Best Lens For Environmental Portraits

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Environmental portraits depict the subject in a familiar environment. This does two things that are both very good for portrait photography. One, the setting puts the subjects at ease. Two, the image tells a story.

Putting the subject at ease results in a more relaxed subject, so you can better capture their story in your images.

Choosing the best lens for environmental portraiture will put you, the photographer, more at ease. That way, the entire process can be relaxed, allowing your creativity and good technique to take control.

We examined some options for the best lens for environmental portraits for the various digital cameras.

Best Overall | Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art DG HSM

We are listing this lens as best overall for full frame format cameras. It is also a fantastic choice for APS-C format cameras despite the crop factor. It is available in mounts for Canon, Nikon, and Sony.

Click below to compare prices and check availability for your camera type…

Canon Mount

Nikon Mount

Sony Mount

A very fast slightly wide-angle lens, the 35mm focal length is good for a natural view of the subject that shows a little more of their environment than the Nifty Fifty normal lens or short telephoto. Since it’s not very wide-angle, there won’t be extremes of apparent perspective when shot at medium subject distances.

It’s a lens length that some photographers prefer as their own normal lens instead of 50mm. The fast aperture means that you can use in lower light levels and you can use selective focus techniques.

Being able to shoot at reasonable shutter speeds in lower light is beneficial for environmental portraits. Sometimes it’s difficult to introduce any artificial lighting into the scene. Being able to open up the aperture gives you more options for shutter speeds. So subject motion can be tamed as well as providing shutter speeds you can comfortably hand hold.

Sigma Art lenses are designed to be professional level optics. This lens delivers on that end. It is very sharp and maintains sharpness edge to edge wide open, improving as you stop down a couple of f-stops. Since the maximum aperture is a fast f/1.4, stopping down to the sweet spot still keeps the aperture pretty wide. All of this is good news for environmental portraits.

Physically, the lens is on the large size and a little heavy, but that’s part of the price of using fast primes. The monetary price is actually quite reasonable compared to similar lenses from other brands.

If you are using an APS-C format camera, all the sharpness still applies, but it will not give you the same wide angle field of view due to crop factor. It will be in the normal focal length category. Used on a full frame format camera, this is our choice as best overall.

Budget Option | 50mm f/1.8

Significantly less expensive than the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens is the 50mm standard lens for full-frame format. The photo above is the Canon EOS DSLR version, but a similar lens exists in each brand’s catalog. They all have two things in common, low price and great image quality.

Nikon version shown, but Canon and Sony also have similar affordable 50mm lenses.

Click below to compare prices and check availability for your camera type…

Canon Mount

Nikon Mount

Sony Mount

In the full-frame format, 50mm is considered a normal lens. It gives pretty much a 1:1 representation on film as we see with our naked eye. A complete explanation of the Nifty Fifty as “normal” considers all the various aspects and factors involved, but for now we will just say 50 is normal on full-frame.

If mounted on a crop sensor camera, the 50mm focal length will be short telephoto. Good for regular portrait use but not generally ideal for environmental portraits.

A maximum aperture of f/1.8 is fast enough for most lower light situations and gives good control over selective focus. Not as fast as f/1.4 or f/1.2, but the difference is less than one full stop. 

For a lot of environmental portrait work, the standard lens may not be quite wide enough to take in the full length of the person or much of their surroundings. You may need to adjust your camera placement to compensate.

Within the limitations discussed, this lens is the best budget option for environmental portraits. While it isn’t quite wide enough to make it best overall, the fast aperture and very affordable price make it a fantastic option to consider.    

Best Zoom | Tamron 24-70 f/2.8

While prime lenses are preferred by many photographers, professional level zoom lenses have versatile features making us very adaptable for portrait jobs. Professional caliber zoom lenses are also very sharp and many of them have fast maximum apertures.

Click below to compare prices and check availability for your camera type…

Canon Mount

Nikon Mount

Sony Mount (28-75mm)

Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens is a high-quality lens with sharpness that rivals lenses from the camera brands. This particular lens also adds in the image stabilization function, silent super fast focus motor, and ultra-close focusing.

The version I’m talking about here is available for full-frame Canon EOS cameras and Nikon FX-format f-mount cameras. The Sony version is slightly different at 28-75mm f/2.8 but is about $400 less expensive.

A zoom lens in the wide through normal to short telephoto range is an awesome choice for an all-around lens. A high-quality version like the Tamron with a very fast for a zoom aperture of f/2.8 gives you even more options since you can open up wide for selective focus and not have to worry about too much loss of sharpness.

It’s a heavy lens, but it balances nicely on the prosumer and enthusiast models of full-frame cameras. The balance is aided by the excellent vibration control built into the lens, allowing you to handhold it for quickly changing conditions common in environmental portrait work.

The versatility of having that large zoom range is a benefit for environmental portraits, too. You can take in an entire room or area, then a full length portrait with some surroundings, and also   a head and shoulders portrait all without affecting the flow of the photo shoot.

The maximum aperture of f/2.8 is two full stops slower than the f/1.4 Sigma Art lens above, but it’s still very fast compared to the average kit lens many cameras come with. Those kit lenses are two to three stops slower than this lens, though they may be very sharp themselves.

If you are a photographer that prefers zoom lenses, this lens offers sharpness, fast aperture, and robust construction that put it into a higher category, a good choice for environmental portraits.

Runner Up | Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art

As a runner up lens for environmental portraits, the 24mm focal length is a very usable focal length and with a fast aperture like f/1.4, you can capture images in low light and use shallow depth of field tricks.

Click below to compare prices and check availability for your camera type…

Canon Mount

Nikon Mount

Sony Mount

A wide angle lens isn’t usually the first choice that pops into the mind of a photographer when considering portraits, but wide  does work for environmental portraits. That’s because you want to be able to include surroundings along with the subject. When using a very wide lens, you can relegate the person to be almost a secondary subject.

This lens is a little on the big and heavy side for a wide prime, but that’s really pretty normal for ultra fast aperture lenses. It balances well on the full frame camera bodies and on pro level APS-C format cameras. When crop factor is figured in, this lens behaves similarly on a crop format body as the Sigma 35mm listed best overall.

An aspect of this lens that made it a good portrait is the out of focus bokeh it produces. Just because it’s wide angle doesn’t mean you can’t separate subject from background. At f/1.4, you certainly can. Even in environmental portraits, you won’t always want everything in focus.

Used wide open, there is a little bit of edge fall off in both sharpness and light transmission. Stopped down just 2 or f-stops that all evens out. The lens is very sharp and has nice contrast.

Canon Crop Sensor | Canon 24mm f/2.8 STM

For photographers using the crop factor format cameras, we have several fine options for a lens to use in  environmental portraiture.

The Canon APS-C format camera have a crop factor compared to full frame format of 1.6X. That means that lens will deliver a field of view on APS-C similar to 38mm on full frame. That’s a good focal length for environmental portraits.

This lens is extremely compact, yet still has some heft due to robust construction. It’s small but rugged and quite sharp.

Click below to compare prices and check availability…

The maximum aperture of f/2.8 (compared to the f/1.4 of the Sigma above) allows the lens to be quite small but also limits users in lower light situations and limits shallow depth of field techniques.

Since the crop format cameras can be nicely compact, pairing this small lens with one makes for a very nice street portrait camera rig, too. It really is small, with only about half the profile of the normal lens.

Nikon Crop Sensor | 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6

Nikon crop format cameras have a crop factor of 1.5X, making this lens’s range variable from extremely wide angle to moderate wide angle. Despite the slow maximum aperture, this lens is usable in a variety of lighting conditions.

Click below to compare prices and check availability…

In order to tell a story of who or what the portrait subject is, including lots of surrounding scene elements is one of the  techniques for creating good environmental portrait images. This lens delivers that very well.

The slower maximum aperture will require some creativity under challenging lighting situations, but it also allows the lens for very compact and lightweight, making it a great choice for APS-C photographers engaging in environmental portraiture.

Micro Four Thirds | Panasonic Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f/4 ASPH

Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format cameras have a crop factor of 2.0X, making this an ultra wide to moderately wide range zoom lens. It is professional caliber zoom lens and works well with all types of MFT cameras from pro level and enthusiast to entry level.

Click below to compare prices and check availability…

The maximum aperture is moderate, but it stays consistent throughout the zoom range. In addition to environmental portraits, this lens is extremely versatile for any type of video recording.

Though fairly large and heavy on the compact MFT cameras, this lens balances well and is easy to operate.

What to consider when buying a lens for environmental portraits

What makes a lens usable for environmental portraits is different from standard head and shoulders or headshot portrait work.

Focal Length

You want the lens to be wider in order to capture the environment around the main subject, but not too wide as to introduce perspective distortions. Even moderate wide angles cause some facial distortion when used up close.

But for environmental portraits, you won’t be up close. You’ll be removed back far enough to include surroundings while still being able to concentrate attention on the main subject, the person.

I took this environmental portrait at 21mm so I could get the entire family in there as well as the dramatic looking sky.

Wide Aperture

As with most portrait work, a good practice is to separate the subject from the background by means of controlling the depth of focus. A wide aperture is part of the formula which allows you to accomplish that.

Having a fast maximum also means that the sweet spot will be at a wider aperture than with slower lenses, giving you a wider range of options for choosing how to portray your subject within their environment.

Fast lenses also give you more options for exposure control and maintaining faster shutter speeds to capture images in lower light or to keep subject motion blur from degrading the portrait images.

High Optical Quality

Sometimes you may not need or want the ultimate in sharpness for certain portrait tricks. But you can always use filters of post-processing to soften images.

You can’t create sharpness with filters or programs, though, so you want your lens choice to be sharp and have good contrast and other optical characteristics.

All of these factors come together to let you make high quality environmental portraits.

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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