50mm or 85mm? Or maybe 35mm? Or 135mm? Or maybe 70-200mm?

We get a lot of emails here at SPS every day.

Sarah answers 99% of them, and many of you have been on the receiving end of her generosity when it comes to time and info.  And all for FREE, mind you.

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Yep, 95% of the emails we answer are simply folks writing in who have never bought our main course.  They’ve just signed up for one of our free mini courses.  Many would say it’s crazy to spend 3+ hours a day answering questions for people who aren’t customers.  But I hope that says something for what we truly stand for.

Along those lines, a few days ago I happened to notice a thread of emails.

I couldn’t believe the incredibly generous time and attention Sarah was giving this person who wrote in asking what lens to purchase next.

And this is just ONE example.  But it happens everyday.

As I was reading through the back-and-forth, I thought: “Wow.  This could be the next SPS blog post.”

And here we are.

The original question:

[I own a] Canon 60d and I only own a 50 mm lens right now because that is all I can afford. I am DYING to start a very small business photographing kids and families, but I am still just too new to this whole thing. Especially how to interact with clients during a shoot-even minimal posing tips. Plus I don’t know what my next lens should be. Mine feels too narrow at times right now.  I keep hearing Canon 85 MM F/1.8. I would love an opinion on this if you are bored! ๐Ÿ™‚  Thank you! -Lindsey
Sarah:
Hi Lindsey,

When you say that your 50 is ‘too narrow’ are you saying that it’s too tight and leaves you wishing for more ‘elbow room’ indoors?  Or are you saying that you wish it had more ‘zoom’ and brought you closer to your subjects?  I LOVE my 85mm, and it basically lives on my camera, but the answer to my questions will help me tell you if the 85mm is what you’re looking for or if you need to go in another direction. 

Thanks for checking in!  Hope you love the mini course!
Lindsey:
It leaves me wishing for more elbow room for more. I take a million photos of my kids faces and they are wonderful, but in order to get shots of their whole bodies, I have to back up a TON until I’m basically crouched in the corner of the room and I still can’t get their whole bodies in the shot. 
I was also told to get a 70-200 zoom lens. I really only want to have a few key lenses in my back pocket, so I’m trying to decide what the best three would be for me to do portrait photography.
Sarah:
Okay, that’s what I thought.  Then you don’t want the 85mm.  That will bring you in even tighter. 

The 70-200mm is going to bring you the same issue as the 85mm.  You want a wider angle lens.  I would recommend the 35mm.   Another option would be the 24-70mm f2.8, but that one is going to cost you a pretty penny (as would the 70-200 f2.8).  They run around $1600-1800.  It would serve you well without a doubt and it’s beautiful glass, but I’m not sure what your budget is.  Glass is an investment for sure! 

The 35mm is probably not going to be a go to portrait lens (at least not for traditional portraits where you are up close and personal), but it has a ton of uses for pull back shots or indoor shots.  However, if you get close enough to a face to fill the frame with a 35mm, you risk facial distortion.

Hope this helps some!
Lindsey:
Wow, thank you for your expertise! So what would you recommend for portrait shooting?
I just thought of one other thing…is the shot so tight because I have a crop frame camera?
Sarah:
Yep – you hit the nail on the head.  I can easily shoot with a 50mm indoors on my full frame.  Your 50mm is acting like my 85mm which can be tight indoors.  I actually had all of that typed out, but didn’t want to confuse you more if you didn’t know about crop sensors and magnification factors. 

It’s really hard to say.  I shoot portraits outdoors whenever possible, so I use my 85mm (but I’m more of a prime girl) and have a 135mm f2 next on my wish list.  I know plenty of folks who shoot portraits with a 24-70mm and do a great job of it.  You just need to be careful how close you get to your subject at the lower focal length.  Honestly what I might do is go to a camera shop (not a big box store) WITHOUT my purse (takes away any impulse buys) and camera and ask them to let you try some lenses out in the store.  Move around and take some shots at distances you could see yourself taking portraits.  See how the lenses feel.  The 24-70 is an amazing piece of glass, but it’s heavy.  If you’re not going to like that, then spending $1800 on it is a waste.  I’ll list the lenses that most portrait photographers have in their bags – 1 set for zoom users and 1 set for prime users (although surely some people use both.  If you were going to get a lens for portraits and take out the elbow room factor, your next most economical is an 85mm prime – but you won’t be able to use it much indoors. 

Zooms – 24-70mm f2.8, 70-200mm f2.8
Primes – 35mm f2, 50mm f1.4 (or f1.8), 85mm (f1.8), 135mm f2

My biggest piece of advice about glass is this – don’t settle.  Save up and buy what you really want because you won’t have to buy it again.  You can absolutely rock some portraits with a 50mm 1.8.  I have and I’ve seen others do it.  Better glass will give you better images for sure, but the differences won’t be so astounding that the average non-photographer is going to be bowled over.  Better glass is worth it every time, but get by on what you have until you can get what you really want.  Also, in your case, buy EF lenses not EF-S.  EF can be used on both crop and full sensors and EF-S can only be used on crop sensors and may not ‘grow’ with you. 

I know I didn’t really answer your question, but I feel like I can’t – it’s a matter of personal taste and budget.  THE portrait lens is considered 70-200mm f2.8 or 135mm f2, but….most of those photographers are shooting on full frame cameras.  Again – outdoors I think you’re going to be fine with either of those, but both would be almost impossible for you to use indoors.  Sorry I don’t have a more definite answer for you – and I hope I haven’t talked in a complete circle here!
Lindsey:
No, this is AWESOME information. I have read so much about photography that I actually followed this pretty well, much to my own surprise:-) Well, I assume I would be shooting mostly outdoors, but in Ohio, there is a pretty big lull of grossness in the seasons, so I thought I could do newborns too, but that would be mostly indoors and I would have to ask the people how large their house is to accommodate anything that is a full shot ๐Ÿ™‚ 
I’m trying not to settle, but I am literally OBSESSED with photography right now and I can’t afford to buy anything else unless I start making money to buy it. You know…kids. Darn them for costing so much:-) That is a great suggestion about trying them out in the local camera stores. 
I’m just worried I bought too low of a body that no one will want photos from a crop frame camera…should have saved up a bit longer for the 7d I guess:-) 
Thank you so much for your tips. I’ve been reading this website from top to bottom and it’s been so interesting to me!
Thank you so much for all your help. Literally this has been SUCH a huge help!

It’s probably still continuing…

For all I know, Sarah and Lindsey are still chatting back and forth.  This is just what I saw of it as of a few days ago.

As a biz owner, it’s tempting to wonder about the “cost analysis” of such an endeavor, especially as it’s replicated daily, and perhaps many times a day.  I mean, for a paying member, sure.  But all for free??

My answer:

Heck yes.

All for free.

This is how much we value photography for parents.

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12 thoughts on “50mm or 85mm? Or maybe 35mm? Or 135mm? Or maybe 70-200mm?”

  1. it is SO wonderful and heart-warming to read this example of how SPS genuinely cares for all aspiring photographers (newbies and otherwise)!! thank you for sharing- this was great!

  2. I too have wondered what lens would be the best for me to purchase next. I have a Canon Rebel 6Xti and have the 50mm and the one that came with the camera 18-55mm? Anyhow, I love my 50mm but having to back way up when taking Picts is not very practical. Any suggestions on another lens that would help me with that? I take photos for a hobby and mainly of my kids but LOVE photography and would love to do it more as my kids get older.

  3. Melanie Williford

    Hello!!
    I have a HUGE problem when it comes to buying more glass. I have a Nikon D5300 crop sensor camera, and is so hard to know what lens to buy! I am looking for a telephoto lens and a wide angle lens that are better quality than my kit lenses. I’ve been told to get the 24-70 and also a 70-200. My question is do I get the 17-55 which is the equivalent of the 24-70? My husband wants to buy me more lenses and wants a list! PLEASE HELP!! THANK YOU!!!!

    1. The 17-55 won’t come close to the performance of the 24-70 2.8 II. But you’re right, the focal length will be multiplied with a crop sensor. My advice would be to purchase the best glass your budget will allow. Someday you’ll upgrade to a full frame sensor ๐Ÿ˜‰

      1. Melanie Williford

        Hello!
        Thank you so much for awnsering my question! It has been such a headache trying to figure out lenses. Maybe my next purchase should be a full frame camera! Would I be able to use the 24-70 on my camera and still get wide enough shots Indoors? We had a birthday party for my son and I used a 35mm lens and could not fit everyone in, and could not back up any more!

        1. Sorry I didn’t see this sooner!

          To answer your question, the 24-70 would give you more elbow room on the 24mm end than your 35mm did, so I would say absolutely you could get wide enough shots indoors.

          Hope that helps – and again, sorry for the delay!

  4. Barbara Daniels

    The fact you answered emails was the deciding factor for me to take the courses. That and how you ended every thing with grateful. I connected to that. I’ve taken other courses and learned a lot but in the end I’ve felt intimated or frustrated with the conversations/opinions/and …well I’ll leave it at that…. in other FB groups. Thank you for making your courses so easy to understand.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to share kind words!! They mean a lot to us and keep us going. You’ll love the Facebook group for The Photo Fix – it is a fantastic community of kind, encouraging folks!

      Kyle definitely has a gift for teaching in a way that just makes sense. Thank YOU for being here so that he can continue to create new material.

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