Many experienced photographers think of fast moderate telephoto lenses, as “portrait lenses” because so many professional portrait photographers rely on them. Lenses in the 85-105mm focal length range with maximum apertures between f/1.4 and f/2.8 can capture frame-filling headshots and head-and-shoulders portraits at moderate shooting distances, thus minimizing apparent perspective distortion—the dreaded “big-nose effect”—in close-ups. And they deliver very shallow depth of field at their widest apertures, creating compelling pictorial effects by isolating the sharply rendered subject against a pleasingly soft background. They also double the working (camera to subject) distance compared to normal lenses, making the photographer less intrusive and intimidating—a big plus when taking portraits of skittish subjects like children.
While fast moderate telephoto lenses do indeed make great portrait lenses, they’re not the only choices. Many legendary photographers have used lenses ranging from 21mm to 200mm (full-frame equivalent) to capture some of the world’s most memorable portraits. Innumerable examples have been shot with normal lenses, and telephotos ranging from 135mm-200mm have often been used to capture incisive, detailed, low-distortion portraits. Countless “environmental portraits” of artists and craftspeople have been shot with wide-angle lenses in the 24-35mm range, revealing the subject in the context of their studio or workshop to create visual composites that embody their true identity.
Since focal length alone doesn’t determine what makes a great portrait lens, what does? There’s no simple answer, but here’s a short list of the optical and operational characteristics that accomplished portrait photographers often look for.
- Sharp, high-resolution image quality at the point of focus to capture exquisite detail
- Pleasingly rounded, natural rendition, sometimes called the 3D effect. You can’t really describe it in words, but you’ll know it when you see it.
- Beautiful bokeh, especially at the widest apertures. This refers to smooth, natural-looking transitions from in-focus to out-of-focus areas of the image without any harshness or artifacts in the out-of-focus areas. A lens that has good bokeh also maintains the basic shape of the original object in the out-of-focus areas of the image.
- A wide aperture for maximum depth-of-field control and the ability to soften distracting foreground and background objects that draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject
- A diaphragm with seven or more rounded blades to enhance bokeh and minimize diaphragm-related artifacts like the notorious six-sided “honeycomb effect”
- Close-focusing capability, preferably down to 0.5 meters or closer, with a wide-angle or normal lens, 1.0 meters with a moderate telephoto, and 1.5 meters with longer lenses
1. Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Hailed by enthusiasts and pros for its outstanding sharpness at f/1.4 and spectacular performance at f/2, this robust, superbly made 17-element, 12-group super-speed medium telephoto also provides exceptional evenness of illumination to the edges and corners of the field, and beautiful bokeh throughout. It incorporates 3 FLD, 2 SLD and one aspheric element to minimize axial chromatic aberration and achieve high resolution; features robust weatherproof construction employing a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) barrel; has a Hypersonic (HSM) motor with full-time MF for quick, quiet AF; and incorporates a durable solid brass lens mount. Its hefty lens shade is made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) and its water-repellent front coating facilitates cleaning. It focuses down to 1 meter for compelling close-ups, and has a removable Arc-Swiss-compatible tripod collar. Downsides: It weighs a hefty 3.6 lb and requires 82mm filters.
2. Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM An excellent choice for portraiture, as well as sports coverage, this impressive L-series full-frame telephoto prime delivers pro-caliber performance, rugged, durable, weather-sealed construction, and a reasonably wide f/2.8 maximum aperture at a surprisingly modest price. It’s based on an advanced 9-element, 7-group design that incorporates 2 ULD elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and achieve excellent clarity and color accuracy, and it’s Super Spectra Coated for enhanced contrast and flare suppression. An 8-bladed diaphragm enhances its inherently beautiful bokeh, facilitating the use of selective focus techniques, it incorporates a high-performance ring-type Ultrasonic (USM) AF motor, focuses down to 1.5 meters for compelling close-ups, and weighs an easily manageable 1.7 lb.
3. Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD The latest version of Tamron’s acclaimed classic 90mm Macro is a versatile multi-purpose lens that’s also great for portraiture and it employs a floating element design to maintain outstanding image quality from its 11.8" minimum focusing distance (1:1) to infinity. Its 14-element, 11-group design incorporates one LD and 2 XLD glass elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and achieve impressive sharpness and clarity throughout, and BBAR and eBand coatings help to minimize flare and increase light transmission. A rounded 9-bladed diaphragm produces pleasing bokeh. VC image stabilization provides a 3.5-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of handheld camera shake and a ring-type Ultrasonic Silent Drive (USD) AF motor delivers rapid, precise, quiet autofocus. Other key features are internal focus (IF), a 2-range (close-up and normal) focus limiter, weather-resistant construction, and a water-repellent fluorine-coated front element that also facilitates cleaning. Note that the Sony version has no VC because Sony cameras have built-in image stabilization.
4. Nikon AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G Many classic 35mm SLRs were fitted with longer-than-normal 58mm lenses rather than standard 50mm. Some examples are: the 58mm f/1.4 Nikkor-S Auto on early Nikon Fs, the 58mm f/2 Zeiss Jena Biotar found on old Exaktas, and the 58mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 R.E. Auto Topcors fitted to Topcon Super Ds in the 1960s. The longer focal length allowed the rear of lens to clear the reflex mirror without any optical redesign, and had the advantage of providing a 1:1 viewing image. Today’s unique 9-element, 6-group AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is a modern reprise of these cult classic lenses and it’s an excellent (if somewhat pricey) portrait lens that performs far better at its widest apertures, provides far superior evenness of illumination with little falloff in the corners, and has beautiful bokeh, thanks in part to its rounded 9-bladed diaphragm. It also provides an 87mm equivalent focal length on DX-format Nikons, perfect for portraiture, and incorporates two aspherical elements to better control aberrations, and a Silent Wave Motor (SWM) that provides swift, precise nearly silent AF. Downside: A minimum focusing distance of a longish 2 feet (0.13x).
5. Voigtländer Nokton 58mm f/1.4 SL II S Here’s another longish normal lens in Nikon F mount that’s a nice affordable alternative for Nikon portrait shooters. Sporting a retro-style scalloped focusing ring, this manual focus beauty features a classic 7-element 6-group Double Gauss optical design, an all-metal lens barrel, and traditional focusing and depth-of-field scales. However, in a nod to contemporary users, it includes an Ai-S-type CPU that allows fast intuitive aperture adjustment via the camera body. Users affirm that it’s extremely sharp even at its widest apertures, and delivers beautiful, natural bokeh, thanks partly to its rounded 9-bladed diaphragm. Finally, it focuses down to 1.48 feet (0.172x), for capturing compelling close-ups. It provides a moderate telephoto 87mm equivalent focal length on DX-format Nikons.
6. Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART Ideal for capturing environmental portraits that include the subject’s workspace, this fast moderate wide-angle prime incorporates one FLD element, 4 SLD elements, and 2 aspheric elements in a floating-elements optical system to achieve outstanding sharpness and imaging performance over its entire focusing range, down to its minimum focusing distance of 11.8 inches. A rounded 9-bladed diaphragm enhances its inherently beautiful bokeh (it’s especially striking at its widest apertures) and its f/1.4 maximum aperture enables gorgeous pictorial effects. Super Multi-Layer Coating helps minimize flare, yielding images of exceptional clarity, a Hyper Sonic AF motor provides fast, smooth, nearly silent autofocus, rubber seals protect against moisture and a solid brass lens mount ensures precision and durability.
7. ZEISS Milvus 35mm f/1.4 ZE Leave it to Zeiss, the legendary German lens maker, to come up with a truly outstanding wide-angle, ultra-wide-aperture prime that delivers images of stunning sharpness along with beautiful, natural rendition. Based on the classic 14-element, 11-group Zeiss Distagon formula, this manual focus, full-frame lens incorporates one aspheric element at the rear, and 5 anomalous partial dispersion elements in a floating elements system that achieves exceptional image quality over the entire focusing range down to 11.8 inches. Enhanced T* coating minimizes flare and ghosting and benefits clarity, and advanced weather resistance includes a blue sealing ring on the lens mount to protect the lens-camera interface. A rounded 9-bladed diaphragm creates gorgeous natural bokeh, comprehensive depth-of-field scales facilitate focusing, and a durable metal lens barrel has an attractive and distinctive anodized finish. At 2.6 pounds it’s hefty, but very well balanced.
8. Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Praised for its outstanding resolution and refined bokeh, this advanced 11-element, 8-group ultra-speed medium telephoto prime incorporates one XA element, 3 ED elements, and Nano AR coating to deliver images of exceptional sharpness and clarity even at its widest apertures. It also focuses down to 2.6 feet for capturing frame-filling close-up portraits, and incorporates an internal focusing system and Linear Super Sonic Wave AF with an AF/MF switch and a focus hold button to deliver impressive imaging, AF performance, and handling convenience over the entire focusing range. A rounded 11-bladed diaphragm enhances bokeh, a physical aperture ring with de-click switch is optimized for video applications, and it features dust- and moisture-resistant construction.
9. Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f/1.8: This ingenuous manual focus, full-frame medium telephoto prime employs a classically simple optical formula to achieve soft, glowing, impressionistic effects at its widest apertures that can be varied to yield sharper, higher-contrast images by stopping down. A 12-bladed diaphragm contributes to its smooth, artistic bokeh and 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, has comprehensive focusing scales and well-damped focusing action. It provides a 127.5mm equivalent focal length with APS-C-format cameras.
10. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II This magnificent super-speed 200mm FX-mount prime is not for the faint of wallet, but it delivers amazing reach, superb image quality, beautiful natural rendition, and gorgeous bokeh, thanks in part to its rounded 9-bladed diaphragm. Its ultra-wide aperture enables exceptional depth-of-field control, its advanced VR II image stabilization delivers a 3-stop anti-shake-effect advantage in handheld shooting, it features an advanced Silent Wave Motor (SWM) AF system for swift, quiet, decisive AF, and it comes with a heavy-duty detachable rotating tripod collar. This robust 13-element 9-group, Nano Crystal coated beauty weighs a hefty 6.4 pounds and works best atop a sturdy tripod, but it’s capable of truly brilliant imaging and well worth the trouble whether you’re using it to shoot pro sports or compelling portraits.
What is your favorite portrait lens? Let us know in the Comments section, below!