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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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?