Portrait Lenses

Best Portrait Lenses for Canon

Before I continue, let me stress that there are as many different portrait lenses as there are styles of portraiture. Some photographers manage to take unique portraits with wide angle lenses or super-telephotos, toy plastic lenses, and even pinhole cameras, so the following list should not be considered exhaustive by any means.

Traditionally, though, portrait photographers have used lenses that offer the following characteristics:

  • large maximum aperture for shallow depth of field (blurred background) and low-light shooting, with higher numbers of aperture blades or rounded blades for smooth bokeh
  • low distortion, slightly compressed perspective
  • sharp and very high resolution

For 35mm cameras, these characteristics are usually found in prime lenses in the range of roughly 80 to 150mm, but that range frequently extends to 200mm on the long end as well. Some of the most renown portrait lenses have been 85mm, 105mm, and 135mm.

Canon 85mm f/1.2L

Canon 85mm f/1.2L

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 and f/1.2 L II

Both excellent lenses optically, and in the heart of the traditional portrait range whether you’re using an APS-C or full frame camera. The f/1.2 model is a little softer around the borders wide open, but it does provide twice as much light (ie, one f-stop) as the f/1.8. Keep in mind that at f/1.2, the depth of field is extremely narrow, so keeping all of the features of a subject’s face in focus can be difficult. I highly recommend the 85mm f1.8 as a first portrait lens; it has outstanding optical quality, great bokeh, excellent low-light performance, and is relatively inexpensive.

Sigma 85mm f/1.4

This lens has been very well received, and although it is more expensive than Canon’s f/1.8, it’s only about half the price of Nikon’s newest 85mm f/1.4. Optical performance is what you’d expect for a fixed focal length lens of this class – quite good. Currently, this lens is selling for around $930 for Canon mount.

Canon EF-S 60mm f2.8 Macro

EF-S Canon 60mm f2.8 Macro

EF-S Canon 60mm f2.8 Macro

If you’re using a cropped sensor camera like the 7D, 60D, or Rebel series, the 60mm f2.8 macro ($445) lens offers a perspective much like a 100mm lens on a full frame camera. It is incredibly sharp, offers a nice wide maximum aperture at f2.8, and has the added benefit of being a true 1:1 macro lens… probably the best macro lens made for APS-C cameras.  Although this lens doesn’t offer maximum apertures as wide as an f/1.8 lens, and therefore, it doesn’t blur the background as well, it does give you the option for shooting extreme close ups of eyes, lips, etc., not to mention non-human subjects if you want to photograph insects or watch faces or other still objects.

Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM

The Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM is another extremely sharp lens (often referred to as the sharpest Canon lens made), with the maximum aperture extended to f2 for shallower depth of field. For an “L” series lens of such high quality, it’s also relatively inexpensive, at just over $1000. Like all wide lenses, it’s also great for sports and low light work; this lens offers a very distinctive image quality… I highly recommend it. Great for photographers who would like to extend their working distance a little, or get tighter shots. The 200mm f2 is even more desirable for the same reasons, but it’s price tag makes it prohibitively expensive for most of us.

Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS USM II

One of the few zoom lenses that offers high enough optical quality to really be just as good as a prime lens, the 70-200 f2.8L IS II is not cheap at around $2200, but it’s such a versatile, high quality lens that it’s hard for a professional to live without. For those of you who are not shooting in the studio and are doing environmental portraiture, journalism, location commercial shoots, etc, a lens like this will make your life much easier. In many location shoots, a photographer simply doesn’t have the space to move further away from a subject to re-frame a shot… a zoom lens like this one can be a life saver.  Though f2.8 is not especially wide in comparison to other portrait lenses, it is certainly wide enough to offer nice smooth bokeh, especially at 200mm.

Canon 50mm f1.4

For APS-C, a 50mm falls into the lower range of focal lengths that are typically considered “portrait” lenses. I generally prefer a slightly longer telephoto for the job, but many people take great shots with a 50mm. The f1.8 version is also quite good optically and very inexpensive at about $120, but the f1.4 offers slightly better bokeh because of its aperture design, and of course, a bit more light. On the other hand, it costs roughly just under $400.

22 Comments

  • Natasha Perreault says:

    Hi Matthew,

    I have an old Canon Rebel and a 50mm f.1.4. I wanted to upgrade to a Canon 60D because my Rebel doesn’t handle high ISO well, but I decided to get a new lens first. I like taking family pictures in natural light so I purchased EF 135mm f/2L USM less than a month ago. It’s a great lens and bokeh is gorgeous, but many images are blurry. This is my first non-IS and I can’t get used to it. Also, I really want to own a nice zoom lens that I can use as a walk around lens and as a portrait lens. If I keep this lens and upgrade to 60D, I can’t afford to buy more equipment any time soon. Would you recommend that I keep this lens and trying working with it more or return it (if B&H accepts it) and get a zoom lens? Specifically, I’m looking at Canon EF 70-200 f4L IS USM. I’ll consider other lens recommendations. Thanks!

    • Hi Natasha,

      First, it would be a good idea to double check whether the problem is really with the fact that it’s non-IS, or whether it’s a problem with the lens, or something else. If you’d like, you can email me a photo or two that you think are typical of the problem, and I’d be happy to take a closer look. (matthew@lightandmatter.org)

      The 70-200 f/4 is a great lens for a lot of things, but because of the f/4, I’m not sure it would be my first choice for portraits… though I do like the f/2.8 (non-IS is about the same price). Either one would be a great walk-around lens, though, and both would be pretty good for portraits… you just won’t get the bokeh of a fast prime. I can’t think of another lens that I’d recommend instead, although some Sigma or Tamron lens might save you a little money.

      – Matthew

  • erika says:

    oops! i meant 2.8 silly me :p

  • erika says:

    i bought the tokina 100mm macro f.2.5 its an amazing lens! you guys must check it out, matt thanks for the recommendation! i the bokeh on it crazy good, it runs for 489 but its so worth the price, the only downside it does not have af but quality its a 5 star, it takes sick macro and it makes a fabulous portrait lens.
    http://www.viewbug.com/photo/1793488( no editing) macro
    http://www.viewbug.com/photo/1763229 no editing (portrait)

    • Hey Erika,

      You’re talking about the Tokina AF 100mm f/2.8 AT-X M100 Pro-D Macro, right? It is an auto-focus lens… do you mean that it doesn’t have AF at macro-range or something?

      Great shots; love that spider :) I see a lot of those in this part of Florida, too… nice bokeh. The portrait has really nice light, looks like its not quite tack-sharp, but it’s composed well. And beautiful model, obviously :)

      – Matthew

      • Erika says:

        so i was so confused when i saw this post! omg i thought it didnt have the af!! i had to pull this little thing on the lens and i saw the af, so it mean for an entire month i’ve been taking pictures on mf haha im so silly. i did  think it was extremely off that i didnt see the af, so that was totally my fault lol but this lens rocks. ha

        • Awesome :) I was hoping it was something like that, and not a broken lens that you’d have to return under warranty or something like that, which would be annoying.

  • Hal says:

    I would second the 100mm f2.8 macro. The lens is very sharp, has incredible bokeh, even at medium apertures, and is much handier than lugging the 70-200 zoom around. I use it on a 7D and a 5DMkII and prefer it with the 7D.

  • @admin

    Have you tried the Canon 50mm f/1.2? That’s going to be my next purchase. That or the 35mm f/1.4.

    Thanks,

    Alfred

    • Matthew says:

      Hi Alfred,

      I actually have not had a chance to use the 50mm f/1.2 yet; years ago I rented the older 50mm f1.0, and while it was fun, it wasn’t particularly useful for me. The DOF is so shallow, and consequently, focus is tricky… and I just don’t think that it looks that good.

      I’ve read and heard about the f/1.2, though, of course. From what I understand, there’s some vignetting (about a stop) at f1.2, and there’s some very significant lateral chromatic aberration, regardless of aperture (though this may be sample specific). Probably correctable in post, in both cases. Like most 50mms, the resolution is exceptional, though.

  • Wayne Gambrell says:

    I have used the 100mm 2.8 macro a few times with good results. If used on a crop sensor body, even better.
    its very sharp, plus you would have a macro lens in the bag as well.

    • Matthew says:

      Hi Wayne,

      I agree; it is a great portrait lens, though I prefer it on a full frame body. It was left off of this list because I haven’t yet separated the list into EF and EF-S appropriate lenses, and already have added a macro… and of course, it costs more than twice as much as the 60mm.

      That said, I should note here that when shooting with an EF-S instead of a full frame, the depth of field is about a stop greater, so shooting with an f2.8 lens is very similar in appearance to shooting with an f4. For those who like bokeh, this is a significant consideration, and it makes sense to go with an f/2 or f/1.4 instead of one of the f2.8s.

      However, using a longer focal length like the 100mm vs the 60mm will also increase the blurring of the background, so the 100mm may be more desirable on that count.

  • Karen,

    My thoughts…

    I have shot portraits with the 70-200mm f/2.8 and the 85mm f/1.2 and for some reason, “the feel” of them are different. I love shooting with the 85mm, but I’ve used many focal length. I think if you “go prime” you would have to be a bit more disciplined when it comes to composition since there’s more “physical activity” than using a zoom (this is not to say that you won’t need to do some “foot zoom” with a zoom lens on occasion). With that said, if you go to my album, I have four portraits: the first two were taken with the Canon 85mm f/1.2 on a 5D Mk II. The first one, I wanted to use some “negative space” and use the lights in the background as filler (this was taken wide open). The second photo I was sitting across my wife (about three feet) which, naturally, filled the frame. The third photo was taken with the Canon 24-105mm f/4L on a 7D at 105mm (effective focal length of 168mm). I was about 6 feet away. I purposely used the long of the telephoto to get as much bokeh as possible. The fourth photo was taken with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 on a 7D (this was my pre-5D era) at 135mm (effective focal length of 216mm). I used a recessed light above Laura and natural light coming from a window to camera left (you can see it in the mirror behind her). This is where the long zoom came in handy: I needed to let light in and didn’t want to cast a shadow with my body so I needed to step back a bit. Also, I wanted to get most of the guitar in the shot.

    In a few weeks, I will be trying out the 35mm f/1.4 lens for a portrait shoot indoors (same location as Laura’s picture, but more “up close and personal”). I’ll post some of the pictures afterwards.

    Cheers,

    Alfred

    • Karen C says:

      I’m on my way out to get the kids to their swim lessons. I’ll look at the pictures after I get back. Thanks much for your input & for giving some examples!

    • Matthew says:

      Thanks Alfred, this is exactly what I had in mind when I said that lens choice is such a personal thing. My background is in journalism, and many of my photographic heros are photojournalists who carry zoom lenses (as I have myself); Alfred is more of a “pure” portrait photographer, and his style makes use of that shallow depth of field and bokeh that comes with large aperture primes (which I also enjoy). There are differences, no matter what lens you choose…. but there’s no one that is “better”, per se, though some will be better at giving you particular looks.

      – Matthew

      • I also failed to mention that I’ve also used the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro for portraits. I will post another picture of Laura (this time, on her wedding day) where I used it.

  • Karen C says:

    I’m very curious what you would recommend for me. Someone on another forum suggested testing out different focal lengths with a telephoto & see which you used the most. I went into several of my images’ properties and noticed that many of my shots were between 80 and 135. I had been ready to buy the 50 1.8 next month, as I had heard wonderful things about it. Now, though, I’m unsure. If I wait, it will take me a few months to save up for the 85 and much longer for the 135. What would your recommendation be? Wait and save up for the 85? Or wait even longer to save for the 135? Heck, are there any non-Canon equivalents that might be better priced? (Though I would prefer to stick with Canon lenses…)

    Thanks for any insight, Matt!

    • Matthew says:

      Hey Karen,

      I think that portrait lens choice is such a personal thing… it’s hard to make recommendations. From your work that I’ve seen, I think that you’d really enjoy an 85mm f/1.8 (or 1.4, the Sigma is a good lens)… but you’d probably also like the a 50mm; they’re both great lenses optically… which one is better for you is really just a matter of taste.

      I actually have always been a big fan of shooting with a 70-200 f2.8; the longer focal length makes the depth of field extra-shallow, and I like the flexibility… but a lot of portrait photographers don’t like zooms. Again, it’s really a matter of taste. But, I think that if you haven’t already, it’s a good idea to try out a longer telephoto with a wide aperture (2.8 or wider) and see how you like it.

      • Karen C says:

        Sounds like I need to head to the camera shop & play around with the lenses. I was leaning towards a prime as my next lens, but I’m open to both. Thanks for your input!

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