Photographer using a portrait lens

Guide To Choosing A Portrait Photography Lens

Written By: John

Choosing the right lens is a critical decision for any photographer, particularly in the art of portrait photography. The lens you select can greatly influence the way your subject’s features are depicted, the mood you aim to convey, and the story you want to tell through your images. Every lens brings a unique set of characteristics to a photograph, and understanding these traits can take your portraits from ordinary to captivating.

Key qualities of portrait lenses include focal length, aperture, and the ability to render beautiful bokeh—a term that refers to the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas of your photographs. A lens with the right focal length can flatter your subject by giving them the right emphasis within the frame, while a suitable aperture allows you to control the depth of field, selectively focusing on your subject or capturing the environment around them.

For those new to portrait photography or professionals looking to fine-tune their selection, this guide presents a comprehensive overview of how different lenses can affect your work. We’ll delve into why an 85mm lens is celebrated for headshots, the storytelling capacity of a 35mm lens in environmental portraits, and more. With this knowledge, we aim to empower photographers at all levels to make informed decisions about which lenses best suit their artistic vision and technical needs.

By breaking down complex concepts and providing you with practical insights, you will come away with a well-rounded understanding of how your choice of lens can elevate your portrait photography. So, let’s explore these instrumental tools of our trade to help you capture the essence of your subjects with clarity and creativity.

Understanding Focal Length

One of the pivotal choices you’ll make when selecting a portrait lens pertains to its focal length. This isn’t just about how much of a scene you can capture; it’s about the relationship between your subject and their environment, the feel of the portrait, and the story you want to tell.

What is Focal Length?

At its core, focal length is the distance from the center of the lens to the sensor when focused on a subject. It’s typically measured in millimeters (mm) and heavily influences your composition. Lenses are often categorized by their focal lengths: short (wide-angle), standard, and telephoto.

Wide-angle lenses generally have focal lengths less than 50mm. They’re capable of capturing a broad field of view, making them excellent for group portraits or images where you want to showcase the subject within a larger setting or context. However, wide-angle lenses can distort your subject’s features if they are placed too close to the lens, which isn’t always flattering for close-up portraits.

Standard focal lengths include the popular 50mm and 85mm lenses. A 50mm lens provides a field of view similar to that of the human eye, resulting in natural-looking portraits. On the other hand, an 85mm lens, a favorite amongst portrait photographers, offers a slightly compressed perspective which can be very flattering for the subject. It enables a comfortable distance between the photographer and the subject while still maintaining a personal and intimate feel.

Telephoto lenses, such as the 135mm, bring you closer to your subject without having to physically move. This extra distance allows the background to appear closer to your subject due to a phenomenon known as ‘compression.’ When correctly used, this compression effect can flatter your subject by smoothing out facial features and minimizing any perceived flaws, while also beautifully blurring the background to keep the focus squarely on the subject.

Focal LengthCompositionPerspectiveCompressionIdeal Use
Below 50mmBroad ViewSlight DistortionMinimalEnvironmental Portraits
50mm – 85mmNatural ViewBalancedLightIndividual/Candid Portraits
Above 85mmNarrower ViewFlattenedPronouncedClose-up/Compressed Backgrounds

The Art of Compression

Compression isn’t about squishing your subject into a tiny space; it’s about how different focal lengths can change the appearance of the space between subjects and their backgrounds. With longer focal lengths, subjects can appear closer to the background than they actually are. This not only creates a pleasing aesthetic but can also bring an emphasis to the subject, allowing the background to serve as a complementary element rather than a distraction.

Understanding how focal length affects your portraits means you can choose a lens that will enhance your subject in the way you intend. Whether you prefer the expanse of a wide-angle lens, the natural representation of a standard lens, or the flattering effects of a telephoto lens, your choice in focal length is a powerful tool in your storytelling arsenal. By using the right lens for your vision, you set the stage for creating portraits that resonate with viewers on a deeper level.

The Impact of Aperture on Portraits

Aperture is a crucial component that drastically influences the final look of your portraits. Aperture, which refers to the size of the lens opening when a photo is taken, can dramatically transform the mood and impact of a portrait. It does so primarily by affecting the depth of field – essentially, how much of your photo appears sharp and in focus.

Large apertures – those with lower f-stop numbers like f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.8 – allow more light to hit the camera’s sensor. This ability to capture more light is beneficial in low-light situations and is one of the reasons these types of lenses are prized for indoor or evening portrait work.

More importantly for portrait photographers, a large aperture creates a shallow depth of field. This means that your subject will be crisp and sharp while the background becomes a soft, creamy blur known as bokeh. This effect draws attention to the person in the photo and can remove distracting elements in the background.

Conversely, smaller apertures – with higher f-stop numbers like f/8, f/11, or f/16 – let in less light and bring more of the scene, both the subject and the background, into focus. This greater depth of field is particularly useful when you want to capture environmental portraits where the surrounding context adds to the story of the subject. In these cases, detail and clarity throughout the entire scene are essential.

Lenses with fixed apertures, often referred to as “prime” lenses, maintain the same maximum aperture throughout their use, providing consistent exposure settings and depth of field. Variable aperture lenses, often zoom lenses, may change their maximum aperture as you zoom in and out, which can affect exposure and depth of field in your portraits. When choosing a lens, it’s important to consider whether a fixed or variable aperture will better serve your portrait needs.

To illustrate the impact of aperture, imagine two portraits: one taken with a large aperture, such as f/1.8, where the subject’s eyes are in sharp focus against a smoothly blurred green park scenery. The second photo is shot at a smaller aperture of f/11, where not only the subject but also the individual leaves on the trees and distant park visitors are all noticeable and sharp. Both images have their place in portrait photography, and the choice of aperture will significantly shape the narrative.

Understanding the influence of aperture on your portraits doesn’t have to be difficult. Here’s a simplified breakdown:

  • Large Apertures (low f-stop numbers):
    • Allow more light, beneficial in lower lighting conditions.
    • Create a shallow depth of field with a pronounced bokeh effect.
    • Isolate the subject from the background, drawing attention directly to them.
  • Small Apertures (high f-stop numbers):
    • Allow less light, require more lighting or longer exposures.
    • Offer a larger depth of field where more of the image is in focus.
    • Useful for environmental portraits where background context is key.

Lens Features and Build Quality

Selecting a lens for portrait photography isn’t just about the images it can produce; it’s also critical to consider the features and build quality that make a lens durable and versatile enough to meet the demands of your projects. Let’s explore which features are most beneficial for portrait photography and how the build quality of a lens can impact its performance in professional environments.

Essential Lens Features for Portraits

  • Image Stabilization: This feature can be a lifesaver in low-light conditions or when shooting handheld. Image stabilization helps to reduce camera shake, ensuring your portraits come out sharp, even with slower shutter speeds.
  • Autofocus Speed and Accuracy: A lens with fast and precise autofocus is essential for capturing fleeting expressions and moments. Look for lenses with reliable autofocus systems that can quickly lock onto the subject, especially useful when working with children or spontaneous moments.
  • Manual Focus Override: Sometimes, the camera’s autofocus may not hit the mark, and you’ll want to take control. Lenses that offer the ability to switch to manual focus without changing settings can save you time and ensure you nail the focus on your subject’s eyes every time.

When considering these features, also think about your shooting style and the environments in which you typically photograph. For instance, if you often work in studios with controlled lighting, image stabilization might not be as critical as it would be for someone who frequently shoots in natural, changing light.

Assessing Build Quality

High-quality materials and solid construction don’t just influence the longevity of the lens; they can also impact the quality of your images and ease of use. Here are some key factors:

  • Weatherproofing: If you’re someone who shoots a lot of outdoor portraits, weather-sealed lenses can protect against dust, moisture, and other environmental factors. This extra layer of protection can be invaluable, particularly when working in unpredictable conditions.
  • Material Choice: Professional-grade lenses often feature metal barrels and mounts for increased durability over plastic counterparts. Heavier construction can be a sign of premium materials, which can withstand more wear and tear.
  • Ergonomics: Consider the design and ergonomics of the lens. Is it comfortable to hold for long periods? Are the focus and zoom rings smooth and easily accessible? The physical experience of using the lens can significantly affect your shooting process.

When deciding which features are must-haves for your portrait work, understand that each lens offers a balance between capabilities and cost. Features like weather sealing and image stabilization may increase the price, so weigh these against the environments you typically shoot in and the style of portraits you aim to produce.

Specialized Lenses for Creative Effects

While traditional lenses are the backbone of portrait photography, specialized lenses offer photographers a playground for creative expression. These lenses are designed to produce effects that can enhance the story, feel, and mood of a portrait. In this section, we will delve into the capabilities of tilt-shift, Lensbaby, and soft-focus lenses.

Tilt-Shift Lenses

Tilt-shift lenses allow for selective focus, which can be used to draw attention to specific parts of the subject while blurring out other areas. They achieve this through the ability to tilt the plane of focus and shift the lens for perspective control. Here’s how you can use these lenses for creative portraits:

  1. Mount your tilt-shift lens on your camera and compose your shot.
  2. Adjust the tilt to change the orientation of the plane of focus. This will help focus on particular features while creatively blurring the rest.
  3. Utilize the shift function to correct or exaggerate perspective, such as making a tall subject appear grander or correcting distortions when shooting from high or low angles.
  4. Experiment with different degrees of tilt and shift to discover unique compositions.

Sample portraits with a blur gradient across the subject or a miniaturized “toy” look can showcase the distinct effects you can achieve with tilt-shift lenses.

Lensbaby Lenses

Lensbaby lenses are known for their dreamy and ethereal quality. They often have a “sweet spot” of focus with a gradual blur toward the edges. This effect can add a sense of whimsy or romance to your portraits.

Using a Lensbaby lens involves the following steps:

  1. Attach the Lensbaby to your camera and understand the sweet spot’s position.
  2. Manually focus the lens to achieve sharpness where you want the viewer’s attention to fall.
  3. Adjust the aperture, knowing that a wider opening will enhance the blur effect.
  4. Re-compose your photo if necessary, as moving the camera slightly can change where the sweet spot falls on your subject.

Samples will illustrate the Lensbaby’s potential for creating a portrait with a deeply artistic touch.

Soft-Focus Lenses

Soft-focus lenses are different from lenses that simply produce out-of-focus areas. They have a specific optical design that maintains overall sharpness while gently softening the image. This can be flattering for skin tones and gives portraits an almost painterly quality.

To effectively use a soft-focus lens:

  1. Choose an appropriate aperture; the softening effect varies with the aperture setting.
  2. Focus carefully to keep the eyes sharp, as a soft-focus lens will soften everything to some degree.
  3. Play around with the light, as the soft focus can really glow with backlighting or soft, diffused lighting.

With these lenses, you’ll find portraits that have a timeless, classic appeal without losing the impact of the subject’s expression and features.

Adding Creative Flair

These specialized lenses allow photographers to step outside the realm of traditional portrait photography. When contemplating using such lenses, consider how the effect will serve the subject and the story you wish to tell. Are you aiming for a sense of fantasy, emphasizing emotion, or crafting an abstract piece? Your creative goals should guide your lens choice.

Incorporate these lenses in your shoots by following these steps:

  • Start with a concept that aligns with the lens’s effects.
  • Take several test shots to familiarize yourself with the lens’s behavior and nuances.
  • Use a tripod if necessary to handle the manual adjustments with precision.
  • Integrate feedback from the subject or client as you develop the look and feel of the shots.

Remember, these lenses are not about technically perfect photos but about the emotional and artistic impact of the image. The testimonials from photographers who regularly incorporate these lenses into their work are testament to the unique dimension they can bring to your portfolio.

By exploring these specialized lenses, you open the door to innovative and expressive portraits that stand apart from conventional approaches. While these lenses may not be for everyone or every session, they offer a distinctive tool for photographers looking to push the boundaries of their craft.

Investing in Portrait Lenses: Budget Considerations

When it comes to portrait photography, the lenses you use can make a significant difference in your work’s quality. However, the decision to purchase a new lens often comes with a high price tag. It’s essential to balance the financial aspect of lens acquisition with the benefits each lens offers to your photography.

Understanding the Cost-to-Benefit Ratio

The first step in considering a lens investment is to evaluate the cost-to-benefit ratio. This means examining how much the lens will improve your photography against the expense of buying it. High-quality lenses are often referred to as “investment glass” because they can offer superior image quality, durability, and performance that may benefit your work for many years. Consider how often you’ll use the lens and whether it will open up new opportunities for paid gigs or help you produce consistently better portraits.

Building a Lens Kit Gradually

Building a complete lens kit doesn’t have to happen overnight. Starting with a versatile lens that fits most portrait scenarios, such as a 50mm or an 85mm with a wide aperture, can be a solid foundation. Over time, you can add more specialized lenses to your arsenal as your style evolves and your budget allows. This deliberate approach can help prevent unnecessary expenditures on lenses that are redundant or not aligned with your photographic style.

Renting vs. Owning Lenses

Renting lenses is an excellent way for photographers to test different focal lengths and apertures without committing to a full purchase. Many professional photographers rent lenses for specific projects or to decide if a lens is worth the investment. If you find that you’re renting the same lens frequently, it may be time to consider buying it.

Tips for Buying Used Lenses

Buying used lenses can be a cost-effective way to expand your lens collection, but it’s important to know what to look for. When shopping for used lenses:

  • Inspect the lens for scratches, mold, or dust inside the glass elements.
  • Check the autofocus function to ensure it operates smoothly and accurately.
  • Confirm that the aperture blades move freely without sticking.
  • Ensure that any image stabilization features work correctly.

It’s also wise to purchase from reputable sellers who offer warranties or return policies in case there are any issues with the lens.

Learn from the Pros

Many professional photographers are open about how they manage their lens investments. Interviews, forums, and articles can provide insight into how seasoned portrait photographers have built their lens kits over time. Some professionals may prioritize certain lenses for their line of work, while others may put emphasis on versatility or specific creative features.

Final Thoughts on Lens Investments

Investing in lenses for portrait photography requires a balance between your budget and the aspiration to improve and diversify your photographic work. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and each photographer must weigh the advantages against the costs. Whether you choose to rent, buy new, or purchase used gear, each decision should be approached with careful consideration of your needs and the ongoing development of your photographic skills.

By applying the information and strategies discussed in this section, you’ll be better equipped to grow your lens collection wisely, ensuring it supports your creative vision and serves your professional goals.

Making the Best Lens Choice for You

Choosing the best lens for your portrait photography is not solely about technical specifications or popularity; it’s about finding the right tool that aligns with your personal style and the unique type of imagery you aim to create. Whether you’re capturing the soft, delicate features of a newborn or the hard, chiseled lines of a seasoned professional, the lens you select plays a pivotal role in how your vision comes to life.

Throughout this guide, we’ve explored a variety of factors that are crucial when selecting a portrait lens. We’ve looked at how focal length can alter the appearance of your subject and how aperture impacts the depth of field and bokeh in your images. Lens features such as image stabilization, autofocus performance, and build quality can also significantly influence your shooting experience and the final outcome of your portraits. And for those looking to inject a bit of unique flair into their work, we’ve delved into the creative possibilities offered by specialized lenses.

Remember, experimenting with different lenses can be incredibly valuable. Renting lenses before making a purchase allows you to test how they feel in your hands and see firsthand how they affect your images. This hands-on experience is vital in understanding the nuanced differences between lenses and how they can affect your photography.

Building a lens kit is a process that happens over time. It’s about recognizing which lenses meet your current needs while also considering future growth. Your collection should evolve as your skills improve and as you refine the kinds of portraits you most love to take.

For those on a budget, don’t feel pressured to buy the newest models. Quality used lenses can offer excellent value, providing professional-grade performance at a fraction of the cost. When shopping for second-hand lenses, remember to check for any signs of damage and ensure they are fully functional.

In closing, the best lens for portrait photography is the one that feels right for you. It’s the one that complements your artistic voice and helps you tell your subject’s story in a way that resonates. Review the key points we’ve shared, consider your personal goals and style, and you’ll be well-equipped to make an informed decision that will enhance your portrait work for years to come.

For those hungry for more information, there are countless resources available. Photography forums, detailed lens reviews, and workshops can provide further guidance. Continue to soak up knowledge, practice with different equipment, and keep pushing the boundaries of your creativity. With the right lens in your toolkit and a clear vision in mind, the portraits you envision can fully come to life.

The Creativv
American digital marketer and founder of with over a decade of experience in event, travel, portrait, product, and cityscape photography.