Five Lenses Every Portrait Photographer Should Have

Five Lenses Every Portrait Photographer Should Have

In order to be a great portrait photographer you need a set of decent tools in order to do your job. Whether you work in the studio or out in the field we take a look at five top lenses for portrait photography.Whether shooting Sony, Nikon, Canon or any other camera system, there are some mainstay lenses that every portrait photographer turns to for their work. Typically, they're on the longer end of the focal length range, have wide apertures, and are well known for being razor sharp. From weddings to street photography, studio to location portraits, there's a wide range of applications for portraits, so while not an exhaustive list, here are my top five.

Portrait of woman outdoors

The best portrait lenses aren't necessarily the most expensive, but the ones most useful for creating the most effective portraits

1. 85mm f/1.4

The absolute golden staple for serious portrait photographers must be the 85mm f/1.4 lens. Its long focal length, and wide fixed aperture combine to create a portrait like no other. The image quality of pictures taken on this lens is instantly recognizable to those in the know. At 85mm the facial features are flattened a little which complements almost any subject. The glass is also incredibly sharp so crisp detail around the eyes is out of this world.

85mm f/1.4 prime lens

The 85mm f/1.4 lens is the quintessential portrait lens that many photographers turn to

2. 70-200mm f/2.8

Telephoto lenses sure do flatter subjects due to their perspectival compression, and that's what makes this lens such a big hitter in the world of portraits. The wide focal length range of the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is incredibly useful for photographers that shoot in medium to large spaces. They're also ideal for outdoor shoots where that extra compression helps fill the background when zoomed in. A fixed f/2.8 aperture also lets a lot of light in, so it's also good for live music/gig portraits too, without the need to ramp up ISO too high.

70-200mm f/2.8 telezoom lens

The zoom range of the 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto makes it flexible for indoor or outdoor portraits

3. 35mm f/1.4

A perfect wide-angle prime that pairs well with another fixed focal length or even a telezoom is the 35mm f/1.4. With wide-angles, due to their inherent physical characteristics, it can be quite hard to get a shallow depth of field — we know that from our smartphones which are so wide they even need a depth of field algorithm to make portraits look cooler. However, the 35mm f/1.4 has such a wide aperture that it makes it easy to pick out a subject, and isolate them from the background. They're usually sharp as a tack, too. A simple lens perfect for contextual portraits or street work.

35mm f/1.4 wide-angle lens

A great wide-angle prime lens that delivers high quality results and shallow depth of field

4. 50mm f/1.8

Now this inclusion may throw some of you, but there's a reason why this is an f/1.8 and not an f/1.4. The 50mm f/1.8 is the gateway to prime lenses with its fast aperture, and small form factor, they're also pretty cheap by comparison with other lenses, especially if bought second-hand. It's known as the nifty fifty because it fits snugly right in your pocket, if you need it to. A featherweight, this lens packs a portrait punch without breaking the bank.

50mm f/1.8 lens for portraits

The nifty fifty is a staple among many portrait photographers and is a great way in to the fast prime market

5. 18-55mm

The 18-55mm lens ships with many entry to mid-level camera system and for good reason. It's light, it's sharp, it has a helpful zoom range, and it's flexible. I bet almost every photographer has owned or used one at some point in their lives. Different brands have different aperture ranges, ranging from f/3.5-5.6, and some boast image stabilization as well. You'll be surprised just how good you can get your portraits with this little stunner.

18-55mm wide to mid lens

A versatile little lens that is breathtakingly sharp for such a small form factor zoom

Of course, there are many other lenses that are great for portraits, some wider, some faster or slower. But this top five round up covers the majority of both high, and low-end lenses that feature in almost every camera system lens line-up. If you've got a go-to portrait lens not listed here, share it with us below.

Log in or register to post comments

32 Comments

Michael Comeau's picture

Every portrait photographer needs $4,000 in lenses? Umm, no.

Matt Williams's picture

#5 seems a weird choice.... Nikon's new 18-55 AF-P is pretty good (older ones were crap) but you need to stop down for best quality and also it's just... not a good option for portraits.

For DX, the Nikkor 35/1.8G would be better. Or a 50/1.8. Or if you want a zoom, the Tamron 17-35/2.8-4 Di would be better. Or something similar.

For me, the Nikkor 58/1.4G is one of the best portrait lenses ever made. Terrible MTF charts, lovely lovely lovely portrait photos from it. Sometimes sheer perfection of IQ isn't the best choice, and I don't usually say that.

Mike Ditz's picture

Seems like a lot of extra things, money, weight, decisions to have. IMO an 85 gives a nice head shot and a 35 or 28 will do a good job when you want to show environment.
From what I have seen long lenses are not really popular these days as the "look" is wider, maybe due to the influence of phone cameras.
There is a lot of overlap in this collection of lenses. Not five lenses, maybe two.

Pradipto WP's picture

"long lenses are not really popular these days as the "look" is wider, maybe due to the influence of phone cameras."

That's why i now shoot with long lens. To sparate with the others. I don't want my photos look like everybody else. Especially those taken with phones.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

I just love head shots on ~100mm or so.

I don't care what other people think is trending.

Sometimes I even go as far as going full 200mm. It depends. But almost always longer than 50mm.

Mike Ditz's picture

I like 85-105, I don't really like the look of anything longer unless it's a special effect.
If you are shooting for clients and they like a "modern look" as opposed to the more "classic" long lens look then maybe you'd take that into account.
If you are the client then do what ever you like.

Lee Christiansen's picture

How is the Sigma 105mm not in this line up? (Or any other 105mm)

I ditched my 85L because I didn't like the focal length, but about 105mm on a full frame is a very sweet spot indeed.

Michael Franks's picture

50,85,100, 135

Matthew Lacy's picture

I don't know about portrait, but I will always appreciate a good 70-200 F/2.8 lens.

Mike Ditz's picture

That and a 24-70 f2.8 are all I need but I have a lot more than I need lol

Luke Adams's picture

What a weird little article. Maybe these are 5 options every portrait photographer should consider, but saying they SHOULD have these lenses is terrible advice. Also, you are mixing full-frame and apsc sized lenses in your list. Again, terrible advice. The 85 and the 35 is more than enough for most portrait photographers, and if you wanted to add a 3rd, then maybe the 70-200.

Sam Sims's picture

I’ve seen too many articles/videos titled something like ‘lenses every photographer MUST own’. The usual 24-70, 70-200, 35, 50, 85 lenses will appear on the list. Very predictable and certainly not a must as we should all choose whatever lenses we like.

Walter Kovacs's picture

Once a 105mm would have been considered the portrait lens.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Nikkor 135mm and/or 105mm f2 DC lens and then any other lens anyone deems necessary.

Tim Cool's picture

Shoot portrait since 1992, my top lens is 135mm full frame

maurice keith Pennington's picture

Still prefer my 105 / 135 f2

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

As an m4/3 shooter I don't feel I need/want/should have any of those. But the title says I should so I guess I'll have to buy them then.

Richard King's picture

Sort of wierd article. I shoot people with anything ranging from..

14-24 to a 300mm PF, and most of the usual suspects in between

35mm
50mm
60mm
85mm
100mm
135mm DC
200mm

And then
24-70
70-200

jose Gulías's picture

Only named the lenses he has...

Jeroen F's picture

Bought the Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 second hand for just €350. Love it, it's an awesome portret lens. If the reach is to much I use the 12-40mm. Less awesome as a portret lens but still a very good multi purpose lens.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Back in the 70's it was a fast 105. Nikon made its reputation on the 105 F2.5.

Jan Holler's picture

I just recently got a copy of this lens at my local dealer after looking for it for many many years. It is just marvellous, just as the 85mm f/2 AI-S is. I use manual lenses a lot if I shoot privately.

The above list is reasonable. I'd go for 35, 50, 85, 105 and 70-200mm and as a bare minimum: 35, 85 and 70-200. (A 50mm should be in any bag anyway).

Mike Ditz's picture

I have a very nice MF Nikkor 105 f1.8 that I could not afford back in the day which is great, and my favorite lens for women is a 70s nikkor 55 f1.2 that has a beautiful glowy-sharp-soft look.
Funny that I did fine for 20 years with a 80mm and 150mm shooting tons of business, editorial, family, headshot portraits in medium format - no way I could afford 5 Hasselblad lenses!

Darren Loveland's picture

Irrational title and questionable collection of lenses... 85mm f/whatever with a 35mm and you're set. Personally I switched to 135mm for all of my outdoor portraits and I use nothing else most of the time now.

Indy Thomas's picture

Will not engage.....

Renee Farias's picture

Personally for 20 of my 24 years as a full-time pro, I have been using a Nikon 28 F/2.8 (for me the 35mm seems to narrow) and the 80-200 F/2.8 AFD. Both have served me well for 2 decades with next to no issue. I do have to admit that my 80-200 starts to get soft beyond 185mm but still very workable with a little post sharpening. Honestly, I am rarely that extended due to the type of work I do, I am usually between 80mm-150mm so beyond 185mm does not matter much. Today these lenses are next to dirt cheap used and new, both lenses combined are still sold for $1500 or so. My other lenses are Nikon 50 f/1.8 AFD, 85 F1.8 AFD, 28-105 F/3.5-4.5 AFD all sharp, and worth retail about $800 (used). All in all, gear has depreciated but I use my gear and in 2 decades the investment in proper tools has been golden, I cannot compare my earnings to gear, as in with the right gear I have earned over 500% return. All in all, I say invest early in great tools, if possible, or upgrade as soon as possible if you are a pro or intend to be a pro. If a hobbyist then $$$$ in quality lenses may be mute. After all, it's still the photographer that creates the photo but great lenses still enhance the camera sensor/film's ability. All the best to you all. Take care and be safe.

Jakub Valovič's picture

Any vintage 135/2.8 - not super sharp (usable fully open though or f3.5 Sonnar for sharpness) but bags of character and can be bought for pennies.
58/2 Biotar/Helios - angle of view almost like a 50, photos feel like 80, gorgeous OOF rendering, dirt cheap.

Matt Williams's picture

The Contax Zeiss C/Y 135/2.8 is excellent. Excellent wide open and very sharp stopped down across the frame. It's probably the best of the vintage 135/2.8's - edges out the Leica R 135, better than the Nikkor (though larger too), better than Olympus OM. Haven't much tried the Leica Elmarit M 135/2.8, though.

Scott Weaver's picture

One doesn't need the fastest lenses or need to shoot wide open with portraits. f/2.8 and f/4 lenses work just fine, and much less expensive and weigh less.

More comments