When we are evaluating portrait lenses, our thoughts usually turn to expensive options. Those pieces of glass that provide the most sumptuous images, but also need a good deal of cash in exchange. When a tighter budget is called for, the category of third-party portrait lenses under $500 is a good starting.
Third-party lenses are no longer a poor second or third cousin to same-make offerings, as many provide excellent optics for the money, though you may have to forego some of the niceties such as full weatherproofing or autofocus. For the most bang-for-your-buck glass, third-party lenses can provide very sharp images along with very wide apertures.
1. Rokinon 50mm f/1.2 (Overall Winner)
We generally have to pay a premium for razor-sharp images and an aperture as wide as f/1.2. But the Rokinon 50mm f/1.2 combines both these areas into a package costing less than $400.
The Rokinon comes in a range of camera mounts with a fully manual design, which includes a manual aperture ring and very smooth turning manual focus ring. The optical design is wrapped around two aspherical elements, plus an Ultra Multi-Coating, arranged in nine elements in seven groups.
As the lens is made specifically for APS-C sensors, it provides an equivalent focal length of 75mm. This provides just enough compression for portrait work and the f/1.2 aperture has a shallow enough depth of field for wonderful bokeh effects. On this note, the lens provides wonderful background blur far better than the price point would suggest.
As this is a manual focusing only lens, it does take time to dial into the sweet spot. Once focus is achieved though, this lens is extremely sharp at f/1.2 from the corner of the frame to the center, with the most impressive results coming in at f/2. If you can live with the fact that this is a manual working lens that’s built for crop sensor camera bodies, it’s worth every penny.
2. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
Depending on where you shop and which way the wind is blowing, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM can be picked up for less than $500. For the price, you get a very capable f/1.4 aperture and autofocus, which can be used on both full-frame and crop sensor camera bodies.
Optically, the lens comprises of a molded glass aspherical element for correcting lens anomalies, with a super multi-layer lens coating, and a nine-blade rounded diaphragm. The f/1.4 goes wide enough for shallow depth of field shots and is also very capable in low-light conditions.
For the sharpest result, the lens needs to be stopped down to f/2.8, but at this point, the lens is still very capable of producing good separation between the subject and background. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM may not be able to ultimately compete with its sibling the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art in terms of overall sharpness, but considering its price point and age, it does a commendable job at this focal length.
3. Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art
A 30mm focal length isn’t your typical portrait lens, but Sigma Art glass for under $500 is still worth a look. On a crop sensor camera body this lens comes in with a 48mm equivalent focal length, which makes it more like a standard focal length lens.
The f/1.4 aperture is accompanied by an optical arrangement of nine elements in eight groups, along with an aspherical element and a super multi-layer coating to improve color and contrast. A Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) covers autofocusing with full-time manual override, which is very efficient, but may not be quite enough for video use.
The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art, in reality, is a better all-rounder lens than anything else. It is sharp at f/1.4 and produces nice bokeh effects, while portrait images look their best with the subject as part of a wider scene. In other words, this would make a great lens for those who want a more generic solution that can also take respectable portrait shots.
4. Samyang AF 85mm f/1.4 FE
The Samyang AF 85mm f/1.4 FE is an older style lens that is still available brand-new for under $500. It has since been superseded by an autofocus version, but that version is unfortunately out of our price range.
This lens is equally capable on both full-frame and crop sensor camera bodies, providing a 127.5mm focal length on the latter, with a wide and bright f/1.4 aperture. The optics are arranged around nine elements in seven groups, with one aspherical element and a UMC multi-coating to reduce the likes of lens flare and ghosting.
As this is a fully manual lens, it has an old school aperture ring, wrapped around a solid metal lens barrel and a healthy-sized 72mm front filter thread. The lens may need stopping down a little to get the sharpest results, but when the focus has been dialed in accurately, it can produce some wonderfully sharp images with a good degree of saturation and color.
5. Tamron 20mm f/2.8 Di III OSD M 1:2 (Budget Winner)
Although the Tamron 20mm f/2.8 Di III OSD M 1:2 may be a little wide for most portrait shots, on crop sensor camera bodies, the focal length comes in at 30mm, which is approaching the standard of 35mm. It also acts as a very good close-up lens with a minimum focusing distance of just 10.92cm. This, along with an extremely affordable price.
The lens is wrapped around an optical arrangement of three LD Low Dispersion elements, one molded glass aspherical element, and a Broad-Band Anti-Reflection coating to reduce surface reflections, lens flares, and ghosting.
An OSD stepping motor has been included to cover autofocusing, which also has a full manual override. The lens barrel has been treated to full moisture resistance, with a fluorine-coated adding to the front element to repel the likes of dirt and dust particles.
This lens mostly excels in wider portrait shots, where the subject is part of the scene. In this context, the lens produces wonderfully sharp images at f/2.8 with absolutely no complaints when the aperture is stopped down.
Staying Under Budget with Third-Party Portrait Lenses Under $500
The general consensus with a high-quality portrait lens is that it needs to be tack sharp and also have an extremely wide and accurate aperture. To do this well usually means an expensive set of optics. But as shown above, sharpness and wide apertures can come in under the $500 mark for third-party portrait lenses.
The examples above are also a great way for those who are just starting off in the portrait world to access quality glass before taking the plunge into the ultra expensive options. Then again, if you intimately know a lens and it’s working parameters, there is no reason why they can’t be used on a regular basis to produce professional quality images.