The Best Lenses for Portrait and Headshots (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Tamron and Sigma) - Updated 2020
08 May 2020

Portrait photography is a big part of my professional work in Hong Kong, and depending on the type of portraits, I have to choose the best gear for the job. Of course, this means the best lens for the result the client wants to achieve. Having used different types of portrait lenses over the years, I am about to spill the beans on which lens I think is the best one yet.

Portrait photography is the essence of capturing a person’s identity and personality. It goes beyond taking a snapshot of someone’s face; the photographer has to plan out what the client or subject wants.

If you would like to learn more about portrait photography, you may consider reading my articles “Headshot Tips for Photographers and Models” and “6 Reasons Why Regularly Updating Your Professional Head Shot is a Must in Hong Kong.”

Having to choose lighting gear, locations, models, and lenses are essential elements for a successful photo shoot. Briefing with the client on what they need and planning out the location plays an integral part in which lenses I have to take with me that day. I have grown to know that in whatever situation, I have my go-to portrait lenses that will provide excellent results. 

Though some photographers may argue about the brands they favor, I feel the performance of the lens combined with the photographer’s experience is what makes the difference. 

Furthermore, a good photographer will choose lenses he/she is comfortable with, so here are some of my recommendations. 

By the end of this article, you will know what to consider when buying your portrait lens and how to use it effectively. 

Best Portrait Lens – Quick Summary

Best Overall Portrait Lens: 

Best Budget Portrait Lens: 

Best Zoom Lens for Portraits

Best Portrait Lens Worthy of Special Mention

Best Portrait Lens - What to Consider:

We should start with a fun fact: There is no best lens! The best is always subjective. The lens you choose will depend on your budget, your style, and the result of what you or your client want to achieve.

When reading this article, you’ll probably have your camera already or you may be in the market to purchase one. We hope you will find this article useful for choosing the best portrait lens.

The Build

Some lenses are made of metal, and some cheap but good ones are made of strong plastic. Go for the one that you will be comfortable with when out shooting the whole day. Every situation is different, investing in a good quality lens which can last for many years is always a great idea. 

The Price

The price can vary from expensive to reasonable and there are many options within each brand. Ask yourself this: Will this lens give me the results I need? Since optical technology doesn’t develop as fast as camera sensors, I always believe that lenses are long term investments. 

Prime Lens or Zoom Lens?

Prime lenses are fixed focal length lenses, which means you can only change your distance to your subject by using ‘leg zoom’. In other words, you need to walk! However, these lenses in general provide superior quality and sharpness. 

Zoom lenses are known to be big and bulky, but they have a variable focal length. You can zoom in on a subject to get closer or zoom out to get farther without having to move an inch from where you are standing. This comes in handy if your subject is moving for example. 

The market for Portrait lenses is broad, and it can be overwhelming when you are just starting. 

Always buy a lens that you need, not what you think you should own. 

Best Portrait Lens - Our Top Picks

Best Overall Canon Portrait Lens: Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens

The Canon 85mm f/1.4 is hailed by most photographers as the best portrait lens on the market today. Its 85mm focal length provides an engaging way to take portrait shots without distorting the facial features.

What I like:

  • Ultra-wide aperture
  • f/1.4 Aperture (creates a strong bokeh)
  • Matte Black finish (repels fingerprints)
  • Lens focus is fast
  • Weather-sealed
  • Best investment for going pro
  • Great for weddings, events, concerts, parties, documentaries, and more

What I Dislike: 

  • It is on the heavier side
  • A bit pricey
  • You can’t zoom as it is a prime lens

>> Check Price of Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM on Amazon <<

 

Best Overall Nikon Portrait Lens: Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G Lens

The Nikon 85MM is by far one of the best lenses ever made. It is super sharp and has an amazing bokeh without compromising its sharpness even at f/1.4. 

The images of this particular lens are beautiful and breathtaking. As someone who mainly shoots with Nikon, this one is a keeper. 

What I like:

  • Sharp photos
  • Versatile (Shooting, Sharpness, Focus, Build)
  • Good for Low-light shooting 
  • Uses traditional optics that Nikon is known for (good quality and performance)
  • All-around lens
  • Great for weddings, events, concerts, parties, documentaries, and more
  • Reasonable price for the quality and build

What I Dislike:

  • You can’t zoom as it is a prime lens

>> Check Price of Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G on Amazon <<

 

Below is a portrait taken with Nikon 85mm

Portrait taken with Nikon 85mm by AliGstudios from Hong Kong

Best Budget Canon Portrait Lens: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens

The Canon 50mm f/1.8 is one of the best portrait lenses that are also affordable and does a great job. It was supposed to replace the older EF 50mm in 1990, but since then the EF 50mm has built quite a reputation as one of Canon's top portrait lenses. 

What I like:

  • Large aperture - great for separating the subject from its foreground and hence creating a shallow depth of field
  • Compact
  • Affordable fixed focal length lens
  • Compatible with Canon’s full-frame cameras
  • Autofocus is good
  • Great for weddings, events, concerts, parties, documentaries, and more

What I Dislike:

  • Autofocus sound is noticeable when in a room with a quiet environment
  • Made of plastic - build quality is lacking

>> Check Price of Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM on Amazon <<

 

Best Budget Nikon Portrait Lens: Nikon 50mm f/1.4G AF-S NIKKOR Lens

The Nikon 50mm f/1.4 is the best affordable 50mm that Nikon has to offer in their line-up. It is a fixed-focal-length and has an f/1.4 aperture that can also create a soft bokeh. Color rendition is very accurate and can match with other prime lenses on the market. 

What I like:

  • Affordable and can shoot great photos
  • Made with high-quality plastic - with a rubberized ring that doesn’t slip
  • Compatible with current Nikon DSLRs
  • Good for low-light conditions
  • First AF on Nikon lenses that works with D40 or D60
  • Great for weddings, events, concerts, parties, documentaries, and more

What I Dislike:

  • Distortion on this lens is visible
  • Not weather-sealed

>> Check Price of Nikon 50mm f/1.4G AF-S on Amazon <<

 

Best Zoom Lens for Portraits: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S NIkkor Zoom Lens

The Nikon 70-200mm VR II is one step more powerful than its predecessor the Nikon 70-200mm VR. Its new close-focus distance is now rated at 4.6 feet instead of the usual 5 feet of lenses available since 1988.

What I like:

  • 70-200mm focal length - to frame subjects more into the background
  • Focus is amazing and distortion is minimal
  • Sharp photos at any angle
  • The button placement is comfortable and minimal
  • Amazing portrait shoots for weddings, events, documentaries, concerts, and more

What I Dislike:

  • This is a heavy-duty lens
  • Professional grade price

>> Check Price of Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S on Amazon <<

 

Below is a photo taken with the Nikon 70-200mm Lens

Portrait taken with Nikon 70-200mm by AliGstudios from Hong Kong

Best Zoom Lens for Portraits: Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC Zoom Lens

The Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC (Vibration Control) is one of the highest-specified lenses on the market. Why? Because it is the first and only optically-stabilized fast normal zoom for full-frame cameras.

What I like:

  • 24-70mm focal length
  • Fast f/2.8 constant maximum aperture
  • Vibration Control (VC) - for optical stabilization 
  • Ultrasonic-type autofocus motor - for fast and silent focusing
  • Weather-sealed (Drip-proof)
  • Lens mount is also available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony SLRs
  • Cheaper than Canon, Nikon, and Sony lenses very own 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses - which also boasts the same specifications
  • Image stabilization is awesome 
  • Great for weddings, enthusiast and semi-professional photographers, and more

What I Dislike:

  • Undesirable onion-shaped bokeh
  • The sharpness of the lens deteriorates as the lens is zoomed in

>> Check Price of Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC Zoom on Amazon <<

 

Best Zoom Lens for Portraits: Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED Zoom Lens

When Nikon announced their first full-frame camera, the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 was announced alongside it. It is a fast, high-quality standard zoom for FX and DX Nikon DSLRs. 

What I like:

  • 24-70mm focal length with f/2.8 aperture
  • Weather-sealed
  • Sharp - it has an excellent central sharpness “wide open” at f/2.8
  • Solid build with no fiddling
  • Great for weddings, events, concerts, parties, sports, documentaries, and more
  • All-around lens

What I Dislike: 

  • Most expensive midrange zoom lens - until replaced by 24-70mm f/2.8 VR

I use this lens on my Nikon D4s and Nikon D5 80% of the time as a professional wedding photographer because it gives me flexibility if I need to zoom in for a quick portrait or capture family photos of the wedding party.

>> Check Price of Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED Zoom Lens on Amazon <<

 

Below is a photo I took with Nikon 24-70mm lens.

Portrait taken with Nikon 24-70mm by AliGstudios from Hong Kong

Best Portrait Lens Worth For Special Mentions: Sony FE 85mm f/1.8

The Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 lens is a full-frame prime lens. It has the most outstanding image sharpness and a creamy bokeh resulting from a 9 blade circular aperture that creates an amazing round defocused effect.

What I like: 

  • 85mm fixed focal length
  • Sharp photos
  • Versatile
  • Popular among Sony photographers
  • One of the best Sony portrait lenses on the market
  • Not that pricey for its quality compared to the higher-priced lenses mentioned above
  • Great for portrait photography, weddings, events, parties, concerts, documentaries, lifestyle, and more

>> Check Price of Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 on Amazon <<

 

Best Portrait Lens Worth For Special Mentions: Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art

This Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art is the best portrait lens Sigma offers. With exceptional image quality and sharpness, the high-end build makes it a popular choice for portrait photographers.

What I like:

  • 105mm fixed focal length with f/1.4 aperture - takes amazing silky-smooth background blur
  • Good for low light shots
  • Good quality shots
  • Sharp photos even at the widest aperture
  • Great for portrait photography, weddings, events, parties, concerts, documentaries, lifestyle, and more
  • Reasonable price

What I Dislike:

  • It's a bit on the heavy side

>> Check Price of Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art on Amazon <<

 

Best Portrait Lens Worth For Special Mentions: Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 R

The 56mm focal length on APS-C gives you an equivalent of 85mm for a full-frame camera. The Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 R has a fast aperture of 1.2, enabling a shallow depth of field that can give your photos an aesthetic bokeh effect. 

What I like: 

  • Great price point option as a mid-range lens
  • 1.2 aperture is sharp - oval shapes at the edges of each circle making the look more unique
  • Other than portraits, this lens is great for weddings, events, parties, concerts, documentaries, lifestyle, and more

What I Dislike:

  • AF motor is not the fastest - but performs well when shooting a whole day for a wedding

>> Check Price of Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 R on Amazon <<

 

Best Portrait Lens FAQ

What is the Best Lens for Portrait Photography?

This is one of the most heated debates among photographers, especially newer and younger photographers.

The actual answer is that there is no best lens; you can even create amazing portraits with your mobile phone.

However, there are settings and focal lengths that can give you different effects such as compression, depth of field, or bokeh as some call it, and so on.

A better question would be "What is the best lens for a particular result I want to achieve?"

Which is better for portraits, 50mm, or 85mm?  

We will consider this question based on focal length and pricing. 

Both lenses can be excellent. The reason that many prefer the 50mm also called the 'nifty fifty,' is that 50mm is the closest focal length to what our eyes see. It can also be used for a range of angles and types of photography, from portraits to food to street photography!

It is also very reasonably priced; therefore, it's accessible to most photographers, from amateurs to pros.

I use the 85mm f1.4 from Nikon due to its sharpness and the high-quality bokeh it produces, but it is more expensive than the 50mm f1.4.

Why is the 85mm f1.4 Lens Good for Portraits?

 The 85mm f1.4 lens is super sharp, creates a great bokeh and you're still close enough to your subject to guide them in posing and movements. It also gives a bit more compression, which is important if you want to make people look slimmer. 

Which is Better for Portraits, 35mm, or 50mm?

50mm is the closest focal length to what our eyes see, but 35mm gives you a wider frame. For example, if the photographer needs to show more of the environment, then a 35mm lens is more useful.  

However, if the environment is not as important or a wide shot is not needed, then a 50mm lens can work great as well. In general, many street photographers swear by the 50mm. 

Is a 70-300mm Lens Good for Portraits?

It can be, but around a focal length of 200mm max. Above 200mm, the compression becomes too much, and the subject does not look as good or as natural.

What is the Best Focal Length for Portraits?

I prefer focal lengths between 85-135mm as a professional photographer. They allow for enough compression but at 85mm, I am still close enough to the subject so I can talk to him/her. If money is no object, I would go for a 50mm f1.8, 85mm f1.4, and 70-200mm f2.8 lens.

Final Words

With more expensive lenses, you can expect sharper images, less flare, and better build quality, something that can last you much longer. When it comes to image quality, you will also notice a bigger difference between expensive and cheap zoom lenses compared to prime lenses. Therefore, photographers should consider investing in lenses more than camera bodies.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to what you need to achieve and deliver to your client, or the effect you prefer if just photographing for yourself. Therefore, any of these lenses can be a good choice. You choose what you need despite all those numbers in the specifications. What matters is how you feel about them and the result the lenses can give you.

Creativity should not be measured by the tech or gadgets you use but by the realness and the emotions portrayed in your work. 

Please show some love and follow us on social media to stay connected with more of our exciting projects!

Ali G Studios   IG: @aligphoto   Youtube: @AliGStudios 

A big thanks to Phottix for the professional lighting equipment provided to Ali G Studios.  

The cover photo is © Ali Ghorbani and Ali G Studios

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