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Guide to the best portrait lenses 2023
Reading time: 10 minutes - December 12, 2023 - by Markus Igel

The best portrait lenses 2023 - More than fixed focal lengths

The best portraits are taken with fixed focal lengths, right? Our colleagues in the store always get a lot of questions about photography, from cameras to accessories, everything is included, but we also always discuss the best lenses among ourselves! We all have a different opinion here, from technicians to fine art photographers at Foto Koch, we all have our favorites, but today we want to show you the best lenses for portrait photography 2023.

Before we list the lenses, we want to pick up each reader a little and bring them to a similar level of knowledge, as this is the only way we can discuss or understand why we recommend one or the other. If this doesn't interest you, skip further down via the table of contents.

The focal length is where it's at in portrait photography

Every lens has a focal length, which is influenced by the sensor size, we now assume that you have a full-frame camera (we have presented the best cameras) then the focal lengths are all calculated correctly so far, because with an APS-C lens the focal length must be calculated times 1.5 or 1.6.

The focal length has an effect on the perception of a person, because the focal length distorts the image. If we assume that we go from 50mm as the normal value upwards and downwards, then everything below 50mm appears distorted, so that people with a 20mm lens are very slenderized and the nose becomes thicker depending on the distance.

Again, the 35mm focal length is very popular for shots on social media such as Instagram, as it still shows a lot of the surrounding landscape/city. At the same time, the focal length doesn't consume much either, as it is closer to 50mm.

Anything over 50mm focal length is in the telephoto range, which tends to make people look wider, which can work very well for photographing men in particular, as it makes them look more masculine, while for women the longer focal lengths are more flattering.

However, a longer focal length (telephoto focal length) also reduces the sharpness range of the aperture, whereas the sharpness of a wide-angle lens quickly covers the entire image. This means that a telephoto lens can also be used to quickly and easily achieve a great bokeh. You should just be aware of the side effect of distortion in the width.

Background blur / bokeh for portraits

Many kit lenses or zoom lenses usually have a fairly high f-number, of 3.5; 5.6; or higher, which also deteriorates upwards over the entire focal length range (e.g. f/8), fixed focal lengths usually have an advantage here. As they are only built for one focal length, the aperture can more easily reach a larger aperture than 2.8, but this is also noticeable in the weight of the lens.

Beautiful bokeh of different lenses

Bokeh is an extreme topic of discussion and involves so many philosophies and opinions that simply have to be seen individually here with personal taste, but the most important criteria for bokeh are:

  • The number of aperture blades
  • Possible aperture
  • Number of glass elements
  • Coating of the glass

The more apertures, the rounder the bokeh, but for some photographers the bokeh is also an eye-catcher if it is not perfectly round. The number of glass elements and the coating play a role in the possible resulting image errors.

If you now look at the aperture opening, this results in the size of the bokeh, because the more open the aperture is, the larger the "glow" of the bokeh, the more closed it is, the smaller the bokeh ball becomes.

More in the Bokeh Basics article

Fixed focal length vs. zoom lens

Many photographers swear by the bokeh of fixed focal length lenses, as they are only optimized for one focal length, there are few to no errors in the image. In the past, zoom lenses were optimized across the focal length range, but then lost out in terms of sharpness and aperture. However, this is currently changing, and one point that is still important with zoom lenses is the formation of onion rings in lenses. But this can also happen in some fixed focal length lenses.

The best portrait lenses - fixed focal lengths

We'll start with the best fixed focal lengths, as we'll have few surprises here, but we'll see!

Starting with the basic 50mm lens

With any lens, there is no end to the flagpoles when it comes to lens prices, but there is a 50mm lens with an f1.8 aperture relatively inexpensive for those who want to give it a try. Every brand offers one of these lenses.

The league of 50mm lenses

After the inexpensive lenses, we would like to talk about the most exciting lenses of this focal length.

All 50mm lenses

Bombastic sharpness - Sony SEL 50mm f1.4 GM

This lens is perhaps one of the sharpest lenses ever and also manages to cover the megapixel-strong models of the Sony brand perfectly. It is also perfectly matched to the requirements for video content creation. From the linear focus motors to the manual aperture ring, this lens supports everything a videographer could wish for. It weighs just over 500g and is not particularly large at 10cm in length. With the 11 built-in aperture blades, there is not much standing in the way of a buttery soft bokeh.

 

Price performance 50mm - Sigma f1.4 DG DN ART

The Sigma ART series is characterized by the imaging performance and a relatively solid weight of 670g at an aperture of F1.4, but even at this price it has the magical 11 aperture blades. In the old version, the DG HSM, it is also available for old SLR cameras and can, of course, also be adapted and used on mirrorless models.

Buttery smooth bokeh with maximum performance - Nikon Nikkor Z 50mm f1.2

With an aperture of f1.2, there is plenty of light available even in dark situations, but that's not all, this also offers an incredibly pleasant bokeh during the day. This premium lens is coated to a particularly high standard and therefore offers minimal image errors such as chromatic aberrations. The small ring on the lens can be freely adjusted to the needs of the user, whether aperture, ISO or exposure time.

The best 35mm lenses

As already mentioned, the 35mm focal length is the second legend next to the 50mm lens, we go into some strong lenses here.

All 35mm lenses

Open aperture for wide angle - Sigma ART DG DN ART f1.2

It doesn't always make sense to spend extra money on an aperture of f1.2, but the aperture makes a lot of sense at wide-angle, as the depth of field quickly increases as the distance to the subject increases, more so than with a telephoto lens.

Alternatively with Sigma f1.4

Sony SEL 35mm f1.4 GM for video and photo

The G-Master lenses are the perfect toys for creators of all kinds, because they all offer good sharpness, beautiful bokeh and handy functions for every application.

Nikon Nikkor Z 35mm f1.8 S

Nikon offers a lightweight, compact 35mm lens for the Z system that has good sharpness and a pleasant bokeh with 9 blades. This lens also offers a very nice contrast, which combines very nicely with the Nikon Z cameras.

Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM

This 35mm not only offers an aperture of f1.8, but also a macro functionality of 1:2, so it offers a lot of flexibility for all types of photography. So you can take great close-up shots with a background of animals, insects or delicious ice cream even when traveling.

Portrait favorite 85mm fixed focal lengths

If you take a survey of portrait photographers, you will find this focal length in almost every photographer's backpack, as it combines the bokeh of a telephoto lens with the open aperture of a fixed focal length at a still quite affordable price.

Most people swear by the magical 85mm and the bokeh monsters or the lenses with the most beautiful bokehs were always chosen in this focal length.

All 85mm lenses

Sharpness and price performance of the Sigma AF 85mm f1.4 DG DN ART

This lens stands out among the portrait lenses, the predecessor is considered one of the sharpest lenses ever designed, but the successor has been optimized once again for mirrorless system cameras and is equipped with an aperture ring.

The Bokehmoster from Canon RF 85mm f1.2 L USM DS

Canon is a company that always comes up with surprises, but they are often the subject of little discussion, as is the case with this lens, because it has an extra soft focus that makes the bokeh of the lens super soft, softening the ball of light from the bokeh at the edges. But the aperture of f1.2 and the sharpness lead to a higher weight of approx. 1.2 kg.

Cheaper alternative from Canon

 

Detailed and fast the Nikon Nikkor Z 85mm f1.8

Thanks to the large Z bayonet, this lens benefits from a particularly compact design compared to its predecessor with an aperture of f1.4. The Nikon Z lenses also benefit from the further improved glass quality, which ensures even more natural colors.

Special fixed focal lengths

We have already highlighted Canon's 85mm from the RF system, but there are still a few lenses that stand out with their characteristics and features. Take the legendary Helios 44-2, for example, which draws the viewer into the picture with its special rotating bokeh. But even today there are some lenses that let us photographers step out of line.

Sony SEL 100mm f/2.8 STF GM OSS

The Sony 100mm is characterized by the designation STF, which at Sony stands for the soft-focus coating on the glass, as with the Canon 85mm RF the DS. With its 100mm, it does not necessarily require an aperture of less than f2, but benefits from the advantages of the telephoto range and the soft focus of the bokehballs.

 

Nikon Nikkor Z 40mm f2

The plastic bomber, which produces a rather interesting bokeh characteristic, which is somewhat restless and yet produces very nice round bokeh balls.

The best zoom lenses for portrait photography

But that's enough about fixed focal lengths, isn't it? Here we present what we consider to be the best zoom lenses that deserve their place in portrait photography.

Standard zoom 24-70 f2.8

Like the 50mm lenses, the 24-70 lenses are a standard among portrait photographers that you have in your bag, because this open-aperture lens offers the necessary flexibility for a successful shoot / content production for fashion and co.

With an aperture of f2.8, the 24-70 offers sufficient separation from the background, with enough light reaching the sensor even in dark situations. The advantage of a 24-70 is not only its versatility, but also its very good close-up limit, which means that close-ups can also be taken.

 

Fixed focal length killer - Tamron 35-150mm f2-2.8 Di III VXD

This innovative lens makes all fixed focal lengths almost obsolete, because it has an aperture of 2 at 35mm and at 150mm it still has an aperture of f2.8! In principle, it is exactly the right lens for any photographer working in portrait photography. Certainly, this lens does not have the maximum depth of field of fixed focal lengths with an aperture of f1.4 or f1.8! But especially for editorials or fashion shoots and also photographers who work with flash benefit greatly from the f-number, because you usually stop down to f2 or f2.8. The sharpness is very good over the entire focal length, only the bokeh shows a few onion rings.

Our hands on

Standard telephoto zoom 70-200 f2.8 - sports, wedding, portrait all-rounder

The best telephoto zoom is the 70-200, because in most versions it offers outstanding autofocus performance and also a solid close focusing distance; with the 200mm it is also possible to take format-filling shots of the model from a medium distance.

At weddings, this makes it possible to take pictures from a distance with the bride and groom in focus and the wedding guests still out of focus in the foreground of the picture.

Our conclusion

Every lens has its own characteristics. The Sony G-Master lenses are known to be clinically optimized, while many manual lenses from brands such as Voigtl?nder, TTArtisan, 7Artisan and Co. may not be particularly sharp at one point or another, but have optical flaws that can serve as stylistic devices. The lenses presented here are certainly on the more perfect side, which is why we naturally want to introduce you to the most comfortable and sharpest lenses first. These lenses all offer a very pleasant and visually beautiful bokeh! Let us know if we were able to help you decide on your next lens!

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