Portrait Lenses We've Fallen in Love With

Hitting the "like" button on a wide range of portrait options

We asked our Facebook and Twitter friends which lenses were their favorites for portrait photography. Here's what we learned.

When we asked, “What is your favorite portrait photography lens?” we were flooded with answers, they were all over the  place.  While the 85mm lens was once considered the ultimate portrait lens, tastes have changed, driven by a mix of improvements to zoom lenses and the effect of the APS sensor, which reduces the angle of view of each lens, so a 50mm lens becomes a more portrait-like 75mm equivalent when used on an APS sensor camera.

The best part: Every lens chosen by our fearless Facebook fans is available from Adorama!

If you’re just getting started in portraiture, a 50mm lens may be your best bet. But if you’re serious, consider the advantages and disadvantages of the other focal lengths, and the wider aperture vs. flexibility of primes vs. zooms

There’s no “right” answer here. Tack sharpness may be fine for some portrait shooters while others prefer softness. The choice of Zoom or fixed focal length (prime) lenses may depend on your shooting style and can change as you develop your personal vision. And many people have a mix of a prime and a zoom lens, and switch off depending on lighting, subject matter, or other circumstances.

Let’s take a closer look at each lens, along with a sampling of reader comments. I’ve divided the selection into prime and zoom lenses and in some cases, included images shot with the lens courtesy of Adorama's generous Facebook friends:

Prime lenses

35mm—The new normal
Ideal for environmental portraits, 35mm prime lenses are available at f/2, f/1.8, and f/1.4. When used on a camera with an APS sensor, they provide a field of view equivalent to a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera and the latest generation of 35mm lenses is optimized with the "normal" field of view shooting in mind. Indeed, some wedding photographers have embraced this focal length.

What’s available at Adorama?


Photo © Stephanie Albao. Nikon D5000 with 35mm f/1.8 Nikon  lens. Exposure, 1/640 sec at f/1.8. http://intuitiveimagesphotography.com/

What you said: Keven Rodgrigues says “my 35mm f/1.4L on an APS crop body gives amazing colors as well as creamy bokeh.” Read Ryan Brenizer's review of the new Nikon 35mm f/1.4 lens.

50mm—The old normal, the new portrait "tele"
Wide apertures are key to portrait photography because they throw the background into a pleasing blur that helps draw the viewer’s attention to the in-focus subject. Most 50mm lenses are available in f/1.8 and f/1.4 versions, although there are some pricey f/1.2 lenses that can be used in very low light. On an APS camera, the 50mm is the equivalent of a 75mm, which is an ideal focal length for portraits. Not bad for a small, lightweight lens. The only disadvantage? When shooting close-ups, noses might look a bit larger than when using a true telephoto, which would compress the space for a more flattering shot.

What’s available at Adorama?



Photo © Edmond Leung. Canon T2i with Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II  lens. http://oinkstudio.smugmug.com/

What you said:  Samane Gholamnejad prefers the 50mm f/1.4 “because it’s more normal and doesn’t change the face form.” John Rolff says his Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 is his go-to low-light portrait lens “because it’s the sharpest and fastest lens I currently own.” WillMedia says "since I have limited funding, my favorite lens for portrait photography is the Nikon 50mm f/1.8."

Typically available from f/2, down to f/1.2, the 85mm is the classic portrait lens for full-frame DSLRs and a favorite among portrait shooters. They combine the flattering compression of a telephoto lens with a shallow focusing depth of a prime lens at the widest aperture.  And when shooting at f/1.2, that out-of-focus part of the image takes on an ethereal quality, as you can see in the photo below.

What’s available at Adorama?



Photo © Melissa Haun. Canon 5D Mark II, 85mm f/1.2L II lens at f/1.2. ISO 200, 1/8000 sec. http://www.melissatakesapicture.com/

What you said:  Kevin Babcock uses a variety of lenses, depending on the subject, but chooses the 85mm to “soften unattractive elements” in more homely subjects. Jay Fernando loves the Depth of Field control on his Nikon 85mm f/1.8 for inside shots.  Jonny Long says his Canon 85mm f/1.2 is “so sharp, I love it!”

100mm, 105mm, 135mm—Taking the long view
Some photographers prefer the 100mm to 135mm focal length range, again for the compression, which is especially important when photographing subjects with larger noses. However, the longer focal length means shooting from farther away, and sometimes, you simply don’t have room to back up. The Nikon 105mm f/2 AF-D DC and 135mm f/2D offer Defocus Control, which can vary the quality of the Bokeh, making them uniquely suited for portrait photography.

What’s available at Adorama?


Photo © Jim Tanner. Pentax K2000, Soligor 135mm f/2.8 lens.

What you said:  “I love my 105mm prime f/2.8 lens,” says Michael Desrochers.  “I call it my model lens. It forces me to get close-ups I wouldn’t normally be comfortable with, but I end up loving the shots after I see them.”

Zoom lenses
24-70mm f/2.8, 28-105mm f/2.8—Surprisingly versatile
Especially useful when shooting full-length and environmental portraits, a 24-70mm or 28-105mm lens that maintains the f/2.8 maximum aperture throughout the zoom range provides a good balance between low-light performance and zoom flexibility.  In both cases, such lenses are designed for use on APS or full-frame DSLRs. On an APS camera, the focal range is from around 35mm through about 90mm for a 24-70mm lens, which covers a good range for a wide variety of portrait styles. The key disadvantage is that you don't get as wide an aperture.

What’s available at Adorama?


Photo © Scott Wenstrom. Nikor 24-70mm f/2.8http://wenstromphotography.com/

What you said:  Sharna Lee says “I like my Canon 28-105 for full body shots” while Scott Wenstrom calls his Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 “my favorite portrait and all-around lens.” When using an APS camera, Mehul Chimthankar uses a 50mm lens but when shooting with a full-frame sensor camera, “for sure it’s going to be a 24-70mm f/2.8.”

70-200mm f/2.8
By far the most popular portrait lens, the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens from any manufacturer offers the composition flexibility of a telephoto lens but is quite fast for a zoom. Telephoto compression makes large facial features seem less obvious while throwing the background into a pleasing Bokeh, especially when shooting wide open.

What’s available at Adorama?


Photo © Gonzalo Guerrero. Canon 30D with Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS L  lens, shot at 1/200 sec and f/3.5, ISO 125, at 153mm setting. http://www.modelmayhem.com/ggphoto

What you said:  Huybert Van De Stadt uses the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII “because it’s razor-sharp and has very nice bokeh.” Melissa Haun uses the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS “for someone with large facial features.” “Of course, no questions asked” said Angela Hughes of her Nikon 70-200 as her favorite portrait lens.

My thanks to all who answered my request for favorite lenses (see all of the responses on Facebook) as well as to the dozens who answered the call for images to illustrate their favorite portrait lens at work. Connect with the Adorama Learning Center on Facebook or Twitter.


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