December 9, 2013

85mm – the first lens that could change your portrait photography

If that hat seems familiar, yes,  Elle was the model in the series of photographs for the Nikon Df review article. For some of the sequences of photos that we shot, I used the 85mm lens, wide open. This had the effect of just melting the background. You can pretty much shoot anywhere, and make the background look good and non-intrusive.

While a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens can be even more effective in controlling the background, the shorter focal length, an 85mm lens can make this somewhat easier in some respects. Specifically, it’s a smaller lens and less intrusive when you photograph portraits. It’s less “threatening” to the person you’re photographing, and easier to carry around.

Just how well can you blur the background when shooting wide open with an 85mm prime lens? Compare the photo above with the pull-back shot, taken with an iPhone from the same spot …

The pull-back shot should tell you the entire story of just how the 85mm lens works its magic! That’s exactly where we stood for the shot above. I was using the traffic lights to create some pleasant colored effects in the background. Yes, you really can shoot pretty much anywhere when you use a wide open aperture, whether f/1.8 or f/1.4 or f/1.2

We just used available light here. No flash. With the slowly setting sun, we had lovely soft light falling on Elle.

camera settings: 1/400 @ f/1.4 @ 400 ISO
Nikon Df (B&H);  Nikon 85mm f1.4G (B&H)

 

recommended 85mm lenses

The faster lenses are a bit more spendy than the f/1.8 optics, but the change in depth-of-field is incremental. You’d get a very similar effect at f/1.8 so if your budget is limited the f/1.8 optics are excellent choices too. In fact, I’d say the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM (B&H) is arguably their best lens for the best price. Similarly, the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G lens (B&H) too is an optical gem at an affordable price.

  • Canon
  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM   –   B&H / Amazon USAUK
  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM   –   B&H / Amazon USAUK
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX  for Canon   –    / Amazon USAUK
  • Nikon
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G   –   B&H / Amazon USAUK
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G   –   B&H / Amazon USAUK
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX HSM for Nikon   –   B&H / Amazon USAUK

Photographers with crop-sensor cameras will of course wonder if a 50mm f/1.4 will give similar results. Since the crop will force a different perspective for the same composition, effectively giving that longer focal length’s field of view, you’d get a similar effect with shallow depth-of-field. While I think every photographer should have a 50mm lens in their bag somewhere, the 85mm on a crop sensor camera will be even more awesome in giving that shallow DoF.

 

other examples

The pull-back shot will explain the background here. That orange safety netting. With the super-shallow DoF, the netting merely becomes an interesting background, and not an ugly intrusive background. (Excuse the image softness in the pull-back shot. Somehow, I didn’t keep the camera still for this one.)

camera settings: 1/500 @ f/1.4 @ 400 ISO
Nikon Df (B&H);  Nikon 85mm f1.4G (B&H)

 

 

summary

The 85mm prime might seem like an overlap lens if you already have a 70-200mm zoom, and to an extent it is, but the 85mm is so much easier to work with. It is lighter and smaller. The 85mm also allows a more direct way of working with your subject, without the massive lens getting between you and your subject.

Even in studio setups, this lens can help by lending its specific qualities to your images with its very shallow DoF.

This example is from the article on portrait lighting setup in limited space / home studio. The model’s eyes are half the impact with this photo. The way the super-sharper areas gently slide into the pleasantly soft areas, really helps accentuate those sharply focused areas, and draw your attention in.

If you currently only have a kit lens or a zoom with a slow max aperture, and you’re longing for a lens that gives this kind of selectively focused impact, then the 85mm prime is your best choice as a step up. Careful use of this lens will really help elevate your portrait photography.

 

related articles

 

{ 48 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Lanthus Clark December 9, 2013 at 8:13 am

I agree 100% Neil, the 85mm is far and away my favourite portrait lens! I have the 85 f1.8 AFS and as you say it is an optical gem.

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2 SEAN SHIMMEL December 9, 2013 at 8:55 am

Neil

HOW you show the difference is equally beautiful as the difference you show. Way to go.

Sean

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3 chaim meiersdorf December 9, 2013 at 11:49 am

I have the 1.8 G and I feel that I am getting too much flare even without any filter on the lens. Could you comment on this?

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4 Neil vN December 9, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Post an example to the Forum for us to see, and to see the scenarios you’re shooting under. Also, do you use a lens hood?

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5 Wayne Ervine December 9, 2013 at 12:04 pm

As convenient as zooms are, I still prefer primes for portrait work. Now if only Nikon would do a fast 135mm with the same formula as their 85s.

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6 Justin December 9, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Neil said: “While I think every photographer should have a 50mm lens in their bag somewhere, the 85mm on a crop sensor camera will be even more awesome in giving that shallow DoF.”

Neil, can you please explain why the 85mm would be preferable to the 50mm on a crop sensor camera? Thanks!

Justin

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7 Neil vN December 9, 2013 at 12:17 pm

The ideal portrait focal length (on a full-frame camera) has traditionally been regarded as 100mm. The wider your focal length, and still keeping to a full headhshot, the more prone you will be to unflattering perspective distortion on the face. (Out-of-proportion nose, etc).

You can see this already kicking in mildly in the last photo (studio shot), where I used the Canon 85mm f/1.2 (used at f/1.4) for a tight headshot.

So already the 85mm lens is perhaps on the short side for such a tight headshot. A 100mm f/1.4 would be perfect.

With that idea in mind, the effective focal length you’d get with a 50mm lens on a crop sensor, would be just little bit wider again than 85mm. Yet, if you used an 85mm f/1.8 lens on a crop-sensor camera, and stepped back to frame for that headshot, you’d effectively get the same perspective as 1.5 x 85 = 128mm

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8 Howard Tarragon December 9, 2013 at 12:19 pm

I have a manual focus 85mm 1.4 which I attempt to use but when well open, focusing is difficult because of the shallow depth of field. Seeing your results, it is definitely worth pursuing. Would Live View help?

@Chaim- Do you have a lens hood?

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9 Neil vN December 9, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Howard, even using Live View is going to be much clumsier than using an AF lens. Time for an upgrade?

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10 Robert H Gunter December 9, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Neil, I use a Nikon 70-200, 2.8 lens for portrait work. I can set the focal length to 85 mm and assume get the same effect as a 85 mm lens. So, do I need to purchase a 85 mm lens?
Thanks

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11 Yannis Larios December 9, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Hi Neil,

During the last couple of weeks, I was contemplating whether I should go forward with the 85mm f/1.8.
Well, your brief article once again, tipped the point. I am going forward :-)

Thank you!

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12 Rudy December 9, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Neil,

Nice write up on the 85mm and the pull back shots show that just about anything can be used as a background when proper f stop and FL is combined. The 85mm lens is responsible for my love of the 135mm (on a full frame body) because I used the 85mm lens on a crop sensor for so long.

Justin, surely one of the reasons that Neil mentions that the 85 shines on a crop sensor is perspective. You are forced to step back further from the subject, this enhances facial features….like big noses not being made bigger :)

One thing Neil: You wrote “The faster lenses are a bit more spendy than the f/1.8 optics, but there the increase in depth-of-field is incremental.” Don’t you mean decrease in depth of field?

Rudy

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13 Neil vN December 9, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Thanks! I fixed the text to make more sense.

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14 Stephen December 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I have the 70-200mm f2.8, and I have been using it for portraiture. it’s a good lens as Neil has stated previously. However, its minimum focusing length is long (about 4.6 feet), so sometimes something can get between me and the subject, or I don’t have that distance.

The 85mm f1.4 not only is lighter and smaller, but its minimum focusing length is about half of the 70-200mm f2.8.

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15 Phil G December 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm

The photo where she’s squatting in front of some orange netting which then turns into this pleasant background is all you need to sell this lens.

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16 MIKE December 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Neil,
Have you used the Sigma 85 1.4???? It seems like a great lens for hundreds less than the Nikon 1.4. ty, Mike

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17 Neil vN December 9, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I have used it, and it’s a fine lens, but the Nikon still gets the edge in terms of sharpness, IMHO.

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18 DARREN December 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Neil, Is there any noticeable difference in image quality between the Canon 85mm 1.8 and the Nikon 85mm 1.4G ?
Thanks. Darren.

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19 Neil vN December 9, 2013 at 3:07 pm

That would be very difficult for me to quantify, with so many variables.

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20 DARREN December 9, 2013 at 3:21 pm

If a non photographer looked at 2 images, one taken with a Canon 85mm 1.8 and the other taken with a Nikon 85mm 1.4G at 1.8 ( both full frame DSLR’s) and everything was the same i.e. distance to subject, lighting etc, in your opinion, do you think that they would be able to tell the difference ? Thanks. Darrren. :-)

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21 Neil vN December 9, 2013 at 3:27 pm

No they won’t.

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22 DARREN December 9, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Thanks Neil.

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23 Erol Cagdas December 9, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Nice article Neil.
I have the Nikon 85mm 1.8G, and I just fell in love with it. I am using it on a D7000, and couples great. It is so great, I would not mind walking around with it all day (even though it is a bit long for DX). It has allowed me to produce some great candid shots instead of posed shot. Just like everything about this lens, even on higher ISO it is just fine.
After this one I had purchased the 50mm 1.8G, though I am not too happy with it (IQ wise, not focal length).
The 85 is so much better (in my case/opinion), and highly recommend it to anyone!

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24 Roy Barnes December 9, 2013 at 5:15 pm

For a few years I gave the photography a rest…pulling out my cameras every once in a while and pondering whether or not to take it up again. Then one day I did, and I did having just purchased the ‘nifty fifty’, the ‘plastic fantastic’ Canon 50mm f/1.8 II. That lens and *its* shallow depth of field blew me away! I hadn’t experienced anything like it in my personal photography before. As a result, I invested heavily in faster, better optics, went digital, and put my interest and involvement in photography firmly back on line. Fast, sharp lenses provide defining moments for the photographer!

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25 Alisson Silveira December 9, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Ótimo Artigo. Simples e Efetivo.

Uso uma 50mm f/1.8 Canon em uma T1i (APS-C), ela funciona como uma 85mm e relamente, quando se tranta de retrato é uma lente fantástica… só é complicado para street, mas ai uma 28mm f/1.8 se sai melhor.

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26 Barry Frankel December 9, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Aloha Neil,
I recently used the 85MM 1.4, and came to the same conclusions. This lens is absolutely amazing! Been using the 70-200MM with good results, but the size and weight of the larger lens can become a bit tiresome. The 85 was a dream, and the results were superb.
Hope Santa recognizes my good behavior this year!

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27 Rafael Steffen December 9, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Hello Neil,

Thanks so much for sharing some great examples. I currently use a 50mm f1.4 with my D7100 and I get some lovely portraits. I was wondering if I should buy the 70-200 or the 85mm and I am convinced now that the 85mm 1.4 is the best choice for portrait and carrying it around.

Keep up the great work!

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28 Jerry Callaghan December 10, 2013 at 2:24 am

Thanks for a great article.

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29 Kepano Kekuewa December 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Great timing on the article. I just did a portrait session with the 85mm f/1.4 AFD on my D3s. I wanted to shoot in my relatively short studio with Christmas lights blurred out into bokeh balls behind my subjects. I thought I’d try my GH2 with the fabulous 25mm f/1.4 (which I use primarily for video), but I could not knock the background out of focus as much as I wanted. The 85mm on my FF D3s got the job done.

If I had room, the 70-200mm works nicely. Since we do a lot of portraits on Oahu’s beaches, I’m likely to leave that lens on my camera. But, when I get the chance, I really enjoy putting the “cream machine” into service.

Even if I don’t need/want the shallow DOF, the 85mm is a great lens. Very sharp stopped down. It’s become my studio favorite for headshots.

As always, thanks for your generosity to the photographic community!

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30 John Cameron December 10, 2013 at 8:58 pm

The Canon 85mm f/1.2 II has been a wonderful lens. The relatively tiny 135mm f/2.0 is also one of my all time favourite portrait/sport lenses. And on occasion the 300 f/2.8 can be stunning for portraits.

My all time favourite for full frame 35mm? The Leica 75mm APO Summicron f/2.0 ASPH on the Leica M.

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31 Lafayette December 11, 2013 at 12:38 am

Best blogger ever! Neil is the man!

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32 Sridhar December 11, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Neil,
Love the pull back shots ! So I have a question…With such shallow aperture (like 1.8 and 1.4), how do you maintain focus on the eyes ? What I do is to use aperture priority, set the aperture, with center focus, I half press shutter on eyes and pan down. Is that a good way to do this ? Manual focus might slow things a bit, so curious what your preference is .

thanks !
Sri

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33 Mike Zurynski December 16, 2013 at 1:05 am

You need to be careful with shallow depths of field. Focus and recompose method is shaky. The plane of focus in curved so with only a 1/2 inch in focus, chances are great that critical focus will be missed.

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34 dustin hoang December 11, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Yeah, both Nikon or Canon 85mm fast lens are awesome in term of I.Q and good investment for full-time and well profited photographers but way over priced compare vs. f1.8 cheaper model for seasonal photographers. I have own both of these versions and the Zeiss 100mm Makro. I took real event pictures – church, school, festival, marathon… and also testing pictures compare side by side with condition of everything the same except difference lens for about six months. I came up with get rid of expensive f1.2 version b/c with customer naked eyes, they couldn’t even tell me the differences of these event pictures. However, if you use in static studio lighting, the f1.8 cheaper lens is a tad of cooler and tad less sharp vs. thousand dollars more f1.2 lens if you compare apple to apple. Of course, for the f1.8 version I need to develop a batch post processing method to adjust all pictures color a bit warmer to match with the more expensive version f1.2 lens and that post processing doesn’t take more than 15mins of my post processing time at all. I can let it run by my PC and go get a cup of tea. Come back, all done!!!

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35 Frank December 12, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Neil, do for you think it would be worth investing in the 85 mm lens for portraits if I already have the excellent Canon 100 mm 2.8 L macro lens?

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36 Neil vN December 12, 2013 at 7:31 pm

There’s enough (approximate) overlap there in the focal length, and the lens is compact enough, that you’d have less compelling reason to get an 85mm lens too.

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37 Stephen S January 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm

I have both. Had the 85mn for a while. Just got the 100nm macro for doing just macro shots on my FF 6D. Will help extend me on my crop body as well as its now my longest lens (still saving up for the high cost of a 70-200). But I agree, many folks get the 100mm L macro to get the best of both macro and portrait lens. The 100mm just doesn’t go down to f1.8 so will take a little more to blow out background. If u mainly do portraits and on a budget get the 85. If you want to do closeup work/product shots/flowers then get the 100mm L.

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38 Mike Zurynski December 16, 2013 at 1:09 am

My 85 1.8g has been magical for me. Very glad I purchased it.

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39 Jon Lloyd December 24, 2013 at 2:41 am

Neil (et al)

I use my 70 – 200 f/2.8 for portraits and love it. Recently I have done a fair few profile photos for work colleagues. My usual course of action is to focus on the nearest eye, but at f/2.8 I notice even the tip of an average nose is out of focus.

I assume therefore that the larger the focal length the less noticeable this effect will be? Unfortunately I don’t have a sample here right now to quote actual focal length but I’m guessing very close to 100mm as I tighten the shot a little from my position. The background is super soft which is great and has prompted more that one subject to ask “how do I do that?”

Or is the answer simple a slightly larger aperture?

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40 Augie De Blieck Jr. January 5, 2014 at 9:17 pm

I have a Canon 60D (crop sensor) and both the Canon 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm 1.8. When I quickly look through a library of images in Lightroom, the 85mm shots jump right out at me. They’re amazing. I don’t know exactly what it is about the lens, but the shots have a strong look to them that appeals to me above and beyond any other lens I’ve ever used. (OK, that doesn’t account for too many lenses, but the 85 stands out.)

I actually used the 85mm lens today to shoot my niece’s gymnastics meet. Bad lighting, high ISO needed, and the 85mm was perfect for me. Got some amazing shots with it that any f/2.8 lens wouldn’t have achieved. So it’s also useful for other things, too. =)

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41 Shival January 6, 2014 at 12:39 am

Hello Neil,

I have canon 85 1.8 and its a fantastic lens. Please share your opinion that getting that Shallow DOF wide open at 1.8 can lead to softer image on this lens as its been said that we need to stop down (2 stops) the lens for crisp image. Also, I see that you shot the 85mm 1.2 at 1.4 and not 1.2 any particular reason . With 1.8 I have shot most of the shots at 2.2,2.8. What is your opinion based on your experience.

Regards,
Shival

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42 Stephen S January 6, 2014 at 1:33 pm

No lens except the very high priced pro lenses are at their best/sharpest over the entire image area, when used at their widest and smallest aperatures. Its always best to stop down or open up a bit. But if you want to blow out the background and isolate the subject you don’t care about sharpness in corners/edges as long as your model is in the center or closer to center than right on the edge. If doing a mag ad where it all needed to be sharp for a product page then edge to edge sharpness is important and you would use a f stop for better DOF/sharpness. Use the right technique for the desired effect. Have fun and experiment.

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43 Neil vN January 6, 2014 at 2:01 am

For me, the depth-of-field that I need, as well as a specific “look”, will over-ride such specific concerns about sharpness.

In other words, if an aperture of f/1.4 gives me the look that I desire, that’s what I will use.

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44 Stephen S January 6, 2014 at 1:09 pm

I love my Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens. Agree this lens/focal length take amazing portraits. You can’t go wrong for the money. You could run a side business for portraits using just that 1 lens in your bag…if you had to. Best bang for your buck. I think I need to find more very distracting backgrounds ….Neil gets the best shots from the worst locations again and again. Keep it up. Love all things Neil.

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45 Joe February 20, 2014 at 11:15 am

Great article and discussion Neil. Love the examples!

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46 Fatema March 1, 2014 at 8:06 am

Hi Neil,
I have a 7D, so I’m on crop.
I have the canon 50mm f/1.8 and the 100mm f/2.8 non IS.
I want a walkaround lens that gives similar image quality to the photos you’ve posted, since I mostly shoot portraits too. I don’t need wides.

So I have to choose between the canon 85mm f/1.4, the sigma 70mm f/2.8, the canon 17-55mm (I’ve heard it’s almost L quality and nice for portraits), and the sigma 24-70mm.
If 17-55 produces similar portraits I’d definitely go for it.
Is the 85mm, on a crop, similar in range to the 100mm non IS I have?
What do you think of the two other options listed?

Thank you!

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47 terence March 10, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Hi Niel,
I have a canon 6d with 24-70mm f2.8 & 50mm f1.8. i am planning to buy the 85mm f1.8. Can i do ring and other shots of bridal jewelry with the 85mm? or do i need a 100mm?

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48 Neil vN March 10, 2014 at 11:14 pm

Macro / detail shots are less about the specific focal length, than it is about your lens’ close-focusing capability.

So you’re going to need a proper macro lens or extension tubes, or similar.

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