he burning question for every new photographer who’s looking to get into portrait photography: “What is the best lens for shooting portraits?” In this post, I aim to help you better understand some of the most popular choices.
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Moving on, for each of these lenses, I recommend going with the widest aperture you can find and afford. I shoot on a Canon EOS R, so the 85mm for example currently comes in RF f/2.0, EF f/1.8, EF f/1.4, and RF f/1.2. I currently shoot on the new RF 85mm f/2.0 but I would LOVE to get my hands on the RF 85mm f/1.2L! This wide aperture will allow you to get those nice blurred, creamy backgrounds while keeping your subject in focus.
RF lenses will work if you have a mirrorless camera such as the EOS R or the newer EOS R5, but if you shoot on another Canon besides one of these, make sure you stick to EF lenses or whatever is compatible with your camera and brand! Also, be sure to take note of whether you are shooting on a crop sensor or full-frame sensor when choosing a new lens. I’ll try to keep the lenses I mention in this general so you can choose the best option for your brand and compatibility.
The 85mm is known for giving a pretty tight, isolated view of the subject. This lens is best used outdoors or in areas where you have plenty of space to put between yourself and your subject. My favorite thing about this lens is the compressed effect it gives images.
Disclaimer: some people claim “compression doesn’t exist, it’s really just perspective distortion.” I don’t care. Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing. We’re talking about the effect here, not the language that describes the effect.
Back on topic! The compressed look essentially causes the background of the image to appear closer to the subject than it really is. You get this effect with pretty much anything beyond 50mm (then considered a telephoto lens). The 85mm focal length also amplifies the shallow depth-of-field effect you get from a wide aperture - so f/1.4 on an 85mm will give a creamier background than, say, a 35mm f/1.4.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM: https://amzn.to/3ruT2VK
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L USM IS: https://amzn.to/2KXGrJI
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L USM: https://amzn.to/2KUx5hZ
Canon RF 85mm f/2.0 Macro IS: https://amzn.to/386dRxS
Canon RF 85mm f/1.2 L USM: https://amzn.to/3hikpxw
Also known as the “nifty fifty,” the 50mm lens is known for being versatile enough to use in a variety of situations. The perspective distortion (compression) caused by this lens is the closest to what is seen by the human eye. You can see this in post-production if you try enabling lens corrections - you’ll notice the only thing that really changes is the lens vignette. Note that I only say the perspective distortion; NOT the field of view!
The 50mm does well in any environment, indoor or outdoor thanks to its low zoom. This lets you get fairly close to the subject and still capture a bit of the surroundings, or stick to the sidelines and still get the shot!
I do want to add one note of personal opinion for those who are looking to purchase their first prime lens: I personally feel that while the 50mm is good for everything, it is not especially great for anything. With that said, that is just my personal opinion for my shooting style. Don’t get me wrong, I still use my 50mm enough to certainly be worth owning, but I generally stick to either my 85mm or 35mm lens. Others use the 50mm for everything and never take it off.
You have to decide which is best for your own personal needs and style, and with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM being only $125, it’s affordable enough to try it out for yourself! This is the one I personally own, and am quite happy with the sharpness and aperture capabilities of it at such a low price.
The 35mm is the widest view lens on this list. This is a great option for scenarios where you don’t have a lot of room to move around and you need to be up close to your subject. Alternatively, it also makes a great lens for capturing more of the surroundings. You can still get one with a wide aperture like (f/1.8) and create that shallow depth of field (blurred background).
A lot of photographers tend to prefer either (a) using the 50mm for everything or (b) alternating between the 35mm and 85mm - it all just depends on your personal preference.
This lens certainly deserves a mention as well. Although prime lenses tend to be sharper than zoom lenses, the 70-200 does bring a noteworthy amount of versatility to the table. You may not always have the luxury of taking time to switch between lenses, or you may not be able to get up close to your subject (say, if you’re shooting a wedding). In these scenarios, having the option to quickly zoom from 70mm to 200mm or anywhere in between is really nice! Even shooting portraits where you have full control and can stage the photo, this lens can produce some great photos. One of my personal favorite uses is zoomed to 200mm at f/2.8, which gives some nice compression and a nice creamy background - yes, even at f/2.8!
If you cannot afford the 70-200mm lenses, the EF 70-300mm makes a worthy, affordable alternative.
Certainly be sure to do your own research before buying any of these lenses! A new lens can be pretty costly so you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the best lens for your needs and the type of photography you shoot.
The Canon EOS R I love: https://amzn.to/37oppNG
Pair with this lens hood: https://amzn.to/38fjslk
Super cheap circular polarizing filter: https://amzn.to/3azJGSJ
Aputure MC Light: https://amzn.to/3qZUdfL
Light reflector and diffuser: https://amzn.to/3mkVwCk
Currently loving this tripod: https://amzn.to/34jzwld
This paracord camera wrist strap is a life saver: https://amzn.to/3r1anp0
I use this cleaning kit before every shoot: https://amzn.to/34i3xSs