Imagine this scenario…
You want a nice lens to use for portraits of your friends and family.
So, you hop online, search “best portrait lenses” for your particular type of camera, and boom – you’re presented with a lineup of really expensive glass.
Then the sadness sets in.
As a casual shooter, you don’t want (or need) to spend $1,500 on a professional-grade portrait lens. That means you’re out of luck, right?
There are plenty of excellent lenses available today that get you good results without forcing you to choose between paying for groceries or paying for your new lens.
It’s just a question of finding them!
What Makes a Great Portrait Lens, Anyway?
There are a lot of factors at play regarding what makes a lens great as opposed to just serviceable.
One of the first things to consider is the focal length.
If you shoot with a full frame camera like the Canon 5DS R, the ideal focal length for portraiture will be different than if you shoot with a crop sensor camera like the Nikon D5300. Looking at the graphic above, you can see how a cropped sensor camera records less data from the scene.
What this means is this: the effective focal length of a lens changes as the crop factor changes. So, where a 50mm lens operates as a 50mm lens on a full frame camera, on a crop sensor camera with a 1.5x crop factor, that same 50mm lens behaves like a 75mm lens.
Now that we have that out of the way…
When shooting full frame, 85mm is a great focal length because you can use it to get close-ups if need be, without being right up in the model’s face. Additionally, at that focal length you can compose upper body or full body portraits from a decent distance away.
But why is that important?
Often, people aren’t all that comfortable in front of the camera, so the more distance you can put between your subject and your lens, the more likely they are to be comfortable. And, the more comfortable they are, the better they’ll look in your photos.
Bonus feature: What’s more, an 85mm lens on a full frame camera has a slight amount of compression, which helps minimize the appearance of larger facial features, like noses, that help make the photo that much more pleasing.
If you shoot with a crop sensor camera, you might consider a 50mm lens. Depending on the crop factor, a 50mm lens might operate in the 65-80mm range. That means you can get similar results as with the 85mm lens and full frame camera combination discussed above.
Alternatively, you could decide to opt for the 85mm with your crop sensor camera and work at an effective focal length of about 110mm to 136mm. That means that standing side-by-side to a photographer with the same lens and a full frame camera, you can get close-ups of the model’s head and shoulders where the full frame shooter might have a view wide enough to be upper body.