Like any photographer, if you told me I could have only one lens, my pulse rate would go up. Fast! But let’s just say, because I get asked this a lot, I have to choose between a 50mm vs 85mm for portraits.
Which lens is better for portrait photography and which would I choose? 50mm or 85mm?
Quick sidenote on focal length before we start
When you use a full frame lens on a crop sensor camera you get roughly 1.5 times the reach of the lens on a full frame camera. So:
- For the equivalent effect on a crop sensor camera of a 50mm lens on a full frame camera, you would use (roughly) a 35mm lens.
- If your camera is a crop sensor camera and you put a full frame 50mm lens on your camera, it’s equivalent to (roughly) an 85mm on a full frame camera.
- An 85mm lens on a crop frame camera is equivalent to (again, roughly) a 105mm lens.
So, to keep things simple, I’ll debate the choice between a 50mm vs 85mm lens only in relation to using them on a full frame camera.
If you have a crop sensor camera, just refer back to the rough guide above.
What difference does it make – 50mm or 85mm portraits?
The focal length you choose isn’t just about how close you have to be to photograph your subject. The focal length affects the shape and proportions of your subject’s face.
Choosing the wrong focal length can make
- Foreheads bulge
- Noses bigger
- Faces wider
All very good reasons to make sure you know how to photograph portraits with a 50mm vs 85mm lens.
And in case you’re wondering – the same focal length effects apply to both zoom and prime lenses.
Right, now let’s get into whether a 50mm lens or an 85mm lens is better for portrait photography. To do this we need to look at:
- Distance from subject
- Lens distortion
- How much of a subject is in shot
- Field of view
- Background blur aka depth of field
- Indoor or outdoor photography
- Lens weight and size
- Lens price
Distance from subject
To fit the same proportion of your subject in the frame with a 50mm lens you have to be closer to your subject than with an 85mm lens.
So, if you don’t have the space, a 50mm lens is better.
But beware of lens distortion!
Because I was too close with a focal length of 50mm her elbow at the edge of the frame looks huge. You can tell by comparing the size of her elbow to the size of her face.
Lens distortion in portrait photography
As a new photographer it’s harder to notice the impact of lens distortion. The best way to start seeing it is to create it and then compare the results with this little exercise.
Take a head and shoulders photo of your subject at 50mm and then try to create exactly the same image at 85mm. Take care to ensure your subject is the same size in both photos.
Then compare the results side by side on your computer. You’ll definitely see the difference.
Or have a look at this article where I demonstrated the impact of focal length from 24mm up to 200mm.
Further reading: What’s the best focal length for portraits?
1. The shorter the focal length, the more an image distorts at the edges
So with a 50mm lens for portraits you need to be careful to keep your subject away from the edge of the frame to avoid distorting their features.
And I don’t just mean faces! There’s more to a portrait than a face.
If your subject is sitting down facing towards the camera and has a hand on their knee, the hand is already going to appear bigger than it is, because it’s closest to the camera.
Now, if it’s also near the edge of the frame and you use a 50mm lens, it will appear even bigger.
Use this feature of a 50mm focal length to your advantage to make your subject’s legs appear longer by photographing them from a low angle.
2. The shorter the focal length the more an image distorts in the middle
So with a 50mm lens you shouldn’t get too close and fill the frame for a head and shoulders shot.
The head and shoulders shot is where the 85mm shines. It’s perfect for headshot photography!
The longer focal length flattens the middle of a photo.
So if your subject has a large nose they’re self-conscious about, you really do need to use an 85mm lens rather than a 50mm lens.
Full length, 3/4 length or headshot
How much of your subject do you want in shot? The answer will determine which focal length to use for portraits.
- Full length – 50mm or 85mm
- 3/4 length – 50mm or 85mm
- Headshot – 85mm
Field of view and focal length
You know how when you drive through a tunnel and the closer you get to the end of the tunnel the more you can see? That’s how field of view works.
If we translate that to focal length, the shorter your focal length, the more you can see either side of your subject. That’s why we refer to focal length being wide or narrow, not just short or long.
So, if you need to ensure elements to the left and right of your subject aren’t in frame, the 85mm lens will be better than the 50mm lens.
You’ll really notice this when photographing in a studio using seamless paper as a backdrop – you can run out of backdrop fast with a longer focal length!
For this reason a 50mm lens is better suited to group photos than an 85mm lens.
Further reading: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition and blur
For each shot I was roughly the same distance from the model and they were each roughly the same distance from the wall. Notice the difference in background blur of 50mm (left) vs 85mm (right).
Background blur benefits of focal length
Speaking of depth of field, portrait photographers are crazy about background blur.
To some the ultimate goal is to blur the background out so much you can’t make out any details. Other photographers just want enough blur to separate the subject from the background.
Focal length is one of the four key ingredients in achieving a blurry background. The longer the focal length, the easier it’ll be to blur the background.
So, if background blur is important to you, an 85mm lens is better than a 50mm lens for portraits.
But there’s more to it than just a long focal length. Check out the article below for all the inside info on blurry backgrounds.
Further information: Capture a blurry background the easy way – no Photoshop
This was actually a portrait orientation shot that I cropped. Scroll down to see the original photo.
Indoors or outdoors – 50mm or 85mm?
As I mentioned earlier, because space can be limited indoors, a 50mm lens might be better, especially if you want to include more of your subject in the shot.
Outdoors you have all the space in the world to back up, so can use either the 50mm lens or the 85mm lens.
Lens weight and size
If lens weight and size are important to you, the 50mm prime lens will beat an 85mm prime lens hands down. It’s a much smaller, lighter lens than the 85mm lens.
Lens price of 50mm vs 85mm
One of the main reasons the 50mm lens is so popular with beginner photographers is that it’s a really affordable lens.
If you’re wondering why some lenses are more expensive than others of the same focal length, it’s not just because more expensive lenses offer wider apertures.
It’s a matter of quality, particularly:
- Lens optics
- Build quality
Which is better for portraits 50mm or 85mm?
Pros of 50mm lens
- Cheap, easy beginner lens
- Handy if space is limited
Cons of 50mm focal length
- Distorts image at the edge of the frame
- Less background blur than 85mm lens
- Shouldn’t use for head and shoulders shots
Pros of 85mm lens
- Perfect for portraits
- Ideal headshot lens
- Good background blur
Cons of 85mm focal length
- More expensive than 50mm lens
- Heavier than 50mm lens
- Can be challenging to use indoors
Which lens would I choose – 50mm vs 85mm for portraits?
If I could have just one of them, I’d choose the 85mm lens for portraits, because I don’t photograph many groups these days and I prefer to fill the frame with my subject.
I shoot far less full length photos than I do 3/4 length and close ups.
The best lens to use for portraits depends entirely on your photography style and what you photograph.
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