12 Top Optics Optimized for Capturing Compelling People Pictures
Photographers have been taking portraits of people for about 180 years. While this timeless genre has had its commercial and esthetic ups and downs, we’re experiencing a genuine boom in shooting portraits. Indeed, everyone from emerging creative enthusiasts to well-established pros are captivated with portraiture. Consequently, sales of studio gear such as backgrounds, light modifiers and light stands are up. However, by far the hottest item on the portrait photographer’s bucket list is portrait lenses. They are the key element that shapes and defines the resulting image. So, let’s look at some primo portrait lenses and why they made our list.
What’s a Portrait Lens?
First off, photographers can virtually use any lens to shoot portraits. However, to most photographers, a portrait lens has a moderate telephoto 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 70–200mm range) 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 the APS-C or MFT formats.
All these lenses capture head shots and head-to-shoulders portraits at a sufficient working distance to prevent apparent perspective distortion; that’s the dreaded “big nose” effect you get 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. As a result, their inherently attractive bokeh is enhanced. In addition, most provide smooth transitions from the in-focus to out-of-focus areas of the image for a pleasing natural look.
Further, while we have not selected any soft-focus lenses, one does use Smooth Trans Focus (STF) technology to provide additional control over the appearance of out-of-focus highlights. All these lenses can capture exquisitely sharp images at the point of focus. However, they also enable the wide-ranging depth-of-field control that can help create unique and compelling portraits that pop off the background.
For an overview of this expanding high-margin niche, we’ve selected a dozen high-quality portrait lenses from 11 different manufacturers. They range in retail price from $400 to $1,800 and cover a wide variety of technical features.
But, as my physics professor said back in the day, “When it comes to lenses, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface.” So, we encourage you to check out the dozens of other worthy portrait lenses we couldn’t include here.
12 Primo Portrait Lenses
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
Sigma’s elite Art series full-frame, ultrahigh-speed portrait tele prime employs state-of-the-art optical technology. Thus, it can capture exceptionally sharp, detailed images along with the luminous rendition and smooth bokeh associated with vintage classic lenses.
Its f/1.4 aperture facilitates shooting in low light and using selective focus techniques. The 14-element, 12-group lens incorporates two SLD (special low dispersion) elements; one anomalous partial dispersion/high refractive index element; and one aspheric element. Together, they minimize chromatic and other aberrations and capture crisp, contrasty images with outstanding color accuracy. In addition, Sigma’s Super Multilayer coating throughout enhances light transmission and minimizes flare and ghosting.
Moreover, a hypersonic AF motor (HSM) provides quick, quiet, precise autofocus. A large focusing ring with AF override also enables full-time manual focus (MF). Plus, its physical aperture ring can be de-clicked for video.
Other features include a rounded 9-blade diaphragm to enhance its beautiful bokeh; a 2.8-foot (0.12x) close focusing distance; thermally stable composite and metal construction for consistent performance in any climate; and a brass barrel to provide precise alignment over the long term. Compatible with Sigma’s USB Dock, the lens weighs 2.5 pounds. In Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA and L mounts, $1,099.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G
An update to Nikon’s iconic 85mm f/1.4 portrait lens, this is an ultrahigh-speed portrait tele prime for FX-format Nikon SLRs. It is based on an internal-focusing (IF) version of a traditional 10-element, 9-group design. While it doesn’t include exotic glass or aspheric surfaces, it nevertheless performs to a very high standard. Consequently, it yields sharp images across the frame.
Its medium-telephoto angle of view is ideal for portraits and general photography, in the studio or in the field. In addition, it achieves a classic rounded rendition and very smooth natural bokeh; that’s thanks in part to its rounded 9-blade diaphragm.
Both Nikon Nano Crystal and Super Integrated coatings are used to suppress flare and ghosting. So, the lens yields sharp, high-contrast images and accurate natural colors even when shooting in bright and backlit conditions.
Moreover, a silent wave motor (SWM) delivers quick, quiet and precise AF plus full-time MF. In addition, its IF design promotes faster focusing speeds and maintains the overall length of the lens for better balance. The lens focuses down to 3 feet (0.12x) and weighs in at 1.3 pounds. What’s more, it provides an equivalent focal length of 127.5mm on DX-format Nikon DSLRs. Nikon F mount, $1,599.95.
Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM
A member of Sony’s prestigious G Master (GM) series, this is an impressive 11-element, 8-group, E-mount superspeed portrait prime. For Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras, it incorporates three ED (extra-low dispersion) elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and one XA (extreme aspheric) element to significantly reduce spherical aberrations. Thereby, the lens captures images of exceptional clarity and detail.
Furthermore, Nano AR coating throughout minimizes flare and ghosting for increased contrast and color fidelity, especially in backlit conditions. In addition, a supersonic wave motor enables quick, quiet, responsive AF. There’s also a dedicated focus hold button and AF/MF switch. The dust- and moisture-sealed lens also features a rounded 11-blade diaphragm to augment its inherently smooth, natural bokeh. For videographers, a physical aperture ring can be de-clicked for smooth, silent aperture switching.
What’s more, its ultrawide f/1.4 maximum aperture facilitates low-light work and selective focus portrait techniques using an extremely shallow depth of field. The lens focuses down to 2.6 feet (0.12x) and weighs 1.8 pounds. In Sony E mount, $1,699.99.
Tamron 70–180mm f/2.8 Di III VXD
This attractive Tamron full-frame medium-tele zoom provides a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture. Consequently, it enables working in available light and extended depth-of-field control. Moreover, it covers a focal length range that’s ideal for portraiture.
Based on a sophisticated 19-element, 14-group optical design, it employs six low dispersion elements (including an XLD, extra-low dispersion) and three aspheric elements (including glass molded and hybrid) to correct a range of aberrations. As a result, it captures sharp, detailed images over its entire focal length range.
It also features BBAR-G2 coating to minimize flare and ghosting, thus enhancing contrast and color fidelity. Two VXD (voice-coil eXtreme-torque drive) linear motors deliver quick, smooth, very quiet AF in still and video applications. They also work in conjunction with the floating element system to maintain consistent image quality over the focusing range, down to 2.8 feet (1:4.6x at 180mm).
Other features include full-time MF override compatible with Sony’s direct manual focus for fine focus adjustments; a rounded 9-blade diaphragm that contributes to its pleasing bokeh; a fluorine-coated front element to resist smudging and facilitate cleaning; and a zoom lock switch to prevent extension during transport. The moisture-resistant lens is relatively compact, weighing 1.8 pounds. In E mount, $1,199.
Panasonic Lumix S 85mm f/1.8
This is a compact, wide aperture, full-frame portrait tele prime for L-mount mirrorless cameras. In Panasonic’s S series, the lens is fast enough for low-light work as well as to facilitate a range of selective focus effects. Its 9-element, 8-group optical design incorporates a pair of extra-low dispersion elements. They reduce chromatic aberrations and achieve sharp images of high clarity and color accuracy over the entire aperture range.
Furthermore, its linear AF motor provides fast, precise autofocus, while a rounded 9-blade diaphragm contributes to pleasing bokeh. The lens is also moisture, dust and freeze resistant to allow operation in adverse weather conditions.
In addition, it provides a 127.5mm-equivalent focal length on APS-C-format cameras. What’s more, the lens focuses down to 2.6 feet (0.13x) and weighs in at a portable 12.5 ounces. In L mount, $599.99.
Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4
This elegant, superspeed, full-frame portrait tele prime is based on an upgraded version of the legendary Zeiss Planar design. The impressive 6-element, 5-group manual focus lens delivers images of remarkably high sharpness and evenness of illumination over its full focusing range. And, of course, it produces that distinctive, much-admired “Planar look.”
Moreover, its Zeiss T* antireflective coating throughout enhances light transmission and minimizes flare and ghosting. In addition, an f/1.4 maximum aperture facilitates low-light work and the use of selective focus effects.
Other features include a durable all metal barrel and mount and a rounded 9-blade diaphragm to enhance its inherently beautiful bokeh. The Planar 85mm f/1.4 focuses down to 3.3 feet. The full-frame lens weighs in at 1.5 pounds (ZE version). In Nikon F (ZF.2) and Canon EF (ZE) mounts, $1,285.
OM System M.Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8
This sleek little OM System jewel provides a 90mm-equivalent portrait focal length on Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras. Built to produce beautiful bokeh, it features a bright f/1.8 aperture that’s fast enough for low-light work as well as extended depth-of-field control.
The 9-element, 8-group prime lens incorporates two E-HR (extra-high refractive index) elements to reduce distortion and spherical aberration. The result is crisp, detailed, high-contrast images.
Furthermore, its Movie & Still Compatible (MSC) AF system delivers quick, quiet, precise autofocus for both still and video applications. In addition, the lens employs a rounded 7-blade diaphragm that contributes to its pleasing artistic bokeh. In addition, the tiny lens (2.2-inch diameter, 1.8 inches long) focuses down to an impressive 1.6 feet for compelling close-ups. What’s more, it weighs in at a mere 4.09 ounces. In MFT mount, silver or black, $299.99.
Pentax-D FA 100mm f/2.8 WR Macro
This cool, full-frame portrait tele from Ricoh Imaging is a Pentax K-mount lens based on a proven 9-element, 8-group design. Notably, its optical elements boast Pentax’s Super Protect multilayer coating to enhance light transmission, minimize flare and deliver crisp, sharp images.
In addition, the lens earns its macro designation by focusing down to 11.8 inches (1.0x or life-size on sensor!). Furthermore, its WR (water-resistant) designation is due to having its aluminum barrel fitted with six weather seals to prevent water damage when shooting in inclement weather.
It also features a quick-shift AF system for easily switching between autofocus (AF) and manual focus (MF) modes. What’s more, a rounded 8-blade diaphragm creates smooth, natural bokeh. The lens measures 2.5 inches in diameter and 3.2 inches in length. Additionally, it weighs in at a super portable 12 ounces. Pentax K mount, $449.95.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM
A member of Canon’s prestigious L series, this is an outstanding full-frame, ultrafast, portrait tele prime. It boasts a sophisticated 14-element, 10-group optical design that comprises one glass-molded aspheric (GMo) element to significantly reduce spherical aberrations and distortion.
It thereby notably achieves sharpness and clarity. In addition, a f/1.4 maximum aperture facilitates shooting in low light and creative depth-of-field control. What’s more, a rounded 9-blade diaphragm enhances its creative bokeh.
This is also Canon’s first 85mm L series lens to feature built-in IS (image stabilization). As a result, it provides a 4-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of camera shake in handheld shooting. The lens is also coated with Canon’s antireflective coating to reduce flare and ghosting. In addition, a ring-type ultrasonic motor (USM) delivers quick, quiet, precise AF plus full-time MF override for fine-tuning.
Other features include fluorine coating on front and rear elements to minimize contamination as well as enable cleaning; dust- and water-sealed construction for shooting in inclement weather; and a closest focusing distance of 2.8 feet. The lens weighs in at 2 pounds. Canon EF mount, $1,599.
Sony FE 100mm f/2.8 STF GM OSS
Sony’s innovative, full-frame portrait tele prime is capable of extremely sharp imaging at the point of focus. However, what sets it apart is its Smooth Trans Focus (STF) technology; it uses a proprietary user-selectable apodization filter (APD) to achieve creamy, smooth bokeh with rounded out-of-focus highlights in both the foreground and background areas of the image. Consequently, it produces striking selective focus effects. Aiding this is a rounded 11-blade diaphragm.
Its 13-element, 10-group optical design incorporates one aspheric element as well as one ED element to enhance sharpness and clarity; they suppress spherical and chromatic aberrations. In addition, Nano AR coating increases light transmission and minimizes flare.
The G Master lens also uses a direct drive SSM motor to enable smooth, quick, quiet internal-focus AF. Furthermore, a macro focus range switch permits focusing down to 1.9 feet (0.25x). Other features include built-in Optical SteadyShot (OSS) image stabilization to minimize the effects of camera shake; apertures from T5.6 to T22 with the APD engaged; and moisture-sealed construction. The lens weighs in at 1.5 pounds. Sony E mount, $1,499.99.
Venus Optics Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro APO
Established in China in 2013, this innovative optical company specializes in audacious designs at enticing prices. This TIPA World Award-winning, full-frame, MF, tele macro prime is a fascinating example.
The portrait lens features an apochromatic (APO) characteristic that eliminates chromatic aberrations in both the in-focus and out-of-focus areas of the image. Apochromatic color correction is said to bring the light of the three primary colors to a common point of focus to enhance sharpness and detail.
Moreover, the lens employs a 12-element, 10-group optical design. It utilizes two low dispersion elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and achieve high clarity and color accuracy.
In addition, the prime lens focuses down to an amazing 9.7 inches (2x magnification!). It also features 9- to 13-blade diaphragms, depending on the mount version, to enhance its very attractive bokeh. Furthermore, it weighs in on average (depending on mount) at a portable 1.4 pounds. Sony E, Nikon F/Z, Canon EF/RF, Pentax K and L mounts, $499.
Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 AF
Known for its high-quality, high-value cine lenses, Rokinon also offers this attractive superspeed, full-frame prime lens. With an ideal portrait length, the lens is optimized for low-light photography as well as enhanced depth-of-field control.
It’s built on a 9-element, 7-group optical design that incorporates one hybrid aspheric element to reduce spherical aberrations and distortion; this results in high sharpness and image clarity. It also features Rokinon’s Ultra Multicoating to suppress flare as well as enhance contrast and color accuracy.
In addition, the lens employs two linear ultrasonic motors (LSM) for quick, quiet and precise AF. Notably, a rounded 9-blade diaphragm contributes to its ability to create smooth, natural bokeh.
This Rokinon lens also features an internal-focus design that improves AF speed and helps maintain balance by keeping its length constant at all focusing distances. With weather-sealed, all-metal construction, the lens focuses down to 3 feet (0.11x). It weighs in at a portable 1 pound (F mount). In Canon EF ($499)/RF ($699), Nikon F ($549) and Sony E ($599) mounts.