Ask 10 photographers what the best portrait lens is, and I'm guessing you'll get something like five or six different answers.
There's the brand loyalty, of course, so some folks will want a Canon lens over a Nikon lens.
There is also quite a bit of discussion about the best focal length for photography.
Some portrait photographers swear by their 85mm prime lens.
Others prefer something like a 24-70mm zoom.
That makes your job of getting a portrait lens just a bit complicated, right?
With that in mind, I've put together a step-by-step guide to help you find the answer to the burning question - "What portrait lens do I need?"
Step 1 - Check Your Bag
I know that once you determine that you need a new lens that it's hard to back off the drive to get one.
We've all been there - myself included!
However, taking a moment to survey what you've already got might reveal something pretty amazing...you might already have a lens that's perfectly fine for portraiture.
One of the first lenses I bought (apart from the kit lens that came with my first camera) was a 50mm f/1.8.
Nifty fifty lenses have a great reputation for a lot of things, including being an all-around good lens for a variety of tasks, portraiture included.
Think about it...
No matter if you shoot with a full frame or crop sensor camera, a 50mm lens allows you to work in low-light situations, frame close-up shots, and get nice bokeh.
Plus, since they are so versatile, a 50mm lens can go from portraiture to landscapes to street photography and beyond.
Even if all you have is a kit lens, you'd be surprised at just how good of results you can get.
Sure, kit lenses aren't the best in the world, but they're among the cheapest - especially if you got one bundled with your camera.
If you're just starting out in portraiture or just don't have enough money to buy a high-quality lens, see what your old kit lens can do. You might be surprised!
Step 2 - Figure Out a Budget
If you just aren't happy with the lenses you currently have, the next step is to figure out a budget.
Of course, the budget is going to be the primary factor for a lot of photographers, simply because most high-quality lenses are going to have a high-quality price (with a few exceptions, like Nifty Fifties and third-party lenses from the likes of Tamron, Rokinon, and Sigma).
There's certainly a lot to like about higher-end lenses...
They often have much-improved optics that result in images that are sharper, with less chromatic aberration, and less distortion. More expensive lenses are built better with higher-quality materials that last for years - decades even. Higher-end lenses are typically more likely to operate quietly and have weatherproofing too.
There's a reason why so many photographers (myself included) preach that if you spend money anywhere, it should be on your lenses.
That means if you have to use your old entry-level APS-C camera for a few more years, do it. You'll get better images with an old camera and a new, high-end lens than you will if you have a high-end camera and a cheap lens.
The moral of the story is that if you need to save now for a future with a better lens, bite the bullet and make do with what you have because it's an investment that will pay dividends once you can actually afford a lens worthy of all that hard-earned money!
But as much as that investment will pay dividends, if the lens you want is more than your budget, just stick with what you have. There's no sense in blowing your budget to have a new lens now when a few months more of saving can get you that same lens free and clear.
Step 3 - Pick a Zoom or a Prime
As if budgetary issues aren't tricky enough, trying to decide between a zoom and a prime lens can actually be even more difficult.
The problem is that zooms and primes each have excellent benefits for the portrait photographer.
Zooms are much more versatile, simply because they cover a wide range of focal lengths.
That means if you spring for something like a 70-200mm zoom, you can step back for half or full-body portraits at the wide end, then zoom in for close-ups on the long end.
Having that flexibility means that you can often take just that single zoom lens on a shoot, meaning you can save time not having to swap lenses and save your neck, shoulders, and back from having to carry a bagful of extra glass.
On the other hand, prime lenses have larger maximum apertures, which is great for low-light portraits and for creating buttery smooth bokeh.
Prime lenses tend to produce sharper results than their zoom counterparts because they have fewer elements.
Beyond that, you can easily find an inexpensive prime lens (i.e. a Nifty Fifty) that will give you excellent performance - much more so than an inexpensive zoom.
What it comes down to, then, is really about your personal workflow and your preferences as a portrait photographer.
Either way, a quality zoom or prime lens will help you accomplish your goals. Learn more about the differences between zooms and primes in the video above by Crit.
Step 4 - Figure Out What Type of Lens You Prefer
Closely related to the previous point is determining the type of lens you think you'll like for portraiture.
By type of lens, I mean do you want a standard or short telephoto? Or do you want to shirk convention and go with something more unusual for portraiture, like a wide-angle or a telephoto lens?
Each of these lens types has something to offer for portraiture.
If you use a crop sensor camera, a standard lens would be in the neighborhood of 35mm (50mm for a full frame camera).
At that focal length, you can get high-quality shots that closely mimics how we see things with our own eyes.
Beyond that, standard lenses generate pleasing results no matter if you work close up (though, they can cause some distortion) or further away.
In fact, a standard lens is a good choice if your aesthetic is more along the lines of environmental portraiture, that way you can incorporate some of the surroundings to help tell a more compelling story about your portrait subject.
This is also an ideal lens for half and three-quarter shots of your subject, as seen in the image above.
Short Telephoto Lenses
For full frame shooters, a lens in the 85mm realm qualifies as a short telephoto, while crop sensor shooters need only about a 50mm lens to get the same effect.
These lenses are generally referred to as portrait lenses because, at this focal length, you can create some exceptionally flattering portraits.
The beauty of these lenses is that you can get distortion-free close-ups but also take a few steps back to get half, three-quarter, and full body portraits.
If you select a short telephoto prime lens, you also get the advantage of having very wide apertures available to you, like a 50mm f/1.8 or an 85mm f/1.8.
Better still, as noted earlier, great prime lenses can often be found for a bargain price, so you can be friendly to your budget without sacrificing quality.
Wide-Angle and Telephoto Lenses
Though wide-angle and telephoto lenses are less commonly used for portraiture, that doesn't mean that you can't use them for taking portraits.
In the case of wide-angle lenses, they tend to be a good choice for environmental portraiture, because, much like standard lenses, they allow you to incorporate a good deal of the surroundings in the shot. See what I mean in the video above from AdoramaTV.
If you prefer the look of outdoor portraits, a wide-angle lens could be a great choice, especially if you like to take landscapes as well.
The downside, of course, is that with a wide-angle lens, you aren't able to get close-up portraits, at least not without significant distortion.
Another thing to be wary of is that wide-angle lenses will have a greater depth of field, so if you're looking for something with background blur, that will be hard to achieve with a wide-angle lens.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a telephoto lens tends to be the choice of professional portrait photographers.
The primary reason for this is because, with a telephoto lens, you can be a great distance away from the model and still get a tightly-framed shot.
What's more, with a longer focal length, you can more easily generate a nice, blurry background that's so often found in portraits. As a bonus, you can also use a telephoto lens for a variety of other types of photography, from nature and wildlife to sports to landscape photography.
Unfortunately, telephoto lenses aren't just big and heavy, but they also tend to be exceptionally expensive. That means unless you have a significant budget available, a telephoto lens might not be in the cards at this point.
Step 5 - Test Them Out
It never ceases to amaze me how many people I know that just buy a lens without testing it out first.
Sure, you might think that a wide-angle lens is what you want for your portraits, but after taking a few shots, you may quickly realize that you absolutely hate how the images look.
Whether you go to a camera store and get your hands on a demo model on the showroom floor or you rent a lens or two from someplace like Borrow Lenses or Lens Rentals, if you ask me, actually testing out the lenses that make your final list is a must.
And, while we're at it, don't just rely on online reviews for your intel on these lenses.
You've taken the first step by reading this article to get a better handle on the process of selecting a lens.
But I'd encourage you to go a step further and talk to people you know about what lenses they use. There's nothing better than getting inside information from people you trust.
And when there's so much money at stake (and the quality of your photos to boot), I think it's a worthy step to be as informed as you possibly can be before pulling the trigger on a new portrait lens.