You don’t have to spend a fortune on gear to be able to take gorgeous environmental portraits.
Environmental portraits differ from regular portraits in one key way. While regular portraits aim to capture just the person, environmental portraits aim to capture and tell a story about the person in the image. You can capture environmental portraits that tell a story about the persons job, or about their hobbies and likes. The possibilities are endless. Due to the story telling nature of environmental portraits a wider angle lens is needed so that you can capture the surroundings of the person in the image too. For environmental portraits you need a good 35mm or wider lens, but it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. After the break we’ll take a look at four relatively low cost lenses that will help you create gorgeous environmental portraits.
Environmental portraits can put a photographer into all sorts of lighting and weather conditions, so it’s important that the gear you use can hold up to the locations and situations you may find yourself in. The lenses we have chosen below are all very well built, they’re all on the faster end of things when it comes to aperture, and most of them have weather sealing which will allow you to shoot in wind, rain, and snow. All of the lenses are affordable too, with not one of them costing over $700; and a few of them costing much less than that. Let’s take a look at the four lenses we have chosen for environmental portraits.
Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 Art
When it comes to wide angle APS-C based lenses there is nothing better than the Sigma 18-35mm f1.8. The 18-35mm from Sigma is perhaps the sharpest piece of glass you can buy for any crop sensor camera, and thanks to its wide angles, its constant f1.8 aperture, and it’s razor sharp optics, this lens is perfect for environmental portraits.
In our review we said:
“We’ve got absolutely nothing but respect and love for the Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 DC HSM. If you’re an APS-C DSLR user, this should be the lens that is a high priority item on your list to get. It’s sharp, contrasty, has beautiful color that is true to life, focuses quickly, and stays compact due to its internal zooming and focusing design.”
The Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 is a stunner. The all metal body houses 17 elements in 12 groups, and nine aperture blades. There is no weather sealing though which is perhaps the only complaint we have, but it should be still be okay to use this lens in a very light rain. The large focus and zoom rings turn incredibly smoothly, and they give a nice place to grip the lens. The lens is fairly weighty at 1.78lbs, but it’s still very nice to hold and use over longer periods.
When used on a crop sensor camera the equivalent focal rage will be roughly 27-56mm which is plenty wide enough to be able to capture gorgeous environmental portraits. The image quality is simply amazing. You can expect images that are sharp from corner to corner at f1.8, and color reproduction that is very natural and life like. You can get some really smooth, creamy bokeh with this lens too thanks to the constant aperture of f1.8, and the nine rounded aperture blades. In terms of distortion and fringing, you will see little to none.
Auto focus performance is also very good, even when adapted to be used on Sony E mount bodies with Sigma’s MC-11 adapter. In both good and bad light situations this lens is super fast, and super accurate when it comes to acquiring focus. If you shoot with an APS-C camera, and want to produce gorgeous environmental portraits, buy this lens and never look back.
Buy now Canon ($639): Amazon
Buy now Nikon ($629.09): Amazon
Buy now Pentax ($689): Amazon
Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 Image Samples
Pro Tip: If you know you’re going to find yourself in a situation where the weather may not be great, and you don’t have a weather sealed lens or camera body, you should carry some weather proof camera and lens covers in your bag. These covers are affordable, and they’re effective. With these covers on hand you’ll be able to shoot no matter what the weather is doing.
Rokinon 35mm F2.8 FE
The Rokinon 35mm f2.8 FE for Sony Mirrorless cameras may be the cheapest lens on this list, but it’s high in quality and performance. For under $300 will be getting a lens that can produce very sharp images, and has great autofocus performance.
In our review we said:
“The Rokinon 35mm f2.8 FE comes in at a significantly more affordable price point than what Sony’s offering is–and the only major difference is its lack of weather sealing vs it’s Sony counterpart.”
The 35mm 2.8 from Rokinon performs exactly how we would expect a Rokinon lens to perform; which is very well. The 35mm f2.8 features seven elements in six groups, and has seven aperture blades. The optics in this lens are capable of producing incredibly sharp images with really nice saturated colors. Focus nice and close on your subject at f2.8 and you’ll find the lens produces some really smooth bokeh as well. When we were testing the lens we could not find any issues with chromatic aberration or distortion; which is fantastic for a sub $300 lens. As mentioned above you could opt for the Sony 35mm f2.8 which has weather sealing, but it’s significantly more expensive, and it doesn’t produce images that are any better than the Rokinon 35mm f2.8.
The autofocus performance of the Rokinon 35mm f2.8 is good overall. In good lighting you will have no issues whatsoever. Autofocus was fast and snappy in most situations, but you will begin to notice just a little hunting in low light situations.
The build quality is just fine. The 35mm f2.8 is made out of plastic, but it doesn’t feel cheap at all. The lens will hold up well to the rough and tumble of being in your bag, and will still be just fine after a some bumps and scrapes. You’ve got nothing to worry about here. This is one of the Rokinon lenses that will really help people see just how far their lenses have come in terms of build quality over the last few years.
For the budget conscious environmental portrait photographer who shoots with a Sony, this lens is really hard to beat. Rokinon has always made excellent lenses from an optics standpoint, and now the build quality has caught up too. The 35mm focal length is a classic one that’s perfect for environmental portraits.
Buy now ($279): Amazon
Rokinon 35mm F2.8 FE Image Samples
Pro Tip: If you like using speed lights when you shoot but don’t want to carry around a huge soft box with you, get a light modifier like the Rogue Flashbender 2. This reflector easily attaches to your flash and will allow you to put the light exactly where you need it. It’s small, light weight, and it’s incredibly affordable.
Tamron 17-35 f2.8-4 Di OSD
Tamron have been churning out great quality lenses for the last few years now, and their newest kid on the block is no exception. The Tamron 17-35mm f2.8-4 Di OSD is a fantastic wide angle lens that lends itself perfectly to environmental portraits.
In our review we said:
“The Tamron 17-35mm f2.8-4 Di OSD isn’t really said to be weather and dust resistant, but instead is said to be moisture resistant. Indeed, we took it out into the rain during a light drizzle and it survived with no issues at all.”
The 17-35mm f2.8-4 from Tamron is a well built lens. The body is made from a premium feeling plastic that feels quite nice in the hands, and the lens has a small amount of weather sealing. The zoom and focus rings turn easily and offer a nice place to grip the lens. Weighing in at just 1.01lbs the lens is easy to use, and it balances well on the camera.
Inside the body of the lens you’re going to find 15 elements in 10 groups along with seven circular aperture blades. The front element of the lens is protected by a fluorine compound that’s water and oil repellent.
The lens is capable of capturing some really nice images overall. At f2.8 you’re going to find incredible sharp centers with some drop off to the sides, but stop the lens down just a small amount and you’ll get edge to edge sharpness. The colors produced are unique to this lens. While they’re nice and natural, they also have a character that’s all their own. We certainly liked what we saw during our image reviews.
The lens is capable is producing bokeh for sure, but given it’s wide nature it’s certainly not going to be the best bokeh you’ll see. When using this lens for environmental portraits that’s just fine as the whole point is to capture the surroundings and not blur it out. We saw no issues with color fringing, and just a little bit of distortion. Any issue you do come across can easily be fixed in Capture One 12 or Lightroom easily.
Autofocus performance is also another area where this lens performs admirably. It acquires focus fast in all lighting conditions, even when adapted to the EOS R it performed flawlessly. The new OSD focus motor is also incredibly quiet when in operation. It’s a joy to use.
If you’re looking for a wide angle zoom lens for your environmental portraits that has some weather sealing, produces sharp images with great colors, and won’t break the bank, the Tamron 17-35 f2.8-4 Di OSD is for you.
Buy now Canon EF ($599): Amazon
Buy Now Nikon ($599): Amazon
Tamron 17-35 f2.8-4 Di OSD Image Samples
Pro Tip: Modern cameras output large RAW files so make sure you have plenty of SD cards with you when you go and shoot. The last thing you want to do is run out of storage space, or have a SD card fail on you. I’ve been there before; it’s not fun. Keep a few extras on your person at all times.
Fujifilm 23mm F2 R WR
The Fujifilm 23mm f2 R WR is small, lightweight, produces excellent images, and is very affordable, so it should come as no surprise that it made it on to this list. The 23mm f2 when placed on a Fujifilm crop body has an equivalent focal length of 34.5mm which makes it perfect for environmental portraits.
In our review we said:
“It’s by far the absolute best lens in Fujifilm’s lineup for street photography and candid shooting due to its autofocus speed. When the focusing point is at its smallest, it will be a bit slower. But increase it and it becomes a complete speed demon.”
Inside the small metal body of this lens you’ll find 10 elements in six groups, and nine rounded aperture blades. The optics are capable of producing images that are sharp, colors that are beautifully rendered, and bokeh that is nice and creamy. There is a slight amount of chromatic aberration, but nothing that can’t easily be fixed in post. Focus speeds are incredibly quick on this lens; even older bodies will feel new again with this lens attached.
The overall build quality of the lens is excellent. The all-metal body feels nice in the hands, while the nicely sized focus ring provides a good place to grip the lens. The Fujifilm 23mm f2 R WR is also weather sealed, so when paired with a weather sealed body you can shoot till your hearts content while out in the rain or snow. This lens is also incredibly light. At just 0.39lbs you can put this lens on your camera and walk around for hours without any discomfort; it also makes this lens very easy to use.
If you’re a Fujifilm shooter and want a lens that is perfect for environmental portraits, the 23mm f2 R WR will serve you well. It’s weather sealed, it has rocket like focusing speeds, and produces incredible images. For just $449 this lens is a steal.
Buy now ($449): Amazon
Fujifilm 23mm F2 R WR Image Samples