What is the ultimate Canon portrait lens?
Do you own a Canon mirrorless camera? Our Best Canon Mirrorless Camera Portrait Lens recommendations page has your recommendations.
Nearly every lens be used as a portrait lens. Lenses with focal lengths ranging from 11mm through 800mm can be used to capture the world's most valuable (but not always the most cooperative) subject: people. Still, not all lenses are good choices for all portrait photography, while some lenses seem explicitly made for this purpose.
The first portrait photography concept that needs to be understood is perspective. If the camera is too close to the subject, the part of the body closest to the lens, usually the nose, is going to appear too large relative to the rest of the body. This effect is due to perspective distortion. If the nose is half as far away as the ear, the nose will appear 2x larger relative to the ear. Move in too close, and the subject may become uncomfortable with you in their personal space, creating a tension that does not photograph well.
Being too far away from a subject brings other problems. Facial features may become too compressed in appearance, and being too far away complicates communication. Longer focal length lenses require more working distance than their wider counterparts, and physical obstacles can inhibit the necessary line of sight.
The portrait lens focal length decision should be based on the perspective you want, the subject framing desired, and the working space available. A wide-angle lens is best used for environmental portraits where your subject is shown along with their surroundings. Conversely, a long telephoto lens should be used for tight headshots.
Conventional teaching is that the 85-135mm focal length range is ideal for portrait photography (after any field of view crop factor is accounted for). I generally agree with this teaching, though I will often use wider focal lengths such as 50mm for full body portraits or 24mm for environmental portraits, and I prefer a longer focal length such as 200mm for tightly-framed headshot images.
A blurred background will make your portrait subjects pop. Longer focal length lenses will make blurring away a distracting background easier, as will wide apertures. The wide apertures will provide a reduced depth of field, so the depth of field vs. background blur must be considered. I like the mouth and both eyes to minimally be in focus.
If shooting in a studio with a background such as rolled paper and lighting with studio strobes, narrow apertures such as f/8 or f/11 will likely be in use, and all lenses have these options available. The sample portrait included at the top of this page was captured with a 85mm focal length and an f/2 aperture. The background is melting away, while a pleasing head and shoulders perspective has been captured.
With that background, move on to some recommendations. Remember that the suggested lenses are simply a selection of favorites for portrait photography, and a huge list of additional lenses can be used for this purpose.
The Ultimate Zoom Lens
The 70-200 f/2.8 image stabilized lens is one of the most crucial zoom lenses in most photographers' kits, and the 70-200 f/2.8L III IS Lens is one of the best zoom lenses ever produced. Professionals and amateurs alike typically have this lens in their hands with high frequency. Professionals use it because there is no better lens available for many jobs, and amateurs use it additionally because this is the longest focal length available in an affordable, conveniently-sized f/2.8 lens. The wide f/2.8 max aperture allows action to be captured in low light (think indoor events) and, combined with the telephoto focal lengths, allows the background to be blurred away.
The 70-200 f/2.8L III IS is a completely professional-grade lens with great image quality, fast and accurate AF, and image stabilization in a solid, weather-sealed, fixed-size body. An added benefit is that this lens performs well with extenders, a great option for when you need even more focal length.
For some, this is the only portrait lens needed.
The Ideal Focal Length, Wide Max-Aperture, and Image Stabilization
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens has the perfect-for-portrait-photography combination of focal length, ultra-wide max aperture, and image stabilization. The 85mm focal length invites pleasing perspectives, the f/1.4 aperture can erase the background, turning it into a diffuse blur, and image stabilization means that this lens can be handheld under even very dim light levels. Add to those features great image quality along with pro-grade build quality, and you get an ideal portrait lens. This lens can solely take on even the most-challenging portrait sessions you encounter.
My Second Choice Favorite Portrait Lens
The shallow depth of field look that an 85mm focal length and an f/1.4 aperture delivers will set your portraits apart. While I typically use multiple lenses in a shoot, I can shoot entire portrait sessions using this lens alone. Photos taken with this lens usually end up in the selects folder even when other lens captures are included as options.
Another favorite 85mm lens is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens. While this lens is not as sharp, it is at least as consistently accurate from an AF perspective.
Exceptional Optical Quality Even at f/1.8, Great Lens Design
This lens can produce memorable portraits. The 135mm focal length is a great portrait focal length, long enough to be usable for even tightly-framed portraits without the risk for perspective issues. That telephoto focal length combined with the wide aperture is capable of producing a very strong background blur, making the subject stand out against even a distracting background.
Though it is not a small or light lens, the 135 Art lens is dramatically smaller, lighter, and less expensive than the Canon EF 200 f/2 IS.
Another good 135mm option is the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM Lens. This lens will provide at least as good AF performance, and though it is an older model, it still produces great image quality.
Either of these lenses will work well for capturing indoor sports and other low light action.
Impressive Lens in All Regards
The 200mm focal length requires some working distance for portraits (especially on an APS-C/1.6x body), but the look that this lens delivers at f/2 is very impressive. Also impressive is this lens' AF performance, image quality, build quality, and image stabilization. Grounding all of this impressiveness is the size, weight, and price of this lens. This lens will work double duty as an excellent indoor action sports lens.
Impressive Image Quality, Great Build Quality, Fast AF, Excellent Image Stabilization, Compact & Light, Great Value
If you don't need the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II Lens' f/2.8 max aperture, the 70-200 f/4L IS II will give you everything else in a smaller, lighter, and less expensive package. Without the f/2.8 aperture, you will need twice as much light to stop subject motion (at f/4), and you will not be able to create a background as diffusely blurred. But, you also give up a substantial amount of size (still fixed) and weight, and your wallet will remain heavier. This lens yields very little in image quality or other pro-grade features, including solid, weather-sealed build quality, and you even gain a better IS system than what's found in the f/2.8 model.
Excellent Value, Very Good Image Quality, Pro-Grade Build Quality, Fast AF
The 70-200 f/4 has an entry-level price, but its performance is entirely pro-grade. It has a solid range of portrait focal lengths with image quality that will please. For its quality level, this is a rather compact/light, fixed-size telephoto zoom lens with great multi-purpose utility.
A Great Value
The Canon 85 f/1.8 is a nicely-priced, wide aperture compact prime lens with very good image quality and fast autofocus.
Visit the Best Canon Lenses page for more recommendations.
The best portrait lens needs the Best Portrait Camera behind it. Check out our recommendations to complete your kit.