Ode To The 85mm Lens

Like most of you I take too much gear when I shoot. For the session I shot last Tuesday I took my Domke F2 and a gaggle of lenses. Actually way way too many lenses. Most of those - actually all of them - were completely superfluous. I ended up using only one the entire day no matter what the framing. I took the rest under the wrongheaded "what if" notion considering I had never shot that space before.

You can probably guess from the title of the post which one I ended up using. I actually could have told you that before I shot but the dreaded "what if" entered my head. Maybe next time I'll just take the 85mm - probably not as this isn't the first time I have showed up with 10 lenses and only used my 85mm.

Moving on to the ode part… I love 85mm lenses for all kinds of reasons. When I say 85mm I specifically mean 85mm on a 35mm full frame equivalent capture medium. I guess I would go as far as 90mm if your particular brand has a 90mm and no 85mm but that is about the limit. Don't get me wrong I like all short teles and 100mm or 105mm lenses are great as well but… There is something about that 85mm that combines a look as well as something very practical as well.

From a look perspective an 85 has a perspective that to me just looks right. Just a tiny amount of compression that makes everybody look so so good while not flattening everything out too too much. It still has dimension and it's angle of view can still suck in a bit of background to add context. I guess I like it so so much because when I am photographing people it's how I sort of see the world when I am focusing on just the person. It just makes everyone look great.

It's not the absolutely optimal lens for really really tight head-shots but for that matter neither is a 100mm or a 105mm or even a 135mm. All of those as well as the 85mm don't have enough compression to make it foolproof, you have to be a tiny bit careful as not to exaggerate any particular feature too close to the camera but that's also one of the reasons I love the 85mm. It still has that dimension and perspective. The 85mm is just as general purpose in my use as a 50mm or a 35mm it's just a lot prettier for people focused shots without being too specialized which is why I shot it all day.

The practical part is that in a huge percentage of real world locations it's tight enough to frame out distractions and loose enough to allow even full length shots without huge amount of camera to subject distance. It's also long enough that you can fine tune subject focus isolation amazingly well while still having a practical amount of DOF to remain useful at a lot of distances you find your self shooting people from.

It doesn't really matter that much which particular 85mm you choose and if I had to offer advice I would say get the cheap one in your particular camera maker's line. Assuming you shoot Nikon or Canon - I have experience with the whole gamut of those 85mm lenses. You definitely don't need the big honkin' Canon 85mm f1.2L or still crazy expensive Nikon 85mm f1.4N both makers have absolutely fantastic 1.8 aperture versions that are mindblowingly good. I mean good in every sense of the word - I don't just mean pretty good for the money. The 1.8 versions of Canon and Nikon are spectacular and actually may have a couple of benefits in addition to a huge dollar savings.

Go ahead and spend your money on the big-boys if you have it. They are not going to make better pictures in the real world. Of course they are nice and yea they definitely are more brag worthy if you are into that kind of thing. You know… "Oh you have that little puny 1.8 version. I guess it's okay but the 1.2L is definitely the way to go if you ever want to be a real man and shoot real pictures." Yea right. As a side note - using any of these wide open is no more a style than any particular preset is.

As a side note - wide open f1.2 or f1.4 thing gets really old after a few dozen shots. Choosing an aperture based on how you want the image to look is probably better than having the mentality of "I want all my images to look like wide-open at f1.2 no matter what I point my camera at." When I look at portfolios from those guys I really think to myself that half the images look too blurry and wish they had a bit more bite in a bit more places.

As for bokeh… well if we are talking about the same thing that means how out of focus areas actually look and how they transition vs. just how far out of focus things are I have to say that even my lowly Nikon 85mm f1.8 AF-D from pre-history looks fantastic. That's the lens I used on all my shots Tuesday. It has great bokeh to my eye. Don't believe every nonsensical thing you read on the internet about the newer one having way way better bokeh. You would have to try really really hard to provoke the AF-D to produce horrendous out of focus area renderings. The new one is probably good to - I haven't shot it under enough conditions at various apertures to render a judgement. To tell the truth almost all lenses can be provoked to make lousy backgrounds - way more to do with how well you know the lens and where you point it then the lens itself - especially in this category - not true of a lot of zooms.

As for 1.8 vs 1.4 vs 1.2… Hmmmm yea there may be times you want as wide as you can but in my experience with all sorts of 85mm starting with my Nikon 85mmm f1.4 AIS my most used apertures over 20+ years are f4, f2.8, and f2 with the occasional f1.4 shot. The shot at the top seems to have really nice bokeh to me and an reasonable focus separation. It was shot at f2.8. I really wish I would have shot it at f4 to tell the truth but the light was really really low. Would it be better at f1.4 with the edge of the subject's face all sloppy and blended into the background - ummmm I don't think so. I certainly didn't want that. Focus transitions look good to me. Would they be better with the new G lens? Prolly not.

Here is another one at f2.8-ish…

Again wish I could have used f4 but that's a bit dicey as my shutter was already at 1/160. Probably my limit for this much magnification and working quickly. Note - for anyone wondering how I shot this close and managed to get all the stuff that kinda looks in focus.. in focus it's pretty simple but takes a bit of practice. I'll explain it in another post more thoroughly but let's just say it has to do with skewing your camera plane to match the plane you are trying to make sharp. Remember I said you need to shoot a lot to stay in shape - I was out of shape and had a bit of difficulty doing this reliably w/o changing my distance fractions of an inch. Maybe I am just getting old but I'm hoping it's just a matter of shooting more frequently.

Just to wrap this up, that shot that I posted yesterday from the same session that was a wider view was shot at f4. Trust me there is plenty of focus separation at f4. Even if you shoot full length. As an added bonus all of the 85's I mentioned are at pretty close to absolute magical peak performance - the height of imaging brilliance.

Even if you shoot zooms - you really owe it to yourself to grab an 85mm prime. The not so big man on campus versions are cheap and are in my opinion absolutely top notch in the way they render images. If given the choice I would much rather work all day with one 85mm than a 70-200 f2.8 for lots of reasons.


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