Is 85mm A Good Portrait Lens? Here’s Our Take…

Is 85mm a good portrait lens? Here’s our take…

So, is 85mm a good portrait lens? It’s a question that’s been asked for decades, and I’m sure will continue to be asked for years to come.  That’s why I thought it would be a good idea to discuss this topic in depth.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a much better understanding of what makes a good portrait lens and, most importantly, how the 85mm stacks up to that.

Without further ado, let’s get to it!

So, what makes a good portrait lens?

Without going into too much detail (I will be posting an actual article) - the three aspects of a lens that makes it a great portrait lens include:

  • Bokeh
  • Distortion
  • Compression

Bokeh is the depth of field effect which causes a blurry background.  This is considered by most to be the single most important (and apparent) factor between a professional and an amateur photograph.  It’s also very apparent in film/video as well.  In either instance, if you see bokeh, you immediately assume it’s professional (or vice versa).  Camera phones are even attempting to “fake” this effect, by adding a blurry background to your photos in live-view mode.  Mind you, the lens isn’t accomplishing this, software is.

Is 85mm A Good Portrait Lens

Perfect exmaple of bokeh and "bokeh balls" in the background.

Distortion may not be as apparent to some.  Some don’t even think about it when taking photos or choosing a lens to take said photo.  But, every lens is affected by distortion. It’s the focal length (and build quality) of the lens that determines the severity of it.  For instance, a 24mm lens wouldn’t be great to take a portrait with, because it makes the face very narrow and unnatural.  It’s actually not attractive.  A 50mm shows distortion, slightly, but it’s much better than the 24mm.  Determining the correct focal length and build quality is a must.

Is 85mm A Good Portrait Lens

Example of lens distortion

Compression is something even fewer think about!  In basic terms, compression is the “squeezing” of the foreground and background into the midground.  A great example of this would be a great portrait with a nicely sized mountain range in the background.  If the size of the mountain looks significant, than the lens used was a high focal length.  The opposite is apparent when using a wide or low focal length (like a cell phone).  The background is generally small and unappealing.  Needless to say, compression plays a very large role in great portraits.  That’s why I believe it’s so important, and without a doubt, should be noted when determining what makes a good portrait lens!

Is 85mm A Good Portrait Lens

Example of background compression.  The water fountain was further away and smaller in the actual scene.

What makes the 85mm “so good”?

To answer the articles question, is 85mm a good portrait lens… yes.  It is one of the best and continues to be my go-to portrait lens (90% of the time).

So, what makes the lens so good then? Well, we will go through the next few sections explaining why, and why we recommend it over nearly any focal length.

Complete separation - Remember when we talked about bokeh and how it’s so important?  Well, an 85mm lens takes it to the next level.  To start, a prime lens like an 85mm can stop it’s aperture down to at least f1.8.  This is going to give you buttery bokeh to begin with.  But combine the compression and the buttery bokeh, and you get complete separation between your subject and their background.  I Haven’t found anything that comes close to it - mainly because there aren’t many prime lenses past 85mm that stop down this low.  It’s the sweet spot for background/subject separation.

Complete separation from the background.

The second aspect of the 85mm that makes it so good is the bokeh itself.  “Buttery” bokeh is about the best way I can describe it.  There really isn't anything else that I can say to describe it. The little bokeh balls that are created are amazing, especially if they’re catching light.  This effect is accomplished by the compression of the lens and the low aperture ability.  

Distortion doesn’t play much of a role in this lens - and personally, is the perfect focal length for the human face.  This is an incredibly subjective opinion. There are folks that believe a 100mm or 200mm look better on the face. But after thousands of shutter clicks on hundreds of faces (and using lots of focal lengths), I have found 85mm to be the most flattering.  There’s a clear difference a 24mm - and even  a difference from something such as a 50mm.

No distortion on this 85mm f1.8

Lastly, is compression.  Remember, you don’t have to run your aperture wide open all of the time.  While it can look cool, you may find yourself having a hard time seeing what the subjects background actually is. 

What I like to do is set my aperture a little high, like f4 or f5.6 (while maintaining the same distance) and take the shot.  This is where compression really shines through.  The subjects background is not only clearer because I’m using a smaller aperture, but the background seems larger and more apparent. This is without moving your subject closer to the background.  This is great for instances when your subject can’t get closer or you want to emphasize a structure or landscape.

This shows compression - the fountain and trees look much closer than they actually were.

Be aware of the camera you’re using

The Canon 80D is a crop sensor camera

I thought it would be fitting to mention… be aware of the camera you’re using.  Specifically, if the camera is full frame or a crop sensor.

A full frame is just that.  The image that produced is equivalent to standard 35mm film.  A crop sensor on the other hand would be  cropping in on a sensor of that size.  Generally, the crop is either 1.5x or 1.6x.  So, how does this mean and how does this affect you?

Well, when you’re looking through an 85mm lens on a full frame camera, the result is a true 85mm lens.  That’s exactly what an 85mm lens would look like.

On a crop sensor, you’ll have to multiply the focal length of the lens to the crop factor.  For instance, an 85mm lens on a crop sensor of 1.5x would be - 85x1.5 which would equate to 127.5mm.   You would now be using a 127.5mm focal length instead of an 85mm.  If you wanted an 85mm focal length on a 1.5x crop sensor, you would want something closer to 50mm (or 56.6mm to be exact).  The math behind that would be 85/1.5.

Keep in mind… focal length and the compression both factor into this.  If you slide the 85mm on that crop sensor which turns it into a 127mm focal length, your compression will be magnified as well.

It’s very important to know what camera sensor you’re using and adjust (or be ready) accordingly.

Below is a video  to better explain this, and in more detail.

To sum it all up…

I’m hoping at this point you better understand both the technical and creative aspects of why an 85mm is such a good lens.  

To solidify the information, you have to remember there are facts about the lens and what it does.  Then there are creative “tastes” that are brought with the lens.  

The facts include:

  • More flattering on a human face than lower focal lengths
  • More compression than lower focal lengths

“Personal taste”/opinion/style advantages include:

  • “Intensity” of subject-to-background separation
  • Bokeh capabilities

A few cons…

I only have a couple cons when it comes to the 85mm.

The first can be price.  Price can be an issue for any lens, even a 50mm.  But there's one thing that is apprarent when it comes to an 85mm. Unlike a 50mm where companies like Canon make an affordable $125 version… there really isn’t an “affordable” 85mm.  At least to the 50mm standard.

The least expensive Sony version I could find (I’m a Sony shooter), with autofocus, was the Sony 85mm f1.8.  This is cheaper than the Samyang/off brand versions - at $600.  While not incredibly expensive…  it would be nioce to see a reliable 85mm under $400.

The other negative is it’s reach.  You won’t be using this in tight studio environments.  This is when I switch to a 50mm.  Rule of thumb for myself, If I’m outside shooting a client (70% of the time) - I am using an 85mm.  Studio or any other tight environment, I generally won’t fight it, I’ll switch to a 50mm.

Let’s wrap it up

A lot of the “is this lens good” questions can generally only be answered by yourself.  You need to ask yourself if the look that this lens gives would work for you.  Is it a lens you would find yourself using more than not?  How much could this lens improve your work?  Those are questions you should ask yourself…

Then rent the lens.  Rent it for a week or two.  You’ll get a great feel for it and you’ll answer this question yourself!

I really hope this article answered your question of, is 85mm a good portrait lens.  Let me know below if it did, and if it didn’t, ask your questions there as well!

Take a look at my other gear recommendation articles. If you’re new to photography, I have started a beginners guide section that may help you along your learning journey!

As always, thank you so much for reading.  Until next time, keep shooting!!

Jeff

I have been taking photos and film since I was a child. Now that I'm in my mid 30's, I want to share with the world what I have learned over the years. I attempt to live every day to the fullest and share that with you through my blog. I am an electrician by trade and photo and video lie within the "hobby" aspect of my life at the moment. It's what I'm truly passionate about.
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