It’s a trick question as both prime lenses are great, but you need to know when to use each one and what their strengths are.
There are two prime lenses that both new and seasoned portrait photographers will always reach for, and they are 50mm primes and 85mm primes. Both of these lenses have great qualities, and even though the focal range is not massively different, they will both produce vastly different results and they both have the best use cases. After the break, we will take a quick look at both lenses and help you understand when each should be used.
The great thing about both 50mm and 85mm primes lenses is that you don’t have to spend tons of money to get great examples of each. If you’re a beginner, you can often pick up 50mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8 prime lenses for just a few hundred dollars each, and you will be blown away with the quality.
As with everything else in life, though, the sky is the limit when it comes to price: you can spend significantly more on these primes lenses. You can opt to pick a lens with faster apertures like the Canon RF 50mm f1.2 and RF 85mm f1.2 primes, and there are also reliable yet slightly more affordable options from third parties like Sigma (50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.4), and Rokinon 50mm f1.4 85mm f1.4) too. So, pick one that fits your budget and then upgrade later if you feel the need. Now, let’s take a close look at both 50mm and 85mm primes lenses.
50mm Prime Lenses
50mm prime lenses are often one of the first prime lenses many photographers will buy thanks to their versatility, ease of use, and a great price to performance ratio. While 50mm primes are often seen as general-purpose lenses that can be used for everything from street and landscapes to event photography, they are genuinely fantastic lenses for portrait photographers too. Thanks to their sharp optics, fast apertures, and their ability to easily capture a variety of different subjects, 50mm primes should be in every photographer’s lens library.
When it comes to portraits, 50mm primes lenses are perfect for capturing 3/4 length and full-length portraits. Thanks to 50mm lenses having a slightly wider field of view, you can capture more of the scene in your images. Being able to capture more of the scene is especially helpful if you are in a gorgeous location, or if you are trying to tell more of the story behind the shoot. You’ll also find that you will have more compositional choices with a wider angle lens as well.
50mm primes aren’t just great for 3/4 and full-length body shots, they are also pretty darn good for close up shots too (if you like to get nice and close and in your subjects personal space). But, they can absolutely be used for a more personal shooting experience. One thing to note is that while 50mm prime lenses can be used for head and shoulder portraits, just be aware that the 50mm focal length will not be as flattering on facial features as 85mm lenses when used for tight shots.
With most 50mm primes having a fast aperture of at least f1.8, you’re also able to create excellent subject separation too, so if you like your portraits to have a little bokeh, you can absolutely achieve that look with 50mm lenses. Obviously, the faster the aperture, the more pleasing the bokeh will be, so keep this in mind when selecting a lens to buy.
If you like to have options when it comes to your portraiture and you absolutely must use a prime, you will likely find the 50mm focal length beneficial. You can easily shoot full, 3/4, and tighter shoulder and up portraits with these lenses, and you can create some nice bokeh in the process if you so desire. If versatility is the key, and you like to be physically closer to your subjects, 50mm primes lenses may be for you.
85mm Prime Lenses
85mm prime lenses are often seen as much more traditional lenses for portraiture. This focal length is loved and adored by many thanks to the levels of compression that they give, the fact that they do not distort the face and facial features, and the increased levels of subject separation. Yes, if you love bokeh, this is the lens that we would reach for instead of a 50mm.
While 85mm primes can be used for the same types of shots as 50mm lenses (full length, 3/4, and headshots), you have to be much more aware of your surroundings as the longer focal length will make it hard for you to pull some of these shots off if you are in shooting in small spaces. The telephoto nature of 85mm lenses means that you will be further away from your subject to achieve the same types of shots as the 50mm, so keep this in mind too.
The 85mm focal length is perfect for portraits thanks to the levels of compression they provide, and because they do not distort facial features. Distortion control and compression will help soften facial features, which will leave you with much more flattering portraits of your subjects; let’s face it, everybody wants more flattering images of themselves. Compression, which is a characteristic of telephoto lenses, will also help make the background appear closer, which can really make your subject stand out. This is a look many clients want in their images these days.
If you like to obliterate the background, grab an 85mm lens and shoot wide open. Of course, you can also keep more of the environment in focus by simply picking a slower f-stop: this will all come down to you and your creative vision. If you are a new photographer, it’s good to know that shooting wide open at the lenses maximum aperture will also be slightly more difficult than doing so with a 50mm as we are talking about razor-thin depths of field. Newer cameras help with this thanks to advanced eye AF, but still, it’s something you need to be aware of. If you are a portrait photographer who likes to focus more on 3/4 shots and much tighter headshots, we would absolutely recommend an 85mm prime over 50mm primes.
As you can see, both 50mm primes and 85mm primes have quite a bit in common, and both are great choices for portrait work. They are both capable of capturing full, 3/4 length, and tighter headshots, and they both have fast apertures, which means you will have no problems shooting in low light conditions. A few key differences are what need to be taken into account:
- Smaller, often cheaper than 85mm lenses
- Better if you will be shooting in tight spaces
- Perfect if you want to capture more of your surroundings
- Ideal for photographers who like to stay closer to their subjects
- A little more versatile – can easily be used for many more genres
- Less distortion of facial features leads to more flattering images
- Compression helps create surreal backgrounds and beautiful bokeh
- Ideal for those shooting in wide-open spaces
- Perfect for 3/4 length portraits and headshots
You really can’t go wrong with either of these lenses. Ideally, there will be room in your camera bag for both as they each have unique use cases. But if you can’t do that, think about your budget, shooting style, and the types of portrait images you like to take and go from there. You’ll be happy with either of these focal lengths for portraits.