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50mm vs 85mm: Which Is Best for Portrait Photography?

Which lens is better, 50mm vs 85mm? It’s a common question, but one without an easy answer; after all, 50mm and 85mm lenses are both great – it just depends on what and how you like to photograph.

That’s where this article comes in. I’m going to share the pros and cons of photographing portraits with 85mm and 50mm lenses. I’m also going to share plenty of examples so you can see these two lens types in action.

Hopefully, by the time you’re finished, you’ll know which focal length is right for you.

Let’s get started!

lens photographing people

1. Focal length (reach)

The most obvious difference between an 85mm lens and a 50mm lens is the reach; to fill the frame with a subject at 50mm, you’ll need to get close. An 85mm lens offers the same framing from farther back.

Some photographers prefer to get up-close and personal when shooting portraits, in which case a 50mm lens is the better option. Others prefer to keep the subject at a distance, and here, an 85mm lens will excel.

Really, it all depends on your level of comfort and your style of shooting. The wider, 50mm focal length lets you easily achieve environmental portraits that include interesting background features. Sure, you can get the same effect with an 85mm lens, but you have to back up farther, which (as I discuss below!) can cause problems.

If you do a lot of headshots, 85mm is probably the better choice. You can capture beautiful, tight images from a reasonable distance, whereas headshots at 50mm can put you uncomfortably close.

On the other hand, if you gravitate toward full-body or even group shots, 50mm is ideal.

2. Depth of field

If you shoot a subject with a 50mm lens and an 85mm lens, yet use identical framing – that is, adjust the composition so that the subject’s face takes up the same amount of space in both shots – the depth of field will remain consistent. In other words, with identical framing, depth of field on a 50mm lens and an 85mm lens is equivalent.

However, if you stand in the same place and shoot with both a 50mm lens and an 85mm lens, the 85mm lens will take you closer to the subject – and you’ll end up with a narrower depth of field (i.e., increased background blur).

So in a sense, an 85mm lens offers a shallower depth of field than a 50mm lens.

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

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:

lens photographing people

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

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.

3. Background compression

Look at this picture, taken at 85mm:

lens photographing people

Then this picture, taken at 50mm:

lens photographing people

What do you see? You may notice that the background in the 85mm photo is far blurrier than the background in the 50mm photo. The cherry blossoms are fairly well blurred in both images, but the shape of the blossoms is more defined in the 50mm image, and the blossoms are significantly more blurred and creamy in the 85mm image.

Part of it has to do with the framing; note that the girls are smaller in the 50mm photo compared to the 85mm photo, which leads to a slightly larger depth of field.

But it also has to do with background compression.

You see, longer focal length lenses create compression, where the background features less of the subject’s surroundings. Whereas wider focal length lenses reduce compression, allowing more of the background to shine.

This can be a confusing concept, so let me give you an example:

If you’re photographing a portrait subject in front of a road, the resulting images might display the whole road:

lens photographing people

Or they might display a small road slice:

lens photographing people

While the framing on the first image is slightly looser, even if I were to have created identical frames, you’d see more of the road in the topmost image. Do you know why?

Because it was shot at 50mm! The second image, shot at 85mm, experiences more background compression, and therefore shows less of the background.

Now, background compression has two important consequences:

  1. It includes and excludes background features. A tree might appear fully in a 50mm image but might barely feature in an 85mm image.
  2. It increases the quality of the background blur, also known as bokeh.

In the previous section, I discussed background blur and shallow depth of field effects. I explained that some photographers prefer a shallow depth of field, whereas others like to include greater detail.

It’s therefore important to realize: 85mm lenses have stronger background blur than 50mm lenses, even when the depth of field (and framing) remains the same. That’s the power of background compression.

So if you prefer the ultra-blurred look, an 85mm lens is a great buy.

4. Space constraints

Remember when I said that an 85mm lens will force you to stand farther away from your subject compared to a 50mm lens, assuming you want the same framing?

While this isn’t necessarily a problem in outdoor spaces, it can become a major hindrance if you’re shooting indoors.

For instance, you might want a full-body shot, but you can’t back up through the wall, so you end up settling for a half-body shot. Or you might want a group shot, but you can’t widen the frame, so you’re stuck with a partial shot of two subjects.

lens photographing people

In fact, 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. I like to capture little day-to-day moments of our family, and so having a lens that I can use indoors is a must-have.

As much as I love my 85mm lens, it just isn’t a great fit for indoor use. Of course, you might have a huge house with huge rooms, or you might prefer tight headshots, in which case 85mm is undoubtedly fine. But if you’re like me and you want to be able to shoot wide indoors, then 50mm might be the way to go.

Lens photographing people

This image was taken with 85mm lens.

On the other hand, I often prefer my 85mm lens when shooting outdoors. When I’m outside, standing farther away from my subjects is a good thing. I can let my kids play and have fun without being all up in their business. Space between the kids and the camera means that they can relax more easily, which in turn leads to more genuine expressions and candid smiles.

50mm vs 85mm: final words

So which is better, 85mm vs 50mm lenses? Honestly, both of these lenses are great for capturing portrait-style images of people, and 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, ask yourself: What are my preferences? How do these different focal lengths speak to my needs?

And then make your decision. Don’t stress too much, however; both lenses are great, especially for an up-and-coming portrait shooter.

Now over to you:

Which lens do you think you’ll purchase, the 50mm or the 85mm? And why? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Meredith Clark
Meredith Clark

is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She believes that photography is for everyone – it is a gift that allows us to capture and document both ordinary and extraordinary moments in our lives. You can see more of her work at Meredith Clark Photography or connect with her on Facebook.

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