How a Humble 85mm Lens Became my Favourite

How a Humble 85mm Lens Became my Favourite

Understanding Lenses: Part II, and is part of a series of lessons about camera lenses. Links to the others are at the bottom of the article.

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I first became aware of the pictorial power of short telephoto lenses when a friend of mine at college bought one. He had a gig shooting tests for a model agency in Manchester and he created some amazing images with an 85mm lens.

The beautiful models helped, but the way he used the compressed perspective and shallow depth-of-field had a little touch of magic. He had talent, and wherever he is now, I hope he’s doing something special with it.

For years I preferred using wide-angle lenses (and I still love them). Then a couple of years ago I bought a Canon 85mm f1.8 lens. Finally I had the same lens that my friend from college used so well back in the day.

It changed the entire way I shoot. I’ve enjoyed using it ever since, especially for portrait and close-up photography. I’ve even taken a couple of landscapes with it.

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What is a short telephoto?

A short telephoto lens (for a full-frame digital or 35mm film camera) is one with a focal length between around 80mm and 100mm. On an APS-C camera, the crop factor means that a 50mm lens also effectively becomes a short telephoto. While I tend to think of a short telephoto as being a prime lens, there are plenty of zooms that cover these focal lengths as well.

Advantages of short telephotos

Why would you use a short telephoto lens instead of a normal or wide-angle lens, or one with a longer focal length?

Let’s look at the answer in terms of two of my favourite subjects: portraits and close-ups.


I’ve taken plenty of portraits using wide-angle lenses (and still do). They are ultra-cool if you want to include plenty of background to make an environmental portrait. The only thing you have to watch out for is that you don’t get too close. Otherwise distortion becomes an issue.

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I took the above photo with a 17-40mm zoom lens set to 22mm. The style of the photo is completely different to that of those taken with my 85mm lens. The most obvious difference is in the background – the girl is part of a wider scene rather than separated from it.

I’ve also taken portraits using longer telephoto lenses. I used to own a Sigma 50-150mm zoom lens that I used a lot. I created some great images with that lens, but found that the weight made it hard to hold steady, especially at 150mm.

My 85mm gives me the freedom to get as close to my sitter as I want. It always takes a distortion free portrait, even if her face fills the frame. I can also step back to include her entire body in the frame.

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These three photos were all taken with my 85mm lens. You can see how it lets me move in close or step back to include more.

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I like the compression I get with this lens. The above photo shows the effect. The lens pulls the background closer to the model. You can only see a small part of the background compared to what you would with a wide-angle lens.

The sea is also slightly out of focus. This comes in useful when the background is a potential distraction, and you want to concentrate attention on your sitter instead.

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Short telephotos are good for isolating the model from the background. You can get some extreme effects by using the widest aperture settings of a prime short telephoto lens (the photo above uses an aperture of f2). This is a different approach to wide-angle lenses, where the model becomes part of the scene.

You can do this with a longer lens, but I find these are more difficult to work with. For one, if you take a full-length portrait with a lens that has a focal length of 135mm or more, you have to step back some way from your sitter to fit her all in. This makes communication more difficult.

The other reason is that as focal length increase, so does the shutter speed you need to take a photo free from camera shake. This may limit your options in low light.

Telephoto lenses are also heavier than short telephotos, and that can make a difference on a long shoot. The physical strain is less with a lighter lens.

That doesn’t mean you should never use a longer telephoto lens to take portraits. There are plenty of photographers that use focal lengths of 200mm and 300mm to great effect. It’s just that I find short telephotos much easier to work with.

Close-up photography

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I really like my 85mm lens for close-up photography. I use it with a 500D close-up filter (there is more on that technique in this article). It doesn’t get me as close as a macro lens would, but it gets me close enough to take some interesting photos of details, or small objects such as goods in a market or flowers. The following photos are good examples of that.

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Another advantage of short telephoto prime lenses is the price. My 85mm lens retails for less than $400 in the United States. Yet the optical quality is superb – in terms of image quality alone it is a professional lens. You get a lot of bang for your buck with these lenses. There’s no need to go for the most expensive models unless you really want to.

So that’s the story of how my 85mm lens became my favourite. The only regret I have with this lens is that I didn’t buy one ten years earlier.

Previous articles

These are the previous articles in the series:

Understanding Lenses: Part II

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If you liked this article then take a look at my latest eBook, Understanding Lenses: Part II – A guide to Canon normal and telephoto lenses. My next lesson will explore ways of getting to know your lenses, so that you can take better photos with them.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

Some Older Comments

  • Markisen Hamburg May 17, 2013 05:21 am

    Wonderful site layout! I'm glad when I find a terrific share on the webspace. Thanks for this and I hope you will share more amazing content soon.

  • george March 30, 2013 12:49 am

    How do you get 85mm equivalent on a RED Epic seeing as their sensor is a 30X15mm size.. ?

  • Larry Miller December 5, 2012 07:04 am

    My Nikkor 85 F1.8 AFD is great. No complaints whatsoever. Good for close ups and good for landscapes as well.

  • Dave November 4, 2012 01:35 pm

    I love the blue tones in the first shot. Really great. I only shoot Leica cameras so no 85mm for me...

  • Phillip Inniss November 3, 2012 08:25 pm

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  • hubblefromthesun October 13, 2012 10:13 pm

    Great example shots!

  • petzerR October 13, 2012 08:56 pm

    the canon EF 100mm f2 is optically thebetter lens then the EF 85 mm f1.8.

    DOF is nearly the same but the 100mm has less purple fringing on high contrasts.
    it´s also sharper then the 85mm f1.8.

    i got the EF 100mm f2.0 cheap on ebay and i never used my 85mm f1.8 since then.

    also i like the compression more then on the 85mm..

  • Kumar October 13, 2012 12:34 pm

    Thanks Colin - I intentionally used a small aperture here to get the background such that the leaves' boundaries and the bud are clear. Having said that 85 mm f/1.4 is very much on my list :-)

  • Jim Woolsey October 13, 2012 07:50 am

    Nice article! I recently made the jump from a standard zoom to a 50L prime. Like you mentioned, the depth of field and bokeh is superb, especially when compared to a standard zoom. Great Photos!

  • Colin Cronin October 13, 2012 01:43 am

    Great photo Kumar! That would be an awesome shot with the 85mm lens too because of the increased focal length and the compression / bokeh you would get from it.

  • Kumar October 12, 2012 12:31 pm

    For some reason, it didn't take the HTML link (not allowed i guess):

  • Kumar October 12, 2012 12:30 pm

    I recently started to use my 50 mm at manual settings and wide/small aperture (depending on light available) to take close ups - the detail and sharpness in the below photo is really mind-blowing. Even with portraits, it works really well. Most of the times, the lens at auto focus won't sharp as well as manual focus.

  • Manuel October 12, 2012 06:44 am

    I have been experimenting lately with my Tamron 70-300mm VC lens for portraits to good efect , especially when I use it at 300mm .

  • Juan October 12, 2012 06:27 am

    I love my EF 100mm F2 USM. Fantastic contrast, background blur and sharpness; specially good for portraiture, even on APS-Cs.

  • Jeff October 12, 2012 06:07 am

    I love this article and yes it's true the higher the focal length the more compression you get and more flattering to the subject especially portraits. I have the 85mm f1.4D Nikkor lens and it's almost always on my camera!

  • Colin Cronin October 12, 2012 05:02 am

    @arturomm yep 50mm on a crop can be tricky for group shots. I've been in that situation many times where I had to keep backing up. Unfortunately, when you're inside, you often have limited space to back up.

    The 50mm lenses are awesome indoors because of the wide aperture, but for group shots they don't always work well. It's not just the field of view, but with a wide aperture like 1.4 or 1.8, the depth of field is so narrow that someone in a group shot is usually a little blurry. That's why 1.2-1.8 are best for portraits where you can isolate a single subject and contrast them with a blurry background. You might be able to do 2 people, but beyond that it gets difficult to keep everyone in sharp focus so wide.

  • ArturoMM October 12, 2012 04:22 am

    I was enjoying my brand new f/50mm 1.8 lens -which in my Canon 40D equals 80mms- when I made the mistake of going with some friends with that lens alone to a restaurant on a special occasion

    They were laughing at how far I had to go to take a picture of them all.

  • Mark Cullenane October 12, 2012 03:40 am

    I use a Canon 85mm 1.2 L on my Canon 5D, it makes a fab combination with butter smooth bokeh.

  • Kilroy October 12, 2012 03:25 am

    I initially purchased this lens o make portraits with my 5D and really love it. I like to use it with a large aperture, for the shallow depth of field it gives, even though some mistakes made me more cautious with it (models with only one eye sharp at f/2.5 or less). It is generally very useful when you want to isolate your subject from the background.
    I also use it to make pictures of food (those with a very shallow depth of field) or table decorations and it is very interesting for that purpose.
    For close up of plants or packshots of small objects, I prefer to use a 90mm macro lens as it the 85mm is not practical to use with extension tubes.

  • Buddah gurl October 11, 2012 03:34 am

    85mm & 100mm the bokeh is delicious I love both of those lenses. Must have lenses. I use on 50d & 7d.

  • Colin Cronin October 11, 2012 03:01 am

    Great article and photos. I have a similar view as zaman though. 85mm lens for me wouldn't fit well in my kit. I don't do a lot of portraiture so I don't really have a need for a dedicated portrait lens. On a crop sensor my 50mm f/1.4 is effectively the same as the 85mm (though the bokeh isn't as good on APS-C). The nice thing about the 50mm though is that on full frame it is good for group portraits. For tighter portraits I prefer the 100mm f/2.8 because it has macro capabilities. That said, I also have to agree with zaman that a wider aperture would be nice. Still for my purposes it fits best.

  • Mridula October 11, 2012 02:36 am

    I love the details in the close ups you shared.

  • Zaman October 11, 2012 02:07 am

    Other than the price, these are the same reason's why i love my 105 Micro VR. Absolutely perfect portrait lens, and no need for a close up filter as its a micro lens as well. On Full frame however it is similar to the 85mm length you would use on an apc sensor, the 2.8 aperture is a bit of a bummer, i wish it was larger as the lens is a prime, but 2.8 is still a very attractive aperture.