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 ART and 135mm f/1.8 ART

Sigma’s ART series lenses are amazingly sharp, and these are two in particular are among the sharpest lenses ever made by any manufacturer. Some people have complained about focusing problems with Sigma lenses, but I find them to be reliable and fast, and they produce gorgeous image quality. Sigma lens designs tend to be heavier than Canon, and they often produce pincushion distortion rather than barrel (as Canon does), so images may look flatter if you don’t use lens correction. If you can carry the weight and have the cash, buy these lenses.

Sigma 85mm f.1.4 ART costs $979.50 and the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 ART costs $1399

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.

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ButchMatthew GoreNatasha PerreaultMatthew GoreErika Recent comment authors

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Butch
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A real sleeper is the older Canon 80-200/2.8 from the early 1990s, available on EBay from Japan for $500. Sharp as blazes and covers 85, 100, 135 at 2.8.

Natasha Perreault
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Natasha Perreault

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!

Erika
Member

oops! i meant 2.8 silly me :p

Erika
Member

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)

Hal
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Hal

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.

Alfred Lopez
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Alfred Lopez

@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

Wayne Gambrell
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Wayne Gambrell

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.

Alfred Lopez
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Alfred Lopez

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
Member

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!

Karen C
Member

I love that first shot! Just gorgeous. Thanks so much for sharing all of them. It was great to see what different lenses can do.

Alfred Lopez
Guest
Alfred Lopez

Thank you for the kind words!

Karen C
Member

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!

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