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• What are the best camera lenses to buy?
The best lenses for bokeh will typically be prime lenses with wide maximum apertures. These lenses are perfect for portraits, weddings, still lifes or street photography, for example. They help you make your subjects stand out from their backgrounds, and give backgrounds a soft, creamy blur that's highly prized by photographers.
Some of us get obsessed with the sharpness of lenses and how much infinitesimally fine detail they can resolve. But for soft and dreamy images, bokeh is more important.
• Video guide: What is bokeh?
Bokeh is a measure of the pictorial quality of defocused areas within an image. The trouble is, you can’t really measure it, as there’s no scientific test for good bokeh. It’s more a matter of subjective opinion, but there are still some conventional rules.
As with most things in photography, however, rules are only there to be broken. Bokeh is important when you're choosing the best lens for portrait photography, the best macro lenses (where you can't escape background blur!) or even the best lenses for food photography, where shallow depth of field and soft backgrounds are part of the modern style.
For starters, if you’re after good bokeh, you’ll need a tight depth of field. When choosing a lens, it’s therefore only natural to pick something with a telephoto focal length and a wide aperture rating. Both of these factors will help you to shrink the depth of field and isolate the main subject, by blurring the background. Fast 85mm primes are a particular favorite for use with full-frame cameras, whereas the best 50mm lenses can make great 'bokeh' lenses for crop-sensor camera bodies.
However, shorter focal lengths can also be useful, enabling you to get closer to your subject and gain a tight depth of field by using a short focus distance. You’ll also be able to squeeze more of the blurred background into the frame, thanks to the change in perspective and wider viewing angle.
With all that in mind, here are some top choices to suit a wide range of cameras, and wallets…
This Canon full-frame compatible 50mm prime is really cheap. Even so, it’s nicely made, with n autofocus system based on a stepping motor, which gives smooth, ultra-quiet transitions ideal for movie capture, and the mounting plate is metal rather than plastic. Although it produces a natural perspective on full-frame bodies, the lens is often preferred for APS-C format Canon cameras, where it gives an ‘effective’ 80mm focal length, more ideal for portraiture. The bokeh is a little lacking in smoothness, and when stopping down, defocused lights take on a slight heptagonal shape. For bokeh and for all-round performance, this is a major upgrade over Canon’s previous 50mm f/1.8 but it’s still a bit of a poor relation in terms of smooth and dreamy blur compared to some of the more expensive lenses here.
We’ve always considered this Sigma to be abnormally large and weighty for an 85mm f/1.4 lens, but that was before the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2 burst onto the scene. Even so, despite having a less outsized aperture rating, the Sigma is still physically slightly longer than the Canon and nearly as heavy, weighing in at 1,130g. Ideal for a wide-range of cameras, this full-frame compatible lens is available in Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E and Leica L mount options, the last of these making it eminently suitable for Panasonic’s new S-series bodies. The up-market build includes an aspherical element and two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, in an optical path that comprises 14 elements in total. Autofocus is courtesy of a conventional ring-type ultrasonic system with the usual full-time manual override. We’ve seen a slight onion ring effect in the bokeh of some Sigma lenses, appearing as concentric circles with feint lines within bokeh discs of defocused lights and bright spots. That’s not really an issue with this lens, which delivers super-smooth, high-quality bokeh. The quality is also maintained very well when stopping down. It’s undeniably big and hefty but its image quality is fabulous. All in all, it’s our top choice for Canon and Nikon SLRs, as well as for Panasonic full-frame mirrorless cameras.
Canon seems on a mission to compensate for the relatively slimline, lightweight bodies of its new mirrorless full-frame cameras by launching big, heavy lenses! This 85mm f/1.2 is a prime example in every way, and its price tag is pretty massive as well. The premium glass includes aspherical and UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements, along with high-tech Air Sphere Coating and BR (Blue spectrum Refractive) optics. The overall construction feels particularly robust, complete with weather-seals and fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements. A ‘DS’ version of the lens is also available, featuring a Defocus Smoothing Coating, not that it really needs it. The BR optics do a great job of minimizing axial or ‘bokeh fringing’, virtually eliminating coloured fringes around outlines of objects in front of and behind the point of focus. The overall quality of bokeh is absolutely fabulous, making the most of the super-fast f/1.2 aperture rating, and it remains terrific when stopping down a little. Despite the price, its overall performance and image quality make this lens worth the money.
Tailor-made for Fujifilm’s APS-C format X-mount camera bodies, this lens has an effective focal length of 84mm in full-frame terms, thanks to the 1.5x crop factor. However, because depth of field is more dependent on ‘actual’ rather than ‘effective’ focal length, you can still struggle to get really smooth bokeh. Aiming to solve the problem, this lens not only has a super-fast f/1.2 aperture rating but also adds an ‘apodization filter’, which is lacking in the more basic edition of the XF56mm. The internal filter has a radial, graduated neutral density, which becomes darker towards the edges of the frame. The aim is to give so-called bokeh discs from defocused lights and bright points a softer edge and make them less obtrusive. A drawback of the apodization filter is that it reduces the transmission of light through the lens. For example, when shooting wide-open at f/1.2, the exposure value equates to using an aperture of f/1.7. The net result is that bokeh is beautifully smooth, much more so than in Fujifilm’s 23mm f/1.4 lens, but bokeh discs can still have fairly hard edges. Nevertheless, this ‘APD’ lens goes the extra mile to ensure that you get really creamy bokeh from an APS-C format camera, matching the quality you’d usually associate with full-frame shooting.
Compact and lightweight, this lens is specifically designed for DX (APS-C) format Nikon DSLRs, on which it gives a natural viewing perspective, roughly equivalent to using a 50mm ‘standard’ prime on a full-frame body. The f/1.8 rather than f/1.4 aperture rating and the fact that the lens only needs to produce a relatively small image circle, to fill an APS-C sized sensor, help to reduce the physical size as well as the cost. The construction is quite simple, with just eight optical elements including one aspherical. There’s no focus distance scale on the lens and, whereas most of the other lenses on test have a nine-blade diaphragm, this one only has seven. Bokeh is reasonable for such an inexpensive lens but less smooth than you get from pricier lenses. The aperture actually remains fairly well rounded when stopping down a little, despite the relatively low count of diaphragm blades. A fairly ‘fast’ standard prime for DX format cameras, the quality of its bokeh is good rather than great. All things considered, though, it’s a pretty decent budget buy.
In a bid to take bokeh to the max, Sigma has created a 105mm telephoto lens with a super-fast f/1.4 aperture. Nikon also makes an AF-S 105mm f/1.4E ED lens but, in our tests, we’ve found that the Sigma produces slightly better bokeh. It’s also considerably less expensive. Typical of Sigma’s Art lenses, including the 50mm and 85mm f/1.4 options, the 105mm is big and heavy. Particularly so, in this case, as it tips the scales at 1,645g and comes complete with a tripod mounting ring, which is pretty essential to maintain a good balance when shooting with a tripod or monopod, especially in portrait orientation. Optical refinements include an aspherical element, three top-performance FLD (‘Fluorite’ Low Dispersion) elements and two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements. Both axial and lateral chromatic aberrations are negligible and the overall quality of bokeh is beautifully soft. If anything, the depth of field generated by the focal length and f/1.4 aperture can be a little too tight but bokeh remains very good when stopping down. Billed as the ‘bokeh master’ this lens lives up to its claims but it’s a bit of an unwieldy heavyweight, especially for prolonged periods of handheld shooting.
Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8 standard prime has been completely reinvented for mirrorless full-frame cameras, taking full advantage of the Z mount’s larger diameter and its closer proximity to the image sensor. Despite ‘only’ having an f/1.8 rather than f/1.4 aperture rating, it’s considerably longer than Nikon’s popular F-mount 50mm f/1.4, with which many Nikon shooters are very familiar. The optical path is more high-tech and complex, featuring 12 rather than eight optical elements, and also includes two aspherical and two ED elements. The addition of Nano Crystal Coat helps to minimize ghosting and flare. Typical of Z-mount lenses, the newer model features a stepping motor instead of a more conventional ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system. Due to its slightly narrower f/1.8 aperture rating, you can’t get quite such a tight depth of field as from the 50mm f/1.4 lens, but defocused areas can actually look a little smoother. The Z-series lens also has less coma, which helps retain well-rounded defocused bright spots towards the edges of the frame. Nikon’s Z 50mm lens is also stunningly sharp even wide-open. It’s another good reason to switch from an F-mount to a Z-mount camera.
For the ultimate in bokeh, look no further than the Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct. You probably will though, because very few of us can afford to blow $8k on a lens, however special it is. The Z 85mm f/1.8 S is currently the next best thing, with a useful focal length and a more modest aperture rating. Unlike the Z 50mm f/1.8 S, this lens has no aspherical elements but still retains two ED elements plus Nano Crystal Coat. Again, the construction is fairly compact and lightweight but build quality is equally good, with the same comprehensive set of weather-seals. Rising to the challenge of shooting with a fast 85mm lens, the Z 6 and Z 7 now include Eye AF which works brilliantly for portraiture, as well as in-camera stabilization to beat the shakes. The quality of bokeh is deliciously soft and creamy. Defocused areas actually look smoother than from Nikon’s older AF-S 85mm f/1.4G for SLRs, despite the Z-mount lens’s narrower aperture rating. Defocused lights also look better rounded, when shooting wide-open as well as when stopping down a bit. This lens is wonderful for both sharpness and blur, proving once and for all that you can get beautiful bokeh from an f/1.8 lens.
A great thing about the Micro Four Thirds format is that it really puts the ‘compact’ into compact system cameras and lenses. That’s mostly thanks to being based around a relatively small image sensor with a 2x crop factor. This means this small 45mm f/1.8 lens has an effective focal length of 90mm in full-frame terms, delivering portrait-friendly reach. As we’ve said before though, depth of field is more dependent on the ‘actual’ rather than ‘effective’ focal length, so the modest aperture rating of f/1.8 makes good bokeh a challenge for this lens. There’s also the fact that the aperture is based on just seven diaphragm blades rather than nine although, naturally, that makes no difference if you’re shooting wide-open to get the tightest available depth of field and give bokeh the best chance. As it turns out, sharpness is pretty good across most of the image frame but, even when shooting at the widest available aperture, bokeh is a bit glitchy and lacking in smoothness. Bokeh discs are quite well-rounded when shooting wide-open but take on a noticeable heptagonal appearance when stopping down a little. This lens is competitively priced, at only about a quarter of the price of the Olympus 45mm f/1.2 Pro, but bokeh is comparatively disappointing and lacking in smoothness. As ever with MFT lenses, this Olympus prime will also fit on Panasonic G-Series mirrorless cameras, and the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K.
Sony’s G Master lenses have earned a solid reputation for overall performance and image quality in general, and for beautiful bokeh in particular. Typical of the breed, this 135mm f/1.8 prime utilizes XA (eXtreme Aspherical), Super ED and regular ED elements in its construction, along with an 11-blade diaphragm that maintains a particularly well-rounded aperture when stopping down a bit. For hands-on aperture control, there’s a physical aperture control ring with one-third f/stop click steps and a straightforward de-click switch to enable smooth transitions during movie capture. Autofocus speed can be a little pedestrian in some fast-aperture primes but the Sony’s dual XD (extreme dynamic) linear motors go about their business with speedy precision and in virtual silence. The lens also features two customizable AF hold buttons on the barrel, as well as an autofocus range limiter. Along with impressive sharpness and contrast, the lens delivers sumptuously smooth bokeh, helped not only by the long focal length but also by the sheer optical quality. The only slight niggle is that defocused lights near the edges and corners of the frame can take on a very elliptical appearance. The upsized sibling to the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 G Master, this 135mm lens delivers similarly superb all-round performance and gorgeous bokeh. The tough decision is which focal length you find more appealing.
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Back to basics
• What are the best camera lenses to buy?