Best Canon Portrait Lenses

The classic portrait shot places a flattering view of the subject against a blurred background. This is very easy to achieve with the right lens and all the models below will do the trick.

The key behind a blurred background is having a lens with a large aperture, indicated by a small f-number. The best portrait lenses have an f-number of 2.8 or smaller, and the lower this figure, the more blurred you can make your background. Lenses with smaller f-numbers also gather more light which makes them ideal for taking photos in dim conditions without resorting to flashes or increasing the camera’s ISO sensitivity. See my Portrait Tutorial for more details.

The flattering view is achieved with a lens sporting a slightly magnified view, which typically means having an equivalent focal length of between 70 and 135mm. Shorter focal lengths can give unflattering results with single-person portraits, although are ideal for group shots, while longer ones force the photographer further from the subject, although this may be preferred for discreet, candid shots. Longer focal lengths also accentuate the blurred background effect. A zoom lens which includes both wide angle and short telephoto will be ideal for events like weddings where you need to capture groups and single person shots.

Almost every photographer will benefit from having a good portrait / low-light lens in their collection and for many it’ll be the second lens they’ll buy. Large aperture lenses can be expensive, but there are a few exceptional bargains. Here are the models I recommend.

Best Canon Portrait Lenses

Sigma 135mm f1.8 Art review

The Sigma 135mm f1.8 Art is a bright mid-length telephoto lens available in mounts for Canon, Nikon and Sigma DSLRs with full-frame sensors and can also be used with Sony E-Mount bodies using Sigma's MC-11 mount converter. I think this lens is Sigma's best yet in their Art line: extra sharp, with only minor color aberrations and a beautiful bokeh. In addition it's the only f1.8 135mm lens you can get for your Canon or Nikon DSLR. It might be on the large and heavy side, has no image stabilization, and it definitively is not cheap but all-in-all the Sigma 135mm f1.8 Art earns a Highly Recommended.

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Canon EF 50mm f1.8 STM review

Canon's EF 50mm f1.8 STM finally upgrades the 24 year old EF 50mm f1.8 II with smoother focusing, more rounded aperture blades, closer focusing and a tougher lens mount. Like its predecessor, it'll gather over eight times more light than a typical kit zoom, making it great in low-light, deliver a shallower depth-of-field for attractive blurred backgrounds, and capture sharper results too. Meanwhile the low price makes it the most affordable lens in Canon's catalogue and the closest you'll find to a no-brainer, whether you own a budget DSLR, a mid-range model or even a high-end full-framer. Bottom line? It should be in every Canon DSLR owner's collection.

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Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art review

The new Sigma 85/1.4 Art finally brings Sigma's 85mm prime up to the performance one can expect from a modern lens designed with 36+ MP sensors in mind: It offers the best performing FF/FX-corners and the softest Bokeh of any 85mm lens I know. Plus it is astonishingly resilient against strong contra-light. And although it is not the sharpest in the center, has a little more longitudinal CAs than others, and is a huge and heavy beast of a lens I'd award Sigma's new 85/1.4 Art a Highly Recommended. But this is under the caveat that the AF-issues are singular problems with my copy of the lens.

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Tamron 85mm f1.8 VC review

The new Tamron 85/1.8 VC is a unique lens: It combines very good optical performance with image stabilization at a reasonable price. In fact it's the only stabilized large aperture 85mm prime for Canon and Nikon users. Its autofocus is reliable (after some tweaking) and the package is not too large or heavy to become intimidating. As such it earns a Highly Recommended.

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Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art review

If you want a truly high-end 50mm lens with autofocus, forget about Canon's own EF 50mm f1.2. For me, the best choice is Sigma's 50mm f1.4 ART lens. In my tests it delivers better contrast and crisper details across the entire frame, especially in the corners. And while the 'bokeh blobs' on the f1.2 are larger, I actually prefer the out-of-focus rendering on the Sigma. Admittedly the Sigma is bigger and heavier than any of the Canon 50mm lenses, but it costs only two thirds of the f1.2 making it a no-brainer in comparison, and that's before you even factor in the ability to switch its mount (at a cost) to a different system should you move from Canon in the future. For me it's the best 50mm with autofocus around.

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Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L USM II

Canon's EF 24-70mm f2.8L USM is a favourite of pro portrait and wedding photographers, and is now more popular than ever in an improved Mark II version. It delivers a perfect range on full-frame bodies for group shots and single portraits, and is also great for cropped bodies if wide-angle isn't important. The f2.8 aperture may not be as bright as the primes, but still delivers nice blurred backgrounds and as an 'L' model it features excellent build quality and manual focusing. The Mark II version delivers superior quality to the original and is preferred, but it's a shame there's still no stabilisation; also beware the wider 82mm filter thread on the new model. Note Canon also offers a newer 24-70mm with stabilisation, but with a slower f4 aperture which makes it less attractive for portrait and low light work.

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Canon EF 85mm f1.8 USM

Canon's EF 85mm f1.8 USM is a classic portrait lens for both full-frame and cropped bodies. The longer focal length allows you to stand a little further away than the 50mm models, and also accentuates the blurred background effect. The f1.8 aperture is sufficiently large to achieve very blurred backgrounds and the USM focusing is quick and quiet. It's an older lens, but one of the most affordable Canon primes with a large aperture and delivers great quality.

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

Canon's EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 is the general-purpose zoom for anyone who loves to shoot portraits or work in low light; note as an EF-S model, it's not compatible with full-frame cameras. The constant f2.8 aperture doesn't come cheap, but it allows the lens to gather plenty of light and deliver nice blurred backgrounds. There's also quick and quiet USM focusing, along with Image Stabilisation. An ideal wedding and portrait lens for cropped bodies. It's also interesting to note the equivalent lens for full-framers, the 24-70mm f2.8, remains an unstabilised model, so this is one range where cropped-frame owners enjoy an advantage.

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