The Best Portrait Lens

The best portrait lens is designed for the photographer who's passionate about people.

Alliteration aside, you're reading this page if you own a digital SLR camera and want to find a good lens to use for portrait work.

The lenses that I list below are especially suited for capturing the human form, and will help you capture faces so that they look three-dimensional and natural.

Let's begin by talking about some of the general features that make the lenses on this page best suited for portraits.

The Middle of the Road

portrait photo

In order to take appealing portraits, you want a lens that's going to represent the human face as it actually appears to the naked eye.

  • Wide angle lenses (10-18mm) make subjects look like they're in a fishbowl: the nose is overly large, and the ears appear tiny
  • Telephoto lenses (200mm +) compress space, and while this is not as unappealing as the wide-angle effect it can "flatten" a face so that it's not as three-dimensional

Since lenses at the extremes aren't optimal for portrait work, the best portrait lens is going to fall somewhere in the middle.

A good portrait lens focal range is anywhere between 50 to 100mm.

Since a digital SLR sensor is smaller than standard 35mm film, it "crops" every image you take. This is also called a focal length multiplier or crop factor: a 50mm lens will capture images on your digital SLR more like a 75mm lens on a film SLR.

Since the most common focal length multiplier for digital SLR cameras is 1.5x, you must apply this to find the "adjusted" portrait focal range for a digital SLR.

The answer?

The best portrait lens for a digital SLR should have a focal range between 33 and 66mm (50 and 100 divided by 1.5).

Maximum Aperture

portrait with blurry background

Another aspect of appealing portraits is that the subject's face is clearly in focus, but the background is not.

Creating a blurry background focuses the attention of the viewer where you want it - on the face.

One way to blur backgrounds is to use a lens with a wide maximum aperture. Lenses with wide max apertures create shallow depth of field, which turns that distracting background into a soft out-of-focus canvas.

This makes a wide maximum aperture the second requirement of a good portrait lens.

Best Canon Portrait Lens

Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di LD
Dimensions3.6 x 2.9in (92 x 73mm) tamron 28-75mm lens
Weight18oz (510g)
Zoom Power2.7x
What makes this lens so great for portrait work? It has the ideal focal length for taking natural-looking portraits, the wide constant maximum aperture creates a shallow depth of field and the lens is SHARP, even when compared with significantly more expensive Canon lenses. I have one of these almost permanently attached to my Canon digital SLR.
Price: $500 USD

Best Nikon Portrait Lens

Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR AF-S
Dimensions3.1 x 3.2 in (78 x 82 mm) nikon 24-85mm lens
Weight16.4 oz (465 g)
Zoom Power3.5x
This lens falls into a great focal length range for portrait work. It has a variable maximum aperture depending on the focal length the lens is set to: at 24mm (wide angle) the max aperture is f/3.5 but this narrows to f/5.6 at 85mm (telephoto). The addition of image stabilization helps eliminate camera shake but won't help out if your subject refuses to sit still.
Price: $600 USD

Best Olympus Portrait Lens

Olympus 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 ED
Dimensions2.58 x 2.8in (65.5 x 72 mm) olympus 40-150mm lens
Weight7.76oz (220g)
Zoom Power3.8x
While this has a bit more telephoto reach than I would prefer for a portrait lens, this Olympus 40-150mm has two things going for it: a decent zoom power (almost 4x) and very light weight. It also winds up being the best portrait lens for Olympus thanks to its high image quality and reasonable price tag.
Price: $260 USD

Best Pentax Portrait Lens

Pentax DA 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 AL (IF) DC WR
Dimensions3.0 x 2.9in (76 x 73mm) pentax 18-135mm lens
Weight14.3oz (405g)
Zoom Power7.5x
This lens comes with a lot of acronyms, but don't let that scare you off, it's still a great portrait lens. The good news is that given its zoom power, you can also use it for landscapes and closeups. The Direct Current (DC) autofocus motor speeds up autofocus lock and the Weather Resistance (WR) helps keep out the elements.
Price: $530 USD

Best Sony Portrait Lens

Sony 16-50mm f/2.8
Dimensions3.25 x 3.5in (81 x 88mm) sony 16-50mm lens
Weight20.4 oz (577g)
Zoom Power3.1x
Yes, this Sony lens will set you back a chunk of change, but that's the price you pay for a constant wide maximum aperture. That wide aperture will yield smooth backgrounds in your portraits and will also help if you want to photograph people hand-held in low available light.
Price: $800 USD

Portrait Lens Prices

See the latest prices for all the best portrait lenses listed above.

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