Should I use a 100mm Macro lens as a portrait lens?

by dpollitt   Last Updated June 06, 2017 18:18 PM

I am specifically considering using the Canon 100mm Macro as a portrait lens. If I want to have a macro in my bag, but not carry around a 70-200 2.8 due to weight, size, white color, or price if it is not purchased - is this a valid alternative?

Is this lens a great macro lens, but an "OK" portrait lens? Or is the performance near or on par with the typical zoom lens offerings in this range(70-200).

I understand that the 100mm Macro also has a newer more expensive L version offered. If that is much better suited to portrait work please include that in any responses.

Answers 8

Your question is a bit subjective, but the following tests should enable you to make a fair comparison.

Resolution test

Vignetting test

Distortion test

Flare test

Just hover over the images to compare results. You could also compare the L and non-L lenses.

May 29, 2011 20:57 PM

I would. I'm going to make my argument for any 100mm Macro, not that specific brand/model however.

  • The focal length is well within the classic portrait range.

  • The sharpness should be excellent since its a macro lens and intended to show ultra fine detail.

  • The sharpness will probably be better than a zoom, since its a prime.

  • The distortion on macro lenses is typically much lower than zooms ( you don't want distorted faces).

  • f/2.8 is about as open as you want to realistically shoot most normal portraits anyway. You can go more open, but often the back of your subject's head may be out of focus (obviously this depends on a few factors). The 100mm range even gives you the ability to stop down a little and still get excellent shallow depth of field.

Intentional sharpness is important in portraits as soft features can become very evident. (If you're looking at some portrait work with intentional soft focus...that's a whole different ballgame and obviously the sharpness points above don't apply).

Frankly, the 100mm macro is the next lens on my list - for portraits.

May 29, 2011 21:27 PM

The focal length is good for portraits, however many macro lenses suffer from poor bokeh, if you want a nice creamy background. My Nikon 105mm has average bokeh - doesn't look bad until you compare to the 85mm. I haven't used the Canon 100mm, reviews seems to imply it has fair bokeh.

Another negative with most macros, and again I don't know the Canon 100mm, but many of them have fairly slow AF.

It will certainly be sharp, even wide open - some would say "too sharp for portraits", which I think is nonsense. But do check out the bokeh and autofocus speed.

May 29, 2011 23:41 PM

I've used the EF 100 f/2.8 and the EF 100 f/2.8L for portraits. I find the focal length ideal for full frame and APS-H (might be a bit long for APS-C unless you're doing tight headshots). I find I need to have a macro in my arsenal and working double duty as a short tele makes either 100 particularly useful.

Stopped down in a studio setting both lenses are razor sharp and free from distortion. Here's the non L: actual pixels, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro on 5D

On FF you get images so sharp you could cut yourself on. I bought the L version to use as a long(ish) lens for events as IS enables me to get more ambient light into the shot, but it still excels in the studio: actual pixels, Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro on 1D mkIV

Bokeh on either lens is good in my opinion (I'll dig out a sample when I get the chance), though if you want to shoot portraits with great bokeh there are better lenses (85mm f/1.2L, 135 f/2.0L).

Matt Grum
Matt Grum
May 29, 2011 23:58 PM

I have the the older USM lens and the newer L-series. I love them both for macro and for portraits. I use them less for portraits than my 85 because I tend to work more closely with my subjects. Before you make a decision, take a zoom and crank it to about 100mm, then shoot a portrait session in studio and on location -- nothing fancy, mock it up with family or friends -- but just figure out if moving with that long a lens will work for you.

I know a lot of people love the 70-200 for portraits, but I've never figured that out. Not that I can't get great shots with the lens, but it's not doing anything for me that a prime wouldn't. I know there are those "I want to back up but there's a wall here" moments on location, or "jeez, if I could just reach out a little further..." that make zooms more flexible, but I'm kind of stuck on the 85mm for portraits, the 100mm macro for macro and really open-area portraits, and the 24-105 for grab-bag situations where I have no idea what obstacles I might encounter.

Steve Ross
Steve Ross
May 30, 2011 01:00 AM

Macro lenses are typically sharper than zooms, which may be of interest for portraits. However, if you are selecting between a good macro (e.g. 100 f/2.8L) or a good zoom (e.g. 70-200 f/2.8L II), it is likely that sharpness will be excellent for both and any differences in sharpness performance irrelevant, unless you are obsessive about it.

I would select the lens based on how you shoot and bokeh. A lot of times during portrait photography, it is worthwhile to have a competent zoom because capturing closeups of dynamic and fleeting poses is made faster by zooming than by running up to the target. Consider the fact that subjects may tense up if the photographer is constantly running around.

If you're shooting wide open, bokeh is important and choosing a circular diaphram lens is preferable, or at least one with as many blades as possible.

Martin Krzywinski
Martin Krzywinski
July 07, 2011 16:23 PM

I thought about it and researched for a long long time before i purchased my 100mm 2.8L macro lens. This lens does the job of 4 lenses! Number one it's a macro lens, two it's near to the focal length of the 85mm and three, the 135mm. Despite not being able to open up wider than 2.8 it does have IS which those other two don't, so you can let more light in with a slower shutter speed. And the forth lens this does the job of is the 70-200 2.8L IS. It is lighter and smaller and just as good if not better at the 100mm focal length. I use a Canon 6D which is full frame. I also have the 50mm prime and the 24-105 f4 IS.

November 08, 2014 00:04 AM

Are you getting PAID for portrait work, or just taking pictures of friends and family. And how much of your photography is portrait? Paid work, I would step into the 85 or 135 Canon lenses. It's just a key item to have. If you are just doing it for fun or for friends and family, I think you are fine.

I shoot portraits with the 105 2.8 macro and 70-200 f4L IS, as I find these lenses FAR more useful for other types of photography.

I like to personally stop down to at least f4 on portraits, esp close ups, not a fan of the ears out of focus look. Also length of lens and your background and distance to background will play a huge factor in OOF areas. Don't want bad bokeh, don't shoot into sunny trees right behind you...

I personally think the wide open look of an 85 1.2 is better for event photography where you can't choose your background and need to blur everything out. I think a well chosen setting, lighting, makeup, outfit, hair in right place, etc are more important for a good portrait IMO than the lens.

June 06, 2017 17:49 PM

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