The question of the day is, “what is the best canon lens for portraits?” The answer is, “that depends on your shooting style.” However, a good portrait lens — while that is somewhat subjective — should have universally desirable characteristics and be able to produce great photos without excessive tweaking.
The common problem is that quality lenses can be expensive, and unless you have the budget or time to try them all out, you may not know what’s out there. In this article, I’m going to review some of my favorite canon portrait lenses and help you find the one(s) that best fit your needs.
Table of Contents
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is my all time favorite lens. When shooting wide open, the lens has a very thin depth-of-field and some chromatic aberration. The autofocus is also a little slow. However, I promise that the photos you get will look completely surreal and 3D like you’ve never seen before. This article’s cover photo was taken with the 85L.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is the 85L’s little brother. When compared to the L, this lens loses a few points on IQ and low light capability. While it lacks the “magical” quality, it is lighter and autofocuses much faster. With a considerably smaller price tag, this lens is considered to be one of Canon’s best bang-for-your-buck portrait lenses.
The Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM is often regarded as the king of headshot lenses. At f/2, this lens is tack-sharp (more so than the 85L) and melts the background away. The autofocus is fast and silent. My only gripe with it is that at 135mm (and no IS), it is a bit of a specialty lens and cannot be handheld in low light.
The Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM is the littlest member in the 70-200 family. As a long telephoto zoom, it has the greatest versatility in this lineup, and is amazing for (stealth) candid portraits. At the 200mm end, the bokeh has a very pleasing swirly look to it. Unlike the 2.8 and IS versions however, you might not be able to handhold indoors or at nighttime.
Now, let’s take a look at each lens in more detail. A photography gear review is also nothing with example images, right?
Reviews of the Best Canon Lens for Portraits
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
Like many photographers who own the 85L, I have an intense love and hate relationship with it. You may be wondering, “If it’s your favorite lens, how can you have anything bad to say?”
First, it is known for its slower and not-so-accurate autofocus performance. Unless you’re stopping down to f/2 and more (which defeats the purpose of this lens), you’ll end up frustrated with a lot of blurry shots. Combined with razor-thin depth-of-field at f/1.2-1.8, its application is limited to portraits where the subject is not moving.
Second, it is extremely heavy and its weight distribution causes it to balance weirdly on the camera. If you don’t work out, holding this baby for extended periods of time can make your arms really sore. Lastly, until about f/2, there are small amounts of chromatic aberration that may or may not bother you.
Now, onto the good!
When you do nail the focus, this lens is eye-piercingly sharp throughout the entire range, even at f/1.2. Widely known for its surreal quality, the images look so three dimensional that the subject looks like they’re popping out of the photo.
As you can expect from an L-series lens, the colors and contrast are spectacular right out of the camera, especially on skin tones. While this lens is not weather-sealed, its build quality is quite excellent and can handle the occasional bump without much of a fuss.
The 85L is one of the most expensive lenses in the Canon lineup, so the question is, “is it worth the money?” For me, it definitely is. I’ve never had a client who was not wowed by the photos taken with this lens.
Yes, this lens is not for beginners; your technique needs to be solid. However, if you primarily shoot portraits and especially if you love beautiful bokeh like I do, this lens is guaranteed to take your work to a new level.
Things I Liked
- Surreal 3D-quality images that are unparalleled
- Exceptionally creamy bokeh
- Extremely sharp at all apertures
- Great colors and contrast especially on skin tones
- Excellent build
Things I Didn’t Like
- Slow and sometimes inaccurate autofocus
- Chromatic aberration at wider apertures
- Very heavy with odd weight distribution
- Limited to just one application (posed portraits)
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
This is the younger brother of the 85mm f/1.2L. If you’re looking for the 85mm focal length, but don’t have a huge budget, I’d seriously consider this lens. While costing five times less, it actually outperforms the 85L in many aspects. Mind blown, right?
While technically not an “L” lens, it is no slouch whatsoever. Like most Canon primes, the 85mm f/1.8 is extremely sharp throughout the entire range, but shines from f/2.8 and on. Unlike the L version, it is a very light lens with a fast, accurate, and virtually silent autofocus system.
The build is pretty decent, but nothing too special. Apart from that, however, I can’t fault this lens for anything except for not having the surreal quality that comes with the L. It is simply a very good lens for a very reasonable price.
For the amount that you’d be paying, I consider this lens an absolute steal. If you like the 85mm perspective, I know I’m not alone when I say that this is probably one of Canon’s best bang-for-your-buck lens.
What I Liked
- Very pretty bokeh
- Sharp wide open
- Rich colors (though not as much as the L version)
- Fast, accurate, and silent autofocus
What I Didn’t Like
- None (It just didn’t wow me like the 85L did)
Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM
I’ve used this lens on a few shoots before trading it in for the 85mm f/1.2L. My reason had nothing to do with its performance, but that I was looking for a one-size-fits-all portrait lens and this one isn’t it.
The 135L is responsible for some of the best headshots in my portfolio, and because of that, it will always hold a special place in my heart. For that purpose, this lens is second to none. At 135mm and f/2, the depth-of-field is comparable to the 85mm at f/1.2 — with more facial features in focus due to the flattening effect.
This lens is extremely sharp, even wide open. The autofocus is very snappy and accurate. Compared to the 85L, your keeper rate will skyrocket. Because of this, along with the much lighter weight, this lens is the choice for many indoor sports photographers who need more speed than zooms can offer.
As expected from an L-series lens, the colors and contrasts are absolutely superb. The chromatic aberration is also much lower than other primes when shooting at wider apertures.
For me personally, the 135L’s longer focal length seems more suited to shooting head and shoulder type shots and not much else. In wider shots, the background looks too compressed for my liking. While I am obsessed with bokeh, I do want a little more depth to my images and think that 85mm is a much better focal length.
At 135mm, you are required to step back further and can end up losing some of that personal up-close connection with your subject. In addition, without image stabilization, I’ve found it a little difficult to handhold this lens in any situation other than broad daylight (unless your camera can handle higher ISO levels well).
Price-wise, like the 85mm f/1.8, this lens is an absolute bargain for what it can do. It is one of the cheaper L lenses, and many photographers swear by it. If you primarily shoot close-ups and enjoy obliterating your backgrounds, definitely consider picking up the 135L.
Things I Liked
- Super buttery bokeh
- Tack-sharp at all apertures
- Low chromatic aberration
- Great colors and contrast
- Extremely fast and accurate autofocus
Things I Didn’t Like
- Not handhold-able in low light and lacks IS
- Limited to shooting mostly head and shoulder type photos
- Flattening effect of longer telephotos (you may be into that)
Canon EF 70-200 f/4L USM
Due to superior sharpness and wider apertures, primes are generally more suited for taking portraits. However, there are a few zoom lenses that do the job just as well (with the added benefit of versatility).
The Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L is the “low-end” brother of the 70-200 family. I decided to review this one instead of the IS or f/2.8 versions because I owned it for a long time.
With only f/4, your light-gathering capabilities are more limited than the fast primes. Shallow DOF, however, is not only achieved through wide apertures — it can also be achieved through shooting with longer focal lengths. A tight headshot taken at 200mm creates a beautiful swirly looking blur with soft edges.
Sharpness-wise, this lens can rival many high-end primes, while costing just a fraction. For someone like myself who spends a lot of time doing pixel-level dodge & burn, it is a dream come true. After each shoot, I’ve found the photos to require very little contrast/colors adjustments — something I can’t say about my most beloved primes.
A cool thing about this lens is that it has internal zoom, meaning that nothing moves while focusing or zooming. More on that point, the autofocus speed is almost instantaneous. I’ve never seen it hunt, not even in low-contrast situations.
The bad? With only f/4 and no IS, you’re done shooting once the sun starts to set (even at 70mm, you’ll have a tougher time unless you use a tripod). When utilizing shorter focal lengths, the DOF is fairly deep. You’ll mostly be stepping further back to use 135mm-200mm for portraits. This also means that you may have to yell at your subject to change poses.
While most lenses are short and black, the 70-200 is long and white. When carrying it in public, you will stick out like a sore thumb. These days, after having been kicked out of many NYC locations, I prefer to blend in with tourists as often as possible. As you may have guessed, this lens is pretty heavy, making handhold shooting much more difficult.
Overall, this lens is a great choice for candid and wedding photographers who want to photograph subjects from afar. It is also great for photographers who shoot lots of outdoor sports. For me personally, I really miss this lens and plan to get a new one sometime this year.
Things I Liked
- Sharpest zoom lens that I’ve ever used
- Best contrast and color reproduction
- Beautiful swirly bokeh on the longer end
- Smooth and quiet internal zoom
- Accurate and instantaneous autofocus
Things I Didn’t Like
- Deep DOF at f/4 (which limits me to using only the longer end for portraits)
- Limited handhold-ability due to f/4 and no IS
- Big and heavy
- My copy slightly back-focused at 200mm and f/4 (easily fixed with AFMA)
What Makes an Exceptional Portrait Lens?
While this can be pretty subjective, I think most of us can agree that the ideal lens should have:
- Superb colors and contrast right out of the camera
- Great sharpness throughout the range (especially at widest apertures)
- Excellent autofocus performance that does not hunt in less than optimal lighting conditions
- Low chromatic aberration
- Pleasing bokeh — It should be smooth and creamy rather than intrusive
Keep in mind that it is not a requirement to find a lens that fits all of the above. There is no such thing as perfect, but you can decide which parts are necessities for you based on how you shoot.
If you primarily use artificial lighting, it shouldn’t matter as much if your lens doesn’t perform as well in low light. If you primarily shoot in the studio against plain backgrounds, sharpness should probably be much more important than bokeh quality.
People love to say that the photographer makes the picture, not the gear. While I agree with this, there are certain things you can’t do without the right kind of equipment — you can’t replicate the f/1.2 look with an f/4 kit lens no matter how talented you are.
The Best Canon Lens for Portraits
I hope that this lengthy review has been helpful for helping you find the best lens for your needs. For me personally, the best canon lens for portraits is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. Even though the autofocus is sometimes inaccurate and slow, this lens allows for razor-thin DOF (even in full body shots) without compressing the background. For the kind of photos that this lens produces, I’d gladly pay double the asking price.