Even if you’re relatively new to photography, there’s a decent chance you have a portrait lens in your collection. They’re one of the staples of any expansive lens collection, and even if you don’t practice portraiture regularly, chances are that you’re going to want to get your hands on one eventually. But there’s a bit of ambiguity about what exactly constitutes a portrait lens, much less what makes the best portrait lens.
We’re here to help you out with that. Our review guide will break down 10 of the best portrait lenses available in 2020, and we’ve been conscientious about making sure that all major camera manufacturers are covered in our best portrait lens guide. Then we break down the important features to look for in a lens for portrait photography.
- 10 Best Portrait Lenses
- 1. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens
- 2. Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens
- 3. YONGNUO YN50mm F1.8 Standard Prime Lens
- 4. Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G Lens
- 5. Panasonic Lumix G Lens
- 6. Sony-E 50mm F1.8 OSS Portrait Lens
- 7. Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM Lens
- 8. Tamron 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 Lens
- 9. Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R
- 10. Rokinon FE14M-C 14mm F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens
- Portrait Lens Buyer’s Guide
10 Best Portrait Lenses
1. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens
If you have a Canon camera and you want a lens that will produce portraits with a highly naturalistic look, the Canon EF 50mm is one of the best choices available to you. The smaller focal length is versatile enough that it can serve as more than just a portrait lens, but it really sings when it accompanies a full frame camera. And the fact that it's compatible with the EF mounting system means that it will work well with practically any Canon DSLR you'll find (and mirrorless cameras with just a simple converter).
This prime lens is also an incredibly lightweight and compact choice, so it will be easy to find room even if your bag is already loaded up with gear. And the relatively high aperture means that it can perform admirably even in extraordinarily low light situations.
2. Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens
Do you want something that can provide a more shallow depth of field that will really help put your subjects in perspective? This 85 mm fixed length lens offers the same level of diversity compatibility that you'd find with the previous Canon lens, and while it may cost a bit more, it's a more serious lens built for the needs of professional photographers. The angle of view and perspective here are both very natural despite the flattened out depth of view, and it's remarkably lightweight despite being a more serious telephoto lens.
Just keep in mind that this isn't a lens especially suited to beginners. The dramatic bokeh is going to create trickier shooting situations, but for hobbyists and professionals who want to produce dramatic and highly artistic portraits, it's one of the best Canon models you'll find. It also includes a USM motor for incredibly fast focus speeds.
3. YONGNUO YN50mm F1.8 Standard Prime Lens
Buying a lens from the camera manufacturer ensures something approaching the best level of quality around the board, but if you need something cheap that can still perform to your specifications, something like this 50mm f1.8 model from Yongnuo can really suit your needs. It's functionally very similar to the 50 mm Canon we reviewed above, but you can pick up this lens built for portrait shooting for less than $50. Its EF mount compatibility means that it will work with almost any Canon camera in your collection as well.
Just because this model is cheap doesn't mean that you have to worry about it under performing. Despite not having all the bells and whistles you might find in a first party Canon lens, it takes incredibly crisp photos with a great sense of background blur, and the construction is solid and reliable.
4. Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G Lens
While we've been focusing on Canon lenses up until now, Nikon users don't have to be left high and dry. This DSLR portrait lens is available for less than $200, and it's largely comparable to what Canon makes in house. The prime design of this lens results in some of the best picture quality you'll find, and the quality maximum aperture setting really allows this lens to shine even when you're in poorly lit environments. That makes it one of the best choices for street photography, where you may not have full control of your environmental conditions.
The shallow depth of field here is phenomenal, letting you really put your subject in focus, and the fresh new optical system uses an aspherical lens element to significantly reduce the risk of chromatic aberrations and other defects. It provides edge to edge sharpness in both DX and FX Nikon DSLR models.
5. Panasonic Lumix G Lens
Panasonic aren't quite in the legendary tier of camera manufacturers alongside Canon and Nikon, but they still make some remarkable bodies, and it would be remiss to not include a lens for their cameras here. As befits Panasonic's particular talent for video, this is a portrait lens that can work with both stills and moving pictures. Naturally, the motor here runs incredibly silent, an appropriate choice for both videographers and photographers.
And while the focal length here is much smaller than what you'll find for most of the lenses we're featuring on this list, it's still a great choice that delivers high-quality background blur. It's also one of the most lightweight portrait lenses you'll find. On the surface, this is a bit of an odd choice for portraits, but you'll find yourself falling in love with it pretty quickly.
6. Sony-E 50mm F1.8 OSS Portrait Lens
Sony isn't messing around with their portrait lens production. The OSS may cost you right around $350, we're confident in calling it one of the best portrait lenses available for a Sony camera. The aluminum alloy exterior looks great, but it's not just about aesthetics. It nicely bridges the gap between durability and a lightweight frame to deliver a lens that can go with you anywhere without risk of it taking damage.
But what puts this in premium lens territory is the inclusion of a dedicated optical stabilization system Sony calls SteadyShot. That means you'll get the background blur you want without having to worry about the blur you don't want from camera shake. And further building on those capabilities is the presence of a seven blade circular aperture that can provide you with the sort of precise clarity that a pro needs when working in portraiture.
7. Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM Lens
This 24 mm lens for photography is both the thinnest and the most lightweight lens in the EF-S series, and if you own a compatible Canon camera and want a portrait lens with a wide field of vision, it's going to be both the best and one of the most affordable choices for your kit. Fortunately, compatibility shouldn't be a big issue. This should work well with any DSLR Canon available (as well as any mirrorless equivalents with an appropriate converter).
The aspherical design of this lens does a great job at delivering crisp color from edge to edge, a good thing given the comparable width of shots this lens will produce. Support is available for both manual focus and one touch autofocus, and it can provide you with the sort of focus you'll love in almost no time at all thanks to Canon's high-quality stepping motor design.
8. Tamron 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 Lens
Tamron is one of the most well respected third party manufacturers in the world, and they've really outdone themselves with this portrait lens. It's the first adjustable lens on our list and one of the best choices if you want a telephoto lens you can use for photography shooting at a variety of different distances. The motor runs at a fast and smooth clip to help you get in focus easier, making this one of the quickest and most versatile lenses for portrait photography.
Tamron's portrait lens is compatible with both full frame and APS-C cameras, and there are models available for both Canon and Nikon cameras. Tamron's trademark quality construction is on display here as well, making use of low dispersion coating that reduces chromatic aberrations and provides a crisper and more vibrantly lush look in all of your pictures. You can capture some truly dramatic shots with this.
9. Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R
Olympus brings us one of the best zoom lenses for portraits. The expansive range of this model makes it appropriate for both action photography and portrait photography, and it's surprisingly silent for a high end zoom. That makes it one of the most versatile lenses that you'll find on our list and perhaps the best and most sensible choice if you're looking for a non-prime lens for your Olympus camera.
This is a premium lens with optical image stabilization built in, and if you plan on shooting video, this lens is certainly up to the task. It makes use of a linear drive motor that's incredibly quiet. Working in tandem with the image stabilization system, it's sure to provide you with high-quality and high frame rate video without distracting you with loud noise. We rank it the best telephoto portrait lens available for photography with an Olympus camera.
10. Rokinon FE14M-C 14mm F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens
Rokinson is one of the most prolific third party producers of lenses, and we're of the mind that this particular luxury model is even better than many of its contemporaries, at least if you're willing to pay a decent chunk of change for the privilege. The ultra wide focal length will of course be of situational value for shooting portraits, but if you regularly find yourself capturing a large group of subjects or working with travel portraiture, it will be a trusted choice to keep in your camera bag.
And there's a high level of compatibility here. You'll find models that work with Canon, Olympus, Sony, and even Fujifilm mounts. Whatever camera you use, chances are that you can mount this ultra wide model on it. The petal style hood comes with your purchase, and the minimum focus distance of 28 cm lets you get up close and personal.
Portrait Lens Buyer’s Guide
Even if you don’t understand the difference between focal length and aperture, you can still shoot great portraits, but if you take your photography seriously, you need to possess an intimate understanding of the equipment you use. Below, we’ll break down the features and specs that make a great portraits lens. Then we’ll get into greater detail about the photographic principles that go into shooting a good photo. Finally, we’ll provide sharp and direct answers to some of the most common questions we hear from customers shopping for lenses for portrait photography.
Your absolutely first and most important consideration should, of course, be whether or not your new portrait lens is going to work with your camera. Unfortunately, there’s no universal standard for a mount, as each manufacturer wants their customers to not just purchase a camera for them but to also buy proprietary lenses. Canon and Nikon have the greatest variety available, and lens variety should actually be a decision to keep in mind before you ever buy a camera.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to buy a model produced by the camera manufacturer. Many third party companies are producing lenses for the bigger brands, and they often produce lenses as good or better than what the original manufacturer can provide.
Also keep in mind that just because a portrait lens is marketed towards your camera brand doesn’t mean it will be a compatible. Companies often use different mounts in different cameras, so be sure that your lens is compatible before pulling the trigger. Most lenses by the major manufacturers are created with traditional digital SLR cameras in mind, but you can usually find a mount converter if there’s a particular DSLR portrait lens you want to use for shooting with a mirrorless camera.
Focal length refers to the distance between the lens itself and the sensor inside. And that distance has a major effect of how the environment in front of you imprints itself onto the sensor of your camera. At its most basic, the closer lenses are to the sensor, the wider the angle of the environment you’re going to be able to capture when shooting. The focal length is one of the largest factors in the kind of photographs you want to shoot, and while there are recognized lengths that are generally considered as being good when you need a lens for portrait photography, practically any lens can produce good portrait work.
But focal length also has an effect on the depth of field for photos. Wider lenses tend to flatten out and distort the subject, while longer models like a macro lens will create more flatteringly distinct impressions on their subject at the expense of depth of field. As the focal length goes up, the subject tends to be shot in sharper contrast while the background experiences more “bokeh”, or background blur. We’ll highlight some of the more standard focal lengths below so you can find the right focal length for portrait for your needs.
- Wide angle lenses like our 24 mm models are not the conventional focal length for portrait work, but they do come with advantages. They can stretch out the features of your subjects, so they aren’t a flattering choice for a more traditional portrait, but they’re great if the environment around your subject is just as important as the subject themselves. That makes them one of the best choices if you’re shooting portraits in exotic locales.
- The 50mm lens is known as the “Nifty Fifty”, and it’s one of the most commonly used models for photographers. That’s because it captures a field of view that closely resembles what the human eye sees. They fall into a sort of middle ground for portrait lenses: not as expansive as a wide but not as crisply settled on the subject as something like an 85mm. They’re one of the best choices if you want a versatile model that can be used for a number of different tasks, but they won’t produce the traditional portraiture photography that something with a higher focal length will.
- An 85mm lens is largely regarded as the sweet sport for shooting portraits. It distorts things slightly off from the human eye, producing a narrower frame that does a great job of deprecating the focus on everything but your subject. It also gives you enough space from your subject to shoot comfortably. If you’re using a full frame camera, 85mm is ideal. If you’re working with an APS-C, you’ll find equivalent results from something around a 56mm.
- As you move upward from 85mm lenses, you start to settle into what’s known as telephoto lenses. These are traditionally used for capturing objects far away, and most models that extend into the telephoto range are zooms. That’s great if you want more flexibility to capture subjects in practically any format you can imagine, but the need to stand further away from your subject can be frustrating. But the ability to create meaningful bokeh and settle in tightly on your subject makes telephoto lenses a reasonable choice.
One final thing you’ll want to keep in mind is the sensor on your camera. Different sized lenses will produce different results depending on the size of the sensor. Whether you’re looking at a full frame, micro four thirds, or APS-C sensor, you should see what results each focal length will produce and consider that when picking out lenses for portrait photography.
Focal length is easily the best spec to consider first when seeking out lenses for portrait photography, but the minimum and maximum aperture range is a close second. The aperture refers to the hole at the front of your camera. It feeds light into the lens which then reflects the image onto the sensor embedded in your camera body. Aperture refers to how wide that hole opens, thus affecting how much light pours through.
Aperture is adjustable, and it’s a fairly complicated component of how a camera works. A wider aperture is a necessary when working in low light situations. Too small and your photo is going to be distorted and dark. But when seeking out the best lens for portrait photography, how small your aperture will go is going to be the most important consideration. In part, that’s because of the fact that many portraits are going to be shot in controlled environments where you can adjust the lighting to suit your needs.
But it’s also a major factor because aperture helps determine your depth of field. Focal length, aperture, and shutter speed are all balanced against each other, each offering strengths and weaknesses in terms of distortion, blur, and brightness. If you want more information on shutter speed and the exposure triangle, check out our ultimate guide to mirrorless cameras. But long story short, a wide aperture will help you keep your subject in focus and create a greater sense of bokeh in the background.
If you use a wider aperture, the crispness of your photo quality will be more tightened at your point of focus. As you extend into narrower apertures, the consistency of the image quality will spread from end to end. The ideal aperture size for you is also affected by how experienced you are. While a wider aperture can produce great results when used by a professional gifted in photography, it definitely requires a keen eye, a steady hand, and a good bit of experience.
One final thing. Aperture length is going to appear somewhat counter-intuitive to newer photographers. The maximum number on lenses actually refers to the narrowest focal length, and your aperture will go wider as you proceed to smaller format numbers.
As we stated above, capturing the best portrait requires some skill and a solid understanding of aperture, shutter speed, and exposure. Shooting at a lower aperture level allows you to get the maximum value out of the portrait format, but it can also be tricky for less experienced photographers. A slight shift of your hand can easily throw off the quality of your photo and sabotage your best angle shots. Image stabilization can help with that.
Lenses that come with image stabilization built in are automatically designed to counteract any shaking and shuddering that comes from the movement of the motor. And that lends them a critical advantage when dealing with both manual and autofocus photography. Image stabilization is a best choice for newer photographers and great when you’re trying to capture a photo from a tricky angle. But keep in mind that these features will increase the cost of the lens, and your camera body may already come with an image stabilization system in place.
We didn’t include coating on our specs list because there’s no standardized format for comparing different coating qualities, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a consideration in the shopping process. Coating helps reduce flare and chromatic aberrations, and naturally that produces better results all across the board. It does this by reducing how much light is reflected off of the glass itself and creates brighter images with less distortion and lens glare. That’s especially important when shooting portraits, since you’ll often be using wider apertures that can conceivably be reflected.
The bottom line is that you want a coated model. For that reason, we’ve only included coated lenses on our list. How much research you feel you need to do into the quality of an individual brand’s coating will vary depending on how meticulous and professional you are, but it doesn’t really need to be a major consideration for most customers.
A good camera lens is more than just a piece of coated glass just situated behind the aperture. Modern lenses come with motors built in that complement the autofocus capabilities of your camera. The usually linear motors will adjust the focal length to help your subject stay in focus, and that’s an especially important consideration considering how crucial it is to keep your subject in focus when shooting a portrait. The best lens for portraits offer sophisticated motors that allow you to obtain a field of view where the subject is crisp and clear and the background has a flat and blurred quality.
When looking at a motor, you need to balance the considerations of speed and noise. The advantages of a high speed motor are rather obvious. The quicker that your camera can focus on your subject, the more easily you can get capture them in moments of truth. Faster motors are especially valuable for portrait and action photography, so finding the best speed will probably be your major concern when looking for a portrait lens. Silent motors are a better choice when shooting video, and they can help you capture natural subjects easier and without distraction.
Most manufacturers offer one lens for their models, and they seek out a balance between speed and noise. One exception is Canon, which offers two types of motor models for its lensses: an ultrasonic motor (USM) and a stepper motor (STM). USM is focused more on being quiet and is tailored towards professional photographers and those needing to shoot video. The Canon stepper motor is more focused on speed, and it’s a great choice for beginners who may rely more on the autofocus systems.
Weight and Dimensions
Even the biggest lenses on our list can fit comfortably in the hands of most people, so does the size and weight really matter? It does, but how much it does will depend on the kind of photo shooting you do. If you’re a studio photographer with a heavy bag and a huge collection of gear, you don’t need to worry too much. You’re less inclined to have to lug your camera body and gear all over the place.
But if you plan on doing street work or shooting nature photography, the difference of a few ounces or a few millimeters can really make a big difference. This probably shouldn’t be the top priority when looking at specs for a lens, but you should definitely keep in mind the limited storage space you’re going to have when you venture out in the wild with your camera. An extra pound or a half may not seem like too much to wear around your neck (especially if you wear a heavy DSLR camera), but it can really weigh on you if you’re spending hours with it strapped to your body.
When choosing a lens type, you’ll have the option of either a prime or a zoom. A zoom is exactly what it says. It allows you to shift the focal length to capture a wide variety of subjects. Most zoom models are telephoto lenses, and they offer a lot of flexibility if you want to tidy up the kit you carry with you. Many offer focal lengths that hit the sweet spot for the traditional portrait format while also allowing you to capture subjects further away. The ability to adjust the focal length offers a great way to capture precise and spontaneous moments because you won’t have to swap out your lens for another on the fly.
But a prime lens is almost always the best choice in a controlled environment. While they only allow you to shoot from a specific focal length, the quality of these lenses tend to be better. You’ll get crisper and more consistent results around the board, and they can also serve a valuable purpose for amateurs. A prime model will force you to find the right distance from your subject and get comfortable with finding the best angle for the shot format you’re trying to capture. And the quality of these lenses ensures that a prime is almost always going to be the best choice for studio photographers who have the best control over their environment.
The cheapest portrait lenses around are available for less than $50, but the best will cost you a few hundred dollars. This is a situation where you get what you pay for. That’s not to say that the cheaper lenses on our list aren’t great. Every option we’ve put up here is a contender for the best lens for portraits in its price range, so you don’t have to worry about investing in a portrait lens outside of your means if you don’t need to. If you’re just starting out with photography, you should be just fine investing in a lens for your camera that’s under a hundred dollars.
But if you’re a budding hobbyist or have aspirations towards professional photography, we recommend generally looking at the higher end lenses of $200 or more. You’re going to spend more, but the features are definitively better, and the visual acuity really goes above and beyond what a budget model can offer. Just exercise caution if you’re looking for a portrait lens outside of our guide. We’ve picked the best of the best, but in the larger market, there can be some significant variations in quality even when looking at expensive models.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Lens is Best for Portrait Photography?
Any of the lenses on our review list will do a great job of capturing the field of view you want when shooting portraits, but part of what makes photographers fall in love with a lens is how it feels. The best portrait lens for you needs to be compatible with your camera, and once you’ve narrowed down those options, you’ll want to consider what field of view is best suited to your style of photography.
Is a 50 mm Lens Good for Portraits?
Fifty millimeters is a bit on the short end for a portrait lens, but it can still do a great job of shooting portrait photography. This focal length is a natural choice for thriftier photographers and those still learning the basics because it has the versatility to shoot more than just portraits, but many photographers will want a longer portrait lens for more dramatic and distinct portraiture shots. But the closer to average focal length of a 50mm lens means that it can serve a lot of purposes in addition to traditional portrait photography. We get into the specifics more thoroughly in our guide above.
What Canon Lenses Are Best for Portraits?
If you’re working with an APS-C camera body, we recommend the 50mm lens, and we recommend the 85mm lens for a full frame or micro four thirds camera. These standards recognized by most portrait photographers as the ideal format for capturing traditionally style portraits. We suggest going with the lenses made in house by Canon, though the Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8g provides respectable performance for the best price around.
Which Focal Length is Best for Portraits?
That really depends on what kind of portrait you’re looking for, but experienced photographers will tell you that an APS-C should use roughly 50mm for an APS-C format camera and 85mm for a micro four thirds or full frame camera. That said, you should experiment with a few different styles to find what works for you.
Even if you aren’t a portrait photographer, we suggest that you have a portrait lens in your collection. Fortunately, there’s a pretty wide variety of models available. While the necessity to cover multiple brands means that your options here may be limited based off the mod of camera you use, we’re confident that these represent the best models for most of our readers.