Five Lenses Every Portrait Photographer Should Have

Five Lenses Every Portrait Photographer Should Have

In order to be a great portrait photographer you need a set of decent tools in order to do your job. Whether you work in the studio or out in the field we take a look at five top lenses for portrait photography.Whether shooting Sony, Nikon, Canon or any other camera system, there are some mainstay lenses that every portrait photographer turns to for their work. Typically, they're on the longer end of the focal length range, have wide apertures, and are well known for being razor sharp. From weddings to street photography, studio to location portraits, there's a wide range of applications for portraits, so while not an exhaustive list, here are my top five.

The best portrait lenses aren't necessarily the most expensive, but the ones most useful for creating the most effective portraits

1. 85mm f/1.4

The absolute golden staple for serious portrait photographers must be the 85mm f/1.4 lens. Its long focal length, and wide fixed aperture combine to create a portrait like no other. The image quality of pictures taken on this lens is instantly recognizable to those in the know. At 85mm the facial features are flattened a little which complements almost any subject. The glass is also incredibly sharp so crisp detail around the eyes is out of this world.

The 85mm f/1.4 lens is the quintessential portrait lens that many photographers turn to

2. 70-200mm f/2.8

Telephoto lenses sure do flatter subjects due to their perspectival compression, and that's what makes this lens such a big hitter in the world of portraits. The wide focal length range of the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is incredibly useful for photographers that shoot in medium to large spaces. They're also ideal for outdoor shoots where that extra compression helps fill the background when zoomed in. A fixed f/2.8 aperture also lets a lot of light in, so it's also good for live music/gig portraits too, without the need to ramp up ISO too high.

The zoom range of the 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto makes it flexible for indoor or outdoor portraits

3. 35mm f/1.4

A perfect wide-angle prime that pairs well with another fixed focal length or even a telezoom is the 35mm f/1.4. With wide-angles, due to their inherent physical characteristics, it can be quite hard to get a shallow depth of field — we know that from our smartphones which are so wide they even need a depth of field algorithm to make portraits look cooler. However, the 35mm f/1.4 has such a wide aperture that it makes it easy to pick out a subject, and isolate them from the background. They're usually sharp as a tack, too. A simple lens perfect for contextual portraits or street work.

A great wide-angle prime lens that delivers high quality results and shallow depth of field

4. 50mm f/1.8

Now this inclusion may throw some of you, but there's a reason why this is an f/1.8 and not an f/1.4. The 50mm f/1.8 is the gateway to prime lenses with its fast aperture, and small form factor, they're also pretty cheap by comparison with other lenses, especially if bought second-hand. It's known as the nifty fifty because it fits snugly right in your pocket, if you need it to. A featherweight, this lens packs a portrait punch without breaking the bank.

The nifty fifty is a staple among many portrait photographers and is a great way in to the fast prime market

5. 18-55mm

The 18-55mm lens ships with many entry to mid-level camera system and for good reason. It's light, it's sharp, it has a helpful zoom range, and it's flexible. I bet almost every photographer has owned or used one at some point in their lives. Different brands have different aperture ranges, ranging from f/3.5-5.6, and some boast image stabilization as well. You'll be surprised just how good you can get your portraits with this little stunner.

A versatile little lens that is breathtakingly sharp for such a small form factor zoom

Of course, there are many other lenses that are great for portraits, some wider, some faster or slower. But this top five round up covers the majority of both high, and low-end lenses that feature in almost every camera system lens line-up. If you've got a go-to portrait lens not listed here, share it with us below.

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Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Jason is an internationally award-winning photographer with more than 10 years of experience. A qualified teacher and Master’s graduate, he has been widely published in both print and online. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014.

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Every portrait photographer needs $4,000 in lenses? Umm, no.

#5 seems a weird choice.... Nikon's new 18-55 AF-P is pretty good (older ones were crap) but you need to stop down for best quality and also it's just... not a good option for portraits.

For DX, the Nikkor 35/1.8G would be better. Or a 50/1.8. Or if you want a zoom, the Tamron 17-35/2.8-4 Di would be better. Or something similar.

For me, the Nikkor 58/1.4G is one of the best portrait lenses ever made. Terrible MTF charts, lovely lovely lovely portrait photos from it. Sometimes sheer perfection of IQ isn't the best choice, and I don't usually say that.

Seems like a lot of extra things, money, weight, decisions to have. IMO an 85 gives a nice head shot and a 35 or 28 will do a good job when you want to show environment.
From what I have seen long lenses are not really popular these days as the "look" is wider, maybe due to the influence of phone cameras.
There is a lot of overlap in this collection of lenses. Not five lenses, maybe two.

"long lenses are not really popular these days as the "look" is wider, maybe due to the influence of phone cameras."

That's why i now shoot with long lens. To sparate with the others. I don't want my photos look like everybody else. Especially those taken with phones.

I just love head shots on ~100mm or so.

I don't care what other people think is trending.

Sometimes I even go as far as going full 200mm. It depends. But almost always longer than 50mm.

I like 85-105, I don't really like the look of anything longer unless it's a special effect.
If you are shooting for clients and they like a "modern look" as opposed to the more "classic" long lens look then maybe you'd take that into account.
If you are the client then do what ever you like.

50,85,100, 135

I don't know about portrait, but I will always appreciate a good 70-200 F/2.8 lens.

That and a 24-70 f2.8 are all I need but I have a lot more than I need lol

What a weird little article. Maybe these are 5 options every portrait photographer should consider, but saying they SHOULD have these lenses is terrible advice. Also, you are mixing full-frame and apsc sized lenses in your list. Again, terrible advice. The 85 and the 35 is more than enough for most portrait photographers, and if you wanted to add a 3rd, then maybe the 70-200.

I’ve seen too many articles/videos titled something like ‘lenses every photographer MUST own’. The usual 24-70, 70-200, 35, 50, 85 lenses will appear on the list. Very predictable and certainly not a must as we should all choose whatever lenses we like.

Once a 105mm would have been considered the portrait lens.

Nikkor 135mm and/or 105mm f2 DC lens and then any other lens anyone deems necessary.

Ive been doing Weddings for years with only the standard 24-70 on a D3, and a 70-200 on a D700. Whilst I have produced some wonderful work and beautiful photos, I feel that I am missing the WOW factor sometimes (No client has ever complained I should add). I want to buy one extra WOW lens. Should I go for either the 135 or 105 f2 DC, or should I buy a 105 or 85 f1.4 ?

Well I can't make that decision for you. All these lenses are excellent. I am sure you know about the 85 and 135's focal length properties and differences when shooting portraits. I was stuck with that decision also. 85 would give excellent results for 3/4 shots and stepping in closer for head shots while the 135 is more in line with head shots. I am from the old school and having had a 105 f2.5 decades ago, I went for the 105 f2. It gives me the best choice of both worlds. But that's just me. Having the 105, I never thought twice about my decision and I absolutely love this lens. It also retains its resale value extremely well. I don't want to push you one way or the other, but since you do weddings, as I did long aho, the 105 is a very good choice. Keep shooting.

So, basically, any lens!

Shoot portrait since 1992, my top lens is 135mm full frame

Still prefer my 105 / 135 f2

As an m4/3 shooter I don't feel I need/want/should have any of those. But the title says I should so I guess I'll have to buy them then.

Sort of wierd article. I shoot people with anything ranging from..

14-24 to a 300mm PF, and most of the usual suspects in between

135mm DC

And then

Only named the lenses he has...

Bought the Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 second hand for just €350. Love it, it's an awesome portret lens. If the reach is to much I use the 12-40mm. Less awesome as a portret lens but still a very good multi purpose lens.

Back in the 70's it was a fast 105. Nikon made its reputation on the 105 F2.5.

I just recently got a copy of this lens at my local dealer after looking for it for many many years. It is just marvellous, just as the 85mm f/2 AI-S is. I use manual lenses a lot if I shoot privately.

The above list is reasonable. I'd go for 35, 50, 85, 105 and 70-200mm and as a bare minimum: 35, 85 and 70-200. (A 50mm should be in any bag anyway).

I have a very nice MF Nikkor 105 f1.8 that I could not afford back in the day which is great, and my favorite lens for women is a 70s nikkor 55 f1.2 that has a beautiful glowy-sharp-soft look.
Funny that I did fine for 20 years with a 80mm and 150mm shooting tons of business, editorial, family, headshot portraits in medium format - no way I could afford 5 Hasselblad lenses!

Irrational title and questionable collection of lenses... 85mm f/whatever with a 35mm and you're set. Personally I switched to 135mm for all of my outdoor portraits and I use nothing else most of the time now.

Will not engage.....

Personally for 20 of my 24 years as a full-time pro, I have been using a Nikon 28 F/2.8 (for me the 35mm seems to narrow) and the 80-200 F/2.8 AFD. Both have served me well for 2 decades with next to no issue. I do have to admit that my 80-200 starts to get soft beyond 185mm but still very workable with a little post sharpening. Honestly, I am rarely that extended due to the type of work I do, I am usually between 80mm-150mm so beyond 185mm does not matter much. Today these lenses are next to dirt cheap used and new, both lenses combined are still sold for $1500 or so. My other lenses are Nikon 50 f/1.8 AFD, 85 F1.8 AFD, 28-105 F/3.5-4.5 AFD all sharp, and worth retail about $800 (used). All in all, gear has depreciated but I use my gear and in 2 decades the investment in proper tools has been golden, I cannot compare my earnings to gear, as in with the right gear I have earned over 500% return. All in all, I say invest early in great tools, if possible, or upgrade as soon as possible if you are a pro or intend to be a pro. If a hobbyist then $$$$ in quality lenses may be mute. After all, it's still the photographer that creates the photo but great lenses still enhance the camera sensor/film's ability. All the best to you all. Take care and be safe.

Any vintage 135/2.8 - not super sharp (usable fully open though or f3.5 Sonnar for sharpness) but bags of character and can be bought for pennies.
58/2 Biotar/Helios - angle of view almost like a 50, photos feel like 80, gorgeous OOF rendering, dirt cheap.

The Contax Zeiss C/Y 135/2.8 is excellent. Excellent wide open and very sharp stopped down across the frame. It's probably the best of the vintage 135/2.8's - edges out the Leica R 135, better than the Nikkor (though larger too), better than Olympus OM. Haven't much tried the Leica Elmarit M 135/2.8, though.

One doesn't need the fastest lenses or need to shoot wide open with portraits. f/2.8 and f/4 lenses work just fine, and much less expensive and weigh less.

stoopid article

The portrait lens I should have is the lens that lets me photograph the way I see my subject.

If it is a 300mm 2.8 or a 20mm f4, so be it

I love my 18-55mm specially stoped down to f/4 :) ... that little lens is super sharp for portraiture...something that might or might not be a desirable trait LOL... especially with female portraits LOL. the others are awesome and even though expensive they do have their advantages.

what is really fun fact is that I have been able to make my photography business (7+years) with 2 lenses the 18-55mm Nikon mentioned above and the 85mm 1.8 Tamron G2, eventually I'll add the 70-200 Tamron G2 and that's it.

I was happy to see the 18-55 added here... it's an amazingly underrated lens that performs beautifully...

Ok...some good and proper choices although # 5 leaves me scratching my head. I do like the 85mm, but I have always loved the results from the Nikkor 105mm f2 DC lens. Just excellent. I have found that there are just 2 lenses I had been using for 105mm and the 80-200mm f2.8 D edif. I also am pleasantly surprised that many shots were with the Nikkor 50mm f1.4 D. But then....I don't do much portraits anymore.

While the article was written with the best of intentions.
It is not necessary to have all those lens for portraits and everyone has there own favourite.
I use a Tamron 90mm Macro and a Canon 50mm 1.8 nifty fifty.
Each to there own.

For the AF-P 18-55, if you need a shallow depth of field it is not very good, though in terms of detail, it is quite good for a kit lens, with decent sharpness across the frame though the focal plane is not very flat, thus close up sharpness can look worse than expected near the corners. The focus speed is also really good in terms of how fast the focusing motor runs.

Though for portraits, I feel that list can be narrowed down to a 35mm f/1.4 and the 70-200 f/2.8.