PORTRAIT

The best Canon lenses for professional portrait photography

Professional portrait photographers reveal the Canon lenses they use to capture creative images of people.
A portrait of a model in a white jacket in front of a busy but blurred street taken by Félicia Sisco with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens.

Photographers Guia Besana, Félicia Sisco, Helen Bartlett, James Musselwhite and Ilvy Njiokiktjien have worked with many great Canon lenses for portrait photography. Here we find out their favourites for different portrait situations. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.2 and ISO1000. © Félicia Sisco

Whether you're shooting traditional studio portraits, indoor environmental portraits by natural light or reportage-style street portraits, having the right lens for the job in your kitbag makes a huge difference. But what are the factors professional photographers must consider when choosing a lens for portraits?

"Traditionally, a portraiture lens is one that gives a flattering look to the face," says Canon Europe Senior Product Marketing Specialist Mike Burnhill. "A mid-telephoto lens, with a focal length from around 50mm to 100mm, has a natural compression that gives an attractive appearance to faces. However, for environmental portraits, where you want to show someone in their surroundings, focal lengths from 35mm to 50mm are quite common.

"The other big consideration is the maximum aperture. Shooting with lenses with very wide apertures, such as f/1.2 or f/1.8, allows you to put the emphasis on the face or whichever part of the image you want while blurring out distracting elements in the background or foreground."

Canon has a vast range of prime and zoom lenses that can be used for creative photography, and its L-series lenses are perfect for astrophotography, shooting wildlife, black and white and low-light photography. But which are the lenses that professionals rely on day in, day out for portrait photography? Here, Canon Ambassadors Guia Besana, Félicia Sisco, Helen Bartlett and Ilvy Njiokiktjien, along with award-winning studio portrait photographer James Musselwhite, reveal the lenses they use and why they like them. In addition, Mike and fellow Canon Europe Product Specialist Mark Fensome explain the features that make these lenses ideal for particular kinds of portraits and shooting situations.

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A model stands amid tropical flowers and plants in this portrait taken by Guia Besana with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens.

Guia's project A Rummage of Flowers brought together portraiture with still life. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.4 and ISO160. © Guia Besana

A model stands in front of a yellow background wearing a floral headdress in this portrait taken by Guia Besana with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens.

Guia found that the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens enabled her to capture portraits with no distortion at all. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/3.5 and ISO250. © Guia Besana

Best standard Canon portrait lens: Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

Guia Besana started her career as a reportage photographer and has shot celebrity portraits for high-profile editorial clients, as well as staged and conceptual portraits in her acclaimed personal fine art projects.

"I used the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens while shooting my project A Rummage of Flowers," she says. "It was my favourite lens on that shoot. It's a high-quality lens, very solid and precise, and at f/1.2 it's also very fast. Afterwards, when I downloaded the images and looked through them, I saw there was no distortion at all. It's an exceptional lens, especially for portraiture and still life."

The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens.

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

A 50mm f/1.2 prime lens for supreme sharpness, plus remarkable low-light performance.

Mike adds: "This is a dedicated portraiture and low-light lens, and one of the sharpest lenses available on the market. When you couple that optical quality with the f/1.2 aperture, it allows you to capture whatever intrigues you about a subject in super-sharp detail, but also throw a messy background completely out of focus. This lens can take subjects and put them in a different world, because you can blur out everything that surrounds them. Your images become just about the subjects and how light plays on them."

A model sits posed on a chair and wearing a large peach floral fascinator in this portrait taken by Félicia Sisco with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens.

Félicia sees the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens as ideal for shooting both sharp close-up portraits and full-length shots with a smooth background bokeh. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/1.6 and ISO1000. © Félicia Sisco

Best Canon lens for flattering portraits: Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM

Félicia Sisco, who has enjoyed a successful career in wedding, bridal fashion and editorial photography, says the 85mm focal length is ideal for her portrait work. "With an 85mm lens I can do everything – close-up portraits and full-length shots," she explains. "This lens combines the best qualities of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens – it has the bokeh of the f/1.2 with the sharpness of the f/1.4." Félicia says she particularly loves the lens's control ring, which enables the user to conveniently control ISO, shutter speed and aperture. "It's perfect for me," she comments.

The Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens.

Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM

Offering a superior optical performance thanks to its advance lens design and the use of groundbreaking Canon optics, the RF 85mm F1.2L USM is the ultimate portrait lens for next-generation imaging.

Mike says the RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens was designed specifically as a portrait lens. "If you want to shoot a flattering portrait, it's the perfect lens to use," he says. "You need a lens that's super-sharp, but at the same time you don't want it highlighting every pore, wrinkle or blemish. This lens has a contradictory profile – it's sharp, but it's soft.

"It can record sharp eyelashes, for example, but then it blurs similar tones such as skin tones together, so it gives a lovely portrait look. It also gives an attractive, smooth bokeh, which makes the background look beautiful and removes distractions. It's a popular lens for portrait photographers because it makes their lives easier – the images require less post-processing to create a flattering look for the client."

Also consider: Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS

The Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS lens, launched in 2019, offers the same exceptional sharpness for the in-focus areas of an image but adds a specially developed Canon-exclusive Defocus Smoothing coating that produces an even silkier bokeh and softer edges to out-of-focus highlights. When Félicia tried this lens, she found it made distracting backgrounds dissolve away. "The backdrop looked so smooth and the blur was more delicate than I would normally be able to achieve," she says. "The effect on the image is something that really complements my style of photography."

A portrait of a young woman in a blue blouse looking to her right, taken by Ilvy Njiokiktjien with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens.

The Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM gives pin-sharp focus where you want it and dreamy out-of-focus backgrounds thanks to its wide f/2 aperture. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/2 and ISO1000. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

A woman and child sit reading in a field alongside two sheep, in this portrait by Ilvy Njiokiktjien taken with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens.

The Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM's perspective compression and shallow depth of field are also great for characterful environmental portraits. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/2 and ISO400. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Best Canon prime lens for low-light portraits: Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM

This lens's maximum aperture isn't as large as that of the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens, but its 5-stop Hybrid IS makes it an even more versatile option in low light.

"The image stabilisation is quite amazing," says Ilvy Njiokiktjien, who was the first pro to shoot with the lens. Ilvy is a documentary photographer known for her revealing portraits of people around the world, recording their lives and communities. "You can use this lens for handheld shots when it's really quite dark. I used it to photograph several generations of a family living on a farm in the Netherlands, and I was able to get sharp results at slow shutter speeds when shooting in their barns and stables.

The Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens.

Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM

Take your portraits to the next level with a compact, lightweight RF prime lens that flatters your subjects and inspires you to discover beautiful detail.

"It's a very sharp lens but has a really nice bokeh quality as well," Ilvy adds. "I was taking a close-up portrait of a girl standing in front of the barn, and the background was so soft that it looked like it was a portrait studio backdrop. I find its compact size a real benefit too. I do most of my photography outside of my own country, so it's good to have equipment that's easy to travel with. The RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM is light but sturdy, which is equally as important."

Mike says this addition to Canon's RF lens range is perfect for portraits. "The focal length gives you flattering perspective compression as well as shallow depth of field for out-of-focus backgrounds. The f/2 aperture means it's great in low light, especially with the built-in 5-stop IS. It's compact in design, and at 500g it's relatively light. As well as having all the characteristics of a great portrait lens, it also offers a 1:2 macro capability and, as it's almost completely silent in operation, it can be used for video. It's a flexible, multi-purpose lens at an affordable price."

 A person bathed in red light and with his mouth open in a mock roar looks directly at the camera in this portrait taken by James Musselwhite with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens.

"My focus in a portrait session should be the clients, making them feel at ease and fulfilling my brief," says James. "Because I lean on the reliability of my EOS R System cameras and RF lenses so heavily, I can concentrate solely on the shoot experience and fully realise my creative vision." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100. © James Musselwhite

A side-on portrait of a person bathed in blue light and with his mouth open in a mock roar, taken by James Musselwhite with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens.

Mark says the Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens is ideal for portraits with impact. "The long 100mm focal length, together with the f/2.8 aperture, helps with image compression and image separation, while the Image Stabilizer helps to keep the image steady," he explains. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © James Musselwhite

Best Canon portrait lens for details: Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM

This macro lens blends beautiful bokeh with intense sharpness. It's a lens that studio portrait photographer James Musselwhite reaches for when he wants to capture detail. "It's ideal if you're capturing portraits that are intended to draw the viewer's eye to a specific area of the photograph," he says, "especially in fashion setups, where an accessory is the focus.

"It's also a keen lens to use when your stylist has spent time and effort on hair and specifically makeup. When this is done to an expert, artistic level, it can raise the standard of your portraits, and the sharpness of this lens in capturing fine attention to detail is key. Even at f/2.8 the portrait is pin-sharp, possibly sharper than it would be with most other portrait lenses, and the overall feel gives a high-end, glossy magazine look to the images."

RF 100mm F2.8 L Macro IS USM

Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM

The RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM is a professional macro lens with class-leading 1.4x magnification and a variable Spherical Aberration Control to adjust bokeh.

Mark agrees: "A favourite prime lens among many professionals, the RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM is fantastically versatile, equally adept at both macro and portraiture work," he says. "It has the added bonus of a Spherical Aberration Control feature that allows the user to fine-tune the bokeh at the turn of a ring on the lens, while providing a soft-focus effect at the same time. It's a unique feature in the RF lens line-up and ideal for creative portraiture."

A portrait of a young woman standing in a field of flowers taken with a Canon RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM lens.

The Canon RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM features three UD elements and a nine-blade aperture, which help to give the lens its signature blend of exceptional sharpness and smooth out-of-focus areas. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM lens at 1/2500 sec, f/1.8 and ISO400.

Best Canon lens for creative portraits: Canon RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM

As Mike points out, longer focal lengths are more flattering for classic portraiture, particularly when it comes to headshots. With shorter focal lengths you need to be closer to the subject, which can lead to distorted facial features and a caricature-like result.

The Canon RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM lens provides a higher degree of compression than the popular portrait lens focal length of 85mm. Its narrower angle of view also makes it easier to isolate the subject from the surroundings, with the fast maximum aperture giving more creative control over depth of field.

RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM

Canon RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM

The RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM encourages you to look beyond the normal and pick out super sharp detail.

This lens takes the successful formula of the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM – a lens that was launched in 1996 but is still held in high regard today – and improves on it in a number of areas. With its slightly brighter maximum aperture and optical Image Stabilizer, the RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM lens extends the opportunities for portrait photography in low ambient light. It focuses closer and supports precise and reliable autofocus even when used at f/1.8.

The combination of fast maximum aperture, IS and accurate focusing makes the RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM lens ideal for candid portraits at weddings, where there is often low light and photographers are shooting handheld while on the move. These functions also make it an excellent choice for indoor sports photography – and it is Canon's first non-super-telephoto lens to feature the customisable function buttons that sports professionals rely on.

"The RF 135mm F1.8L IS USM lens is a portrait lens that's designed for professionals who want their images to stand out from the crowd," says Mark. "It offers exceptional image quality and superb image separation with a very fast f/1.8 aperture for excellent bokeh and low-light performance."

A close-up portrait of a model wearing a yellow outfit covered with flowers. Taken by Guia Besana with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens.

Guia used the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens – "a real reporter's lens," she calls it – for her project A Rummage of Flowers. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Guia Besana

 A portrait of a model wearing a yellow outfit covered with flowers. Taken by Guia Besana with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

With the RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens you can shoot wide to include the background, contributing to a portrait's storytelling element. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Guia Besana

Best wide-angle Canon portrait lens: Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

Guia also used the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens for her A Rummage of Flowers project. "Some people might think 35mm is quite wide for a portrait lens, but you can shoot a lot of portraits with it," she explains. "It's a lens to use if you move around a lot during a shoot, which I do, and it allows you to show the person in their environment.

"It's light and very sharp as well as being very good in low light thanks to the f/1.8 aperture. It's a real reporter's lens, and you can cover a whole story with just this one lens."

The Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens.

Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

A wide-angle prime lens with a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture and macro capabilities.

Mike says: "This is one of the most popular lenses for reportage-style portraits. It allows you to keep a reasonable distance from your subject, while giving a much wider view than a 50mm lens would offer. It also gives you a natural perspective with only very minimal distortion."

Best Canon zoom lens for portraits: Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

Attach the Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens to an EOS R System camera, and you're prepared for practically everything that's going to be thrown at you on a portrait assignment. Helen Bartlett, who specialises in natural, black and white family portraits, says she uses this zoom lens when she wants to travel with minimum kit and maximum flexibility. "It allows me to think on my feet and vary my approach on fast-moving family photo shoots," she says, "and the combination of the fast aperture and wide angle mean it's a great lens for shooting indoors.

"I'll also use it when I want to avoid changing lenses, such as on a windswept beach with sand flying around, or out in the rain when I need the flexibility of multiple focal lengths with no risk of damage to an exposed sensor.

The Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens.

Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

One of Canon's trinity of essential f/2.8 RF zoom lenses, the RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM boasts a fast aperture and image stabilisation plus a Nano USM motor for silent focusing.

"I've found the five stops of image stabilisation to be helpful when photographing indoors in low light, where a longer shutter speed can allow me to keep my ISO down if I'm photographing a static subject, such as a sleeping newborn. I use the Control Ring on this lens for controlling my ISO, which is brilliant when working with kids who might run quickly between areas with very different lighting. I can keep my aperture and shutter speed where I want them for the creative effect I'm after, and alter my ISO quickly to ensure the correct exposure."

Mark adds: "Canon's standard f/2.8 zoom lens is the perfect all-rounder, with the IS adding to the lens's excellent performance and versatility. The f/2.8 aperture throughout the zoom range allows for a shallow depth of field and good low-light performance when taking portraits or other scenes. This is a professional workhorse lens, designed to be used day-in, day-out, and because it's an L-series lens and weatherproof, it can be used in all situations."

Best Canon zoom lens for low-light portraits: Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

With its combination of large maximum aperture, convenient zoom range and exceptional optical quality, the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens is a wonderful tool for both studio and location portraiture. The ring-type USM AF motor delivers rapid and near-silent autofocus, while the intuitive lens Control Ring enables quick adjustments of frequently-used settings during a portrait shoot.

Although it isn't equipped with optical IS, the RF 28-70mm F2L USM is able to benefit from the In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) built into a number of EOS R System cameras. Advanced lens coatings, UD lens elements and a nine-blade aperture ensure consistently high image quality at all focal lengths.

A Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens.

Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM

An advanced L-series zoom featuring a very fast f/2 aperture and delivering exceptional image quality. It redefines zoom lens image quality.

"As a unique, super-fast, bright zoom lens boasting an f/2 aperture throughout the zoom range and prime-like image quality, this may be a lens that's hard to put down," Mark says. "It is an excellent performer in low light and offers exquisite depth-of-field control for beautiful portraits, all thanks to the super-fast f/2 aperture."

A person covered in red chalk and with plumes of chalk around him looks to the right in this portrait taken by James Musselwhite with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens.

If you don't want to carry multiple prime lenses to a location portrait shoot, the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM marries the kind of image quality you'd expect from a prime with the convenience of a zoom. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 1/8000 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © James Musselwhite

Most versatile Canon portrait lens: Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM

If you favour flexibility over the fastest maximum aperture, then the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM is a standout choice for portraits. It gives you all of the classic portrait focal lengths in a single, lightweight zoom.

"This is my absolute workhorse lens and the one I reach for at the start of most photo shoots," says James. "I find both sharpness and overall image quality to be flawless.

"Because I shoot primarily with strobe lighting, f/4 is more than wide enough for the majority of my work. It gives me such a wide range in focal lengths. I can create dynamic, wide-angle shots that bring the viewer into the character of the person I am trying to capture, a 50mm to recreate what the eye sees, and the longer focal lengths to capture headshots that have power and impact.

The Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM camera.

Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM

A highly versatile zoom lens offering photographers and filmmakers an ideal balance between performance, portability and image quality.

"Its versatility is key, but also the speed of focus, especially with the Canon EOS R6's eye detection AF feature. While you can adjust focus in the traditional way, with buttons and dials, it's sometimes swifter and easier to utilise the touchscreen at the back of the camera. You can trust the camera to work from there to not only detect eyes and faces but to focus on the eyes with precision. This is key for a portrait photographer as the eyes are where the viewer looks first."

Mark points to the advantage of the f/4 constant aperture throughout the zoom range: "While it's not quite as fast as its f/2.8 counterpart," he says, "it does have a longer 105mm reach, which helps with image separation, image compression and the creation of a beautiful bokeh wide open at the telephoto end. Altogether, with its large zoom range and image stabilisation, this is a very versatile and capable standard zoom that offers plenty of opportunity for great portraits."

Portraiture is one of the most creatively rewarding genres of photography. From the concept and styling to the choice of lighting and lens, there are myriad approaches that you can take. Whether you want to capture a classic, flattering head shot with an 85mm or 135mm prime, an environmental portrait with the wide end of a standard zoom, or details in a beauty shot with a macro lens, Canon has got you covered.

Written by David Clark and Marcus Hawkins


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