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SLR Lounge’s Top Lenses | Why You Need An 85mm In Your Camera Bag

By Brittany Smith on September 7th 2017

Specialism is the practice of focusing on one area of expertise and mastering it rather than being a jack of all trades. With that idea in mind the coveted 85mm focal length specializes in creating sharp images with very little distortion while successfully separating the subject from the background. For this reason alone, it is often revered as one of the best all around portrait lenses.

85mm lenses are medium telephoto lenses with wider apertures that allow them to perform well in lower light conditions. Essentially the wider the aperture the faster the lens is and the greater the subject-background separation. Combine that with desirable compression and magnification and the result is velvety smooth bokeh which is highly sought after in the photography community. The focal length is also very true to life, meaning that it delivers an image very reminiscent of your perspective as there is very little distortion.

Left image captured at f/1.8 in the afternoon. Right image captured at f/1.8 using the last of the available light.

The Canon 85mm 1.2L II lens is affixed to my full frame camera more than 90% of the time. Whether shooting in the studio or utilizing natural light, shooting beauty or fashion, this is a lens of choice because of its versatility. The intermediate proximity between my camera and subject is far enough away that I don’t feel like I am hovering over them, yet close enough that we can still clearly communicate. The tighter field of view of the 85mm is perfect for portraits and beauty work, yet it can still capture striking full body angles decently with adequate detail. These lenses are notoriously sharp.

85mm lenses are much more than merely a portrait lens. The adaptable depth of field and lower light capabilities provided by the 85mm makes it a great choice for weddings, boudoir, product, food and still life photography. From its vantage point, it is easily manipulated to finalize the overall look and mood of the shoot.

If you are looking to add a versatile go-to lens that produces beautifully sharp images with the ability to create creamy bokeh, the 85mm is a perfect choice.

Below are some of our recommendations.



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Brittany is a fashion and beauty photographer who works between NYC, Montana and LA. She photographs the way she has always wanted to feel and believes in the power of raw simplicity. When not behind a camera she can usually be found at a local coffeeshop, teaching fitness classes at the YMCA, or baking something fabulous in the kitchen.
Instagram: @brittanysmithphoto

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Duke Dyksterhouse

    Brittany Smith Would you say 85mm is the go-to for an APS-C sensor too? Or would you opt for a different focal length to achieve the same as the examples shown above?

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    • Duke Dyksterhouse

      I have the Canon 70D which is why I’m wondering…

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    • Brittany Smith

      Hey Duke Dyksterhouse – The 50mm will probably be a better choice if you want a similar look on an APS-C. I believe it is closer to about a 70-75mm focal length on a full frame. The 85mm on a crop sensor will behave closer to a 105mm. 

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  2. Brittany Smith

    Hey Jonathan. Again, I appreciate you taking the time to show that and I do understand how it works. Your information is especially helpful for anyone learning this information  and I understand your concern. I have updated it to indicate a “wider” aperture  if there was any confusion for anyone. Cheers!

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  3. Jonathan Brady

    By the way, I agree that 85mm is a STELLAR focal length! In fact, I decided to give Sony a try precisely because I didn’t like Canon’s 85mm options (and I did this knowing full well that the 85mm f/1.4L IS was coming). I am working with the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 on the α7RII and absolutely LOVE it!!

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    • Brittany Smith

      That is what I used it on and it is an amazing combination. That Sony a7RII is a BEAST!! 

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  4. Will Gavillan

    Sony 85 G Master should be on this list

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    • Brittany Smith

      A mere oversight. I will get that added. I got to play around with that a while ago and that lens is fantastic!

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  5. Jonathan Brady

    I keep seeing (something like) this in numerous places…
    “Essentially the lower the aperture the faster the lens is and the greater the subject-background separation.”
    …and it’s incorrect.
    Aperture is a fraction. For example, f/2. In this instance, “f” stands for focal length and 2 refers to the size of the aperture opening.
    If we compare f/2 to f/4, f/2 is larger (or to use the antonym of the word you’ve chosen – “higher”) just like 1/2 of a pizza is a larger meal than 1/4 of the same pizza.
    So, your statement should have read…
    “Essentially the larger/higher the aperture the faster the lens is and the greater the subject-background separation”.

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    • Brittany Smith

      I appreciate you writing this as to clear up any confusion. I was referring to “lower” from a numerical standpoint as in the lower the number (f/4, to f/2.8) then f/2.8 will have the greater subject-background separation. 

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    • Jonathan Brady

      [Jonathan Brady has deleted this comment]

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    • Jonathan Brady

      You’re welcome, but f/2.8 isn’t lower than f/4. It’s higher, because it’s a fraction. It can be confusing, at first, to someone who’s new to the concept of aperture in photography, but I believe it’s essential to explain it properly. 

      Here’s a numerical example… Let’s assume two different lenses at the same focal length. One is a 135mm f/2 and the other is a 135mm f/2.8. Because “f” stands for “focal length” and the focal length in both cases is 135… 

      135/2 = 67.5 

      135/2.8 = 48.21

      So, the 135mm f/2 lens is “higher” (the word “larger” is more commonly used) because 67.5 is a higher number than 48.21. 

      Again, I understand that many people get this wrong and think that a smaller aperture is a higher number, but it’s not. And we’re not properly educating folks if we’re using incorrect terminology (even in an attempt to simplify things). All we’re doing is creating misunderstanding (and probably arguments too) in the future.

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