We demand a lot of portraits lenses. They must be sharp wide open. They must focus well. Their bokeh must be pleasing. A stellar portrait lens is the holy grail for a lot of photographers. So, just which lens is the ultimate Canon portrait lens?
Just as Dani Diamond did in his search for the ultimate Nikon portrait lens, I took out Canon's best lenses for a spin with the aim of evaluating how image quality, performance, and price came together to make or break a lens. Each lens was evaluated on the following:
- How sharp is the lens at wide apertures?
- How does it render bokeh? Is it soft and unintrusive?
- What is the maximum magnification and working distance? Can I comfortably frame a shot of my choosing and still stay close enough to the subject to maintain a good interaction?
- How is the autofocus performance? I like to keep a lively conversation and quick shooting pace with my subjects; it keeps the air light and fun. Can the lens keep up with that sort of shooting style by being fast and accurate at wide apertures?
- How is the image quality beyond sharpness? Are color and contrast good? Are aberrations mostly absent?
- Is the lens built well? Would I be afraid to bump it or get it a bit wet? How are the ergonomics?
- What intangibles does the lens have? Is it sterile, or does it have character?
- What's the price? How does it compare to its performance?
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
I don't think I've had a bigger love/hate relationship with anything in my life more than this lens. Autofocusing at f/1.2 is like nailing Jell-O to a tree, but when you nail it, the results can be magical. Many will tell you it has an almost surreal three-dimensional rendering, and I'm inclined to agree with them. After years of AFMA and crying over shots that missed focus by a sliver, I've compromised by mostly shooting it between f/1.4 and f/2, where its autofocus performance improves quite a bit, and the effects are still present.This lens is plenty sharp when you stop down ever so slightly (f/2 and above) and nail focus. Moreover, bokeh melts into a sea of smooth colors, making it easy to focus more on your subject. The focus roll-off is reminiscent of medium format as well. What I particularly like about this focal length is that it's long enough to render facial features in a flattering manner, but wide enough to still highlight the unique facial topography of each subject, which is why 85mm is the classic portraiture focal length.
With a maximum magnification of 0.11x, which makes for a minimum focusing distance of just over 3 ft, it won't win any awards for macro capabilities, but it's plenty to get in close and personal with a subject. I absolutely adore the colors and contrast out of this lens. Canon is known for having great skin tones, and I think this lens really highlights those. It has more chromatic aberrations than I care for, though, and they often show up in inconvenient places, such as eyelashes. They're not so extreme that they're uncontrollable, though, and they largely disappear by about f/2.
Autofocus performance is really the Achilles heel of this lens. It's slow and not overwhelmingly precise or accurate. A good AFMA definitely helps, but nonetheless, I'm often frustrated to find a good shot ruined by ever so slightly missed focus. Alas, such is the nature of the beast. Good shooting technique also helps, though; nonetheless, with such razor-thin depth of field, you can't afford to move at all once you've attained focus.
Build quality is typical of an L lens and is quite good. It's not weather-sealed, but I don't see this as much of a drawback as I can't envision too many scenarios in which you'd be shooting such a lens in the elements. It's really made for one thing: methodical portraiture. I'll occasionally take it to extreme low-light venues, such as classical music concerts, where the subjects aren't really moving and I can afford to focus slowly and take advantage of that massive aperture, but 95% of the time, I use it for shots like these. It's certainly heavy (Canon users affectionately refer to it as the "cannonball"), but it balances well, and besides, getting f/1.2 takes a lot of glass. That said, I baby this lens more than any other. The rear element is flush with the mount, which absolutely terrifies me every time I attach it, and its generally finicky nature and focus-by-wire system make it difficult to risk any sorts of bumps or the like with it. Nonetheless, it's an L lens, and it has withstood the occasional inadvertent knock without an issue.As for intangbles, well, just look above. This was shot at f/1.4, and it really shows off the vivid pop this lens renders that so many photographers adore. Sharpness definitely drops off noticeably as compared to even f/2, but to be honest, even for a sharpness junkie like me, I just don't care. It's good enough, and the character of the lens far outweighs any technical limitations. This doesn't mean I'll use this aperture in all situations, but if I want to make an image that instantly pops, this is the sweet spot. Clients (even those with no photographic knowledge) have constantly come back to me and pointed to these images as standout favorites. Those alone are worth the price of admission.
Speaking of price, at $1,899, it's not cheap. Do I think it's worth it? Absolutely, if you do portrait work and if this is a lens whose look at wide apertures you like. It's not a first-timer's lens; your technique needs to be solid, and it has a steep learning curve, but it will reward you when used correctly. There's a good reason it has a 5/5 average with 658 reviews on B&H.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
As much as the 85mm f/1.2L is a pain to use, the 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM is a solid workhorse that I never worry about. I can shoot it wide open at lower shutter speeds with a more free-form technique, and without fail, 95% of my shots will be dead-on accurate. In fact, I pretty much shoot it wide open exclusively when it comes to portraiture. Its hybrid IS is spectacular, and its AF performance is both precise and accurate. However, there's more to life than good autofocus and image stabilization.Being a macro lens, it's superbly sharp, even wide open, though to be fair, its widest aperture of f/2.8 is the slowest of all in this article and is more than two stops slower than that of the 85mm f/1.2L. Nonetheless, f/2.8 is a perfectly good aperture for headshots, and with that 1:1 reproduction ratio and a minimum focusing distance of one inch, I can practically stick it up a subject's nose, so working distance is whatever I want it to be. The 100mm focal length renders facial topography very similarly to 85mm, though you can see a smidgen more compression of facial features.
Bokeh isn't quite the buttery smooth version it is on the 85mm, and focus roll-off isn't magical, but both are still very good. It reminds me a bit of the Sigma Art lenses: a bit crispier and busier, but rarely (if ever) do I find it intrusive. In fact, it complements the hard-edged rendering this lens provides well. Chromatic aberration is very well controlled, and colors and contrast are quite good. They're not the smoky, moody renderings they are with the 85mm, but they're clean and pleasant.
Ergonomically speaking, the boon of the narrower aperture is a lighter lens. Made of engineering plastic, its nimble ergonomics complement its quick performance well. If I'm doing headshots, I'm grabbing this lens most of the time. It's durable (it's also weather-sealed), it performs well, and I can rely on it to get the shot. It's not the magical beast that the 85mm is, but if you want to make good, technically sound images time and time again, it won't let you down.
Price-wise, I consider this lens a steal at $849. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more versatile or consistently high-performing lens at that price point.
Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM
This lens is one of the most overlooked in the Canon bunch, often overshadowed by the 85mm. That's a shame, because it's a strong performer that merits consideration. Though its design is now 20 years old, it still holds its own against other lenses — a testament to its strength. For me, it holds a very specific place in my arsenal: when I want 90 percent of the 85mm look with 10 percent of the hassle.In terms of wide-open sharpness, this lens occupies a middle ground between the 85mm and 100mm: it's not as razor sharp as the 100mm, but it's far better than the 85mm and offers much more of that specific rendering that so many love. And at 135mm and f/2, depth of field is thin enough to give you those same buttery smooth backgrounds that melt away. In fact, that's part of what makes it such a hidden gem: you get the softness of the 85mm backgrounds with a bump in sharpness. However, if you need more sharpness, stopping down to f/4 quickly gives a noticeable increase that should be more than enough for most anyone.
With a maximum magnification of 0.19x and a working distance of 3 feet, I can get plenty close to subjects, but the problem is that the focal length is long enough to require decent distance to frame properly: typically 10-20 ft. It can be a smidgen awkward at times and can make keeping a continuous flow with your subject slightly more erratic, but it's not a huge issue. It would be more of an issue if you work indoors frequently, in which case, you should carefully consider using such a focal length. Furthermore, the longer focal length flattens features noticeably compared to the 85mm. For most subjects, I prefer the shorter focal length, as I find it to be the best balance, but you may prefer the opposite; just be sure to note the differences.
Autofocus performance is fast and accurate; subjects snap into focus very quickly without any hunting (it's actually a favorite of many indoor sports photographers). Coupled with its comfortable ergonomics and well-balanced weight, the lens is a joy to shoot with. Nonetheless, with its longer focal length and lack of IS, you do need to keep your shutter speeds quick. Though it lacks weather-sealing, it's very durable and can easily handle the everyday bumps and knocks.
Colors and contrast out of this lens are a joy. While not as moody as the 85mm, they're deep and pleasing. Aberrations are also controlled very well. Really, the only major improvement I could ask for in this lens would be image stabilization (and maybe weather-sealing, considering its AF performance lends it to other applications), which might be why the design hasn't been updated in 20 years and why it still holds it own against other lenses.
In terms of price, many consider it to be Canon's best price-to-performance ratio lens. For $999, you get L-series image quality and performance, making it a great entry point for many photographers looking to upgrade their glass.
Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM
I like to call this my "butterfly-bazooka" lens, because in most situations, using it is like killing a butterfly with a bazooka. It also gets frequently mistaken for a bazooka. Many consider this Canon's ultimate lens, the confluence of performance, durability, and image quality that makes it a joy to use and sets your images apart. Sure, the photographer makes the image, but to pretend that a kit lens is equivalent to a top-shelf portrait lens is simply foolish. A good photographer with mediocre kit will trump a mediocre photographer with good kit, but a good photographer with good kit is the best combination of the three.
This lens is a stunner through and through. It's razor sharp wide open, and bokeh is phenomenal. If you so wish, any background can be transformed to nothing but splashes of color with no discernible geometric forms. Coupled with its gorgeous focus roll-off, the subject isolation of this lens is outstanding. Fill the frame with your subject, and you'll have nothing but them and some abstract colors behind them. Give them a bit more foreground and background, and they'll pop like a 3-D cutout. The only drawback is that bokeh is so extreme that it can sometimes make the background look a bit too flat and appear uninteresting, but that's rarely an issue for me.Compression is at its strongest at this focal length. Features are slimmed and reduced, and facial topography is flattened. This is often flattering for the subject, but as I mentioned above, I'll sometimes opt for a shorter focal length, as I think there's a balance; a person's facial structure is very unique to their identity.
Working distance is, well, long. The first shot in this section is completely uncropped, and I was still about 30 ft away. The above shot is mildly cropped mostly to correct a slight rotation and was taken from about 50 ft. It can certainly be awkward, but I've learned to make it something funny, and it typically gets the subject(s) laughing when I'm yelling and flailing like a madman. Still, though, you might find this to be a hindrance, particularly in tight spaces.
Build quality is typical of the Canon "big whites," namely, it's impenetrable (it's weather-sealed as well). Frankly, if I were accosted while in possession of this lens, I would have no problem using it as a makeshift bat to defend myself, then picking up where I left off shooting. The ergonomics are also fabulous, though its weight (5.5 lbs) does start to wear on you after a while. I typically wear a wrist brace while shooting with it. Nonetheless, the inclusion of image stabilization helps quite a bit, and its nearly perfect autofocus performance means that as long as I can hoist the behemoth up to my face, I can get the shot.
Image quality is what you would expect from such a lens: it's fabulous. Colors and contrast pop, while aberrations are essentially absent. The lens does have character, though not the moodiness of the 85mm or the organic nature or the 135mm. Rather, it's so technically good and such an extreme focal length and aperture combination that it gives your images an instant clean pop.
Price-wise, the cost of admission is stratospheric at $5,699. That being said, if you want a lens that gives you a high amount of telephoto compression, wide-open sharpness, abstract backgrounds, and a signature look, this is the ultimate. I won't say it's overkill for most photographers, because that's mostly for you to decide. If your technique is solid and this is the look you crave, then it's up to you to decide if you need it. What I will say is that you can achieve 85% of the look with the other lenses. Remember that unlike the 85mm, 100mm, and 135mm, this lens is designed to be a sports and wildlife lens as well, thus contributing to its price tag.
So, what's the ultimate Canon portrait lens? I would say it's really a situational question that depends on a lot of factors. Let's break it down.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM: Best for photographers who want a classic portrait length with a lot of unique character, good technical quality, and who don't mind a methodical and sometimes frustrating shooting experience.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM: Best for photographers who want a lens that they can rely on to get the shot, who don't mind a more sterile image, and who want the best sharpness.
Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM: Best for photographers who like the look of the 85mm, but want a lower price, less hassle in their shooting experience, and don't mind a longer working distance. Along with the 100mm, this a great entry lens for the L series.
Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM: Best for photographers who want a high degree of telephoto compression, near-perfect performance, and a rare combination of technical quality and a signature look.
For me, the ultimate portrait lens is the 85mm f/1.2L II USM. Though I'm constantly cursing it out, its combination of an insane aperture, moody rendering, and balanced focal length keep me coming back to it. You might have a different opinion; it's important to pick what's best for you. Let me know in the comments what your favorite portrait lens is!
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