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Which One: Canon 50mm f1.4 or 85mm f1.8 Lens for Portrait Photography

by Chris Gampat on 10/03/2011

We’ve reviewed both the Canon 50mm f1.4 and 85mm f1.8 lenses, and they’re both very well worth the money. But which one should be your choice for portrait photography? In this post, we compare both lenses for portrait photography using the Canon 5D Mk II and 7D. So, which one is right for you?

Gear Used

Canon 85mm f1.8

Canon 50mm f1.4

Canon 5D Mk II

Canon 7D

Stat Comparison

Canon 50mm f1.4

– The bread and butter lens of many professionals

– Though seen as not as amazing as its Sigma counterpart, this lens still offers quick the bang for your buck.

– Has some autofocusing issues, but is corrected with microadjustment. This can frustrate many beginning photographers.

Canon 85mm f1.8

– A very special lens in the heart of portrait photographers.

– Perhaps the fastest focusing lens that Canon has to date.

– Color fringing wide open, but that is easily corrected in post-production.

Editor’s Note: Post production was applied to these images for very specific reasons. First off, every lens has a lens profile that Lightroom can automatically help with the correction of images. This was done to every image. Extremely minor clarity, sharpness, radius, and exposure settings were also tweaked. Sharpness was tweaked to simulate what will be done in a professional environment. With that said, the sharpness levels for each photo were tweaked the exact same amount so as not to skew the tests tremendously.

Wide Open Performance

Canon 85mm f1.8 shot at f1.8

This above image was shot on the Canon 5D Mk II, which is a full frame sensor camera. Because of this, 85mm actually acts like 85mm. The focus was placed on Matt’s eyes. However, I did a bit of recomposition, so the focus was thrown off ever so slightly. Either way, though, he is still in focus and the critical parts of this portrait are still very much in tact.

Canon 50mm f1.4 shot at f1.4 on the 5D Mk II

However, the 50mm f1.4 seems to deliver some really great performance when wide open and microadjusted.

Canon 50mm f1.4 shot at f1.4 on the 5D Mk II

Here’s some more proof of that exceptional wide open performance on the Canon 5D Mk II. I was focusing on Matt’s eyes for this shot.

Canon 50mm f1.4 shot at f1.4 on the Canon 7D

Here’s a photo shot at f1.4 on the Canon 7D; which renders the image as an 80mm equivalent due to the crop factor (APS-C sized sensor). Still focusing on Matt’s eye, we still get a very sharp sliver of the image with the rest being thrown out of focus into some beautiful bokeh.

Canon 85mm f1.8 shot at f1.8 on the Canon 7D

That doesn’t mean that the 85mm is a slouch though. It still is capable of delivering some really nice images. Note that the rendering is a 136mm equivalent on the Canon 7D.

Overall though, the 50mm seems to give off a nicer color tonality than the 85mm; which seems a bit more muted. Also, there is a bit of color fringing that is evident in the wide open performance of the 85mm.

Stopped Down Performance

Canon 50mm f1.4 shot at f2.8 on the Canon 7D

At f2.8, things start to become really sharp with the 50mm f1.4. Lots of detail is easily identifiable and the skin tones look lovely.

Canon 85mm f1.8 shot at f2.8 on the Canon 7D

However, now the 85mm has really started to shine. The eyes are popping even more now despite much more being in focus. Indeed, the 85mm f1.8 is also noted to be one of Canon’s sharpest lenses.

Conclusion

This is a very tough decision to make for a multiude of factors:

– This all depends on what camera you have

– How versatile your RAW files are from said camera

– If your camera has microadjustment or not

The 50mm f1.4 is a terrific lens. Wide open it delivers the performance you need and when you stop it down, it just keeps performing well. However, I needed to microadjust my version quite a bit. If I had a camera without microadjustment, I’d be very screwed.

The 85mm f1.8 is also a very good lens. It needs little to no microadjusting, but the wide open performance is a tad bit soft with some color fringing. While that is easily corrected in post, try showing a client that wants to chimp your LCD screen all the purple areas (that is, if you have clients). Once stopped down a bit though, it really begins to shine. Plus the lens focuses super quickly an the eyes seem to pop so much with this lens attached. I’m not a fan of the slightly muted colors though; but that can be fixed in post-production.

Canon’s 85mm f1.8 will work to compress your image more; which means that you’ll have less of a chance of noses or other parts bulging in practice. However, the 50mm is a normal lens and when combined with the lens profile correction in Adobe Lightroom 3, you won’t have any trouble at all.

This is a very tough call: amazing sharpness vs better performance wide open. It will really depend on the photographer’s shooting style. If you’re more into natural lighting, the 50mm f1.4 may be your cup of tea. But if you want to shoot more studio work with strobes, the 85mm f1.8 could be a better option for you.

Once again, all gear used for this posting was:

Canon 85mm f1.8

Canon 50mm f1.4

Canon 5D Mk II

Canon 7D

Which lens seems better for portraits?

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