I absolutely love prime lenses. So much so, in fact, of the dozen or so lenses I own, all but one or two of them are prime lenses. Their sharpness is unparalleled by zoom lenses, and their faster aperture speed allows for depth of field play that works perfectly for the portrait work I do.
But once you start scouring the internet for long enough, you’ll come across arguments regarding focal lengths, and which prime lenses are specifically best for portrait work. So, I’m here to give you the definitive, clear-cut, and in no way controversial list of the best focal lengths to use for portrait photography.
This is said in jest, of course – at least a little bit. The reality is that most focal lengths work well within portrait photography just as long as you know how to highlight their specialties and properties. However, while all focal lengths can be used for portrait photography, there are a few classic choices, because, well, they work so well in the field.
So, let’s go through the five best prime focal lengths for portrait photography, in order of widest to longest.
The first on the list is the 35mm focal length, or what I consider a “Must Have” lens for just about all working professional photographers to put in their camera bag. Perhaps the biggest advantage of 35mm is it’s one of the more accessible lens focal lengths to use. Every camera manufacturer has at least a couple of 35mm options, ranging from f/1.2 to f/2.8 depending on your budget, and they’re all pretty great. Tamron’s 35mm f1.4 available in Sony, Canon and Nikon mounts, that Lensrentals founder Roger Cicala called “optically the best 35mm lens you can get” is worth experiencing as an excellent quality and budget conscious consideration.
What makes the 35mm a great focal length though, is its ability to achieve a cinematic look in your images. They say that the human eye’s focal length is within the 50mm range (on a 35mm sensor), so a 35mm lens will give you a slightly wider POV, allowing you to capture more of a scenic style within your portrait photography.
By placing your subject a couple of feet from your camera, you’re able to capture them, along with a scenic background to help create a more cinematic portrait, highlighting both who they are and where they are. However, this is a wide-angle lens, so you do need to be careful with your subject’s distance from the lens, as if they’re too close, you might get a fisheye/barrel distortion effect with your images.
Recommended Budget 35mm (and equivalent) Lenses
Recommended Premium 35mm (and equivalent) Lenses
Next on the list is probably the most obvious of the five focal lengths, the beloved, the tried-and-true, the 50mm. 50mm might be the most popular focal length for all of photography, and it’s for a few different reasons. First, as mentioned, it’s the closest focal length to the human eye, so shooting with a 50mm lens will always feel natural to photographers, because it sees what the standard eye sees.
Secondly, it’s the cheapest focal length to buy. Seriously, if you browse B&H Photo’s website, and sort lenses by “Price low to high” the first entry for all lens mounts will almost certainly be a 50mm lens.
But aside from the 50mm being incredibly easy to use and affordable, it also has several key advantages. Most notably, is its consistency, both in sharpness and use. As Roger Cicala has pointed out on the Lensrentals.com blog a few years back, even the cheapest 50mm lenses have incredible variance between one copy and the next. This just means that they’re incredibly consistent in the manufacturing process; it’s unlikely you’ll get a bad copy.
The 50mm focal length is also really capable of creating some great images that feel both natural and eye-catching, both in-studio and on location. If I were to be bold, I’d say that if photographers had to choose to only own one prime lens in their kit, the majority would likely choose a 50mm (not me though, we’ll get to that).
Recommended Budget 50mm (and equivalent) Lenses
Recommended Premium 50mm (and equivalent) Lenses
For the midpoint of these recommendations, I’m also touching on the middle focal length king, the 85mm. There isn’t much to be said about the 85mm focal length that hasn’t already been said a million different times and ways on the internet. But it has been called a gold standard in portrait photography for a reason – because it’s great. The 85mm focal length will provide incredibly flattering results for your subject, offering almost no barrel distortion while also being short enough to work within tighter locations.
Additionally, what makes the 85mm the king of portrait lenses for many is how wide the aperture is on many different variations of this lens. Canon, for example, has been offering an f/1.2 version of their 85mm lens since the late 80s, and when you shoot with that wide open, you get a surreal painterly effect in the bokeh – assuming you can hit that razor-thin depth of field. And while the super shallow depth of field can be abused at times (where nothing in the image appears to be in focus), it does provide an effective way to bring attention to your subject and is a great tool to implement when you have an otherwise unflattering background.
Recommended Budget 85mm (and equivalent) Lenses
Recommended Premium 85mm (and equivalent) Lenses
Next on my list is a personal favorite focal length for portrait photography but, then again, most of my (recent) work is in the studio. That focal length, of course, is 100mm. There is just so much I love about this focal length. Some of the sharpest lenses available for modern cameras are 100mm, several 100mm lenses have macro functionality, and their lack of distortion will always create flattering results for your subject.
While 100mm lenses aren’t always the absolutely fastest lenses (except that incredible Nikon 105mm f/1.4E lens), they make up for it in reliability. As someone who has photographed almost exclusively with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro for years now, and as someone who generally beats up his gear, I can give first-hand experience on how great this focal length holds up.
100mm lenses are generally incredibly sharp through the entire aperture range, they also offer extreme flexibility in that regard (the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens has an aperture range of f/2.8-f/32 for example). And remember, just because a lens has macro functionality, doesn’t mean you have to use it exclusively for macro work.
Recommended Budget 100mm (and equivalent) Lenses
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To round out the list, I wanted to throw in one wild card to get the comments roaring. Is 200mm focal length practical? No. Is 200mm focal length affordable? Not really. Is the 200mm focal length easy to use? Definitely not. Does the 200mm focal length provide beautiful results? Absolutely. And because of that resounding “Absolutely,” I had to include this focal length on the list, despite my peer’s objections.
In all seriousness, a 135mm (the Sigma 135mm f/1.8, in particular, comes to mind) would probably make a better footnote for this list, but personally, I’ve always used my 100mm and 135mm interchangeably, as they don’t have a lot of disconcerting features to distinguish one from the other.
The 200mm, on the other hand, is a breed of its own. We’ll start with the downfalls of this lens focal length. It’s usually incredibly large and heavy (the Canon 200mm f/2L and Nikon 200mm f/2 come to mind). You also need quite a bit more space to be shooting portraits at 200mm, which can affect the intimate feeling in some portraits. But a 200mm lens produces no barrel distortion, offers quite a lot of background compression, and gives you tack sharp portraits with a beautiful depth of field fall off, even when shooting at f/5.6 or so.
Recommended Budget 200mm (and equivalent) Lenses
Recommended Premium 200mm (and equivalent) Lenses
So that rounds out the ironclad, indisputable list of the five best focal lengths for portrait photography. In all seriousness, incredible portraits can be made at just about any focal length, and each range has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. This is merely a list of my personal favorites, and what are considered the most tried and tested of the batch. Have some added insight? Feel free to chime in in the comments below.