It’s Not About the Gear, But There’s a Reason Certain Lenses Cost So Much

Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4 lenses are legendary. The sharpness, color, contrast and bokeh combine to make this the go-to portrait and photojournalism lens for professional photographers all over the world. I’ve been playing with one for the last month or so, and I do believe I’m falling in love. It’s a tricky lens, because when depth-of-field is razor thin, so is the margin of error for focus accuracy. But when you get it right, there is no mistaking where the viewer is supposed to look. As Thom Hogan writes in his review of the previous version, “If you nail the shot with this lens, you really nail it, and oh boy, that background sure looks dreamy.”  Lately, I’ve dedicated one camera body to the 85 and used my second body for all my other lenses. Why? I told you: I’m falling in love.

This is not a post-processing effect. This is what good quality bokeh looks like. Chromatic aberration can be pronounced, as in the cat's whiskers, but I don't mind. Over time, I'm sure I'll learn how to avoid it or deal with it in post.

Most compact cameras or kit lenses cannot create this level of subject isolation because they produce too much depth of field, even when shot wide open.

Lighting does most of the subject isolation work here, but shallow depth of field prevents the text in the background from becoming too distracting. I hope.

I used to think that photojournalists always shot with wide-angle lenses at f/8. For decades, the photojournalist credo was "F/8 and be there." But of course, good visual storytelling is about directing the viewer's eye. Despite the long lens compression effect, we can create subject isolation through shallow depth of field. This makes the girls in the background look closer than they actually were, yet still emphasizes that they are in the background.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Portraiture

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