85mm Portrait Philosophy

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by lisa_f, May 21, 2011.

  1. Need help understanding why the 85mm (have 1.8 D) is considered a portrait lens? I would like to know the attributes that make a lens a portrait lens so I can better use it and review my results for whether I'm using it to it's best purpose. Does that make sense? If it's difficult to explain, maybe as compared to a 50mm (have 1.4 AFS)? And if it helps, I've recently moved from my overused D80 to a new D700, having less than 300 actuations. So I'm just learning that beast at the same time. Full frame baby. I'm in love.
    Thanks in advance. This forum rocks.
  2. The issue is simply that if you're too close to your subject, or too far away, the resulting perspective makes for an unpleasing portrait image. Too close, and the subject's nose looks too big and their ears too small; too far away, and everything seems flat. For a full-face or head-and-shoulders portrait, then, you generally want to be (roughly) between six and twelve feet away. To get full-face or head-and-shoulders framing at those distances, you want a lens in the 85-135mm range if you are using a full-frame 35mm camera such as your D700. That's basically why that range is called "portrait range". A fast lens (f/2 or better) is typically preferred so as to be able to blur out the background when desired.
  3. The best thing to do is take some portraits with your 85 and other lenses and see what you think works the best.
  4. Lisa,
    The 85mm is a "classic" portrait lens because before zooms and auto-focus there were limited lens choices and 85mm was a good compromise between too wide and too long for the average portrait shooter.
    The reality is that, depending on your style, portraits can be shot from 24mm to 200mm. While it's rare to see a classic "head and shoulders" portrait taken with a 24mm, it has been done. The person paying for the shoot would know your style, (not how it's achieved), and expect to get what you advertise.
    In terms of perspective and what you get from the 85mm, here's a quick synopsis:
    • 85mm is long enough to get a good "head and shoulders" or "waist up" portrait without being uncomfortably close to your subject.
    • 85mm is not so long that it will compress the depth of the shot to the point where the photo will appear"flat"
    • 85mm is versatile enough that to get a "full length" portrait you can take just a few steps back and frame accordingly.
    While this is just a quick synopsis, I will divert from your original question just a bit. For portraits, I use the following kit:
    • D700
    • 85mm f/1.4D (Head and Shoulders)
    • 35mm f/1.4G (Full length)
    • 105mm f/2 DC (Babies and women looking for a "soft" result)
    • 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (for location shooting where I want a specific type of result)
    I hope this doesn't confuse things, but my motto is to have the right tool for the job. The more tools I have, the better...as long as I understand how to use them.
    I kind of equate my camera bag to an auto mechanic's toolbox... I'd rather have a mechanic with exactly the right tool for the job. However, if the mechanic doesn't know how to use his tools then I'd rather go to the guy that can get the job done with a different tool, even if that tool might not be as good for the specific job.
    Just my 2 cents,
  5. Probably because 50mm is too short and 135mm is too long from a reasonable working distance. Between the 85 and 105mm, wider is more flexible...But you should find out for yourself as Tim suggested.
  6. My two cents... because of its extreme sharpness, superb control over depth-of-field, and the wonderfully blurred backgrounds it delivers.
  7. What kind of portraits? Head shots, upper body, environmental, etc?
    Until that's known, as well as the level of subject engagement you're comfortable with, it's not possible to determine if a particular focal length is right for *you*.
    For myself and other photographers, subject engagement is key and drives good portraiture. No engagement = boring portraiture. I shoot with a 35/1.4 on a full frame exclusively for my street portraiture. It's right for *me*.
    I have no use for an 85mm (though I happen to have one); it's a telephoto from my perspective. Because the term portraiture is so wide open on scope, there is no single right or classic portraiture lens.
  8. SUPER answers....yes, I have been comparing but really was having trouble KNOWING rather than "it seems" like there is distortion of features. Now I will redo comparisons of 50mm to 85mm for full body, head and shoulders and face. This is gonna be FUN! Woot! I love this forum.
  9. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I'm with Brad on this. 85mm is way too long for my comfort level, and I don't have issues with distortion.
    This casual portrait of Betty Boop was taken at 24mm on a 1.3x crop camera.
  10. For portrait photography philosophy... that is,... a 24 mm on D700, you may need to get quite close to pretty subjects, if this is your comfort level. Make sure your subjects are also comfortable with sticking your camera in their face, and do not have to close one eye.
  11. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Uh, dude, that's called a wink. And she was quite comfortable.
  12. Lisa,
    One more reason...
    Usually for creative portraiture photographers prefer faster lenses... and 85mm is the longest focal that aloud for now to build lenses that open at f1.4. So in the tele area 85mm is the only "so" fast lens... if you move to 105, 135, 180 or 200 the faster available would be f1.8 (MF) or f2. So 85mm is the best compromise between cost, weight, size, fast aperture, focal length, angle of view, bokeh...
  13. I shoot with an 84mm field of view (crop sensor). It had been my main walkaround lens for over a year and half. It is surprising how much that lens can actually capture. It is not a snapping from distance sort of lens. For that I prefer something longer but when you are comfortable with the subject, proximity is not so much a factor really.
  14. Lisa, congrats on your choice to go full-frame, and on your choice of the D700 - I've had mine for 2 years and still love it!
    On full-frame the "portrait" tag applies to lenses in the 85 ~ 105mm range. The idea is that a medium-long lens lets you get far enough away from the subject to present a reasonably flat perspective, but still be able to fill the frame with a head-and-shoulders or head shot. If you get too close, then a slight tilt of the subject's head means that their chin or forehead will be exaggerated, or their nose will look large. A longer lens is also good for throwing the background out of focus and not requiring a huge expanse of background behind the subject. However, there's no law that says you have to use a portrait lens. Great portraits have been taken with everything from wideangles to super-telephotos I'm sure.
    There's a very good explanation and illustration to be found here:
    Note how in the very wideangle shots the top of the backdrop and hairlight become visible.
  15. I really only think of portrait lenses in terms of how I want to control the background. If I shoot waist up 1/2 body with 28mm I include more background and yes the subject will have a more up close and personal feel, to some extent. But if there's room I could shoot the same with a 300mm or 400mm and control having much less and narrower angle of view of the background, plus I can eliminate certain things from the frame I don't want. Same with the 85mm, which I use quite often, to me it's just another angle of view how I'm going to control the background, I don't concern myself much with all the rest. Of course the aperture and distance from the subject also has a great role in creating the "look" that you want.
  16. "a 24 mm on D700, you may need to get quite close to pretty subjects"
    Sign me up!
  17. There's no law. You can shoot portraits with any lens, depending on what you're trying to do. It's not a question of principle, so much as it is a matter of practice.
    As it happens, photographers back in 35mm film days found the range of roughly 75mm to 105mm to be their favorite for head-and-shoulders kinds of portraits. It was also convenient for street work with a little more distance from the subject, but still showing face detail.
    Two of the best lenses ever made in this category were the Zeiss Biotar 75mm f/1.5 and the Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5. The Zeiss Sonnar 85mm f/2 (on which many other lenses are based, including your Nikon 85mm, I think) was no slouch either.
  18. Note carefully the part of Craig's answer where he spoke of distance to subject rather than focal length.

    That's the key.
  19. There's also the thing that happens to the face at short focal lengths and close distances. Basically, 85mm yields a very flattering perspective on a person's face. Shorter lengths not so much, usually. Short short focal lengths for portraits are normally used for some kind of special effect, not necessarily to flatter the subject.
    btw, I find really LONG focal lengths (like 105mm on crop frame) to be even more flattering, but normally difficult to get far enough from the subject.
  20. I could shoot the same with a 300mm or 400mm and control having much less and narrower angle of view of the background,​
    There is a lot of truth in this , and all other statements in this discussion, but as i understand this discussion up to now, talk is mostly about shooting a picture of a persons face.
    I think there is a lot more to a good "Portrait" though, I feel that a good portrait should tell something about the "persosn in the picture", like if that person likes to ride horses for example, then maybe include something that relates to that in the "Portrait" , or when the person is a pro football player, then maybe have his or her club-colors somewhere in the background..
    Sometimes you want to show beuty and transparant skintones ( is fagility the right word here ? ) , and sometimes you want to show life-experience and wisdom in a portrait so a "worn tanned" skin ( grooved ?) .
    This way you will, maybe, need sometimes a "wide" lens, like 35mm 1.8 at f5,6 for showing sharp lines in a face, and some times a 85 1.4 for creamy bokeh and soft "transparant skin much depending also on the lighting you want to use...
  21. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Note carefully the part of Craig's answer where he spoke of distance to subject rather than focal length.
    Short short focal lengths for portraits are normally used for some kind of special effect, not necessarily to flatter the subject.​
    So what is wrong with Betty Boop's portrait? I've received a lot of positive comments about it, including from Betty herself.
    What's unflattering are portraits that have no sense of the subject, not ones taken at the right distance or with the right focal length. And clicking on the names of the people with all the answers here, I'm finding almost no portraits to show what I'm doing wrong.
  22. Jeff, the Betty shot is good. I don't object to shooting portraits with different focal lengths, but that issue is irrelevant to the original question. The OP asked why 85mm is called "portrait length" and I and others explained why that is. It's not that other focal lengths can't or shouldn't be used (I've shot portraits with anything from 24mm to 200mm), it's just a matter of what is conventional, which isn't at all the same as saying good or bad.
  23. @Jeff--

    Nothing at all is wrong with Betty Boop's portrait. My point is that whatever is right about it as far as the lens is concerned is right because of your distance from her, not because of the focal length of the lens you used.

    Of course, given that you wanted a certain distance, and then wanted to frame the shot a certain way, that did dictate the choice of lens, right?

    Yet, re-reading the comments here, I see that most of them are about focal length, which adds the complexity of needing to know the film or sensor size. If you consider only distance to the subject, it's much easier to understand what's going on.

    Knowing that distance to subject is what matters, one can take a neutral portrait (nothing compressed or exaggerated) with any lens, as long as it's wide enough to capture the desired image. Might have to crop, though. This means that one can take such portraits even with a fixed-lens camera that has only a wide angle. Just stand back. Insist on filling the frame, and you get that wide-angle perspective, which is usually (not always!) not what's wanted.
  24. So what is wrong with Betty Boop's portrait? I've received a lot of positive comments about it, including from Betty herself.​
    Nothing. It's marvelous. But even you will probably admit it's the exception, not the rule. My favorite portrait of my father was taken with a fisheye.
    But the "classic portrait length" is about 85mm on FX frame, or maybe 80mm on medium format.
  25. It's been mentioned a few times concerning depth of field and compression of objects. Personally, I do a lot of shooting with a 24mm and 50mm lens. I own a few tele lenses, but don't use them as much as the first two mentioned. So what does that have to do with the 85mm/100mm debate?
    Here's the deal, Lots of places I shoot I don't have room for a 85+mm lens. I would get their head and that's it.
    The basic rule of thumb is that the longer/larger the focal length (the "mm") the more the background will be compressed and the further from the subject you will be. It also affects the DOF. So a small focal length (< 50mm) will give you a deeper DOF and will mean you have to get closer to your subject. It will also "distort" the parts of the subject closer to you (nose, chin, feet).
    The larger the focal length (>50mm) the more compressed the background to the subject ( stuff in the background will look closer to the subject), the DOF will decrease the closer you get to the subject and the parts of the body will look less distorted ... to a point.
    So you can see that the f-stop only controls part of the depth of field. What is more important is the distortion the lens creates and the effect you want. Some people will match a focal length to a face type. I don't go that far.
    What looks good to you? What are you comfortable shooting? Where do you shoot? How important is the distortion and the clarity of the background? Those are the questions you have to answer.
    As for me, my style and surroundings dictate I shoot closer to my subject. If I need a shallow DOF and a certain amount of clarity, then that affects my lens choice. I'm not sure there is a "correct" answer to this. And anyone that says, "This is the only answer," is coming from a limited point of view.
    What's amazing is that you can get some pretty great exposures from wider focal lengths. Most point and shoots and cell phones are under 50mm. Check out "Instagram" on Flickr. That's an app for the iPhone. Think about that. Amazing pics and portraits from a focal length less than 50mm.
    Just remember, the longer the focal length means:
    • You need more distance between you and the subject to get more subject in the frame
    • The background will look closer to the subject
    • The DOF can be shallower if you are closer to the subject
    • There will be less distortion of the subject
    Hope that helps.
  26. " why the 85mm (have 1.8 D) is considered a portrait lens"​
    1.) Composition, (headshots)
    2.) Bokeh (background blur)
    Wide aperture lenses blur the background more / better than say a 4.5-5.6 zoom. I bought an 85MM 1.2 for the sweet bokeh.
  27. Holy smoke! This is like taking a class. LOVE IT. I personally don't prefer compression in my portraits. It's like the view of the portrait is looking through binoculars. But that is just an opinion. And Craig is right. My original question is not what is "best" or what "is" a portrait lens but rather why the 85mm is considered a portrait lens.
  28. Lots of phrases in photography are oversimplifications of more complex ideas. In this case, consider the word portrait. There are many different types of portraits, and left unspecified, the word portrait will evoke different things to different people.
    A newspaper photographer may tend to think of environmental portraits, where the subject and his or her environment are more or less equal subjects in a photo. These are often created with wider angle lenses. Senior portraits are often environmental.
    Another photographer may think of a portrait as a traditional head and shoulders composition. These images are typically called everything from a "portrait" to a "headshot" to a "close-up" and many others, depending on custom in a particular group or market. These are the ones that often use a longer focal length, and there are religious debates on which is ideal, 85, 105, 135, and sometimes with crop sensors 50.
    Still another may think in terms of a formal or three-quarter portrait, which is usually in between a headshot and an environmental portrait. There really are a lot of different, specific ways to describe a portrait, and they are all true, depending on the context.
  29. >>> ... but rather why the 85mm is considered a portrait lens.
    Beats me. It's a false premise from my perspective. I don't consider it a portrait lens any more than the lens I happen to shoot all of my portraits with, which happens to be a 35mm (on a full frame) for the kind of portraiture I do, and the level of subject engagement I require.
  30. Jeff,
    I have always liked your work. You did nothing wrong with the portrait of Betty. What people don't understand is that portraits can be taken with any lens as long as the work is good and says something. Most portraits taken with the classic lenses are just plain boring and lifeless.
    After all these years, the naysayers are getting to you? Keep up the good work.
  31. He wasn't asking if you can use different focal lengths, but why the 85mm was considered by so many (as it truly is) to be the "portrait length". It needn't be a debate about what lenses can and can't be used for portraits.
    I respectfully submit that it is a classic portrait length, and that to use something substantially shorter is to "break the rules", which is fine... but one is probably very well served by learning to follow the rules before learning to break them.
  32. @Jeff
    There is nothing wrong with shooting a 24mm for portraits. What I described in my original post was why 85mm is considered a "classic focal length". I routinely shoot with a 35mm on my D700 (not much longer than your 24mm on a 1.3x crop camera). I haven't been posting my portraits since they tend to be of High School Seniors and parents are routinely requesting not using the photos for anything online.
    Most of my subjects tend to be more comfortable with the working distance of my 85mm, but I understand your use of the 24mm as well. I respect your work and your posts tend to be very insightful. BTW, the Betty Boop Portrait is a great example of moderate wide angle/normal FL portraiture!
  33. you will not be able to understand it with 1.8 D. Thou must have the 1.4 version...
  34. >>> What people don't understand is that portraits can be taken with any lens as long as the work is good and says something. Most portraits taken with the classic lenses are just plain boring and lifeless.
    Yes! That notion comes up several times a week.There is no classic portrait lens, Unless ascribing labels are important to one's photography. Speaking of boring and lifeless, the difference between that and good portraiture is directly driven by subject engagement.
    Those that doubt should look at Laura Wilson's Avedon at Work - In the American West." Wilson was one of Avedon's assistants during the time that body of work was being compiled, in the early '80s. She also chronicled the event with stories and photographs of Avedon at work engaging his subjects, which then became the subject of her book. Though he shot in 8x10, you can see from her photos how close he was working. Engagement was key.
  35. "Two of the best lenses ever made in this category were the Zeiss Biotar 75mm f/1.5........"
    I owned and used this lens 40 years ago, and it was an old design even then! At that time it was my favourite lens, but I must admit that wide open the image quality wasn't up to much. The 85mm AiS f/2 Nikkor absolutely trounces it for wide-open picture quality, and given the difference in light transmission between their coatings the Nikkor would probably allow the same shutter-speed at f/2 as the Biotar at f/1.5.
    What I'm trying to say is: Don't be taken in by the "classic", vintage or rarity status of the old 75mm Biotar (AKA Jena B). It really is a very ordinary lens by today's standards, and most modern designs will eat it for breakfast - even the budget Samyang 85mm f/1.4. It's certainly not worth going out of your way to find one of these old lenses and adapt it to a Nikon fit or anything silly like that.
  36. @ Richard Snow
    Oh Gosh, no offense meant or taken.
    I'm a little like Lisa myself wondering what the difference is in 15mm. I think it really comes down to what you have and what you are used to using and your success with both or neither in my case. I have a 70-200mm that I just set at 85 or 100 and honestly, both are acceptable to me. But then again, I'm not comfortable with either focal length because I like the feel of the 50 and 24 for my style and I don't have that much room to shoot. I probably should just get a 100 or 85 and shoot with it for a year solid and see what I like. I did just buy a 135mm in hopes of working it into my arsenal. But I may end up selling it because I don't like it.
    I think whatever Lisa likes or uses and is comfortable with and gets her goals accomplished is the best lens.
  37. I don't need to defend the Biotar lenses. The market value alone shows what the broader world thinks of them.
    To say it is "ordinary" is just sheer unjustified nihilism.
  38. The classic portrait lenses (85 105 135) where/are chosen
    for a reason. If you start out with an 85 place yourself far enough away from
    your subject to get a full length shot. When you move to a 105 you now have a
    3/4 shot from the same position. Change to a 135 and you are now at a head and shoulders.
    Does that mean you have to use those lenses. Nope it sure doesn't.
    The 85 f/1.8 is a fine all purpose lens that does wonderful work as a portrait
    Shoot it and have fun don't get hung up by all the rules
  39. I like 45mm for a whole body shot, 85mm for head and shoulders, and 135mm for a head shot. But then there is a lot of leeway depending on what else you want to show. In the context of a "portrait lens", it is implied that a head and shoulders or similar shot is intended, not an environmental portrait. And the reason why this is so is very simple: when you do a tight close-up of the face, different optical characteristics is desired than when you do a whole body or environmental shot. In an environmental shot you want the lens to be sharp so you can see the subject clearly even though they may not be all that large in the frame. But in a head and shoulders or a head shot, you typically want a lens that doesn't give a very harsh micro-contrast. Thus in the 85mm-135mm lens category, two types of lenses are common: the macro lenses intended for flowers etc. where you want the details as sharply rendered as possible, and then the portrait lenses which tried to hide blemishes. Also there are differences in bokeh between the two. In other focal lengths there was no need to deliberately make a lens render details with a soft contrast, as the human subjects were not typically photographed as a tight head shot with a wide angle, for example.
    Today it doesn't matter as much as the blemishes in the skin can be photoshopped out, if desired. But I still love the DC Nikkors for their rendering.
  40. Copied from another forum in which I posted:
    "I personally think that, for showing a face on a photograph to represent how the face is recalled/ remembered by us, we have to shoot that person from a distance that is equal to the height of of his/ her eye level (from the ground). This is only a theory, and not a scientific one, so there is no proof available to me. This theory implies that the shorter a person, the closer the distance from which u have to shoot to show the face as-is. It means thet we have to shoot children from a closer distance than adults. [BTW, the goal of photography (art) is not showing things as-is, a photographer (artist) has complete freedom of how he wants to show a person's face. This theory is for u only if u want to show a person's face as-is]."
    And here is a demonstration of the effect of subject distance for portrait:
  41. I have shot portraits with 24mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses, but the reason I prefer the 85mm F1.4 Nikkor lens when shooting head and shoulders portraits is because of the sharpness and the ability to isolate the subject from the background when shooting wide open. However, from my perspective this isn't always desirable... sometimes I want the environment to be included, so I need to either have a lot of light with the 85mm, or switch to the 50mm or 24mm.
  42. bmm


    The other side of this conversation of course, as it relates to 85mm lenses, is that their being stereotyped as 'portrait lenses' ignores their absolute excellence in certain conditions at taking landscape, nature, architecture or (non-people) urban images. With my 85/1.4 in fact I would guess only 25-30% of images taken are of people. The rest of the time I use it as an absolutely marvellous short-mid general purpose tele.
  43. Something that is also important for me in lens choice for portrait work in my small home studio is how much I have to fight with my background to stop it from intruding.
    When I am shooting a full body shot then I don't have as many options and am forced to go wider (probably to a 50mm f/1.8 or sometimes the long end of a 20-35mm f/2.8), but I always battle to get a composition where something that I don't want in the background (edge of the 3 metre wide backdrop etc.) doesn't intrude. When I can shoot a tighter portrait then I can go for an 85mm and spend more time getting the model's facial expression right without worrying as much about what might be intruding.
    I always have a range of lenses at my disposal just in case, but I find it least stressful to be able to go to either a 85mm or 105mm focal length.
    An environmental portrait is obviously a different kettle of fish and wider often is easier - not to say that a mild telephoto lens won't be usable though.

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