If you’re looking to play with depth of field and get some sweet bokeh, these are our top 5 lenses for both Canon & Nikon.
50MM - THE STANDARD LENS
The 50mm is considered the classic focal length. It makes the perfect introduction to shooting images with shallow depth of field. Its field of view closely mimics the central area of human vision and makes composition feel effortless. As such, there is no shortage of fast, high-quality lenses at this focal length.
Our top picks in this range are the Canon 50mm f/1.2L and the Nikon 50mm f/1.4. Both make great shallow depth of field images when shot wide open and focused on nearby subject. This lets you capture intimate and natural feeling portraits, or simply to document a scene. Add in the relative lack of distortion and these lenses are capable of great landscape & architecture images as well.
85MM - THE PORTRAIT MACHINE
One of the most popular focal lengths out there is the 85mm. Just look at how many we carry! The Canon 85mm f/1.2L and Nikon 85mm f/1.4G would be the obvious choices for most when you're looking for shallow depth of field.
Despite this, I'm going to go out on a limb and recommend the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art series for both Canon & Nikon. Here's why. The Canon 85mm f/1.2L is capable of creating beautiful images, but it's slow to focus. The Nikon is great overall too, but it simply doesn't deliver on value and optical performance in the same way the Sigma does.
We've been seriously impressed with the hard work Sigma has put in over the last few years to improve their brand and create class leading products. The 85mm f/1.4 Art looks to be their best effort so far. Shot wide open and focused accurately the 85mm Art remains tack sharp. Plus, chromatic abberation is much better controlled than either the Canon or Nikon versions. So, if you’re looking for shallow depth of field, and you want the classic 85mm look, you can’t go wrong here.
135MM - THE DARK HORSE
This is probably one of the most overlooked gems for getting shallow depth of field images. Both the Canon 135mm f/2.0Land Nikon 135mm f/2.0 DC. Both lenses are fairly compact for their focal length, let in a lot of light and are razor sharp.
We love the beautiful bokeh and enhanced compression the 135mm. It gives you a very different look than the 85mm when framed the same as an 85. The ability to pull your subjects clearly off of the background is a huge help when composing in difficult situations. It's also fast enough to work great for indoor sports where higher shutter speeds are required.
The only downside is for Nikon shooters. The 135mm f/2.0 is an older AF-D design so you must have a camera body with a built in focus motor in order to use this lens. One other feature of this lens is the DC or defocus control ring which allows you to change the appearance of the bokeh. A good alternative is the Nikon 105mm f/1.4 if you need a lens with an internal focusing motor (AF-S) but more on this lens later.
70-200MM - THE OLD STANDBY
You may be surprised to see a zoom, and only an f/2.8 at that, on this list but the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II and Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII / Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 ED FL VR versions are great at creating shallow depth of field. There are plenty of reasons the 70-200s are the go to lens for so many professional photographers.
The appeal of the 70-200mm is that you have a ton of flexibility. You can get reasonably good background separation at 70mm wide open and great separation as you get closer to 200mm. Overall performance is very close to the primes in both lenses. You'd have to be a real stickler to pick the image quality apart. Add in image stabilization and the lens becomes a very attractive option.
The only downside to a 70-200 f/2.8 is size and weight. Overall, you may end up with a lighter bag with a 70-200 if you are substuiting a bunch of primes but your camera will be heavier when you use it. If you're unsure of what prime lenses you should bring on a shoot or you are just starting out, the 70-200 is a great choice. I've yet to see an image that gets knocked for being shot with a 70-200.
200MM - THE MAC DADDY
If you want to take things to the extreme, my favorite lenses for both systems are the Canon 200mm f/2.0 IS and Nikon 200 f/2.0 VRII. These short, stubby lenses sport humongous front elements and are packed with photographic magic. The shallow depth of field effect you can create, even at distance is incredible.
Now I’m sure many of you are thinking that this is only a stop faster than a 70-200 f/2.8. How different can it be? We find images shot on the 200 f/2.0 to have a certain extra something special in the depth of field department. Not to mention that both lenses are designed to be sharp & perform well wide open.
The only downside is that this thing is a commitment to carry around but the images are worth it. Then if you factor in the blazing fast AF speed and you'll forget about your acheing back. If a 200 f/2.0 just isn't practical due to hiking or terrain, Nikon's 105 f/1.4 is a killer alternative. You don't get quite as much compression but the jump from f/2.0 to f/1.4 goes a long way towards making up for the focal length loss.
To read up more on shallow depth of field, head on over to our article that covers the basics of depth of field and how your camera's sensor plays a role here: Achieving Shallow Depth of Field Success