So, you want to shoot portraits? Canon lens recommendation

_MG_3894Some weeks ago a friend asked me to recommend a good lens to take portraits. He, like many others, have been using a entry level DSLR with the kit lens for a while. Now he has the bug and wants to experiment and improve. He also outgrew his kit lens. So I went on writing an e-mail explaining what makes a good portrait lens and which options he have.

And here it is a reviewed & expanded version of that e-mail.

I will start with one assumption, you’ve been using a DSLR for a while and now you’re wondering what to do next. You want to take it to the next step and have been wondering what and how. And you have decided you want to start working on portraits. You also have a limited budget 🙂

To continue let’s look at some of the features a good portrait lens should have.

  • Wide aperture. This will allow you to blur the background and make the subject pop-up. It also allow you to get very shallow Depth of Field (DoF).
  • Circular blades. These blades are what moves to open or close the aperture. If this aperture is a circle it will render better bokeh. The more blades the better and if they are cut in a curved way even better. Six straight blades will render hexagonal shaped bokeh. Seven or more cut in a curved shape will render circular bokeh. Circular is better 🙂
  • Focal length:
    • Long focal length: A longer focal length (100 mm or higher) will “compress” (*) the image and make the background. Good for head and shoulder portraits.
    • Mid focal length: 85-100 mm. Ideal for full body and head/shoulder portrait.
    • Short focal length: 24-70 mm. Mostly used for group and indoor full body portraits

One thing you have to have in mind is that all focal ranges are referenced to a full frame camera. If you have an APS-C DSLR you have to multiply the focal range by your camera’s crop factor. Canons are x1.6 and Nikon x1.5. For example, a 50 mm lens will actually be equal to a 80 mm lens when used on a Canon APS-C camera.

Note I, I’ve always used Canon so I will be talking about lenses for this brand. I’m not anti any brand but I can only write and recommend equipment I’ve used. If someone from Nikon, Sony, etc is reading this article please contact me. I’ll be happy to receive test equipment for review 🙂

Note II, this is not a review article but a recommendation when it comes to select a lens for portrait photos. I will highlight the key specs and provide link to pricing and one of the best review web out there The Digital Picture. I also recommend DP review web site.

Note III, Canon EF mount is full frame & APS-C compatble. Canon EF-S mount works only on APS-C bodies.

With that in mind let’s look at which options we have out there.


Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM USD $149

40mmSTM64mm Equivalent on APS-C Cameras
STM Focus in Video on Select EOS Rebels
EF Mount Lens
Max aperture of f/2.8
Note: Closest to 50mm which is considered to be equivalent to human eye point of view (in FF).


Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II USD $125

50mmf18II80mm Equivalent on APS-C Cameras
EF Mount Lens
Max aperture of f/1.8
Note: Very sharp and low cost. Plastic build and not the best auto focus system but at the price is a very inexpensive start. My favourite, except that now we just got the new version… (read below)


Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM USD $125

EF50mmSTM80mm Equivalent on APS-C Cameras
EF Mount Lens
Max aperture of f/1.8
Note: just announced. Improvements over previous versions are: STM focus, shorter focus range, higher magnification, improved coating, metal mount.
Technical specifications:



Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM USD $349

EF85F18-USM136mm Equivalent on APS-C Cameras
EF Mount Lens
Aperture Range: f/1.8-22
Ultrasonic Focus Motor
Note: This focal length is very good for portraits (head and head/shoulders portraits). This lens is very sharp and has a wide aperture. For group shots you’ll have to back up to make it fit in the frame.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM USD $549

EF100F28macro-USM160mm Equivalent on APS-C cameras
EF Mount Lens
Aperture Range: f/2.8-32
Macro Focus at 1:1 Reproduction Ratio
Ultrasonic Autofocus Motor
Inner Focusing System
Manual Focus Override
Notes: The 100 mm focal length along with great bokeh (foreground/background blur quality) makes this a great portrait lens as well. Not so good for group shots as you’ll really have to walk back quite a bit to fit them in the frame.

Zoom Lenses

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM USD $649

EF70-200F4USM112-320mm Equivalent on APS-C cameras
EF Mount
L-Series Lens
Aperture Range f/4-32 (fixed max. aperture)
Fluorite and UD Lens Elements
Ultrasonic Autofocus Motor
Full-Time Manual Focus Override
Internal Zooming and Focusing
Compatible with 1.4x and 2x Extenders
Notes: Versatile for all type of portrait shots. Long focal distance in APS-C cameras, max f/4 and non IS means you have to hold it very steady to avoid blurred images. L lens quality! Weather sealed.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM USD $649

EF70-300F4-56-IS-USM112-480mm Equivalent on APS-C cameras
EF Mount Lens
Aperture Range: f/4-45
Ultra-Low Dispersion Elements
Two Mode Optical Image Stabilization
Ultrasonic Autofocus Motor
Circular Aperture Diaphragm
Note: You get IS and a longer focal range but less glass quality than the zoom above. My take, learn how to shot without IS and get the advantage of an L lens. But, this is a nice lens as well.

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM USD $829

EFS17-55F28-IS-USM27-88mm (35mm Equivalent)
EF-S Mount Lens
Aperture Range: f/2.8-22 (fixed max. aperture)
UD and Aspherical Lens Elements
Optical Image Stabilization
Ultrasonic Autofocus Motor
AF with full-time manual
Truly Circular Diaphragm

Notes: This lens is only for APS-C cameras, it can’t be used in FF. Reviews say this is a lens that should have the L denomination. Excellent glass quality, it has IS and a focal range that will cover from group shots to full body portraits as well as head/shoulder. A constant f/2.8 is a plus to help get the blurred background.


For $125 Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 it’s an excellent option to start portrait shooting. I owned the MkII nifty-fifty version and found it a great upgrade form Canon kit lens. It provides all that you want for a very affordable price, sharpen glass & shallow DoF.

The recently announced replacement promises to be even better. Improved coating, metal mount, STM autofocus and same old price! This would be my first option.

If you prefer to be close to the “real” 50 mm range in your APS-C you might want to consider Canon EF 40 mm f/2.8. Its petite size is an added bonus if you are looking to reduce weight.

If you budget allows it, a better alternative is Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM. It’s a big step up in quality. Flexible focal range, permanent max aperture of f/2.8, circular diagram and a lens quality regarded as “L”. This would be more of an excellent replacement for your kit zoom lens. But at a considerably greater cost.