85mm Prime Lens: It’s Not Just For Portraits

By Sheen Watkins / April 29, 2014

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The 85mm Prime lens is well known for capturing beautiful portraits. It's relatively light weight, fast speed and wide aperture also makes it a superb event lens.  However, the 85mm is often overlooked as an effective tool in the nature photography arsenal.
In the case of our west Texas cowboy crooner, the image illustrates the character and features we expect when using an 85mm prime lens. Camera and settings used: Nikon D600, 85mm ISO 250, f/10, 1/60 seconds, Nikon 910 Speedlight.

West Texas Cowboys....
West Texas Cowboys…. – ©Sheen's Nature Photography 

When photographers take it to the streets, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm prime lenses are out in full force. When venturing to the great outdoors for nature shoots, telephoto zooms, landscape and macro lenses become the norm. The 85mm prime lens is tucked safely and many times, sadly, away in the camera case.
3 Advantages to Using an 85mm Prime Lens in Outdoor Nature Photography
1. As a prime lens, the 85mm encourages a deliberate, creative mindset in composing images for outdoor and nature photography.
2. A huge benefit of an 85mm prime lens (or any prime lens, for that matter) is that it forces behaviors that will improve our overall photography skills, including nature photography, regardless of lens type.
3. Slowing down, savoring the moment. When working with telephotos zoom lenses on wildlife, image composition happens at a rapid rate. Subjects dart, jump, fly, hop and run quickly from sunlight to shade in a matter of seconds. This requires fast movement, quick thinking and quick setting adjustments to effectively capture our subjects. Instead of nature taking the lead, the photographer is in charge.
3 Tips That Are Helpful Triggers When Using an 85mm Prime Lens Outdoor
1. Stop, Look, Listen and Breathe – What do you see from a bigger picture perspective? What is it about the image that captured your eye, your interest? Is it a faded, washed red door on an early century white church nestled in the woods? Or are the shadows from the trees creating an interesting play to capture?
The “Faded Door” image had been unnoticed on many previous wildlife photography outings. The 85mm prime lens encouraged a second, third and fourth look using all of these three triggers. Torn between the door up close and the overall image, this one was selected due to the gentle, defined shadows. Settings used: ISO 250, f/10, 1/60 seconds; processed in Lightroom 5.

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Faded Red Door
Faded Red Door – ©Sheen's Nature Photography

2. Step In, Step Out – Working with the fixed focal length, the feet become the zooming action. While framing the subject, walk closer to capture the initial detail or details that initially caught your eye. Walk further back and take in the whole scene.
3. Move Higher, or Lower – When studying your subject, what angles are available? Is there a nearby hill to walk up, or down and view?
Best Outdoor Subjects For Your 85mm Prime Lens
Anything is fair game when it comes to using your 85mm prime lens. While it's not going to be the lens of choice for birds and small animals, some of same approaches used with a ‘walk around lens' on the streets applies with nature photography.
Close-up Photography – Even though the 85mm prime lens isn't a macro, it does allow a closeness to objects that create intimate, interesting perspectives of details. Focus in on an object that stands out from the rest, that's a different color, shape or size. It could be a flower that's a different color than the rest, ivy or bark that is scaling up a tree in an unusual pattern.
Landscape Photography – The 85mm prime lens really shines with landscape and imagery scenes. While technically a portrait is defined as an depiction of a person, consider that there are other subject opportunities to capture a ‘portrait' of.
The abandoned farm equipment below was captured when walking around the Ghost Town of Terlingua, Texas. Using an 85mm prime lens with settings of ISO 125, f/9 at 1/320 seconds, the dry, rugged terrain was emphasized by further editing in Google's Nik Collection, Silver Efex Pro Module.

How the West Won....My Heart
How the West Won my Heart – ©Sheen's Nature Photography

Just-Get-Out-There Photography – This is the nature version of walking around with the lens on the street. For the avid bird and nature photographers, it is very hard to leave the telephoto behind.
A recommendation would be to go out with the 85mm prime lens on the back end of the trip or later in the day. This would be after the wildlife images have been captured. Revisiting the paths traveled or a nearby area with your 85mm can re-invigorate photography skills and senses.
The empty, dilapidated stone house below had the foreboding “No Trespassing, This Means You” sign on the left. We had driven by this piece of history several times on the way to nature shoots. Staying at a respectful distance, the 85mm prime lens captured the harsh surroundings against a cloudy, morning sky. Settings used: ISO 250, f/8, 1/160 seconds.

Abandoned Past
Abandoned Past – ©Sheen's Nature Photography

As a portrait lens, the 85mm prime lens captures a portrait of a face, an entire body without distortion. For outdoors and nature, this prime lens is a an effective tool in creatively capturing beauty and imagery with clarity.
Happy Shooting!

About the author

Sheen Watkins

Sheen Watkins is a bird, nature, wildlife photographer and photography writer. You can follow her photography on Facebook, Instagram and her website. A long term birder and nature enthusiast she is Vice President of Saving Birds Thru Habitat, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating others about the importance of protecting our natural habitat for migrating birds. She also has a travel and photography blog.

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