What Lens for Portraits?

Q: Could you tell me what is your favorite lens for portrait? 24-70mm, 70-200mm or primes? Thanks! – Normand

A: Great question Normand. Traditional wisdom for full-frame camera sensors like the Sony a900 would be something in the 85-135mm range. Sony’s CZ 85/1.4 lens is one of my favorite lenses. Sony’s Zeiss glass is wonderful and that lens is definitely the sharpest 85 I’ve ever used. Along with Sony’s 100/2.8 Macro and CZ 135/1.8, it’s a great choice for tight portraits like this portrait of Samuel L. Jackson:

Samuel L. Jackson photographed with a Sony CZ 85/1.4

But my personal favorite lens for portraits is the CZ 24-70/2.8. On medium format, my favorite portrait lenses were 110-140mm which translates to 55-70mm on full-frame 35mm. I shoot a LOT of portraits in this range. This allows you to have a quiet conversation with your subject rather than shouting out directions from across the studio which gives the shots a bit more intimate feel – more like sitting across the table from your subject than looking at them from across the room. Plus, closer is always nicer when you’re shooting Anne Hathaway…

Actress Anne Hathaway photographed with a Sony CZ 24-70/2.8 at 70mm

The other thing I like about the CZ 24-70/2.8 is that it covers the perfect range for portraits, so no time wasted – or shots missed – when changing lenses. If I want to quickly change to a medium half body or 3/4 shots, I’ll shoot somewhere in the range of 45-50mm like I did for this shot of Ben Vereen:

Ben Vereen photographed with Sony CZ 24-70/2.8 at 50mm

If I’m shooting full length or if I simply want a bit more exaggerated perspective, I’ll shoot in the 24-28 mm range. For this shot of dancer Mary Murphy, I wanted the shot to feel like she was dancing with you.

Dancer Mary Murphy photographed for ART & SOUL
Mary Murphy photographed with the CZ 24-70/2.8 at 28mm

If I really want to exaggerate perspective for an in-your-face portrait like this of Jason “Weeman” Acuña, then 24mm will do the trick.

Jason "Weeman" Acuña photographed for ART & SOUL
Jason "Weeman" Acuña photographed with CZ 24-70/2.8 at 24mm

I’ll be talking about his and all ‘The secrets of Great Portrait Photography’ at WPPI in Las Vegas on Tuesday, February 21, 2012.

You can see all these portraits and many more in my new coffee table book ‘ART & SOUL: STARS UNITE TO CELEBRATE AND SUPPORT THE ARTS’ shot in partnership with The Creative Coalition and Sony. The book features portraits of 123 celebrities with their personal testimonials about the importance of funding the arts. A portion of the proceeds will go to The Creative Coalition to lobby for arts funding so order yours today!

Sony a900
Sony CZ 24-70/2.8 lens
Sony CZ 85/1.4 lens
Sony 100/2.8 Macro lens
Sony CZ 135/1.8 lens

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15 thoughts on “What Lens for Portraits?”

  1. Pingback: In Print: David Guetta in London Observer Magazine

  2. Pingback: COOL GEAR: Sony CZ 135/1.8 Lens l Portrait Photography

  3. 1 .Have you tried the Zeiss 16-70 f4 for APSC Sony mirrorless? Got an impressions of it?
    2. In general have you tried much using A mount with adapter on APSC Sony mirrorless? Comments?

    1. Hello Art, the Sony SEL 16-70mm F4 ZA OSS would be an excellent choice for portraits on APS-C E-mount cameras as it covers the same range as a 24-105mm on fullframe.

      Sony A- mount lens adapters work well on APS. I’d suggest getting the fullframe versions LA-EA3 or
      LA-EA4 since they work equally well on APS yet cover you should you ever get a fullframe in the future.

  4. Nuno Rodrigues

    Very nice shots indeed and good comments also. I’m looking to buy a compact to take with me when travelling and was wondering whether a 24-70mm (like in sony’s rx100 iii) will allow decent portraits!! Any comments?
    thank you

  5. Wonderful photos with your Sony gear. With your experience I am sure you would be able to advice and would humbly request for it, the difference in photo quality of Zeiss 24-70mm vs SAL 50mm f/1.4, when shot from both at 50mm and same f stop. I have Sony A99, had been taking wonderful photos from SAL 50mm and a cheap Minolta 35-70mm. Now bought this very expensive Zeiss lens but didn’t notice any difference in photo quality to justify its price. What am I missing here?

    1. The 24-70/2.8 ZA is absolutely one of my favorite lenses of all time (I just bought the Mark II version of the lens this week.) I’m assuming you’re referring to the Sony version of the 50/1.4 – not the ZA – so I’d say the difference is really about the “look” you get with Zeiss glass. That’s really the soul of Zeiss glass that goes way beyond anything measured by test charts.

      1. Hey there, was just wondering if there’s an appreciable difference between the Mk1 and Mk2 (image quality, focus speed, etc.)


  6. Now that the FE glass has the Batis 85 f1.8, and 90mm G, would you update your list?

    Would you replace both the 85 & 100, with the 90mm G? Is 2.8 not fast enough?

  7. Martin W Boling

    I just bought the Zeiss 1.8/135 A mount lens for my a7r4. (la-ea4 adapter) And it is amazing for portraiture. Previously I was using 85mm, but that lens was stolen recently. Now that we are distancing, I thought 135mm makes sense. If I had the money I would have gotten the GM version. But I am earning less money now. So I saved $1500. I already owned the la-ea4.

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