Portrait Photographers' Favorite Camera Lenses

OCTOBER 14, 2013

By Theano Nikitas

When it comes to developing a personal style in their portraits, many photographers stray from the medium telephoto lenses that have traditionally been the staple of portraiture. Because photographers today are diversifying their clientele and workload—shooting an editorial portrait one day, a fashion show the following week and a commissioned portrait on the weekend—it’s often difficult to nail down the “best” portrait lenses. We spoke with several photographers and asked them to name their favorite lenses for shooting portraits, and when and why they prefer one piece of glass over another. We’ve alphabetically organized the lenses by brand name so you can quickly see what’s hot for your camera.

Canon camera lens for portraitsCanon

For UK-based fashion photographer Simon Ackerman, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM is a great, general-use lens, especially backstage at fashion shows where time is limited and he can’t keep switching lenses. He’s been thinking about upgrading to primes but he says the 24-70mm is extremely sharp and the zoom allows him to quickly adapt to various situations—from beauty shots to full-length portraits.

The Canon EF 24-70mm lens is also one of Rochester, New York-based photographer Tammy Swales’s staples. She’ll often use it when she wants to put the portrait “in context,” or for shots that are “a little quirky.”

Her favorite portrait lens, especially when photographing women, is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. “When you open it up, it gives a creamy, buttery quality to [women’s] skin,” she says.

Both Ackerman and Swales also use the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. Swales finds the telephoto zoom more appropriate for shoots where she has to adjust focal length on the fly.  

Prices: $2,300 for EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM; $2,200 for EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM; $2,500 for EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM


Hasselblad camera lens for portraitsHasselblad

New York City-based editorial photographer Michael Lavine, who shoots with a Hasselblad H2 and Phase One back, says he uses the Hasselblad HC 3.5-4.5/50-110mm lens “99 percent of the time—it’s the most versatile lens in the range that I normally need.” His second favorite lens is the HC Macro 4/120mm for close-up portraits: “It’s a little less distorting on the face and flattens the perspective a bit.”

Los Angeles-based portrait photographer Ramona Rosales, who shoots with both the Hasselblad H4D-31 and the H4D-40, says when it comes to portrait lenses, it’s a split. “I absolutely love the 100mm and the 120mm lenses. The balanced depth of field/aperture and compression on both lenses give me a large amount of latitude in strobe and natural settings.”

Although not a big fan of wide-angle lenses or zooms, Rosales favors the Hasselblad HCD 4-5.6/35-90mm lens when a zoom is the best tool for the job—for solo subjects or groups that may require a wider angle without too much distortion. And, says Rosales, the 35-90mm is lighter than most traditional zooms. But, she usually uses the prime lenses “due to the size and the better range of focus and aperture.”

Prices: $6,000 for HC 3.5-4.5/50-110mm; $5,100 for HC Macro 4/120mm-II; $3,900 for HC 2.2/100mm; $7,600 for HCD 4-5.6/35-90mm lens


Leica camera lens for portraitsLeica

Although best known for his fine-art wedding work, Miami-based photographer Riccis Valladares shoots with the Leica M for his street photography and portraiture. His favorite lens is the Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH FLE because its small size is not intimidating to subjects. “An honest portrait should give us additional environmental context instead of isolating the subject from [the environment],” Valladares says. But it’s more than just the angle of view that keeps him from switching lenses on his Leica M; he says the 35mm Summilux also delivers fantastic image quality. He uses the Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH when he wants to highlight a specific feature of his subject.

Prices: $5,150 for Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH FLE; $4,000 for Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH


Mamiya Leaf/Phase One camera lens for portraitsMamiya Leaf/Phase One

Fashion and celebrity photographer Frank Doorhof, who is based in the Netherlands, shoots with the Leaf Credo 60. Asked to choose just one lens, he says, “I think it would be the Mamiya 105-210mm or the Mamiya 150mm lens.” While both are “amazing” lenses, Doorhof tends to shoot with the 150mm when he has a fixed setup and wants maximum sharpness. The Mamiya Digital MF 120mm F4 D Macro is also among his favorites for portraits, he says, claiming, “It’s one of the sharpest lenses I own on the [Mamiya] 645 system.”

Doorhof says that although “a lot of photographers forget about the [Mamiya] RZ67 Pro II and label it ‘old,’ for studio work it’s one of the best cameras available.” That adds a couple of other lenses to his list of favorites: the 110mm f/2.8 or the 180mm long barrel lens from Mamiya.

Editorial and commercial photographer David Christensen, who is based in Atlanta and shoots with a Phase One IQ140, is more definitive in choosing a favorite. He shoots with the Mamiya Sekor AF 80mm F2.8 D (for handheld shots) and says it’s his go-to lens. “I’ve used the 110mm but it’s too long for me.” Rather, he says, “I like the 80mm just for the perspective” and the almost three-dimensional look it delivers—something that he can’t achieve with, for example, a 35mm lens.

Christensen also likes the compression and shallow depth of field with the Schneider Kreuznach 80mm LS (leaf shutter) f/2.8 from Phase One, as well as “the field of view I get in the background. I like to see the environment in my shots,” which he can tighten up if necessary by framing his shot (zooming) with his feet instead of the lens.

He prefers manual focus and finds that with the 80mm lenses, he can rest the camera in the palm of his hand and turn it with one finger to focus. This allows him to easily nail the focus more quickly and accurately on moving subjects than with the autofocus engaged, particularly with shallow depth of field. It took practice, but Christensen says, “I can rack my focus from foreground to background as fast as the camera can capture shots at 1 frame per second.” It sounds like the time he spent practicing manual focus while sitting on his couch serves him well in real life.

Prices: $2,390 for Mamiya Zoom AF ULD 105-210mm f/4.5 Lens with Hood; $5,390 for Mamiya Sekor 150mm F3.5 LS D Lens with Hood; $3,490 for Mamiya Digital AF 150mm F2.8 D; $2,990 for Mamiya Digital MF 120mm F4 D Macro; $4,800 for Mamiya 110 f/2.8; $2,336 for Mamiya 180mm long barrel lens; $1,990 for Mamiya Sekor AF 80mm F2.8 D; $2,990 for Phase One Schneider Kreuznach 80mm LS f/2.8


Nikon camera lens for portraitsNikon

Salt Lake City-based wedding, fashion and portrait photographer Andrea Hanks’s use of lenses is as versatile as her clientele. For children’s portraits, she likes to use her Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED so she can “get closer to them and give them simple directions.” It’s also a good go-to lens when she wants to include some of the surrounding scenery, like during an engagement session with a really nervous couple or when shooting at a gorgeous location. (She will switch to her AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II when the couple is relaxed so she can get some natural, sweet moments of the two of them.)

For weddings she prefers zoom lenses, especially during the ceremony so she’s less intrusive (for extremely low-light situations she’ll pick up her AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G).

Seattle-based wedding and portrait photographer Laurel McConnell also shoots with the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. The former is best “when I need a lot of versatility and need to move quickly and adapt to the situation,” she says.

Based in Texas, fashion photographer Dixie Dixon prefers prime lenses for headshots, especially the AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED. “It’s great for shooting beauty and close-ups,” she says. “For shots of lips or eyes, you have to have that great macro lens.” For natural-light headshots, she might use the AF NIKKOR 180mm f/2.8D IF-ED for its “flattening effect and pretty lens flare,” or the AF DC-NIKKOR 135mm f/2D because of the “beautiful bokeh” it creates.

Dixon switches to her AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G lens for three-quarter shots and moody portraits. “It’s really great in low light so I can use beautiful window light to get a moody effect,” and the focal length allows her to get close to her subjects. When she needs a full-length shot, especially in tight spaces, she loves the NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G. “It’s super sharp and super fast and I can get in close and still get the full body without distortion on the edges.”
Prices: $1,900 for AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED; $2,400 for AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II; $1,700 for AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G; $985 for AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED; $1,005 for AF NIKKOR 180mm f/2.8D IF-ED; $1,400 for AF DC-NIKKOR 135mm f/2D; $1,700 for AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G; $485 for NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G


Pentax camera lens for portraitsPentax

We think Pentax’s 645D is a sometimes overlooked option for those who want to shoot medium format, in part because there aren’t as many current lenses for this camera as there are for other brands. At this time, Pentax offers a trio of autofocus, all-weather lenses for the 645D: the HD Pentax D FA 645 Macro 90mm F2.8 ED AW SR; the SMC Pentax D FA 645 55MM F2.8 AL (IF) SDM AW; and the wide angle SMC Pentax DA 645 25MM F4 AL (IF) SDM AW. However, keep in mind that it’s also compatible with older Pentax 645 lenses that you can often purchase used for a reasonable price.

We caught up with New York City-based photographer Sandy Ramirez recently to ask him about his favorite portrait lenses for the 645D, a camera he’s been shooting with for a while. He explains that “the benefit of using medium format is the fact that you end up using longer focal lengths to get the same field of view as a ‘full-frame’ system.” He goes on to say, “While I definitely have my favorites to use for taking a portrait, every lens in my bag sees use based on what I am trying to do.” While Pentax’s 90mm f/2.8 macro “allows me to do very detailed shots up close and tight, which is very useful when shooting beauty,” he favors his 150mm f/2.8 lens for a “more classic portrait look, with very shallow depth of field.” But he also really loves the new 25mm f/4 lens for more edgy work. “I just love playing with extremes,” he says.

Prices: $4,500 for HD Pentax D FA 645 Macro 90mm F2.8 ED AW SR; $1,200 for SMC Pentax D FA 645 55MM F2.8 AL (IF) SDM AW; $5,000 for SMC Pentax DA 645 25MM F4 AL (IF) SDM AW


Sigma camera lens for portraitsSigma

While most portrait photographers shy away from fisheye lenses, Atlanta photographer Judy Host, who is also part of the Sigma Pro program, uses the fisheye often when architecture is one of a scene’s important elements. Along with the 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 DG HSM II, which allows her to work in small spaces, the fisheye plays a big role in her photography. The other lenses in her kit are the 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM; 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | A; 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM; and APO 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM.

Ty Fischer, a portrait photographer based in Springfield, Ohio, shoots with just two lenses, one of which is the Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM. A lot of his portrait sessions are shot on location with off-camera flash and a neutral density filter. He’ll try to shoot with both lenses, using the 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.8 up to f/2.2 to give the client a completely different look. The 50mm lens also gives Fischer a new perspective, especially when shooting in the same location.

Prices: $609 for 15mm F2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye; $1,400 for 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 DG HSM II; $1,450 for 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM; $900 for 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | A; $900 for 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM; $1,400 for F2.8 EX DG OS HSM; $500 for 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM


Sony camera lens for portraitsSony

Celebrity, beauty and portrait photographer Jeff Berlin shoots with the Sony Alpha a99 and its Carl Zeiss lenses. “The contrast, texture and clarity [in the lenses] is just extraordinary,” says the Los Angeles-based photographer.

His favorite Zeiss lens, especially for shooting fashion, is the 85mm f/1.4 Mid-Range Prime Lens. Although it’s a prime, Berlin finds that the 85mm “is the perfect focal length for shooting anything from beauty to full length.”

Throughout his career, he’s shot beauty with the 85mm lens and prefers primes to zooms. He explains that he’d “rather move in and out to frame the image. When you have a zoom, it changes your depth of field. I want to know exactly what I’m going to get; I want consistency. To be a professional photographer, one of the things your client is paying for is repeatability and that’s what I’m getting with my 85mm Zeiss.”

A frequent film shooter, Berlin likes to do as much work in-camera as he can, so he’ll sometimes use the 135mm f/1.8 Telephoto Prime Lens for a tighter crop or, perhaps, the 100mm f/2.8 Macro Lens—“an extraordinarily sharp lens, so it allows me to get close and tight and shoot details,” he says. But it’s the 85mm that he uses most often and he can even manually focus while photographing models in motion.

$1,700 for 85mm f/1.4 Mid-Range Prime Lens; $1,800 for 135mm f/1.8 Telephoto Prime Lens; 
$800 for 100mm f/2.8 Macro Lens


This article first appeared, in slightly different form, in
PDN’s sister publication, Rangefinder.

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