The Blog: See what
Sigma is saying.

05.18.2011

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.

In this beauty image I utilized the 85mm 1.4 lens in the studio. I used a single small silver dish reflector on a strobe to create very harsh, crisp lighting that made for a dramatic image.

The 85mm is essential to my work for three main reasons:

I. Compression
II. Sharpness
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.

I. Compression

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.

This portrait was taken with the 50mm 1.4. Because I wanted a headshot, I had to physically move closer to the subject. As a result of using a 50mm too close to the subject, her features are slightly distorted.

In this portrait I utilized the 85mm 1.4 lens in order to benefit from its slight compression. In this image her features are much more flattering because they have been slightly compressed (minimized).

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.

II. Sharpness

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.

I need to have very sharp, crisp images so that they can be enlarged for advertising and promotion purposes.

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.

By shooting with an 85mm 1.4 lens (at aperture 1.4), I was able to take this busy area of Central Park and reduce the background to colors and textures. By reducing background distraction I am able to focus my viewer’s eye.

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.

In this image I had put an interesting industrial structure behind the model. By shooting wide open (widest aperture possible), I was able to create a surreal pattern and texture in the background that really adds additional interest by utilizing the lens bokeh.

By shooting the 85mm 1.4 wide open, I was able to get this beautiful texture in the background of the image created by the light coming through leaves on a tree.

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!

Facebook comments:

5 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. I have been using the Sigma 85/1.4 for couple of weeks and I love it. Great to blow out the background. Look at some of the pics http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotorobertsvensson/sets/72157626843608494/ taken in Nice (France) and Varberg (Sweden). Its a great lens buy it!

  2. WOW! Never really thought about the compression of a 50mm lens for a close up portrait. Will be checking out Sigma’s 85mm soon. Thanks for the article! BTW- I am reading The Linked Photographers Guide right now and it is amazing! You and Rosh did a fantastic job.

  3. Thanks for the post, it has some useful information. I recently purchased NIkon’s 85mm 1.4 after reading rave reviews – can’t wait to put it to a test. By the way I briefly tested along with Nikon’s 85mm 1.8 and there wasn’t too much difference to a naked eye – I was hoping for more.

  4. Thanks for the post.
    I have a non full frame camera (crop) and 50mm sigma at 1.4, that means the effect of unflattering will be in between the 2 examples you gave. Don’t you think the lens correction by camera raw for example can fix part of the unflattering?

    One thing I know from experience is that 1.4 is not good aperture for sharp results, f4 goes much better for instance.. maybe there is a technique behind I need to improve?

    thank you

  5. Very useful article. I still use a 7D (crop), and I have a 50 mm with it.