What is the Best Lens for Portrait Photography?

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By Steve Russell

Sometimes it’s fun to write articles about a subject that doesn’t have a “one right answer.” Not only does it make me really think about the subject before I start writing but it’s also usually somewhat controversial and garners a lot of comments. So for this subject please put in your “two cents worth” either in the comments section here or on our Facebook page.

To begin with, I usually use my 70-200mm lens for portrait work. It works for me. It also works for a number of very successful portrait and wedding photographers I know. But there’s a catch, a number of reasons why that works for me and may not work for you. By sharing why it works for me and including reasons why it may not work in all situations you can modify my comments to fit your situation and approach.

Canon EF 85mm f1.2L Lens

Nikon 105mm f/2.8G Lens

1. The most widely held belief in answering this question is a lens in the range of 85mm to 135mm. I sure can’t argue with this as a good workable range. I’ll return to this later in the article.

2. For portrait work I use my Canon 5D Mark II Camera. That camera has a full-frame sensor so my 70-200mm lens is a true 70-200. If I were to use a camera with a cropped-frame sensor the lens would act as a longer lens. For example, if the crop ratio was 1.6, like on my Canon 7D Camera(Body Only), the apparent length of the lens would be 112-320mm. Useable but I would have to be farther away from the subject to capture the same image.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L Lens

3. While I’m aware that some portrait photographers use a wide open f stop (f/1.4 to f/3.5 for example) so they get the bokeh they want in the background, I prefer to use f/8 to f/11. That way the entire subject is in focus. If I want fuzzy out-of-focus ears, which I generally don’t, I can do that in Photoshop. However, as you know, if it’s out of focus when I capture the image, it’s out of focus in the finished product. To keep the backdrop out of sharp focus I prefer to position the subject roughly 8 to 10 feet in front of the backdrop. Even with f/11 this is sufficient distance to get the effect I want.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G Lens

4. The next self-imposed rule I like to follow is I don’t like to be up in the subject’s face. This usually isn’t an issue with a professional model, but with most clients, the greater the distance between them and the camera, the more comfortable and natural acting they are. Because of this, I like to position myself about 8 to 10 feet from the subject. Yes, I realize that this requires more than 20 feet of linear space to set up and not everyone has that much space. Well, my studio is located in my house and while the great room is more than 20 feet long I can’t see my wife allowing me to set up my studio there. What I do is park the car(s) in the driveway and set up the studio there. Works like a charm. Yes I have to set up and take down my studio equipment every time I use it, but I had that in mind when I purchased the equipment.

5. Another advantage I get by setting up 8 to 10 feet away is that the subject isn’t taking peeks at the computer screen and getting nervous because they don’t like what they’re seeing on the screen. Yes, I always shoot tethered to my laptop so that I can see what’s happening. A 15″ or 17″ computer screen sure beats chimping with the 3″ screen on the back of the camera.

6. When photographing portraits I tend to leave some “room” around the subject so I can crop the photo the way I want it to look. For the SOOC (straight out of camera) purists, I have to crop anyway. A full frame sensor has a length to width ratio of roughly 1:1.5, the same ratio as an 8×12 or 4×6. An 8×10 has a ratio of 1:1.25, an 11×14 ratio is 1:1.2727. So since I have to crop anyway, I might as well leave some working room. That said, I don’t want to crop so severely that I start getting noise in the final product. So if I want a really tight head shot, it’s a lot easier to zoom in a little with the 70-200 than it is to get right up into the subject’s face with a 50mm or a 35mm.

7. Now, back to the first statement regarding the 85mm – 135mm range for a “perfect” portrait lens. I went through metadata for a few hundred images and discovered that rarely did I have the lens zoomed to less than 80mm or more than 135mm. There were some at 70mm, mostly full body shots, and some at 200mm, mostly very tight head shots, but the overall results would seem to support the old belief of the best lens being around 85mm to 135mm.

8. I have a wonderful 100mm lens that is tack sharp. I could use it for portraits but I really like the versatility of the 70mm-200mm. I’ve heard some complaints about the weight of the big lens. The weight doesn’t bother me because I either have the camera on a tripod or I use my Black Rapid RS-7 camera strap and let the camera and lens hang next to my hip when I’m not actually shooting. You can see the review on the Black Rapid strap I wrote in December here

9. Keep in mind that if I were shooting with my 7D, a 50mm lens would approximate 85mm on a full frame sensor camera and 105mm would approximate 135mm. In this case, I might opt to use my 24mm-105mm lens and would get similar results.

The net result is that the best lens for portrait photography, like most things in photography, really depends on the camera you’re using and what you’re trying to accomplish. For me, it’s the 70-200mm.

One other thought that may be helpful. The absolute best lens for portrait photography is the highest quality professional grade lens in the focal length you want to use. If you think a kit lens works just fine, that’s okay. However, I suggest you rent a professional grade lens and try it out. Take a hundred or so portrait shots with it. Do the same with your kit lens of the same subject at the same time. Import them into photoshop and enlarge to 100%, 200% and 300% and see if they’re the same. If they are, congratulations, you have a really good kit lens.

Photo Credits:

Canon 85mm lens by Devos on Flickr Creative Commons
Nikon 105mm lens by Rufflife on Flickr Creative Commons
Canon 70-200mm lens by Daniel Dreier on Flickr Creative Commons
Nikon 70-200mm lens by Themuser on Flickr Creative Commons

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  • Femi Oriola

    Brilliantly done

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=693587036 Joe R Teimo

    Don’t forget the canon 135 F2L.  

  • Lucas Wxyz

    Well, even if i follow your blog for a long long time, I never got to make any comments… but since I was explaining someone why the 105 2.8 is my favorite portrait lens (but i often use my 80-200 2.8, for practical reasons), here is what I want to say:
    When I first got told about the 105, by an old photographer 20 years ago, his reason was not cropping or film size. He used this lens length on both 35mm and 6×4.5. It was because the distortion that the lens create is pleasing to the eye. His reason was that the compression of the face was perfect. The distance between the tip of the nose and the back of the ear was compressed enough to make people look more pleasing. For people with bigger noses, use a longer lens (135mm) for small noses a shorter (80mm).
    I never doubt this photographer, and since i was only 11, I took it as the golden rule for portrait photography!
    After 20 years, I still believe is true.

  • Steve Russell

    Lucas, I agree with you 100%.  What you’re mentioning I look at as a subject for an article by itself.  In other words, what constitutes a pleasing to the eye portrait and how do you achieve it?  I try to keep my articles between 600 and 1,000 words and have trouble doing that.  Your comment are spot on and I appreciate them very much. 

  • Steve Russell

    Absolutely, Joe.  Another great lens.

  • Summersimac

     Hexanon AR 135mm 2.5 Fast or the 105 mm. I like the 105 best of the two.

  • Photographer

    Steve, great article however its a misconceptions that a 50mm on your 7D approximates an 85mm on your 5D.  Due to the smaller sensor all you are doing is cropping in and changing the field of view. What makes the range 85 – 105 (135) good for portraits is the compression aspects of the lens. It is more flattering.  The reason many people love a 50mm for general photography is that the human eye sees at a approximately 45-55 angle of view.

  • http://www.colorexpertsbd.com/services/photoshop-image-masking-service.html Image Masking

    Great article very much informative i love to read your post very much. Thanks a lot for sharing with us !!

  • Anonymous

    Is any of this possible with the smaller cameras, like mine T3i… I’m not a professional, just bought the camera to capture my daughter’s senior year.  We’ve been looking at Sr Portrait packages, and they are way out of my budget.  She also does numerous sports the main reasoning for purchasing my camera… However, now i’m interested in trying to do some Sr Portraits myself to save a little money.  Any help would be GREATLY appreciated!

  • Steve Russell

    Any of the Canon lenses would work with your T3i.  Both EF and EFS lenses will work.  It’s really difficult to advise you what would be the best lens for what you’re trying to do.  As I wrote in the article, I mainly use a Canon 5D Mark II camera and my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens for portrait work, including senior portraits taken outdoors.  However, if the cost of Senior Portrait packages is out of your budget, then a 70-200mm lens is going to be way outside your budget.

    The T3i usually comes with an 18-55mm or 18-135mm kit lens.  With your camera either of those lenses should allow you to capture the images you want.  Another option is to find a company near you that rents photographic equipment and rent a lens to capture these special moments.  If you can’t find a photo rental place near you we recommend you try http://www.prophotorental.com. 

  • David

     VERY helpful article – thanks very much.  As a new photographer, I’ve heard that the 50mm was the undisputed king.  Thanks to your article, I finally understand why a faster zoom is a better solution.

  • Petefhopkins

    This is as concise and helpful as it can be! Thank you very much! Pete

  • Petefhopkins

    Btw…. I’ve come to realize trough trial and error that the advice that I get when I walk into a camera store is quite contrary to the advice I have found online. Unfortunately, stores have rent and employees to pay so approximate advice to eager young photos is usually what you get, i.e., ” 50mm is king!”. I’ve bought 50s’ that break easily, accessories that don’t fit, and taken a lot of “purists’” advice just because I needed to feed my photo bug jones immediately.
    Long story short. Research, research, research! Take a breath and research some more. You’ll get smarter, which is great!, and you’ll have what you want and what you need at the same time. Thats my two cents. Don’t take my word for it… Research! And happy shooting!

  • http://pinkfogphotography.com/senior-portraits/ Senior Pictures

    Thanks for sharing information on such an unique subject. Being a portrait and wedding photographer this resource is very beneficial for me.