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How The 85mm Saved My Portrait Session

By Joseph Cha on December 18th 2013

My Hesitation Buying an 85mm

I had considered buying the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II for many years, but I just couldn’t justify it, especially since I already owned the Canon 50mm f/1.2 and a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II. But one day my 50mm needed servicing, and I had a wedding coming up. I felt like this would be a great chance to try out the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II, because in the back of my mind I thought “I could always return it if I don’t like it.” I ended up falling in love with the lens, and now it goes with me on every shoot.

Canon 85mm 1.2

I’ve nicknamed this lens “the wristbreaker”

The Situation

I was on my way to do a quick portrait session for a friend’s daughter. She was turning 1 and having her first birthday party on the weekend, and they wanted to have a photo to print. “No problem” I thought, I would simply go to their house, take a couple photos, and be done. I had packed minimally for this shoot, only taking my Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 50mm f/1.2, and my Canon 85mm f/1.2 II (because those 3 things fit perfectly in my 13in One Bag).

I wanted to do the daughters portraits outdoors, but the backyard was narrow and there was only a small amount of shade. My mind immediately thought “Which background will look the best” and after looking around, I realized my options were limited.

narrow backyard

We started this shoot at noon, so shooting in the sun would give me harsh shadows, and shooting in the shade towards the sun would completely blow out my background. After judging the direction of the sun in the shade using the hand technique, my only option was to shoot in the shade towards an unphotogenic wall of vines and leaves.

unphotogenic wall of leaves

85mm Saves The Day

With my composition finally figured out, my next thought was “How can I blur out that back ground as much as possible.” The answer was simple, 85mm. Shooting with the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II turned the background from sharp leaves to a nice, blended, and not so distracting green. I shot these portraits at f/2.8 to make sure everything in the face is sharp, and I’m extremely happy with the results. All of these photos were shot at ISO 100 f/2.8 at 1/200 sec.

example1

The best part about this shoot was that because I knew exactly how I wanted these photos to look, I simply put them in Lightroom, applied the “01-10 BASE – SOFT: 10c. Soft – Skin Desat” preset, and I was done! With the Lightroom v5 preset system I was able to edit, export, and deliver 54 images in about 10 minutes!

tryptic

Of course if you’re considering buying an 85mm, you don’t have to bankrupt yourself by going with the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II. There are many great 85mm’s out there. Do you use an 85? Do you love it? Let us know in the comments!

 

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About

I’m a photographer and cinematographer based in Southern California. When I don’t have a camera in my face I enjoy going to the movies and dissecting the story telling and visual aesthetics.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Madison

    Right now I only have the 18-55 millimeter lens that came with my camera and am looking to get a second one. Would you suggest getting a 50mm prime lens or and 85mm? I do mostly journalistic and portrait shots.

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    • Joseph

      the 50mm will be better suited for journalistic and portrait shots, simply because it has a more versatile focal length. Out of all the primes I use (35, 50, and 85) my 50mm gets the most use because of it’s versatility and image quality. Hope that helped!

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  2. Kathy

    I just ordered the 85mm1.2 yesterday!!
    Can’t wait…

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  3. Timothy Skinner

    I bought the Sigma 85mm f1.4, and I love it. Its extremely sharp. I’ll use it as a portrait lens, or even with Kenko extension rings as a macro lens. Its great, and a lot cheaper than the Canon L. :-)

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  4. Jonathan Pang

    Like what you said I’ve got nearly all the essential lenses in my bag and being a wedding photographer I thought 85 f1.2 II was a luxurious add to my bag. Anyhow, I have finally committed to this marvelous lens on my recent trip to HongKong. No regret!

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    • Joseph

      exactly, it wasn’t a necessity until I realized how much quality it adds to my photos. Being able to seclude my subjects in such shallow depths of field gives me a new way to compose my photos. Hope you had a ton of fun in Hong Kong!

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  5. Danny vera

    My 85mm is one of my fav lenses aside my 50mm, of course they are not the L series but still deliver amazing shots.

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  6. Phil

    When you deliver that many shots in so little time you devalue the service. Time is NOT of the essence in delivering photos. Sure, you can edit them in minutes but half the fun of getting pics made is the anticipation of getting them. The more anticipation, the more value.

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    • Joseph

      I would have to disagree, especially in this case. They needed the photos quickly so they can decide which one to print for the weekend, and in no way did the quality of the editing suffer because I knew exactly how I shot it, and exactly how I was going to edit the photos. Also I don’t agree with anticipation adding value. I once had to wait 30 minutes for a burger at Innout because it was so crowded, and it did not taste any better.

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    • Bill

      I don’t agree. Does anybody like to wait for any purchase? Does waiting for something add any perceived value to any product, or does it just piss you off? I agree that sufficient time should be spent making sure everything is edited correctly in post, but I pride myself in delivering my product (usually via URL) to my customers quickly – while they are still excited about the shoot.

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    • Ranalli

      I see both sides of this here.

      Turning stuff over very quickly can(but not always) make it appear to the customer that whatever you are doing is quick, easy, and requires little talent…regardless of whether or not it is truly the case. When you work with people in the industry this is obviously not the case but for the uneducated customer…yes, perception is a part of your overall marketing success.

      On the other hand, making customers wait weeks and weeks for photos is not good either. If you’re doing a paid session for a toddler I’d recommend getting proofs to the customer in a week or less so they are still enthused enough about the shoot to make a purchase of prints.

      Since these were for a friend really none of this applies.

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  7. John Smith

    Well, seems to me you coulda saved y’se’f a pocketfull of $$ if you’d shot it with your 70-200. You know, f/2.8 and all . . . That being said, I do like my Sigma 85mm f/1.4.

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    • Joseph

      There’s a couple reasons why I shot with the 85mm. In this case I simply didn’t have the 70-200. The size and weight of the 70-200 just makes it very difficult to carry, especially to quick shoots like these. Also one thing I noticed is that the 70-200 is very intimidating especially for babies, so shooting behind the 85 is SLIGHTLY more discreet (slightly because it’s still huge). There are also subtle differences in the bokeh between the 85mm and 70-200 when shooting them both at 2.8. The 70-200’s bokeh is more rounded off and complete where the 85mm is more blended and soft.

      In the end most of this becomes subjective to preference, as for this case I’m glad I shot with the 85mm and I would not shoot it any other way.

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  8. Juan Kis

    I’ve been using the Canon 85mm 1.8 for a few years and I love it for portraits.
    I usually shoot at f2.8. Super sharp, great bokeh and very affordable, Today around $400. Sometimes you can buy the refurbished version directly from Canon for about $330.

    For those who say “I already have the 85mm in my kit lens!”. This is another league. Try it and let me know! You will love it!

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  9. Tanya

    Cute shots! I have the 85 1.8 and love it for portraits, though it’s not as sharp as I’d like. A good friend swears by the sigma 85. He practically shoots entire weddings with that thing.

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  10. Leo Hoang

    I got the Sigma 85mm f/1.4… don’t like it and want to trade for the Nikon f/1.8G

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    • Lh

      I would be happy make this trade :) The 85 1.8G is a great lens, so far pretty much always spot on focus create beautiful sharp images and all around a champion lens really. The price/quality is just unbeatable.

      I did get to muck about with the Sigma once and it just has that creamy quality to it that the 1.8G just doesn’t have. Very subjective thing in the end.

      What don’t you like about the sigma85mm 1.4?

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    • Ranalli

      Just out of curiosity…what don’t you like about it?

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  11. Ruben

    I recently sold my 85 1.8 and bought the 90 2.8 TSE in its place. I loved the 85 but I love the optics on my 90 TSE even more.

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  12. howie

    My favourite setup. This seems like an ad for LR presets, however.

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    • Pye

      Howie, we have a large community here that use the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System and other products, so writers try to provide insight into how shots are made when they are using SLR Lounge products. Thanks.

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    • Joseph

      Glad someone agrees with me. This wasn’t meant to be an ad for the LR presets, I just wanted to point out that by using them I was able to deliver a set of fully edited photos very quickly and easily. I actually used the LR presets before I started working for SLRLounge. I wouldn’t use the product if I didn’t believe in it.

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    • Sam

      @Joseph maybe next time also describe what the preset actually does in addition to it’s name. Then it would also be helpful to everybody who hasn’t bought the preset system.

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    • Sam

      *its

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    • Ben

      @Sam….. OR you could always purchase the preset system. I just picked my own up and, well, yep….. really digging it. It will be money well spent

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  13. Andy S

    I have a 50mm 1.4 which is collecting dust because I don’t like the distortion in close-ups, so I’ve been favoring my zooms. I’m strongly considering replacing it with an 85mm as a backup/creative option but can’t justify the expense of 1.4 at the moment, wondering if 1.8 would suffice. Thoughts?

    (I’m on Nikon)

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    • Joseph

      I have never heard of anyone complaining about performance about an 85 1.8. That is probably one of the best value lenses out there. If you can afford it, I would recommend giving it a try!

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    • Shannon Hemauer

      The Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is the one I have on my list. I rarely shoot wide open, which is why I’m going with the f/1.8; however, I’m not a professional photographer so I don’t know if the f/1.4 would make that much of a difference.

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    • Stan Rogers

      The AF-S 85mm/1.8G is probably the best bang for the buck going right now, and the older D version is no slouch either (you can pick it up used with caps and hood in LN-/EX+ condition for well under $400; it’ only about $30 cheaper then the G if you buy it new). The f/1.4G Nano is an incredible lens, but there’s a pretty big premium for something you haven’t quite proved to yourself you need yet. And both of the f/1.8s are tiny by modern standards — they’ll have less of an intimidation factor than an 18-55 kit lens. (I don’t know about your experience, but I find people get a little bit “tighter” when they feel like they’re been scanned too closely. The 85/1.8s really get around that well.)

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    • Andy S

      Sounds like I need to try them both out sometime. I’d rather wait and save for the 1.4 if it wins me over than settle.

      Thanks for the input guys.

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    • Brendan

      If you don’t mind shooting manual, I’m in love with my Rokinon 85mm f/1.4. Super sharp, nice colour, and about $300.

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    • Gabriel M

      I was also looking for an 85mm, whether it was f/1.4 or f/1.8, I had looked at the Nikon, but then someone told me about the Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 and just like Brendan I’m in love with it. Check one of my recent shots with it, it’s as sharp as a diamond ( http://500px.com/photo/55664614). Even though it’s manual focus and not such a recognized brand, it’s as good and a much better price.

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  14. Hanssie

    I adore the 85mm. I once second shot an entire wedding with it :)

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