Taking family pictures to the next level with all prime lenses like the Nikon 85mm f1.4G

For several years now I’ve used my Nikon 85mm f1.4 prime lens primarily for weddings and engagement pictures. My other workhorse lens was the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 lens. This is considered an excellent lens and it should be as much as it costs. It focuses very quickly, and it gives a fantastic range for family pictures. I could shoot the whole group and still get nice close up portraits of individuals and the kids. The longer I do photography the pickier I get about wanting a certain look to the pictures. I want that really soft Bokeh or out of focus background and there is just something special about the clarity and color I get from my 85mm Nikon prime lens. I started to realize I just wasn’t happy with any zoom lens no matter the quality. So I decided, even for family pictures, that I would move to using all prime lenses such as the 85mm, 50mm and 35mm.

It takes a bit of extra work moving to all primes especially on the beach. In normal circumstances someone could carry one camera body and a couple of different lenses and switch between them as needed. Many times after a beach session my camera is covered in salt spray, that would ruin a camera if it got inside. So switching lenses at the beach is pretty much impossible. So instead I have to carry a camera body for each lens I want to use. Thanks to my Spider Holster, carrying a couple of cameras is an easy thing to do, I’ve done it for years at weddings. I decided for family pictures to carry one body with the 85mm f1.4 and another body with the lightweight 35mm f1.8 lens. (Update, since I’ve made this post, I’ve found I can generally do everything I need with a single camera body and a 50mm f1.4 lens. I now typically just carry that.  I finally have a 50mm lens I love with the Sigma Art series.) I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now and getting really good results. Something I’ve realized is I hardly even need the 35mm lens unless I want to use it for a specific look, such as getting a good view of the sky at sunset. As long it’s not high tide I have plenty of room to move around, so with the 85mm lens I just backup more if I’m shooting a large group. I’ve come to realize zoom lenses are just dumb, your feet can do exactly the same thing without compromising the image quality.

A couple of things to keep in mind if you switch to all primes. Remember an 85mm f1.4 lens has an extremely shallow depth of field. This is exactly what you want if your subjects are all at the same distance from the camera, such as if you are shooting an individual person or a couple. However at f1.4, unless your focus is exactly perfect, you could end up with a nose in focus and the eyes blurry. It takes more practice and skill using a lens like this. In fact I typically shoot at around f/2.0 which still gives a beautiful creamy out of focus background while making the acceptable in focus area a bit wider. When moving to group shots with an 85mm lens you have to be especially careful. If you place some people behind others and try to stay at a wide aperture setting, the ones in the background will be very out of focus. Make sure to stop the camera down to at least f/4.0 or f/5.6 for group shots at 85mm, or around f/4.0 with a 50mm lens. If using a 35mm lens it’s ok to stay around f2.0 or so for group pictures. As you can see it’s just more to keep in mind when you are concentrating on getting a bunch of kids to look at the camera, it takes some practice but it’s definitely worth it.

I’ll post a few of my pictures from the past few weeks, these were all shot with the Nikon 85mm f1.4G lens except for one (Update: I’ll add a couple of 50mm lens shots as well). Can you figure out which one is shot at 35mm? (Update: I’m going to add lens and f-stop settings in image captions.) If you ever have any lens questions let me know in the comments below, I always like talking about geeky photography stuff!

85mm at f2.0
50mm at f/2.0
85mm at f/2.0
85mm at f/2.0
50mm at f/2.5
85mm at f/2.0
85mm at f/2.0
85mm at f2.4
85mm at f/2.0
85mm at f/2.0
85mm at f/2.0
85mm at f/2.0
35mm at f/2.4

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45 thoughts on “Taking family pictures to the next level with all prime lenses like the Nikon 85mm f1.4G”

  1. great blog and good information..thanks for helping me. I am trying to decide on which prime lens to get. I am guessing the 3 kids with blue eyes were with the 35mm lens.

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  2. The last picture with the large group is shot with the 35mm. I’ve actually updated the post with lens and settings in the caption of each image if you want to check it out again.

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  3. thanks I appreciate it. I actually purchased the nikon 85mm 1.8 last night..can’t wait to start using it. I am torn about getting the 35mm 1.8/1.4. I have a 50mm 1.8 already. thoughts???

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  4. Sir, I used Nikon d7200 dx format camera. Which prime lens are good for me? 85mm or 50 mm or 35 mm? And also I want to know, If i want to took a group picture with the Prime lens, then where of the subject I fix camera focus?

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  5. Hi, you create beautiful images with great subject isolation! I also have the Nikon 85, 1.4. Where (in the grouping) do you set your focus point in order to keep everyone in focus when shooting a small family/child grouping at such a wide aperture? This blogpost is very helpful for us passionate amateurs! Thank you!

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    • Thanks! As long as you are at around f2 you can usually just focus on the center of the group. I try to be careful to get the people’s heads somewhat in line. If you are shooting a larger group for example you have subjects in the front and back as well, just try to focus as best you can on the faces in the middle. Adjust your aperture to around f3.5 and things are usually sharp enough enough. Just experiment with it some you will get a feel for it after a while.

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      • Hi Ryan, Like one of the people below I’m really struggling to have people in focus when I shoot 85mm at even f.4. they all seem blurred except for the person on who I focused. I also did a family of 5 with a 50mm at f8 and still the father was on focus but the baby in front was blurred. How is it possible that the baby which was just in front of the dad (so not exactly on the plane level of the dad’s face but still so close I thought) wasn’t in focus with f8? what’s your recommendation when shooting small children which parents sit on their laps. Thank you

  6. Hi Ryan, Another question for you…your images are often taken (beautifully) around the golden hour so at the wide apertures do you still need to augment the natural light? If so, what lighting equipment do you use on location? Thanks so much!

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    • I just use an on camera flash with a small softbox for most beach work. I use a little bit of flash to brighten the faces and give a bit of light in the eyes. For weddings I use pocket wizards and things like that, but for general beach photography I’ve found keeping it simple works best for me. It’s more about getting kids to smile than anything else.

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  7. I own a Nikkor 85mm f1.8. What other prime lens ( 24mm f 1.8, 28mm f1.8, 35mm f 1.8) should I buy wide shots?

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  8. Amazing photos! I am into street and portrait photography. Have an impending Europe trip next month. I shoot with a Nikon D810 and have the holy grail of 50 mm f/1.4; 85 mm f/1.4; 14-24 f/2.8; 24-70 f/2.8; and 70-200 f/2.8. What lens would you recommend I carry with me for street, portrait and night photography. Thanks!

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  9. I have the 24 – 70 Nikon lens getting shadows even if tAkers the hood off. Can you tell me what to do this was expressive really would love to keep using but the shadows are frustrating?

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  10. Ryan, these are great shots and such good reading. Thanks for sharing! Question to you: do you use an Auto ISO or always go for the lowest setting you can manually get away with?

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    • Thanks! Like you said I typically go for the lowest setting I can without the shutter speed getting too slow. I think auto iso can be a good thing in some circumstances, I’ve just gotten so used to manually doing it. The real setting to worry about is the aperture, I would recommend shooting on aperture priority until you really get used to shooting manual.

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  11. Thanks for your quick reply Ryan. Totally agree with your recommendation regarding Av mode. I always use manual mode myself (I’m a big believer in controlling my exposure to suit). My biggest challenge with the 85 1.4 is just how shallow the depth of field is, even at f4-f5!

    I’ve had it for about three months and in the last few shoots I’ve had a lot of problems with family shots where one or two of the people are not as sharp. It is so precise! I love it for its ability to create a key subject in your shot, but i’ve certainly got to get some practice mastering my distance to subject vs aperture setting = focal depth so I can keep the aperture wide and still get everyone in the same plane. :)

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  12. I am a beginner photographer and take school pictures in a low lighting indoor setting and am fairly close to the subjects due to lack of space. I used a 50 mm 1.8 with some very clear images and some blurry. It was especially challenging with siblings as one subject would be clear and the other blurred. What lens would you recommend for low lighting, tight space and potentially moving subjects?

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    • Your lens is fine you just need to adjust your aperture smaller like f2.8 or f3.5. This will help make subjects in the foreground or background more in focus. The best solution would be if you can keep everyone about the same distance from the camera so they are all in focus. If your subjects are moving you need to switch to a continuous focus mode.

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  13. Ryan,

    Thanks for the information! I have a Nikon D750 and use a 50mm 1.4, I was wondering what setting you would use for family pictures so they don’t come out blurry. I have that problem a lot. Thanks!

    Lee Anne

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  14. Hi Ryan, thank you very much for an awesome write-up and technicality share.

    ** Throughout out all comments, I have noticed that you haven’t answered one of the main points and the repeated question was repeated several times. This is the question: (what setting you would use for family pictures so they don’t come out blurry?)

    Please demo few example re: group photo setup, 2-3 subjects with 85mm 1.4f or 50mm 1.4f. You mentioned a couple of times aperture settings of f2 or f4 etc.. but why do we all continue to receive the same problem end results? one or two subjects come out of focus in group photos?? Please answer with the greatest detail possible. It is a very common problem among prime lens use like 85mm in particular. Thanks in advance! -Greg

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    • You might have missed it but I did answer the question above, I also talked about it in the main body of the post. Understanding how aperture changes depth of field is the most basic thing you need to learn with photography, there are tons of resources explaining it online. You have to understand that before starting to do family pictures. You could get started here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depth_of_field

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  15. Thabks good info. I currently have the Nikon 50mm 1.8g, is it a huge difference with the 1.4 ither than the huge price tag? Do you recommend I still get an 85mm or as a beginner this is enough prime for now? Mainly shooting individuals and couples but sometimes groups so I will remember to stop at f4.0 thanks!

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    • The 1.4 lens will give you better quality at f2 etc as well. It’s a much better lens. I actually don’t like the Nikon 50mm f1.4 very much the Sigma Art 50mm 1.4 is a great lens but it’s around $900. If you are going to do professional work it’s a good investment. I wouldn’t worry about an 85mm yet. I use that just for couples and weddings not family pictures.

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  16. Sir thanks for the good & useful information. Sir, I wanted to know that should i use Nikon 20mm 1.8g for wedding purpose.
    Pls advise.
    thanks
    regards
    Devesh Lodhy
    for Deweddingphotography

    Reply
    • A 20mm lens is fine for wide shots, but of course it’s not going to be great for portraits for example with the bride and groom. I really wouldn’t recommend trying to shoot a wedding until you have a good understanding of lens focal lengths it’s very basic photography.

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  17. Thank you! First, I am a hobbyist not a pro photographer. I am a high school teacher and take senior portraits for the economically disadvantaged students. Although I will have students, who are not economically disadvantaged ask me to do their senior pics and out of respect for local professional photographers I always find a polite way to decline. With that out of the way, I have used my 85 mm 1.4 lens for years for individuals or couple portraits (family members) and always love the results. I too use a Nikkor 24-85 for larger groups (my family and class reunion photos), simply because of the narrow depth of field of my 85 mm. A rare occasion has occurred and all my children are visiting at the same time and I want a family photo. I also want the “look” I get with my 85 mm, but had no clue how I was going to accomplish this. Making the adjustment in aperture was my first guess and your recommendation will serve as a guide. Again, thank you for sharing your experience.

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    • I’m glad it helped. Yes you can adjust the aperture to have more of the group in focus. Or you can be careful to align everyone’s heads about the same distance from the camera.

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  18. How do you get everyone in focus? I just got a 85mm and I’m having issues. I had a family of 4 and almost one kid was out of focus. I even stood pretty far away from the clients.

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  19. Hey Ryan, I recently bought the 85mm f1.4 and love the quality. I have a maternity session coming up and was wondering do you think I could use this lens for the entire shoot? Or should I switch between that and my 35?

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  20. Can I take wedding group pictures with 85mm with 1:8. Please answer as soon as you can, because I’m going to take wedding anniversary photos on this Friday 28/06/19

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    • Of course you can, you are just going to need a lot of room to step back to get a large group in the frame. I typically use a 35mm lens for large group shots because space can be limited. Also, to be safe, shoot at around f2.8 to f4 for group shots to make sure everyone is in focus.

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  21. I am thinking about renting a lense for a beach picture of my family of 7. I have a nikon d7100 and only have the kit lenses it came with. Which lense do you recommend I rent?
    Thx so much Jen

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    • I would recommend not to rent a lens and instead to buy a 50mm f1.8 lens. The Nikon version is under $200 and you will get a lot of great use from it. If you really want to rent a lens then the Sigma 50mm Art f1.4 lens is my favorite.

      Reply

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