Prime vs zoom: What lens is best for portraits?

by Alan Trammel

The best lens for portrait photography is one of the oldest and most contested arguments in photography.   Because this is a very subjective topic there is no “right” answer.  Some photographers prefer tack sharpness while others find softness in their images more appealing.  Some photographers like a tighter crop with more of a headshot feel while others prefer to go wider and show more of the background as in environmental portraits.  Choosing a lens really comes down to personal preference.

Prime or zoom lenses?

Most photographers instantly reach for primes but with today’s modern zoom lenses producing such high-quality images, zooms can’t be overlooked.  Both primes and zooms have their advantages. 

 The best argument for prime lenses is their larger apertures which allow great performance in low-light conditions.  They also create beautiful background blur for separating the subject from the background.   The best argument for zooms is their variable focal length that allows you to get different types of shots with a single lens.  For example with a 24-70mm lens, you can shoot wide, environmental type portraits at 24mm and zoom in for much more intimate headshots at 70mm.

I always take 3 lenses on portrait shoots, usually a zoom and two primes.  I find this prepares me for any location and any light conditions I may encounter.

Here is a look at my top lens picks for portrait photography from my camera gear.

Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G

For me this lens is KING!  Time and time again it continues to impress.  Buttery skin tones and creamy and dreamy bokeh, this lens is often referred to as the cream machine.  I like my portraits on the softer side and shoot at f/1.8-f/2 most of the time.   This lens has the ability to melt away backgrounds and make your subject leap out of the photograph.  It also provides a very comfortable working distance for subjects.   I LOVE THIS LENS!

Nikon D750 + AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G @ ISO 200, 1/400, f/1.8

Nikon D750 + AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G @ ISO 200, 1/400, f/2

Nikon AF-D 80-200mm f/2.8ED

Nikon D750 + AF Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8D @ ISO 320, 1/640, f/3.2
Nikon D750 + AF Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8D @ ISO 200, 1/160, f/3.2

Nikon AF-S 50mmf/1.8G

Known as the nifty-fifty, this is the “do it all” lens.  This lens is inexpensive, small and lightweight.  When I want to show more of the surroundings or for 3/4 portraits this is my “go to”.  This is also a great lens if you are shooting in natural light and the action is fast paced and locations change quickly.  This is such a good all-around lens, I keep one in my camera bag all the time.   This lens produces GREAT images, but I would say they fall short of stunning.

Nikon D750 + AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G @ ISO 100, 1/4000, f/3.5
Nikon D750 + AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G @ ISO 100, 1/4000, f/3.2

Nikon AF-S 24-70 mm f/2.8G (Non VR version)

How did my number one landscape lens make it into the discussion for the best portrait lens?  Simple, versatility and quality of images.  Being able to go wide at 24mm and include more of surroundings and zoom in for a close up at 70mm without switching lenses is great for senior and cosplay photography.  The best feature of this lens is the stunning image quality it produces at every focal length.

Nikon D750 + AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G (non VR) @ ISO, 200, 1/200, f/3.5
Nikon D750 + AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G (non VR) @ ISO 200, 1/2000, f/2.8

Tokina 100mm f/2.8 AT-X M100 AF- D Macro

Macro lenses can be fantastic portrait lenses depending on your needs and priorities for a given shoot.   While my preference for portraits leans to the softer side, this lens is my top choice for business and corporate headshots.  The sharpness of this lens gives a crispness that goes well for a formal business look.

Nikon D750 + Tokina 100mm f/2.8 AT-X M100 AF-D Macro @ ISO 100, 1/1250, f/3
Nikon D750 + Tokina 100mm f/2.8 AT-X M100 AF-D Macro @ ISO 100, 1/500, f/3

In conclusion, all of these lenses are excellent choices for portrait photography.   It really comes down to a matter of personal preference depending on your style and the job at hand.

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