A fast 85mm has long been a favorite among the portrait photographer’s toolbox. Slightly telephoto, this particular focal length lightly compresses the image so that models are comfortably nestled within the background. From a design perspective, large apertures like f/1.8 or even f/1.2 remain cost effective and practical because at longer focal lengths, glass elements necessarily become prohibitively expensive and oversized. Lastly, the 85mm’s working distance lets you stay close enough to the model yet provide a lot more depth-of-field (and bokeh) than your fast 50mm or 35mm.
So what do we look for when choosing a 85mm portrait lens? Three things spring to mind. First, it has to be easy to handle because the last thing you’d want is a lens encumbering you after the models are made up and the studio is paid for. Try shooting with an EF 85mm f/1.2 all day and you’ll see what I mean.
Next, of course, is image quality but that is often a broad and nebulous term, and 85mms, in general, have been great performers. More specifically, a defining feature of the 85mm is its ability to throw the background out of focus, isolating the subject in a cocoon of soft blurriness. So a good portrait lens should have its own character.
Finally, since for large aperture primes we’ll be working with a narrow depth-of-field, fast and accurate autofocus is absolutely essential, much more so than for shorter focal lengths. I defy you to eye-focus with a manual lens, on a non-split prism focusing screen, at variable light and working distances. You just can’t do it, consistently, so professionals rely on quality AF at longer focal lengths.
So for this hands-on review, we are using the latest and greatest from Zeiss, their Batis 85mm f/1.8. We briefly looked at its technical specs when we first laid our hands on it, so rather than doing that again here, we’re going to jump straight into the good stuff. We called up Peyton and Mikaila, they drove to Newport Beach from Hollywood and San Diego respectively, and we rented a few bikes along the beach boardwalk. A fun Sunday afternoon in California.