Portrait Lenses Par Excellence

Portrait Lenses Par Excellence


Creating accurate, naturalistic as well as lasting images of human faces has been one of photography’s signature achievements for more than 180 years. The timeless genre of portraiture has had its commercial and esthetic ups and downs. Nevertheless, we’re now experiencing a real resurgence in shooting portraits. Moreover, it has captivated everyone from emerging creative enthusiasts to seasoned pros. As a result of this upsurge, the sales of studio gear like backgrounds, light modifiers and light stands have steadily increased over the last few years. However, by far the hottest items on portrait photographers’ must-have lists are portrait lenses par excellence. They are the key element in shaping and defining the image.

The Anatomy of a Portrait Lens

Photographers can use virtually any lens to shoot portraits. However, for most photographers, the ideal lens is a moderate telephoto with a focal length about two times that of a normal lens. Moreover, it typically has a wide enough aperture to facilitate selective focus techniques using shallow depth of field.

For full-frame cameras, a prime lens in the 85–105mm range (or a zoom that falls within the 24–85mm or 70–200mm ranges) with a maximum aperture between f/1.4 and f/2.8 qualifies as a portrait lens.

Ditto for any equivalent focal length lens in APS-C or Micro Four Thirds formats. All these lenses can capture head shots and head-to-shoulders portraits at a long enough working distance to eliminate apparent perspective distortion. Meaning, the dreaded “big nose” effect often achieved when shooting close-up portraits with shorter focal length lenses.

In addition, all the lenses on our list have diaphragms with seven or more blades to enhance their inherently attractive bokeh. Further, most provide smooth transitions from the in-focus to out-of-focus areas of the image for a pleasing natural look.

Note: None of the lenses covered here are really a specialized soft-focus lens. However, one employs Smooth Trans Focus (STF) technology to provide additional control over the appearance of out-of-focus highlights. Others deliver various degrees of diffusion at their widest apertures.

What’s more, all these lenses can capture exquisitely sharp images at the point of focus. They also enable the wide-ranging depth-of-field control that helps create unique, compelling portraits with smooth de-emphasized backgrounds as well as faces that seem to pop off the page. In short, a good portrait lens can help photographers express their personal vision and create images that stand the test of time.

         12 Portrait Lenses Par Excellence

While we couldn’t possibly include ever worthy portrait lens here, we’ve selected a dozen high-quality portrait lenses from 11 different manufacturers. They range in retail price from $500 to $1,600 and employ a variety of technical features. In the words of my irrepressible physics professor, “When it comes to lenses, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface. . . .”

Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Sigma’s elite Art series of full-frame, ultrahigh-speed portrait tele prime lenses employs state-of-the-art optical technology. Consequently, they capture exceptionally sharp, detailed images along with the luminous rendition and smooth bokeh associated with classic vintage lenses.

This lens’s f/1.4 aperture facilitates shooting in low light and using selective focus techniques. With 17 elements in 12 groups, it has three FLD (fluorite equivalent), two SLD (special-low dispersion) elements and one aspheric element. They minimize chromatic and other aberrations. As a result, the lens captures crisp, contrasty images with outstanding color accuracy. Super multilayer coating throughout enhances light transmission as well as minimizes flare and ghosting.

Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Further, a hypersonic AF motor (HSM) provides quick, quiet, precise autofocus. It also has a large focusing ring with AF override, enabling full-time manual focus (MF). Other features include an aperture ring that users can de-click for video; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm to enrich its beautiful bokeh; a thermally stable composite barrel for consistent performance in any climate; and a precision-machined brass barrel to provide precise alignment over the long haul. Compatible with Sigma’s USB Dock, the lens provides a 168mm-equivalent focal length on APS-C-format cameras and focuses down to 3.28 feet or 0.12x. It weighs 3.6 pounds and measures 4.6×5.2 inches. Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA, Sony E and L mounts, $1,599.

Sony Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 ZA

An outstanding member of Sony’s advanced optical lineup, this is an impressive 8-element, 7-group, full-frame superspeed portrait tele prime. For Sony A-mount mirrorless cameras, the lens is based on the legendary Zeiss Planar formula that minimizes chromatic aberrations. Sporting both Zeiss and Sony logos, it employs a floating-element design and Zeiss T* antireflective coatings on all surfaces. Thus, it delivers outstanding sharpness and beautiful bokeh that’s especially pronounced at its widest apertures. Unlike many 85mm f/1.4 lenses, it stops down to f/22.

Sony Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 ZA

The lens also features an auto clutch mechanism that prevents the focusing ring from rotating when it’s set to AF. A focus hold button and a focus mode switch enhance tactile control and provide rapid access to select settings. Moreover, a rounded 9-blade diaphragm adds to its smooth, natural bokeh.

Its ultrawide f/1.4 maximum aperture facilitates low-light work and selective focus portrait techniques using its extremely shallow depth of field. The lens focuses down to 2.8 feet (0.13x) and provides a 127.5mm-equivalent focal length on APS-C-format Sony models. It measures a relatively compact 3.3×2.8 inches and weighs in at 1.4 pounds. Sony A mount, $1,699.99.

Tamron 70–180mm f/2.8 Di III VXD

This full-frame Tamron medium-tele zoom has a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture that enables working in available light. It also offers enhanced depth-of-field control. Moreover, the lens covers a focal length range ideal for portraiture. It also boasts an advanced 19-element, 14-group optical design. It includes six LD elements and three aspheric elements to correct a wide range of aberrations. Consequently, it captures sharp, detailed images over its focal length range. In addition, Tamron BBAR-G2 coating minimizes flare and ghosting, thus enhancing contrast and color fidelity.

Tamron 70–180mm f/2.8 Di III VXD

Furthermore, two VXD (voice-coil eXtreme-torque drive) linear motors deliver quick, smooth, very quiet AF in still and video applications. The motors also work in tandem with a floating element system to maintain consistent image quality over the focusing range, down to 2.8 feet (1:4.6x at 180mm). It has a minimum focus of 10.6 inches (wide) in MF at 70mm.

Additional features include full-time manual focus override that supports Sony’s direct manual focus for fine focus adjustments; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm that contributes to its pleasing bokeh; and a fluorine-coated front element that resists dust and smudging as well as facilitates cleaning. Plus, a zoom lock switch prevents unintentional extension during transport. The moisture-resistant lens measures 5.9×3.2 inches and weighs 1.8 pounds. E mount, $1,099.

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G

This is an iconic ultrahigh-speed portrait tele prime for FX-format Nikon SLRs. Moreover, it is based on an internal focusing (IF) version of a traditional 10-element, 9-group design. As such, it doesn’t include exotic glass or aspheric surfaces. However, it does perform to a very high standard.

Indeed, it yields sharp images across the field, classic rounded rendition, as well as very smooth, natural bokeh. Also due in part to its rounded 9-blade diaphragm. The lens offers superior depth-of-field control. It also has a focusing mode that allows switching from automatic to manual focusing with virtually no lag time by turning the focusing ring on the lens.

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G

Nano Crystal as well as Super Integrated coatings are used to suppress flare and ghosting. The result is sharp, high-contrast images and accurate natural colors, even when shooting in bright and backlit conditions. In addition, a silent wave motor delivers quick, quiet and precise AF plus full-time manual focus. What’s more, the upgraded lens’s IF design promotes faster focusing speeds and maintains the overall length of the lens for better balance. The prime lens focuses down to 3 feet (0.12x), and it provides an equivalent focal length of 127.5mm on DX-format Nikons. Measuring 3.4×3.3 inches, the F-mount lens weighs 1.3 pounds. $1,449.95.

Panasonic Lumix S 85mm f/1.8

Here is a sleek, compact, wide-aperture, full-frame Lumix portrait tele prime lens. For L-mount mirrorless cameras, the Panasonic S series lens is fast enough for low-light work and to facilitate a wide range of selective focus effects. It’s constructed with a 9-element, 8-group design. Its optical formula incorporates a duo of extra-low dispersion elements. The ED elements reduce chromatic aberrations and create sharp images of high clarity and color accuracy over its entire aperture range.

primo portrait lenses Panasonic-Lumix-S-85mm-f1.8
Panasonic Lumix S 85mm f/1.8

What’s more, its linear AF motor provides fast, precise autofocus. In addition, the lens’s rounded 9-blade diaphragm contributes to its pleasing bokeh. Notably, the lens also excels in video recording performance with suppressed focus breathing. Furthermore, moisture-, dust- and freeze-resistant construction allows photographers to use the lens in adverse weather conditions.

The Lumix S 85mm f/1.8 lens provides a 127.5mm-equivalent focal length on APS-C-format cameras. It also focuses down to 2.6 feet (0.13x). The prime lens measures 2.9×3.2 inches and weighs in at 12.5 ounces. L mount, $599.99.

OM System M.Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.2 Pro

This well-balanced beauty from OM Digital Solutions provides a 90mm-equivalent portrait tele focal length on Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras. That’s complemented by a super speedy f/1.2 maximum aperture that’s fast enough for extreme low-light work. It also provides extended depth-of-field control.

This outstanding 14-element, 10-group Olympus prime incorporates one ED, one aspheric, as well as four high-refractive index elements. Together, they control distortion and a variety of aberrations. They also achieve impressive sharpness, clarity and color fidelity at all apertures. Add to that Z Nano coating throughout to control flare and enhance light transmission.

OM System M.Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.2 Pro

Furthermore, the lens’s Movie & Still Compatible (MSC) AF system delivers quick, quiet, precise autofocus in both still and video applications. In addition, its rounded 9-blade diaphragm contributes to its pleasing natural bokeh. What’s more, the lens focuses down to an impressive 1.6 feet for capturing compelling close-ups. It also incorporates comprehensive weather sealing to facilitate shooting in harsh environments. Another feature is a programmable L-FN lens function button. The compact lens measures 2.8×3.3 inches and weighs in at a portable 14.5 ounces. MFT mount, $1,399.99.

Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f/1.8

Inspired by classic mid-20th-century portrait lenses, this unique moderate-telephoto prime is designed to capture “vintage look” images. Its images have a dreamy, glowing rendition when shot at its widest apertures and increased sharpness stepped down. The Lensbaby employs a broadband multicoated, antireflective version of the classic 4-element, 3-group Zeiss Tessar design. It also stops down to f/16 and provides smooth manual focusing down to 9.5 inches (1:2) for impressive frame-filling macro range closeups.

Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f/1.8

In addition, the Velvet 85mm features a 12-blade curved diaphragm that augments its naturally attractive bokeh effect. The lens also has comprehensive focusing scales and a well-damped focusing action. Furthermore, it provides a 127.5mm-equivalent focal length with APS-C-format cameras.

The Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f/1.8 measures a compact 3×5 inches and tips the scales at a portable 1.4 pounds. Black, Nikon F/Z, Fujifilm X, Leica L, Sony A/E, MFT, Pentax K and Canon EF/RF mounts, $499.95; silver, Canon RF/EF, Nikon F/Z, Pentax K, Sony E/A, Fujifilm X, MFT and L mounts, $599.95.

Fujifilm Fujinon XF56mm f/1.2 R WR

Recently unveiled, this lens is a weather-sealed version of Fujifilm’s acclaimed superspeed f/1.2 autofocus portrait tele prime. In addition, it provides an 85mm-equivalent focal length in the APS-C format. This combination is ideal for extreme low-light shooting. It also excels in creative image control using its extremely shallow depth of field at its widest apertures. The 13-element, 8-group optical formula was upgraded by adding two aspheric elements to the focusing group. Consequently, the minimum focusing distance was brought down to 1.6 feet for frame-filling head shots.

Fujifilm Fujinon XF56mm f/1.2 R WR

The revised design also uses an ED element. Working with the aspheric elements, they reduce aberrations, color fringing and distortion. Thus, the lens achieves greater sharpness, detail and clarity at all apertures and focusing distances.

In addition, optical surfaces have Super EBC coating to minimize flare and ghosting and enhance contrast and color accuracy—all especially critical when shooting in harsh light and backlit conditions. Further, a new rounded, 11-blade diaphragm augments its natural bokeh. Other features comprise a rugged, all-metal lens barrel; nine rubber weather seals to keep out dust/moisture; and a fluorine-coated front element to repel contaminants and facilitate cleaning. This lens also stops down to f/16. It measures 3.1×3 inches in length and weighs a moderate 15.7 ounces. X mount, $999.95.

Meyer-Optik Gorlitz Primoplan 75mm f/1.9 II

Made by Meyer one of the oldest German lens companies, this prime lens uses legendary Schott glass and O’Hara anti-reflex coatings. The fast, full-frame, portrait tele lens also employs a vintage 5-element, 4-group design. Its wide aperture facilitates low-light shooting and enhanced depth-of-field control.

In addition, a unique optical formula includes central dispersion and converging elements. As a result, it achieves a distinctive rendition that creates impressive sharpness and detail, smooth natural transitions as well as creamy bokeh, especially at its widest apertures.

Meyer-Optik Gorlitz Primoplan 75mm f/1.9 II

Other features include smooth manual focus down to 2.5 feet and a rounded 15-blade diaphragm that strengthens its inherently attractive bokeh. Boasting a durable, lightweight aluminum barrel, the 75mm f/1.9 Primoplan provides a 112.5mm-equivalent focal length on APS-C-format cameras. The lens measures a compact 2.1 inches in diameter and 3.4 inches in length. In addition, it weighs in at very portable 12.7 ounces. Fujifilm X, Leica L/M, MFT/M42, Nikon F/Z, Pentax K, Sony E and Canon EF/RF mounts, $999. meyer-optik-goerlitz.com

Sony FE 100mm f/2.8 STF GM OSS

Sony’s brilliant, full-frame, portrait tele prime is capable of extremely sharp imaging at the point of focus. However, what really sets it in a class of its own is Smooth Trans Focus (STF) technology. The technology uses a proprietary user-selectable apodization filter to achieve a creamy, smooth bokeh with rounded out-of-focus highlights in both the foreground and background areas of the image. As a result, the lens creates striking selective focus effects.

The 14-element, 10-group optical design also incorporates one aspheric element and one ED element. They work to enhance sharpness and clarity by suppressing spherical and chromatic aberrations. In addition, Nano AR coating increases light transmission and minimizes flare. What’s more, a rounded 11-blade diaphragm augments the lens’s attractive bokeh.

Sony FE 100mm f/2.8 STF GM OSS

Further, a direct-drive SSM motor results in smooth, quick, quiet internal focus AF. Additional features include a macro focus range switch for focusing down to 1.9 feet (0.25x); built-in Optical SteadyShot (OSS) image stabilization to minimize the effects of handheld camera shake; and apertures from f/2.8 to f/20 (T5.6 to T22 with apodization filter engaged). With dust- and moisture-sealed construction, it measures 3.4×4.8 inches and weighs 1.5 pounds. E mount, $1,499.99.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

Part of Canon’s esteemed L series, this tele prime is a remarkable, full-frame, ultrafast portrait lens. The lens employs a sophisticated 14-element, 10-group optical design. Moreover, it includes one glass-molded aspheric element to significantly reduce spherical aberrations and distortion. Thus, it produces notably enhanced sharpness and clarity. Its f/1.4 maximum aperture also facilitates shooting in low light and creative depth-of-field control. Furthermore, the lens is coated with Canon’s antireflective coating to reduce flare and ghosting.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

In addition, it features Canon’s built in IS (image stabilization) system that provides a 4-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of camera shake in handheld shooting. What’s more, a ring-type ultrasonic motor (USM) delivers quick, quiet, precise AF plus full-time manual focus override for fine-tuning.

It also features a rounded 9-blade diaphragm that helps create pleasing bokeh; a fluorine coating on front and rear elements to minimize contamination and facilitate cleaning; and dust/weather-sealed construction that enables shooting in inclement weather. The EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM measures 3.5×4.1 inches and weighs in at 2.1 pounds. EF mount, $1,599.

Venus Optics Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO

Since 2013, this innovative Chinese optical company has specialized in audacious designs at enticing prices. This sleek, full-frame, manual focus, tele macro prime is an excellent example. The portrait lens is based on a 12-element, 10-group design that includes two low dispersion elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and achieve high clarity and color accuracy. The lens features an apochromatic (APO) characteristic that eliminates chromatic aberrations in both the in-focus and out-of-focus areas of the image.

Venus Optics Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO

Capable of focusing down to a remarkable 9.7 inches (2.0x magnification!), it is said to also deliver apochromatic color correction, bringing light of the three primary colors to a common point of focus to enhance sharpness, detail and color rendition. In addition, the lens employs a 9- to 13-blade diaphragm, depending on the mount, to enhance its attractive bokeh. Further, it has apertures from f/2.8 to f/22.

On average, it measures 2.8×6.1 inches and weighs in at 1.4 pounds. Sony E, Nikon F/AI/Z, Canon EF/RF, Pentax K and L mounts, $499.