Best Lenses for Portrait Photography
A guide to choosing the best lenses for portrait photography
As wedding photographers, we constantly think about how we can make our images better. Giving our couples the best memories of their wedding makes us super happy. There’s no better motivation for us than a happy bride who loves her wedding day portrait!
While we truly believe that a photographer makes the images, having great, high-end gear doesn’t hurt. There is no scarcity of the number and variety of good quality lenses in the market. And making a decision on which to use is something you should definitely spend a few brain cells on. Technically speaking, you can make fabulous portraits with the most basic gear out there, including your kit lens. But certain lenses help us create more flattering and pleasing portraits.
Do you even need one?
What is a portrait lens?
What can it do that your existing gear can’t? Portrait lenses are simply those that produce a more pleasing effect on people photographs, whether it has to do with image compression, depth of field, beautiful bokeh etc. We reiterate that you can easily take people portraits with any lens you have – the best lenses in the world can’t help you if your creativity, vision and commitment are limited. But if you’ve exhausted the capabilities of your existing gear and have the extra cash, lenses are definitely a fabulous long term investment in your business. Personally, we love our portrait lenses and can’t imagine a time before we had them.
We’ve put together some things for you to think about before investing in new portrait lenses and also some of our favourites.
Things to consider while choosing a portrait lens
We often get asked about which lenses we think are the best for portraits. The answer is a bit precarious because it’s a subjective one for every photographer. Even us! What works for us may not work for you and vice-versa. For most professional photographers, choosing gear is a decision based on what kind of images they want to make. So, it’s not a question of right or wrong but what suits your needs and best reproduces your vision. You can make good pictures in almost any kind of lens that you pick up, provided that you know your basics, can handle manual mode and are willing to get creative. Having said that, a good lens will certainly enhance your skills. So let’s talk about a few factors you need to consider to arrive at a decision.
Prime vs Zoom lens
These are the two major classifications of lenses. A zoom lens is very versatile because it covers a variety of focal lengths. You don’t need to switch lenses as often and gives you the freedom to take close-ups and environmental portraits using the same lens. In fact, you can easily cover an entire wedding in one good zoom lens, like a 24-70 or a 24-120 for example. With a prime lens, however, you will need to move around a lot because of it’s fixed focal length. But they give you a much superior picture quality with regards to clarity, sharpness, depth of field and bokeh. And they’re lighter (read easier to carry around) than a lot of zoom lenses!
Focal Length and Aperture Control
The longer the focal length, the more image compression and depth perception, which makes portraits much more pleasing. But that also means that you need to shoot from further away, read not suitable in small cramped environments. A wider lens, on the other hand, allows you to shoot in these smaller rooms but will give more distortion to your images/portraits. Wider primes are fabulous for environmental portraits though – so keep them on your wish-list too!
A prime lens will typically have a larger maximum aperture and therefore, a shallow depth of field. Which means your subject will appear more isolated and distinctive from the background and also get you that beautiful bokeh.
Number of people and available space
Who and where will you be shooting? Will it be the bride or the groom (i.e. single person), the couple or will you be focussing more on family and group portraits? Will you be shooting in a small room, medium sized but crowded hall or a larger, open outdoor space?
Suppose you’re in a bridal room; then you know you don’t have much space to move around. In this scenario, a prime lens with a shorter focal length (35mm-50mm) will work the best. With more space, you will have more flexibility to choose a lens.
Hopefully, these points will have helped you in making a choice. If you’re still confused, we’re listing out some of the lenses we love for taking portraits. This is not an ultimate list, just some of the lenses that have helped us make awesome portraits of our couples and their families. In case you are unable to make a decision, we’re sure these will not disappoint you. Go on, have a read!
AF-S Sony,Nicon,Canon- 50mm f/1.4G
This is a favourite and is our go-to portrait lens because of its quality of being closest to the human eye. The 50mm works well when you don’t have a lot of space to work in. It’s pleasing for almost all body types and works well for half body shots (i.e. head, shoulders and torso). It’s also lighter compared to other lenses. In addition to portraits, this lens works great in other wedding scenarios as well, like the phera ceremony, haldi & mehendi rituals, dance floor etc. If you’re looking for a good balance between quality, versatility and price, this lens is a great option.
Love this bridal portrait of Vidya with the 50mm. Just look at that depth of field and subject isolation.
This is why we love the 50mm! You can create almost all kinds of images with it. Just step back and you can get more of the action.
AF-S Sony,Nikon,Canon -85mm f/1.4G
This lens gives you the classic head and shoulder portrait. Its frame has a tight fit and renders facial features nicely. You also get a lovely, round and natural bokeh. Which means the subject stands out quite well from the softly blurred background. With an open aperture of 1.4, this lens lets in more light than anything else we’ve probably seen. There is an effective reduction of ghost and flares as well. This lens loves being shot wide open – the brilliant auto-focus ensures we’re locked on to our target for as long as our heart desires.
A tight head & shoulders portrait with the 85mm from a slight elevation. Notice the frame compression.
Another version with some action to demonstrate that the 85mm works for more than just portraits, but ideally when there’s some movement space
AF-S Sony,Nikon,Canon 105mm f/1.4E
We won’t lie. The 105mm is an indulgence and one that we love having in our kit! This lens is brilliantly sharp with an incredibly shallow depth of field. But, like the 85, its frame is quite tight and doesn’t lend itself to much more than portraits. So it isn’t one that we use all the time at a wedding. It’s quite on the heavier side as well. But what we really love about this lens is that it makes highly superior images with bokeh even better than the 85. It’s also quite good for frames where the background is cluttered. So you can create a soft and creamy background blur with it.
We were able to make this portrait because we had ample space to move away from our subject. The 105mm creates a soft, lovely bokeh in this portrait shot.
Again, the bokeh is really great with the 105mm! The shot was taken through the gap in a row of fairy-light covered trees with the bride posed amidst the branches of the farthest one!
AF-S Sony,Nikon,Canon 35mm f/1.8G
The 35 mm is a great choice for environmental portraits. It also works well for full body shots or portraits where outfits need more focus. You can get some great group portraits as well, e.g. family, bridesmaids, groomsmen etc. This lens is what we would call a ‘workhorse’. The best part about this is that you can shoot the entire wedding with this, if need be, and get great pictures – from haldi, to barat, pheras or vidaai. You name it. If you’re starting out and need to decide on your first portrait/prime lens, keep this on your priority.
A couple portrait of a fishing boat in the backwaters taken with a 35mm (a 24mm works beautifully here too), allowing us to include more of the background/environment.
The 35mm is really flexible in terms of the kind of images it can make. You can shoot almost everything with this lens.
We know that the options available in the market can make it difficult to make a decision. But for every photographer, the choice is a personal one. If you don’t want to invest in buying a lens yet because you’re not sure, why not rent them? You can get a few different ones for rent, shoot with them for a few days or weeks and then decide which one you like best. Hands-on experience with a lens will make your decision much easier.