Portrait Photography: The Differences Between 85mm and 135mm Primes

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Both 85mm and 135mm lenses are great for portrait photography, but each has particular uses.

Ask any photographer about the lenses they use for portraits, and more than likely, they will come back to you with the same answer. The 85mm and 135mm focal lengths have been go-to options for portrait photography for many years, and for good reasons, but how do you decide between the two, and what are the most significant differences between them? After the break, we will take a quick look at both prime lenses and list the pros and cons of each so that you can make a more informed purchasing decision.

No matter how you slice it, both 85mm and 135mm prime lenses are fantastic for portraits. Both of these lenses have nice wide apertures, which will allow you to melt away the background so that you can create incredible image separation. And being primes, you’re going to find that they are razor sharp. Before you buy one (or both) lenses, there are some key differences you need to know about because if you’re not careful, you will end up limiting yourself. So, let’s dive right into both of these lenses to see what they’re all about.

85mm Primes for Portrait Photography

The Canon RF 85mm f1.2

Many photographers who are just getting started in portrait photography will gravitate towards the 85mm focal length. Honestly, this is the focal length I would tell aspiring portrait photographers to begin with. Why are they doing the right thing in choosing 85mm primes? 85mm primes still give you a surprising amount of versatility and options when it comes to portrait photography. When you’re just starting out, having some wiggle room to play around with can go a long way.

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You can still create great image separation when shooting 3/4 length portraits with an 85mm lens. Captured with the Sony 85mm f1.8

With 85mm primes, you’re still going to be close enough to your subject so that communication is easy, you’ll also find that this focal length will allow you to make 3/4 length, head, and shoulder shots, and headshots too. It’s this versatility that makes 85mm primes lenses perfect for portrait photography. On top of this flexibility, you’ll also find that levels of compression also help create very flattering facial features, which let’s be honest, everyone wants flattering features.

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Captured with the Fujifilm 56mm f1.2 (84mm equivalent on APS-C)

Another great feature of 85mm primes is the bokeh that you can create. When it comes to portraits, many people like the look of having the subject sharp and in focus while the background melts away. Image separation is easy to achieve with 85mm lenses because they have fast apertures (usually from f1.8 to f1.2). Just know that playing with telephoto lenses when wide open can be difficult, so be sure to use your cameras eye autofocus if it has it or make sure you have a steady hand; otherwise, you will find that your keeper rate is low. You can, of course, stop the aperture down so that you can keep more of the background in focus too; it all depends on your creative vision.

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Sony’s 85mm f1.8 is small, lightweight, and costs just $598!

85mm primes are also much smaller (usually) than 135mm prime lenses. Except for the lead image, which shows the Canon RF 85mm f1.2, 85mm, and the new Nikon Z 85mm f1.8 S, 85mm primes are small, lightweight, and are easy to handle. 85mm primes can also be a lot cheaper than 135mm prime lenses as well. So, if you are on a budget, you might want to consider picking up an 85mm lens to start out with.

In Conclusion

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Nikon NIKKOR Z 85 f1.8 S

Pick up an 85mm prime lens if you want to:

  • Have extra flexibility when it comes to portraits (full, 3/4, half body, head and shoulder, and headshots)
  • Have a small, lightweight, and generally affordable lens
  • Stay quite close to your subject so that communication is easier
  • Plan on doing some portrait sessions inside

If the above list sounds like you, you won’t go wrong with an 85mm prime lens.

Recommended Lenses

Not sure what 85mm prime lenses to look at? Here are our first-party recommendations:

Canon EF 85mm f1.8: Our reviewAmazon: $349

Canon RF 85mm f1.2: Our reviewAmazon: $2,699

Fujifilm 56mm f1.2: Our reviewAmazon: $999

Nikon F 85mm f1.8 G: Our reviewAmazon: $426.95

Nikon Z 85mm f1.8: Our reviewAmazon: $796.95

M4/3 Olympus 45mm f1.8: Our reviewAmazon: $279.99

Sony 85mm f1.8 FE: Our reviewAmazon: $598

135mm Prime Lenses for Portrait Photography

The Sony 135mm f1.8 G Master

135mm prime lenses are much more specialized than their 85mm counterparts and can be much more challenging to work with, but they are still stunning lenses. Like with 85mm lenses, you’re going to be able to create gorgeous portraits with a 135mm lenses, and you will find that this focal length offers even more compression, which means even more flattering facial features and even creamier bokeh. There are very few lenses that can create dreamy portraits better than 135mm primes.

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Make sure you have lots of room to play with if you want to use 135mm lenses for shots like this. Captured with the Sony 135mm f1.8 G Master.

These telephoto primes are fantastic for head and shoulder and headshot images. Can they be used for 3/4 length portraits or even full-body portraits? Of course, but you will have a backup a great distance to be able to frame your subject correctly. Given that you will need some distance between your model and yourself, you may find that communicating with your subject becomes that much harder as well.

Portrait photographers with more experience in being able to express themselves from a distance will find using 135mm lenses easier than those who are just starting out, so if you are new to the portrait game, educate yourself on how to communicate effectively before picking up a 135mm prime. You’re also going to need to make sure that you will be shooting areas that have a lot of space for you to move around in. Shooting indoors will be tricky, so plan on using 135mm prime lenses outside.

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Captured with the affordable Rokinon 135mm f2

When it comes to apertures, you will find that almost all 135mm prime lenses max out at f1.8; otherwise, they would be bigger and heavier than they already are. Won’t having max apertures of f1.8 make creating bokeh more challenging? No, not at all. Because of the extra compression that you will get from the longer focal length, creating bokeh is just as easy as it is with an 85mm, in fact, you may prefer the image rendering of the 135mm over 85mm lenses, again, this will come down to personal preference and your creative vision.

There’s simply no getting around the size difference of 135mm primes compared to 85mm primes, and you’re also going to find that 135mm primes usually come with a premium price tag too. There are some exceptions to this rule, though, but just make sure you want to drop a lot of money on a lens that really has one use case.

In Conclusion

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Captured with the Sigma 135mm f1.8 Art

You might want to purchase a 135mm prime lens for portrait photography if:

  • You don’t mind using a lens that is bigger, heavier and more expensive than most 85mm primes
  • You will be shooting portraits outside more than inside
  • You prefer to create head and shoulder images and headshots more than full body, half body, and 3/4 length portraits
  • You are a great communicator, and can still convey what you want from your model from a distance
  • You don’t mind having a lens that is good for one subject matter

If the above sounds good to you, and if you plan on shooting very specific types of portraits that could really benefit from extra compression, a 135mm prime may be ideal for you.

Recommended Lenses

These 135mm primes are the cream of the crop for portrait photography:

Fujifilm 90mm f2 (135mm equivalent): Our reviewAmazon: $949

Sigma 135mm f1.8: Our reviewAmazon: $1,198.72-$1,262

Rokinon 135mm f2: Our reviewAmazon: $428-$529

Sony 135mm f1.8 GM: Our reviewAmazon: $2,098

Zeiss 135mm f2.8 Batis: Our reviewAmazon: $1,479.79

Zeiss 135mm F2 Milvus: Our review Amazon: $1,800.82

Brett Day

Brett Day is the Gear Editor at The Phoblographer and has been a photographer for as long as he can remember. Brett has his own photography business that focuses on corporate events and portraiture. In his spare time, Brett loves to practice landscape and wildlife photography. When he's not behind a camera, he's enjoying life with his wife and two kids, or he's playing video games, drinking coffee, and eating Cheetos.