Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our review process here. We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.
Best Overall: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 at Amazon
"It’s sharp and excellent at capturing a subject from a comfortable distance."
Runner-Up, Best Overall: Sigma 50mm f/1.4 at Amazon
"Among its many strengths is its ability to maintain near-perfect sharpness, with minimal distortion."
Best Budget: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 at Amazon
"Small and light, it's a dependable lens that's well suited for travel."
Best Splurge: Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II at Amazon
"If it doesn't hurt your pocket, the EF 85mm f1.2L is undeniably top-of-the-line."
Best Nikon: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G at Amazon
"Compact, and reasonable in cost, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G’s construction is plenty solid."
Best Budget Nikon: Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G at Amazon
"You can get so much use out of this one prime lens that you might never leave home without it."
Best Zoom Lens: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III at Amazon
"It puts superior quality, sharpness, and advanced technology in your hands."
Best Vintage Lens: Zenit Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 at Amazon
"Go beyond Instagram to show off your retro photo chops."
One of the first things to consider when you're in the market for any DSLR lens is the focal length, which itself determines how zoomed in your photos will appear. For the most part, when it comes to portrait photography, the right focal length is ultimately determined by both your personal shooting style and location. However, many photographers will find that a mild telephoto lens with an 85mm focal length strikes an ideal balance. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens is a prime lens fixed at that focal length for full-frame Canon DSLRs, equivalent to 136mm when used on crop-sensor APS-C cameras. It’s sharp and excellent at capturing a subject from a comfortable distance, with a shallow depth of field emphasized by its f/1.8 maximum aperture size.
This wide aperture is key for portrait purposes — you get a faster lens with a narrower depth of field, keeping the focus on your subject while blurring the background and delivering lovely bokeh (the quality of the out-of-focus areas). The USM in the name refers to the Ultrasonic Motor that allows it to autofocus quickly and quietly. Overall, the EF 85mm f/1.8 is high in quality, low in size and weight, and reasonable in price.
While Canon, Nikon, and Sony are leading camera manufacturers, Sigma offers portrait lenses in its Art line that rival those of its competitors. The 50mm f/1.4 Art DG lens is available with mounts that fit Canon, Nikon, Sony, and other DSLR cameras. At 2 pounds, it’s on the bulky side compared to similar lenses, and it comes at a more premium price, too. For the high-end image quality it produces, though, you won’t be disappointed with what you get for the money.
The prime lens’ 50mm full-frame focal length is equivalent to 75mm on cameras with cropped APS-C sensors — making it an exceptional choice for portrait photography. Among its many strengths is its ability to maintain near-perfect sharpness, with minimal distortion, even when shooting wide open at a fast and frantic f/1.4. This is in part thanks to advanced technologies like Special Low Dispersion elements and a Super Multi Coating incorporated into the glass. The rounded nine-blade aperture diaphragm also helps produce smooth, pleasant bokeh around your central image.
Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 STM, with its just-right 50mm focal length and f/1.8 maximum aperture, is often dubbed a “nifty fifty” for its outstanding build quality, versatility, and affordable price. Small and light, it's a dependable lens that's well suited for travel. And for first-time upgraders, it should go without saying it's a popular choice.
Since the EF 50mm f/1.8 has a fixed focal length ( 80mm on APS-C cameras), you don't get quite the same flexibility that a zoom lens would otherwise provide. What you do get is better performance, on average, with typically larger apertures. As a result, you can expect a narrower depth of field and sapid bokeh. Plus, it holds up well in low-light environments, fast-action sports fields, and a variety of indoor and outdoor settings. While Canon makes faster 50mm lenses (f/1.4 and f/1.2), the hefty price jump may not be worth the upgrade for most users, especially when this little piece of kit packs such a strong punch.
The fastest lenses see a huge increase in price for a seemingly tiny change in f-number. But going from an aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4 up to f/1.2 means you’re getting essentially the brightest, fastest lens out there. When your goal is to procure only the utmost primo portrait photography lens on the market, look no further than the Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II.
The f/1.2 aperture's shallow depth of field, combined with the 85mm field of view, frames your subject with everything around it coated in an artistic, dreamlike blur. Its ring-type Ultrasonic Motor lets it autofocus silently, though it’s a bit too slow for capturing moving objects. It's fairly big and heavy as well, so you'll want to stay put in controlled portrait and studio settings. If it doesn't hurt your pocket, the EF 85mm f1.2L is undeniably top-of-the-line.
Nikon owners have plenty of high-quality lenses to choose from, and for portrait photography, you can't go wrong with well-rounded AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G. Compatible with Nikon FX full-frame cameras, you can also use it on more common Nikon DX crop-sensor DSLRs with an effective focal length of 127.5mm. The medium telephoto distance gives your subjects more space than that of 35mm or 50mm lenses which, for a lot of people, makes for a more comfortable photo session altogether.
Compact, and reasonable in cost, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G’s construction is plenty solid. Its excellent optics stem from its nine glass elements in nine groups. Nikon does offer lenses at various focal lengths with faster f/1.4 maximum apertures, but those are accompanied by much higher price tags. This well-made f/1.8 model is still plenty fast, takes incredible low-light shots, and produces smooth enough bokeh to make it worth your mindshare.
Canon isn’t the only camera brand with a “nifty fifty” lens — Nikon’s AF-S FX Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens is not only practical, but it's also inexpensive and versatile. Portraits. Landscapes. Street photography. You can get so much use out of this one prime lens that you might never leave home without it. And, at about 6.6 ounces in weight and 2 inches in length, it’s no burden at all to carry around.
The 50mm lens translates to a 75mm field of view if you’re using an APS-C crop sensor format. For any type of camera, it creates a natural-looking perspective, closely emulating the human eye. The f/1.8 aperture takes in a lot of light, and gives you a clear, sharp foreground surrounded by enough background blur to make it pop. Built-in are technologies like Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating (for better color consistency), an Aspherical Lens Element (to cut back on aberrations), and a Silent Wave Motor, or SWM (for quick and quiet autofocus). You can even switch seamlessly between auto and manual focus.
While most portrait photographers tend to prefer prime lenses, zoom lenses bring their own strengths to the table. Canon’s EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM represents a common type of zoom lens, albeit at the high-end. It puts superior quality, sharpness, and advanced technology in your hands. Powerful image stabilization counteracts camera shake in low-light settings.
Because of the sheer number of moving parts within it working to maintain the wide aperture throughout its wide range of focal lengths, this particular lens is understandably big, heavy, and pricey. But its flexibility and convenience can make it a smart investment for the serious photographer, for everything from weddings to sports to, of course, independent portrait work.
And even without an aperture that can get as wide as f/1.4 or f/1.8, opening to f/2.8 still presents a narrow depth of field. Combined with a long focal length that compresses the background, you can use this lens to achieve stunning bokeh. Better yet, a longer focal length means less distorted features, which by extension means happier clients.
Despite the general sameyness of today's camera lenses, vintage lenses present the opportunity to do something a little different: Go beyond Instagram to show off your retro photo chops.
The Zenit Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5, based on a lens historically used for night vision in the Soviet Union, is now being remanufactured to fit on modern DSLRs that support the M42 lens mount. It will take some time to get used to, as it’s fully manual and made of heavy, solid metal. Tame the beast, though, and you have a one-of-a-kind lens perfect for producing beautiful portraits brimming with personality.
So what’s its defining feature, then? Bokeh. Often characterized as “swirly” or “dreamy,” its bokeh makes your portraits look like they come from a different, softer world. And who doesn't long for that? Wide-open at f/1.5, you can still get your subjects sharp and focused, but not with the ease of a more contemporary lens. All the light that the lens lets in can also capture some unpredictable, sometimes unusable (but sometimes dazzling) portraiture.