Best lens for portraits: 5 sensibly priced options tested and rated

Best lens for portraits: Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G

What’s the best lens for portraits that you can buy without spending a fortune? Our friends at Photography Week recently tested five of the best sensibly priced portrait lenses.

Best lens for portraits: 5 sensibly priced options tested and rated

Portrait lenses on test

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
Price: $369/£299

Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G
Price: $497/£379

Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8
Price: $399/£279

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
Price: $499/£349

Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM
Price: $298/£179

Professional portrait photographers tend to favour top-money portrait lenses like the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 or Nikon 85mm f/1.4G.

But for those of us who don’t want to use this type of lens on a daily, money- earning basis, the respective prices of $2,000/£1,700 and $1,629/£1,200 put them beyond sensible reach.

At the other end of the scale, lenses like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 cost a mere $110/£80, but come up short in terms of features, performance and build quality.

Thankfully, there’s plenty of choice to be had in the middle ground, with a range of prime (fixed length) lenses costing between $300/£200 and $500/£400. Let’s see how five of these portrait lenses measure-up.

Best lens for portraits: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

Best lens for portraits: 5 sensibly priced options tested and rated

While it’s understandably bigger than the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens, this 85mm optic is still compact and has the same filter thread of 58mm.

This portrait lens has a large front element that isn’t recessed within the barrel, making the purchase of an optional ET-65 III lens hood (about $15/£25) all the more important.

Build quality is good and the lens benefits from a ring-type autofocus system which is very fast and almost silent.

It’s a significant step up from the Canon 50mm’s Micro USM system, both in speed and the smoothness of full-time manual focus override.

Autofocus is fully internal, so the barrel doesn’t extend during shorter-range focusing.

The eight-blade diaphragm gives a well-rounded aperture, similar to that of the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens.

SEE MORE: Canon lenses – 40 tips for using, choosing and buying Canon glass

There’s noticeably more sharpness and contrast than with the Canon 50mm lens when using the widest available aperture, albeit at f/1.8 as opposed to the 50mm’s f/1.4.

Sharpness is also improved at medium apertures of around f/5.6 to f/8. The lens is almost completely free of distortion, while colour fringing and vignetting are well controlled.

With its improved autofocus system and superior image quality, this lens is better value than the Canon 50mm lens, as it’s only a little dearer to buy.

It’s an ideal portrait optic for full-frame bodies and very useful for telephoto portraiture on APS-C cameras.

Score: 4/5

Best lens for portraits: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
Best lens for portraits: Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G
Best lens for portraits: Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8
Best lens for portraits: Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
Best lens for portraits: Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM
Best lens for portraits: Our verdict

READ MORE

Canon EOS cameras – 100 things you never knew they could do
49 seriously good Canon DSLR tips, tricks, shortcuts and time savers
Best camera focus techniques: 10 surefire ways to get sharp photos
Getting sharp images: every photo technique you need to know starting out
14 portrait photography tips you’ll never want to forget