How to Use an 85mm Lens for Natural Light Portraits

Natural light is the choice of many photographers looking to render a specific look in a scene. It’s beautiful when use correctly–and it often is by many portrait photographers. When used by a photographer that acts very carefully about the images that they’re creating, it can inspire others and enthrall viewers with its captivation. But it isn’t always as simple as just going out in the golden hour and telling a portrait subject to stand there and look nice.

Instead, it’s a collaborative effort. And if you’re looking to get serious about portraiture, we recommend starting with an 85mm lens.

Editor’s Note: This is a sponsored blog post from Zeiss. All words and ideas are those of the Phoblographer’s.

The Flattering Effects of an 85mm Lens

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review images (1 of 7)ISO 4001-640 sec at f - 2.8

An 85mm lens offers photographers lot of incredible advantages when it comes to portraiture. Besides giving them the ability to flatten their subject’s profile, the lenses are also designed with other great features. For example, many have a fast aperture and so they allow the photographer to separate the subject from the background or rest of the scene using depth of field and bokeh effects. Combine this with the fact that color rendition and contrast have improved so much over the years and you’ve got yourself a tool that just makes sense.

The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f1.4 is nearly the perfect 85mm lens. It has weather sealing, exceptional sharpness, colors that pop, and contrast that keeps the details remaining in the scene. No wonder it won our Editor’s Choice award!

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review portrait extras (1 of 6)ISO 8001-125 sec at f - 5.0

When used in natural light, you help negate a problem that many 85mm lenses suffer from: they’re too damn sharp. When a flash is used in a scene, it can bring out loads of details that you otherwise wouldn’t see and that may be a nightmare for retouching and making skin look smoother. But in natural light, those problems more or less even themselves out.

Lots of portrait photographers also love to shoot in what’s called the Golden Hour: during this time the light tends to give skin a sunkissed look that has a radiant beauty to it. For the best results when using natural light, try to look for soft lighting on the subject. You can find this in shadows, with cloud coverage, or by backlighting and exposing accordingly using spot metering.

Model: Bec Fordyce

Model: Bec Fordyce

The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f1.4 has the interesting feature of being a manual focus only lens. Because of the process involving the use of manual glass, you tend to be a lot more careful when creating your images. The result: a higher keeper rate due to your paying attention to more aspects of the scene that you normally would.

For what it’s worth though, I recommend using a tripod with any telephoto manual focus lens.

Backlighting

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Talk about how modern lenses really reduce flare from the sun to let you create a photo with more details in the subject

One of the ABSOLUTE BEST things you can do when photographing your portrait subject in natural light is backlight them. Backlighting refers to placing the key light source in the scene behind the subject. This results in a myriad of things:

Model: Asta Paredes

Model: Asta Paredes

 

  • A warm glow to the subject
  • A natural hair light
  • Flattering light that is literally controlled just by making the exposure brighter or darker accordingly.

Modern day 85mm lenses like the Zeiss Milvus 85mm f1.4 give you a lot of contrast in the scene and prevent glare from ruining the details. When you also consider how sharp the Milvus line up of lenses are, then you’ll see why they’re just so good with natural light portraits.

 

To get the best exposure when backlighting a subject:

  • Set your camera to spot metering
  • Pick an intended focusing point
  • Focus on the subject to get a general, rough area of your final image intent
  • Meter off that spot, underexposing a bit can help retain more details but overexposing often yields softer light when backlighting
  • Check that your focusing is correct, and then shoot

One of the other major advantages of backlighting your subject is the fact that the key light source isn’t in their eyes and blinding them. Otherwise, it can make the process very annoying and even painful for the person in front of the camera.

 

For even better results, try to keep the light behind their head.

Using Natural Shadows for Even Lighting

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review images (6 of 7)ISO 1001-800 sec at f - 2.0

Another great reason to backlight a subject is because it generally gives you more even lighting and control–and with natural light portraiture what you really need the most is control. One of the best ways to control the light in a scene is to work in shadows. Some of the most natural shadows around consist of awnings, tarps, under trees, etc. The last thing you want are little beads of light in the scene throwing off the exposure meter.

IE: the less contrast in the scene, the more your 85mm lens can add to it. A lens like the Zeiss Milvus 85mm f1.4 will give just the right amount of contrast and pop to make your image seem sharper and overall just better. With the light sucking abilities of an f1.4 aperture, you can let in a lot of light to properly exposure your subject. What this further translates into is not needing to wait until the Golden Hour to shoot.

When thinking about this holistically and including post-production, it makes the whole process easier.

General Portrait Tips

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens product images (4 of 7)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 2.0

When shooting portraits here are some general tips to help you all out:

  • Seated portrait subjects should be brought to the front of the chair so as not to put more weight on their thighs and stomach.
  • Be conscious of the shoulders, chin, chest, hair, nose and body language–especially when suing an 85mm lens.
  • 85mm lenses can be great for full body photos, but they excel most with upper quarter sections of a person.
  • Try not to overload a scene with various colors. Keep it simple so that it makes it easier for the viewer’s eyes to focus on a single area.
  • f1.4 apertures are fantastic when the Golden Hour is over and the Blue Hour starts.
  • Don’t ever be afraid of raising the ISO setting
  • Use psychology to get someone to put on an actual emotion in their face. Portraiture is more of a psychology game than anything.
  • Your subject will always look best with form fitting clothing
  • Communicate with your subject and tell them what you want; or show them with something like Pinterest.