Some words about finding the best lens for your portraits
You are probably here because you are interested in buying your self a lens that will make your portraits even more remarkable, or you’ve just discovered that you are interested in photography and you are on research to find the best lens for your money?
You are on the right track, my friend! Spending money on a great lens is far better than buying an expensive body with a crappy lens. The body isn't nearly as important as the “glass” between it and the subject.
I went through this procedure too — 12 years ago — when I discovered that photography was what I wanted to do — and I tried my best to find a lens for my Canon EOS 300D that took sharp portraits, but still did not cost too much money.
Twelve years ago I would kill to have a resource like How To Select A Camera Lens, where someone already researched and told me — by experience — which the best lenses for shooting portraits are. Back then it was not as easy as it is today. I just had to trust the guys at the local camera store.
This post will hopefully make you get a clearer picture regarding which lens is best for your portrait style — no matter if you are professional or not — and I will certainly give you some examples where to buy them as well. I've made some research through the years as a professional photographer, and it would be a shame not to share what I’ve found with you.
What Defines a Great Portrait?
This is a tough question, and of course, this is a matter of taste. Some prefer classic studio portraits, and some prefer natural black & white lifestyle. In most cases, they have a couple of things in common though.
They need a sharp area — and since this post is about portraits, it’s usually the eyes that that need to be the sharpest.
Great portraits also need a blurry background — a shallow Depth of Field(DOF) — to give your object focus.
Bokeh adds depth to your portraits
If you are new in photography, you may not have heard that silly word. Bokeh ”is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens.”. For many, the bokeh is the first thing we relate to when thinking about professional looking images, and images taken with a real camera — those sharp photos with a blurry background.
When taking a portrait, the bokeh is what gives the picture depth, and the contrast between the sharp eyes and the blurry background makes your portrait interesting.
Don’t forget that the reflection in the eyes of the subject talks its own language. Even though this has nothing to do with the lens(or camera for that matter), it is an important feature of a great portrait. This is more a matter of how to light your subject and we will certainly cover that in another article, later on.
To summarise — what defines a great portrait?
- Well composed
- Super sharp eyes
- Reflection in the object's eyes to give them a glittering look
- A shallow Depth of Field(DOF) to blur the background
- Well Lit
What Defines a Great Portrait Lens?
An excellent portrait lens is the one that delivers what I’ve mentioned above.
Is it as simple as that? Well. NO!
Different lenses have different characteristics, and all lenses are not equally good(fast) at focusing in on your object in low light. Also, some lenses are loud when focusing, and some are unnoticeable quiet. And of course, some lenses are sharp, and some are not, and some give artifacts, and some does not give it as much.
There are a couple of questions that need answers at this point regarding what matters to you?
- How much money do you have to spend?
- Is it important that your lens focus quietly?
- Are you a low light photographer or do you plan to light your subjects?
When you’ve defined what a great portrait is — and what you like in a portrait — it’s time to start thinking about which alternatives are best for you, cause there are a couple of things you need to consider before starting your research for a specific brand or model.
- Zoom vs. Prime Lens
- Focal Length
- Fixed vs. Variable Aperture Lens
- Weather Sealed Lens
- Image Stabilization
- Silent focusing
Zoom vs. Prime Lens
I love my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L IS USM which is considered to be one of Canon’s best zoom lenses ever.
That one is pricey. Heck, I can buy a decent car for the same price.
On the other hand, I have my lovely cheap Prime Canon 50mm f/1.8. That one costs less than a charger for my laptop and is amazingly sharp.
With a prime lens, you have to zoom with your feet, and this may sound like a drawback, but in fact — many wedding photographers prefer prime lenses because of their characteristics and do not see it as a disadvantage to learn the moonwalk. It is something you get used to, they say.
Which focal length suits you the best? After a while shooting, you should feel what focal length is comfortable for you. For portraits, however, it’s recommended to use a focal length between 70mm and up to 100mm(on a full-frame body).
One of the most popular options for portrait photography is the 85mm prime lens.
Fixed vs Variable Aperture Lens
Variable aperture lenses are often cheaper and lighter than those with fixed aperture. They also extend as you zoom in and retract as you zoom out.
The fixed aperture lenses are more expensive, have more sophisticated glass elements, and they are a better choice if you are serious about your photography.
Weather Sealed Lens
If you are in a studio shooting, the chance is close to none that your new lens will get wet or full of sand — if you are not very experimental by nature. The same is true if you are the careful type of photographer who doesn’t take your camera outside if it rains.
If you plan to travel with your lens — to shoot amazing travel portraits — it’s a good idea if your new lens has some kind of weather sealing.
All manufacturers have top of the line options that have a sealing that will protect from rain and dust.
Awesome third-party products that protect your lens
There are also some great third-party vendors specializing in gadgets to protect your gear while out exploring. I would recommend you to consider the fantastic Shell from Peak Design — a sleeve covering your lens and body from rain and dust while shooting outdoors.
This would be a good compliment if your budget can’t allow the top of the line lenses.
For some photographers this is important, for some, it’s not. It will allow you to use a longer exposure without getting blurry photos because your camera is not still, and that can be really useful in low light scenarios when your subject is not moving. Remember though, that if your subject moves, image stabilization does not matter too much, as your subject will be blurry anyway.
USM(Canon) — or similar features
Lenses equipped with USM or similar technique are quieter and faster.
Canon came up with the USM(Ultrasonic Motor) in the late 1980s and build it into their EF lenses. After that, other manufacturers followed.
I have found that when taking casual portraits of my kids, the USM helps me a lot since they move constantly. I need to use AI Servo(Canon) to let the camera change focus as my kids move around.
Worst vs Best Lens – In Theory
I can tell you that there is a shit load of images on the internet — and in photographers archives — taken with cheap lenses. I’m sure about that because I have them too. The difference between a cheap lens and a really expensive one isn’t huge. But the same thing is true when it comes to music studio equipment(yes, I’m a musician too), you pay a lot for the little extra.
So why would anyone pay so much for a lens that is not remarkably better?
I had a fairly cheap lens from Tamron, the 28-75mm f2.8. This is a great lens that delivers really sharp images.
After a while, however, the rubber on the focus ring fell off. It also began to sound weird while auto-focusing. It was probably as a result of a couple of travels in a non-dust free environment.
When using the professional lenses this is most often not a problem. I currently use a Canon EF 24-105mm 4L IS USM as my main travel lens. It is very versatile and covers most needs when I just have room for one lens. This lens delivers again and again, and I’ve even slammed it into The Great Wall in China when falling down a hole(a small one, so no need for pity).
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Speed & Hitting the Bulls Eye
The autofocus is lightning fast on most professional lenses while those cheaper ones may sound like the steering on my sons RC car, each time it tries to find focus. The professional lenses most often find focus in worse condition, while those cheaper ones sometimes miss and you will not hear that lovely focusing beep when you instinctively try to capture something. You may simply miss a couple of opportunities, and of course, that is really annoying.
Where Will You Use Your Lens?
All serious lens makers have their professional line of lenses.
The thing about these professional lenses is not only that they make sharp and good looking images. It’s also that their lifespan is longer and they will survive longer in tough environments.
If you intend to use your lens on trips around the world, I strongly suggest you go with the weather sealed versions.
Even though a cheaper lens like the Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 — mentioned earlier — will take tremendously sharp images, it will start struggling after a while. Sand or dust will get into the body of the lens and jam the focus etc. In the long run, it will be a smart move to save some extra money. Believe me, I’ve been there and I didn’t save that extra money for the better alternative, and I was going to regret it.
Don’t forget that you can buy a used lens in good shape at Amazon. You don’t have to buy a new one!
If you intend to use your lens indoors shooting kids in the living room, I would recommend you to buy any of these cheaper alternatives that still take great & sharp portraits – as those professional lenses would most certainly be overkill.
Buy your new best portrait lens for portraits?
When you’ve made your decision it’s time to go deep into your dark closet and find that plate box where you’ve temporarily secured your money, open it and put your money in your wallet and go to the huge camera store that has everything in stock!
Or, if you prefer to shop online — as I do — you should do that. Not only is it often cheaper, but it is also a great place to see how others experienced the product before you buy.
I tend to use Amazon more and more. It is easy to navigate and they simply have everything.
Which lens is best for portraits is defined by you! There are however a couple of guidelines to follow to help you define that.
Are you comfortable with the fact that the lens is not a zoom?
If the answer is yes, you should pick a prime lens. They are generally sharper than a zoom and there are really wide alternatives on the market that allows more light passing into your camera, which will allow you take less noisy photos in low light scenarios. A wide lens is also giving this smooth blurry background that we just love! The bokeh.
The 85mm f/1.4 is an absolutely fantastic lens that is proven by many portrait photographers.
I’ve used a Tamron 90 f/2.8 for many years. It is sharp, It is cheap, it is also quite noisy while focusing. But it is a great lens that should not be forgotten.
Also the Canon 50mm f/1.8 — which is Canon only of course, but other manufacturers have similar lenses that will fit your camera — is a surprisingly good lens, that even though it’s low price is amazingly sharp.
If you are into zooming and feel that it is right for you, you should pick a lens with zoom obviously. Don’t, however, choose one with variable aperture. As someone who learns photography, you should have full control, and variable aperture makes — at least me — angry.
I will not get much sleep tonight if I don’t say that the 70-200mm f/2.8 is the best option out there. It is proven by many photographers including me, and it’s something magic with the 70-200 range that makes the glass elements project extraordinary images on the sensor.
The Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 is a lens that gave me a lot of great portraits. It is fairly cheap but sharp.
Don’t care too much about image stabilization, as it will probably cost more than you get, at least if your primary target will be anything that moves.
USM(Canon) — or similar features on other brands — matter most if you need faster focusing and shooting mostly moving subjects.
Please let me know which lens is your favorite in the comments below, and don’t forget to share this post with friends, neighbors, or others that may have a good use for it. And while you’re on it, follow @myphotogadgets. Thanks!
I’m sure you will enjoy your new lens!
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