You don't need a DSLR to shoot perfect portraits—now you can rock your portrait shoots with portrait lenses made for Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Compact (MILC) cameras.
MILCs are selling faster than any other camera category, and the catalog of lenses for these cameras is growing apace. Now there are lenses for almost every MILC on the market that will let you shoot flattering portrait photography with uncompromising quality.
There are even independent-manufacturer lenses, and a handful of independent manufacturers have introduced adapters that will let you use standard DSLR or Leica rangefinder lenses on certain MILC cameras. That can open you up to an entire universe of portrait lenses.
Here's a quick overview of what's available:
Fujifilm XF Mount
Fujifilm XF 60mm f/2.4 ($650)
Designed for the flagship, APS-sensor Fujifilm X-Pro1, this is the longest of the three current XF-mount lenses, and is billed as both a macro lens (focuses to approximately 1 foot away) and a portrait lens. Thanks to its nine rounded aperture blades, it should produce pleasing focus fall-off and natural-looking specular highlights, both desirable features in a portrait lens. Factoring in the APS sensor, it has an angle of view equivalent to a 91mm lens on a full-frame camera. Due to high demand and the fact that this is a new product, avaiability at this writing is spotty. Check back often!
Micro Four Thirds (Olympus, Panasonic)
Olympus M. Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8 Lens ($400)
Built from the ground up as a portrait lens, the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens offers pleasing background blur at its widest aperture. Stopped down, its seven rounded aperture diaphragm blades deliver pleasing Bokeh and specular highlights, while the 45mm focal length (equivalent to a 90mm lens on a full-frame camera) is long enough to eliminate any possible distortion when shooting tight close-ups.
Panasonic 45mm f/2.8 Leica DG Macro-Elmarit Aspherical Lens Mega O.I.S. ($670)
Billed as the world's first Leica lens for Micro Four Thirds, the Panasonic/Leica 45mm f/2.8 is designed for both portrait and macro work and is optimized to work with the Panasonic Lumix G's contrast-detect AF system, which includes face recognition. Featuring metal mounting and multi-coated elements, as well as optical stabilization for added flexibility in low light, the 45mm f/2.8 has a classic, Leica-esque look and feel.
Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN ($200)
A great buy at just under $200, the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 may seem a tad short for portrait work, but on a Micro Four Thirds camera it delivers a 60mm equivalent field of view. Seven rounded aperture blades provide pleasing Bokeh and specular highlights, although at this focal length shooting too close could lead to slightly distorted noses.
SLR Magic 50mm f/0.95 HyperPrime Lens ($1,000)
The fastest lens designed for a Micro Four Thirds camera, the SLR Magic/Noktor 50mm f/0.95 (no, that aperture number is not a misprint) can shoot in very low light and deliver an overall dreamy quality when at its widest aperture. An all-manual lens (an aperture ring controls the aperture, so you need to shootin either manual or aperture priority mode) with an equivalent focal length of 100mm on a 35mm sensor camera, this is a relatively expensive, specialized lens that's not for everybody, but will be prized by anoyone who likes the dreamy asthetic it produces. Learn more in Mark Wallace's video review of this lens.
Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 50mm f/2.1 T* Makro MFT ($4,900)
This is a serious lens for serious photography—but it is primarily designed for video, and is likely overkill for most people. It comes with an interchangeable mount so it can be easily moved from Micro Four Thirds to full-frame DSLR to dedicated pro video camera without the need for an adapter, and its APS-sensor-sized sweet spot means that it will project an optically superior image onto a smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor.
Nikon 1 Nikkor 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR Lens ($250)
The lens system for the Nikon 1 small-sensor interchangeable-lens cameras is currently limited to three models, but the one most likely to lend itself to portrait photography is the 30-110mm model. At its shortest focal length it presents the equivalent of an 81mm lens, an ideal focal length for portraits. Its seven rounded diaphragm blades offer pleasing Bokeh and natural specular highlights, and as with other lenses for the Nikon 1 series, it is extremely light and portable.
Pentax Toy Lens Telephoto for Q Camera System ($80)
If you've invested in the miniscule Pentax Q, you're already thinking differently about digital photography. The Pentax Toy Lens Telephoto is a fixed-aperture lens that gives a deliberately imperfect "toy camera" type image. It's not for everybody but then again, for only $80 it's not a huge investment and could be fun to play with.
Pentax FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited ($785)
If you are more interested in real deal, the new Pentax K-01 is the only MILC that is backwards compatible with a full line of DSLR/SLR lenses going back decades. Many legendary lenses have been produced for the Pentax K-mount, but the one that most Pentax owners drool over is the Pentax FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited. This premium limited-edition lens can work with both 35mm film and digital cameras including Pentax DSLRs and the new K-01, the company's first MILC. A solid lens with all-metal construction, a good old-fashioned depth-of-field scale (we need more of those on modern MILC lenses!) and a nine-blade aperture for pleasing Bokeh, this lens is not a budget lens but offers top image quality.
Samsung 50mm-200mm f/4.5-5.6 ED OIS II Tele Zoom ($300)
There isn't a specific lens currently in the small Samsung MILC lens lineup that is optimized for portraiture, but the 50-200mm (77-308mm 35mm equivalent) could get you there. Its seven circular aperture blades produce a pleasing background, although the slower maximum aperture limit things somewhat. Better to shoot portraits at a longer focal length from a farther distance if possible in order to throw the background further out of focus.
Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS E-mount NEX Series Camera Lens ($300)
With a full-frame equivalent of a 75mm lens, this fast mid-range tele is a low-noise, fast-focusing model designed for the Sony NEX series of MILCs and is well-suited for portrait work. Direct Manual Focus lets you quickly fine-tune autofocus, a necessity with the low depth of field that comes with shooting at the widest aperture. The aperture consists of curved blades for good Bokeh and even at small apertures.
Also consider the aforementioned SLR Magic 50mm f/0.95 HyperPrime, which also comes in a Sony E-mount version.