A standard kit zoom lens can work reasonably well for portraiture, but a budget prime lens gives you greater versatility. We tested eight of the top options to see how they performed.
Best budget prime lens: The Contenders
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, £305
- Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, £305
- Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, £290
- Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, £380
- Samyang 85mm f/1.4 IF MC, £320
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, £380
- Sigma 70mm f/2.8 Macro EX DG, £370
- Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro, £370
You can’t often say that a prime lens gives more versatility than a zoom for a certain type of shot, but portraiture is something of a special case.
The main concern is that the image of the person you’re photographing looks like they do in real life.
With typically much less barrel or pincushion distortion than a standard kit zoom lens, prime lenses are already on to a winner.
Perspective is an even bigger consideration. For natural portraiture, a distance of about two metres between the photographer and the person being photographed is often ideal.
People seldom feel comfortable with a wide-angle lens stuck in their face, while a long telephoto puts too much distance between you.
Further complications are that if you photograph somebody from very close with a wide-angle lens, the closest part of the face will look disproportionately large.
You can end up giving somebody an enormous nose and tiny ears, which they’re unlikely to feel pleased about.
Telephoto lenses have the opposite effect, tending to flatten the face. It’s not as objectionable as the wide-angle effect, but people can end up looking a bit two-dimensional.
Given that a focal length of around 50mm enables natural portrait photography on SLRs with APS-C format image sensors, and a focal length of about 85mm is practically perfect for full-frame cameras, a zoom lens’s main claim to versatility is nullified.
It’s not completely an ‘either or’ choice when choosing focal lengths. As it turns out, a 50mm lens on a full-frame body is convenient for full-length portraits, while an 85mm lens on an APS-C body can be ideal for tight head-and-shoulders compositions.
Either way, the 85mm lenses in this test group are especially tempting yet affordable propositions if you already own a full-frame camera, or are thinking of upgrading to one.
Be more shallow
A particular problem with kit zoom lenses is that they tend to have a variable aperture range that shrinks from around f/4 to f/5.6 as you extend through the zoom range.
So, while a typical 18-55m lens might give an ideal focal length for APS-C based portraiture at its long end, the widest available aperture of f/5.6 is counter-productive.
That’s because real-world backgrounds are often detailed and fussy. Unless you’re shooting in a studio with carefully arranged backdrops, you’ll often want to blur the background.
This focuses the attention on the person being photographed, lessening the emphasis on their surroundings.
Wider available apertures of between f/1.4 and f/2.8 enable you to do this, so that the person really stands out in the shot. In the versatility stakes, it’s a major plus point for prime lenses.
Another bonus is that some of the most attractive portraits are taken in soft, dull, shady or downright gloomy lighting conditions.
A relatively wide aperture comes to your aid here as well, as you’ll be able to retain a sufficiently fast aperture to avoid camera-shake during handheld shooting, without having to bump up the camera’s sensitivity setting.
This is always a good thing for retaining optimum image quality. It also helps to minimise any motion blur on the part of the person being photographed, without needing them to hold their breath and remain absolutely still.
Naturally, some high-end standard zoom lenses for both APS-C and full-frame cameras have a constant-aperture design that delivers a fairly wide f/2.8 aperture throughout their zoom range.
However, they tend to be big, bulky and heavy compared to a 50mm or 85mm prime lens. And while all of the prime lenses in this test group cost less than £400, a top-quality f/2.8 standard zoom can cost anything up to £1,800.
How wide should you go?
Lenses that offer an extra-wide aperture of around f/1.4 often give a pleasant softness at their widest aperture settings.
This can be handy for smoothing over wrinkles and blemishes when the people you’re shooting are a certain age, as well as giving portraits a soft and subtle dreamy look.
However, It’s not ideal if you’re a fan of super-sharp eyes in portraits. There’s a lot to be said for lenses that are able to capture sharp images when you need them, even at their widest apertures.
You can always soften images or selected parts of them at the editing stage, if desired.
There’s an additional bonus in both of the f/2.8 lenses featured in this group test: the Sigma 70mm and Tamron 90mm are both full macro lenses.
This means that they give a 1.0x magnification ratio at their closest focus distance, and are therefore equally well suited to shooting extreme close-ups of small objects.
The downside is that their widest available aperture is either two-thirds of an f/stop or two full f/stops slower than f/1.8 and f/1.4 lenses respectively
Regardless of any dual-purpose advantage, a more crucial aspect of portrait lenses is their bokeh, or the quality of defocused areas.
The ideal is that defocused background or foreground areas look as smooth as possible, and that highlights or bright spots of light are represented as smooth discs rather than having noticeable geometric shapes.
This can be difficult to achieve when narrowing the lens’s aperture from its fully open setting, as the diaphragm blades come into effect.
Fast autofocus is also preferable: even though you’re not trying to track sporting action, it’s still frustrating to miss fleeting expressions because your camera and lens are dawdling over autofocus.
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Best budget prime lens: why use a prime lens
Best budget prime lens: Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM £305
Best budget prime lens: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, £305
Best budget prime lens: Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, £290
Best budget prime lens: Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G, £380
Best budget prime lens: Samyang 85mm f/1.4 IF MC, £320
Best budget prime lens: Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, £380
Best budget prime lens: Sigma 70mm f/2.8 Macro EX DG, £370
Best budget prime lens: Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro, £370
Best budget prime lens: Verdict
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7 questions photographers should ask when buying their next lens
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14 portrait photography tips you’ll never want to forget
11 common lens errors (and how you can avoid them)