Which of These Is Canon's Best Portrait Lens?

Canon makes a lot of fantastic portrait lenses that fit a wide range of needs, aesthetic preferences, price ranges, and more. Four of their best are the RF 85mm f/1.2 L USM, RF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM, EF 135mm f/2L USM, and RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM, and this excellent video comparison takes a look at all four to help you decide which is right for you.

Coming to you from Katelyn James, this great video review compares the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2 L USM, RF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USMEF 135mm f/2L USM, and RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM lenses for portraiture. While you might prefer the versatility of a zoom or the extreme aperture of the 85mm f/1.2, don't overlook the 100mm or 135mm options. Macro lenses, being sharp and relatively lightweight, tend to make for excellent portrait lenses, plus you get the added close-up capabilities, making them great for wedding photographers, who need both ring shots and portraits. Meanwhile, the 135mm f/2L, though discontinued, is one of the best hidden gems in Canon's large library, offering beautiful, contrasty images at a much more affordable price than many other portrait options. And it is still widely available on the used market. Check out the video above for the full rundown from James. 

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3 Comments
WestEndFoto .'s picture

A few comments. Comparing 2.8 across focal lengths is not a credible test in my view. You will get more bokeh just with the longer focal length. But you will also get more compression with the longer focal length. That compression also permits you to find better compositions because you can select smaller backgrounds compared to your subject.

I would not consider the difference between the 200 2.8 and the 85.1.2 "minimal". The background is distracting in the 2.8. It is not distracting in the 1.2.

Also, high compression is caused by a longer focal length, not a faster lens.

Despite that, I did enjoy the video and think that it is good to watch for Canon shooters wondering what to buy for portraits.

Juan Isaias Perez's picture

Sharing a trick I use for portraits. Since the background compression is due to the increased distance from the subject (not the lens focal length) we can maximize this effect by using our cameras in crop mode. This will force you to frame your subject at a longer distance achieving a larger magnification of the background. Now the caveats: you need to be comfortable with the reduced resolution of the cropped image and you need a really sharp lens that can render fine details with the reduced resolution. I shoot an R5 with a Tamron 35mm f/1.4 Di. In crop mode I get the equivalent field of view of a 56mm lens. This effective focal length at f/1.4 gives me excellent subject isolation. Just give it a try. You may find your lenses are more versatile than you give them credit for.

P.S. I also own the Canon EF 85 1.4 and the RF 100 2.8. I have no issue picking the Tamron for portraits using this technique. It is that good.

Garth Scholten's picture

Katelyn loves primes and I think this video is prime-biased - not that that’s a bad thing. As photographers, we often see the world around us as if we are looking through a viewfinder. Our preferred lens choice will affect this vision.

For example, a portrait photographer who most often uses a fast 85mm prime will see potential locations in terms of what they can do with the 85. They develop an eye for the focal length and the distance that they need between camera and subject, and between subject and background to get the look that they seek. With fast 85 (f1.4 or f1.2), you don’t need a lot of distance between the subject and the background to get a creamy look for the image.

The 70-200 f2.8 is my preferred portrait lens and I’m definitely zoom-biased. I mostly shoot sports, so I’m also action-biased in my approach to portraits. Portrait sessions are typically with high school seniors who may or may not be comfortable in front of the lens. I look for those fleeting moments beyond the posed shots that might give me a great image. Sometimes this means quickly changing perspective with the zoom ring.

My clients want me to capture that “look” that is uniquely theirs and they want a little more depth of field to get both eyes in focus, so I often work with f2.8-4.0. I love the zoom because I can quickly change perspective from a wide shot that is more environmental with a recognizable location, to a tight shot that limits the background distraction. Even if I want the same 3/4 body shot, I can change perspective minimize distractions by zooming in and backing up.

Distance between subject and background is the key to creating creamy images. When I look for portrait locations I often gravitate toward locations that offer some environment features that can be included in the image and with distant trees that can give me the distraction-free, creamy background. A distant oak tree can give a very creamy, painted-backdrop look at f4.0. While there are times when this is great, I don’t want every image to have this look. After all, the location for the shoot is often chosen to capture the elements of the location and not to blur it all away.

I enjoyed Katelyn’s video, but I think the locations she chose for creamy backgrounds favor a fast 85 or 135. These are not locations that would stand out to me for a creamy look with a zoom.

So, which lens is best? It depends upon your approach to portrait photography.