Whether you're a beginner or a professional, portraits were never easier with these stellar lenses
Choosing the best portrait lens is tricky – apart from anything else, you probably already have a lens in your bag that shoots perfectly acceptable headshots, so why would you splash the cash on anything else?
A great portrait lens might give you straightforward improvements in image quality – sharpness, contrast, colour saturation – or it might offer a focal length that your current walk-about lens doesn’t reach. It might offer flatter image geometry than your current lens, meaning less distorted-looking people, or it might simply give you a much bigger aperture than your current lens, which will give you more attractive bokeh and shallower depth of field, giving you more interesting-looking images with less distracting backgrounds. And that’s to say nothing of being able to shoot higher shutter speeds at lower ISOs.
Here, we’ll take you through what to look for in the portrait lens of your dreams, as well as a who’s-who of the lenses that should be on your shortlist, regardless of which lens mount you’ve hitched your wagon to.
Best portrait lens: At a glance
How to choose the best portrait lens for you
How much does a good portrait lens cost?
The best portrait lens for you will depend on your personal style. If your style is fuzzy, lo-fi, analogue-esque photography, then you’ll be able to get away with just about any lens – expect to spend about £100 on a fast, 50mm prime lens. On the other hand, the sky’s the limit if you want to shoot ultra-sharp, top-production-value imagery to be printed at high resolutions at grand scales – the latest, fast-aperture 85mm prime lenses retail at around £2,000.
What’s the best focal length for a portrait lens?
We’re going to do our best here not to answer every question with ‘it depends’, but frankly, it does. What kind of portraits do you like to shoot? If you’re a street photographer, you might find that the photojournalist-favourite 35mm is a terrific focal length for catching sharp-looking images but more traditional looking portraits often involve longer focal lengths.
The classic is 85mm – a focal length offered by many standard lenses and one that allows you to fill the frame with a head-and-shoulders shot without needing to stand super close to your subject. Longer focal lengths also decrease the size of the circle of confusion, which means as your focal length gets longer, the more out of focus your backgrounds will appear to be. This is good as it means more separation between your subject and its background – you might even be able to see a difference in sharpness between the tip of someone’s nose and the tops of their ears if you combine a long focal length with a big aperture.
Should I get a zoom lens for portrait photography?
Are prime lenses better than zoom lenses for portrait photography? Now there’s a good question. A prime lens is a camera lens with a fixed focal length, so it can’t zoom in or out. Because the lens elements only need to work at a single focal length, they can be specialists, which generally means a higher-quality optic than one that needs to work at both wide and telephoto fields of view. That means, say, that an 85mm prime lens will be optically superior to a 24-105mm lens that’s simply set to 85mm.
Still, image quality isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all, particularly to the hobbyist photographer, who might not want to commit to a lens with an unchangeable field of view. Likewise, although the accepted wisdom is that prime lenses are better than zoom lenses, that’s not always the case – and sometimes the difference is so minimal that a zoom lens that covers the focal length you want might be best anyway.
What’s the best aperture for portrait photography?
Having a favourite aperture is a bit like having a favourite gear on a bike – all well and good, but there will be some situations where using your favourite just isn’t practical. Lots of classic portrait photography involves separating your subject from its background, and while a big aperture is one way of doing that – big apertures mean shallower depths of field, and less in focus at once – you might also try zooming in, or simply positioning your subject so it’s further away from the background behind it.
Still, no-one ever regretted a lens with a big aperture – not only will lenses with big apertures give you lots of separation, they’ll also let more light in, which will allow you to use faster shutter speeds, which will increase your chances of a sharp shot. Our advice? Look for a portrait lens with an aperture that can be opened to at least f/4 throughout the zoom range of the lens.
READ NEXT: Best mirrorless cameras to buy
The best portrait lenses to buy in 2022
1. Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM: The best portrait lens for pros
Price: £3,049 | Buy now from Amazon
Great image quality? Check. Classic portrait photographer focal length? Check. Ultra-huge aperture for minimum depth of field and maximum light transmission? Check. Terrifying price? Double-check.
Canon’s flagship professional portrait lens for its RF-mount cameras is as much a statement of intent about Canon’s commitment to mirrorless as it is a tool to be used by high-end wedding photographers and fashion photographers. Buy one and you’ll be working with more or less the very best portrait lens available anywhere, for any mount or sensor size, to date. It’s almost outrageously sharp and suffers from virtually no chromatic aberration. In the historical sweets pot of lenses like this (f/8, or so), and even at f/1.2 it beats the living daylights out of nearly anything else out there – including lenses that, were it not for this lens, would be considered greats in their own right. If you’re happy to marry a single focal length, and want quality at any price, this is some way to splash the cash.
Key specs – Focal length: 85mm; Maximum aperture: f/1.2, Mount: Canon RF; Image stabilisation: No; Filter diameter: 82mm; Dimensions (LxD): 117.3 x 103.2mm; Weight: 1.2kg
2. NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S: The best portrait lens for beginners
Price: £799 | Buy now from Amazon
We’re used to current-generation mirrorless lenses being a fairly spendy bunch, but the Nikkor Z85mm F/1.8 S bucks the trend. Sure, at the thick end of £800 it isn’t cheap, but compared to ultra-fast pro portrait lenses it’s a breath of fresh air.
The S in its name denotes this lens’ place in Nikon’s top tier of glass – nano crystal coating means controlled flare and ghosting, while the large f/1.8 maximum aperture, combined with the short telephoto focal length, means tight depth of field and attractive defocused highlights – bokeh, in photographer-speak.
It’s a portable little number. Weighing just 470g and measuring only 99mm from end to end, you’ll barely know it’s on your shoulder, and there’s a beautiful simplicity in its construction. Focusing is all-internal, so nothing moves when it focuses (except the external focus ring, if you’re doing things manually), and that simplicity has allowed Nikon to weather-seal the whole thing, giving those shooting portraits in grim weather added protection against water and dust ingress. A must-have for those who have plumped for Nikon’s Z-series of mirrorless cameras.
Key specs – Focal length: 85mm; Maximum aperture: f/1.8; Mount: Nikon Z mount; Image stabilisation: No; Filter diameter: 67mm; Dimensions (LxD): 99 x 75mm; Weight: 470g
3. Sony FE 135mm F1.8 GM: The best portrait lens for close-ups
Price: £1,599 | Buy now from Amazon
Proving not all great portrait lenses are 85mm – indeed, not all are fixed focal length primes – Sony’s superbly made FE 135mm F1.8 GM (the GM stands for “Gold Master”, hyperbole fans) is an incredible choice for those who have the luxury of putting a little more distance between themselves and their subjects.
The longer focal length requires a little thought – apparent depth of field is a little tighter thanks to the tighter field of view, and in combination with the f/1.8 maximum aperture you’ll need to work pretty hard to keep the key bits of your subject in focus.
Get your focus right, of course, and you’ll be rewarded with some of the sharpest images in the business. Even at f/1.8 the 135mm F1.8 GM shoots astoundingly sharp images; stop it down a bit (f/8 seems to be a particular sweet spot) and you’ll be shooting images that will survive an amazing amount of cack-handed editing, compression and blowing-up to billboard sizes.
It’s a well-made little customer. Old-school photographers will appreciate the aperture ring just behind the focus ring, while cinematographers will appreciate that the aperture ring can be de-clicked with a flick of a switch, allowing you truly analogue control of the iris.
The internals don’t hang around either. Autofocus performance – which can sometimes feel like an afterthought on portrait lenses – is lightning-quick thanks to the dual XD linear motors.
It’s a fairly chunky beast – 950g and 127mm from front to back mean you’ll know when you’ve got it with you, but that does make it feel reassuringly robust, as does Sony’s claim of water and dust resistance.
It’s a bit longer than many portrait lenses – and you’re spending an amount that’s concomitant with pro gear – but the 135mm is an incredible portrait optic for those on Sony’s system.
Key specs – Focal length: 135mm; Maximum aperture: f/1.8; Mount: Sony E; Image stabilisation: No; Filter diameter: 82mm; Dimensions (LxD): 127 x 90mm; Weight: 950g
4. Fujifilm GF110mmF2 R LM WR: The best portrait lens for medium-format
Price: £2,599 | Buy now from Clifton Cameras
If you’re lucky enough to own one of Fuji’s medium-format GFX cameras, you already know that you can use some of the finest lenses known to humankind. From wide-angle landscape specialists to telephoto – the lenses you can pair with your camera’s huge sensor are some of the best around.
Enter the GF100MMF2 LM WR. Its focal length is equivalent to an 87mm lens on a full-frame, 35mm DSLR, which means there isn’t a huge amount of adjustment for portrait photographers smitten with that classic 85mm focal length. That focal length is wedded to a large maximum aperture of f/2 which means plenty of light transmission, which makes this a very useful lens for those shooting in available light – wedding photographers come to mind. There is a caveat – medium format cameras already offer shallower depth of field than full-frame, 35mm cameras, so the combination of such a generous aperture with a large-format sensor means you’ll need to bring your A-game, focus-wise.
Four extra-dispersion elements mean the GF110MM is a scarily sharp lens, and although it’s particularly fantastic at smaller apertures (it really starts to come into its own around f/5.6), it’s still great when shot wide-open, which isn’t true of all portrait lenses.
It’s a hefty beast: it’s rain, snow and dust-sealed, which again makes it a surprisingly practical lens for those who don’t have the luxury of a studio to shoot in. All that glass and ruggedness comes at a slight cost – 1kg means you’re adding to an already considerable amount, given the weight of even Fuji’s smallest GFX range camera. Mind you, build-quality is excellent – all-metal construction and a huge focus ring on the front makes this an easy lens to use; and like all Fuji’s GF lenses, the aperture ring on the back of the lens adds a pleasing, old-school feel.
Cheap? No – at £2,599 this is a lens you’ll buy if you’ve got your eye on creating top-tier portrait work. But if you’re already committed to Fuji’s fantastic large-format cameras, this is a piece of glass that will do those gorgeous, huge sensors justice.
Key specs – Focal length: 110mm; Maximum aperture: f/2; Mount: Fujifilm G; Image stabilisation: No; Filter diameter: 77mm; Dimensions (LxD): 126 x 94mm; Weight: 1kg
5. Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm F1.8: The best portrait lens for travelling
Price: £600 | Buy now from Amazon
We love Olympus’ Micro FourThirds mount cameras. It’s lightweight, great quality and amazing for wildlife and sports enthusiasts courtesy of that 2x focal length multiplier that every lens comes with. But what does that mean for portrait types?
Enter the M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm F1.8. The M.Zuiko range’s (Zuiko means “Light of the Gods”, just so you know) heritage stretches way back into the 1930s, so expectations are high. This might be part of Olympus’ PRO lineup, but it’s fair to expect Good Things.
It’s a lovely little lens in the hand. Because of the small sensors it will sit in front of, this isn’t a lens with the insane heft of pro-grade, full-frame portrait lenses. It weighs just 305g and is a tough little handful: only 69mm from end to end. Being a prime lens there’s only one control on the body of the lens – the focus ring is the only thing to fiddle with here. All-in-all, it’s a great addition to any kit bag that does lots of mileage – tough enough to survive, light enough not to be a burden and, crucially, good quality enough to do justice to the people you photograph.
So what’s it actually like to shoot with? Well, the standard-sounding focal length of 75mm is of course anything but – once it’s mounted on the small sensor of an OM-series camera it translates to a mid-telephoto 150mm, so you’ll either need to commit to close-ups or stand a little further back. Handy for weddings, though.
It’s very sharp – arguably at its best around f/5.6 but it doesn’t hang around if you shoot it wide-open at f/1.8, either. Images have a lovely natural quality, and defocused elements – bokeh, if you will – are soft and appealing-looking. Defocused specular highlights – fairy lights in the background, for example – are equally gorgeous, making this a great lens for those who like to play with background elements. Portrait shooter on Olympus? This – particularly at this price – is a great argument for the OM system.
Key specs – Focal length: 75mm; Maximum aperture: f/1.8; Mount: Micro Four Thirds; Image stabilisation: No; Filter diameter: 58mm; Dimensions (LxD): 69 x 64mm; Weight: 305kg