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A Comment Fueled Debate on The 50mm & 85mm Lenses For Portraits

By Kishore Sawh on September 22nd 2014


If I had to say or be shot, I would say it’s hard to argue against the fact that the past 5 years, in terms of lens popularity, have belonged to two lenses – the 50mm and the 85mm. The proliferation of affordable DSLRs is in no small way accountable for this, what with every newbie’s desire for images with creamy defocused areas, achieved at a discount cost.

The two are often used as portrait lenses, and I know many of you will have some strong opinions on that matter. Yet, whatever your stance is or how firm you take it, the opposite opinion to yours exists, and there’s a vehement army of people readily vocal about it. A little while back, Weekly Imogen (who has a host of approachable and informative videos you should check out), did a portrait lens comparison between the 50 and 85 1.8s, and asked their substantial subscribers which lens they gravitated to and why. They’ve now done a follow-up to that video and spend a good amount of time discussing the commonly themed comments.

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I’ll state right here that to those of you of a surgical persuasion will notice right away that this is far from a comprehensive or scientifically controlled test; One point brought up more than once was Weekly Imogen’s choice of using a crop censored camera for the test, thus giving a different focal length field of view (Though we know that crop or not, a 50 will behave like a 50, or an 85 like an 85 in most all ways aside from field of view). But truly, it’s not the entire point of this. It’s just really interesting to hear and read some of the comments made from each side, or what is, not even a two sided, but multi-sided argument.

Personally, if I had to choose one as the only lens to have, it would be the 50, even though I find the 85 brilliant for portraits. The 50 just seems to be more versatile, and in no small part due to the ability to use it in closer quarters. Feel free to weigh in…

Original comparison video:

Source: The Phoblographer, Weekly Imogen, Imaegs are screen caps from featured video.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Scott Kretschmann

    The eye sees at close to 50mm, so that is a familiar field of view. Because if this, it’s also plain and not as eye catching. It also causes some slight distortions of the face of an unflattering variety when shot at headshot distances. 85mm causes much more flattering compression, and in combination with a 35mm lens, can cover 99% of all wedding photography needs while creating images that are more visually interesting because it isn’t what the eye is used to seeing. That’s just my take :)

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  2. Mi Guel

    Since I purchased my 85mm my 50mm gets used less. When shooting single portraits on my FF, I will grab my 85mm. I love the compression it gives. The 50mm is good for group shots.

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  3. Dave Randin

    I have the D7000 and used the 50mm for the longest time because it was the budget lens. It takes nice photos, but one day I heard about the butter lens (85mm 1.4g) and decided to take the gamble. The price difference is huge, but to tell you the truth there is a huge difference between the quality of photos. It was my first “real” pro lens purchase and I have to say it was worth every penny. Having said that though, the 85mm isn’t for every situation, but it reigns king when taking headshots and the buttery backgrounds make any subject just pop.

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  4. Jeff Morrison

    thanks for sharing

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  5. Leo Wong

    For my personal opinions to compare lens is a overall issue, but I am sure one of the important point is value. I remember the first time I looking for the portrait lens when I still a beginner, friends recommend and research told me 85mm is the best lens for portrait, but the cost is too high for a starter. 50mm just too good to be true for price in f1.4, if still not affordable, there still can go for f1.8 no matter you are a canon or nikon fan.

    Either then that, value is not what you concern, then no doubt 85mm f1.4 or f1.2 is most of your Choice.

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  6. Greg Geis

    I should have said “depth of field” instead of “bokeh”. I’m sure a fellow geek somewhere out there was cringing… Whatever, you guys know what I mean.

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  7. Greg Geis

    Kishore, I’m just not following you. The crop sensor doesn’t “just” affect field of view. Technically, yes but that has significant implications. You have to assume you are keeping your composition the same. To do this on a crop body you would have to step back which changes the relative distance between you and your subject and you to background. This results in more “compression”, less “distortion” and less “apparent” bokeh. If anything, I would think it would be more accurate to say a 50mm acts like a 75mm, but with the bokeh of a full frame 50mm rather than a full frame 75mm lens.

    Not trying to just be argumentative, it just seems like an important fundamental distinction. And if I’m wrong, I’d like to know as well.

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  9. Peter McWade

    I use a few lenses. I have an old Super Tak 55mm 1.8 which I love and I have a 58mm 1.4 which I have been using a great deal. I have an 85 1.4 which is also a wonderful lens. I use them on my Sony A7R and in one of my last shoots I had pretty lousy light in a small room and first used my 85 but I just could not get the look with that at the distance I was shooting. I did not use flash but natural and light boxes to provide the light. I was just too far from the subject to get good lighting so I switched to my 58mm and got up close and then I had enough light and was able to move about getting some different shots without worry. So I feel its important to use or have both in your bag. Crop or not you need more than one. If I had to only pick one for a shoot I’d take the 58 any day over the other because I do not always know if my light will be enough for the distance I’d be shooting from. Getting in close helps a great deal in lousy or lower power light.

    As for the shoots in the video, I like them both. I see the compression from the 85 but they both look great. If you know you have the light power and the room to shoot the 85 will fit right in. But for a case of not knowing before you shoot you should take the 50 or in my case either the 55 1.8 or the 58 1.4.

    I do like the bokeh from the 85mm images at a tighter field of view.

    I liked the color from the 50mm more in the first video from the first round of images over the color from the 85mm.

    Pete :)

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  10. Herm Tjioe

    For a one on one people photoshoot, it’s 85mm for me. I found it effective for dance on stage as well. It gives enough of that close intimacy without giving up on the overall framing I need.

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  11. Braden Storrs

    A lot of people complain about barrel distortion on the 50mm, but I like it. It’s all a matter of visual taste. I really do appreciate what telephotos do for portraits but if I can just grab one lens it’d be the 50mm.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      This is something too many people seem to overlook Braden, that it is a matter of taste. Cheers

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    • Austin Swenson

      yeah, I think that we could totally also just fix that distortion in post if we really wanted to decompress it, but there is also something about people who are heavier, have longer noses and ears, and other distinguishable features that kind of make you want to try and compress from the start so that you can make them as flattering as possible.

      When we are talking about models and otherwise good-looking people, it’s not much of a conversation as much as a toss up, but when you want to decompress certain features of people, longer focal lengths seem to work best.

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    • Austin Swenson

      I guess the overall weight of a lens isn’t a big deal for me, so I actually like my 70-200 best, but when you just want that great compression from a longer focal length but not have to fiddle with zooming and moving and all that, I still kind of think that 85mm is best, even though I can concede that 50mm is also more of a personable focal length if you are shooting full frame and can make the difference in how you talk to the client.

      Something I think we also have to consider in this debate about focal length is how the client feels about how close you are to them. There is something to be said psychologically about how you feel when a camera is a few feet from you and when it is 10 feet from you with how your facial expressions look and how your body language looks. Is it more awkward because the photographer is closer and the client gets anxious about performing in front of the camera, or is it more relaxed?

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  12. Eric Sharpe

    Eh, shoot what looks good.

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  13. Steven Pellegrino

    The 50mm on my D7100 is the only prime I have for the simple reason it’s so versatile. For portraits I think it’s a fine lens. However if I were going to specialize in head shots then I would invest in an 85mm. Peter Hurley uses a 100mm (macro I think) because he wants even more compression. Taking this debate to another level it would be interesting to see comparisons of the 85mm to other lenses like the 100mm, 105mm and even 135mm.

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    • Stan Rogers

      Hurley actually uses a 120mm macro, but that’s on a medium format camera. (He developed the habit on a small-sensor Hasselblad, which has a 1.3 crop factor compared to the larger “full frame” 645 digital format.) When the result is taken in terms of a 4:5 aspect ratio final product, it’s about equivalent to an 85mm lens on a 35mm-format frame. His typical shooting distance (for head shots) is about 4-4½ feet. THAT’s the number that matters, not the focal length as such. The focal length really only determines the framing that you get when shooting from the distance you need for the correct perspective. (And you may notice that “compression” is not huge at that distance; it’s actually a pretty intimate shot without being quite in your face.) You can get pretty much the same effect with a fast 50mm lens on Canon’s APS-C sensors, or with a 56-58mm lens on a 1.5X crop sensor (Nikon DX, Sony, Pentax, Fuji) — or with a minor crop using a (usually much cheaper) nifty fifty on a 1.5X sensor.

      Yes, the focal length, taken together with the aperture, will affect both depth of field (how much is in focus) and bokeh (what the out-of-focus elements look like). But the primary consideration is, and always should be, perspective. You are putting the viewer into a point in space relative to the subject. Stand back with a longer lens, and you’re distancing the subject from the viewer (which can be effecctive in its own way), get close with a wider lens, and you’re making the shot more intimate (works fantastically with children, BTW) — all while framing the subject (not the environment, of course) in the same way. That 4-4½-foot distance is a good social introductory space, close enough to imply approachability but without encroaching on the viewers’ personal space.

      Don’t let the lens drive what you shoot. Decide what you’re shooting, then make a lens selection based on that decision.

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  14. Stephen Velasquez

    I am a subscriber of weekly Imogen and I have to say, the photographer keeps it simple. Great channel for natural looking photographs and understanding light. I love my 85 more than my 50.

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  15. John Cavan

    I prefer 85mm for portrait on a full frame, but then I’m generally not shooting full subject body, usually just shoulders and head. If I was to shoot more of the subject then I would lean to the 50mm. However, when I do my annual Christmas shoot with my nieces and nephews, I actually tend to use my 24-120mm because we change the scene so much and so fast and it’s easier to just zoom and shoot than it is to keep kids around while I swap lenses.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      That’s a good distinction to make John. When shooting anything closer to a headshot type portrait, it’s gonna be the 85, without question. Cheers

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  16. Ian Moss

    Without appearing to state the obvious, it does depend on the size of the sensor. A 50mm on a crop sensor is equivalent to a 75mm on a full frame.

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  17. Anthony McFarlane

    I have the d7100 and love the 85mm if I have room.

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    • cherestes janos

      your 85mm d7100 is actually 110mm in 1,3 crop. :-) I’m really sure you like it from my experience portraits between 100mm and 135mm are way over the 85mm in distortion and compression.

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  18. Brandon Dewey

    The only time I use my 50mm is when I’m taking getting ready shoots in a small room. Once I get out of the small room or space the 50mm goes back into my bag.

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    • Dave Randin

      Yeah, I would have to agree on that.

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    • cherestes janos

      The 85 is to big in small and medium size rooms, sometimes I also use the 35mm for getting ready shots.

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    • Brandon Dewey

      I agree Cherestes I have the 50mm on one body and my 35mm on the other body for almost all of my getting ready pictures.

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  19. Bob ABE

    I have a full-frame 5D Mark III and the 85mm f/1.2 and it can’t be beat. Yes I have a 50mm f/1.8 as well. On a crop-sensor I’d imagine you’d still want the 85mm at f/1.8 for the bokeh…and just back up. Using the 85mm at that set focal length changes how you approach portrait work, but for the good.

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