Andy Westlake shows how to choose the right portrait lens for creating extraordinary photographs of people

In principle, you can take perfectly acceptable pictures of people with any lens. But if you want to make your portraits stand out from the plethora of everyday smartphone snaps, then picking the best lens for portraits will pay off.

Conventionally, this often means choosing a short telephoto with a focal length in the 85mm to 135mm equivalent range and a large maximum aperture. Indeed the term ‘portrait lens’ is often used to describe such optics, which deliver head-and-shoulders shots with both a flattering perspective and a nicely blurred background.

However, there’s more to photographing people than this. With couples, for example, the wider view of a 50mm prime may be a better option, while for environmental portraits that show people in the context of their surroundings, a 35mm lens is often preferred. Going wider still with a 24mm can deliver striking results for full-body shots. It’s all about understanding how to use the properties of different optics to achieve your desired result.

Wideangle lenses are great for adding context to your portraits

Wideangle lenses are great for adding context to your portraits. Sony Alpha 7R III, 24mm f/1.4, 1/2000sec at f/1.4, ISO 100

Depth of field and bokeh

For portrait lenses, wide-open sharpness isn’t essential; indeed a little softness will often be flattering. But one genuinely desirable characteristic is the ability to concentrate attention on your subject by throwing the background out of focus. As most readers will know, this is done most easily using a long focal length and a large aperture, which generally means using a prime rather than zoom.

But the flip-side is decreased depth of field, and shooting portraits with just one eye in focus isn’t always a desirable look. So it’s worth understanding that by separating your subject from the background and using a longer lens, you can use a relatively small aperture to increase depth of field while maintaining a high level of out-of-focus blur.

It’s not just the degree of background blur that counts though, but also how it looks. This is where the concept of ‘bokeh’ comes in. This much-abused word originates in Japanese and is used to describe how the aesthetic quality of the blur differs between lenses, even if they have the same physical specification. Some may deliver smoother blur, while others might do a better job of keeping objects in the background recognisable.

Using out-of-focus foreground elements can add interest to an image.

Using out-of-focus foreground elements can add interest to an image. Sony Alpha 7R III, 135mm f/1.8, 1/400 sec at f/1.8, ISO100

Vintage lenses are often more characterful, earning descriptions such as ‘swirly’ or ‘soap-bubble’ bokeh, and some photographers enjoy experimenting with them to exploit such effects. Certain companies such as Lomography and Lensbaby recreate this kind of effect in updated designs.

For many photographers, the first step towards better portraits is likely to be an inexpensive 50mm f/1.8. Once your ambitions and budget expand further, though, there’s a whole host of lenses to try. In this article you’ll find our recommended fast primes for shooting portraits, covering a range of types and price points.

Wideangle Lenses

Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 12mm F1.4 Asph (MFT)
Price: £1,099 |

Micro Four Thirds users interested in shooting wideangle portraits with shallow depth of field should consider this compact, lightweight optic. It provides the angle of view and depth of field control equivalent to a full-frame 24mm f/2.8, so won’t deliver especially blurred backgrounds, but as we’d expect from a Leica-badged lens, there’s very little to complain about in terms of image quality.

The weather-sealed barrel also includes an aperture ring, but this only works on Panasonic cameras, and not Olympus. If the price is too steep, Olympus makes the lovely little M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm F2 that costs around £579.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Fujifilm XF 16mm F1.4R WR (X-Mount)
Price: £839 |

Fujifilm offers the most complete lens range of any APS-C sensor system, and this weather-sealed large-aperture prime is a case in point. It provides an angle of view equivalent to 24mm on full frame, while delivering a similar degree of out-of-focus blur to an f/2 optic.

Users needn’t worry about shooting it wide open, thanks to its excellent sharpness at large apertures, which is complemented by smooth and attractive bokeh. It boasts weather-resistant construction for outdoor use and employs an aperture ring that clicks at one-third stop intervals. The only slight drawback is that autofocus isn’t the quickest.

5 out of 5 stars 

Sigma 24mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art (EF/F-Mount)
Price: £699 |

For full-frame DSLR users, this stunning optic in Sigma’s Art lineup provides a vastly more affordable alternative to Canon and Nikon’s own large-aperture 24mm lenses. Yet it does so while giving up very little in terms of optical quality, with the main penalty being that it isn’t weather-sealed.

Its desirable features include an ultrasonic-type motor for fast, silent autofocus and a nine-bladed aperture for attractive bokeh. It’s not just the sharpness that’s impressive, but the overall look of the images, including the smooth, attractive rendition of out-of-focus regions. Quite simply, it produces lovely pictures with the minimum of fuss.

5 out of 5 stars

Nikon Nikkor Z 24mm F1.8 S (Z-mount)
Price: £819 |

The advent of full-frame mirrorless systems has allowed camera manufacturers to re-evaluate their lens lineups, and Nikon has unusually created a set of f/1.8 primes that provide the premium image quality more usually associated with f/1.4 optics. The Nikkor Z 24mm f/1.8 S is an exemplar of this approach.

While it’s surprisingly large for a f/1.8 lens – Sony’s 24mm f/1.4 is smaller and lighter – it still delivers superb images, while being notably more affordable than larger-aperture designs. It provides smooth, silent autofocus and its large manual focus ring can be customised via the camera menu to adjust aperture, exposure compensation or sensitivity.

5 out of 5 stars

Sony FE 24mm F1.4 GM (FE-Mount)
Price: £1,349 |

Sony has been making full-frame mirrorless cameras for longer than anybody else, and this means that it can offer a significantly more extensive lens lineup, including a strong selection of premium fast primes. While some of its early designs were disproportionately large for its small Alpha 7 bodies, its recent G Master optics provide a wonderfully balanced package of impressive sharpness and lovely bokeh in a compact design.

This lens is arguably the finest 24mm prime you can buy, with superb image quality combined with excellent usability, including an aperture ring that’s switchable between clicked and clickless operation and extensive weather-sealing.

5 out of 5 stars

Standard Lenses

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 25mm F1.2 Pro (MFT)
Price: £1,099 |

While Micro Four Thirds isn’t the most logical choice of system for shooting with shallow depth of field, this weather-sealed large-aperture prime is the best option for users looking for a 50mm equivalent lens that can isolate subjects from their backgrounds. Like Olympus’s 17mm and 45mm f/1.2 PRO-series optics, it’s designed to deliver ‘feathered’ bokeh by slight under-correction of spherical aberration.

In practice it produces lovely-looking images, with backgrounds dissolving away into a beautiful blur. MFT shooters looking for a smaller, more affordable, option should consider the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 24mm F1.4 ASPH (£449) or its weather-sealed Mark II version (£569).

5 out of 5 stars

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G (F-Mount)
Price: £1,499 |

This is a rare example of an optic that has all the hallmarks of a classic portrait lens, including a flattering softness wide open and gorgeous bokeh, but with a wider-than-usual focal length. This design approach makes it something of a niche lens, but so does the price. If you understand exactly what it’s for, though, this lens will reward you with really stunning images.

It’s well-suited to shooting couples, or portraits that include more of the subject’s surroundings. Naturally Nikon also offers more mainstream alternatives: for more conventional head-and-shoulders shots, we like the £449 AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G.

Samyang AF 50mm F1.4 FE II (FE-mount)
Price: £599 |

Samyang AF 50mm F1.4 FE II

Samyang AF 50mm F1.4 FE II

Samyang was the first third-party maker to produce lenses for Sony’s full-frame mirrorless E-Mount cameras, and the AF 50mm F1.4 FE was the first with autofocus, and as a result it wasn’t the quickest for AF. Luckily Samyang has improved on this with the second generation released 5 years later, the Samyang AF 50mm F1.4 FE II.

The new lens is completely new design, with additional features, impressive levels of sharpness, silent and accurate autofocus, and a weather resistant build. It’s also smaller and lighter than many rival lenses, and delivers smooth background blur. Plus it delivers high levels of sharpness even when shooting with the aperture wide open.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art – EF, F, A, Sigma mount
Price: £649 |

If any lens counts as a modern classic, this is it. Building on the foundations laid by the earlier 35mm f/1.4, it cemented Sigma’s status as a top-tier lens maker and established its Art lineup as a true premium brand.

Compared to traditional DSLR 50mm f/1.4 designs it’s large, heavy and expensive, but this allowed the firm to use a more complex optical design that does a far better job of suppressing spherical and chromatic aberrations. Indeed its ability to produce sharp, clean images at large apertures won it our product of the year award in 2015.

5 out of 5 stars

Sony FE 50mm F1.2 GM – FE-mount
Price: £2,100 |

One of the great advantages of mirrorless cameras is the way they make ultra-large-aperture lenses entirely practical to use. The increased freedom in optical design allows much sharper lenses to be constructed, while on-sensor phase detection delivers vastly more reliable autofocus.

Canon, Nikon and Sony have all recently produced 50mm f/1.2 optics, but Sony’s manages to be the smallest, lightest and least expensive. It delivers a giddying combination of impressive sharpness and lovely bokeh, backed up by rapid, reliable, and silent autofocus. It’s a pleasure to shoot with too, thanks to its comprehensive control set.

5 out of 5 stars

Specialist Lenses

In this guide, naturally we’ve concentrated on conventional autofocus lenses. But some photographers like to experiment with alternatives that eschew the usual approach of minimising optical aberrations in favour of delivering a more characterful result. Two names in particular stand out here: both Lensbaby and Lomography make delightfully quirky manual-focus designs that you’ll either love or hate.

Lensbaby Velvet 56 – Multiple mounts
Price: £399 |

This portrait lens for APS-C cameras offers an aperture of f/1.6 for shallow depth of field and defocused backgrounds. It employs a 4-element, 3-group optical formula which the firm says delivers ‘tack-sharp detail layered underneath edge-to-edge velvety glow’ (technically a textbook description of under-corrected spherical aberration).

A minimum focus distance of just 12cm allows it to do double-duty for close-ups, with half life-size magnification. The lens is available in all DSLR and mirrorless mounts, and there’s an 85mm f/1.8 version for full-frame cameras, too.

Lomography Petzval 80.5mm f/1.9 Mark II – EF, F-Mount
Price: £349 |

Taking its inspiration from a 19th-century optical design, this short telephoto portrait lens is defined by its relatively small region of central sharpness and characteristic ‘swirly bokeh’. The original version employed a rack-and-pinion focusing system and drop-in aperture stops, but this MkII design boasts a conventional focusing helicoid and aperture diaphragm, making it much more practical to use.

It’s available in either a black paint finish or seriously retro satin brass, and Canon EF or Nikon F mount. For another £100, you can buy a version with a 7-level ‘bokeh control’ ring.


A small selection of specialist lenses use a principle known as apodisation to deliver particularly smooth background blur. Essentially, this places a radially graduated neutral density filter within the lens to smooth away the edges of out-of-focus blur circles. While often fairly subtle, it’s an effect that some portrait photographers prize greatly. The catch is that such specialised lenses tend to be pricey.

Sony FE 100mm F2.8 STF GM OSS – FE-Mount
Price: £1,399 |

Sony’s specialist portrait lens is the spiritual successor to the legendary Minolta-designed, Alpha-mount 135mm f/2.8 STF. The initials STF stand for Smooth Trans Focus, and unusually, there’s no conventional version of this lens. Sony has implemented a uniquely strong apodisation effect which delivers lovely bokeh at large apertures, but this comes at the cost of light transmission, which is just T5.6 at f/2.8.

A switch around the barrel engages a close-up mode which offers one-quarter life-size magnification, and optical stabilisation is built in. As usual for a G Master lens, high-end features include a de-clickable aperture ring and weather-sealed construction.

Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS – RF mount
Price: £3,299 |

Even the conventional version of Canon’s super-fast RF-mount 85mm is an expensive, statement optic that will set you back £2,800. But the DS option, for Defocus Smoothing, goes a step further. It employs the same 13-element, 9-group design and 9-bladed circular aperture, but employs a special coating on two internal elements to fade the edges of blur circles.

The result is an outstanding portrait lens that delivers beautifully smooth bokeh. While many readers will find the price to be prohibitive, it’s possible to hire one for a special occasion at a reasonable cost.

Fujifilm XF 56mm F1.2 R APD – X-Mount
Price: £1,099 |

Fujifilm’s XF 56mm F1.2 R is much-loved by X-system owners, with this £849 lens providing the same angle of view and ability to blur backgrounds as an 85mm f/1.8 on full frame. As its name suggests, the APD version adds an apodisation filter within the optics to smooth the bokeh when shooting at large apertures.

As this inevitably reduces the light transmission, the aperture ring has both f-stop and t-stop markings, with the difference between the two indicating the effect of the filter at each setting. This varies from a stop wide open to half a stop at f/2, and no effect at f/5.6.

Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto lenses can help with isolating your subject

Telephotos let you isolate your subject against a blurred background. Sony Alpha 7 III, 135mm f/1.8, 1/160sec at f/1.8, ISO160

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM – EF-mount
Price: £1,490 |

Canon users who want the very best need look no further, because this image-stabilised fast prime is an absolute masterpiece. Indeed we think it’s one of the finest EF-mount primes the firm has ever made, with its accurate autofocus, great handling and built-in optical image stabilisation counting as compelling reasons to choose it ahead of the pricier EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM.

Meanwhile its gorgeous rendition of blurred backgrounds and very low levels of chromatic aberration mark it out from cheaper options. For DSLR users on a tighter budget, the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is still a worthy alternative at £380.

5 out of 5 stars

Sigma 56mm F1.4 DC DN | C – Multiple mirrorless mounts
Price: £379 |

Users of APS-C mirrorless models could be forgiven for feeling ignored by third-party makers, who are falling over themselves to make full-frame lenses instead. But at least Sigma has been paying attention, with a trio of affordable f/1.4 primes that are available in Canon EF-M, Micro Four Thirds, Sony E and L mounts, and now X-Mount.

While the 16mm and 30mm certainly have their uses for people pictures, it’s the 56mm F1.4 DC DN that we like the most. Offering an 85mm equivalent view on APS-C cameras, and 112mm on MFT, it’s a nicely compact optic that focuses rapidly and delivers excellent images.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG DN | Art – FE, L-Mount
Price: £999 |

Sigma has built up a strong reputation for the excellence of its Art line of lenses, with perhaps the biggest criticism that could be levelled against its DSLR designs being that they became excessively large and heavy. But the firm appears to have re-aligned its priorities with its burgeoning DG DN line for E and L-mount full-frame mirrorless, producing equally superb optics while drastically reducing the size and weight.

This fabulous lens is a case in point, with a combination of remarkable optical performance even at f/1.4 and excellent usability. Highlights include quick autofocus, weather-sealed construction and an aperture ring that can be de-clicked for video.

5 out of 5 stars

Fujifilm XF 90mm F2 R LM WR – X-Mount
Price: £799 |

Fujifilm is arguably the only company that’s treated the APS-C format as being entirely worthwhile in its own right, rather than just a stepping-stone to full frame. It’s made several fine portrait lenses for its X system, including the budget XF 50mm F2 R WR (£409) and the fine XF 56mm F1.2R (£849).

However the one that really blew us away was the XF 90mm F2 R LM WR, which does the job of a 135mm lens on full frame. Photographers will love its ability to create distinct separation between subjects and background, while the rendition of out-of-focus areas is delightful for portraits.

5 out of 5 stars

Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM | Art – EF, F, L, FE-Mount +
Price: £1,099 |

While many photographers immediately think in terms of using 85mm lenses for portraits, it’s important not to overlook the charms of longer focal lengths. Switch to 135mm and you can shoot from slightly further back for an even more flattering perspective, which can be particularly useful when working outdoors.

Sigma’s 135mm f/1.8 was originally made for Canon, Nikon and Sigma DSLRs, but is also available for the mirrorless L and Sony E mounts. This monster of a lens offers outrageous sharpness coupled with dreamy bokeh, and is almost immune to chromatic aberration. It’s a fabulous optic that provides a look few other lenses can match.

5 out of 5 stars 

Nikon Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S – Z-Mount
Price: £619 |

Like most of Nikon’s other S-series primes for its full-frame mirrorless cameras, this 85mm short telephoto employs an f/1.8 aperture to make it lighter and more affordable than an f/1.4 lens of the same focal length could be. But this doesn’t mean it compromises on the build quality or optics.

Detail rendition is impressive, even on the demanding high-resolution Z 7 and Z 7II, and the bokeh is very pleasing on the eye. Focusing is brisk and particularly effective for portraiture when used with Eye Detection AF. The lens is also fully sealed against dust and moisture ingress, making it a great all-round package.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Sony FE 85mm F1.8 – FE-Mount
Price: £599 |

Sony users have a lot of choice when it comes to portrait lenses, ranging from the £299 Samyang AF 75mm F1.8 FE through to the practically flawless, but pricey FE 135mm F1.8 GM. But one of our favourites lies towards the affordable end of the scale.

The firm’s FE 85mm F1.8 is a relatively compact lens that’s arguably a much better match to Sony’s small Alpha 7 series cameras than its FE 85mm F1.4 ZA stablemate, being less than half the weight. Crucially, it also delivers extremely pleasing images. It’s a great choice for both full-frame and APS-C users.

4 out of 5 stars

Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm F1.2 ASPH OIS (MFT)
Price: £1,149 |

A standout gem of the Micro Four Thirds system, this is one of the fastest lenses to feature optical image stabilisation. With such a large aperture this may sound redundant, but it helps with getting sharp images in low light and is great for video shooting, too.

Image quality is everything we’d expect given the Leica badge, with superb sharpness across the frame even at f/1.2, and minimal chromatic aberration. If this optic is too pricey, the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8 (£249) is a lovely little lens that provides a great combination of sharpness and background blur.

5 out of 5 stars 

Sony FE 135mm F1.8 GM – FE-Mount
Price: £1,599 |

Over the past decade Sony has revolutionised the camera market, jumping from a bit-part player to one of the leading high-end brands in the process. But if anything, its progress as a lens maker over this time has been even more striking, with its premium G Master lenses being at least a match for the finest produced by any of its rivals.

Indeed if you’re after a short-telephoto prime, they simply don’t come much better this one. With its combination of reliable autofocus, supreme sharpness and gorgeous bokeh, it’s likely to appeal strongly to portrait and wedding photographers.

5 out of 5 stars

Pentax smc DA 55mm f/1.4 SDM – K-Mount
Price: £765 |

While neither Canon nor Nikon have ever shown much enthusiasm for making APS-C-specific primes, there’s a decent range available for Pentax users. This one is designed to be used as a portrait lens on APS-C DSLRs, offering a classic 85mm equivalent view. Its large aperture, weather-sealed construction and silent focusing go some way to explaining its relatively high price.

Optically it’s well-suited to its job, with a flattering slight softness wide open and gorgeous bokeh. Full-frame Pentax users, meanwhile, have the unique smc FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited to play with. At £949 it’s pricey, but beautifully-built, including an old-fashioned mechanical aperture ring.

4 out of 5 stars 

Zeiss Batis 135mm f/2.8 – FE-Mount
Price: £1549 |

At first sight, this lens may look perplexing, given that it only offers an f/2.8 aperture for almost the same price as Sony’s superb FE 135mm F1.8 GM. But typically for Zeiss, it’s the sheer optical quality that stands out, with sensational sharpness and no hint of colour fringing thanks to its apochromatic design. Out-of-focus backgrounds are blurred-away beautifully, too.

In terms of specification it ticks all the boxes, with weather-sealed construction and optical image stabilisation, while photographers who like to pack light will appreciate its relatively low weight. Overall I can’t imagine anybody being disappointed by this lens: it’s absolutely sublime.

5 out of 5 stars

Additional Reading

How portrait photography can help your mental health

How to shoot portraits remotely

Memorable lockdown portraits

Take better portraits for less

How to get great bokeh