The advent of smartphones means most people now have access to decent cameras that can fit in your pocket and go with you anywhere. The development in smartphone camera hardware and software means that these devices are being used by a lot of people, even professional photographers. They use smartphones to capture a lot of scenes in their day-to-day work, even the very hardware and software demanding portraiture photography.
While smartphones have gotten better, it gets pretty easy to distinguish between a portrait shot on a mobile device and a proper digital camera – whether DSLR or a DSLM. It is safe to say that traditional photography has not completely lost its edge over the smartphone, yet, and can deliver beautiful, high-resolution images with that creamy bokeh that we all love so much.
Before we jump to comparing which camera does a better job shooting portraits, there is a far more critical factor that is easily overlooked in this argument. That factor is the piece of glass that helps focus the images. It is the one piece of equipment where smartphones have just not been able to replicate no matter what kind of a telescopic, side-on, prism technology or lens coating or stabilization is used. This is where a DSLR or a DSLM comes out as the definitive winner.
Let us look at some of the best portrait lenses available today that you can use with your camera.
With so many options available, it helps to set a base for what different portrait lenses can do – rather, what it is that you want to achieve in your portrait photography and what your style is.
For the sake of this blog, we can divide portrait lenses into three shooting categories – headshots, full-body portraits or highly kinetic and candid shots.
For headshots or facial portraits, you need a lens that can get you close to the subject. However, you need to be mindful of the overall impact the lens has on the facial structure and also the background and the kind of separation and compression that it offers.
One of the most popular lenses in this category is a prime lens with a focal range of 85mm. The benefit of such prime lenses is that they are usually very sharp and have beautiful fall off from the sharp areas to the unsharp or blur areas. These lenses also come with large aperture ranges, between F1.8 and F1.2, which make the images they capture stand out, thanks to all the depth they can offer.
Almost all lens manufacturers make a version of this lens in varying F-stop flavours from F1.2 to F1.8. My recommendation would be to opt for a lens manufactured by your camera platform of choice as rarely do the third-party options outweigh native ones, except perhaps in the case of the Zeiss Batis or the Sigma ART variety.
Price-wise, the F1.8 versions are very affordable and there is no reason why someone starting cannot just pick up a version to polish their skills before making their way up the F-stop chain.
Other lenses which can be used to shoot headshot portraits include the 100mm F2.8, 105mm F1.4, 135mm F1.4, and the 70-200mm F2.8 (there are also some 200 F2.0 variants floating in the wild.)
Let us go over these one-by-one. The 100mm or in some instances 90mm or 105mm variants are closest to the most ideal of focal lengths for portrait lenses. Their image quality is close to the 85mm but with even less barrel distortion and is known to provide 1:1 reproduction of images. The large aperture means you get fantastic image quality and plenty of bokeh with sharp images. This also makes these lenses very versatile in their utility and many also use them for shooting “portraits” of products with it.
Price-wise, these lenses sit above the 85mm F1.8 category and are closer to the 85mm F1.4 but due to the versatility they offer, they are often preferred.
The 135mm offers a little different dimension to lenses in the 100mm ballpark. They offer clearer subject separation from the background but it does not offer much more compression between your subject and the background than the 100mm variants can. The compression, though, is far less than the next lens in this list, the 70-200 ranges.
It costs close to the 100mm lenses as well.
The last lens in this range is the most popular telephoto lens, at 70-200mm. Offering great versatility and covering all the ranges of the primes mentioned above, the lens is a favourite for fashion photographers.
Many professionals prefer the F2.8 variant of the lens, noting that it provides great versatility, immense compression and tack sharp pictures. What more could you want.
The top-of-the-line F2.8 variants of the lens tend to be quite costly which is why you won’t see every photographer own one.
While most of the lenses listed above can be used for full-body portraits, a lot of photographers prefer to get a little closer to their subject by opting for a wider lens.
This is where wider primes such as the 35mm and 24mms and even the 16mm come in.
These lenses, which operate on a wider spectrum of focal lengths can easily capture the full length of the subject whilst providing excellent image quality with sharp and crisp pictures.
No photographer’s lens kit is complete without either a 35mm option or a 16mm option – or a combined lens that somewhat covers both the focal lengths and everything in between.
The only downside to using such wide lenses is that they tend to distort the body and facial geometry and subjects can often appear in very exaggerated forms.
However, some photographers prefer this as this allows them to get very creative in the kind of work they want to do with these lenses and get unique shots, especially when portraits have to be set within an environmental context.
The good thing is that except for the 35mm, the other lenses are fairly affordable.
Of all the focal ranges that we have mentioned here today for portraits, the one range that is often overlooked is the “normal” range, or the 50mm.
The focal length of this lens provides the most natural geometry for the human body. Add to that its base F1.8 variants are amongst some of the cheapest, lightest and smallest lenses manufactured by almost all companies, making this a near default lens for most people starting with photography.
The compact size, wide aperture and versatility make it ideal for candid photography. Whether you are doing it in a studio, a controlled environment or the streets, the nifty-fifty can handle it all. Providing beautiful imagery, especially at the wider apertures of F1.4 and F1.2, these lenses reliably deliver images with great detail and fast.
It is also a great lens for anyone who wants to get started with portrait photography as it allows the photographer to get close to their subject without being too invasive. Its mild compression means you can focus completely on the subject where it reproduces sharp images.
It is no wonder that most photographers always keep a 50mm lens in their pockets whenever they are shooting because you never know when a good moment may pass you by.
Some photographers also prefer the 35mm to shoot the candid portraiture, especially if they are looking to get more than just a single subject in the frame.
So there you have it, a round-up of all the best lenses that you can use for shooting portraits at any budget.