Many experienced pros shooting portraiture refer to prime lenses in the 85mm- to 105mm-equivalent focal length range with maximum apertures between f/1.4 and f/2.8 as portrait lenses. These lenses can capture frame-filling headshots and head-and-shoulders portraits at moderate shooting distances; thus, they minimize apparent perspective distortion that can lead to close-ups that look like caricatures.
These primes also deliver very shallow depth of field at their widest apertures. As a result, they can create compelling pictorial effects by isolating a sharply rendered subject against a pleasingly soft background. And by doubling the working (camera to subject) distance compared to normal lenses, the photographer becomes less intrusive and intimidating—a big plus when taking portraits of skittish subjects like kids and pets.
While fast moderate telephoto lenses do indeed make great portrait lenses, they’re hardly the only choices. Many acclaimed photographers have used lenses ranging from 21mm to 200mm (full-frame equivalent) to capture some of the world’s most memorable portraits.
Moreover, innumerable examples were shot with normal lenses in the 45–58mm range. In addition, photographers have often used telephotos ranging from 135mm to 200mm to capture incisive, detailed, low-distortion portraits. Further, wide-angle lenses in the 24–35mm range have captured countless environmental portraits of artists and craftspeople in their working spaces, revealing a subject’s true identity in the context of their life’s work.
In short, focal length alone doesn’t determine what makes a great portrait lens. So, here’s a short list of the optical and operational characteristics that the accomplished and emerging portrait photographers in your customer base are likely to demand.
Premium Optical Characteristics for Shooting Portraiture
1. Sharp, high-resolution imaging at the point of focus to capture fine detail.
2. Pleasingly rounded, natural-looking rendition known as the 3D effect.
3. Beautiful bokeh, especially at the widest apertures. This refers to smooth natural transitions from in-focus to out-of-focus areas of the image without any harshness or artifacts in the out-of-focus areas.
4. A wide aperture for maximum depth-of-field control and the ability to soften distracting foreground and background objects to draw the viewer’s attention toward the subject.
5. A diaphragm with seven or more rounded blades to enhance bokeh and minimize diaphragm-related artifacts like the notorious six-sided “honeycomb effect.”
6. Close-focusing capability, preferably down to 20 inches or closer with a wide-angle or normal lens; 39 inches with a moderate telephoto; and 59 inches with longer lenses.
A Medley of Prime Portrait Lenses
Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
This Sigma lens is acclaimed by enthusiasts and pros for its outstanding sharpness at f/1.4 and spectacular performance at f/2. The superbly made 17-element, 12-group superspeed medium telephoto also provides exceptional evenness of illumination to the edges and corners of the field. And beautiful bokeh throughout.
It incorporates three FLD (fluorite equivalent), two SLD (super-low dispersion) and one aspheric element; they minimize axial chromatic aberration and achieve high resolution. Also featured is weatherproof construction employing a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) barrel. Moreover, a hypersonic motor (HSM) provides full-time manual focus (MF) and quick, quiet autofocus (AF).
Notable are a durable solid brass mount; a hefty lens shade made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic; and a water-repellent front coating to facilitate cleaning. The lens focuses down to 39 inches and has a removable Arca-Swiss-compatible tripod collar. It weighs 3.6 pounds. In Nikon F, Canon EF, Sony E and Leica L mounts, $1,599.
Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM
Here’s an excellent choice for portraiture as well as sports coverage. This impressive Canon L-series, full-frame telephoto prime delivers pro-caliber performance; rugged, weather-sealed construction; and a wide (for its focal length) f/2.8 maximum aperture at a surprisingly modest price. Based on an advanced 9-element, 7-group design, the lens incorporates two UD (ultralow dispersion) elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and achieve excellent clarity and color accuracy. Moreover, Canon’s Super Spectra coating augments contrast and flare suppression.
Importantly, an 8-blade diaphragm enhances its inherently beautiful bokeh, facilitating the use of selective focus techniques. It also incorporates a high-performance ring-type ultrasonic (USM) AF motor, focuses down to 4.9 feet for compelling close-ups and weighs in at an easily manageable 1.7 pounds. $749.99.
Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD
This iteration of Tamron’s much-admired, classic full-frame 90mm macro is a versatile multipurpose lens that’s great for portraiture. Its floating element design maintains outstanding image quality from its 11.8-inch minimum focusing distance (1:1) to infinity. And its 14-element, 11-group construction uses one LD and two XLD (eXtra-low dispersion) glass elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and achieve impressive sharpness throughout.
Moreover, BBAR (broadband antireflection) and eBand (extended bandwidth & angular-dependency) coatings minimize flare and increase light transmission.
A rounded 9-blade diaphragm enhances its pleasing bokeh; VC (vibration compensation) image stabilization provides a 3.5-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of shake; and a ring-type ultrasonic silent drive (USD) AF motor delivers rapid, precise, quiet AF plus anytime MF. Other key features: internal focus; a two-range focus limiter; weather resistance; a water-repellent fluorine coated front element; and a weight of 1.3 pounds. In Nikon F, Canon EF and Sony A mounts (Sony version sans VC because Sony cameras have built-in IS), $649.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G
Many vintage 35mm SLRs of the 1950s and ’60s were fitted with longer-than-normal 58mm lenses rather than standard 50mm. The longer focal length allowed the rear of the lens to clear the reflex mirror without any optical redesign. The advantage was a 1:1 viewing image.
Today’s unique 9-element, 6-group AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G from Nikon is a modern reprise of these cult classic lenses. Moreover, it’s an excellent (if somewhat pricey) portrait lens that performs far better at its widest apertures. It also provides far superior evenness of illumination with little falloff in the corners. And it renders beautiful bokeh thanks in part to a rounded 9-blade diaphragm.
The prime lens also provides an 87mm-equivalent focal length on DX-format Nikon DSLRs, perfect for portraiture. In addition, it incorporates two aspheric elements and Nano Crystal Coat to better control aberrations. Its silent wave motor also provides swift, precise, nearly silent AF plus full-time manual focus. It weighs 13.6 ounces. $1,599.95.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
This Sigma Art lens is perfect for capturing environmental portraits that include the subject’s workspace. The best-selling fast, moderate wide-angle prime features a 13-element, 11 group design. It utilizes one FLD element, four SLD elements and two aspheric elements in a floating-elements optical system. As a result, it achieves outstanding sharpness and imaging performance over its entire focusing range down to its minimum focusing distance of 11.8 inches.
Notably, a rounded 9-blade diaphragm heightens its inherently beautiful bokeh, which is especially striking at its widest apertures. And its f/1.4 maximum aperture provides enhanced depth-of-field control, enabling impressive pictorial effects for portraiture; Super Multilayer coating helps minimize flare to yield images of exceptional clarity. In addition, a hypersonic AF motor provides fast, smooth, nearly silent autofocus plus full-time MF override. Further, rubber seals protect against moisture, while a solid brass lens mount ensures precision and durability. It weighs 1.5 pounds. In Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, Sony A and Sony E mounts, $699; in Leica L mount, $899.
Pentax-D FA Macro 100mm f/2.8 WR
This high-value, high-performance medium-telephoto macro lens in the Pentax K-mount covers the full-frame format. For both DSLRs and film cameras, it features enhanced weather-resistant (WR) construction with six seals. Its elements are treated with Pentax Super Protect multilayer coating to minimize reflections as well as yield crisp, high-contrast images. Comprising a 9-element, 8 group formula, it also employs a quick-shift focusing system to allow easy switching from AF to manual focus.
In addition, it has a rounded 8-blade diaphragm that enhances its inherently attractive bokeh. Moreover, it provides excellent depth-of-field control and continuous focusing down to 1:1 magnification (life-size on sensor). Other features include a robust, lightweight aluminum barrel and a weight of 12 ounces. $449.95.
Rokinon AF 85mm f/1.4 FE
Ideal for portraiture, theater photography and general low-light work, this impressive Rokinon full-frame E-mount lens also provides a 127.5mm-equivalent focal length on APS-C-format cameras. Moreover, the lens excels at depth-of-field control, shallow depth-of-field effects and selective focus. That’s thanks to its wide f/1.4 maximum aperture and a rounded 9-blade aperture. It also focuses down to 2.95 feet for frame-filling headshots.
The lens is constructed with a hybrid aspheric element that helps reduce aberrations. It also utilizes Ultra Multi-Coating to minimize ghosting and flare, contributing to crisp imaging. Other specs include: two linear ultrasonic motors to achieve fast, quiet, precise focus; internal focusing; and a weather-sealed metal body. In addition, it comes with a bayonet mount lens hood to facilitate shooting in high-glare lighting. Sony E mount, $699. Note: Rokinon also offers a full-frame 85mm f/1.4 AF lens in the Nikon F mount, $699, and Canon EF mount, $599.
Zeiss Milvus 35mm f/1.4 ZE
The legendary German lens maker has come up with a truly outstanding wide-angle, ultrawide-aperture prime; it delivers images of stunning sharpness along with beautiful, natural rendition. The manual focus, full-frame lens is based on the classic 14-element, 11-group Zeiss Distagon formula. It incorporates one aspheric element at the rear and five anomalous partial dispersion elements in a floating elements system. Thus, it achieves exceptional image quality over the entire focusing range down to 11.8 inches.
Furthermore, Zeiss T* coating minimizes flare and ghosting and enhances clarity. Its advanced weather resistance also includes a blue sealing ring on the lens mount to protect the lens–camera interface. In addition, a rounded 9-blade diaphragm enriches its gorgeous, natural bokeh. Also, comprehensive depth-of-field scales facilitate depth-of-field control. The Milvus 35mm additionally features a durable metal lens barrel with an attractive and distinctive anodized finish. At 2.6 pounds it’s hefty, but very well balanced. In Canon EF and Nikon F mounts, $1,999.
Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM
Praised by users and reviewers for its outstanding resolution and refined bokeh, this is an ultra-speedy, medium-telephoto lens. The Sony E-mount G Master lens has an advanced 11-element 8-group design. It integrates one XA (extreme aspheric) element, three ED elements and Nano AR coating to deliver images of exceptional sharpness and clarity, even at its widest apertures.
The moisture-resistant lens also focuses down to 2.6 feet for capturing frame-filling close-up portraits. Moreover, it incorporates an internal focusing system and linear supersonic wave AF with an AF/MF switch and a focus hold button. Consequently, it delivers impressive AF performance and handling convenience over the entire focusing range. Further, a rounded 11-blade diaphragm intensifies its inherently beautiful bokeh. Plus, a physical aperture ring with a de-click switch is optimized for video applications. It weighs 1.8 pounds. $1,799.99.
Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f/1.8
The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm is an ingenious, manual focus, full-frame medium-telephoto prime lens. It employs a classically simple optical formula to achieve soft, glowing, impressionistic effects at its widest apertures; they also can be adjusted to yield sharper, higher contrast images by stopping down.
A 12-blade diaphragm contributes to its smooth, artistic bokeh. In addition, its wide maximum aperture facilitates depth-of-field control and selective focus techniques. The lens focuses down to 9.5 inches (1:2) to capture compelling close-ups. It also has comprehensive focusing scales and a well-damped focusing action. Moreover, weighing just more than a pound, it provides a 127.5mm-equivalent focal length with APS-C-format cameras. In Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Canon RF, Nikon Z, MFT and Fujifilm X mounts, $499.95.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2G ED VR II
This magnificent superspeed FX-mount prime lens from Nikon is not for the faint of wallet. However, it delivers amazing reach; superb image quality; beautiful natural rendition; and gorgeous bokeh—thanks in part to its rounded 9-blade diaphragm. Plus, its ultrawide aperture enables exceptional depth-of-field control.
Additionally, Nikon’s upgraded VR (vibration reduction) II image stabilization delivers a 3-stop anti-shake-effect advantage in handheld shooting. It also features Nano Crystal Coat and an advanced silent wave motor AF system for swift, quiet, decisive AF. This robust 13-element 11-group beauty weighs in at a hefty 6.4 pounds and works best atop a sturdy tripod. It also comes with a heavy-duty detachable rotating tripod collar. The updated lens is capable of truly brilliant imaging and well worth the trouble whether using it to shoot compelling portraits or pro sports. In Nikon F mount, $5,699.95.