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Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection

John Duder loves an 85mm lens so much he's recently purchased 2 more and here's why he believes you should, too.

| General Photography

Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection:



Different Objectives - A Tale Of 2 Lenses

I returned from the last day of the NEC photography show in March weighed down with lenses: including two of the same nominal specification: 85mm f/1.8.

Why on earth would someone who owns not one but two 85mm f/1.4 Planar lenses (one that I’ve owned since 1977, fitting my Contax RTS bodies, and one the Sony Alpha AF version) buy similar lenses with a smaller aperture? And why on earth buy two similar lenses?

The answers are complicated, but there really is method to my madness…


My Choices

First, the more obvious lens: a Sony FE – simply because it is light, (relatively) cheap and excellent quality. DxOMark rate it above both the Zeiss Batis and the GMaster f/1.4 for sharpness and overall quality. It rates way ahead of my 85mm Planar (which DxOMark tested on an Alpha 99 II rather than an Alpha 7) and the real-world results are better, and obviously so. Sir William Lyons, one of the founders of the car company that evolved into Jaguar, said that if you have to measure the difference in performance, it wasn’t worth achieving. Just comparing on the back of the camera, magnified, and it was very clear that the FE is exceptional.

Despite wearing a ‘made in China’ label and lacking a focus scale, that makes it, very simply, one of the very, very best lenses you can buy. Using an Alpha 7R II, as I do, this allows me to exploit my sensor better than anything that has preceded it. 


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection:


That much is simple but why buy another lens, too, that costs almost exactly the same but this time, it has manual aperture and focus, as well as known and fully intentional aberrations? A Lensbaby Velvet 85 (which is the second lens I purchased) is also bigger and heavier than the FE.

Of course, it is those very aberrations that make the lens a must - it has significant spherical aberration, allowing you to throw some areas out of focus while having others at the same distance, perfectly sharp. There’s also a lovely glow to highlights at or near full aperture. 


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection: Max aperture

Captured with a Lensbaby Velvet 85 


It’s all about character: if you like music, do you prefer the purity of an operatic soprano, or the gutsiness and raw expression of Tina Turner? Or maybe you enjoy both? I can get equal joy from sharpness and beautiful softness, I’ve found.


Sharp & Sharper

One part of me loves the purely photographic look, that’s the part that wanted a really sharp lens, and an upgrade from a Planar is a big thing to seek! Very, very occasionally, it matters that a lens can give sharp images right into the corner and all across the field at maximum aperture. But the need is occasional, at the most. Think about it – every time you look for the ‘sweet spot’ in the aperture range, you’re acknowledging that you don’t want to shoot at full aperture all the time.

But there’s a part of us that always wants to have the extreme available, just in case. That’s the difference between the gear geeks among us (I’m one, clearly!) and the artists, who require a camera that is reliable and good enough.

Similarly, we seek higher and higher pixel counts, and there’s clearly an interaction between the highest resolution a lens can give and that which the camera can deliver. On the other hand, a good lens makes a moderate camera perform better.


First Outings

Over the weekend after the show, I had a play with the lenses in Wales: the dreamy softness of the Lensbaby at full aperture contrasting with the forensic crispness of the FE.


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection: Wales landscape


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection: Wales landscape


But, the chance to actually use them came a week after buying them, taking portraits of Timothy Hoad, a New Age singer-songwriter - his alternative look and style were an open invitation to use different (and unusual) lenses. 


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection: Timothy Hoad, a New Age singer-songwriter


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection: Timothy Hoad, a New Age singer-songwriter


However, a dull and rainy day meant that we couldn’t explore the full potential of both lenses. This had to wait for another week or two, until I arranged a session with art nude model Misuzu.

A sunny day, although we were working indoors at my house, gave me the chance to use both lenses both wide open and stopped down, and to compare and contrast the results. I also shot some pictures with mains-powered flash, again allowing comparisons a dull day wouldn’t permit. 


Results & Comparisons

The Velvet gives lovely, dreamy images at and near full aperture. You may have to look hard to find the sharpness, but it’s there if you focus carefully. 


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection:

Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection:


The FE entirely justifies itself with sheer quality. Wide open, it isn’t pin-sharp corner-to-corner but it’s very sharp in the centre and very acceptable everywhere else. Stopped down, it’s sharp. Frankly, at this level of performance, you’ll probably find your humility kicking in: certainly, I wonder if my technique is anywhere near as good as the lens. I am the weak link in the chain… 


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection: Result with the FE lens

Portrait with the FE


Chalk and cheese, you may say. But, for what it’s worth, I reckon that if you are used to a consumer-grade kit zoom lens, you will be pleased with the results the Velvet gives stopped down. In many conditions, it’ll give you results that are better than that zoom can deliver. However, if you are used to premium lenses, especially premium primes, you will want to reserve it for the special Velvet look that it’s capable of, and you probably won’t stop it down beyond f/4 very often! 


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection: Result with the Velvet lens

Portrait with the Lensbaby Velvet 85



I Focus Until It Looks Beautiful


Julia Margaret Cameron wrote: "My first successes in my out-of-focus pictures were a fluke. That is to say, that when focussing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon."

So, maybe there’s more to a great picture than sheer sharpness? This opens the way to the concept of what is more beautiful than an image that is precisely sharp everywhere, and to a whole world of lenses which are more about qualities other than lines per millimetre. Everyone’s heard of ‘Bokeh’ (the quality of out-of-focus areas, rather than the sheer degree of it), but the Lensbaby Velvet optics also give a glow to highlights, an overall gentleness that reminds me quite a lot of a Zeiss Softar filter.

The spherical aberration gives the lens characteristics that would be quite mind-bending with AF: at full aperture, you can either focus so that the centre is pretty sharp and the edges out of focus – or you can get the edges reasonably sharp, and the centre distinctly out of focus with a flat subject square on to the camera. An ordinary lens will always be less able to render the edges sharp in such a situation. Therefore, it’s crucial to focus using precisely the area that you want sharp, and not to recompose at all after doing so. Assuming you want sharp…

All of these characteristics offer the chance for artistic exploitation, in different ways. Frankly, at this stage, I am still learning what apertures give precisely what effects. Past experience, though, has shown me that the game is well worth the candle!

As you stop the Velvet down, all the aberrations diminish, and you are left with a lens that is really rather sharp and focusses very close indeed. Though, it retains a touch of flare in places – a sort of aura.


CSCs Make It Easy…

My interest in Lensbaby optics more or less coincided with moving from an Alpha 900 to a series of Alpha 7 bodies, and it’s fair to say that CSC users will find all Lensbaby kit easier to use than their DSLR-using friends, especially at smaller apertures, where you need to focus at the taking aperture. A DSLR will have a very dark viewfinder and no magnification available.



There are different views on how much processing you should do after shooting – and there are different types of processing.

There’s the simple tweaking – optimising contrast, white balance and so on, making the result look really good, but not fundamentally altering it.

For a few dedicated souls, a picture is only the start of a creative journey: they will either combine images to give a result that has never been in front of a lens, or use processing to adjust the image until it is a very long way from the starting point, but still maps onto that original precisely.

And there’s the filtering route, too – where you either use a series of actions in your editing software to craft a result with extra character, or use preset (but often fine-tuneable) filters such as Nik Efex to move directly from an original to a very different look. Often, the result is rather like a film effect – grain, toning, vignetting. I find myself increasingly drawn to these – and often a characterful lens provides an inspiring starting point. 


Why You Need An 85mm Lens In Your Photographic Collection:



About Author: John Duder 

John Duder celebrated fifty years since developing his first film last Christmas – on Christmas Day 1967, the only present that mattered was a developing tank and chemicals, so that he was able to develop a negative film in the morning, and process a film for black-and-white slides in the afternoon. He doesn’t remember Christmas dinner – but he was only 14 at the time.

A way of saving money developed, so to speak, into a lifelong obsession.

John still has and uses a darkroom, and specialises in black-and-white images, portraits, and nudes. He’s been a member of Ephotozine since 2003 and joined the Critique Team a few years ago.

He has a reputation in the modelling world for taking more cameras and lenses to a shoot than anyone else. His motto is ‘never knowingly undercameraed’ and he is believed to be receiving treatment for his lens obsession.

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dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
10 Apr 2018 10:38PM
I should have put it in the text... The pier is at Llandudno.

And maybe a view of the hardware, too. Belatedly, here it is.

ChrisV Avatar
ChrisV 16 2.3k 26 United Kingdom
11 Apr 2018 1:23PM
Enjoyed the feature, thanks - it's a genuinely good insight into the practicalities of different lens characteristics. Was a little bit shocked by the nudity. Not personally, but as I was looking at work on my lunchbreak, it could be misinterpreted [actually I'm quite surprised our nanny filter system didn't block it!]
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
11 Apr 2018 2:11PM
It is marked 'NSFF' - I shall ask the powers that be if ther's a way round this. Obviously, one way, generally, is to set your own filter on over-18 images when you're viewing at work.

I'm quite surprised that the filter system didn't block it - there's been the capability for fifteen odd years, at least.
ChrisV Avatar
ChrisV 16 2.3k 26 United Kingdom
11 Apr 2018 3:33PM
It's no biggie John, but thanks. What does NSFF stand for btw? It just took me unawares, I quite like the photos albeit I haven't looked too closely [obvious reasons!] The portrait was a stunner.
NikitaMorris Avatar
11 Apr 2018 3:51PM

Quote:What does NSFW stand for btw?

Internet lingo for 'Not Safe For Work' Smile
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
11 Apr 2018 5:01PM
Sorry, Chris - my keyboard keeps getting letters wrong...
ChrisV Avatar
ChrisV 16 2.3k 26 United Kingdom
11 Apr 2018 11:07PM

Quote:Sorry, Chris - my keyboard keeps getting letters wrong...

I know that feeling well. I can spell, but my fingers are dyslexic! Fairly explicit and apposite that shorthand - Iíll know in future.
richshep Avatar
richshep 21 13 United Kingdom
12 Apr 2018 1:29PM
$500? I reckon Lensbaby are pulling the wool over our eyes! This sits in the same category as Lomography - cheap goods surrounded by crafty marketing.
BigSwede Avatar
12 Apr 2018 4:35PM
Sweet baby Jesus.
The lensbaby looks like pornboot magazine pictures from 1985.
Not for the girl and light so much, but for the lens errors that renders the bokeh like Freddy Kreuger.

dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
12 Apr 2018 7:03PM
There's a choice, and it's not for everyone... But I am happy that I get excellent value from the glass.

Now, if someone suggested I spend as much on a zoom lens, I'd be reluctant. And hte idea of blowing £1,000 or more on a zoom - ridiculous!

We all have our working preferneces, and effects we like. The FE is stunning in a more conventional way.

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