The Best Portrait Lens

What's your favorite portrait lens? In this video, Manny Ortiz picks his among a 35mm, 55mm, 85mm, and 70-200mm. 

The best lens for portraits is one of the oldest and most contested arguments in photography. All are great for different reasons, but everyone always seems to have their favorite. Many argue that 50mm or 55mm is the best option because it most resembles the field of view of the human eye, while others love the 35mm for environmental portraits. Some street photographers and photojournalists love the 50mm, while others in the same genre use only the 35mm.

Henri Cartier-Bresson — the father of photojournalism and master street photographer — mainly used a 50mm. He often chose the 50mm because anything more cuts out certain elements while anything less contains too many elements. One of the most renown American photographers today, Annie Leibovitz, loves shooting with a 35mm. She loves the environment that's captured along with her subject, which often creates more interesting images. In the above video, Manny Ortiz balances the pros of each lens, creating reasonable arguments to choose any of the four options he tests. 

Personally, my favorite portrait lenses are my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 and my Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. Both are incredibly tack sharp and I'm always blown away with the in-camera results. I enjoy creating compositions with the field of view the 50mm offers, and I love the compression and versatility that the 70-200mm offers. 

What is your favorite portrait lens, and why?

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Ryan Cooper's picture

I kinda feel like it is impossible to choose the "best portrait lens" without more specificity. Each of these lenses are phenomenal portrait lenses for different types of portraits. Also, I think, at this point, it is useless to really have the "best portrait lens" conversation without including 105mm f/1.4 in the mix. (Though, I get that unless you are Nikon shooter being able to actually include one in the comparison is still pretty hard but once that Sigma hits the market the discussion changes quite a bit)

The way I see it, though, within the context of this video:

35mm = Best environmental portrait lens when you want to showcase the environment as well as the model.
50mm = Best environment portrait lens when the environment isn't as important.
85mm = Most versatile portrait lens as it doesn't require a ton of space to get good compression but can also make amazing bokeh.
70-200mm = Best headshot lens. (of the above, I feel there are better headshot lenses out there)

I'd argue that portrait photographers should have all 4 of these lenses in their bag and know exactly when each is the best choice for a given situation. Personally, my main camera case has each of the above in it for this very reason, while all other lenses live in my secondary case.

Aleksandar Jaredic's picture

Fujifilm 90/2 :)

Scott S's picture

I did a 2-year documentary using nothing but a Schneider 80mm (which was a 62-ish 35mm equivalent on the digital back).

Probably a weird focal length for many, but I loved it and shooting a few thousand portrait images on one focal length really helped me find my style.

Tim Behuniak's picture

That's awesome! Do you have a link to the documentary?

Scott S's picture

Mostly just the Farmer and rancher segment on my website

Bjarne Solvik's picture

As I understand it's all about distance and perspective distortion. According to some reasurch done and some calculated values you need to be 5 feet away to avoid distortion.

Perspective distortion takes two forms: extension distortion and compression distortion, also called wide-angle distortion and long-lens or telephoto distortion.

Since a lot of portraits are selfies and people are used to that type of perspective I would suggest making portraits with telephoto distortion a bad choice.

I would think 50-85 is the sweetspot for distortion free portraits:)

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I go back and forth between a 35 and 85.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I should start using the 85 more!

Bokeh Master's picture

135mm, all the way (sony, release one asap!)

Przemek Lodej's picture

I've been using 85mm, 135 and 70-200mm. It's a personal choice and whatever the client likes at the end of the day.

Aliwton Carvalho Filho's picture

There’s no such thing as “the best portrait lens” (specially if you’re just considering a few models made for the current two/three mainstream full-frame mounts). Makes more sense to talk about “favorite portrait lens” instead. Btw, mine is tbe APO-Summicron-M 90mm f/2. It delivers both gorgeous bokeh and amazing sharpness.

Andy Kudlicki's picture

135. Great headshots. Long enough to get awesome hair highlights by shooting almost into the sun/strobe without worrying about flare. 135/1.8 by Zeiss/Sony has amazing detail, contrast, and is the king of bokeh. Waiting for SSM version.

To go a bit wider, a 90/2.8 macro or 85/1.4.

55/1.2 on APSC

Terje Madsen's picture

I use the Fujifilm GF 110mm f/2 for portraits

Lorenzo Coopman's picture

Instant reaction: a 50mm and the 70-200mm. I have tried some other stuff but the most pleasing results in these humble hands come out of the 50mm and the 70-200mm

Tim Behuniak's picture

totally agree! What specific lenses you use? Nikon, Canon, Sony? 1.4, 2.8?

Lorenzo Coopman's picture

I'm a lonely Pentax user, I use the Tamron 70-200 f2.8 and a 1.8 50mm

Doug Stringham's picture

I like to shoot portraits between 85-200mm....

Joe Prete's picture

It kinda depends on the Subject, the Situation, and the Look that you're going for. I don't consider Wide Angle or Normal focal length as "Portrait lenses" I use the Nikon 85 F/1.4, 105 F/2.8, DC 105 F/2, DC 135 F/2 and 180 F/2.8, but in a pinch, the 80-200 F2.8 will work too. I gotta say that the topic of this article, seems pretty stupid to me, and the video and examples could've been shot just as well with a Bridge Camera, based on the results!