The difference a portrait lens makes

From frame-filling headshots to wide-angle street portraits, selecting a specialist lens will help you take your portraiture to the next level.
A photographer taking a picture of a model who is bathed in purple light and holding the stem of a plant.

Most EOS cameras come with a general purpose kit lens that works for most types of photography. However, to take your photography to the next level, it is worth investing in a range of lenses that are beneficial to your genre of choice, such as portrait photography. From focal length and maximum aperture to weight and size, the lens you choose can make a huge difference to your photos.

What makes a good portrait lens?

What primarily sets a portrait lens apart is the focal length and maximum aperture, but there's more to consider when determining the best Canon portrait lens for your needs.

Lens compatibility

Firstly, it's worth considering the camera you have and the lenses that are compatible with it. Using a Canon EOS R System camera means you have freedom of choice when it comes to lenses; thanks to the RF lens mount adapters, you can shoot with both RF and EF lenses.

Canon's RF mount is a fantastic starting point when finding a lens for portrait photography. RF lenses, featured in Canon mirrorless cameras such as the Canon EOS R6 and EOS RP, include a 12-pin connection between lens and camera for incredibly fast autofocusing speed and reliability. The creative possibilities offered by mirrorless technology also makes the RF mount a great investment when thinking about future hardware, later on in your photographic journey.

Multiple colourful light trails weave around the head and torso of a model, against a black background.

Measuring only 88.8mm, the IS-equipped Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens is a versatile option for portrait photography. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 44mm, 8 secs, f/16 and ISO100.

Image stabilisation

Next, remember that you might not always want, or be able, to use a tripod when taking striking portraits. This is where image stabilisation comes in. Lenses such as the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM, RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM and RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM all feature image stabilisation, ensuring your images are super-sharp when shooting handheld. Increased stabilisation allows you to slow your shutter speed to squeeze every ounce of light into your images, giving you the versatility to shoot in all kinds of lighting scenarios. The effect is multiplied when pairing a stabilised lens with a camera with In-body Image Stabilisation (IBIS), such as the Canon EOS R6, where up to 8-stops of stabilisation is possible.

Size and weight

There's also size, weight and versatility to consider. For portrait photographers looking to stay agile, or to use their lenses in multiple genres, a small, lightweight lens is a great choice. The Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM and RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM are both incredibly compact lenses, making them perfect, affordable kitbag additions for street portrait photographers. This comes without any sacrifice to their classical portrait potential, thanks to wide f/1.8 maximum apertures for beautiful background blurring and flexibility with depth of field. For the utmost versatility, though, look no further than the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM. With its vast focal range, this lens is the perfect everyday all-rounder, ideal for almost all genres of photography from ultra-wide 24mm architectural shots to 85mm studio portraits and telephoto 105mm headshots.

Maximum aperture

Another key factor in selecting a lens suited to shooting portraits is its maximum aperture. Aperture refers to the size of the lens opening that lets in light to your camera sensor.

Each lens is given an aperture rating such as f/2.8 or f/4. Some zoom lenses have an aperture rating depending on which focal length is selected; these will show an aperture range such as f/4-7.1. Other zoom lenses, including the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM and RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM, instead offer a fixed maximum aperture, for a consistent exposure across the zoom range. These lenses, with their constant maximum apertures and weather sealed L-Series build quality are perfect for photographers looking to upgrade from the RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM, or for those simply demanding a professional-level lens.

A side profile of a model in dark-red lipstick turning her face towards the camera with strings of blurred lights in the background.

The 50mm focal length is applicable to many genres of photography, while its wide maximum aperture makes it perfect for achieving soft background blur in portrait shots. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1250. © Ejiro Dafé

The smaller the aperture number, the larger the maximum opening and there are advantages to shooting portraits on a lens with a larger maximum aperture.

A bigger aperture lets in more light through the lens into the camera, so large-aperture lenses such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM and RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM are great for shooting in low light (indoor portraits, for example) and for when you need the flexibility to play with light, as in black and white or abstract portraiture. A second benefit is that shooting with the aperture set to its maximum value, often referred to as "wide open", produces more of the background blur often favoured by portrait photographers.

Let's take a look at some examples of taking portrait photographs at different apertures.

A composite of three headshots of a figure wearing bright red lipstick and a yellow turtleneck jumper. The left has a clear subject and blurred background, the middle is in between and the right has a clear subject and clear background.

These three images, all shot at the same focal length with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens, show the aperture size varying from wide (low f-number) in the first shot, to more narrow (higher f-number) in the third shot. When trying to eliminate or blur distracting backgrounds in portrait photography, having a large aperture lens is useful. In the first image the viewer's attention is directed away from the distracting background and onto the subject's face, and is a far more effective portrait. © Ejiro Dafé

This doesn't mean, however, that a lens with a slightly narrower maximum aperture, such as the f/4 aperture of the Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM, can't create beautiful blur, especially at telephoto focal lengths. This is due to image compression – greater at longer focal lengths – where the lens compresses distance, effectively drawing out-of-focus backgrounds closer to the subject to create the effect of a tight blur behind them.

Best Canon lenses for headshots and traditional portraits

A bearded figure standing in a long grass, holding a small child.

The Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM is an affordable option for mirrorless shooters who want a dedicated portrait lens. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/800 sec, f/2 and ISO400. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

A portrait of an older person with short hair, wearing a pale teal outfit.

The RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM is able to deliver beautiful portraits with its telephoto focal length. It also features quick, reliable autofocusing, even in low light. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/800 sec, f/2 and ISO400. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Focal length is the distance between the lens and your camera sensor when the subject is in focus, and is stated in mm. Zoom lenses have a focal range which is written as minimum and maximum such as 24-105mm. Typically, a portrait lens refers to a lens with a focal length over 85mm, such as the Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM, which features a lightweight construction and 5-stops of image stabilisation for picture-perfect handheld portraiture.

In the classic head-and-shoulders composition, an 85mm portrait lens offers a greater focal length, which gives a natural look and separates the model from the background. On a camera with an APS-C sensor, a 50mm lens will produce roughly the same field of view as an 85mm lens on a full-frame camera.

In comparison, using a shorter focal length such as 24mm would distort the subject's face by appearing to alter its proportions. Also, backgrounds are usually more noticeable at shorter focal lengths.

An out-of-focus headshot of a figure with short, curly blonde hair viewed through glass covered in water droplets.

The Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM is a great lens for those looking to move away from kit lenses to their first prime lens. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 50mm, 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO320.

Best Canon lenses for group portraits and street portraits

A portrait of a smiling flower seller holding a bouquet of red roses.

With a maximum focal length of 105mm, the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM offers plenty of telephoto options for street portraits or group shots. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 54mm, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400.

Using a versatile zoom lens such as the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM will give you the best of both wide and telephoto focal lengths, and everywhere in between. At its widest 24mm, this lens' field of view will fit in even the largest group portraits and take in a huge array of context in situational street portraits, while the upper range is ideal for classic portraits and close-in headshots.

Wide-angles can be used to great effect in situational portraits, where a subject's surroundings play a vital part in telling a story, and in group portraits, where multiple subjects need to fit into the frame.

If you want to shoot group portraits, the Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM lens is ideal. If you find yourself photographing a group in a relatively small area, you can achieve a good shot with this ultra-wide-angle.

Best Canon lenses for beauty shots

A close-up, side-profile headshot of a model wearing glossy lipstick and pink make-up.

Get up close and discover beautiful detail in your portraits with the wide-angle Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/200, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Guia Besana

While you may associate macro lenses with close-up images of fascinating insects or mouthwatering food, the incredible detail they bring out is also perfect for portraiture. In fact, macro lenses are commonly used in fashion and beauty portraiture, to accentuate individual facial features and highlight specific beauty products.

The Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM features a 35cm minimum focusing distance, while the RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM can focus as close as 17cm. By using a macro lens and getting in close to your subject, you can bring exquisite details to the fore, showcasing and celebrating the individual beauty of your subjects.

Written by Peter Wolinski

Related products

  • RF Lenses

    RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM

    The ideal everyday lens for full frame mirrorless enthusiasts. Easy to use, the RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM is light, compact and ready to take your photography to the next level.
  • RF Lenses

    RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

    A fast-aperture 35mm f/1.8 MACRO lens for wide-angle perspective, close focusing and Hybrid IS.
  • RF Lenses

    RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM

    The RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM offers close-up versatility with subtle telephoto compression and 5-stop image stabilisation in a compact, lightweight body.
  • Standard Lens

    RF 50mm F1.8 STM

    A compact, quiet and lightweight 50mm RF prime lens, with a wide f/1.8 aperture, perfect for harnessing your creative vision.
  • Lenses for EOS R

    RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM

    Lightweight and versatile 24-105mm f/4 L-series zoom with fast, silent autofocus and 5-stops of image stabilisation.
  • RF Lenses

    RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

    Give your full frame mirrorless photography the professional edge with a 24-70mm zoom boasting a fast aperture and 5-stops of image stabilisation.
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