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Traditionally, photographers have relied upon moderate telephotos for portraits, lenses such as the 85mm f/1.8 USM or 100mm f/2.0 USM. These lenses allow you to back off a little bit from your subject, and still produce frame-filling shots while minimizing the amount of background distractions. Furthermore, they're extremely sharp and fast — ideal for low-light conditions. Zoom lenses such as the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM, which include these focal lengths, work well in situations where you have a bit more available light. In situations where you want to interact with and control your subject, and minimize the effect of your background, short-to-moderate telephoto lenses may be the ideal choice.
Longer telephoto lenses may be preferable if you are outdoors and can stand farther back from your subject, and are the lenses of choice if you prefer a candid approach. Zooms like the 75-300mm f/4-5.6 (especially the IS version, with its Image Stabilization that permits sharp hand-held shots in lower light levels), or the professional L-series 70-200mm zooms, are versatile choices that allow you to back off and also tend to throw backgrounds out of focus — a useful technique that pros have used to concentrate upon the subject. Fixed focal length telephotos, like the superb 135mm f/2.0L, 200mm f/2.8L, or 300mm f/4L IS, combine these benefits with outstanding sharpness and autofocus speed.
Don't forget that sometimes including more background in a photo to lend a sense of "place" and tell the viewer something about the subject can be extremely effective. Wide-angle lenses, often ignored for portraits, can be an excellent way to communicate this if you're willing to move in relatively close to your subject.
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