Comparing a 50mm Versus 85mm Lens for Photographing People

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As a writer for Digital Photography School, one of the most frequently asked questions I receive from beginner and intermediate photographers is, “If I have to choose just ONE lens to buy right now, which one should I choose?” We’ve previously discussed the differences between a 24mm lens and a 50mm lens for photographing people, and in that same vein, it’s time for another lens showdown!

lens photographing people

In this article, we’ll be discussing the differences between an 85mm and a 50mm lens for photographing people. Once again, I’ll walk you through several sets of similar images taken with each lens so that you can easily see the differences between the two. Hopefully, you can walk away with a better understanding of which lens might be the best upgrade for you.

To keep things consistent, all images in this article were taken with a Canon 60D, and either the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens or the Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens. The Canon 60D is an APS-C sensor (cropped sensor) camera, so in order to determine the functioning focal length of these lenses on this camera, multiply the lens focal length by 1.6 (multiply by 1.5 if you use Nikon). So on a cropped sensor camera, the 50mm lens functions roughly as an 80mm lens, and the 50mm lens functions as a 136mm lens.

1. Differences in Depth of Field

lens photographing people

This image was taken with Canon 85mm lens at f/1.8.

One of the biggest differences between the 85mm lens and the 50mm lens is the distance that you’ll need to stand from your subject. With the 85mm lens, the minimum focusing distance is 2.8 ft, and with the 50mm lens, the minimum focusing distance is 1.15 ft.

This means that in general, you will be standing further away from your subject with the 85mm lens, than you will with the 50mm. In turn, this decreases the depth of field, which means that images shot with the 85mm lens tend to have much blurrier bokeh than images shot with the 50mm lens, even when using the same aperture.

lens photographing people

This image was taken with a Canon 50mm at f/1.8.

You can see the difference clearly in the cherry blossoms in the background of the two images above, both of which were shot at f/1.8. The cherry blossoms are fairly well blurred in both images, but the shape of the blossoms is more defined in the image taken with the 50mm lens, and the blossoms are significantly more blurred and creamy in the image that with the 85mm lens.

Of course, everyone has a different preference when it comes to bokeh. Some prefer the more uniform creaminess that the 85mm lens offers, while other photographers prefer to have a little more definition in the background.

lens photographing people

Left: 85mm lens | Right: 50mm lens.

You may even find that you prefer different approaches in different applications! For example, I usually favor the more uniform bokeh of the 85mm lens. However, when I’m photographing in the grass, I prefer the bit of texture which the 50mm lens provides (see the examples above).

This is purely a matter of preference, so start making mental notes about which type of images you tend to prefer when you look at other photographers’ work. If you find that you are always drawn to the creamier texture, then the 85mm lens may be a better fit for you. If you prefer a bit more texture in the background, you may want to consider the 50mm lens instead.

2. Differences in Framing

lens photographing people

This image was taken with 50mm lens.

In addition, spend some time thinking about the content of your backdrops. Using an 85mm lens will result in an image that is more closely framed on your subject. On the other hand, shooting with the 50mm lens will result in an image that includes more of the background (though not nearly as much as shooting with the Canon 24mm lens).

Do you happily hike up to the top of a mountain for a photo session? You might want to consider the 50mm lens in order to more fully capture the trees and vistas in the background behind your portrait subject(s).

lens photographing people

This image was taken in exactly the same place as the previous one, only using the 85mm lens instead of the 50mm.

On the other hand, do you often find yourself trying to disguise the background in your images? Do you shoot on location with backgrounds that are sometimes out of your control and/or unpredictable?  In that case, you may want to consider the 85mm lens.

When you combine the decreased depth of field of the 85mm lens with the closer framing of your subject, the 85mm lens is stellar at creating beautiful portrait images at almost any location.

3. Differences in Shooting Distance

lens photographing people

This image was taken with 50mm lens.

Remember when I said that when you’re using an 85mm lens you’ll be standing further away from your subject than you would be using a 50mm lens? Here’s another reason why that’s important to know, I almost never use my 85mm lens inside our home.

Our house is just over 1,000 square feet, and depending on the room, sometimes I physically cannot back up far enough to use my 85mm lens. Aside from official photography business, it’s important to me to be able to capture little day to day moments of our family, and so having a fast lens that I can use indoors is a must-have for me.

As much as I love my 85mm lens, it just isn’t a great fit for that purpose given the size of our home. Your mileage may vary.

Lens photographing people

This image was taken with 85mm lens.

On the other hand, when we’re outdoors I often prefer my 85mm lens. In that situation, standing further away from my subjects is a good thing. I can let my kids play and have fun without being all up in their business. Having a bit more space between them and the camera means that they’re able to relax more easily, which in turn leads to more genuine expressions and candid smiles.

Conclusion

As you can see, both of these lenses are great for capturing portrait-style images of people – I personally keep both in my camera bag and use them with near equal frequency.

That said, if you’re only able to purchase one lens right now, both lenses have situations in which they outshine the other, so it’s important for you to think realistically about your preferences and the way you’ll use a portrait lens most often in order to get the most bang for your buck!

If you have one of these lenses – which do you use the most for people photography?

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Meredith Clark is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She can also be found blogging at La Buena Vida and Meredith Clark Photography.

  • Manoj Kumar

    I have both the lenses .But i love 85 mm.

  • Matt Vargo

    “This means that in general, you will be standing further away from your subject with the 85mm lens, than you will with the 50mm. In turn, this decreases the depth of field,”

    The opposite of this is true regarding depth of field. Typically, the closer you stand to the focal point, depth of field decreases. If you stand further away, you get greater depth of field. The difference in bokeh between a 50mm and 85mm has much more to do with the compression of background inherent in the focal lengths themselves.

    So…that statement is factually untrue.

  • Matt

    Thank you.
    So point 1 is wrong. Additionally points 2 and 3 the way she compares them are essentially the same thing. And she never shows us two photos framed the same way with each lens to actually compare what the lenses do to the subject and the background (besides just zooming in or out).
    A pretty terrible article, but hey, it got us to click on it and that’s all that matters these days.

  • Meredith

    Matt, your assertion that depth of field increases if you stand further away from your subject is true if you’re working with the same focal length and only changing your distance from the subject. Across two focal lengths, it gets more tricky.

    For example, if I’m using a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor camera, shooting at f/2.5, and 6ft away from my subject, the depth of field is 0.41ft. On the other hand, if I’m using an 85mm lens on a cropped sensor camera, shooting at f/2.5 and 8ft away from my subject, the depth of field is 0.25ft.

    I could have phrased that particular sentence differently to be more clear that it’s both the distance from the subject AND the difference in focal length together that result in a decreased depth of field. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Jack Doy

    Hey steady on Matt, horses for courses, you sound a very experienced photographer, I on the other hand am a keen armature, and a very old one at that, I found it very helpful so surely that’s what matters.

  • Jack Doy

    Game, set and match to you Meredith, and thank you for your article, I am a keen armature, and a very old one at that, I found it very helpful.

  • alberto silva de la paz

    necesito traducirlo-me enseƱan?
    gracias desde Chile.

  • Matt

    But it’s misleading you. That’s the issue I have with it. If it were just a fluff piece, fine, but when people come to an article for the purpose of learning, and you don’t educate them on the actual issue and give them incorrect information for other things, that doesn’t help you.

  • Tobie Schalkwyk

    Agreed, Matt. I was going to mention this too. The actual factor softening your background more than the 50mm lens is that the 85mm (or actually 136mm) pulls your subject in closer to you. Keeping your distance from your subject the same between the two lenses would make this even clearer. Moving away from your subject would actually increase your DOF, implicitly hardening your background bokeh.

  • Jack Doy

    Fair do, but I found it useful, so hey we are all different. Cheers

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  • pics fixer

    I think Matt understands that. The real monkey wrench is that the whole article should have begun with ‘these focal lengths are 35mm equivalents’ to get everyone on the same page. That way the lesson can concentrate on effect and reason for use which would have been to the point. Different chip sizes do effect the length lens. The difference of a 35mm and 85mm with a chip half the size will not be the same at all as a full size 35mm chip. Just sayin’.

  • Oliver LePenn

    Wait… what?

    This article talks about comparing a 50mm lens and a 85mm lens but she’s shooting on a cropped sensor so, doesn’t that mean she’s NOT comparing the two focal lengths but is actually discussing two different lengths?

    Shouldn’t she be shooting with EF-S lenses for this article to actually represent what it says it’s talking about?

  • Meredith

    Oliver, this article is targeted towards beginner photographers who ARE using a cropped sensor camera and trying to decide whether to upgrade from the kit lens to a 50mm lens or to a 85mm lens. The article clearly states this in the first paragraph. It also discusses the multiplication factors that you’d need to multiply by in the second paragraph.

  • Oliver LePenn

    That should be the title of the article then:

    Comparing a 50mm vs 85mm Full Frame lens for use on a crop sensor body.

    I clicked on it expecting an entirely different type of article.

  • Micheal Fell

    hihi

  • Kip Beatty

    Sorry Meredith, the title is very misleading, especially if you’re training new photographers. Generally speaking, most photographers agree people look better in portraits at focal lengths of 70mm or higher. Anything shorter and their faces become distorted to some extent. So in most cases, when shooting people a 50mm is not the best choice. I clicked on your article to read a discussion on the merits of both. However, you’re really discussing an 80mm vs a 136mm, which is an entirely different conversation when it comes to photographing people’s faces.

    Perhaps you didn’t write the headline. I would change it.

  • Ron Olivier

    Like Jack, I too am an amateur (and an old one). But when I saw the 50mm vs. 85mm headline, I just assumed that those would be the FF focal lengths. Even though I have an APS-C camera, I decided the article would be worth a look-see. So I was quite happy when I got to the third paragraph and found that they were also using an APS-C (albeit a 1.6 Canon as opposed to my 1.5 Pentax).
    Matt, I do think that the title is a bit misleading because it mentions photographing people. The three main points can apply to just about any shots taken with the lens, not specific to people. Considering the dialogue that revolves around using a 50mm for photographing people, I can understand what you were expecting. DPS titles are not always very indicative of the column it contains.
    Personally, I liked the article anyway because it deals with the differences that one can expect between the two lenses – regardless of what the FF equivalent is. So a beginner or intermediate photographer (to whom the column is aimed) can read this and apply the information to their own situation. Whether they have a full frame, APS-C, or mirrorless.

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