85mm – the best lens to change your portrait photography

85mm – the best 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 (affiliate);  Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G (affiliate)


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 shallow depth-of-field effect at f/1.8 so if your budget is limited these are excellent choices too.

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM (affiliate) is arguably their best lens for the best price.
Similarly, the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G (affiliate) too is an optical gem at an affordable price.

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


85mm on a full-frame camera vs 50mm on a crop sensor

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 (affiliate);  Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G (affiliate)




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.


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59 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 6Justin says

    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!


  2. 7 says

    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

  3. 8 says

    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?

    • 8.1 says

      i also have a 85mm 1.4 manual ony! it works verry well, and i wouldnt change it for a upgrade to autofocus unless sharpness is improved and bokeh quaity is better. i have the 5D mii and the samyang and in the beggining i had trouble focusing, but then i stumbled over a focusing screen (eg-s) and it makes it so much easier and i hit focus 99% of the time

      Please visit https://www.flickr.com/photos/robin_antonsen/ to see my pictures! the last ones are from the samyang

    • 9.1Howard Tarragon says

      Yes, I’ve been thinking about the Sigma. $$$ At some point, yes. Wow! It’s been 2 years. didn’t see your reply when you posted.

  4. 10 says

    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?

  5. 11 says

    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!

  6. 12Rudy says


    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 :)


  7. 13 says

    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.

  8. 14Phil G says

    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.

  9. 15MIKE says

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

  10. 17DARREN says

    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. :-)

  11. 19Erol Cagdas says

    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!

  12. 20 says

    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!

  13. 21 says

    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.

  14. 22 says

    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!

  15. 23Rafael Steffen says

    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!

  16. 24Kepano Kekuewa says

    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!

  17. 25 says

    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.

  18. 27Sridhar says

    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 !

    • 27.1 says

      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.

  19. 28dustin hoang says

    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!!!

  20. 29 says

    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?

  21. 30 says

    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.

    • 30.1Stephen S says

      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.

  22. 32 says

    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?

  23. 33 says

    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. =)

  24. 34 says

    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.


    • 34.1Stephen S says

      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.

  25. 35 says

    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.

  26. 36Stephen S says

    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.

  27. 38Fatema says

    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!

  28. 39terence says

    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?

  29. 40 says

    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.

  30. 41ayaz says

    Neil I was wondering how close the camera was to the model in the last photo you posted (the model with the short hair) to get such good selective focus – i.e. the eyes in focus and everything else receding into a pleasing blur. In general, with the 85 mm 1.8G, what is the optimal distance between subject and camera you go for to get that massively effective Bokeh? The soft out of focus areas of the face pic reminds me of the portraits taken from large format view camera’s from 80-100 years ago. Very nice!!
    Also don’t you get better Bokeh with the 85mm compared to the 70-200 since that one is an f2.8?

  31. 43ayaz says

    yes – i agree – sorry was using those two words interchangeably :)

    To be more precise – to get the really shallow depth of field I’ve seen in your close up portraits and headshots, how far do you like to position yourself from the subject when using the above mentioned lenses? Also how much of that depth of field in your opinion is contributed by having a full frame sensor?

    thanks for being so prolific!

  32. 44Bill Merritt says

    Would you recommend this lens for use shooting boxing and MMA matches in pretty lousy light? My cameras (5Dc & 40D) are older and max out at ISO 3200. Need all the help I can get appreciated until budget allows either a MK lll or maybe a total switch to a Nikon 610 for high ISO capabilities. Love your tips, especially flash help. Have a few versions of the ‘BFT”. Love em’! lol
    Sincerest thanks for everything.

  33. 46sandeep says

    Hi Neil – which one would you recommend 50mm f1.4 or 85mm f1.4? why? I would appreciate your thoughts. Thanks.

  34. 49lisa says

    I own the cannon rebel T5i and I am wondering if the EF 85 mm f/ 1.8 for slr you mentioned is compatible with my camera.

  35. 51 says

    Hmm,I already own 35mm F/1.4 and 70-200 F/2.8.I am still considering to get 50mm F/1.4 or 85mm F/1.4.
    Which one is more recommended for wedding use?I always shoot indoor for wedding where space is pretty limited,this makes me thinking 50mm F/1.4 is a better choice.However,I love how the 85mm F/1.4 isolate the background,the compression and the perceived distortion.How me out here man.

  36. 53Uanderson Brittes says

    i know this was posted some years ago, but could you please tell me if the 100 f2.0 (canon) would be a better choice compared to an 85mm 1.8? thanks in advance Neil

  37. 54 says

    I think the 100mm would be a better choice since 100mm / 105mm is usually considered the ideal focal length for portraits.

    85mm can be too wide if you come in very close – there is spatial distortion.

    That said, I am not familiar with the image quality of the 100mm f/2 lens.

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