Learning To Love 85mm

Sony a9 with 85mm lens

Photographers are creatures of habit and old habits die hard. Opinions of how to do things get ensconced and everyone thinks that their way is the right way. I’m no exception. If you get 10 photographers in a room you’ll get 10 opinions on how to do anything photography related. However, there’s one question where you can plant each photographer firmly into one of two camps.

Primes or Zooms?

The convenience of a zoom lens with a range of focal lengths on hand at any moment or the fast aperture and crisp sharpness of a prime.

When anyone buys their first camera they’ll use a kit lens. A compact zoom lens that has everything you’ll need for day-to-day shooting is ideal for amateur photographers and beginners. Aside from them not being the sharpest, their compactness also means one other thing: small apertures. Anyone wanting to take their photography to the next level will soon get frustrated with a kit lens and look to upgrade. Photographers tend to go down one of two routes at this point, either upgrade their kit lens to a larger and faster zoom or buy a prime lens. Primes are appealing as they are usually still compact but have larger apertures than zooms allowing for more light and a shallow depth of field giving a more professional look to shots with a lovely bokeh. However, some people get used to the convenience of a zoom.

Dad plays with pageboy during bride prep

First lens upgrades for wedding use

I initially bought a the Zeiss 55mm 1.8. I loved the sharpness and the convenience of the smaller form for a carry-round lens but I never really felt comfortable with the focal length. I felt it was caught between two stools, not wide enough for storytelling images and not long enough to be used when I need a longer reach. I know a lot of wedding photographers swear by their 50mm primes, but they're not for me. I was considering my options including the 35mm 1.4 (which I feel is too big and expensive) and when Sony released the 24-70mm G Master I brought it on day of release. The sharpness is prime quality and it’s 2.8 aperture lets in more than enough light for most situations. I think that people can over-egg the importance of faster apertures. Not everything needs be shot at 1.4 or 1.8 just because you have it available. Often with storytelling images you want more than one thing it be in focus and it gives you a bit of leeway with keeping moving subjects in focus. I regularly shoot between f/2.8 and f/4 if i’m outside at a wedding. This means a 24-70mm 2.8 is fine for the majority of the day. Shooting in a documentary style means being able to move around freely at weddings, weaving in between guests and being able to quickly adapt to changing situations. Shooting on one camera with a versatile lens just seemed to suit me best. I did purchase a new prime, the Zeiss 35mm 2.8. While it's aperture is a bit slow for a prime it’s small, pin sharp and the perfect walk around lens when i’m with family and friends. However, since it doesn’t offer anything in terms of performance my 24-70mm doesn’t it never got much of a look-in at weddings.

Small boy playing in the venue ground before the ceremony

So for a long time I've considered myself a zooms guy and owned the 'holy trinity' of lenses: a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm. Primes were a nice idea i'd say, but they're not practical enough at a wedding. However, from time to time i'd find the 24-70mm not quite meeting my needs either in some of the darker venues (this is when my 55mm would come into it's own even tho I didn't like the focal length) or, more often, when I felt it didn’t quite have the reach I wanted at the top end. There were often times I’d be at 70mm for prolonged periods wishing I had a touch more reach and it becomes a fairly large and front heavy lens extended that far. The only other option was my 70-200mm. That’s a huge lens and weighs a fair amount when you carry it around for a long time. It’s also white and being so large screams “hey everyone i’m taking a picture here” which is the last thing I want at a wedding. I look like I should be shooting a football match or an Olympic race. I’ve only used it when having to stand at the back of a church during the ceremony, or at the back of a room during the speeches. Although, like with 50mm, I know there are a large number of wedding photographers who use a 70-200mm as one of their main lenses. Again, different opinions everywhere in this game.

85mm, ideal for weddings?

Bridesmaids help the bride get ready

This has made me think about getting an 85mm prime, just a bit more reach while being nice and compact. I’ve never owned one before, I’d only ever used an 85mm on a friends camera once and hated it, too narrow a field of view and so alien to what I was used to. Another sticking point was not wanting to be in a situation where I was using the 85mm and suddenly found myself closer to the action and needing a wider angle. It might one take a few seconds to switch lens but you can miss loads in that time. It would also mean having multiple lenses with me and therefore a camera bag. Even a small bag is bulkier than i’d be happy carrying with me, partly because it would be harder to move around a crowded room but I also find them uncomfortable.

This meant only one solution: shooting on two cameras. One with the 24-70mm and another with the 85mm. Something I’ve never done and was a complete change to my approach to shooting a wedding. After getting the opportunity to play around with both the Sony 85mm 1.4 G Master and the cheaper Sony 85mm 1.8, plus the Zeiss Batis 85mm 1.8 at a Sony workshop I decided I should invest in one. No question which one I should buy though. The G Master quality is amazing (already own 2 G Master zooms) but the 1.8 is a stunning lens and £1000 cheaper. The extra 3rd of a stop of light and almost unnoticeable difference in quality isn't worth the an extra grand. The Batis is also superb as is the whole line of Batis lenses, but again, it's not giving me an extra £400 of quality.

Groomsman helps with dad's tie

Changing habits

This is the first time I’ve had to change my habits and think differently about my photography. Not an easy thing to do for any photographer. My first wedding with my new two camera set up was this October at Rodbaston Hall with Angela and Jonathan. The Sony a9 was loose in hand as usual with the 24-70mm and the new 85mm was mounted onto my a7rii, meaning for the first time in my life I've used a camera strap, another new way of shooting. I’ve always found them uncomfortable but it’s the only way to carry two cameras. I chose the Black Rapid Street Breathe. It’s small and sits nicely on my left shoulder with the camera hanging by my right hip. Easy reach to pick up and shoot with one handed at a moment's notice.

However, after just a few minutes I realised the 24-70mm was too big to use this way. Holding it in my left hand while shooting with the 85mm on the 2nd camera wasn’t practical as it’s just too big. I also only needed it at the wider end now anyway that the 85mm was available. So, the 24-70mm was quickly off and on went the more compact 35mm 2.8. It was a bit of a revelation and it’s been my working combo since.

85mm (5).jpg

Now I've shot with the 85mm for a bit I've wondered how I ever did with it out it. Certain focal lengths have a feel to them which are just right and the 35/85 combo compliment each other perfectly. I know a lot of photographers shoot this way and I can see why.

This means I’ve now jumped ship from the zoom camp into the prime and the 85mm is fast becoming one of my favourite lenses. The 24-70mm is still my lens of choice for the ceremony as I only have the one a9 and once you’ve shot silently you don’t want to go back to shutter clunks during the vows, and of course I can’t trust the a7rii’s silent mode under artificial lights. So i'm now considering buying a 2nd a9 to mount the 85 on to.

My savings account will be delighted.

In this article are a few of my favourite shots from recent weddings with the 85mm.


Father of the bride laughs with daughter
Guests laughs with bride
Bride having eye shadow applied