The portrait lens: 50mm vs 85mm.

One of the most common mistakes I see other photographers make is choosing the wrong lens when making a portrait. With the 50mm and 85mm both being billed as “portrait” lenses, a lot of photographers use them for portraits without regard to what they are actually shooting. The truth is it makes a difference what you use and how you use it. Choose the wrong lens and you can potentially be doing your client a disservice when a more flattering lens option is available.

Take the two examples below for instance. While it’s hard to fault our lovely model Sandy, there are differences in the two photos both taken wide open with an 85mm and a 50mm respectively. The differences might not be profoundly apparent, but the trained eye will see that at this range the 50mm heavily distorts. Still don’t believe me? Take a look at Sandy’s nose in the 50mm shot, and then take a look at the 85mm shot. Now compare the foreheads. Most of the brides I shoot don’t prefer bigger noses or elongated foreheads; I’ll choose the 85mm for this shot every time.

sandy01002 The portrait lens: 50mm vs 85mm.sandy00231 The portrait lens: 50mm vs 85mm.

So you may ask when do you use the 50mm? I follow a simple guideline when making portraits. 200mm for face only, 135mm for entire head, 85mm for head and shoulders, 50mm for upper body, and 35mm for full length. Below is another example comparing the 50mm and 85mm on an upper body shot, and using the 50mm in a more appropiate manner. There is still some distortion in the 50mm shot, but it’s arguably more desirable as it slightly slims Sandy in this portrait orientation. Hope you’ve learned something and enjoyed this edition of “For Photographers”. Be sure to try out these techniques on your next shoot! Like this post? Click the like button below!

50vs85 The portrait lens: 50mm vs 85mm.

PinExt The portrait lens: 50mm vs 85mm.
Jim Smith - July 12, 2011 - 9:27 pm

Sebastian –

Great article, thanks for bringing pro IQ to the 50/85mm
portrait question. I assume you are using a full frame
dslr in the above examples? Owners of crop bodies will
need to make the focal length adjustments?


seb - July 12, 2011 - 9:36 pm

Hi Jim! Thanks, yes this was written with full frame sensors in mind.

Jeanine Murray - September 1, 2011 - 2:05 pm

Thank you SO much for this explanation!! I’ve looked for this answer for 3 days! I’m fairly new to taking “professional” photos and am really struggling finding answers to my questions.

Vejuel - September 11, 2011 - 11:10 am

Very interesting article! A after reading the article a thought came up in me that most of the DLSLRs are still equipped with APS-C senzors and the focal length of the lenses are added according to fullframe. So, an EF 50mm on APS-C camera is really around 80mm…

Tim Delaney - January 11, 2012 - 9:34 am

Excellent article and the pictures make the point!

Thank you for sharing!

David Miller - January 24, 2012 - 3:47 pm

Really interesting for someone like me just starting out. Although still a little confused.. Why.!! you ask.. I’ll explain !! I have a Nikon D7000 – a nikon 50mm 1.8d / Sigma 17-70mm f2.8-f4 and a Tameron 18-270mm cannot remember F numbers.!!

I am interested in Portrait photography and I have been looking at the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 .. it’s manual focus but very good write up’s. Now I understand about the crop factor of my sensor..So .. Should I really be looking at a Nikon or Sigma 50mm f/1.4 .. the newer lenses have quite a bit of glass. With the crop factor I would be nearer the 80mm mark. My Nikon 50mm 1.8, is ok,, but not smooth backgrounds as the Nikon/Sigma 50mm f/1.4. Or do I look at a 85mm f/1.4 Nikon – Sigma or the Samyang, I mentioned – giving me a focal length nearer 136mm ..If I did my Math correctly. Any help ,suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I will be looking at shooting in a small studio area of 14ft x 10ft and outside for Urban type portraits.

Sorry, about the War and Peace .. But hey, us British .. Just have to have our Say..!!

seb - January 24, 2012 - 8:25 pm

Hey David, the 50mm shots in this post were taken with the Sigma 50 f/1.4. After much review I decided that Sigma produced a superior 50mm lens to the Nikon version, take that with a grain of salt though. My ultimate advice is not to get too caught up on all the different lenses available. Concentrate more on the vision of the images you want to create and from there that will help you decide on what tools you need to create it!

Lisa Perez - March 17, 2012 - 8:39 pm

Great article! Thank you!!!

Elijah Lucian - September 15, 2012 - 7:50 pm

Thanks for the great read, a lot to think about for somebody like me just getting into this!

RJ - November 1, 2012 - 6:10 am

Excellent article. The differences are in (tiny) details. But that is what wedding photography is about, the details. Thanks for explaining.

Roxana H. - November 26, 2012 - 11:00 am

Thank you so much for the great information. It was exactly what I was looking for.

Jay V - August 12, 2013 - 1:02 pm

Great Article!! I am an “advanced” amateur photographer. I love how you compared both as I am in a scenario where If I should get an 85mm and if I need it for portrait. I have a 50mm and uses it most of the time on my FF. I also have a 24-105mm which I swith around for portrait with the 50mm. I do notice the slimdown on my subject when I use a longer focal lenth.

Thank you!

Jay V.