Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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Say you are using a crop body, and you have both 50mm/1.4 USM and 85mm/1.8 USM lens in your bag. Now, you want to take a portrait where there is adequate light and space, and you have decided to take the shot at f/2.2.

Now I want to know which lens will be good to use to take such a shot, and why.

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Hello Hasin, and welcome to PhotoSE. I understand your question, however I am not sure there is a cut-and-dry "answer" to what you have asked. Portraiture more about flattery and perspective than anything much of the time, and you really want to use whatever lens helps you achieve that goal. The appropriate lens for achieving that goal will usually depend on the scene more so than the lighting. Its less a technical endeavor than an artistic one. In all honesty, I think a 70-200mm lens will probably give you more freedom to explore and capture flattering perspective than those primes. –  jrista Nov 19 '11 at 18:53
    
ok, saying that - if you had only these two lenses in your bag which one would you choose? :) –  Hasin Hayder Nov 19 '11 at 18:58
    
I couldn't say without knowing how the person I was photographing fit into the scene, how closely I wanted to frame the subject, what kind of background bokeh I was interested in, etc. My point is, there isn't a single correct lens for all cases where I might shoot a portrait at f/2.2. It depends on the moment...and only you can know the moment. There are some technical differences in those two lenses that would allow different kinds of shots...but which one I might pick at any given time is not something I could determine much more than a few minutes ahead of time. –  jrista Nov 19 '11 at 19:01
    
got the point. Thanks! –  Hasin Hayder Nov 19 '11 at 19:18
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Hi Hasin! I think this is a fine question that needs no apology. I've edited it a bit in a way which I hope clarifies somewhat; feel free to edit further if I didn't quite get your meaning. –  mattdm Nov 19 '11 at 20:01

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Both are certainly capable of taking the shot, so I guess you are looking for the differences. Obviously, you have to stand further with the 85mm to get the same framing but a few other things will change:

  • The perspective will be more compressed on the 85mm. In general that is considered more flattering for portraits, particularly of non-Asian, since it makes the nose look smaller.
  • There will be less depth of field at the same aperture on the 85mm, so you can blur out the background more. Of course you can open the 50mm much more to compensate.
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What do you mean by the last point "Of course you can open the 50mm much more to compensate"? The 50mm at f/1.4 will have over twice the dof as the 85 at f/1.8. To me that means you can't compensate. –  dpollitt May 24 '12 at 2:31
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You forgot to include the change in subject distance to get the same framing. A quick calculation shows I can get very similar DOF at 50mm F/1.4 @ 4m and 85mm F/1.8 @ 6m, the depth of field on an APS-C camera is almost identical. This difference obviously changes with distance though. –  Itai May 24 '12 at 2:56
    
Of course, I agree with that, but you can't always compensate by moving around! That is an important distinction. Opening the 50mm alone isn't compensation, moving your camera + opening up is! –  dpollitt May 24 '12 at 13:30

When there's enough light and room, the 85mm seems to be a better choice. In addition to better perspective already mentioned by @Itai, the narrow angle of view means that your shot will include less background, which means the bokeh will be smoother for same DOF (because there are less background objects to smear across the same area).

Portrait/wedding/boudoir photographer Neil van Niekerk recently blogged about this and has similar advice: try first using your longest focal length as far as you have to, and go wider only if you can't get your composition otherwise.

But to be really sure what suits your style, just try both lenses with same model and setup and see which you like more.

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Thanks for your comment and that excellent link. It was very helpful. –  Hasin Hayder Nov 20 '11 at 6:06

My opinion is, forget about lens light. This is last important here. Use tripod, flash or other iso. More important is lens length. For classic portraits, use 85 mm for face photos, where 50mm for half of body photos or whole body. For reportage-like photos you can use even vide lenses in portraits, but this is other kind.

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The classic numbers you give would be for 35mm "full frame", right? –  mattdm May 24 '12 at 2:43
    
Not exactly. Because for 35mm / FX, for face photos better is 110 mm my opinion than 85mm. Better DOF, no distortions. So, for 35 mm/FX for face shots best is 110 mm and for half or 3/4 body 50mm, for portraits in interiors, with vide view and whole body or more than one subject, 35mm lens is very good. 85mm @35mm/fx can be used as replacement for 110mm if you like it of course. This all is about photos without strange magnification of nose etc. And here DOF also. You have very nice and natural DOF and bokeh mostly using this lens length for portraits like this. This is little subjective ofc. –  Dudeist May 24 '12 at 13:14

I have both of these lenses in my bag, and really they are for different purposes. The 85mm is simply too long to use indoors unless you like hanging out on top of chairs in the corner of the room to get the shot. It can be used indoors for face only shots, but that is about it in a regular house. The 50mm is much better for this, and sees common use in almost any situation, indoor body shots included.

Depending on the brand you might have other considerations as well. In the Canon lens world, the 50mm f/1.4 is an older style focus system that isn't quite as quick as the 85mm f/1.8. The 50mm f/1.4 is also somewhat soft wide open. Beyond that they are very similar lenses. The difference between 50mm and 85mm is really the big difference, and I have found that indoors the 85mm on a crop sensor body is simply too long for portrait work.

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