There are many ingredients in the recipe that make a good photographic portrait—foreground, background, setting, pose, expression, color, lighting, and so on—but one element that can be as important to the result as the portrait sitter is the lens used to capture the portrait and help create the art.
Technically, any lens can be used to take a portrait with your camera, and there are traditional focal lengths for “portrait lenses” like 85mm and 105mm, but I asked my fellow B&H photographers, as well as our B&H Creative partners and affiliates, to share with us their favorite portrait lens.
Dennis Livesey, B&H — @liveseyimages
“In 2008, I sold a lot of stuff on eBay to buy the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens. After a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens I had owned for about a year, this was my second Canon L lens. That 17-40mm showed me the benefit of L glass over entry-level Canon lenses. However, I was surprised by my new 70-200mm f/4. I had a career as a motion picture camera assistant and using $100,000 zoom lenses was all in a day's work. I was very happy to use the finest lenses by Panavision, Zeiss, Cooke, and Angenieux. All of them were amazing. But the color and clarity of my new lens blew me away. It was astonishing that this lens, a pittance compared to the $20,000-and-up lenses I had been using, could take photos that looked so good and photographed colors I fell in love with. I thought it a good omen when the first time I ever got a prize for a photo, it was with this lens.
“Fast forwarding to now, my style has changed and I mostly use a Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary—an excellent lens in its own right. However, I got called for a portrait session recently and I pulled out my only lens that does 85mm to 105mm. You know which one I am talking about. While I am not able to share the client I shot, here is a test shot and it is of yours truly. It has turned out to be my current favorite headshot. I am sure you see why; only my favorite portrait lens could make me look good.”
Bridget Haggerty, B&H — @bhaggertyphoto
“My favorite portrait lens is a used zoom for my Nikon. Bought out of desperation and necessity, I grew accustomed to using it and now prefer it when shooting family portraits. It is the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens. It came out in the early 2000s and I bought it used eight years ago. After losing my kit lens that zoomed to 200mm, I went in search of something that would give me that extra length for event work. My photography and business were still budding so I went for cheap rather than drop two months’ rent on a 70-200mm f/2.8. I remember the 80-400mm was priced under $500 and it covered all the in-between focal lengths that I wanted for portraits. My intention was to upgrade eventually, but now I don’t want to.
“I love a good portrait prime, don’t get me wrong. This lens works for me, though. It has more than paid for itself and I know the lens so well, so the confidence I have when shooting with it is an added benefit. I know how my depth of field will look, the compression I’ll get, how the AF and VR perform. I am grateful for learning early on I don’t need the most expensive gear to make photos clients and I love.”
Levi Tenenbaum, B&H — @ibelevi
“The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM—“Thrifty Fifty”—is one of the most underrated portrait lenses. Most probably because it came out during a time when everything was moving to crisper edges and cleaner bokeh. This lens, which I got brand new for $99, has lasted a solid 10 years! During that time, its imperfections, its softer corners, its creamy, even mushy bokeh, and its weird falloff have given my photos such a unique look. Just like there is no single perfect lens, this doesn’t work for every portrait. But for the images it does work for, there are few lenses that compare.
“Additionally, I think there are two underrated portrait lenses: 1) Any of the 24-105mm f/4 lenses are great all-purpose lenses, and with a longer reach than the 24-70s, they can make more interesting and compressed portraits and, 2) Tilt-shift lenses—thanks Gregory Heisler!—are the easiest way to mimic the effects of a view camera with a simple 35mm camera.”
Katherine Hoskins, B&H — @kathbhoskins
“My favorite portrait lens is the Minolta 50mm f/1.4 Rokkor-X MD. I use it with my Minolta SRT-201, which was my first film camera—a family heirloom previously owned by my uncle Jim and used throughout the ’70s and ’80s on photojournalism assignments for my grandfather’s local Kentucky newspaper. My connection to this camera and lens gives me a lot of inspiration and I love using it as my carry-everywhere camera setup, especially for impromptu portrait sessions. The smooth, slightly swirly bokeh and sharp focus give this lens an ethereal quality I adore. I like to carry as minimal a kit as possible for long photo walks, so this lightweight lens combined with its dreamy characteristics make it a perfect choice every time.”
Liza Roberts, B&H Creative — @lizabetroberts
“I love the simplicity of the Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM! It's my go-to for fantasy and dreamy portraiture. It's the first lens I got for my Canon R6 and it's never failed me. I get dreamy, but crisp and clear images every time.”
Josh Brown, B&H — @xxjoshbrownxx
“I love the Voigtländer Nokton Classic 40m f/1.4 MC for Leica M mount and use it on APS-C cameras. It’s not your typical portrait lens. It doesn’t flatten, but it also doesn’t distort faces either. I like it for casual portraits of friends and family in tight places while hanging out. It’s small, unintrusive, and fast.”
Ange Fitzgerald, B&H — @angelinashoots
“I used the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L IS USM for years when I would shoot portraits almost every weekend. I always loved the super-wide angle and how close you could get to your subject. It was great for selfies, too!”
“‘A Long-Term Love Affair’
“I've always loved the 105mm focal length for portraits. That's probably because the first portrait lens I bought was the Nikon 105mm f/2.5 AI-s, in 1982. It was one of a few 35mm lenses in my bag when I began my commercial career around that time. I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of portraits with it over the years.
“And what a lens that was (and still is). Tragically, mine met its end on the concrete floor of my studio three years ago. I cried!
“These days, I use the Nikon Z system and have been replacing my F-mount lenses with Z-mounts. I was eager to get my hands on the NIKKOR Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S lens when it was released last summer. It hasn't disappointed. Nevertheless, if I come across a copy of the old f/2.5 in good nick, I'll definitely grab one; there's something special about the rendering of that vintage beauty.”
Thomas Simms, B&H
“When I shot on a full-frame Nikon camera, my favorite traditional portrait lens was the Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8D (latest version: Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 IF-ED). It wasn't too flat or too wide, it was just right, which is usually what you want in a headshot.
When I switched to an APS-C sensor camera, the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens became my portrait lens. It's a bit wide, but even when I use it ‘close,’ I like the fresh, three-dimensional look.”
Todd Vorenkamp, B&H — @trvphoto
“Traditionally, my favorite portrait lens was the hidden gem, and recently discontinued, Nikon AF DC-NIKKOR 105mm f/2D that I got second-hand from someone departing the Nikon system. I still use the lens, adapted to my FUJIFILM cameras, for manual-focus portraits and astrophotography.
“As I had migrated to FUJIFILM, I picked up the FUJIFILM XF 90mm f/2 R LM WR lens and it has become my portrait lens of choice. Ironically, it doesn’t get exercised as much as it should as my favorite portrait subject is a 2.5-year-old who is always on the move—he’s not much of a ‘portrait sitter.’ Capturing him, I usually am armed with the FUJIFILM XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens that gives me a bit more flexibility with composition and an additional stop of light when indoors. Depending on what we are doing and his mood, I sometimes reach for the 90mm f/2 and inevitably get a keeper or two that I love.
Share Your Thoughts
Now it’s your turn! What is your favorite portrait lens and why? Tell us in the Comments section, below!
For more information on the B&H Creative Partnerships Team, email us at [email protected].