The answer is dependent on what type of portrait you’re shooting. The main framings for portraits are headshots, half body, and full body.
For headshots I like the 70-200mm lens or a 135mm prime. These lenses are the best for this purpose because of telephoto compression. Compression flattens out the subjects facial features and makes the image more appealing. When you’re really tight on someones face the last thing you want to do is distort their facial features by using a wide angle lens.
Moving back to the range of a half body shot I like 85mm f/1.4 a lot, but since it’s further back you can also start using a wider lens like the 35mm.
Check out the following portrait taken with a 35mm lens to see what I mean.
When using a 35mm for portraits you just need to be careful about how you frame the shot to avoid distorting the subjects face and body too much. Most people don’t like to see their faces squished up oddly regardless of how cool of a picture you might have taken!
It’s a touch call for me which lens is better for half body portraits, the 35mm or the 85mm. I think I have to choose the 85mm just because it’s so easy, it’s like everything looks good through that lens.
For full body portraits I like 85mm the best again. Shooting full body with the 85mm you don’t have to stand too far away but you still get lots of separation with the background. The following full body portrait was taken with an 85mm lens.
An 85mm f/1.4 is just about equivalent to a 200mm f2.8 in terms of background blur at the same framing.
Here is another shot taken with a 70-200mm lens at f/2.8 and 92mm.
Of course 85mm is a focal length contained in a 70-200mm lens so which is better? It really depends on the type of shoot you’re on and how you like to frame the subject. If I can I like to use a prime lens, but if I’m shooting a moving subject for example I will definitely reach for the 70-200mm.
Another option for portraits is a 300mm f/2.8 lens. Now we’re talking tons of compression and background separation. Of course you’ll have to stand kind of far away to use this lens but people do use a 300mm lens for portraits outdoors. The massive background blur can turn any funky looking background into an appealing swirl of color.
No matter what lens you choose make sure it suits your style and workflow. If you have the opportunity to buy all the lenses I mentioned by all means go for it. If you can only pick one or two the 85mm and the 35mm together let you cover a lot, as does the 70-200mm. Whatever you decide, I hope it works for you. Let us know what you’re favorite portrait lens is in the comments below.