To create great portraits, you need a lot of great components: lighting, composition, and camera and lens choice. Deciding which focal length to use for portraits can be tricky, so in this article I’ll make some suggestions on lenses to use for your next portrait photo shoot.
Before I go any further, I must emphasize that I only own 3 zoom lenses: Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II, Canon 24-7mm f/2.8 and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS. With it I can take pictures from 16-200 mm. Honestly the lens that lives on my camera is the 24-70, about 90% of my work is done with it. I mostly shoot at 45-55mm. The second most used lens is the 70-200, which is mainly a beauty lens for close-ups when I need a shallow depth of field. Most of my beauty work is also done with the 24-70. The 16-35 is the least used lens and honestly it’s more of a BTS lens than anything else. Honestly if I sell the 16-35 and 70-200 I’m not going to lose too much. Still, without further ado, let’s look at which focal lengths are used for which portraits.
This is in most cases the widest I would choose for a portrait. Sure, there’s a place for wider angles, but the set would have to justify such use. Even then, 24mm is far too wide for a close-up. At this focal length there is a lot of distortion, making the elements closest to the camera appear huge, while elements further away appear disproportionately smaller. If you want to shoot portraits with this lens, use it for full body and commercial shots. Try not to use this lens for close-up photography for now. It can be an interesting choice later, but the pose and mood of the picture should be appropriate. The depth of field is very large at 24mm, you need an incredibly wide aperture (f/1.4) to get any kind of background blur.
A classic focal length for full and half-length portraits. At this focal length there is less distortion and the depth of field is relatively shallow. You’re unlikely to get anything exciting unless you’re using f/1.4, but there are certainly many ways to use 35mm in portrait photography. First of all, it is the ideal way to show both the person and their environment. Since 35mm lenses are considered a relatively wide lens, going up close and personal might not be a good idea as you’ll still see distortion.
The Fifties Fancy: A lens I sold only to later buy a 24-70mm and use it in the 50mm. It might seem like the most boring focal length, as it sits squarely between a wide 35mm and a bokeh-king 85mm. Honestly, if you’re just starting out, you probably don’t get the hype surrounding the “fast fifty.” The reason for this is simply that for a “boring” focal length like 50mm you need a really interesting subject. The purity with which a 50mm lens captures the scene is both friend and foe. If you’re just starting out, stay away from 50mm and go for 85mm instead.
The iconic focal length is loved and recognized for the shallow depth of field it can produce. It’s the “Holy Grail” of portrait lenses. You won’t have any trouble getting up close with this lens. The only thing to keep in mind is that the closer you get, the shallower the depth of field and it becomes difficult to focus the eye on the subject. That’s why I personally advise against shooting with f/1.2. Just because your lens can shoot f/1.2 doesn’t mean you should shoot everything at that aperture. Stop down to f/4 or f/8 and take a picture where both the subject’s nose and eyes are in focus.
If you’re using a DSLR, you might have more trouble getting an 85mm lens to focus accurately due to the lack of features like eye and face tracking. If you like the look of f/1.2 in a portrait, consider buying a mirrorless camera or learning how to focus your lens accurately. Judging from my experience with Canon lenses, their EF 85mm is quite slow and sometimes imprecise, while their RF 85mm is incredibly sharp, accurate and overall much better than its EF counterpart. However, I do not own any of these lenses and I personally will not buy them.
You may be wondering what is a 100mm doing here? And for good reason, 100mm is known to the general public as a macro lens. It’s an excellent macro lens, but it’s also an excellent portrait lens. Crowning the 100nm as a macro lens is rather unfair as it automatically suggests it can’t do anything else. So much so that we wrote an article about it! I suggest you read this article to get a good sense of what it really means to use a 100mm macro lens for portraits.
This is already in the telephoto range. That means the lens has a shallow depth of field, which makes focusing a challenge at times, but also that there’s excellent background blur – bokeh. Depending on the aperture used, you will get different degrees of background blur. One thing to watch out for with such focal lengths is indeed the depth of field. The closer you are to the subject, the flatter it is. The flatter it is, the harder it is to nail focus. However, if you get quite a distance from your subject, you can get interesting results when shooting half-length portraits. Just be careful not to lose touch with the topic. I’ve noticed that half and full body pictures are best captured at 35mm, not 135mm. On one occasion I needed to get as much background blur as possible with my equipment, so I shot a full body at 200mm at f/2.8. It sure looked weird, and my yelling didn’t help either.
To answer the question posed in the title, the choice of lens for portrait photography really comes down to the look you want. If you want to shoot ambient work with less bokeh, consider using a wider angle. If you want more bokeh and a compressed background with less perspective distortion at the same time, go for a medium focal length like 50mm. If all you need is ultimate bokeh and background blur, opt for an 85mm or 135mm lens. There are multiple options, either Primes or Zooms. In short, if you need a more budget-friendly option, go for a zoom lens. However, it will be a sacrifice to how “fast” the lens can be. Let us know in the comments if you’d like to see an article that covers primes or zooms for portraits in more detail!