Whether you're shooting traditional studio portraits, indoor environmental portraits by natural light or reportage-style street portraits, having the right lens for the job in your kitbag makes a huge difference. But what are the factors photographers have to consider when choosing a lens for portraits?
"Traditionally, a portraiture lens is one that gives a flattering look to the face," says Canon Europe Professional Imaging Product Specialist Mike Burnhill. "A mid-telephoto lens, with a focal length from around 50mm to 100mm, has a natural compression that gives an attractive appearance to faces. However, for environmental portraits, where you want to show someone in their surroundings, focal lengths from 35mm to 50mm are quite common.
"The other big consideration is the maximum aperture. Shooting with lenses with very wide apertures, such as f/1.2 or f/1.8, allows you to put the emphasis on the face or whichever part of the image you want while blurring out distracting elements in the background or foreground."
Canon Ambassadors Guia Besana, Félicia Sisco and Ilvy Njiokiktjien are all highly accomplished portrait photographers. Guia started her career as a reportage photographer and has shot celebrity portraits for high profile editorial clients, as well as staged and conceptual portraits in her acclaimed personal fine art projects. Félicia, meanwhile, has had a successful career in wedding, bridal fashion and editorial photography, and Ilvy is a documentary photographer known for her revealing portraits of people around the world, recording their lives and communities.
Here, Guia, Félicia and Ilvy talk about the lenses they use and why they like them, while Mike explains the features that make these lenses ideal for particular kinds of portraits and shooting situations.
Best wide-angle Canon portrait lens
"I used the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens while shooting my project A Rummage of Flowers," says Guia. "Some people might think 35mm is quite wide for a portrait lens, but you can shoot a lot of portraits with it. It's a lens to use if you move around a lot during a shoot, which I do, and it allows you to show the person in their environment. It's light and very sharp as well as being very good in low light thanks to the f/1.8 aperture. It's a real reporter's lens, and you can cover a whole story with just this one lens."
Mike says: "This is one of the most popular lenses for reportage-style portraits. It allows you to keep a reasonable distance from your subject, while giving a much wider view than a 50mm lens would offer. It also gives you a natural perspective with only very minimal distortion."
Best Canon lens for flattering portraits
Félicia says the 85mm focal length is ideal for her portrait work. "With an 85mm lens I can do everything, close-up portraits and full-length shots," she explains. "This lens combines the best qualities of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens – it has the bokeh of the f/1.2 with the sharpness of the f/1.4." She says she "particularly loves" the lens's control ring, which enables the user to conveniently control ISO, shutter speed and aperture, saying, "It's perfect for me."
Mike says the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens was designed specifically as a portrait lens. "If you want to shoot a flattering portrait, it's the perfect lens to use," he says. "You need a lens that's super-sharp, but at the same time you don't want it highlighting every pore, wrinkle or blemish. This lens has a contradictory profile – it's sharp, but it's soft.
"It can record sharp eyelashes, for example, but then it blurs similar tones such as skin tones together, so it gives a lovely portrait look. It also gives an attractive, smooth bokeh, which makes the background look beautiful and removes distractions. It's a popular lens for portrait photographers because it makes their lives easier – the images require less post-processing to create a flattering look for the client."
Also consider: Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS
The Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS lens, launched in 2019, offers the same exceptional sharpness for the in-focus areas of an image but adds a specially-developed Canon-exclusive Defocus Smoothing coating that produces an even silkier bokeh and softer edges to out-of-focus highlights. When Félicia tried this lens, she found it made distracting backgrounds dissolve away. "The backdrop looked so smooth and the blur was more delicate than I would normally be able to achieve," she says. "The effect on the image is something that really complements my style of photography."
Best Canon zoom lens for portraits
"This zoom is a good solution when you need a light kitbag," says Guia. "I've used this lens a lot on portrait assignments. I needed a lens that covered all the distances because newspapers and magazines want a mixture of close-ups and environmental shots. If I was shooting someone well-known and wasn't going to get much time, I wanted to avoid changing lenses. Using a zoom gives the flexibility to do both close-ups and shots that include the person's environment."
Mike agrees. "This lens is a fantastic multi-purpose tool that can be used in a wide range of circumstances," he says. "Using this lens means you are prepared for practically everything that's going to be thrown at you on a portrait assignment and you can adapt quickly when speed is essential. It has a fairly fast aperture so you can also shoot in low light. This is a professional workhorse lens, designed to be used day-in, day-out, and because it's an L-series lens and weatherproof, it can be used in all situations."
Best Canon portrait lens for details
"I really like this lens because it changed my vision, in a good way, and gave me a new perspective on a subject," says Guia. "I discovered it while I was using the Canon EOS R for the first time. I'm somebody who likes details, but I hadn't used macro before. Using the macro end of the lens, you can show small details that make you go inside the psychology of the picture. It really shows you that the same thing can be seen in completely different ways with different lenses."
Mike adds: "This lens fits into that classic portraiture range of 50mm-100mm, but shooting at 100mm means you can work a bit further away from the subject and be less a part of the situation. The macro facility allows you to go in close on small details such as a person's eyelashes but, at the same time, the focal length allows you more distance from the subject than you would get with, say, a wide-angle macro. It's a fantastic lens, very sharp, and one of the few 100mm lenses that has built-in Image Stabilization."
Best standard Canon portrait lens
"I also used the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM for my Rummage of Flowers project, and it was my favourite lens on that shoot," says Guia. "It's a high quality lens, very solid and precise, and at f/1.2 it's also very fast. Afterwards, when I downloaded the images and looked through them, I saw there was no distortion at all. It's an exceptional lens, especially for portraiture and still life."
Mike adds: "This is a dedicated portraiture and low-light lens, and one of the sharpest lenses available on the market. When you couple that optical quality with the f/1.2 aperture, it allows you to capture whatever intrigues you about a subject in super-sharp detail, but also throw a messy background completely out of focus. This lens can take subjects and put them in a different world, because you can blur out everything that surrounds them. Your images become just about the subjects and how light plays on them."
Best Canon lens for low-light portraits
This lens's maximum aperture isn't as large as that of the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens, but its 5-stop Hybrid IS makes it an even more versatile option in low light.
"The Image Stabilization is quite amazing," says documentary photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien, who was the first pro to shoot with the lens. "You can use this lens for handheld shots when it's really quite dark. I used it to photograph several generations of a family living on a farm in the Netherlands, and I was able to get sharp results at slow shutter speeds when shooting in their barns and stables.
"It's a very sharp lens, but has a really nice bokeh quality as well. I was taking a close-up portrait of a girl standing in front of the barn, and the background was so soft that it looked like it was a portrait studio backdrop.
"I find its compact size a real benefit too. I do most of my photography outside of my own country, so it's good to have equipment that's easy to travel with. The RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM is light but sturdy, which is equally as important."
Mike says this new addition to Canon's RF lens range is perfect for portraits. "The focal length gives you flattering perspective compression as well as shallow depth of field for out-of-focus backgrounds. The f/2 aperture means it's great in low light, especially with the built-in 5-stop IS. It's compact in design, and at 500g it's relatively light. As well as having all the characteristics of a great portrait lens, it also offers a 1:2 macro capability and, as it's almost completely silent in operation, it can be used for video. It's a flexible, multi-purpose lens at an affordable price."