Comparing 85mm vs 135mm Lenses for Portrait Photography

Choosing the right lens is crucial to portrait photography. But how exactly do you choose from the myriad of options out there? For now, let’s narrow it down to 85mm and 135mm.

Let’s say you’ve already mastered shooting portraits with your trusty 50mm lens and want to expand your skills and arsenal to other great lenses. How do you pick the next one from all the choices? Please allow us to simplify that a bit and narrow down your options to two other popular focal lengths for shooting portraits: 85mm and 135mm. To help you choose between the two, we have a simple but detailed comparison by New York City-based photographer and educator Jessica Whitaker in one of her latest videos.

If you’ve been shooting portrait photography for a while, you may know that longer lenses like the 85mm and 135mm allow you to photograph a model from a good distance away, as compared to a Nifty Fifty lens. But there’s more to these lenses than the extra reach they provide, as Jessica demonstrates in her video below!

For this comparison, Jessica chose a Canon 85mm f1.2 and a Zeiss 135mm f2.8. The two lenses are comparable to each other in terms of sharpness, but the former offers an option for autofocusing while the latter is only manual focus.

The results of the two lenses almost look the same as well, but the background gives the main difference away. The background, when shot with the 135mm, looks stretched out horizontally or even closer to the subject because of the compression between the subject and the horizon. This “flattening” effect is even more prominent in the full body shots.

If this is the first time you’re learning about this, Photography Life explains that the compression happens not because of the focal length, but the combination of the long lens and the camera-to-subject distance that makes it appear as if distant objects are larger than they really are. The longer the lens you’re using, the further away you have to position yourself from the subject, and the more exaggerated this effect becomes. So, that’s one aspect you might want to consider when choosing between the two lenses.

In Jessica’s examples, the 135mm works really well in isolating her model from the background, especially in closer shots. But, if you’d like to include more of the background in your shots, the 85mm will let you do that. So, as she also mentioned, you might want to have both lenses in your collection because of the kind of look the compression will allow you to get in your photos.

In conclusion, the 85mm will be a good choice for you if you tend to do a lot of close-up portrait photography. But if you’re planning to do more senior portraits or bridal portraits in the long run, the 135mm will be your best bet.

Check out Jessica Whitaker’s YouTube channel for more of her photography tips and tricks.


Screenshot image from the video