Portrait photography is a varied genre of the art form, and every portrait photographer I know has a different preference in the lenses they like to shoot with.
The best portrait lens is the one you like using the most; it’s the one that stays on your a9 camera through the whole shoot and inspires your creativity.
Many photographers like to shoot with an 85 mm prime lens, but there are plenty of shutterbugs who like a high-end zoom’s versatility.
Here’s a look at some of the advantages each approach has, as well as some of the best portrait lenses for your Sony a9.
The classic portrait lens is an 85 mm prime. If that’s what you’re looking to put on your a9, you are not wanting for choices.
My favorite is the Zeiss Batis 85 mm f/1.8, but it’s a difficult choice between this lens and the Sony FE 85 mm f/1.4 GM. The Zeiss lens wins only because of its compactness.
The lens takes 67 mm filters, measures about four inches long, and weighs only 16.8 ounces.
- The Sony FE 85 mm f/1.4 GM weighs just under 30 ounces and takes 77 mm filters. It’s not a massive lens by any means, and it still feels balanced on the a9. But I will exchange half a stop of light for a lighter camera bag in this case. Both lenses are sharp and fast, and you really can’t go wrong with either one.
- Sony also makes the FE 85 mm f/1.8. This lens is a base-level Sony lens, but its performance rivals the Zeiss lens discussed above. It’s a sharp, fast, and compact lens that is consistently underrated.
- Sigma’s 85 mm f/1.4 DG DN for Sony E-mount is a direct competitor to the high-end Sony f/1.4 GM lens. Like the Sony, it’s got a large 77 mm barrel and weighs 22 ounces. This is a new lens from Sigma—it’s a sized-down version of their larger 85 mm f/1.4 for DSLRs. This mirrorless design is only currently available for the Sigma L-mount and the Sony E-mount.
Picking a zoom lens for portrait work is challenging because you must choose between a wide portrait zoom or a telephoto portrait zoom.
If you’re lucky enough to have both, then you’ll be covered for every situation that might arise.
If you’ve got to pick between the two, consider carefully how and where you most often shoot portraits.
If you opt for the lower end, the Sony FE 24-70 mm f/2.8 GM is an outstanding piece of glass.
This is one lens that pretty much every Sony owner can agree on–it just doesn’t get any better or any more versatile than this lens.
It’s sharp throughout its frame, and the “Gold master” lenses now feature eleven-blade apertures for super-smooth bokeh.
It accepts 82 mm screw-on filters meaning that it’s relatively large and heavy at 5 3/8 inches long and 31 ounces.
If you need a cheaper option from Sony, they also offer the Zeiss-branded Sony FE 24-70 mm f/4.0 ZA OSS.
There’s a lot to like about this lens, and it’s much smaller and less expensive than the f/2.8 GM.
The f/4 should perform fine for portraits, but unfortunately, the lens is not as sharp as it should be and has way too much distortion.
The better choice would be the Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 DG DN Art.
Sigma’s Art series lenses have built quite a lot of popularity since their inception, and this is one of the series’ best examples.
It’s Japanese-built, with an eleven-blade aperture and superb optics. It’s comparable to the Sony GM lens in nearly every way, but for half the price.
Lenses in the 70-200 mm range are often some of the most popular telephoto zooms around.
They pair perfectly with the 24-70 zooms, making a kit that can go from 24 to 200 mm at f/2.8. That gives you maximum flexibility and can make your camera do anything you ask of it.
It’s the preferred setup of most destination wedding photographers I know since they can get every shot they need for the entire event with only two bodies and two lenses.
The 70-200 is especially useful for portraits if you want a lens with more reach. The two most popular portrait focal lengths, outside of wide angles, are 85 and 135 mm. A 70 to 200 mm lens covers this range perfectly, and the zoom gives you the ability to fine-tune your framing on the go.
The Sony GM lenses are perfectly paired to the a9, and this one includes a powerful Optical Steady Shot system that comes in very handy at 200 mm. It shares the same 11 blade aperture as other GM lenses, meaning that the bokeh is second to none.
For everyday shooting, this is an enormous lens. It’s almost eight inches long and weighs over 52 ounces.
A lighter option is the slower Sony FE 70-200 mm f/4.0 G OSS which shares many of the same design features but with lower cost and a smaller footprint.
For those needing a portrait and everything-else zoom in one package, the Sony FE 24 to 105 mm f/4 G OSS is a great option.
It’s a little bit slow for a portrait lens, but f/4 will still provide plenty of opportunities for bokeh.
This lens could also pair well with a fast 85 mm prime so that you could have a travel portrait lens to cover a broader range of focal lengths while using the prime as your primary workhorse lens.
The great thing about the 24 to 105 is that it almost covers every portrait setup you will ever need.
You can shoot wide-angle scenes from 35 to 50 mm with ease, and with a flick of the wrist, zoom in for 85 to 105 mm standard telephoto portraits. Since all of this is with a constant f/4 aperture, this lens’ versatility becomes apparent quickly.
This lens is four and a half inches long and weighs 23.4 ounces. Like other G-series lenses, it takes 77 mm filters and feels pretty weighty in your camera bag, but it doesn’t seem big on the a9 body.
Actually, it balances out into a wonderfully sized package with just the right mix of portability and versatility.
Some photographers enjoy shooting with a long lens when doing portraits.
For headshots or close-ups, a lens with a little more reach is handy. It flattens the background, making distant objects seem closer to the model than they do in wider angle lenses.
The classic focal length for this sort of lens is 135 mm, and the Sony FE 135 mm f/1.8 GM is a stellar example.
The lens is everything the G-Master brand would suggest and doesn’t disappoint. It features the same eleven-blade aperture other GM lenses do, plus it has an “Extreme Aspherical (XA)” element for even more sharpness.
It can also close focus only 27.5 inches from the subject, making close-ups and detail shots come out great.
The FE 135 mm is one of the biggest lenses on our list, however. Its 33.6-ounce weight and 82 mm filter size make it quite a big piece of glass to lug around.
If you’re willing to lose a stop of light, the Zeiss Batis 135 mm f/2.8 offers excellent build-quality in a much lighter, more compact package. It weighs only 21 ounces and takes more modest 67 mm filters.
If you plan on shooting portraits with prime lenses, a time will come when you will need something wider than the standard 85 mm focal length.
How wide you need will depend on many things, including what other lenses are in your arsenal. If you own a nice zoom like the FE 24-70 mm f/2.8 GM, you may never need any other lens.
But if you find yourself looking for something smaller, more portable, and less conspicuous, many primes will fit the bill.
On the very wide end of the spectrum is the Distagon FE 35 mm f/1.4. It’s a Sony lens branded with the Zeiss name.
Like many wide-angle fast primes, it’s not small, but it is nicely packaged on an a9 body.
Many people will find the portrait use of a 35 mm lens limited, but it’s a matter of taste. I personally prefer it to a 50 mm.
A normal prime, as 50 mm lenses are often called, is another option you might want to look into.
These lenses produce the least distorted images of all, and they’re neither wide nor telephoto. The Sony FE 50 mm f/1.4 ZA looks and feels very much like the 35 mm version, with similar features in a nearly identical housing.
There’s also the Sonnar T* FE 55 mm f/1.8 ZA.
This lens is my favorite sony lens, it loses half of a stop of light, but it is a much smaller lens that could easily be used for street photography or portraits.
True portrait lenses are not cheap.
The large glass elements, advanced optical coatings, and high-end irises used to make that milky bokeh all cost money.
Think a good portrait lens can’t be had for under $500?
Take a look at the Viltrox 85 mm f/1.8. It’s an autofocus lens with a fast f-stop and a nine-blade aperture. It even has a built-in USB port for firmware updates, which is a feature I wish more of the big-name brands included.
The all metal and glass lens’s build quality is surprisingly good, and Viltrox claims it to be weather-sealed and dust resistant.
The lens is super sharp, even to the corners when wide open, which is a pleasant surprise for a budget lens.
The only negative about the Viltrox is that the autofocus lags a little compared to the more expensive Sony lenses.
Sony A9 Portrait Photographer's Buying Guide
What Makes a Great Portrait Lens?
When you talk about traditional portrait lenses, nearly all photographers point to an 85 mm prime lens.
This type of lens is so commonly thought of as a portrait lens that it is often called a “portrait prime.”
But it’s important to realize that portraits can entail many different types of photos. A portrait simply has a person as the subject.
Can you shoot a portrait with a wide-angle lens? What about a telephoto? Of course, you can!
You can use almost any lens for portraits with a few caveats.
The two main things to look for in portrait lenses is that they produce distortion-free images, and they have apertures wide enough to produce narrow depths of field.
Can I Use the Kit Lens for Portraits?
Yes! Most kit lenses have focal length ranges right in the middle of what most photographers like to use for portraits.
Where kit lenses fall flat is in their apertures and depths of field.
Most kit lenses have variable apertures that get narrower as the photographer zooms in.
This means that at the upper range of their available focal lengths, which is likely where you’d want to be taking portraits, they have very broad depths of fields. That makes it impossible to get the blurred backgrounds and pleasant bokeh typically associated with a high-quality portrait.
The quality of the lens construction and design also really comes out when taking portraits.
The bokeh, which is discussed more below, results from the lens’s internal optics and construction. Less expensive kit lenses will not produce as nice an image as a more expensive portrait lens.
What is Bokeh?
Bokeh is a term that you hear a lot when discussing portrait lenses. But what exactly is bokeh, and where does it come from?
When a lens is opened up to its widest aperture setting, the image will have a shallow depth of field.
That means that if you’re shooting an image of a model standing in the woods, the model will be in focus, but the background will be blurred out of focus.
Generally, though, the viewer can see enough detail in the background to understand the photo’s setting. If there are any elements near the model, they will be more focused than farther away elements.
How much of the image is sharply in focus is the depth of field, and it’s controlled by how wide the aperture is opened.
The image quality of the blur is referred to as bokeh. If there are street lights or points of light in the background, the quality of the bokeh can be even more apparent. Its shape and quality are functions of the lens’s aperture.
The more blades that the aperture has, the smoother the bokeh will appear.
The best portrait lenses have nine or eleven-bladed apertures for the smoothest bokeh possible.
Understanding Sony Lens Names
Sony produces several different series of lenses, so it’s important to understand what you need and what you’re shopping for.
First and foremost, Sony makes two different types of E-mount lenses. E lenses are designed for use with APS-C cropped-sensor cameras like the a6000 series.
For the a7 and a9 series full-frame cameras, you must use an FE-mount lens. This can sometimes be a little confusing if you’re shopping online since most lenses are marketed as “Sony E-mount.”
Look for the “FE” label or the words “full-frame.”
Sony has had a long history of collaboration with German optics maker Carl Zeiss. The Zeiss name is used on many Sony lenses, and even in the lineup, there are different Zeiss series.
Standard Sony lenses will be unbranded, while Zeiss lenses will carry the brand name and have the lens designation “ZA.”
Who precisely designs these lenses and the actual level of involvement of the Zeiss company is something of a mystery. To make it even more confusing, Zeiss themselves manufacture several Sony E-mount lenses like the Batis and Loxia series.
While Zeiss lenses are a step up from the standard Sony lenses, the premier offerings for your a9 are the Sony G-series “gold” lenses.
These are Sony’s flagship lenses, with the very best optics and technologies to work with your camera.
These lenses consistently get outstanding reviews, and they often outperform Canon L-series lenses or Nikon’s best offerings. The newest and highest-performing lenses are branded “GM” or “G-Master.”
Importance of Aperture for Portraits
To take advantage of the beautiful bokeh your portrait lens offers, you need to shoot at wide apertures.
An f-stop of f/4 or lower will narrow the depth of field down to your subject and blur the background.
This effect is common in portraits because it isolates the subject from the background without removing them.
The background is there, and the viewer is aware of it, but it doesn’t distract from the subject.
None of this is possible if your lens can’t shoot below f/4.
What Focal Length is Best for a Portrait Lens?
First, distortion can be a big problem for portraits. We aren’t talking about artistic portraits of your friends taken with a fisheye lens.
There’s always fun uses for any lens, and there are always artistic exceptions to every rule.
But for working professional photographers, clients will not accept strange distortions in their photographs.
Wide-angle lenses are the worst offenders. Even rectilinear lenses, which flatten out barrel distortion, will warp objects at the edges to make them flat. In doing so, the human body will lose the proportions that our eyes are familiar with. The result won’t be pleasing.
For this reason, it’s best to avoid very wide-angle lenses when taking portraits. Thirty-five-millimeter lenses are about the widest you can successfully use.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can also use telephoto lenses for the occasional portrait.
The problem here is one of distorting the perspective and depth of the photograph. Telephoto lenses tend to make the background appear closer and to flatten objects within the frame.
This can sometimes lead to some elegant effects and can be used very successfully in portraits.
The upper end becomes evident when the photographer can’t get far enough away from their subject. I have used a 70-200 mm zoom lens very successfully for years to shoot portraits.
While many photographers might think that odd, the lens is perfect for me. I spend most of my time in the area between 70 and 135 mm.
For a photographer shooting with primes, three primes should cover nearly every portrait session they ever shoot. A “normal” 50 mm, a “portrait” 85 mm, and a “telephoto portrait” 135 mm.
Which is Better for Portraits, a Prime Lens or a Zoom Lens?
Portraits are one of the few areas where it’s tough to declare which is better between zoom or prime lenses. The reason is that there are terrific advantages to each.
Prime lenses, as is often pointed out, are usually less expensive and faster.
Whereas the fastest zoom lenses you’ll find for your Sony a9 are f/2.8, it’s common for prime lenses to get down to f/1.8 or even f/1.4. For portraits, such a wide aperture is both good and bad.
In practical terms, especially for professional or commercial photographers, using an aperture below f/2.8 is seldom useful.
The depth of field that results at f/1.8 or lower is so narrow to make portraits soft. While the subject’s eyes might be in focus, their ears or even other facial features are soft. But for artistic purposes, this opens up quite a few creative options. It also enables you to use the lens in very low light without flashes or strobes.
The advantage of a zoom, on the other hand, is being able to fine-tune the framing of your subject in the moment. In professions like wedding photography, where sometimes you are rushed and need to click the photo fast, a zoom can be a lifesaver.
It enables you to zoom in if you’re too far away with the flick of a wrist. From shooting weddings, I know many shots wouldn’t have happened quite right if I had been using a prime.
So which one is best for portraits? The answer depends on how you will use it and what your goals are.
If you’re working with models or are in a studio setting where you can move around and take your time, you can’t go wrong with a trusty super-fast prime. If you are on your feet shooting at events and needing the most flexible lens you can get, a zoom is likely the best choice.
Do I Need OSS?
Optical Steady Shot is Sony’s terminology for in-lens image stabilization. Do you need to have an OSS lens to shoot portraits? The short answer is no.
The Sony a9 has IBIS or in-body image stabilization.
If you’re using a non-stabilized lens, the camera has a built-in system. If you do happen to have an OSS lens attached, the camera turns off its system and uses the lens OSS.
Either way, you always have a stabilization system in effect. For hand-held portraits, this enables you to work in lower light without risking blurred images.
The best results will still come from using a tripod, of course, but IBIS and OSS technologies can help you capture images that you previously couldn’t.
Portrait lenses are a unique choice when it comes to photography. You can use nearly any high-quality lens for portraits, and your favorite one is likely more of a style choice than a pure equipment choice.
When in doubt, I think it’s best to start with a zoom lens that will be functional in a wide variety of circumstances.
Then, as you hone down your favorite focal lengths to shoot portraits, shop for an even wider and faster prime to round out your lens collection.
What’s your favorite focal length to shoot portraits? Let me know in the comments below.