The Down Low: 50mm vs 85mm For Beginners

Lens suggestions and comparisons are just a part of life for the beginner photographer. As you are constantly yearning to satiate that uncontrollable desire to get better gear and shoot better images, you often find yourself wondering what your next lens purchase should be.

A choice many of you may be struggling with right now could be the choice between a 50mm lens or an 85mm lens. There could be many reasons for you dealing with this conundrum, but let’s go with the most obvious which is that you are wanting to shoot more portraits. Both 50mm and 85mm are popular portrait focal lengths, so how should you choose which one to add to your kit?

Well, instead of reading a ton of articles and opinions by people who don’t know you or your specific situation, our recommendation would always be to rent the two lenses you are considering and give them each a thorough test. You will almost certainly find yourself gravitating towards one or the other, and once you figure out which one that is, you know which one you should buy. But in lieu of some hands-on experience, articles such as this can offer important insight as to why to pick one or the other. Let’s get into it…

Why You Would Pick 50mm

50mm is a common focal length for many niches of photography, not just portraits. This is why it is one of the most recommended focal length choices out there. It gives you a borderline telephoto look while still maintaining a somewhat wide and true to life view of the scene. As well, thanks to its popularity, 50mm lenses can be found for really affordable prices, both old and new, so there is really no excuse to not have one in your kit at some point.

The downside to 50mm is that some people find it to be in a sort of no man’s land, not as wide as they would like while also not being as telephoto as they would like. Which leads to frustration always having to stand further back for a wider view, or get in really close for a tighter shot. This is why it is important to test out a lens if possible before you buy it, so you can use it and get a feel for if it is actually going to fit your needs or just annoy you.

50mm Example Images

On APS-C

50mm Lens Recommendations

  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B01DLMD5O6′ text=’Sony FE 50mm F1.8′ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’86d62a95-9cb7-11e7-9793-bb67b829a471′]
  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B00X8MRBCW’ text=’Canon 50mm F1.8 STM’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’8ba89942-9cb7-11e7-8fbe-9b3fc463bd4b’]
  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B004Y1AYAC’ text=’Nikon 50mm F1.8 G’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’9083bbb3-9cb7-11e7-86c5-1133f1b3ac3f’]
  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B016S28I4S’ text=’Fujifilm 35mm F2′ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’97769a1d-9cb7-11e7-95a1-83b6e5bb3524′]
  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B00HWMP0XG’ text=’Olympus 25mm F1.8′ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’a449133f-9cb7-11e7-b992-ab04f7068adb’]

Why You Would Pick 85mm

Ok, so on the other end of this conundrum we have the 85mm focal length – a long time stalwart and favorite of the portrait photography community. 85mm is popular because of its compression and its telephoto look. It is easy to get a pleasing image with a realistically proportioned head and creamy but compressed bokeh.

However, along with that ideal portrait capability comes a lessened versatility that makes 85mm more of a specialized focal length. This means less is in demand and as such, prices are also higher than a 50mm, so if you decide to go 85mm you will almost definitely be spending more than on the 50mm you were considering.

Additionally, 85mm lenses are also generally larger and heavier lenses, so if that is something that will matter or make a difference to you, it is something to consider.

85mm Example Images

85mm Lens Recommendations

  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B00007GQLU’ text=’Canon 85mm F1.8′ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’24dd7c98-9cb8-11e7-9b2a-7bc95a9336ae’]
  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B006TAP096′ text=’Nikon 85mm F1.8G’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’2a41a4c2-9cb8-11e7-9db4-35f922777d1b’]
  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B01MS6WINK’ text=’Fujifilm 50mm F2′ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’2f759502-9cb8-11e7-b47d-85ab8729ec10′]
  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B06WLGFWGX’ text=’Sony FE 85mm F1.8′ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’35c8d907-9cb8-11e7-a160-2b3a98dab82e’]
  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B00HQD9OAG’ text=’Panasonic 42.5mm F1.2′ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’3e1246df-9cb8-11e7-aa85-c3db4a9e6889′]

OK, so there you have it. Hopefully this post has been at least a little helpful to you in figuring out what direction you might be leaning. We really do recommend renting out a lens or two before you invest fully one way or the other, you will be much much happier with your choice if you do that.

Anthony Thurston

Anthony is a Portland, Oregon based Boudoir Photographer specializing in a dark, moody style that promotes female body positivity, empowerment, and sexuality. Besides The Phoblographer, he also reviews gear and produces his own educational content on his website.