Shooting the 85mm f1.4 HSM
Lots and lots of years ago, zoom lenses didn’t perform nearly as well as prime lenses. One of the first lenses I bought for my brand new Nikon F2 was the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. I fell totally in love with this perfect portrait focal length. It was certainly my favorite lens. We went everywhere together. Some how over time that 85 disappeared. Lost? Stolen? I don’t know.
Fast forward through the intervening years to last October at Photo Plus Expo in New York City. There in the display case at the Sigma booth was the 85mm f/1.4. Imagine my delight when I was told that after the show closed that very lens was mine! It had been on backorder for seven months.
I’ve been shooting that 85 f/1.4 ever since. It’s simply always on my camera. It’s a familiar friend, missing for years that shows up one day maybe thanks to Facebook. You know that kind of friendship—one that picks up where you left off as if no time had passed at all.
This beauty is two thirds of a stop faster (brighter) than its long lost predecessor and sports a hypersonic motor for really fast autofocus. Special Low Dispersion (SLD) glass helps make it super sharp. More on that sharpness in a minute.
The next morning was my first walkabout with it in Greenwich Village. Halloween was a couple of days away. The 85 was perfect for shooting a corpse groom and his bride, ghouls and clowns—demonically scary clowns.
The 85mm becomes a super lens for shooting sports especially in low light situations—I’m thinking of evening high school football games, or basketball in the gym. The f/1.4 maximum aperture and the longer focal length both lend themselves perfectly for capturing action. Thinking more about cropped sensor cameras, this lens would be great for shooting theatre and candids…
It’s great for candids. Last December Everybody’s my favorite pizza place in Atlanta closed its Virginia Highlands location. I was there with the 85 to make photographs of friends gathered to celebrate the passing their own personal “Cheers.” These photographs of former wait staffers Vern and Porkchop were made inside the dark restaurant with the aperture wide open (f/1.4) at 1/125th of a second at 6400 ISO on my Canon 5DMk2.
On the street, Brian, one of Everybody’s managers stood next to a sign that one of the neighboring shops “Mitzi & Romano” had made to share the love. Brian and the sign are tack sharp. The depth of the photograph is created by the focus falling off dramatically. The “Pizza • Bar” sign on the awning are soft. The Everybody’s logo over Brian’s shoulder is barely legible while the street lights fall off into beautiful round circles called bokeh, the Japanese word for blur.
The ideal portrait lens is twice to three times the focal length of the normal lens. The normal lens for a full frame sensor is 43mm. Twice that is 86mm. Normal for a cropped sensor (APS-C) is 28mm. Three times that is 84mm. The 85mm f/1.4 is a great choice for photographing people using cameras with either full frame or cropped sensors.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my ultra-sharp Sigma zoom lenses. That said I have found that they make me just a bit lazy. Instead of moving toward or away from my subject, I find myself zooming. While that’s not bad it does affect the way the photograph looks. Zooming changes perspective, compression and apparent depth of field.
A prime lens locks those three attributes because the focal length doesn’t change. To fill the frame with my subject, I have to move closer. The closer I get, the depth of field becomes shallower. Full length photographs require that I physically move back instead of zooming out to a wider angle focal length. The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 isolates Kenya, from the background even at a relatively small aperture of f/7.1 in each of these three portfolio photographs… close up, medium and full length.
What more can I say about Sigma’s 85mm f/1.4 lens? I love using it and I love the results even more. I have a razor-sharp-don’t-touch-this-or-you’ll-cut-yourself 36 by 54 inch print of Alexa hanging in my studio. ‘Nuff said!