There’s nothing like a prime lens for capturing a captivating portrait.
Creamy bokeh, pin-sharp detail and beautiful skin tones are possible from almost any prime lens and any interchangeable lens camera, but some are a cut above the rest. So where do you start? That depends entirely on your budget.
Literally any 50mm f/1.8 Lens
They call this lens a “nifty fifty” for a reason.
Every manufacturer offers one, it won’t cost you an arm and a leg, and it will get you nicer bokeh and sharper images than the kit lens your camera came with, making it the perfect choice for anyone who wants to step up their portrait game but doesn’t know where to begin.
50mm is a great not-too-close-but-not-too-wide focal length (although it will seem closer on an APS-C sensor camera because of the cropped sensor - more like 85mm).
You’ll usually find 50mm f/1.8 lenses in stock at any camera store at any given time, just because they’re hugely popular - and rightly so.
Yongnuo make 50mm f/1.8 lenses for a range of camera bodies. You can find their Canon model on Amazon here.
Fujinon XF 35mm f/2 R WR
Not just great for portraits, the 35mm focal length of this lens puts it at 53mm on the Fujifilm X-mount camera’s APS-C sensor.
50mm is considered a similar focal length to what we see day to day with our own eyes, making this 35mm lens it a versatile option not just for portraits, but also for landscapes, night photography and more. It’s lightweight but powerful, autofocuses super fast and is weather and dust-resistant. Plus, it’s relatively cheap compared to most of the other lenses on this list. What’s not to love?
Pricing for the Fujinon 35mm f/2 R WR starts at $570. You can find it on Amazon here.
Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/1.4 ED
If you don’t mind being pretty far away from your subject, or dropping a lot of cash on a phenomenal lens, the 105mm focal length of this Nikon F-mount lens is going to blow your mind. The Nikkor AF-S 105mm was the world’s first autofocus lens to offer both a 105mm focal length and f/1.4 maximum aperture, plus Nano Crystal Coat to make it extra sharp and contrast-y.
The compression at 105mm will completely separate your subject from the background even at an aperture like f/4, so you can choose your own adventure here: either keep your aperture a little smaller to make sure you’ve got that perfect focus; or open it right up, knock your ISO way down and bask in the glory of the creamiest bokeh you’ve ever known.
Just taking a few steps forward will give you a super intimate portrait without making your subject feel like you’re all up in their personal space, or you can level up your street photography and take stealthy candids in dark places without having to ride your ISO into the noisier end.
Of course, Nikkor being Nikon’s in-house lens brand means this particular lens is exclusively designed Nikon F-mount cameras. For those with bodies from other manufacturers, don’t despair - Sigma offer a lens in their Art Series that matches the focal length and maximum aperture of the Nikkor 105.
Pricing for the Nikon AF-S 105mm f/1.4 starts at $2699. You can find it on Amazon here.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
This lens is my personal favourite from my own kit - it’s my go-to for wedding day portraits of the couple, allowing me to give them some space and blur out the background while still being close enough to communicate without a megaphone.
The large diameter and rounded 9-blade diaphragm mean the bokeh is glorious - just add golden hour and it’ll be hard not to make magic.
The Sigma 85mm Art is available for full frame Nikon F-mount, Canon EF and Sony E-mount cameras. Pricing for the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art starts at $1473. You can find it on Amazon here.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro
While not quite as close or as bright as the aforementioned 105mm f/1.4, Canon’s 100mm f/2.8 lens is feature-packed. It’s a macro lens, which means as well as lovely portraits you can get incredibly close to subjects like insects, plants or jewelry without losing the ability to focus. It also sports angle and shift detecting image stabilization, effective even at those close focusing distances, which can mean the difference between getting the shot and getting a completely unusable photo.
Stabilization is especially handy at slower shutter speeds when camera shake can make a photo appear blurry, even if the subject didn’t move.
Pricing for the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 IS USM Macro starts at $749. You can find it on Amazon here.
Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro
Like the Canon 100mm f/2.8, the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 is also a macro lens for close focusing, as well as being a great choice for long range portraiture.
It boasts image stabilization to compensate for up to four stops, making it a great telephoto choice for low light situations or stealthy street photography. Plus, Tamron’s eBAND coating noticeably reduces the appearance of reflections to make sure you’re only seeing flare when you specifically want it.
It’s available for Canon EF and Nikon F mount cameras. A slightly different version is available for Sony A-mount.
Pricing for the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD 1:1 Macro starts at $863. You can find it on Amazon here.
Why do I need a specific lens for portraits?
It all depends on what you like.
If you, like me, love lots of bokeh (the fancy technical name for the out-of-focus parts of an image) and really sharp photos, then you will find you need a lens that’s right for the job.
A lot of people think if their photos aren’t looking the way they envisioned that they should get a new camera, but often a new lens will cost less overall and deliver better results than a new camera body - unless you’re stepping up from a cropped sensor to a full frame, or are using a very old body and know you need some of the features that newer technology can offer.
You can still get some of the effect of a prime lenses’ portrait capabilities with your kit lens if you throw on the one that goes the closest, zoom all the way in and open your aperture up as wide as it can go, but it will never match the sharpness of a fixed focal length lens.
Why are some prime lenses so expensive compared to others?
It’s usually because of their maximum aperture - the number with the f/ in front of it.
The smaller the number, the wider the aperture or hole the light travels through is, and hence the “faster” or “brighter” the lens - because it can let more light through at f/1.4 than f/1.8 or f/2.8. Anything from f/2.8 and wider is considered very bright, and most kit lenses that ship with cameras won’t go any brighter than f4 at the widest end. You’ll also find the maximum aperture on most zoom lenses gets smaller and smaller as you zoom in.
This is where the prices come into play - the wider the aperture, the larger the lens needs to be to allow for it, and the more technology is squeezed into the lens. That means f/1.4 lenses cost quite a bit more than f1.8 lenses, and so on.
How do I get a great deal on prime lenses?
For a high end prime lens, Sigma’s Art series are a great place to start - they perform beautifully and are tack sharp, but cost significantly less than their Nikon and Canon equivalents.
Gold Coast based Cameras Direct often beat the prices of the big retailers and ship Australia wide. Lots of Australian camera retailers offer trade-ins on your old gear if it’s in good condition, and sell secondhand equipment in-store that you can test out before committing to buy it. And of course, secondhand marketplaces like eBay and Gumtree can be a great place to score great secondhand gear, if you’re willing to spend some time looking for it.