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Alexa John © 2011 Kevin Ames

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.

Street Shooting

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.

© 2011 Kevin Ames

© 2011 Kevin Ames

© 2011 Kevin Ames

Here the 85mm lens isolates the focus on a No Bikes sign while the result; the bent, broken bicycle wheel remains a quiet testament to those who dare defy the posted notices in New York City. © 2011 Kevin Ames

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.

Vern © 2011 Kevin Ames

Porkchop © 2011 Kevin Ames

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.

Brian next to a farewell sign in front of Everybody's the last Friday open. © 2011 Kevin Ames


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.

Kenya © 2011 Kevin Ames

Kenya © 2011 Kevin Ames

Kenya © 2011 Kevin Ames

This photograph of Factor Atlanta model Alexa Johns was made with it set at f/2.8 at 1/125th ISO 100 using Dynalite flashes. © 2011 Kevin Ames

The background highlights show wonderful, almost perfectly round bokeh thanks to the nine blade diaphragm. © 2011 Kevin Ames

The lens is extraordinarily sharp. Look at this close up of Alexa’s eyes. You can count every eyelash! © 2011 Kevin Ames

The depth of field at 2.8 is so shallow that a slight turn of her head causes her right eye to soften while the left eye remains unbelieveably sharp. © 2011 Kevin Ames

Close up of the eyes© 2011 Kevin Ames

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!

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12 comments so far

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  1. The 85/1.4 is a great lens! I also loved the 50/1.4. The bokeh is excellent!

  2. I’ve Sigma 50mm 1:1.4 with my Nikon D7000 but somehow 85mm 1:1.4 looks better, any suggestions if i should switch!

  3. Good alternative for Canon’s 85mm F1.2L USM. Great Lens!

  4. Except sensor size within any given camera format, e.g. 35mm, has nothing to do with magnification. 43mm is the ‘normal’ focal length for a 35mm, period!

  5. I’ve Sigma 70-200mm 2.8f with my nikon D300s. i want to know how to adjust the whitebalance at night

  6. Hi the reviews sound great. I use a Canon 7D and a 5D. I am on a army pension and sorry guys at Sigma. But the only few lenses I have are Canon, but this sounds so good. I have been asked to come and take some band pictures while they play. So I need a fast lens, don’t know what to do. So I thought I would write this and be honest about the lenses I have. Fingers crossed may win one and give it a good army test run lol. Maybe convert me, I live down under Australia and our lens prices are not great. Cheers everyone and good luck to all.

  7. Sigma lenses are always good, I use Sigma DG 28-70 mm F2.8 with my Nikon F80 and D60 (Auto Focus can not be possible with D60), giving me excellent details and sharpnes. The only thing is the lens is a heavy weight lens that is why it is slightly difficult to use with D60 and there is no in built motor with in the lens barrel.

  8. Nice and sharp from the shots shown above. Together with the newer Bigma it’s a dream lens to have for me to complement my Nikkors. Well i’ll just keep on dreaming for this till one lands in my camera bag!
    More power Sigma!

  9. Hola a todos
    Como será posible conseguir esta lente en Argentina? Excelente luminosidad.
    Juan Carlos

  10. Hola Carlos: puede leer a este por informacion para todo el mundo: y aqui para Argentina

  11. What’s more important is that you’re shooting Canon now….I love Sigma lens on my Canons…great choice and great pics!

  12. Hmm,I am wondering why shoot at F/2.8 while this lens are meant to be shoot at F/1.4.I have a 70-200 F/2.8.I am thinking should I get this lens too.