Best Canon Lens for Headshots

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Capturing stunning headshots of loved ones is usually at the top of every new photographer’s list. It can also become a profitable side business if you become skilled at it.

But, as you may have come to realize, you’re going to need to invest in an upgrade from your kit lens if you want to achieve truly great results.

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Best Overall
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4

Budget Pick
Canon 50mm f/1.8

Most Versatile
Tamron 24-70 f/2.8

Runner-Up
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art

Runner-Up
Canon 85mm f/1.8

Unfortunately, the hard part, especially for new photographers, isn’t realizing that you need more gear. It’s knowing which of the thousands of lenses available is most suitable for your portrait photography needs.

Here, to help you start expanding your lens collection to attain the results you want, we give you a breakdown of our picks for the top 5 Canon Lenses for Headshots, including the pros and cons of each option.

Best Overall | Canon EF 85mm f/1.4

This lens is the best of the best in portrait photography for Canon users. Part of Canon’s professional-grade L-series line, it’s a premium lens at a premium price that will produce superior results.

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Designed specifically for what Canon calls “creative portrait photography”, the 85 mm f/1.4 comes with practically everything a headshot photographer could want. For starters, it has a wide f/1.4 maximum aperture, which makes it possible to achieve a soft background with shallow depth of field. The wide aperture also helps make the most of what’s available when lighting conditions are not ideal.

On top of that, this is a medium telephoto lens fixed at 85mm, the perfect focal length for capturing flattering images of your subjects without feature distortion even at short distances.

Additionally, Canon has packed the 85 mm f/1.4 with various features to help your images turn out perfectly. It has IS (image stabilization) technology to help produce continuously clear images, even while handholding your camera in certain low light conditions. This means you now can leave behind the constraints of the tripod even more often. This turns out to be is particularly useful when shooting in close spaces and capturing fine details.

Close-up images are also possible due to the lens’s shortish 33.5” minimum focusing distance.

Other stand-out features of this lens are the high-speed AF system to help you not miss a single moment and the molded glass (GMo) aspherical lens coated with Canon’s exclusive anti-flare coating (ASC) to help create images free of distortion, vignetting and lens flare.

It is worth noting that the IS motor when activated can tend to produce a slight rattle, but this does not seem to affect performance or image quality. The consensus among users seems to be that the light noise produced is a worthwhile trade for the sharp images IS helps to produce.

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Budget Pick | Canon 50mm f/1.8

When first beginning to expand your lens collection, you may be quite shocked by the high cost of most prime lenses. If you find the 85 mm f/1.4 out of your price range,

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Canon still has you covered with another much more affordable lens option that will also produce beautiful images. The 50 mm f/1.8 is a small, lightweight lens that still gives you the benefits of a wide aperture for around only $100. With this lens, you can achieve soft backgrounds and shoot in low-light without having to break the bank.

At 50 mm focal length, it’s a wider-angle lens than the 85 mm, but still allows you to frame great portraits. If your camera has a crop sensor rather than full frame, the focal length actually becomes 80mm. While that doesn’t make the lens produce true 85mm results, it does mean that on a crop sensor camera body, you’ll be getting even tighter images, which can be useful with headshots.

The 50 mm f/1.8 also has a very short minimum focal distance of 1.15 ft to allow you to shoot very close-up in tight spaces. This makes it excellent for detail shots, whether you’re homing in on a pair of beautiful blue eyes or the intricacies of a dainty flower.

 To combat lens flare issues, Canon has redesigned the lens arrangement in the 50 mm and included improved coatings. The newest version of this lens also has a gear-type STM motor which gives you the benefit of very quiet operation, decreased aberrations and seamless video recording.

Canon users of all levels seem to be consistently pleased with this lens, sometimes affectionately known as the “nifty-fifty”, citing its wide application to a variety of photography contexts and clear image quality as some of its best features.

Not surprisingly considering the price, this lens does not include extra tricks like IS technology. This results in less predictable hand-held results at slow shutter speeds, but depending on your shooting style, that may or may not affect you in the least.

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Most Versatile | Tamron 24-70 f/2.8

If investing in a fixed focal lens feels a bit too restraining and you want a more versatile option, you may want to consider the Tamron 24-70 f/2.8. This lens has the freedom of a zoom lens that makes it more applicable to a wider variety of situations, but still reaches ranges suitable for producing good headshots.

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Additionally, it has a 2.8 maximum aperture. Although this is not the widest aperture available, at f/2.8, this lens is able to open wider than most common zoom lenses. This gives you more control over low-lighting and the possibility of achieving softer backgrounds than is possible with your typical zoom lens, but obviously not quite as much as with the other wider maximum aperture options on our list.

That detail aside, the Tamron 24-70 is a lens more than capable of producing great quality images. It includes Tamron’s eBAND Coating to control lens flares, as well a Flourine Coating and Moisture-Resistant Construction to repel water and debris.

Tamron also designed this lens with more precise and faster autofocus to create sharp crystal-clear images. On top of that, the 24-70 comes with Tamron’s highly rated Vibration Compensation system, which makes it possible to capture hand-held shots even when lighting is not the best.

Although Canon also makes a 24-70 lens, many users tend to prefer the Tamron for practicality, because the Canon version unfortunately doesn’t include any type of image stabilization technology. As a result, the Tamron 24-70 tends to produce more reliable results in lowlight scenarios.

It should be mentioned however, that the Tamron is a few ounces heavier than its Canon counterpart and some users find its reverse focusing ring to be a bit cumbersome when using manual focus.

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Runner Up | Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art

If the 85 mm focal length feels a little too tight for you, but you still want the benefits offered by a fixed focal length lens with an extra-large aperture, the Sigma 50 mm f/1.4 Art lens may be the option you’re looking for.

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This lens can handle various types of shooting, which means that you’ll be grabbing it for more than just headshots. For example, due to its wider focal length, it still adapts to landscape shooting nicely. On top of that a minimum focus distance falling just under 16 inches makes it possible for you to also use this lens for close-up photography.

Sigma has designed this lens to provide consistent, seamless performance and to be compatible with even professional grade Canon camera bodies. Among the most outstanding features of the Sigma 50 mm f/1.8 is its Hyper Sonic Motor for near silent performance and precise autofocusing.

Additionally, it is constructed with 13 elements in 8 groups to provide consistent performance at wide apertures and Special Low Dispersion Glass and a Super Multi-Layer coating to help produce high quality results free of flares, distortion and vignetting. As part of the Sigma’s ART line, this lens boasts the ability to produce super sharp images with clear separation between subject and background.

Some users do note that in order to achieve the highest-level results with this lens, you might end up having to have to buy the USB dock sold separately to help fine-tune the autofocus.

As you might expect, this is a somewhat time-consuming, tedious process, but thankfully, most users report being able to achieve pristine images right out of the box, even at wider aperture settings.

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Runner Up | Canon 85mm f/1.8

Another excellent option from Canon is the 85 mm f/1.8. This lens offers the much sought after 85 mm focal length considered optimal for portraits, but with a bit smaller maximum aperture than the 85 mm f/1.4 and a lower price tag.

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While we wouldn’t go so far as to say that this difference produces insignificant results, the fact is that even at f/1.8, you will be able to achieve very nice, professional-grade images with quality background blur.

The best part is that the 1.8 is much more affordable than our top pick, the 1.4, great news if you are a new photographer or just have a smaller budget.

The minimum focusing distance with this 85mm at 2.8 feet is longer than offered by some of the wider options on this list, affecting its versatility for more general shooting functions. Its best use is for focusing on a specific subject with clear depth of field, which makes it perfect for beautiful headshots and other types of close-up photography.

This lens is designed to be practical, affordable, and consistent. It lacks some of the features like IS technology that the 1.4 has but is still a solid lens designed to produce quality images. For photographers looking for a dedicated portrait lens, we recommend one of Canon’s 85mm options, and the 1.8 is a great choice at a fraction of the price of the 1.4.

Users who buy this lens realizing that it is purposely not wide-angle nor is it made to be used for every shooting situation are highly pleased with their investment and the results it produces.

Although the 1.4 certainly has some advantages for handheld shooting in low light, Canon’s 1.8 is more than capable of producing stunning, professional-quality images.

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What to look for in a Headshot Lens

Wide aperture

Even people who know nothing about photography find themselves impressed by the “blurry background” in a well-crafted headshot. This is the result of what photographers call shallow depth of field and is made possible by wide open apertures.

A wide aperture causes your camera to focus on the subject a determined distance from the sensor and all other elements that out of that range are left progressively more out of focus.

For that reason, portrait photographers usually choose a lens with the widest aperture they can afford. The minimum acceptable aperture would be f/2.8, but if you can swing a f/1.8 or a f/1.4, you won’t regret it.

Focal length

Part of what distinguishes a “good” headshot photographer from just a common shutterbug, it the ability to capture flattering angles of your subjects. While undoubtedly, this is related to having a good eye for framing images, it is also closely related to using the proper focal length.

A focal length of 85mm is considered gold-standard for portraits, because it provides the correct distance between the subject and the camera sensor to create images that are flattering to the human eye. Said simply, people look prettier when shot at an 85mm focal length, more or less.

That being said, starting at 50mm up to 85mm, you are well within a desirable portrait range where the proportions of the human face in your images will be most similar to what you see with your naked eye.

Price

Prime lenses are a huge investment for photographers, with most nearing or surpassing the $1000 mark.

If you are firmly invested in your photography journey and price is not a problem for you, obviously don’t hesitate to buy the lens that seems to best fit your particular needs.

However, if photography is more a weekend hobby or if you’re just getting started, don’t feel like you need to break the bank in order to be able to take quality headshots. A more economic option that compromises a few features can still be a great addition to your camera bag.

Speaking from personal experience, a budget-conscious nifty-fifty lens can be a great introduction to prime lens photography. Just don’t be surprised if it whets your appetite for more elaborate lenses later on.

Why Upgrade Your Lens For Headshot Photography?

When you made the big decision to upgrade from your phone camera to a DSLR, you likely envisioned yourself finally being able to capture those beautiful close-ups of your daughter’s freckled face or your furry friend’s sweet puppy dog eyes.

However, it probably didn’t take long for you to notice that the kit lens that may have come in the box with your camera just wasn’t cutting it to get that dreamy soft background and those crystal-clear details that you hoped for when it comes to headshots. And that’s for good reason.

Kit lens are designed to give you a multipurpose introduction to the world of SLR photography at an accessible price. While they aspire to let you do a little bit of everything, they aren’t exactly the ideal tool for more professional-level results.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of close-up portrait photography, because, in order to produce beautiful headshots, you need a lens that offers you two things that the kit lens does not have—a wide aperture and an appropriate focal length. The first gives you that beautiful soft background that makes your subject pop and the other makes it possible to find close angles of the subject without causing gross distortions of their features.  

The lenses that made our list take those things into account, along with including other bells and whistles to help you produce the most stunning results possible.

Without a doubt Canon’s 85mm options are the standard options for professional headshots. They have both the focal length and the depth of field necessary to achieve consistently beautiful images. For that reason, they were awarded the winner and runner-up slots in our list.

However, for those photographers who want more practicality, the Sigma and Canon 50 mm options are also capable of producing quality portraits and adapt to more types of shooting. Sigma’s 50 mm f/1.4 gives you wide aperture at a more versatile 50 mm focal length, making it also a runner-up option. On the other hand, Canon’s 50 mm f/1.8 clocks in at around $100, making it hands-down the best budget option on the market for headshots.

And finally, Tamron’s 24-70 f/2.8 wins most versatile for its wide adaptability. This is a lens that you can keep on your camera to capture whatever comes your way without having to change lenses frequently. Due to the 2.8 aperture, you will notice a difference in depth of field, but that may be a sacrifice you’re willing to make if a multi-purpose lens suits your needs more.

Whatever your needs and budget may be, all the lenses on this list are solid options to help you graduate from your kit lens and take your headshot photography to the next level.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.
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