Ask most professionals what the best lens for portraits is and the answer will invariably an 85mm prime lens. There's good reason for this. Here's why...
85mm prime lenses are the first choice for many portrait photographer because of the way they can make your subject look. Mounted on a full-frame camera body, an 85mm lens tends to produce a flattering perspective that produces a very pleasing look.
The moderate telephoto focal length also enables a comfortable working distance between you both, which means you're not shooting on top of your subject like you would with a 50mm lens, but still close enough to engage and give direction.
Don't ignore an 85mm prime lens if you're using a camera with an APS-C sensor either as these lenses work a treat on these camera bodies as well. With the focal length extending to an equivalent to 127.5mm, these lenses works brilliantly for tight head shots and for head-and-shoulders portraiture. It's not quite the same story if you're shooting on Micro Four Thirds, as a shorter focal length is certainly preferable.
The best portrait lenses also sport a ‘fast’ maximum aperture rating that enables a tight depth of field for blurring the background that really makes the main subject standout.
If money isn't really an object, there are some sensational portrait lenses out there, including the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM, Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G and Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 G Master, plus the stunning but pricey Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM. Unless we're going to be using these lenses day in and day out, investing in glass like this is hard to justify. The good news is though that most manufacturers also produce some really great 85mm f/1.8 that don't require us to win the lottery to be able to afford them.
Whether you're a pro who demands the best or an enthusiast looking for an affordable alternative, here are the best portrait lenses.
The best lens for portraits in 2020
This is one of only two 85mm lenses for Canon cameras that features image stabilization, the other being a Tamron. Build quality is pretty epic, including a shock-absorbing front barrel, weather-seals and fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements. The ability to shoot portraits in the rain might seem superfluous but wedding photographers would disagree. The optical path is based on 14 elements and features Canon’s high-tech Air Sphere Coating which further reduces ghosting and flare.
At 950g, this lens is smaller and lighter than the competing Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM | A, which lacks stabilization. It feels well-balanced on chunky full-frame DSLRs like the 6D Mark II and 5D Mark IV, with excellent handling characteristics.
Wide-aperture sharpness is marginally less magnificent than from the Sigma 85mm Art lens but still pretty extraordinary. The quality of bokeh is exceptional, with super-smooth blur and particularly minimal longitudinal or ‘bokeh’ fringing. The aperture remains more well-rounded when stopping down a little, compared with Canon’s EF f/1.2 and f/1.8 lenses for DSLRs.
This Sigma is available for a variety of mounts, including Canon EF. It's a weighty proposition for an 85mm f/1.4 lens, at 1,130g. Typical of Sigma’s Art series, it’s designed for premium image quality without any concessions to compactness. The complex optical path is based on 14 elements, including an aspherical element at the rear and two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, placed at the centre and towards the front. Autofocus is based on a ring-type ultrasonic system. Sigma’s Art lenses are immaculately well-built but, unlike some of them, this one adds the extra bonus of weather-seals.
Autofocus is both fast and accurate. Sharpness across the entire image frame is hugely impressive, even when shooting wide-open, which is a real challenge for a ‘fast’ f/1.4 lens. We’ve noticed a little ‘onion ring’ effect in the bokeh of some Sigma Art lenses but it’s particularly negligible in this one. Bokeh remains super-smooth when stopping down, helped by a well-rounded 9-blade diaphragm.
The RF 85mm f/1.2 looks ludicrously large on a svelte EOS R-series body, and is massively expensive to buy. But while it’s big in build and price, it’s utterly supersized in terms of image quality and all-round performance.
The highly complex optical path includes aspherical and UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements, the same Air Sphere Coating that’s featured in the latest EF 85mm f/1.4 lens, plus BR (Blue spectrum Refractive) optics. The overall aim is to maximise wide-aperture sharpness and contrast, while keeping both lateral and longitudinal chromatic aberrations, ghosting, flare and distortion to an absolute minimum.
Build quality is super-sturdy and includes weather-seals and fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements. The ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system is fast and has an electronically coupled manual focus ring that operates with smooth precision. Another addition is the ‘control ring’ which can be customised for a variety of functions.
Image sharpness is astonishingly high in the central region of the frame, even when shooting wide-open. Longitudinal or ‘bokeh’ fringing is incredibly well controlled when shooting wide-open and becomes entirely negligible even when narrowing the aperture just a little. The overall quality of bokeh is simply unbeatable, and defocused points of light remain particularly well-rounded when stopping down.
Tamron's entry may have a relatively ‘slow’ f/1.8 aperture rating, but it can still deliver beautiful bokeh, matching most f/1.4 lenses for smoothness. Build quality is stout, with a strong metal barrel and weather-seals. It’s certainly no lightweight at 700g, and is noticeably heavier than Canon’s rival EF 85mm f/1.8 USM.
Extra features include two types of nano-structure coating, which work in tandem to keep ghosting and flare at a minimum. There's also a fast and highly accurate ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system and Tamron’s proprietary VC (Vibration Compensation) optical stabilization system. The aperture is controlled by a 9-blade diaphragm which is more well-rounded than in many competing optics.
Sharpness isn’t exceptional when shooting wide-open, but it’s slightly better than in the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM at the centre, and much better towards the edges and corners. Bokeh fringing is very negligible, as is lateral chromatic aberration and distortion. Add the bonus of stabilization for consistently sharp handheld shots, and the Tamron is a smart buy.
This manual lens for EOS R-series cameras has absolutely no internal electronics, so the lens can’t communicate with the host camera body in any way. You can therefore only shoot effectively in fully manual or aperture-priority modes. And you can’t adjust the aperture from the camera, instead needing to turn the aperture control ring on the lens itself. The aperture value isn’t shown in the camera’s information display, nor recorded in EXIF information. Similarly, there’s no autofocus nor image stabilization.
While this stingy feature-set might sound a dead loss, the reality is something rather different. The viewfinders of DSLRs are notoriously poor for manual focusing, but the electronic viewfinders and rear screens of mirrorless cameras make it very much easier, especially with aids like ‘focus peaking’. The long travel of the focus ring in this manual-focus lens enables very precise and accurate adjustments.
A hybrid aspherical element and Samyang’s Ultra Multi Coating help to deliver very good image quality with little lateral or longitudinal chromatic aberration, distortion, ghosting or flare. Sharpness is very good at f/2 and excellent at apertures of f/2.8 and narrower. It drops off substantially at f/1.4 but there’s still enough sharpness on tap to delivery richly detailed portraits.
All in all, it’s a rare RF-format bargain at the price.
Let’s face it, most of us are not purely portrait photographers, so it makes sense not to spend a fortune on a ‘portrait lens’ that we might not use very often, and to buy one that’s reasonably compact and lightweight, for popping in a spare corner of a gadget bag.
This Canon lens is ideal on both counts, costing a small fraction of any other Canon 85mm lens and being very much more lightweight, at just 425g. Originally launched nearly 30 years ago for 35mm film SLRs, the lens has certainly stood the test of time and is equally viable for digital bodies.
The optical path is fairly simple, based on nine elements in seven groups, but includes Super Spectra coatings to reduce ghosting and flare. The ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system is fast, whisper-quiet and has the usual full-time manual override with a purely mechanical linkage. Handling is good and the lens feels well-built although, typical of non-L-series models, it’s not weather-sealed and you have to buy the hood separately.
Given the modest aperture rating, sharpness isn’t particularly impressive when shooting wide-open but still sufficient for plenty of detail in the eyes. Colour fringing and distortion are minimal. The quality of bokeh is very pleasing when shooting wide-open but the 8-blade diaphragm isn’t quite as well rounded as in some competing lenses, tending to give a noticeable octagonal shape to defocused points of light and bright objects when you stop down a little.
Ideal if you want to literally focus all of the attention on the eye, even if the rest of a portrait sitter’s face goes soft, this lens delivers an ultra-tight depth of field.
Autofocus is pretty sluggish, though it is improved in this Mark II edition, compared with the original lens. Unusually for a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system, the manual focus ring is coupled electronically rather than mechanically. It’s a clever design flourish, because accurate focusing is highly critical with such a tight depth of field at f/1.2. The focus ring’s electronic encoder enables much greater precision for manual focusing than in the vast majority of autofocus lenses.
Build quality is of a fully pro-grade standard but lacks the weather-seals that usually adorn L-series optics. Weighing in at 1,025g, it’s slightly heavier than Canon's EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM, but lighter than the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art.
Sharpness is pretty mediocre when shooting wide-open, even at the centre of the frame, but picks up well when reducing the aperture by small amounts to f/1.4 and f/1.8. Bokeh fringing is clearly visible when shooting wide-open, around the outlines of in-focus objects against defocused areas.
This is one of only two Samyang autofocus lenses for Canon DSLRs, and the only 85mm in the Samyang range. Build quality feels solid and robust, and comes complete with weather-seals. It’s a relatively short and light lens - at 485g, it’s not much heavier than Canon’s EF 85mm f/1.8 USM and is a similar size.
Like the Samyang manual lens for EOS R-series cameras, this autofocus lens for DSLRs includes a hybrid aspherical element and Ultra Multi Coating. However, there’s no need for an aperture control ring as onboard electronics enable full communication and aperture adjustment from the camera body. The autofocus system is driven by a Dual LSM (Linear Supersonic Motor), similar to the linear ‘stepping motors’ used in a number of recent Canon lenses. As such, manual focusing and override of autofocus is courtesy an electronically coupled control ring.
Autofocus proved quick and consistently reliable in our tests, while ‘fly by wire’ manual focusing is smooth and precise. Centre-sharpness is a bit lacklustre at f/1.4 but gets into its stride at f/2. However, sharpness is downright disappointing towards the edges of the frame. Even so, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for a portrait lens. Bokeh is of good quality wide-open, and remains so when stopping down a little, thanks to a well-rounded 9-blade diaphragm.
With its relatively modest f/1.8 aperture rating, this lens enables great quality while maintaining a reasonably compact and lightweight construction that compliments Z-series mirrorless cameras. In the 85mm sector, however, a slightly faster aperture is often preferred, so this Nikon Z lens has something to prove.
Quality optics include two ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements and Nano Crystal Coat. There are no aspherical elements, but this can be a bonus for bokeh. Up-market build quality includes comprehensive weather-seals, and autofocus is courtesy of a quick yet virtually silent stepping motor. The large, electronically-coupled control ring enables high-precision manual focusing and can also be used for adjusting the likes of aperture and exposure compensation.
In terms of image quality, sharpness and contrast across the entire frame are simply spectacular, even when shooting wide-open. Meanwhile, bokeh is absolutely gorgeous and noticeably smoother than from Nikon’s AF-S 85mm f/1.4G, with better rounded defocused points of light. Resistance to ghosting and flare is also remarkably good.
Frankly enormous for an 85mm f/1.4 lens, this Sigma weighs in at 1,130g. Typical of Sigma’s Art series, the design is firmly focused on image quality without any concessions to reducing size and weight. The complex optical path consists of 14 elements, inclduing an aspherical element and two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements. Autofocus is based on a ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and is both speedy and precise.
Sigma’s Art lenses are all immaculately well-built and, unlike some of them, this one adds the bonus of weather-seals. However, you don't get optical image stabilization.
We're particularly impressed by the corner-to-corner image sharpness of this Sigma, which is pin-sharp even when shooting wide-open. Bokeh is also beautifully smooth, helped by a well-rounded 9-blade diaphragm, and there's little sign of any ‘onion ring’ effect that we've noticed from some Sigma Art lenses in the past.
Smartly turned out with a strong, weather-sealed metal barrel and mounting plate, this Tamron is no lightweight at 700g. Like other ‘Di’ lenses, it’s designed from the ground up for digital SLRs, which are more prone to ghosting and flare than film cameras. Indeed, it features two types of nano-structure coating which work in tandem to keep these aberrations to a minimum.
Further high-tech finery includes a fast and highly accurate ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system and Tamron’s VC (Vibration Compensation) optical stabilizer - great for consistently sharp handheld shots. The aperture is controlled by a 9-blade diaphragm - an improvement over the iris in Nikon's rival AF-S f/1.8.
Sharpness could be a little better at f/1.8 but it’s certainly good enough and pretty even across the entire frame. Despite the modest f/1.8 aperture rating, bokeh is excellent, matching most f/1.4 lenses for smoothness. There's minimal bokeh fringing, while chromatic aberration and distortion are also well controlled.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art is already on the large side, but this 105mm stablemate is simply colossal. Nicknamed the ‘bokeh master’, it goes long on focal length and extra-large in construction. Tell-tale signs include an oversized 105mm filter thread, due to the large diameter of the forward optical elements, and an included tripod mounting ring to more evenly balance the 1,645g weight of the lens.
The lens has premium components including three FLD (Fluorite-grade Low Dispersion) elements, two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, and one aspherical element. Fine-tuning and firmware updates are available via Sigma’s optional USB Dock, but this lens lacks weather-seals.
There’s no beating this lens for bokeh - it's immensely soft and smooth. Axial and lateral chromatic aberrations are very well controlled, and there’s no shortage of sharpness, although the competing Nikon AF-S 105mm f/1.4E ED is very marginally sharper at the centre of the frame. You might also find the ultra-thin depth of field difficult to work, and the lens's sheer size can be a bit intimidating for portraiture.
A big attraction of this lens is its smallness. Compact and lightweight, it’s easy to pop into a spare corner of your gadget bag for as and when you need it. It’s refreshingly inexpensive for an own-brand Nikon lens as well, undercutting most rivals for price. Even so, it has a high-quality optical path based on nine elements, although there are no aspherical or ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements.
Build quality is good, complete with a rubber weather-seal on the mounting plate and a fast, ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system. However, it’s only has seven diaphragm blades, rather than the more usual nine that you tend to find in 85mm primes. Bokeh is impressively smooth though, with points of light remaining fairly well-rounded when stopping down a little.
This little Nikon really punches above its weight for sharpness, even at its widest aperture. Both lateral and axial chromatic aberrations are minimal, the latter helped by the modest aperture rating. There’s a slight touch of pincushion distortion, but it’s hardly an issue in portraiture.
Shorter, slimmer and less than two-thirds the weight of Sigma’s whopping 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens, this Nikon has an identical focal length and aperture rating. It’s more manageable for handheld shooting although the price tag is more difficult to swallow. Premium glass includes three ED elements, and you get Nikon's Nano Crystal Coat.
As with the Sigma 105mm, an incredibly tight depth of field is available when shooting at f/1.4. In the context of portraiture, you can have sharpness for a single eye and even the eyelashes will be blurred. You’re best off shooting with a tripod, for the sake of focusing accuracy, at which point the Sigma is better balanced as it can rotate for portrait-orientation shooting in its mounting collar.
Levels of sharpness across the frame are very similar to those from the Sigma 105mm lens. Again, bokeh is beautiful but marginally less smooth than from the Sigma, with slightly more axial fringing in evidence.
This Nikon lens is much smaller and only about half the weight of the competing Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, but much more expensive (especially in the UK). It’s only natural to feel you’re not getting as much for your money.
The optical path consists of 10 elements, compared with the Sigma’s 14, and the forward elements have a considerably smaller diameter. As with the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8 lens, there are neither aspherical nor ED elements in the line-up.
On the plus side, this Nikon’s relatively compact and lightweight build make it somewhat easier to manage. Autofocus is typically quick and quiet for a ring-type ultrasonic system, and the mount has a weather-seal ring. Nano Crystal Coat minimises ghosting and flare.
Shooting wide-open, sharpness drops off more than with most other f/1.4 lenses, while bokeh is a little fidgety and less smooth than it could be. At least there’s only minor degradation after you stop down a little.
Well known for its manual-focus lenses, South Korean manufacturer Samyang only makes two autofocus lenses for Nikon cameras, the other being the AF 14mm f/2.8 F. Build quality feels rugged and the lens is weather-sealed. It’s particularly small and light for an 85mm f/1.4 lens, and not much bigger or heavier than the Nikon f/1.8.
The optical design incorporates a hybrid aspherical element and Ultra Multi Coating, while autofocus is driven by a quick and reliable Dual LSM (Linear Supersonic Motor). An electronically coupled control ring takes care of Manual focusing and autofocus override, proving to be smooth and precise for manual focussing.
Centre sharpness isn't great at f/1.4 but improves greatly by f/2. However, sharpness is disappointing towards the edges of the frame and there's some noticeable lateral chromatic aberration. Bokeh is very smooth when shooting wide-open, and remains good when stopping down a little, thanks to a well-rounded 9-blade iris.
Following on from Sony’s 35mm and 50mm f/1.8 lenses, this one has a similar look and feel. It’s certainly not cheap for an 85mm f/1.8 but only costs about a third as much as Sony’s f/1.4 G Master lens and feels a much more fitting size and weight for E-mount mirrorless bodies.
With a typically minimalist design, there’s no aperture ring nor a focus distance scale, although the lens does have an AF/MF switch and customisable focus hold button. Autofocus is courtesy of a quick and virtually silent linear stepping motor, with an electronically coupled manual focus ring that works with smooth precision. The weather-resistant build quality feels very good, while the optical design incorporates an ED (Extra-low Dispersion) element and a well-rounded 9-blade diaphragm.
Sharpness in the central region of the frame is outstanding, even when shooting wide-open. Bokeh is equally impressive, remaining smooth and dreamy even when reducing the aperture a little.
Compact and lightweight with impressive handling and performance, it’s ideal for A7 and A9 series cameras, although Sigma's 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens will give you an extra two-thirds of an f/stop to play with.
Throwing compactness to the wind, this Sigma tips the scales at a hefty 1,130g and is equally bulky. But thanks to its uncompromising 14-element optical path that includes an aspherical element and two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements, image quality is brilliant. Sharpness is outstanding right across the image frame, while the 9-blade diaphragm helps produce super-smooth bokeh. Chromatic aberration is minimal, and you'll struggle to spot even a trace of lens distortion.
If you can live with the size and weight, there’s no beating this lens for image quality and it’s great value for a full-frame FE-mount 85mm f/1.4.
The atx-m 85mm f/1.8 FE from Tokina is one of a growing number of lenses for Sony FE-mount cameras.
Despite the lens 'only' featuring an f/1.8 maximum aperture rating, that's just part of the story as it manages to deliver some really quite beautiful bokeh for defocused areas. In fact, we have to say the quality of the bokeh is more pleasing than many (more expensive) 85mm f/1.4 lenses.
It's also capable of delivering good detail, with excellent sharpness in the central region of the frame. It's a little disappointing to not see any weather-sealing, but otherwise this lens feels very solid and sturdy. Team it with one of Sony's newer E-mount bodies that sports sensor-shift image stabilization and you have a great portrait set-up.
With an effective focal length of 84mm, this lens enables a natural working distance for portraiture on Fujifilm’s APS-C format X-series cameras. Even so, gaining a tight depth of field is more of a challenge. The basic edition of the lens, which costs around £849/$899, aims to solve the problem with an extra-wide f/1.2 aperture rating.
But we're recommending this up-market ‘APD’ version, as it goes further still by adding an ‘apodization filter’. This is essentially a radial graduated neutral density filter that gets darker towards the circumference of the image circle. This helps to smooth ‘bokeh discs’ generated by defocused bright objects and points of light, softening the bright and harsh edges often associated with them.
Sharpness is pretty good when shooting wide-open, where the apodization filter is at its most effective, although light transmittance drops from f/1.2, equating to an aperture of f/1.7. Bokeh is smooth for a 56mm lens, but the overall quality of in-focus and defocused areas in images isn’t any better than using a more basic lens on a full-frame body.
Micro Four Thirds
Thanks to the 2x crop factor of the Micro Four Thirds system, this lens has an effective focal length of 90mm, which is a good start. Suitable for a range of Olympus, Panasonic and Blackmagic cameras, it also has a fast aperture rating of f/1.8, bringing some much-need help in getting a tight depth of field, which is generally a struggle with MFT cameras.
Measuring just 56 x 46mm and weighing in at a mere 116g, this Olympus lens is exceptionally portable for a portrait lens. Autofocus is driven by an ultra-quiet stepping motor, while high-precision manual focusing is available via a ‘fly by wire’ focus ring.
Sharpness remains good across almost the entire image frame, even when shooting wide-open, where it only drops off towards the extreme edges and corners. However, bokeh simply isn’t as smooth as it could be, and when stopping down a little, points of defocused light take on a pronounced heptagonal shape, due to the seven-blade diaphragm. The Olympus 45mm f/1.2 Pro does better, but costs nearly four times the price in some regions.