As any portrait photographer will tell you, there’s no greater satisfaction than taking a great portrait image you’re really proud of. While a lot of this comes down to technique, the kit – or more specifically, the lens you use – is a key factor in achieving the result you desire. For those taking their first footsteps into portrait photography, a 50mm focal length prime is usually considered the lens of choice as they can be picked up cheaply, they replicate the view as seen by the human eye, and provide a large aperture without the lens being too big or cumbersome.
There will be times, however, when the classic 50mm focal length is just a bit too wide for your liking. Rather than having to get up close and personal with your subject in order to fill the frame, it can be helpful to have a slightly longer-focal-length prime lens to hand, to give a little bit of extra distance between your camera and your subject while maintaining a wide maximum aperture of f/1.8 or more to create a super-shallow depth of field.
This leads us on to the trusty 85mm prime lens – a much-loved focal length for shooting portraits, and typically available with f/1.8, f/1.4 or f/1.2 maximum apertures. Although there are some excellent f/1.8 examples out there, we’ll be focusing our attention on the faster f/1.4 and f/1.2 options. Over the next five pages, we’ll be digging deeper to find out which lens resolves the best image quality, while taking features, build quality, performance and value for money into consideration, before acknowledging the winner with our new AP Best in Test award.
Anatomy of an 85mm lens
When choosing an 85mm lens, there are a few things to look out for. The first and most obvious
is the maximum aperture. Generally, these lenses come in f/1.8 or f/1.4 varieties, although Canon produces an f/1.2 lens, which we are testing here (see below for the difference that aperture can make to depth of field).
Two of the lenses in this test, those from Zeiss and Samyang, are manual focus only. If you are thinking of purchasing one of these lenses, you need to be mindful of whether or not manual focus will be practical for the type of photography you are undertaking. It shouldn’t be too much of an issue for portraits, of course, but it may take a lot of practice and skill if you wish to photograph moving subjects. Make sure you try the lens to check the focusing ring and to see whether it is comfortable for you.
It is worth noting that currently there are no 85mm f/1.4 lenses with image stabilisation, so take that in to consideration when selecting a shutter speed. Also look out for future 85mm lenses that may adopt this feature.
Look for a focus ring with a good rubber grip, particularly if the lens is manual focus only
Make sure that you have a suitable lens hood to help when shooting outside in bright lighting conditions
Most 85mm f/1.4 lenses will use a common 72mm or 77mm filter thread, so using filters is straightforward
A quiet AF motor can be beneficial if you’re planning to use the lens for video
Shot at f/1.2
An 85mm f/1.2 lens, such as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM, creates a very fast drop-off in depth of field when it’s used at its maximum aperture. The 85mm f/1.2 lens’s larger front element has the knock-on effect of increasing the overall size and weight.
Shot at f/1.4
Naturally, a lens with an f/1.4 maximum aperture won’t offer the same drop-off in focus as a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.2. These lenses are larger than 85mm primes with an f/1.8 maximum aperture, so expect to pay more.
Shot at f/1.8
An 85mm prime lens featuring an f/1.8 aperture works out 2⁄3 stop slower than an f/1.4 lens, but still provides pleasing background blur that’s well suited to portraits or scenes where a shallow depth of field is required to isolate a subject from its surroundings.