angle of view, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is very versatile for a fixed-length lens. It’s wide enough to capture scenery but long enough to produce pleasing portraits without distortion. It sports an internal focusing mechanism that keeps the lens stable during use and won’t change the direction of a polarizing filter or lens hood. Fast enough for low-light shooting and quiet enough for ceremonies, this is a must-have tool for those who shoot scenery as often as they do people.
The 24-70mm zoom range is among the most versatile available. For this reason, it’s a superb choice for shooters who just aren’t sure what to get. You will likely end up falling in love with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G like so many others already have. Along with the 70-200mm, it’s our most popular lens. It’s as powerful for everyday candids as it is for specialty work, including landscapes, events, portraits, and still life. Super Integrated and Exclusive Nano Crystal Coatings reduce ghosting and flare for enhanced image clarity while a direct manual focus override gives you precise control for fast and simple focus changes. It’s a great choice for novices and seasoned shooters alike.
With so many options on the market, picking the perfect portrait lens can be a challenge — and a lot of the time the choice comes down to personal preference. If you are trying to decide whether to go zoom or prime and what focal lengths are ideal for your portrait photography, it may be useful to take a few lenses for a spin before making your purchase. Nothing gives you an idea of how a lens will work for you quite like mounting it to the front of your camera and trying it out in the real world. Renting lenses s a great way to be sure that you are making smart decisions with your money.