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Why 85mm Is The Perfect Focal Length & Lens Choice For Close Ups

The close up shot is really an art of it’s own, and like any other shot type there are many rules that you can follow (or not follow) that will help you to achieve an optimal look. For the purpose of this article though, I’m not going to be talking about framing, lighting, or aspect ratio, but rather focus on lens choice as it is arguably the most important element in achieving a flattering close up shot. My personal favorite focal length for close ups is 85mm, and I’m certainly not the only one to use this lens as my go-to for CU shots – in fact it’s been a long time favorite for many cinematographers and stills photographers over the years.

Those of you that come from a still photography background (specifically portraits) will know well that the best focal range for portraits/headshots is 85mm – 135mm, because of the beautiful way that these lenses will flatten your subject. To help illustrate this point, let’s think about what doesn’t work in terms of lensing, taking the two extreme sides of the focal length spectrum – ultra wide angle, and telephoto as examples.

If you’re shooting on an ultra wide angle lens (let’s say a fish eye for example), your image is going to be distorted, and facial features will get accentuated in all the wrong ways. Wide angle lenses are not designed to be used for close up shots, and they are most often used for landscapes or wide action shots, which is why you can’t expect them to work well in a situation that they weren’t intended for. Take a look at this shot for an extreme example (granted it’s a cool look, but not what you’ll normally want in a traditional close up shot):

fisheye-closeup

Telephoto lenses on the other hand, do the exact opposite of the wide angle: They compress your image and flatten everything in focus so much that they can also distort the image, just in a different way. Extreme telephoto lenses are ideal for shooting certain types of material (for example product shots, because you’ll often want to flatten out a hero product for various reasons, or nature photography), but when it comes to a close up, it can really work against you. Extremely long lenses will flatten out your talent’s face too much, leaving their facial features looking less than pleasing – so unless that’s what you’re going for stylistically, you generally want to stay away from focal lengths that are too long.

The above examples are obviously at the extreme ends of the spectrum (ultra wide angle and telephoto), but the same principles can be applied to any lens outside of the 85mm – 135mm range. For instance, a 24mm lens may not be considered an ‘extreme wide angle lens’, but it is still quite far from the optimal range you want to be working with and there still will be some unpleasing affects on facial features if you attempt to use it for close up shots.

Other Considerations

It’s also important to think about not only what your lens is doing to the subject, but also what it’s doing to the background. If you’re using a 24mm lens as described in the example above, you are going to need to move your camera quite close to your subject to have them framed up for a close up, which means you are going to see a lot more background than if they were framed up using an 85mm lens for instance, since the 24mm will pull in more of the surrounding environment.

The other important consideration is the depth of field. Typically with a close up shot, you’re going to want a more shallow depth of field so that the focus is completely on your subject and the background is thrown out of focus, avoiding unnecessary distractions in the frame. In order to achieve this look, you are going to want a nice long lens so you don’t need to worry about placing your subject really far away from the background. For this reason and the others stated above, long lenses are almost always the way to go for close up shots, unless you have a really unique idea that you are playing with and want to intentionally break the rules.

Here’s a shot from my upcoming short film ‘Model’, shot on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera with an 85mm Rokinon Cine lens:

Model-Shot

Rokinon 85mm T1.5 Cine Lens – $349 at B & H

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So why the 85mm over other focal lengths?

At the top of this article I mentioned that typically the 85mm – 135mm range is ideal for close ups/portraits in both video and still photography. While this range is in fact optimal for CU shots, my personal preference has always specifically been the 85mm lens when shooting narrative material. This is for a number of reasons – the biggest one being that I find an 85mm lens to be far more versatile than longer focal lengths such as a 135mm or even a 105mm. Although an 85mm lens is fairly long, it’s not so long that you can’t use it in smaller rooms/spaces, or reframe if you want to go slightly wider – the same can’t always be said about lenses that are more telephoto oriented. I’ve had issues with lenses longer than 85mm in small rooms where the shot was just barely too tight, and I ended up needing to use a 50mm instead which wasn’t ideal for my scene, just because I couldn’t move the camera far back enough in the room. The other thing that’s great about the 85mm focal length is that if you’re like me and you have several different cameras with different sensor sizes, it will work be more useable on your different bodies. For instance, I’ll use my 85mm Lens on my C100 (which has a Super 35mm sized sensor) with great results, and then throw it on my Blackmagic Cinema Camera (with a heavy 2.3x crop factor), and still be able to use it. Sure, the image is going to be different given the variance in sensor size, but the lens is useable on both cameras. If I were to try putting a 135mm lens on my Blackmagic Cinema Camera, it wouldn’t be useable in most indoor situations unless I were shooting extreme close ups or had a very large interior space.

Final thoughts

You can get great close ups with lots of different lenses and focal lengths, so don’t feel like you need to stick to any one specific lens (whether it’s an 85mm or otherwise). For me personally, the 85mm is the way to go for 80% of my close up shots, but there is no hard and fast rule about this. There are definitely times when I want something more extreme and I’ll go for a longer lens, or when I want a less flattering/more uncomfortable look and I’ll opt to shoot with a wide lens and bring the camera in close. If you do choose to go for an 85mm lens though, I highly recommend the Rokinon 85mm Cine Lens that is listed above as the quality is fantastic and it is very fast – T1.5, which makes it ideal for getting that nice shallow DOF, even on smaller sensor cameras.

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

21 Comments

  • Adam L Osborn
    October 25, 2020 at 3:32 am

    I need to take very detailed photos of very thin steel sheets and be able to distinguish the separation of each sheet. What distance away would I take the picture of a stack of steel sheets approx. 4″ tall?

    Reply
  • Peter Seaton-Clark
    January 11, 2018 at 12:26 pm

    Hi Noam, great post, thanks for that! Just got the 85mm too but I have a question. How do you compensate for the lens breathing when doing a rack focus for example. I get that for this price range it’s inevitable but just wondered how or if you deal with the slight zoom effect.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 18, 2018 at 6:27 am

      Excellent question. Truthfully, I don’t find it to be much of an issue, even on my 50 – 100 Sigma Cine lens which breathes like crazy. The reason is, rarely do I ever need to do a big enough or fast enough pull that the breathing is really noticeable. When I am just testing the lens out, sure I can make it breathe really obviously. But during real world usage, it’s not normally a huge issue. And if I encounter situations where it is, I’ll figure out how to work around it… Hope that answers the question!

      Reply
  • Tomer itzhak
    December 28, 2016 at 12:54 am

    But using 85mm on a crop change the fucal length no? So is it still good for all of the reasons you mentioned or shell i buy something around 53mm thats in crop means 85mm?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 4, 2017 at 7:36 pm

      Typically when I talk about focal lengths, I am referring to them in Super 35 terms. So although you are correct that a 53mm would give you an 85mm equivalent in full frame terms. I am actually using Super 35 as my baseline – meaning a true 85mm lens is the way to go!

      Reply
      • Chad Andreo
        July 2, 2019 at 2:10 am

        Great article!
        Just to confirm, you like the look of an 85mm lens on S35 or something around 127.5mm on FF?

        Reply
        • Noam Kroll
          August 22, 2019 at 1:40 am

          Exactly! On full frame, I often would go for a 135mm for closeups. That said, 85mm on FF looks great too.

          Reply
  • Réda Bakhti
    November 22, 2016 at 10:52 am

    Great Job and well-written and inspiring articles. Thanks.

    Reply
  • Floyd Brantley
    October 28, 2016 at 10:46 pm

    I have a question. I just recently got my 85mm 1.8 and I love the way it looks when I film video. But I also have the 50mm 1.8. Which is the best to use for filming and when would you use each one?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 3, 2016 at 5:48 am

      Both lenses are great, it just depends on your situation. For a more universal lens that can be used in a wider variety of situations, the 50mm is probably the way to go. The 85mm is excellent for portraits, beauty shots, and more intense moments. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  • Joshua
    June 29, 2016 at 6:17 am

    Love the blog posts, they’re so informative. I really wish I found your articles before I worked on my first short! I’m currently running with a set of Rokinons – the 14, 35, 50, and 85 on a Pocket Camera with the Speedbooster. The control the lenses offer is phenomenal, especially with the geared rings. It’s remarkable that Rokinon could create such a useful lens at that price point, it’s made it feasible to have a whole set without breaking the bank.

    What shots would you typically use a 50mm for? I’ve been using the 85 for closeups and switching between the 14 and 35 for wides, however, my 50mm doesn’t get as much love as it should.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 29, 2016 at 10:28 pm

      Hey Josh! Thanks for the note and glad to hear you’ve been enjoying my articles. I agree that the Rokinon lenses offer a lot of bang for your buck. The 50mm lens in the Rokinon kit is actually my favorite of all of their lenses, purely from a quality standpoint. I personally like to use the 50mm for some closeups (if the 85mm is too long for any reason), but also for 2 shots. When framing up two people in the same shot, the 50mm allows you to go slightly wider (which of course helps you fit them in the frame), while still giving you some nice shallow DOF. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  • Stephen
    June 28, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    Are there rules for using different focal lengths within a scene? For example, would you want to go from a 24 in one shot to a 85 in another?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 28, 2016 at 6:05 pm

      Great question, Stephen. As far as I’m concerned – there are no rules. A 24mm and 85mm could look beautiful when cut together, or they could look terrible. It all comes down to how they are used. For instance, if you cut from a closeup on an 85 to a closeup on a 24mm (where the camera is walked in close to the actor), that would feel like a jump cut and probably would be disorienting to the audience. On the other hand, if you don’t move the camera at all and simply use a 24mm for your wide and an 85mm for your closeup, your shots will look great when edited together.

      Reply
  • Lolanto
    November 20, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Hi Noam, now based on your advice, if I paired a Rokinon 85mm Nikor F with a Speedbooster on a GH4, would that in a way defeat some of the purpose? Or would you say it even makes it better?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2014 at 7:42 pm

      That would be an excellent choice! It will make the lens even faster and wider, and you could also buy a cheap “dumb” adapter for Nikon F – MFT that would allow you to use that same lens at a longer focal length, since it wouldn’t be ‘speed boosted’.

      Reply
  • Steven
    June 9, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    So in your example you used an actual 85mm lens on the BMCC, which has a crop factor of ~2.4, thus making that example image ~204mm.

    So for the crop factor of the GH cameras, you’d want a 42.5mm lens to get the 85mm look, correct? Or am I missing something?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 12, 2014 at 5:49 pm

      Hi Stephen – The 42.5mm lens would be a great choice as well, however I recommended the 85mm as an all round portrait lens as you could use it (even with the crop factor) on a BMCC or MFT camera, but it would also work if you have a larger sensor camera (APS-C or Full Frame as well). The lens will certainly have a different look on each camera, but if you own multiple cameras with different sensor sizes, it is a focal length that should be useable across the board.

      Reply
  • Benjamin Walter
    May 5, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Great paper Noam ! That’s funny because I recently opted for this lens on the BMCC for my new feature film, which allows me to capture my character as if he was trapped and the whole story happening at night, 1.5 is perfect, even for the BMCC 🙂

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 15, 2014 at 8:57 pm

      Awesome! Glad to hear it worked out for you… Such a great lens.

      Reply

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