Tutorial: Focal Length (50mm vs 85mm)

Published On March 6, 2013 | By russell | Gear, Tutorial

Comparing 50mm and 85mm in food photography - How focal length affects the image at Chasing Delicious Photography

There are two focal lengths I rely on most when photographing food, 50mm and 85mm (on a crop body these two lenses act more like 85mm and 135mm lenses respectively – both great focal lengths for food as well). Even if I’m not shooting primes, I will by default choose something near 50mm or 85mm on a zoom lens. (Can you guess which of the two focal lengths was used for the image above?)

So, which is better? What are the differences between these two focal lengths? 35mm difference may not seem like a lot but it is. And if you’re shooting on a crop body, then the difference between the two lenses is closer to 50mm.

Settings

With the exception of focal length and the physical placement of the camera in relation to the subject (working distance), all other settings are exactly the same in these images. In addition to that, the objects  in the frame (foreground – pickle, midground – burger, and background – beer, stack of bread, pickle jar and onion) are never moved throughout the shoot.

Camera: Canon 5D MkII (full frame)
ISO:
1600
Shutter speed: 1/60
Aperture: 2.8

Subject to Background: 3′
Subject to Camera: Variable

Using different focal lengths will affect depth of field and perceived perspective compression (or the perceived distance between objects with in the frame). Objects in the background can also appear to change size with different focal lengths. Exposure, color and contrast are not affected by focal length (though will vary from one lens to another).

Focal Length Comparison

Identical Framing

Here the framing is identical, which required a working distance of 1’6″ with the 50mm  lens and 3′ with the 85mm lens. As you can see, the foreground and background objects in the 50mm photo appear farther away from the subject in focus. They also appear closer to each other (notice we see more bread and a little bit more beer in the 50mm image).

The more telephoto lens here (the 85mm) compresses the space more than the 50mm (this is only the case when you adjust the working distance so that the framing remains the same). Assuming framing is the same, longer focal lengths will compress or squish depth in the photo. It can also push them farther to the side of the frame, making them less distracting to the subject.

Comparing 50mm and 85mm in food photography - How focal length affects the image at Chasing Delicious Photography

This image is shot straight on.

Comparing 50mm and 85mm in food photography - How focal length affects the image at Chasing Delicious Photography

Here is another image, shot at a higher angle to help show the difference in object compression from foreground to background. Notice how much father away the background objects are. You can notice a big difference in the pickle too.

You will also notice the depth of field is slightly narrower on the 85mm (even though the aperture is the same). Because the 85mm has a narrower angle of view than the 50mm, it will create a shallower depth of field at identical camera settings.

Identical Working Distance

Working distance is the distance from the subject of the image to the camera lens (technically to the sensor inside the camera). Here the cameras are both 3′ away from the subject. With this photo, we obviously see a huge difference in framing.

Comparing 50mm and 85mm in food photography - How focal length affects the image at Chasing Delicious Photography

Here the images are not cropped. Wider lenses let you capture more when shooting at similar distances. This is helpful for small spaces when you don’t have a lot of space to move around.

Identical Working Distance & Framing (requires cropping)

While the working distance of both lenses is the same, the 50mm image is cropped so that the framing is identical to the 85mm.

Comparing 50mm and 85mm in food photography - How focal length affects the image at Chasing Delicious Photography

Crop the photos so they appear to be framed the same way and we now notice that with the camera in the same place, there is no affect on compression. That’s right, lenses do not affect the perspective compression of objects within a photo. Your working distance does.  That being said, it’s not practical to shoot at the exact same distance from a subject across various focal lengths, nor is is practical to use one focal length for a number of subjects. This is why we buy lenses with varying focal lengths. And this is why we associate perceived perspective compression with different focal lengths.

The cropped 50mm photograph is also representative of what it is like shooting a 50mm lens on a crop body. As you can see, a 50mm on a crop body essentially becomes an 85mm. Shooting on a crop body will thus affect both the perceived perspective compression of a lens and the working distances required.

Why Choose One Over the Other

While you should consider various factors like a lenses speed (maximum aperture), it’s color, saturation and contrast rendition, and the lens’ ability to handle flaws such as light fall off, edge softness and Chromatic Aberration when choosing a lens, the most important factor should and will likely be focal length.

The two biggest reasons to choose one focal length over the other are perceived perspective distortion and working distance. If you have a small kitchen and shoot on a crop body, it might not be practical to get an 85mm as you will need to be 6′ + away from the subject you are shooting. Of course, If you want beautifully compressed images with shallow depths of field, then the 85 (or longer) may be perfect for you.

Personal Preference

So, which do I prefer? While it depends on what I’m shooting specifically, I typically prefer 85m in food photography. I like the shallower depth of field and compression you get out of the lens. That being said, if you’re shooting on a crop body, I’d suggest the 50mm as the working distance on the 85mm becomes cumbersome (around 6′ for shots like these).

Full Frame vs. Crop Body

The images in this post were shot on a full frame sensor (Canon 5D Mk II). If you shoot on a crop-sensor (such as those found in the Canon 7D, 60D, T4i, etc) then you will need to multiply the lens’ focal length by 1.6 (or 1.5 for Nikon) to determine the effective focal length.

Comparing sensor sizes - How focal length affects the image at Chasing Delicious Photography

This diagram shows how the size of a camera’s sensor affects the image it captures. APS-C sensors, or crop body sensors, are smaller than 35mm or full frame sensors, so in effect lenses mounted on a crop body act as a telephoto version of themselves on a full frame sensor. To determine the effective focal length of a lens on a crop body, simply multiply the focal length by 1.6 (or roughly 1.5 if you use a Nikon).

What does this mean for shoot? All it means is your working distance between the camera and your subject may be different. Where as with a 50mm I was 1′ 6″ away from the subject, on a crop body you may need to be 3′ away. With an 85mm lens, a full frame working distance of 3′ is pushed back to a quite far 6′ on a crop body.

Full frame sensors (since they are larger) will produce shallower depths of field with the same settings and focal lengths used on a crop body.

So, did you guess which lens I used for the first image in this post? Yep. It was shot on the 85mm (Canon’s 85mm f/1.8). What is your favorite focal length for food photography. Share it and your favorite food photos in the comment section below!

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18 Responses to Tutorial: Focal Length (50mm vs 85mm)

  1. Gina says:

    I simply adore my 85mm f/1.8 for food. I use it whenever possible because the colors seem richer, the clarity is spot on & the bokeh seems creamier. I work on a crop sensor & fortunately the only time I need more space when shooting & have to change lenses is when I want a bird’s eye view of my scene.

  2. Jeanette says:

    Thanks for the detailed explanation Russell. I’m still such a novice when it comes to photography and am always trying to learn more.

  3. BigFatBaker says:

    This was really helpful! Definitely bookmarking for later. When I was just looking at your photos I preferred the 50 mm on every single one. I thought it was interesting you preferred the 85 mm. I only really use a 60 mm macro but I was thinking about getting a wide angle… do you think that would give me some more “range” in my photos? Everything always looks the same right now…

    • Russell says:

      I love shooting wide. It can be trickier than shooting more telephoto but you can get great images from it – and a look you just can get above 50. I definitely think it’s worth it! Anytime I begin to feel my photos are becoming stagnant I will get a new lens or start shooting at a different focal length.

      I hope this helps!

  4. I work on a crop sensor and exclusively use the 50mm/f 1.4. I have been working towards buying the 24-105mm f/4 lens to use for my food shoots as well as a walk around lens for event/travel photography. Have you used that (especially for food)? What do you think about it? I will also be getting a full frame camera so I can get more out of my lenses. I have heard people rave about their 85mm and 100mm lenses for food photography and it can become quite confusing and daunting to make the right choice. I would love to hear your thoughts! Thanks for a great article!

    • russell says:

      he 24-105 f/4 is one of the best zoom lenses out there, not to mention you can’t beat its price. I own it and use it often. I use it almost exclusively for all the videos I shoot because of the Image Stabilization (great for handholding) and versatility. The versatility and IS makes it a great walk around lens too. In fact you can’t really beat it’s reach. It is also a great choice for food . It produces great color, saturation and contrast, and it’s very clean and flaw free at just about all focal lengths and apertures. That being said, I tend to use my 24-70 f/2.8 for food more because of the extra stop and the shallower depth of field I can get from that. Of course, f/4 at 105mm can be quite narrow and having that extra 35 mm on the telephoto end is very, very nice.

      The 85 1.8 is an incredible lens. It isn’t the most versatile though – def not a walk around lens if you’re looking to shoot landscapes and wide shots. And I’ve heard a lot about 100mm being great for food. I use 100m on my 24-105 a lot for food (great image compression) and I’ve been considering getting a dedicated 100 prime.

      I know what you mean by daunting! I’d probably suggest the 24-105 (or 24-70 if you’ve got the extra cash) as you just cant beat the versatility of a great zoom lens. I hope this helps!

      • Thank you Russell! That helps immensely. It certainly fortifies my decision to get the 24-105 lens first and then later in the year invest in another prime lens depending on what my requirements are at that time (most likely a 100mm prime would make me very happy then me thinks :-) ). But thank you, I finally have some cobwebs lifted after this article and comments. I adore your work!

  5. Winnie says:

    I have a sigma 85 mm lens and LOVE it for portraits but struggle with it a little for food. I guess that’s because I am on a crop sensor camera…I do prefer my 24-70mm (and also love my 50mm). Great tutorial!

  6. Liren says:

    I was glad to see this comparison, I flip flop between these lenses, mostly when I’m feeling stagnant. I use both on a full frame; love my 85 for portraits, but struggle with it on food in my small kitchen! But when I do have the chance to use it (and the space), it is definitely dreamy!

  7. Afner says:

    Interesting! I just bought a 85mm which I am still trying to tame, because you have to be at certain distance of the subject, its a f/1.4 and it manages the light beautifully. The other challenge with it is that is manual focus so still working on it. My favorite for food so far are my 50mm an old Minolta Rokkor f/1.7 (manual of course) that I use with an adapter and my native Sony 50mm f/1.8 that gives me the comfort of autofocus :) 

    • russell says:

      I have that old Minolta 50 1.7! How funny. It is a great lens. And I tend to prefer manual focus myself. I suppose I’m just old school. Good luck taming that 85!

  8. Maria says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing! I get in my comfort zone and usually use my 24-70 for everything. I need to play around more…and do some shopping:)

  9. I love this post and thanks for taking the time to spell it out, all out. Wow. I shoot on a Canon 5D Mark II and use either my 50 mm 1.2 or my 24-70, that’s it. Every other lens I’ve ever bought collects dust. I need to ebay them or something! I have the cheaper 85mm (not the L glass) and I use it so little, I don’t even know it’s proper name! My issue with the 85mm lenses is that you have to stand so far back. I like to be closer. Sometimes even my 50mm won’t focus so I have to slap on the 24-70 so I can get in tighter. The image quality with the 50mm is superior but I have to compromise sometimes. Anyway, thanks for this post and I will be referencing it often! Pinning to my photography board!

  10. Great post! I’m in the middle of a big shoot photographing Best of Show winning American cheeses from the last 30 years and, even after investing in the 24-70 f2.8, I find myself drawn to my Nikor 100 2.8 (with adapter ring). I find the shots have greater clarity in the details even without autofocus. I also use my 50mm (on my crop sensor camera) which seems sharper than the zoom. Any ideas why this might be happening. I shoot both handheld and on a tripod, using AF on and manual focus with similar results.

    So glad I found your site. Can’t wait to poke around more!

    • russell says:

      Hi, Christine. While it’s not a steadfast rule, prime lenses do typically provide sharper results than their zoom counterparts (zoom lenses are much more difficult to design and manufacture than prime). Of course, lenses have sweet spots too. Sometimes It’s worth trying different focal lengths and apertures on a lens to see if you can get better results that way. If you find the images really shoddy from the 24-70 2.8 it may be a lemon or may need to be calibrated.

      That being said, I don’t trust autofocus, especially when shooting close up objects with shallow depths of field. Try going with manual focus on the 24-70 to see if it is front or backfocusing with autofocus on.

      I hope this helps!

  11. So nice to see the side-by-side comparisons and detailed explanation. I loved using my 50mm then started using my 24-70. While the latter is still my go-to, I have been really liking my 105mm lately (I think it has to do with, as you mentioned, feeling stagnant). Been considering picking up an 85 mm and I think this post just convinced me to do it. Thank you!

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