I was quite happy being given the task of routing out the best 85mm lenses on the market, having gone through the process recently myself. An 85mm prime lens is traditionally a great focal length for portraits and a nice happy medium between image compression and medium telephoto.
My reasoning and thought process for landing on the 85mm should be the same for you. The end goal, why do you need it and what will the lens be used for? In my case, I shoot weddings and needed a lens for the more arty/posed images.
I was advised to go for a 70-200mm, as it was the most versatile, had image stabilization, and gave me the most bang for the buck. However, I wanted the extra special something that a prime lens can provide, a touch of extra sharpness and the wider apertures. So, I went for an 85mm prime lens and never regretted the decision.
Choosing an ideal 85mm lens isn’t as simple as back in the film days. Now we have DLSRs, mirrorless cameras, and Four Third formats. So, we will try and cover the 85mm lenses available for the most common camera brands, unless there is a standout lens in particular.
1. Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS US
Talking of standout lenses, the 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is for the Canon platform, has a hefty price tag, but you cannot fault its image quality. Standout features include the f/1.4 aperture which is fantastic in low light and produces some amazingly creamy bokeh. The lens isn’t exactly lightweight, at just under a kilo, but the weight can be forgiven considering its quality.
Features such as the ASC (Air Sphere Coating) reduce flaring and ghosting, while the nine-blade diaphragm produces nice bokeh balls and highlights in the right circumstances. The lens may be a touch less sharp at f/1.4 than some of the competitors, but the addition of image stabilization means this 85mm is a great low light performer.
There is the option of the 85mm f/1.2L II USM, but the f/1.4 version has faster autofocus, is slightly cheaper and in reality, f/1.2 can be just a little too shallow with the depth of field for portraits.
2. Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
For full disclosure, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art is the 85mm lens I plumped for, which means it’s the lens I can waffle on about the most. It’s not exactly lightweight coming in at 1,130g, but being a third party lens, it’s available for a good bunch of camera brands.
There is no image stabilization here and although there is some weather-sealing, it’s not fully weatherproofed, being more dust and splashproof. However, you can’t fault the sharpness and image quality, which are exceptional. Plus, the f/1.4 aperture has been so helpful in low light conditions, where using a flash was simply a no-no.
Images are rendered with a neutral look, which means there’s plenty of leeway when post-editing. The Sigma is also extremely good value and probably the best on this list comparing optics to price point.
The one downside to this lens is that it can exhibit quite a bit of chromatic aberration at f/1.4 on high contrast areas. Stopping down to f/2 relieves the symptoms, but you have to be mindful of what you are shooting when the aperture is wide open. For price point and image quality, the Sigma is an excellent buy, rivaling some of the more expensive lenses.
3. Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD
The Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD is another third-party lens available for a good bunch of camera brands. Featuring image stabilization and a reasonable weight of 700g, the Tamron is a reasonably priced alternative. The aperture of f/1.8 may not go as wide as an f/1.4 lens, but that is not so much a drawback, especially considering the Vibration Compensation for low-light photography.
Not as sharp as the Sigma or Canon above, with slower AF focus, but also not far behind. Sharp across the frame from wide open to very stopped down, the Tamron comes as in as a very cost-effective solution.
4. Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G
If you’re on the Nikon platform, then the 85mm f/1.4G is a top performer. Featuring plenty of high-end additions such as a Nano Crystal Coating, silent wave motor, and is fully weatherproofed. The lens is also reasonably lightweight, coming in at 595g.
Build quality is exceptional, with a nine-blade rounded diaphragm for excellent bokeh renditions. A touchless sharp than the Sigma when fully wide open, but comparable from f/2.8 upwards. Nikon owners won’t be disappointed with this 85mm lens, with its solid workhorse credentials.
5. Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 G Master
As the Sony mirrorless camera format is such a popular choice these days, it’s hard to ignore the FE 85mm f/1.4 G Master. Arguably, top of the tree at this focal length for Sony-ists(if that is a word), the optics have plenty of high-end features such as a Nano AR Coating, full weatherproofing and an 11-blade aperture.
Extremely sharp when wide-open and extremely quick with autofocus, due to the Linear SSM Focus System. If there was no other option for the Sony then this 85mm lens would be the ideal choice, but with an optional lens adapter, Canon lenses and third-party makers are now available. Still, if you want a native lens, the 85mm f/1.4 G Master is a great choice.
6. Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4
If money is no object or ultimate image quality ranks above everything else, then the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 is the one to choose. A very simple design on the surface, manual focus, rock-solid build quality, and rather weighty coming in at 1.2kg.
As a portrait lens you’re not going to find better quality, but it’s also the most expensive on this list, with not much change from $4.5k.
But, for the money you’re getting exceptional optics. Which probably begs the question why didn’t I buy this lens instead of the Sigma? Simply, the Sigma provided the best quality for the budget I had at the time. Plus, a manual only lens would not be feasible on wedding shoots.
I needed autofocus for the rapid nature of weddings, but if the Zeiss had autofocus, I would have definitely saved up for one of these beauties.
Best summed up from an online review which compared the Zeiss Otus to the Sigma 85mm. While the Sigma has excellent quality, the Otus produces images that are ‘magical.’ That extra level of sumptuous quality you can only find from this level of lens. Expensive but worth every penny.
7. Samyang AF 85mm f/1.4 FE (Budget Winner)
Samyang may not be the most obvious third party lens manufacturer, but considering their affordable price points, these lenses pack a lot of quality for the money. A solid, weather-sealed metal lens barrel houses the advanced optics of the Samyang AF 85mm f/1.4 FE and the f/1.4 aperture produces excellent bokeh, which on the surface looks just as professional as the rest.
Lens anomalies such as chromatic aberration and distortion are kept very low, culminating in a lens that is exceptional value for money. Excellent image quality, with a lovely rendition of detail and color for both stills and video. In many ways the best value glass in exchange for your hard-earned money.
Which 85mm Lens Is Right for You?
This roundup of 85mm lenses should give you a few choices from the cost-effective to the creme de la creme. They all have their place, which means if possible try and rent or borrow a copy to see which one best suits your needs and budget.