In this post, we’re going to tell you about the best portrait photography lens. We’ve shot hundreds of portrait sessions for our own clients over the years and still actively shoot portraits at engagement and anniversary sessions, as well as on wedding days. We’re practitioners in our craft. As photography teachers, we also have the opportunity to teach tens of thousands of photographers every year through both our free online classes and our paid online courses. So we’re around a lot of new photographers who primarily shoot portraits (at first) of their family, friends and maybe a few paid clients. They also just love documenting their life, taking photos of their kids and their everyday adventures. Every day, we get hundreds of comments, messages and emails from photographers asking all kinds of questions about photography.
As it relates to lenses, these are the most common questions we see:
— What’s your favorite lens?
— In this behind-the-scenes shot, what lens are you using?
— What’s the best lens for new photographers?
— What’s the best lens for portrait photographers?
— What lens should I start with?
Before we answer those, we think it’s important to back up a little bit. When we were getting started in photography, one of the most overwhelming parts to us was making decisions on what gear to invest in –– especially lenses. There were endless options and possibilities (at all price points) and none of them were cheap! To make matters worse, there were countless “lens review” posts that left us more confused than when we started. They were all written in a technical jargon, with numbers we didn’t understand, charts and graphs that didn’t make sense, and words we’d never seen before. It was gibberish to us. It felt like a foreign language that we’d never seen and would never master. It made us felt like outsiders. Imposters in an industry to which we didn’t belong. Have you ever felt that way?
On top of all that, we didn’t want to make a mistake with the hard-earned money we made teaching elementary school during the day and the other odd jobs we worked on nights and weekends (coaching youth soccer, tutoring, babysitting, house sitting, pet sitting etc). Our goal was to pay cash for our photography dream without going into debt, so making a thousand-dollar mistake wasn’t an option. We worked our tails off for every penny we had and wanted to be good stewards of our resources.
So if you’re in that same position right now, we’re here to help you make an informed decision so you can feel confident purchasing the best lens for you. This is the lens review we wish someone would’ve written to us when we were new photographers, because it’s not just going to cover what to buy. It’s going to explain why. As good teachers, we feel like that’s our responsibility, and we hope this helps you feel empowered to make the right decision for you.
Before You Look at Lenses –– 3 Things to Know
1. Pay Cash for Gear
As Dave Ramsey fans, we believe in being debt free, because the borrower is slave to the lender –– and we didn’t want our brand new photography business to be a slave to a bank or owned by anyone… except us. Plus, people who are debt free have more money to save for their future and be generous with others. We wanted that for ourselves. We want that for you. So, early in our career, in addition to our day job, we worked nights and weekends, lived on a written budget, stayed patient, saved up and paid cash for our gear. If you want more information on how to become debt free, live on a budget and invest for your future, The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey is the book we recommend. We read it when we got engaged and have lived by its principles ever since. Other than the Bible, it’s been the most powerful, positive, impactful, and influential thing we’ve ever read.
2. Start the Way You Intend to Finish
As new photographers, one of the most important decisions we made was what camera brand to go with, because camera gear isn’t cheap, so once you pick a brand, buy a camera and start investing in lenses, it’s very expensive to switch brands. For that reason, we chose one of the two biggest brands in the digital photography world: Canon. The other is Nikon. To be honest, there’s no compelling reason we picked one over the other. They’re both great. At the time, some of the photographers we admired most in the industry were shooting Canon. So we figured, if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for us. We did know that we wanted to choose Canon or Nikon, though, because we wanted to go with a reputable, trusted brand that had been around forever, had a huge piece of the market, and was likely to be thriving and innovating decades into the future. In other words, we were reluctant to purchase from an up-and-coming brand or an “off” brand. We wanted to make sure that if we were going to spend tens of thousands of dollars in photography equipment over the course of our career, that the gear would all work together, and if there was a problem with something, there was recourse with a company that wasn’t going anywhere.
3. Gear Doesn’t Make the Photographer
Amy’s mentor photographer, a dad at the elementary school where we taught (who took the school pictures) gave us some really sage advice at the beginning of our photography journey: Don’t be gear poor. There will always be the latest and greatest, but remember that the gear doesn’t make the photographer. The photographer makes the gear. Translation: It’s more important to know how to use your gear than it is to have the most expensive gear. We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again until we’re blue in the face, because we think photographers need to hear it. We’d rather have a brilliant photographer photograph us with an iPhone than have a new photographer take our pictures with the most expensive equipment in the world. Gear matters. Education matters more! Which is why created our Shooting & Editing Course for photographers, to help them get the most out of their new camera and lens! That said, once you know how to use your gear, the right gear will help take your photos to next level.
The Best Portrait Photography Lens
If we had to choose only one lens to shoot with the rest of our life, it would be the Canon 50mm 1.2. That’s been Amy’s favorite lens since she started and still is. It’s the lens she starts every portrait session with and uses to take the majority of her frames. We love the 50mm for a lot of reasons.
Five Reasons We Love the 50mm
The 50mm sees the world the closest to the way our eyes sees the world. It’s not too wide and pulled back. It’s not too up close and tight. It’s like Goldilocks. Just right.
As people-centered photographers, we prefer not to photograph our subjects with lenses wider than 50mm (like 24mm or 35mm) because, in our opinion, wider lenses tend to warp the edges of our images and stretch our clients wider than they actually are. Since we believe part of our job is to flatter our clients features and make them look like the best version of themselves (more on this in our free online posing class for photographers) we tend to steer clear of lenses wider than 50mm.
We’re very interactive and engaging with our clients when we pose them. The 50mm allows us to get close enough to our clients for our posing instruction to feel warm and comfortable. We can talk at a normal decibel level without raising our voices. Other lenses tend to make us feel like we’re too far away from our subjects. It’s a little less personal, and we prefer not to have to shout instructions to them whenever possible.
Practically, we like the versatility of the 50mm. It’s a lens we can take tight headshots with. It’s also a lens we can pull back and get wide shots with (without having to walk too far away from our clients). It helps us get in a “flow” because we don’t have to stop and change lenses all the time, and it keeps our shooting style active because we’re constantly moving our feet to get different types of shots.
Aesthetically, we like “the look” of the 50mm, because it shows us enough of the background to give the picture some perspective (like, you know, where you are), without showing so much of the background that our clients get lost in it and aren’t the focus of the photo any more. It also helps our images feel lighter (as opposed to heavier) because when we shoot with our 50mm, we can typically see sky in the final image, which makes the image feel less “heavy.”
(Both above images taken with a 50mm 1.2)
Everything we said above is predicated on the fact that we have a full frame camera, like the Canon 5D Mark IV. If you have a full frame camera and attach a 50mm lens to it, when you look through the viewfinder, it will look and act like a 50mm should. If you have a crop sensor camera, like the Canon Rebel, a 50mm lens will look and act like an 80mm lens.
Without getting too technical or going into too much detail, whenever you have a crop sensor camera, you have to take the lens you’re attaching to it and multiply the focal length by 1.6. So, on a crop sensor camera, the math goes like this: 50mm lens x 1.6 = 80mm. Thus, if you have a full frame camera, just get a 50mm and an 85mm and you’re good to go. If you have a crop sensor, it’s a different story. This is the part that usually trips new photographers up, because most new photographers start with a crop sensor camera –– and that’s okay! We did it, too. We just want you to purchase your lenses in a slightly different order.
If You Have a Crop Sensor Camera…
Step 1: Start with the Kit Lens
We recommend starting with the kit lens that comes with your crop sensor camera. For about $100 extra, most crop sensor cameras will include an 18-55mm lens in the box with your DSLR. It’s not the best glass in the world, but you’re only going to have it until you’re able to upgrade to a full frame sensor one day. An 18-55mm lens on a crop sensor camera will look and act like a 28mm-85mm (roughly), which is the perfect range you need when you’re getting started at an entry-level price.
That said, for our professional needs in that focal length range, we use the 24-70mm 2.8 L. It’s a beast of a lens that we love, and we’d never shoot a wedding day without it. However, it’s very cost prohibitive, and not necessary for someone who is just starting out with portraits. It’s about twenty times more expensive than a kit lens, two to three times more expensive than most crop-sensor DSLRs and almost double the cost of the highest quality 50mm. That’s why you won’t see us recommending it to new photographers to start out with, unless that new photographer just so happens to be flushed with cash.
Step 2: Then Upgrade to the 50mm
We recommend upgrading to a 50mm prime lens as soon as you can afford it. It will look and act like an 85mm on your crop sensor camera, but that’s okay, because it’ll be a lens you keep for a long time. While you have your crop sensor camera, it’ll give you a longer lens with buttery backgrounds, and when you upgrade to a full frame camera, it’ll turn into that 50mm lens we talked about above. This way, you’re making an investment you can use now and for years into the future, whether you have a crop sensor or full frame camera.
(Photo taken with 50mm 1.2)
The Best 50mm Lenses for Canon Cameras
All lenses are not created equal. Even 50mms. As a general rule, the wider the aperture goes on a lens (or the smaller the number is you see next to the focal length) the higher quality the glass is. That means the more you spend, the more you’ll find that your images are sharper, clearer and more dreamy looking, especially at wide (or low) apertures. With that said, not everyone can afford the best of the best right away (we sure couldn’t’!) so here are three different recommendations based on your price point.
Upgrade Pick – Canon 50mm 1.2
This is our all-time favorite 50mm lens and the one we use the most at every session. If you have the budget, it’s worth the spurge! If you can’t afford it right now, definitely plan to upgrade in the future. If we could only bring one lens to a session, this would be the one. You’ll notice the red rim around this lens, which distinguishes it as Canon’s top of the line, highest quality, L-series lens. When you see that Canon red rim, you know you’re getting a killer quality lens.
The Nikon equivalent is the Nikkor 50mm 1.2
Most People – Canon 50mm 1.4
This was the first prime lens we ever purchased! This is the “Goldilocks” solution between the 1.8 and the 1.2. For those wanting something higher quality than the 50mm 1.8 but can’t quite commit to a $1,000 lens just yet, for only a few hundred dollars, the Canon 50mm 1.4 packs a serious punch. It’s the perfect compromise, and in our opinion, the best bang for your buck when you’re first starting out. That’s why it was the very first lens we ever bought. It served us well for a long time before we were able to upgrade to the 1.2.
The Nikon equivalent is the Nikkor 50mm 1.4
(Photo taken with 50mm 1.2)
We’re professional photographers who help people take better photos! Join us for a free online training and we’ll show you some of our favorite photography secrets that anyone can use!
"I always look forward to your emails! I get excited every time I get an email notification that says 'Amy & Jordan!' Even though we've never formally met, you guys have pretty much become the photography mentor I've never had!"
"I LOVEEE the Monday Minute and I look forward to it every week!"
"The Monday Minute has seriously changed the way I look at my business! In the last year, my business has completely changed and evolved and I know that it's greatly due to my time 'spent' with the two of you!"
"Best year of my life! (Photography-wise!)"