From my experiences as a professional portrait and fashion photographer, I have shot with all varieties and focal lengths of lens. My kit has several lenses because each situation may require different capabilities or visual effects, yet time and time again I find myself going back to my Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens. In fact, for portrait and beauty images the 85mm is indispensable to my work.
The 85mm is essential to my work for three main reasons:
III. Narrow Depth of Field (bokeh)
Lets take a look at these different aspects, and I’ll help explain why each are important considerations for my work.
Every lens has a different amount of compression. For example, if you want to compress the subject with the background (make the background and subject look closer to one another) you would use a longer focal length. For portraiture, many people utilize the 70mm-200mm 2.8 OS lens to achieve this compression. Yet for close up shots of an individual or couple, shooting at 200mm tends to over-compress the features and leave a person feeling distant and flat.
Whenever I shoot closeups (headshots or closer than mid-length), I find my 85mm 1.4 indispensable. For me, 85mm is the perfect amount of compression for the portrait and fashion close-up work I do. If I have a beauty shoot (focused on the model’s face instead of the clothing, or perhaps her jewelry or makeup), I find myself constantly grabbing my 85mm. I love it.
Many photographers make the mistake of trying to use a wider lens for close up portraits. For example, I frequently see people with a 50mm lens move in closer to the subject to create a headshot. Unfortunately, they do not realize how much this effects the portrait (and how unflattering it is). In general most people know that shooting with a wide angle like a 16mm or 24mm lens will severely distort the subject’s features. Yet many people don’t realize the huge difference between shooting an 85mm and a 50mm.
Take a look at these two images, and look close at how the compression of the 85mm is much more flattering for closeups. In the first image with the 50mm her head appears wider and her forehead much larger, while the 85mm slightly compresses these same features.
I need my images to be crisp and very sharp. Often my images are blown up large for advertisements, in magazines or in-store display. If the images aren’t very sharp, this will become apparent when the photo is enlarged. The 85mm 1.4 is an extremely sharp lens, and as long as I focus correctly I will have a beautifully sharp image.
Note: When I say sharp, I don’t mean that the image is in focus from front to back. Sharp indicates that I have crisp, defined details without softness on the edges (particularly on edges of high contrast). Files to be blown up large for advertising.
III. Narrow Depth of Field
When I shoot fashion on location, I am frequently shooting with a very narrow depth of field. I like my images clean, and by shooting at a narrow depth of field I am able to eliminate distracting background elements. As you can see in the image below, I was able to create a flattering environment for this subject by using a narrow depth of field. I was shooting in a busy area of Central Park, but reduced the background to subtle tones and textures by shooting at 1.4 aperture.
Furthermore, using an extremely narrow depth of field can be used for creative effect. The environment and mood of the image becomes more surreal and dream-like. The beautiful blur pattern you get in the background of an image is called ‘bokeh’, and I frequently utilize the beautiful 85mm 1.4 bokeh in my images.
For example, in this couple’s portrait I am shooting at f1.4 and in the background light is filtering through leaves on trees. When shooting at a wide aperture, the bokeh and light creates this beautiful and almost surreal background texture.
I recommend you try testing out these qualities. Try a 50mm vs an 85mm. Try a 2.8 vs a 1.4 lens. I know you’ll love seeing the differences and improvements in your images!