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.

  • Similar, but for Nikon: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/7081/…
    – mattdm
    May 29, 2011 at 20:44
  • @mattdm - I agree it is similar, but the only answer given addressed the shortcomings of that particular Nikon lens and didn't really get into the detail on why or why not to use a Macro for portraits.
    – dpollitt
    May 29, 2011 at 20:47
  • I know — I'm not complaining, just adding the link for reference.
    – mattdm
    May 29, 2011 at 20:48
  • You should really specify what sort of camera you have, the size of the sensor will affect responses. I have the 100mm L version (with IS) and I can recommend it in general, it's an amazing lens. May 30, 2011 at 21:02

9 Answers 9


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).

  • Great examples Matt, thanks! The 85 f/1.2 is absolutely the bokeh standard, makes my eyes water every time I use it. This was exactly the answer I was looking for. If I need to have a macro with me, can it do double duty: YES.
    – dpollitt
    May 30, 2011 at 14:44
  • 3
    The 85 f/1.2 is definitely the low light king, however I think the 135 f/2.0 does as good bokeh, it in fact has almost the same maximum [apparent] physical aperture size 132/2 = 67.5mm as the 85, 85/1.2 = 71mm. On full frame it's great, and co-incidentally almost exactly the same field of view as the 85mm on APS-C (85 x 1.6 = 136)
    – Matt Grum
    May 30, 2011 at 15:07

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.

  • 1
    It is worth noting that macro lenses are generally not used (or optimised for use) at their widest aperture, yet a wide aperture is often desirable for portrait photography.
    – gjb
    May 29, 2011 at 22:18
  • @gjb despite the fact you'd very rarely shoot macro wide open the two Canon 100mm macros I have are sharp at f/2.8 when I've used them as short teles.
    – Matt Grum
    May 29, 2011 at 23:32
  • Actually, a good soft-focus lens is normally still quite sharp (high resolution). Most of the reduction is in micro-contrast. The effect is (or should be) like pushing the ACR's "clarity" slider to the left, not like applying some sort of blur filter. May 31, 2011 at 0:02

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.

  • 2
    It's a good point, if you want great bokeh in a portrait lens scrape together everything you can to get the 135 f/2.0L
    – Matt Grum
    May 30, 2011 at 0:24
  • @Matt Grum - That exact answer drives me crazy! 135 f/2 or 100/2.8L! Too many choices!
    – dpollitt
    May 30, 2011 at 14:40
  • 2
    @dpollitt If you're going to do lots of outdoor portraits in natural light get the 135. If you're going to do studio/stopped down portraits, or if you want a macro lens anyway, get the 100. It will perform in natural light wide open, but wont be quite as nice as the 135.
    – Matt Grum
    May 30, 2011 at 15:02

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.


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.


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.

  • 3
    I have to vote this down. These kind of tests are the exact opposite of useful for considering a lens for portraits. It's the "a bit subjective" that's essential.
    – mattdm
    May 29, 2011 at 21:02
  • 1
    @rfusca's answer claims that sharpness "should be better" and that distortion is "typically lower", yet these tests demonstrate that both of these statements are untrue. I therefore have to disagree that such comparisons play an important part in the decision making process.
    – gjb
    May 29, 2011 at 22:14
  • 1
    I find it actually informative enough to affect any future decision. +1.
    – ysap
    May 30, 2011 at 1:53
  • 1
    +1 I think these tests are useful; they provide an objective comparison you won't easily find in sample shots.
    – rm999
    May 30, 2011 at 2:57
  • 3
    They're objective but largely irrelevant. It's a mistake to get over-concerned with measurable things just because they can be measured.
    – mattdm
    May 30, 2011 at 18:29

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.

  • 1
    In regards to your last sentence...If you're shooting wide open, why would the number of blades matter?
    – rfusca
    Jul 7, 2011 at 16:49

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.


Macro and portrait lenses are generally designed to do two different things that require different design characteristics.

Macro lenses are designed to focus at very close distances and they typically render a fairly flat field of focus. There are a few very specialized macro lenses that can only focus at the very close focus distances required by macro photography and would not be suitable for other types of photography. Most macro lenses, however, can also double as general purpose lenses. These can be used to focus at more typical focus distances and many photographers have a 90-100mm macro lens that they also use for portraits.

Other lenses specifically designed for portraiture often have a more spherical shape to their field of focus. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II is one such lens. They typically can not focus anywhere near as close as a macro lens can. There are reasons some photographers prefer to shoot portraits with a lens that has field curvature.

The field curvature that is a characteristic of many lenses purposely designed for portraiture would make most everything at the focus distance except the center of the frame blurry due to the very shallow depth of field if used at the extremely close distances involved in macro photography.

On the other hand, the narrower maximum aperture of most macro lenses remove the option of wide aperture bokeh and narrow depth of field when compared to many prime lenses designed particularly for portraiture. The correcting elements needed to render a flat field of focus also tend to make out of focus blur, often called bokeh, a bit harsh. Macro lenses are also generally designed to be sharpest at close focus distances. Sometimes, but not always, they are also very sharp at longer focus distances.

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