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In this video, Pye gives four reasons why the 85mm prime lens has become a staple in a portrait photographer’s toolkit and he also shares how to use it.
Video Tutorial for How to Use 85mm Lens:
So, why has the 85mm prime lens become a go-to for portrait photographers? We’re going to answer that burning question and at the same time show you different ways to use the lens for maximum effect.
Note: The following points really apply to the 85mm as well as other lenses that produce similar results. In other words, lenses like the Sigma Art 105mm f/1.4 or a 100mm Macro lens will be used in similar fashion for portrait photography.
Reason #1: Works Well for Both Full Length and Closeup Portraits
While other lenses, such as 24mm or 35mm primes, have their place in a portrait photographer’s toolkit, they don’t work quite as well as the 85mm for closeup portraits. Whenever you shoot tight on a wide angle lens, you have to be mindful of lens distortion and position your subjects in the center of the frame to avoid distorting their features. This can limit your options compositionally, unless you’re using the distortion for effect, which many photographers, including myself, do. See the image below, for example. I’ve used a 24mm to add energy to the photo and fill the frame the people standing around the bride.
Even a 50mm prime lens will cause noticeable distortion in closeup portraits. On 50mm or wider lenses, I generally won’t shoot any closer than a medium angle, as illustrated in the images below.
Once we jump to an 85mm or 100mm prime, these issues fall away and we’re free to move in close without worrying about distorting our subject’s features (see the images below). The added benefit of using a macro is the exceptionally short minimum shooting distance between the lens and the subject, which allows for punching in on close-up details.
[Related Reading: Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L USM Review | The Best 85mm Ever?]
Reason #2: Incredible, Exaggerated Depth of Field When Shooting Wide Open
When used with wide-open apertures, 85mm (and similar) prime lenses produce an exaggerated depth of field that photographers and the people they photograph love. It’s simple. If you have a busy background, all you need to do is backlight your subjects (whether using the sun or flashes) and shoot it wide open. It’s a recipe for success, pretty much every time. In the portrait below, my friends asked for a quick portrait in the street, and it came out great because of the nutella-like-buttery-smooth depth of field from shooting wide open on the 85mm.
I’ve loved all of the 85mm primes I’ve used over the years, from the entry level cheap lenses to the pricer premium lenses. If it offers a wide aperture (anywhere from f/1.2 to f/1.8), you’re going to get the same effect, and it’s going to be glorious. The only caveat is that manual focus lenses (as you’ll know if you’ve ever used them) are not very user friendly and can become cumbersome to use in the field, especially in a high stress situation like a wedding. You likely won’t see pitches for manual 85mm wedding photography lenses any time soon. That said, the image below was captured with the Zeiss Otis manual 85mm prime and it came through with tack-sharp focus and insanely smooth depth of field.
Reason #3: Amazing Perspective Compression
We often confuse Perspective Compression with Lens Compression, but here we’re referring specifically to Perspective Compression. Essentially, using an 85mm or longer focal length (such as the 105mm, for example), we have to stand farther away from our subject and then use the focal length to “zoom” back in on the scene, giving the illusion of pulling the background closer to our subject.
In the image(s) above, you can see how the columns in the background appear closer to our subjects than they actually are. For backgrounds with repeating patterns (such as the columns above), the effects of perspective compression you get when using an 85mm prime lens are especially powerful in the way background elements fill the frame and add unique depth to the image. You don’t get this same effect when shooting with wider focal lengths like 24mm, 35mm, or even 50mm lenses. The look becomes more exaggerated with longer focal lengths, but the 85mm and 105mm focal lengths at wide open apertures offer a sweet spot for making the most of perspective compression.
This focal length (between the 85mm and 105mm range) also works well with other compositional tools like leading lines. In the image(s) above, you can see I used the lines in the wall to lead right to our subject.
Reason #4: The 85mm Prime Lens Allows for Background Control
With any of the lenses that fall between the 85mm to 105mm (and even 135mm) focal length, we have a lot of background control as we have multiple things working in conjunction, including the points I’ve already listed above (tighter focal length, wide aperture, and perspective compression).
In the image above, we’re essentially shooting our subjects at a significant distance and framing them over the open ocean, which creates a unique perspective and opens up the negative space with a smooth falloff in detail as the ocean fades into the background.
In the example above, we’re actually shooting next to a parking lot in Los Angeles, but because of the tight focal length, shallow depth of field, and compression, we’re able to use the plants to frame out the subjects and limit the elements in our scene; as a result, it looks more like we’re shooting out in a lush field. The same is true for the images below.
That Said, Here Are Two Cons
While the 85mm and similar lenses help us create beautiful images, they don’t come without these considerations.
Con #1: Not Ideal for Shooting in Tighter Spaces
I would not typically use an 85mm lens in a tight shooting space unless I was specifically looking to capture images like those shared above. If you’re walking into a room that doesn’t offer a lot of space to shoot in, the 85mm is going to be difficult to use and you’ll find its versatility limited.
Con #2: Slower Focus at Wide Open Apertures
When shooting at wide-open apertures, lenses like the 85mm are going to be slower to focus. The speed, of course, will vary based on the make and model of the lens, but you’ll generally find that they require more time to lock focus, especially in dimly lit environments. If you’re shooting a scene with a significant amount of motion, it’s going to be tough to nail the shot and the experience will likely prove frustrating.
If you’re looking to add to your gear bag and you don’t already have an 85mm prime lens, the reasons listed above should create a case for considering this focal length (or any lens in the 85mm to 135mm range). You can find several different makes and models with features and a price point to suit your needs.
We also included tips and examples to show you how to get the most out of your lens because—as we often say—knowing how to use the gear you have is more important than having gear you don’t know how to use. If you’re interested in furthering your photography education, check out our full library of SLR Lounge Premium workshops. With courses dedicated to everything from posing and lighting to editing photos or building your business, it’s a world-class resource for content you can use to become a better and more successful photographer.