It’s an age-old question – what’s the best portrait photography lens? For many photographers, it simply doesn’t get better than an 85mm lens. For many other photographers, a 50mm lens is a much more prudent choice. So which of these excellent focal lengths for portraits is best for you?
When you first get started in photography, you’re most likely, to begin with the lens that came with your camera (ie the kit lens) before moving up to a better-quality zoom that covers the focal lengths you need.
The fact is, you can shoot great portraits with a zoom lens, but there’s no getting away from the fact that prime lenses are even better. Not only do they have wider maximum apertures, which is ideal for isolating the subject, but they’re super sharp and offer generally better image quality than zooms.
Zoom lenses are more convenient in terms of being able to change focal length with a simple turn of the zoom ring. But for portraiture, it’s always better to select a prime lens for its characteristics and use your feet to change the composition.
Whatever you’re doing in life, having the right tools for the job will always make things easier and the end results more successful. So, if you’re a portrait photographer a prime lens is the obvious answer – and there are three classic portrait focal lengths that you really should seriously consider. If you need advice on your wedding photography, check out our photography packages and services at Wild Romantic Photography.
In this article, we’ll be discussing the differences between an 85mm and a 50mm lens for photographing people. We’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.
One of the greatest attractions of this lens is that the f/1.8 version from many manufacturers is relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, it provides a field of view comparable to that of the human eye, and the wide maximum aperture makes shallow depth-of-field photography across a range of subjects possible.
There are two main flavours of 50mm commonly available: f/1.8 or f/1.4. The latter allows more light to enter the lens at a given shutter speed, and a shallower depth-of-field too. If you shoot with an APS-C camera, a 35mm lens will provide the closest equivalent focal length at 52.5mm. Micro Four Thirds users, meanwhile, will achieve a 50mm-equivalent focal length with a 25mm lens.
For portrait photography, 50mm lenses are great for full-length and waist-level portraits, both on location and in the studio. This is thanks to the wide field of view compared to an 85mm or 135mm lens, and you don’t need to be too far away from the model to achieve these crops.
On the other hand, if your aim is to shoot a headshot or a head-and-shoulders portrait, getting in too close will actually distort the model’s features, with the face ending up too thin and the nose too big. So, a 50mm certainly isn’t the best choice for this type of shot.
Advantages of 50mm Lenses
One of the biggest claims to fame for 50mm lenses is that they are highly affordable.
In fact, you can get a brand new Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens for under $150. That’s not bad.
Additionally, 50mm lenses are small and lightweight. For some portrait photographers, having a small lens is a must. Something else of note is the sheer versatility of a 50mm lens.
Not only can you use large aperture versions like f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses indoors or in other low-light situations, but you can also use them for outdoor pursuits like sports photography.
What’s more, a 50mm lens is ideal for video and even macro photography (if you reverse mount the lens).
Finally, 50mm lenses are ideal for both full-frame and crop sensor cameras. Just bear in mind that depending on the crop factor of the camera, a 50mm lens will behave like a 75-80mm lens.
Still, it’s a solid choice no matter what kind of camera you use.
These short telephoto lenses are typically available with f/1.8 or f/1.4 apertures. The latter type is significantly more expensive, so the budget will often play a part in the purchasing decision. For APS-C users, a 50mm lens provides an equivalent focal length of around 75-80mm, while Micro Four Thirds users need a 45mm lens to give an equivalent focal length of 90mm.
APS-C owners are perhaps the luckiest group here because 50mm lenses are generally the most affordable lens type of the three. Full-frame and Micro Four Thirds camera shooters will have to spend a little more cash, but it’s definitely worth it for this focal length.
85mm lenses are highly versatile as they are suitable for full-length, waist-level and head-and-shoulders crops. You can shoot tighter headshots but this has to be done with care because distortion of facial features can occur here.
When shooting in the studio, an 85mm lens is ideal for shooting above-the-knee crops and head-and-shoulders shots and everything in between, but for tighter headshots the 135mm would be the superior option. Looking for a Mornington Peninsula wedding photographer? Look no further! Wild Romantic Photography has you covered.
Advantages of 85mm Lenses
As good as 50mm lenses are, 85mm lenses have their own set of advantages for portrait photography. First and foremost, an 85mm lens on a full-frame camera will give you a very natural-looking portrait. In fact, if you hold your camera in portrait orientation, look through the viewfinder with one eye and open the other eye to look at the scene, your eyes will see virtually the same thing with no distortion in the camera view.
Furthermore, 85mm is a great focal length for portraits because it’s in the short telephoto range, which means that you can stand further away from the subject and still get nice close-up shots. On top of all that, an 85mm lens has gorgeous compression.
That means that facial features look normal (foreheads and noses can be a little bulbous on shorter focal lengths) and pleasing to the eye. The longer focal length also means that it has the effect of bringing the background in closer, making background elements seem larger.
At the same time, shooting with a longer focal length results in beautiful bokeh, so the background is nicely blurred, which helps separate the subject in the frame.
Editor’s Tip: Not sure what lens to select? Learn why an 85mm lens is ideal for portraits.
50mm vs 85mm Lens: Which is Best for You?
As is often the case in these sort of head-to-head matchups, the best lens for you depends on the situation.
If you’re more into “on the go” types of portraiture like travel photography, street photography, or wedding photography – pursuits that require you to have a lens that’s versatile, small, and lightweight – then a 50mm lens is the way to go.
However, if you need a little more focal length for portraits of athletes on the field or if you like the compression that an 85mm lens offers for more traditional portraits, an 85mm lens would be ideal.
Either way, you slice it, a 50mm lens is a great addition to your camera bag. An 85mm lens is a great addition to your camera bag as well.
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Differences in Depth of Field
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 may even find that you prefer different approaches in different applications. 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.
Differences in Framing
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. Your photographs will be your most treasured wedding keepsake. Not sure where to start when it comes to looking for your wedding photographer of choice?
Which Is Best for Portraits? 50mm or 85mm Prime Lenses?
There are two prime lenses that both new and seasoned portrait photographers will always reach for, and they are 50mm primes and 85mm primes. Both of these lenses have great qualities, and even though the focal range is not massively different, they will both produce vastly different results and they both have the best use cases. After the break, we will take a quick look at both lenses and help you understand when each should be used.
The great thing about both 50mm and 85mm primes lenses is that you don’t have to spend tons of money to get great examples of each. If you’re a beginner, you can often pick up 50mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8 prime lenses for just a few hundred dollars each, and you will be blown away with the quality.
As with everything else in life, though, the sky is the limit when it comes to price: you can spend significantly more on these primes lenses. You can opt to pick a lens with faster apertures like the Canon RF 50mm f1.2 and RF 85mm f1.2 primes, and there are also reliable yet slightly more affordable options from third parties like Sigma (50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.4), and Rokinon 50mm f1.4 85mm f1.4) too. So, pick one that fits your budget and then upgrade later if you feel the need. Now, let’s take a close look at both 50mm and 85mm primes lenses.
50mm Prime Lenses
50mm prime lenses are often one of the first prime lenses many photographers will buy thanks to their versatility, ease of use, and great price to performance ratio. While 50mm primes are often seen as general-purpose lenses that can be used for everything from street and landscapes to event photography, they are genuinely fantastic lenses for portrait photographers too. Thanks to their sharp optics, fast apertures, and their ability to easily capture a variety of different subjects, 50mm primes should be in every photographer’s lens library.
When it comes to portraits, 50mm primes lenses are perfect for capturing 3/4 length and full-length portraits. Thanks to 50mm lenses having a slightly wider field of view, you can capture more of the scene in your images. Being able to capture more of the scene is especially helpful if you are in a gorgeous location, or if you are trying to tell more of the story behind the shoot. You’ll also find that you will have more compositional choices with a wider angle lens as well.
50mm primes aren’t just great for 3/4 and full-length body shots, they are also pretty darn good for close up shots too (if you like to get nice and close and in your subjects personal space). But, they can absolutely be used for a more personal shooting experience. One thing to note is that while 50mm prime lenses can be used for head and shoulder portraits, just be aware that the 50mm focal length will not be as flattering on facial features as 85mm lenses when used for tight shots.
With most 50mm primes having a fast aperture of at least f1.8, you’re also able to create excellent subject separation too, so if you like your portraits to have a little bokeh, you can absolutely achieve that look with 50mm lenses. Obviously, the faster the aperture, the more pleasing the bokeh will be, so keep this in mind when selecting a lens to buy.
If you like to have options when it comes to your portraiture and you absolutely must use a prime, you will likely find the 50mm focal length beneficial. You can easily shoot full, 3/4, and tighter shoulder and up portraits with these lenses, and you can create some nice bokeh in the process if you so desire. If versatility is the key, and you like to be physically closer to your subjects, 50mm primes lenses may be for you.
85mm Prime Lenses
85mm prime lenses are often seen as much more traditional lenses for portraiture. This focal length is loved and adored by many thanks to the levels of compression that they give, the fact that they do not distort the face and facial features, and the increased levels of subject separation. Yes, if you love bokeh, this is the lens that we would reach for instead of a 50mm.
While 85mm primes can be used for the same types of shots as 50mm lenses (full length, 3/4, and headshots), you have to be much more aware of your surroundings as the longer focal length will make it hard for you to pull some of these shots off if you are in shooting in small spaces. The telephoto nature of 85mm lenses means that you will be further away from your subject to achieve the same types of shots as the 50mm, so keep this in mind too
The 85mm focal length is perfect for portraits thanks to the levels of compression they provide, and because they do not distort facial features. Distortion control and compression will help soften facial features, which will leave you with much more flattering portraits of your subjects; let’s face it, everybody wants more flattering images of themselves. Compression, which is a characteristic of telephoto lenses, will also help make the background appear closer, which can really make your subject stand out. This is a look many clients want in their images these days.
If you like to obliterate the background, grab an 85mm lens and shoot wide open. Of course, you can also keep more of the environment in focus by simply picking a slower f-stop: this will all come down to you and your creative vision. If you are a new photographer, it’s good to know that shooting wide open at the lenses maximum aperture will also be slightly more difficult than doing so with a 50mm as we are talking about razor-thin depths of field. Newer cameras help with this thanks to advanced eye AF, but still, it’s something you need to be aware of. If you are a portrait photographer who likes to focus more on 3/4 shots and much tighter headshots, we would absolutely recommend an 85mm prime over 50mm primes. We have the best wedding photographer in Yarra Valley to capture your beautiful moments on your wedding day.
As you can see, both 50mm primes and 85mm primes have quite a bit in common, and both are great choices for portrait work. They are both capable of capturing full, 3/4 length, and tighter headshots, and they both have fast apertures, which means you will have no problems shooting in low light conditions. A few key differences are what need to be taken into account:
- Smaller, often cheaper than 85mm lenses
- Better if you will be shooting in tight spaces
- Perfect if you want to capture more of your surroundings
- Ideal for photographers who like to stay closer to their subjects
- A little more versatile – can easily be used for many more genres
- Less distortion of facial features leads to more flattering images
- Compression helps create surreal backgrounds and beautiful bokeh
- Ideal for those shooting in wide-open spaces
- Perfect for 3/4 length portraits and headshots
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You really can’t go wrong with either of these lenses. Ideally, there will be room in your camera bag for both as they each have unique use cases. But if you can’t do that, think about your budget, shooting style, and the types of portrait images you like to take and go from there. You’ll be happy with either of these focal lengths for portraits.