An informal portrait with the 85mm lens

An informal portrait with the 85mm lens – Sarah S.

Like pretty much every photo geek that I know of, I carry a camera with me wherever I go, for my personal photography. Now when the photography isn’t for an actual planned shoot or professional shoot, but just for fun walk-about – then the choice of gear somehow becomes more involved. What lens should I take – wide, normal or tele. Fixed or zoom. The bulk and weight become considerations – you don’t want to schlep around too much gear.

Creativity and motivation quickly dissipate when your back and feet start to hurt from a camera bag that is too heavy. Nowadays the Fuji X100s (affiliate) is my walk-about take-everywhere camera. The 35mm equivalent lens is a good choice for more scenic views. For example, during my visit in 2014 to South Africa, it is the only camera that I took. Here are some of the results from it: hot-air balloon ride

I tend to oscillate in deciding between 2 lenses for my own photography when I am just out exploring.
– 35mm for more scenic views in mind,
– 85mm when I have tighter perspective and portraits in mind.

I have a specific love for the 85mm lens. I believe this is the best lens to change your portrait photography. That short telephoto gives you some compression to your perspective, and the wider aperture allows you to throw pretty much any background out of focus.

When a photographer friend, Sarah Smith, visited New York, I met up with her and we roamed the streets of Manhattan a bit, exploring. With me I had the D700 that I owned at the time, and the 85mm f/1.4 lens on it.

On 42nd Street, there is a McD’s with this brightly lit ceiling to its entrance. Very New York glitz, especially for a fast food place. I knew that shooting up towards it with a tight composition, would make a beautiful background for an impromptu portrait. I asked Sarah to stop, and then asked her to turn her gaze slightly outwards to the light coming from the street side of the Manhattan sidewalk. I carefully framed the image in my camera’s viewfinder, using shallow depth of field. An interesting background, beautiful light and a very photogenic subject with the right lens. Sometimes it’s this easy, and this quick.


camera settings & photo gear (or equivalents) used

  • 1/640 @ f2 @ 640 ISO … available light only


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25 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Nigel says

    Hi Neil

    Just goes to show, when all the technical stuff is taken away, you can’t beat a good composition and the ‘eye’ for seeing a good image opportunity which in my opinion can’t be taught.

  2. 2DW says

    I’m working my way through your book which is quite helpful. But in this example where you aren’t using any flash, did you have to use any exposure compensation to make sure that her face was properly exposed? Thanks.

  3. 4Corby Chapin says

    Hi Neil,
    Long time follower, first time poster (and master of cliches).

    I have to ask why you shot her at ISO 640 when you were probably able to get a suitable shutter speed from a lower ISO? Just curious.

    PS – I credit you frequently when breaking down my shooting techniques on my blog….you’re the man!

  4. 5 says

    Corby .. no real reason for the ISO being specifically at 640. I don’t have the steadiest of hands. So I always favor higher shutter speeds. I was already at 640 ISO … and just cranked the shutter speed for correct exposure at f2

    I checked out your blog. Thank you for the kind mention. : )

  5. 10Neil vN says

    Zach, nope, available light only. But it wasn’t just a random shot. I considered the background, and the direction of available light.

  6. 12Wally Kilburg says

    Yeah, the 85mm is a gem and probably my most used lens. Even with my Fuji X Series interchangeable bodies the 56mm 1.2 is my pick. I’ve flirted with 135mm and might make the jump if I found one that I really liked. I hope the rumor for a Sigma 135mm f/whatever Art is true.

    Good post, great picture. Always nice to take a break and look at Tangents. Nice mix of subjects lately. Take care.

  7. 15Steven Scholten says

    Hi Neil. Yeah 85mm is great. allthough I uses a x-pro1 with an 56mm, bur that’s about the same. Great combo!!

  8. 17Todd S. says


    I’d be interested what your meter mode was on and what did you meter off for this shot? Great work as always.

  9. 18 says

    I’m nearly always in Matrix / Evaluative metering mode. But this doesn’t really matter, because I shoot in Manual exposure mode, and meter selectively. And I check my LCD preview.

  10. 19 says

    Hi Neil,

    Would you say that shooting an 85mm wide open can be a bit challenging in terms of camera shake? I have the Canon 85mm f/1.8, and lately found that I am getting a bit of blur when shooting close at f/1.8. I get better result at 2.8. I have until May before my warranty is over. I will put it to more tests before then…but it’s kind of cold in Canada for the time being.

    • 19.1Iftekhar says

      Patrick, it’s possible that your lens and camera body have some misalignment, leading to some degree of front/back focusing which is becoming more visible at f/1.8. An autofocus microadjust (or AF Fine Tune, on Nikon) might help.

      Of course, when you’re shooting close, there’s very little depth of field so you need to be very steady too. It’s not really camera shake per se – that’s usually blurred images, and wide open it would seem that you’d be getting focus shifts. Also, most lenses are sharper once you stop them down a bit, so f/2.8 would naturally look sharper than f/1.8.

  11. 20 says

    You’re confusing two things here:
    1.) mis-focused images because of too shallow depth-of-field and not controlling your own unsteady movements,
    2.) too slow shutter speed causing camera shake.

  12. 22 says

    Thanks Neil for sharing this and greetings from over the pond. I think at times we can all get too caught up in the gear and technical stuff, so it can be really liberating to strip back the kit and make the best out of what you see.

  13. 23Beatriz says

    Thanks a lot Neil for the quality of your tutorials, they are really a great help for people like me, who are getting into this fascinating world of photography.

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