The 12 Best New Portrait Lenses for Capturing Gorgeous Photos of Faces

© Dan Havlik

Prime lenses in the 85-105mm-equivalent focal length range, especially those with wide apertures between f/1.4 and f/2.8, are often referred to as portrait lenses. That’s because they can capture frame filling headshots and head-and-shoulders portraits at moderate shooting distances. This minimizes apparent perspective distortion, which can result in close-ups that look like caricatures when they’re taken with wide-angle or normal lenses.

Portrait lenses also deliver very shallow depth of field when used at their widest apertures, which can be used to create compelling pictorial effects by isolating the sharply rendered subject against a pleasingly soft background. This is a time-honored technique known as selective focus.

And by doubling the working distance (camera to subject) compared to using a normal lens, photographers shooting with portrait lenses can be less intrusive and intimidating. This is a big advantage when taking portraits of skittish subjects such as kids and animals.

© Dan Havlik

Fast moderate telephoto lenses do indeed make great portrait lenses but they’re hardly the only choices. Many outstanding portraits have been taken with single focal length lenses ranging from 21mm to 200mm (full-frame equivalent) and beyond, and innumerable examples have been shot with normal lenses in the 45-58mm range. Numerous revealing environmental portraits of artists and craftspeople in their workspaces have been shot with wide-angle lenses in the 24-35mm range.

Many of today’s most successful portrait photographers rely on zoom lenses, particularly those in the wide-to-moderate telephoto range (24-70mm and 24-105mm). Fast telephoto zooms such as the popular 70-200mm f/2.8s are also effective because of their unsurpassed framing flexibility and responsiveness.

© Dan Havlik

Since focal length alone doesn’t determine what makes a great portrait lens, here’s a short list of the optical and operational characteristics that the accomplished and emerging portrait photographers should look for when selecting a portrait lens.

What makes a great portrait lens?

1. Sharp, high-resolution imaging at the point of focus to capture fine detail.

2. Pleasingly rounded, natural looking rendition, known as the 3D effect.

3. Beautiful bokeh, especially at the widest apertures. This refers to smooth natural transitions from in-focus to out-of-focus areas of the image without any harshness or artifacts in the out-of-focus areas.

4. A wide aperture for maximum depth of field control and the ability to soften distracting foreground and background objects to draw the viewer’s attention toward the main subject.

5. A diaphragm with 7 or more rounded blades to enhance bokeh and minimize diaphragm related artifacts like the notorious 6-bladed honeycomb effect.

6. Close focusing capability, preferably down to 18-20 inches or closer with a wide-angle or normal lens, 3 feet (1 meter) with a moderate telephoto, and 5 feet (1.5 meters) with longer lenses.

So, without further ado, here are our picks for the top 12 new portrait lenses (in no particular order). If you like shooting portraits, we've chosen some class glass for photographers focused on capturing fabulous faces.


1. Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Acclaimed by portrait shooting pros for its outstanding sharpness at f/1.4 and spectacular performance at f/2, this robust, superbly made 17-element, 12-group super-speed medium telephoto provides exceptional evenness of illumination to the edges and corners of the field, and beautiful bokeh throughout. It incorporates 3 FLD, 2 SLD and one aspheric element to minimize axial chromatic aberration and achieve high resolution, features robust weatherproof construction employing a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) barrel, has a Hypersonic (HSM) motor with fulltime MF for quick, quiet AF, and a durable solid brass lens mount. Its hefty lens shade is made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) and its water-repellant front coating facilitates cleaning. It focuses down to 1 meter for compelling close-ups and has a removable Arca-Swiss-compatible tripod collar. It weighs in at a hefty 3.6 pounds but it’s still easy to handhold thanks to its excellent balance and ergonomics

Price: $1599 in Leica L, Canon EF, Nikon F, and Sony E mount


2. Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

Canon’s exceptional high-speed portrait telephoto lives up to its L-series designation by delivering outstanding imaging performance even at its widest apertures. Optimized for portraiture and low light shooting, it includes one glass-molded aspheric element to greatly reduce spherical aberration and distortion and enhance sharpness and clarity. It also features Canon’s proprietary Air Sphere Coating (ASC) to minimize lens flare and ghosting to yield images of greater contrast and clarity even under adverse shooting conditions. Its built-in image stabilization (IS) system provides a 4-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of camera shake, and a ring-type Ultrasonic Motor (USM) provides fast, precise, quiet autofocus with fulltime manual focus override for fine tuning. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L features dust- and weather resistant construction and has smudge-resistant fluorine coating on its outer elements to facilitate its use in adverse conditions.

Price: $1,499 in Canon EF mount


3. Nikon NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S

This new fast moderate telephoto prime in Nikon Z-mount complements Nikon Z-series mirrorless cameras. It’s quite light (1.03 pounds) and compact (2.95 x 3.9 inches) for its speed and focal length, and features an innovative 12-element, 8-group design that incorporates 2 extra-low dispersion elements to reduce chromatic aberrations and enhance clarity, employs a Multi-Focus System with 2 synchronized stepping motor AF units to achieve quick, precise, quiet AF in still and video applications, and it provides fulltime manual focus override. Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coatings enhance light transmission and clarity and suppress flare and ghosting, a rounded 9-bladed diaphragm enhances its attractive natural bokeh, The lens focuses down to 2.62 feet for frame-filling headshots, and it features dust- and moisture-resistant construction to facilitate its use in inclement weather.  

Price: $796.95


4. Rokinon SP 85mm f/1.2

Employing a sophisticated 10-element, 7-group optical design that incorporates one Hybrid Aspheric and 2 high refractive index elements, this super-speed portrait telephoto prime provides enhanced depth of field control for optimizing selective focus effects, extended low-light performance, impressive overall sharpness across the image field at all apertures, and artistic bokeh thanks in part to its rounded 9-bladed diaphragm. This Ultra-Multi-Coated, manual focus, full frame lens focuses down to 2.6 feet for impressive frame-filling headshots, provides a136mm-equivalent focal length with APS-C-format cameras, and features a durable lightweight aluminum barrel.

Price: $789 in Canon EF mount


5. Sigma APO 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM

This versatile, well balanced f/2.8 constant-maximum-aperture telephoto zoom delivers outstanding imaging performance over its entire focal length and aperture range thanks to an advanced optical design employing 2 FLD (fluorite equivalent) elements and 3 SLD (super-low dispersion) elements. Its apochromatic correction virtually eliminates color fringing and enhances color accuracy, and its multi-layer coating suppresses flare and ghosting, all of which enable it to capture vibrant and compelling portraits even in challenging lighting conditions. Its Hyper-Sonic Motor (HSM) provides swift, precise, virtually silent AF, and its built-in optical stabilizer (OS) effectively minimizes the effects of handheld camera shake when shooting handheld. A rounded 9-bladed diaphragm enhances its inherently beautiful natural bokeh, and it comes with a removable rotating tripod collar for convenient vertical or horizontal shooting atop a tripod. Designed primarily for full-frame cameras, it provides an impressive 112-320mm equivalent range with APS-C-format cameras.

Price: $1,199.00 in Canon EF mount, $1,079.00 Nikon F mount


6. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G

An excellent choice for shooting portraits in any light, Nikon’s classic wide aperture full frame (FX format) medium telephoto provides a 127.5mm equivalent focal length on APS-C-format (DX format) Nikons and has a rounded 9-bladed diaphragm that enhances its pleasing natural bokeh. A Silent Wave Motor (SWM) provides swift, decisive AF along with full-time manual focus, and an internal focus design aids handheld balance by maintaining a constant length at any focusing distance. This advanced 10-element, 9-group lens focuses down to 2.79 feet for frame-filling headshots, incorporates Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coatings to enhance light transmission and clarity and minimize ghosting and flare. It weighs in at a moderate 1.31 pounds.

Price: $1,446.95


7. Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD

The latest iteration of Tamron’s much admired classic full-frame 90mm Macro is a versatile multi-purpose lens that’s also great for portraiture and employs a floating element design to maintain outstanding image quality from its 11.8-inch minimum focusing distance (1:1) to infinity. Its 14-element, 11-group design incorporates one LD and 2 XLD glass elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and achieve impressive sharpness and clarity throughout, and BBAR and eBand coatings help to minimize flare and increase light transmission. A rounded 9-bladed diaphragm enhances its pleasing bokeh, VC image stabilization provides a 3.5-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of handheld camera shake, and a ring-type Ultrasonic Silent Drive (USD) AF motor delivers rapid, precise, quiet autofocus plus anytime manual focus (MF). Other key features: internal focus (IF), a 2-range (close-up and normal) focus limiter, weather-resistant construction, and a water repellant fluorine coated front element that also facilitates cleaning.

Price: $649, in Nikon F and Canon EF mounts


8. Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM

This attractive new high-performance L-series, RF-mount wide-to-moderate telephoto zoom for full-frame Canon EOS R mirrorless cameras provides a constant f/4 aperture in a well-balanced, compact, form factor. It employs a Nano USM AF system that combines the advantages of an ultrasonic motor (USM) and an STM stepping mechanism, delivering smooth, fast, nearly silent autofocus optimized for stills and video, and it provides excellent framing flexibility when shooting portraits. Other features: a built-in image stabilization (IS) system that delivers an impressive 5-stop anti-shake-effect advantage in handheld shooting a customizable control ring that can be set to adjust aperture, ISO, and exposure compensation, and Super Spectra coating to enhance light transmission and minimize flare and ghosting. This 18-element, 14-group lens focuses down to 1.48 feet for compelling close-ups (a maximum magnification ratio of 0.24x), has a rounded 9-bladed diaphragm to enhance its inherently beautiful bokeh, and features moisture sealed, weather resistant construction for shooting under challenging conditions.

Price: $1,099


9. Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM

Praised for its outstanding depth of field control, enhanced selective focus ability, high resolution and refined bokeh, this advanced 13-element 10-group high-speed full frame E-mount telephoto prime is ideal for portraiture and low light work. It incorporates one XA (extreme aspheric) element, 2 extra-low dispersion ED elements, one Super ED element and Nano AR coating to deliver images of exceptional sharpness, clarity, and color correction even at its widest apertures. It also focuses down to 70 cm (2.3 feet) for capturing frame-filling close-up portraits, and incorporates an internal focusing system (IF) and XD Linear Motor System AF with an AF/MF switch and 2 customizable focus hold buttons to deliver impressive AF performance and handling convenience. A rounded 11-bladed diaphragm enhances its inherently beautiful bokeh, a physical aperture ring with de-click switch is optimized for video applications, and it features dust- and moisture resistant construction plus a fluorine-coated front element that resists smudging and facilitates cleaning.

Price: $2,098 in Sony E-mount


10. Pentax D-FA 70-210mm f/4 ED SDM WR

This exciting new high-performance constant f/4 maximum aperture telephoto zoom in Pentax K-mount covers the full-frame format, is sleek and compact for its class, and features enhanced weather-resistant (WR) construction. Its sophisticated optical design employs 3 Extra-Low Dispersion and 2 Anomalous Dispersion elements to minimize chromatic aberrations and achieve impressive sharpness and clarity over its entire range, and it incorporates multi-layer HD coating to suppress flare and enhance contrast. Its ring type Supersonic Direct Drive Motor (SDM) delivers quick, quiet, precise AF, its rounded 9-bladed diaphragm enhances its inherently beautiful, natural bokeh, and moisture-resistant construction and a Super Protect (SP) coating on the front element facilitate its use in adverse weather conditions. When used with late model K-mount Pentax DSLRS such as the K-1 Mark II its electromagnetic diaphragm enables more accurate exposure control when shooting video.

Price: $1,096.95


11. Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f/1.8

This ingenious manual focus, full frame medium telephoto prime employs a classically simple optical formula to achieve soft, glowing, impressionistic effects at its widest apertures that can be adjusted to yield sharper, higher contrast images by stopping down. A 12-bladed diaphragm contributes to its smooth, artistic bokeh and its wide maximum aperture facilitates depth of field control and selective focus techniques. The lens focuses down to 9.5 inches (1:2) to capture compelling close-ups, has comprehensive focusing scales and a well-damped focusing action. And provides a 127.5mm-equivalent focal length with APS-C-format cameras.

Price: $499.95 in Canon EF Nikon F, Pentax K, Sony E, Canon RF, Nikon Z, and Fujifilm X mount


12. Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS

This exceptional pro caliber G-Master flagship telephoto zoom is a full-frame format, f/2.8 constant-maximum-aperture telephoto zoom that benefits from the latest optical technology, incorporating one XA element, 2 aspheric elements, 4 Extra-Low Dispersion (ED) elements, and 2 Super ED elements to deliver outstanding imaging performance over its entire range. It has built-in Optical SteadyShot (OSS) image stabilization to minimize the effects of handheld camera shake, Nano AR coating to reduce flare and ghosting, and a fluorine coating on the front element to resist smudges and enable easy cleaning. Its Super Sonic Wave Motor (SSM) provides precise, quick, quiet AF, it features dust- and moisture-resistant construction, and has a rounded 11-bladed diaphragm that contributes to its pleasing bokeh, and close focusing to 3.15 feet (0.25x magnification at 200mm.) A rotating tripod collar permits quick switching from horizontal to vertical shooting orientation.

Price: $2,598 in Sony E-mount


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