Canon’s lens lineup can cover everything from the ultra ultra wide 8-15mm fisheye to the super telephoto 800mm. You can take a portrait with any camera and any lens. A photographic portrait, by definition, is a picture of a person – regardless of which lens you use. There are several lenses made by Canon that do a very good job at people photography. In this article, we look at what makes a good portrait lens, and which Canon portrait lenses I recommend for various scenarios and budgets.
The classic portrait is one which shows your subject in a flattering light, pose, and perspective. The perspective is a very important element, because it plays a large part in what makes a face look natural and attractive. A lens that is too wide will force you to get close to the subject, making peoples’ features appear distorted. Noses will become larger, ears will become smaller, and the overall look of someone’s face will appear very unflattering. Wide angle lenses are not usually associated with portraiture because of this. On the other side of the spectrum, a long telephoto lens will require you to be farther away, and will “compress” your subject, leaving the face looking flat and two-dimensional. This phenomenon isn’t as pronounced as the distortion with a very wide angle, but it is unflattering nonetheless. The best focal length for portraiture is generally considered to be in the 70-135mm range.
This focal length not only provides a nice, natural perspective, but it also is a good range as far as making your model feel comfortable. Wider lenses will force you to get very close, possibly making the person you’re photographing uncomfortable, thus causing unnatural facial expressions and awkward poses. The distance between you and your subject is something to keep in mind on the telephoto side as well. Too long a lens will force you to be so far away that you can’t give directions and talk to your model without yelling. Also keep in mind any spacial limitations with a long lens, like shooting in a small room, or a wall or fence you will be forced to back up against. Full length portraits or environmental portraits that show more foreground and background are often shot with a wider angle than 85mm. 50mm is nice, and I don’t usually go below 35mm unless the situation warrants it.
Other important features of a good portrait lens (and any other lens, for that matter) are image quality and sharpness. Obviously, you want your subject to be sharp and in focus. Some of Canon’s sharpest lenses are also some of the finest Canon portrait lenses. The 85mm f/1.2L II, 70-200mm f/2.8L II, 24-70mm f/2.8L and 135mm f/2.0L are all touted as being very sharp, even when used wide open at their maximum aperture. Other attributes, like color and contrast also come with higher quality glass and construction. Canon’s L series lenses are the best choice for optical (and thus image) quality, but they are sold at higher prices than other lenses.
A lens’ maximum aperture (or a lens’ “speed”) is another thing that should also be considered when choosing a portrait lens. The wider the aperture, the thinner depth of field you can achieve, and also the faster shutter speed you can use to obtain the same exposure (hence the use of the terms “speed” and “fast” when describing a lens). The thinner depth of field you can achieve, the more you can isolate your subject from the background. Most of the time when shooting an outdoor portrait, you want to separate your model from their environment. A large aperture will help with this, drawing attention to your subject and blurring any distracting background elements. These out of focus regions of a photograph is collectively referred to as bokeh. The quality of bokeh may also be a consideration when choosing a lens for portraiture. A higher quality lens with more rounded aperture blades will produce a smoother, more pleasing bokeh. A lens of lower quality and fewer aperture blades will produce bokeh that appears to be more choppy and textured. The differences can be subtle and may be difficult to discern, and none of my clients have never asked how many aperture blades my lens has, so I try not to worry about it much.
There is also a duality with fast lenses – they allow for portraiture in lower light than slower lenses, opening more possibilities when it comes to when and where you can shoot.
The camera you’re attaching the lens to matters as well. A full frame camera will provide the best results in terms of image quality – among these are the Canon 5D and 1DS series. SLR’s with an APS-H sensor size will have a 1.3x crop factor; only the 1D series carry this sensor size. The 60D, 7D, and all Canon Rebels have an APS-C sensor, which has a crop factor of 1.6x. So what does this all mean? Many people are under the assumption that when using a lens of, say 100mm on a full frame, it becomes 130mm on an APS-H body, and 160mm on an APS-C body. While this line of thought seems logical, it isn’t really true. A camera’s sensor size is independent from a lens’ focal length and perspective. A smaller sensor crops the image from the center of a lens’ field of view – it does not change its perspective. So a 100mm lens remains a 100mm lens regardless of what camera body you’re using, but it may “appear” to be a longer focal length if you’re using a camera with a smaller sensor size. So what does that all mean?? Basically, if you’re shooting with a camera with a sensor smaller than full frame, you must multiply the crop factor (1.3x or 1.6x) by the focal length of the lens to determine your equivalent field of view. Again, this is not an equivalent focal length, because changing focal length changes perspective. This means that a 160mm lens on a full frame camera will have the same field of view as that of a 100mm lens on an APS-C camera, but the perspectives and depths of field will be different. Keep this in mind when choosing a lens for your specific camera body. A 135mm lens for instance, may be too long to use indoors with a crop factor of 1.6x, because it would crop the field of view to that of a 216mm lens on a full frame camera. Also keep in mind that APS-C sensor SLRs can accept EF-S mount lenses as well, while full frame and APS-H sensor SLRs will accept EF mount lenses only.
The cost of a lens and the budget of the photographer is more often than not a deciding factor when choosing a portrait lens. The 85mm f/1.8 is far less expensive than an 85mm f/1.2L II. Portraiture can be photographed as inexpensively or expensively as you wish; and there are lenses that fit nearly every portrait photographer’s budget.
Canon Portrait Lens Recommendations:
Standard Portraiture – Higher Budget
A very versatile, sharp, and useful lens. IS helps when shooting without a tripod, although it is large, heavy, and expensive.
Excellent image quality, and extremely sharp and fast, but it is thick, heavy, and expensive.
Very sharp, great focal length for head and shoulder portraits, IS and macro capability are a nice bonus. Slower than other prime lenses though.
Very sharp, long focal length is great for subject isolation and background blur, although can be too long for indoors.
Environmental Portraiture- Higher Budget
Very versatile and high quality, although not as sharp or fast as prime lenses.
Sharp even wide open, excellent image quality, but its wide angle limits its usefulness for portraiture
Very fast, great bokeh, and very well constructed. Not as sharp wide open as the 35L or 85L though.
Standard Portraiture- Lower Budget
60mm f/2.8 Macro(EF-S mount only)
Great dual-purpose lens, but slower than other lenses around the same focal length.
Excellent budget friendly portrait lens. Image quality is what you would expect from the 85L’s little brother.
Good alternative to the 85 f/1.8 if you need a little more reach, although image quality isn’t quite as good as with the 85.
Environmental Portraiture- Lower Budget
17-55mm f/2.8 IS(EF-S mount only)
Great all around, versatile lens for APS-C SLRs, IS is useful, although it’s somewhat expensive for an EF-S mount.
Most budget friendly of any Canon lens, surprisingly good image quality, but chintzy all plastic build quality.
A better built and faster version of the 1.8, and also has USM focusing.
Choosing the right Canon portrait lenses for your desired outcome is most important. While all these lenses do a fine job at portraiture, the 17-55 is a much different lens than the 135L. There is no one do-it-all portrait lens, so let your situation and vision determine what lens to use/buy.