Gear & Reviews Lens Reviews Battle of the 85mm f/1.4 Lenses Fast, sharp and perfect for action, portraits, low light and more. The 85mm focal length is indeed great, but which 85mm f/1.4 is best? By Peter Kolonia | Published Mar 15, 2011 5:26 AM Gear & Reviews Dan Saelinger SHARE Pop Photo staffer Dan Bracaglia froze the bball action with a Nikon 85mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens on a Nikon D3s body. **ACTION: Highspeed 85mm’s rock for indoor sports. **Into indoor arena sports like basketball, hockey, or boxing? A high-speed 85mm will deliver. Shot at or near maximum aperture, it will give you fast, action-freezing shutter speeds, even in challenging light. If the court, rink, or ring is decently lit, you can expect action-stopping shutter speeds of 1/1000 sec and faster at ISOs between 1000 and 1600. Dan Bracaglia, our assistant web editor, hedged his sharpness bets when shooting the photo pictured here—using 1/2500 sec, without a flash. “I was using the Nikon D3s, which has no issues with noise at higher ISOs,” Bracaglia explains. “So at f/1.4 and ISO 8000, the pictures were perfectly sharp.” He didn’t stay at f/1.4 for long, though. A classic problem with this classic lens is the tissue-thin depth of field you get at maximum aperture. As Bracaglia noticed, when more than one player appeared in his viewfinder, usually only one would be sharp at f/1.4. “I switched to f/4 in order to have all the players in focus,” he says. “With an 85mm lens, you want to shoot between f/2.8 and f/5.6. This keeps the foreground action sharp, and the background slightly out of focus.” These lenses also promise a sweet set of composing options for sports. Get court- or fieldside and an 85mm on a full-frame camera will let you compose players, full figure, at distances of about 20 to 25 feet. For athletes closer to your camera position, the 85mm will get you up close for explosive body language and intense facial expressions. Another great thing about using a high-speed 85mm for sports? You don’t need an expensive f/1.4 or f/1.2—and less-costly 85mm f/1.8 lenses may be a better choice. Their glass elements are smaller, often making for noticeably faster autofocus Dan Bracaglia Sean Molin captured the bride with a Nikon D700, at 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 220. PORTRAITS-The one lens for portrait photographer “I’ve always been known for my near-obsession with the 85mm focal length,” says Sean Molin, the Indiana pro who shot the radiant bridal portrait at right. “I even have a Flickr set of 85 images made with an 85mm that show off its versatility.” (See them at flickr.com/photos/seanmolin.) His image at right illustrates why portraitists flock to this lens. On a full-frame camera, the tele 85mm focal length offers the perfect blend of imaging characteristics for the human face. Technically, as a short tele lens, it offers only mild levels of image compression compared with longer focal lengths, which tend to flatten faces, robbing them of dimension. The 85mm is just wide enough that it doesn’t suffer this problem. Conversely, because the 85mm is indeed a tele lens, it provides enough compression that in a straight-on portrait the nose will not seem objectionably larger than the eyes or ears, as happens with slightly wider-angle glass. And because 85mm lenses are generally free of linear distortion, they create a true and accurate reproduction of a human face, even at the farthest frame edges. The sense of dimension also helps with backgrounds in environmental portraits. “Though the 85mm has trouble with large groups and small interiors,” says Molin, “it offers a flattering, natural compression, which can render three-dimensional backgrounds in a visually pleasing way.” With its fast maximum aperture, the high-speed 85mm is also great for candid pictures of people. You can shoot in public spaces without a flash or tripod calling attention to yourself. To be sure, high-speed super teles also let you capture subjects unawares, but all the other advantages of a 85mm lens makes it a better choice—and it gives you a greater sense of intimacy than you can get with a stalkerish 300mm or longer lens. Other advantages? As prime lenses, 85mms are smaller than zooms of comparable speeds, making them less intimating to self-conscious subjects. This manageable size makes for an easy wielding tool that requires no tripod and rarely gets in the way as portraitists attempt to engage with their subjects. Made, and priced, for serious enthusiast and professional users, these lenses also offer numerous features that can help in the portrait studio, including fast and quiet autofocus, precise manual focus, and solid builds that will last a career. Sean Molin Chicago pro Kendall Karmanian shot this romantic interior with Canon’s EOS 5D and 85mm f/1.2 lens. LOW LIGHT- A lens that frees you from flash and snapshots No matter how hard you try, do many of your indoor holiday, party, and vacation pictures look like simple snapshots? If you’re shooting with an on-camera flash, that’s probably the reason. On-camera flash throws a harsh, unsoftened light with hard-edged shadows. It renders most in-focus subjects with one level of flat light, and can’t reproduce the shading or shadows that suggest depth and dimension in a person or in an interior space. To add shaping, depth, and naturalness to your indoor photography, wean yourself from on-camera flash. A high-speed 85mm can help. Its f/1.8, f/1.4, or f/1.2 maximum aperture will funnel more light through to your DSLR’s sensor, so you can shoot sans tripod, as Chicago pro Kendall Karmanian did for the interior at left. Notice how the scene possesses character, warmth, and a natural quality? That’s because Karmanian used a high-speed 85mm without any direct flash. Other ways 85mms can help your indoor and low-light photography: -Large maximum apertures make for bright viewfinder images, so it’s easier to see low-light subjects through the camera than is possible with dimmer glass. -Using a high-speed 85mm with a DSLR that produces relatively noiseless images in low light can open up whole new worlds of handheld indoor imagery. The same is true if you’re shooting a camera with sensor-based image stabilization, since none of these lenses include it. With your 85mm at maximum aperture and shake control, you can easily make sharp pictures without flash or tripod in darker conditions than would be possible otherwise. -High-speed 85mm can really help when flash isn’t appropriate or permitted. As John W. MacDonald, who shot the outdoor portrait on the previous spread, says, “When I can’t or don’t want to use flash, my 85mm is up to the task; as with any other lighting challenge.” Kendall Karmanian Lens Reviews gear lenses reviews MORE TO READ RELATED Rotolight debuts the ‘world’s first’ electronic smart softbox The accessory for the company’s line of lights delivers the ability to dial in diffusion—and more—right from a smartphone. READ NOW RELATED The best Memorial Day sales on cameras and photo gear Memorial Day brings some of the best camera and lens deals you'll find outside the holiday shopping season. RELATED The best ND filters for 2022 A neutral density filter will reduce the amount of light coming into the camera without changing its color. That can really come in handy.