Questions on the subject of lens choice are as limitless as lens choice itself. Show me 10 photographers and I’ll show you at least 11 divergent opinions on which lens is right for a particular type of photograph. On my sets and amongst the assistants, digital techs, and creatives I work with, a great deal of testing, experimenting, and spirited discussion goes on with respect to lens choice.
I almost never use autofocus lenses, preferring to explore the stripped down optical simplicity of manual focus lenses. There is a visceral connection I enjoy when I have a manual focus lens in my hand I don’t get with the fidgety automated chaos of an autofocus lens.
When it comes to which lenses are best for portrait photography, the short answer is that there is no such thing as a “best” lens for portrait photography or for any photography for that matter. A portrait is a subjective glimpse into a person’s soul. There is no one size fits all solution for which lens is best for a portrait.
The best lens is the one that works best to capture the essence of a particular subject. It’s up to each photographer to discover which lenses works to tell his or her story. That’s the philosophical side of the question.
In the meantime, life must go on, and in order to make photographs, we as photographers must make choices creatively and technically about the equipment we use to bring our creative visions to life.
Following is a list of my favorite 5 lenses currently on rotation in my kit. I use these lenses for everything—portraits, as well as landscapes, and technical composites of groups and other scenes.
Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux M ASPH II
This lens is tack sharp all the way through the entire aperture range, and wide open at 1.4 it has a 3-dimensional quality I can’t explain, but which I love. This lens is superb for any application. I use it on every shoot, especially for portraits with a more environmentally wide angle feel.
Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH Lens
50mm is a focal length often considered to be boring, but Leica has achieved something sublime with this 50mm lens. It has a magical, imitable quality no other lens I’ve ever used can duplicate. Without fail, I cover every set-up I shoot with this lens because I love it so much.
Leica Telephoto 75mm f/2.0 APO Summicron M Aspherical Manual Focus Lens
Perhaps the most obvious “portrait” focal length in my kit, this lens just has a beautiful quality that can only be described as cinematic. I won’t say more, other than it’s a must-have in any portrait photographer’s kit
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* ZF.2 Lens for Nikon F-Mount
This lens is available in Canon or Nikon mount. I shoot Nikon, so I’m partial to the Nikon mount.
Zeiss uses the same vintage of glass in the Otus series lenses as they do in their world class cinema Mater Primes. With the 85mm Otus I get beautiful natural skin tones, and otherworldly out-of-focus background textures.
For a medium long lens, it’s hard to beat and I use it on every shoot with my Nikon D810. I’ve been able to eliminate medium format with this combination.
Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZF.2 Lens for Nikon F-Mount
135mm is my favorite long focal length. Zeiss have achieved something special with this particular lens. It’s razor sharp, renders beautiful natural skin tones, and has the most beautiful out of focus background texture. Indispensable.
To me, lenses are like guitars. Each one has a particular look in the way that a guitar has a particular sound.
To that end, I don’t have just one lens that is perfect for all applications, I have a stable of lenses I rely on to help me capture the look and feel I’m after on a particular project. And as time goes by and my tastes change and evolve, so too do my lens choices.
I’ve found as I’ve matured that I’ve gravitated towards precision, quality, and simplicity in the lenses I use, and these 5 lenses are by far my staples.
About the author: Kurt Iswarienko is a Malibu, CA-based celebrity portrait and commercial photographer. To see more of his work, check out his website or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.