photo session with various 85mm lenses

photo session using various 85mm lenses  (model: Jess B.)

A fast 85mm lens is an essential addition to any camera bag, whether an f1.8 or f1.4  or even an f1.2 aperture. With their shallow depth of field, and the pleasant perspective for portraits (when not used with a super-tight composition), these lenses will have your subject just pop from the background.

Jessica and I are busy with a new project – testing various 85mm lenses – specifically for how their bokeh appears in comparison. It is proving a tad more difficult than I had hoped for to show when poor bokeh is truly distracting, and when a lens with great bokeh is immediately superior. But then, the deep-freeze temperatures here recently hasn’t helped us either in scouting for locations. But we’ll still get there. (So this is not the comparative review yet.)

In the meantime, I wanted to show a few images off. They were all shot at wide apertures, using only the available light wherever we were.

The photograph above was taken on the steps inside a train station, using only the available light streaming in. In posing Jessica, I made sure that the direction of light made sense in creating open light on her face.
1/250 @ f1.4 @ 800 ISO
Canon 5D mk II (B&H);  Canon 85mm f1.2 II (B&H)


1/250 @ f1.4 @ 400 ISO
Sony Alpha A-900 (B&H); Sony 85mm f/1.4 Carl Zeiss Planar T* (B&H)

The Sony 85mm f1.4 which is a Zeiss design, was an impressive lens.
The lens has a solid feel and is super-sharp with smooth bokeh.

1/320 @ f1.4 @ 400 ISO
Sony Alpha A-900 (B&H); Sony 85mm f/1.4 Carl Zeiss Planar T* (B&H)

The Sony A-900 showed more noise than I’d ideally like, but with 24 megapixels to play with, and noise-reduction in post-processing, it wasn’t something that would be a problem for most photography.

1/4000 @ f1.2 @ 200 ISO
Canon 5D mk II (B&H);  Canon 85mm f1.2 II (B&H)

With bright highlights as the sun reflected off the leaves in the background, this lens is just incredible in the look it gives to any image.


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


1/400 @ f1.4 @ 800 ISO
Nikon D3 (B&H);  Nikon 85mm f1.4G (B&H)

1/500 @ f1.4 @ 800 ISO
Nikon D3 (B&H);  Nikon 85mm f1.4G (B&H)

1/320 @ f1.8 @ 400 ISO
Nikon D3 (B&H);  Nikon 85mm f1.4G (B&H)

I love this photo! But it really needs to be viewed as a much larger image to see how this lens renders the transition from sharp to out of focus.

I under-exposed this photograph when I took it, and it needed to be bumped up by a stop in post-processing … just in case someone is trying to figure out the relative brightness of the interior of the train station here. Sometimes the camera settings don’t tell you much about the actual exposure.

1/320 @ f1.8 @ 400 ISO
Nikon D3 (B&H);  Nikon 85mm f1.4G (B&H)



The photographs had some post-processing done to them – skin retouching, and a milder version of my usual retouching for portraits. No dodging & burning or local corrections though.  I do want the photographs here to be representative of what these lenses do.

While the photographic composition is quite straight-forward for these portraits, hopefully the show how effective 85mm lenses can be for their shallow depth-of-field and the way the background blurs. So, whether an f1.8 or faster, you need one!



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28 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Steve says


    Awesome post. It was a similar post a few months ago that convinced me to pick up the 85 1.8 from Canon. Can’t wait to put it to good use once spring finally shows up here in MI!


  2. 2Kevin says

    I love 85mm primes….. *drool*

    Hopefully you’ll be able to test out the Sigma 85mm f1.4 and share with us your opinion on it.

    One question though. There’s so little difference between 1.8 and 1.4, when do you set your aperture to 1.8? I would tend to shoot it wide open.

  3. 3 says

    I believe that to give a fair comparison of lenses, you have to shoot exactly the same scene with each lens, in the way lens reviewers do. My personal favourite is the way in which the guys at review lenses (especially because of their brutally teutonic approach to criticising lenses). For instance, this page includes the discussion of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L USM II’s bokeh characteristic:

    Unfortunately, the guys at photozone seem not to have been very active lately, and they could do with putting up a few more Nikon lens reviews.

    You may want to look at setting up the kind of studio scene that the guys at photozone use – purposely including objects that are difficult to render. If you really want to compare the characteristics of these lenses, and especially show any weaknesses, that is probably the only way to do it, especially if you want to compare the performance of different lenses.

  4. 4 says

    Geoff, this is nowhere near being a comparative review. As I mention at the start, this post is just to show off a few images in the meantime, that I like. So this post is more like a mini-celebration of the 85mm lens.

    For the comparisons, I’m working with the cameras on a tripod and shooting at various apertures.

    So the actual comparison will be posted in a week or two.

    Neil vN

  5. 6Eric says

    I’m buying a Delorian next week, I’m knocking about 20 years off my age and I’m going to woo Jessie off her feet. Roses might do the trick. Oh yes a Nikon 85mm 1.4 sounds great too.

  6. 8Mike says

    Hi Neil,

    I shoot with APS-C cameras. An 85 mm lens multiplied by a factor of x1.6 will yeild 136 mm of focal length.

    A 50 mm F1.4 lens on a cropped sensor camera transforms into an 80 mm lens.

    For APS-C shooters out there, would you recommend a 50mm instead of an 85mm? I’ve seen some posts on your blog advising against shooting intimate photo sessions with a 50 mm, but i do think you were addressing it from a perspective of a photographer with a full-sensor camera (i think all your current equipment is full frame).

    In your opinion, is the “look” of a 50mm on a cropped frame similar to that of an 85 mm on a full frame?

    Thank you!

  7. 9 says

    Mike, that’s a topic that has been discussed so many times, and obfuscated as often. I think it might be a good topic for a future post with actual examples. [ placeholder ]

    Neil vN

  8. 10Max Zuman says

    Oh, Neil, since you do have a Sony – if you could try the Sony/Minolta 135STF Lens…
    As of what i`ve seen on Flickr or elsewhere on the net, its a wonderfull lens that renders bokeh like no other.

  9. 11 says

    Max .. the Sony A900 was a rental. It had to go back. So the Sony/Minolta 135STF will have to wait a while before I get to try it out.

    As lovely as the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 lens is, it felt like a couple of steps back working with a camera body so much less responsive than the Nikon D3.

    Neil vN

  10. 12Anthony says

    So when is Jess starting her own little corner on your site. im sure she could all teach us a thing or two having worked with you this long now… :-)

  11. 13 says

    @Mike, 50mm on crop will give you an equivalent 80mm field of view, as you know already. But at the same aperture, the dof of a 85mm lens on ff and of 50mm lens on crop is so so different; so on crop you are ‘forced’ to shoot wide open but on ff not to have the same dof. Plus of that, because you are not ‘forced’ on ff cameras to shoot wide open, stopping down a lens with 1 stop will give you more contrast, more sharpness etc. As an example to have the same dof with an 50mm on crop you need to have f/1.4 and the 85mm on ff will have f/2.2. In this case, 500mm is soft because is wide open, 85mm is sharper because is little bit stopped-down. I am talking from my experience because i had using 50mm on crop and now i have ff cameras. Cheers. >M<

  12. 14 says

    Most interesting and informative Neil; particlarly as an 85mm prime is likely to be my next purchase (for use on a Canon 5D). There’s been a lot of interest in the new Sigma 85mm F1.4 and if you were offered the chance to review that, I’d be very interested in your thoughts. It would very nicely (for me), complete the picture. No pun intended!

  13. 15 says

    Ed .. I’ve only taken a few test shots with the Sigma 85mm f1.4 lens (on both the Canon and Nikon bodies), and my initial impression is that is a surprisingly good lens. But more about that later when I’ve played some more with it.

    Neil vN

  14. 16Angelo Chiu says

    Great post as usual, Neil! And a very timely one as I just used my 85mm 1.8 last Sunday. I sure do need more practice with it but I’m already loving it so much (except for the purple fringing). I was able to write myself a blog entry on my experience with the 85mm at . Maybe you can check it out, comment, or anything.

    More power to Neil! Cheers!

  15. 17 says

    Good work!

    Though, comparing bokeh is hard. There are lot of things that affect how bokeh looks. See my article (not yet finished, a work in progress) about evaluating bokeh:

    Btw, I have Sigma 85/1.4 now, I plan to do some review on my pages. Probably comparative review with other Sigmas (30/1.4, 50/1.4) which I also own. Unfortunately I don’t own any Nikon primes to compare with them.
    In terms of pleasing bokeh in background, I consider Sigma 50/1.4 to be better than Sigma 85/1.4 – see my bokeh article to learn why.

  16. 18 says

    Oh my gosh Neil …you have to stop making our mouths water with all these great lenses.I have just recently purchased my first L series 70-200 and I love it – whose fault ? yours with all the wonderfull pictures you take .
    Nice comparaisons but diffcult to concentrate on the lens quality what with your wonderfull “assistant with an attitude” Jessica,doing the posing.

  17. 20Jorge R. Mejias says

    Hi Neil, I have the shape version of Canon 1.8mm, this is an amazing had been show us a great job with this one,,

  18. 21Rich Poinvil says

    I’ve tried the Sigma 85 f/1.4 on 2 occasions. Once on a D3 at Sigma’s booth at Photo Expo and the other time was on my Nikon body at a different venue. The lenses’ focusing was too jumpy on both bodies (Deal Breaker).
    The bokeh was nice though.
    BTW Neil, just about done with the book. It’s near perfect.

  19. 22Eduardo B. says

    Hi Neil,

    I noticed you have been shooting with 5d mark2 this days. Wich one is better in high iso, 5d mark2 or D3?


  20. 24 says

    Hi Neil, thanks for sharing. I’m currently in the market for a Nikon 85 1.8D (almost bought a used one today), but not sure if the 1.4D is worth the extra $. Looking forward to see your comparison review soon!

  21. 25Mike says

    Marius and Neil, thanks for the replies!

    Neil, I think a comparison between crop sensor vs full frame sensor cameras (and how same and different lenses compare between them) would be a wonderful addition to your blog. I think if you manage to pull it off in a thoughtful and thorough way (like you always do) you audience would benefit tremendously.

    I think simply due to price, most people who read your blog shoot with some sort of a cropped body (1.6 most likely). Looking forward to the review!

    As always, thanks for extremely inspiring photos and great reads!

  22. 26Christian says


    If you coupled a Nikon 50 1.4 AFS with that D3100 that you have, it would be interesting to see some examples of that combination with the lens wide open.


  23. 27 says

    Christian … as mentioned in that article, the Nikon D3100 was sent to me by B&H for review purposes. It’s gone back a long while ago. But I could perhaps try this with another DX crop camera at some point.

    Neil vN

  24. 28Christian says

    Thanks Neil,

    Maybe they can send you a D7000 for review, hopefully you won’t get a lemon (I’m sure you’ve heard about all the back focusing issues with that camera).



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