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Which Lens is Best for Portraits

November 20th 2020

Brennan Kauffman

When learning portrait photography, you will likely learn how different focal lengths affect the image. One of the biggest arguments is which Prime lens to get for portraits. Prime lenses are significantly cheaper than zoom lenses if you are aiming for the sharpest image. Most primes are around $500 which is much more affordible than that of a high quality zoom which can range in the thousands. The 24-120 goes for about $1100 new while a new 85mm will go for around $500. These both have similar sharpness but the 85 still has higher image quality being a prime lens. The 3 most famous lenses for portraits are the 35 ,50, and 85mm for the different types of image compression. The longer the focal length, the more the background blurs from the subject. This along with bokeh can look incredible in some lighting situations. 1.8 on a 35mm will have a different Bokeh effect than it will on an 85mm lens. The 35mm is still considered a wide-angle lens that captures more of the scene than the other two lenses. This can tell a story and create a compelling image. The 50 is one of the most commonly purchased lenses since it is very cheap and useful for most scenarios (not too wide, and not too zoomed). The 85mm creates an impactful image and makes the subject stand out more. I’ve tried different focal lengths such as 70mm, 100, and 200 for portraits on a 70-200 zoom and still thought those came out remarkable. It all comes down to how you frame your subject making use of the compression. I’ve also tested my 300mm prime which has minimal lens distortion and had surprising results with the quality and compression in portraits. I usually wouldn’t recommend a zoom lens due to barrel distortion and the loss in quality due to extra glass in the lens. I also wouldn't recommend using a lens such as the 300mm for an entire shoot as they are different style photos and quite compressed. Though I have used my 24-120 around 50mm for great portraits in a studio where I can use a very small aperture and control the lighting through a transmitter instead of relying on shutter speed and ISO. These have given me some of the sharpest studio portraits, and I bet If I used my 85mm I would get even sharper results. Below are some portraits shot at different focal lengths that are all unique. Though clients have purchased photos shot at 300mm and loved the results. 


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As seen above each lens has a different effect on the background, the first two images used the same 24-120mm lens at 35 and 62mm. Normally I would try and shoot at a common focal length instead of something in between. The effect of blur and isolation on a subject is quite different in each image. With 35mm, there isn't as much isolation as there is on 50mm. The longer the focal length, the more the subject is isolated which is one of the reasons why the 85mm 1.4/1.8 are both popular with portrait photography. With the 85mm it's more about the subject while with the 35mm it's about where they are. The 50 is in between and is usually a popular choice when people pick up a new camera since it is one of the cheapest lenses to purchase of the three.  Surprisingly enough I still haven't picked up a 50mm prime lens as I tend to shoot most portraits at 85mm when taking outdoor professional headshots to isolate the subject and feel if I had a 50mm it would be sitting on the shelf more often than not. It really all comes down to how to utilize the distortion/compression on each lens. I have used my 85mm more than any other lens that I own and think it has the best representation of a subject with the least distortion. If the only type of photography you plan on working on is portrait photography, I would always recommend the 85mm over the other three due to the style of the photo and the ability to make your subject stand out with minimal lens distortion

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