Which is Best for Portraits: 50mm or 85mm?
Image Credit: nortonrsx via iStock
It's an age-old question - what's the best portrait photography lens?
For many photographers it simply doesn't get better than an 85mm lens.
For many other photographers, a 50mm lens is a much more prudent choice.
So which of these excellent focal lengths for portraits is best for you?
Editor's Tip: Lens choice is one of the most important factors in getting quality photos. Learn what questions to consider when buying a lens.
Advantages of 50mm Lenses
One of the biggest claims to fame for 50mm lenses is that they are highly affordable.
In fact, you can get a brand new Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens for under $150. That's not bad.
Additionally, 50mm lenses are small and lightweight. For some portrait photographers, having a small lens is a must.
Something else of note is the sheer versatility of a 50mm lens.
Not only can you use large aperture versions like f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses indoors or in other low-light situations, but you can also use them for outdoor pursuits like sports photography.
What's more, a 50mm lens is ideal for video and even macro photography (if you reverse mount the lens).
Finally, 50mm lenses are ideal for both full frame and crop sensor cameras. Just bear in mind that depending on the crop factor of the camera, a 50mm lens will behave like a 75-80mm lens.
Still, it's a solid choice no matter what kind of camera you use.
Advantages of 85mm Lenses
As good as 50mm lenses are, 85mm lenses have their own set of advantages for portrait photography.
First and foremost, an 85mm lens on a full frame camera will give you a very natural-looking portrait.
In fact, if you hold your camera in portrait orientation, look through the viewfinder with one eye and open the other eye to look at the scene, your eyes will see virtually the same thing with no distortion in the camera view.
Furthermore, 85mm is a great focal length for portraits because it's in the short telephoto range, which means that you can stand further away from the subject and still get nice close-up shots.
On top of all that, an 85mm lens has gorgeous compression.
That means that facial features look normal (foreheads and noses can be a little bulbous on shorter focal lengths) and pleasing to the eye.
The longer focal length also means that it has the effect of bringing the background in closer, making background elements seem larger.
At the same time, shooting with a longer focal length results in beautiful bokeh, so the background is nicely blurred, which helps separate the subject in the frame.
Editor's Tip: Not sure what lens to select? Learn why an 85mm lens is ideal for portraits.
50mm vs 85mm Lens: Which is Best for You?
Image Credit: MarioGuti via iStock
As is often the case in these sort of head-to-head matchups, the best lens for you depends on the situation.
If you're more into "on the go" types of portraiture like travel photography, street photography, or wedding photography - pursuits that require you to have a lens that's versatile, small, and lightweight - then a 50mm lens is the way to go.
However, if you need a little more focal length for portraits of athletes on the field or if you like the compression that an 85mm lens offers for more traditional portraits, an 85mm lens would be ideal.
Either way you slice it, a 50mm lens is a great addition to your camera bag. An 85mm lens is a great addition to your camera bag as well! Get more details on a comparison between these lenses in the video below by Julia Trotti:
For me, I'd rather have both lenses in my bag.
But for those of us that aren't made of money, that presents a problem.
Fortunately, there are many places where you can find high-quality used lenses so you can stretch your buck a bit further and get more kit for your dollar.
I've used Lensfinder multiple times for that very purpose (and to sell old lenses as well), and it's been a breeze each time.
Lensfinder has buyer protections built right in as well as a rating system for sellers, that way you know who you're dealing with.
The point is that there are great deals to be had on all kinds of lenses, so if you aren't sure which of these fine options is for you, consider buying used so you can afford both!