What Is the Best Portrait Lens?

When it comes to portraits, two major factors determine how good a lens is for many photographers and they are focal length and aperture. Generally speaking, many photographers prefer to have a relatively long focal length with a wide aperture as this helps with both the framing of the shot and also the kind of background blur you can achieve.

In a recent video, photographer and YouTuber Matt Granger compares three lenses to demonstrate the kind of results you can expect. The lenses he compares are the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, the 105mm f/1.4E and the 70-200mm f/2.8E. These lenses are not the most budget-friendly lenses, however they all produce incredible quality especially when coupled with a high-resolution camera like the Nikon D850. Granger discusses how each focal length will help with controlling the perspective of the image. The longer focal lengths allow you to stand further away from your subject thus creating a "flatter" looking image. Of course, this is all subjective and there are plenty of photographers that prefer to shoot much closer to their subjects with a wider-angle lens. Granger does put the images from each lens side by side allowing you to decide which you prefer most.

Personally, I tend to prefer a longer focal length with a wide aperture as it can prevent any distractions in the background from appearing. Having said that, I do enjoy shooting with a wider focal length like a 50mm on occasions because a completely blurred out background may not have much context. 

Check out the full video and let me know what you think is the best portrait lens.

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8 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

Even though I mostly use my 105mm f/1.4E now, I've found in the past that 135mm feels like the sweet spot for me. Unfortunately, Nikon has not updated this lens in a while and my 135mm f/2 DC suffers from ridiculous backfocusing issues with my modern bodies. :/

I know that Sigma has a 135mm ART, but I've been holding out for a Nikon lens mainly for personal reasons. I have utmost respect for the Sigma ART line and I think there's nothing intrinsically wrong with them, but I prefer to put my dollars toward supporting Nikon even if it costs a bit more here and there and also their lenses are excellent while being far lighter than Sigma's ART series lenses. Some people like the extra heft and bulk. I personally am not a fan of it.

Usman Dawood's picture

Nothing wrong with supporting a company you like. I too hope that Nikon will update their 135mm lens, I've heard some rumours that Canon may update theirs.

Tim Gallo's picture

135 f2 DC is superb. Just give it to service senter to callibrate.. or do AF tuning. Works like a charm on my D850 (and on D800E, and D810 prior to that). I hope they update this lens... cause one 135 dc rules them all :)

Michael Jin's picture

I certainly enjoy the 135 DC's rendering, but "superb"? I wouldn't quite put it there—at least not on a D850 or a D810, for the matter and certainly not compared to the quality of optics that are currently on the market.

Then again, the lens comes from a different era when we valued different qualities largely because film emulsions could only resolve so much detail and even the detail it could resolve was rarely appreciated as printing a 24x36 or a 30x40 was far more expensive than clicking 1:1 in Lightroom...

It was pretty rare back in the day to come face to face with the limits of any given lens. Today's landscape is far less forgiving in that regard.

Tim Gallo's picture

1:1 in Lightroom... :)

I agree, compared to modern optics (which I own, but not use often) its technically not "superb", especially in corners, but in the real world "technically superb" for me means "without character", also for me "real world" means shooting for magazines that are around A4~A3 size - so ini my opinion it looks superb even in "todays landscape". The contrast and rendering it produces is absolutely amazing, and it has "character".
but I have to say my experience comes from 30 percent location, 70 percent studio. But even than outside I prefer it to 85 and 70-200 (btw, if we talk portraits, 70-200 on location?! its just not practical, everything over 135 on location is not practical imho).

There is no such a thing as “best portrait lens”. It all depends on what kind of look one wants to achieve. Isn’t that obvious? And a quality zoom lens is more flexible because you can choose the focal length as needed. Isn’t it obvious? Some YouTubers apparently don’t thing so.

Usman Dawood's picture

It depends because most/many photographers have a go to portrait lens. One they may always feel most comfortable using. For me if I’m ever photographing someone it’s an 85mm that I enjoy shooting with the most. It’s subjective but “best” does and can exist on an individual basis.

Also Matt does use a a zoom lens in the video too.

1. 50mm (shoot at f1.4-2.0)
2. 85mm (shot at f2.0-4.0)
3. 35mm (shot at F1.4)
4. 70-200mm (shot at f4-5.6)

I like some separation from the background, but I dislike seeing a blob that is so sought after today by the bokeh crowd. No context.