Canon’s L lens lineup boasts some of the the finest glass in its category. Some of the glass is unique, that there is no current direct competition on the market. While most zooms have identical Nikon, or third party, counter-parts, some of Canon’s prime lenses are completely in a league of their own. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II is just one of these lenses; at a half stop faster than any other glass. Practically, how does f/1.2 hold up against 1.4? Is the lenses $2,000 price tag justified? After all, Canon shooters have the option of a Sigma 1.4 at half that price, and the Canon 85mm f/1.8 for about $500.
My first impression of the lens was that it was heavy, it’s clearly got a lot of glass (though only a 72mm front lens element) and an all metal construction. If I was prone to dropping things, or if I had kids that were <ahem>, well, I would feel pretty confident about this thing surviving some hits. A few interesting quirks about this lens include a more bevelled-than-I’m-used-to base, it doesn’t change the way it handles, it just looks a bit different because it thins out so drastically at the mounting area. Another small bit to note is that the lens element does protrude (extends) when bringing focus to the closer ranges, nothing significant (maybe about an inch) and if you have the lens hood on you’re not noticing this anyway.
Though solidly built, I’m always surprised when I find an L lens without weather sealing at the base. I know some lenses are morel likely to be used outdoors than not, but what would seem like an insignificant cost to the manufacturer is a significant gain to the consumer. By no means is it a deal-breaker for this lens, but I can’t always anticipate what my shooting conditions will be either.
The 85 f/1.2 is definitely not known for it’s speedy autofocus, f/1.2 is a pretty shallow depth of field to begin with. At an average 2 meters (6 and a half feet) the plane of focus is 3.78cm (~1.5 inches) I think some eyeballs are deeper than that. A way to get good results would be to take a number of sequential shots of your subject, since a slight change in your posture could throw your intended focus point completely off. I also found manual focus ring pretty annoying. While full manual focus is available while the AF switch is on, you often CAN NOT re-focus the image if the camera is shut off. Unlike many lenses where you can move the focus to a point, you can pretty much free-spin the ring on the 85, essentially locking it up until you engage the AF again, it’s a unique quirk, and I’m not alone in disliking this, It has to do with the fact that the lens uses electronic focus instead of mechanic and the focus ring is not mechanically connected to the lens mechanism and requires electricity from the camera. I’m sure it has something to do with the sheer amount of glass that has to move inside of the lens.
I do recommend using the micro lens adjust feature with your camera. While Canon quality control is usually quite good copy variance does happen, and at f/1.2 even an adjustment of +1 (towards your subject, as I did on my 5DMKIII) will be the difference between locking focus and missing completely.
I’ve had a weird relationship with 85mm lenses. A few years ago, I was shooting on a crop factor body, and couldn’t get used to the fairly distant minimum focusing distance of 1 meter, which wasn’t quite close enough to fill the frame for a tight portrait, and (on a crop) the maximum distance before hitting infinity left me without a fully blurred background. Move ahead to today, and it makes a lot more sense on a full frame body. I’ve used this on my 5DMKII, my 5DMKIII and a 1DX, thankfully for the latter two, because combining the slow AF of the 85 with the ‘NO’ AF of the 5DMKII left me hurting. Taking full-body photos from a distance achieved a wonderful blurred background and foreground, while moving in closer to the subject produced an ethereal bokeh that reminded me of Canon’s 200mm f/2 L IS except with a closer working distance of just over 3 feet. Vignetting is very heavy on this lens at the widest apertures, though I’m a fan of lens vignette most of the time, and software is available to effortlessly correct it.
I’m also thankful for Adobe Lightroom’s latest tools to correct chromatic aberration and fringing in photos because, like most fast primes, this one can produce some wicked purple fringing and chromatic aberation along the edges to make you think some of your subjects were coated in soft fuzz.
Sharpness can be achieved wide-open when proper focus is achieved, though that is the trick, and shooting three-dimensional subjects like people may force you to stop down in order to get good focus from the front to back of a single eye. Of course, the incredible shallow depth of field can be used creatively, as true sharpness isn’t everything, and using the shallow dof to draw attention to a focal point is an important function of this lens.
Some people view lens flare as a flaw in an image, you should have moved or blocked the light-source somehow; I say it can be a creative choice in your photographs. Take the lens hood off and let the sun work it’s magic at the right time of day and you’ll be treated to some of the nicest fiery lens flare I’ve ever seen. Slightly unpredictable, but very welcome for certain styles. The flare does not present itself in a dramatic softening of the image, which allows you to take advantage of heavily backlit subjects while retaining both colour and contrast in your image.
Who’s it for?
Clearly anyone involved in portrait work of any kind will be pleased to add the Canon 85 f/1.2L II to their kit. The ability to whip it out and know you can take any level of incredible portraits, from full-body to tightly framed face-shots, with it makes it worth the purchase price.
This is a must-have for Wedding shooters, whose clients demand and deserve the best quality images. A wedding today wouldn’t be complete without images taken at the most shallow depth of field possible.
Photojournalists and Event shooters might find some use for it, though I prefer the versatility afforded to me by the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II, having a few fast and sharp primes in my kit instead of a large zoom may prove to be just as useful, and by myself a look that others, also using zooms, wouldn’t be able to achieve.
Another advantage of such a fast drop-off of focus is that what’s sharp and what’s in focus – the eyes, the lips, some of the hair – is all that may need retouching, allowing other blemishes and distractions fall out of focus, saving you time in post-production and touch-ups.
The Canon 85mm f/1.2 L II is not a beginner lens, it takes some getting used to and a basic understanding of depth of field and how it changes as your subject-to-camera distance changes is important too. I had to use it several times over a period of months to really get the feel for it. Once I did, though, it was clear that certain situations truly lend themselves to such a fine lens.
I compare the 85 1.2 to the 200 f/2 at times, that’s because similar framing can be achieved with both lenses, and with both lenses you can dramatically throw your foreground and background out of focus. Obvious advantages of the 85 are, of course, size, weight, and cost – all far less. For portraits, I do like working a bit closer to my subjects, it builds a better level of trust than 200mm sniping from afar can.
The more I used this lens, the more I got to know it, the better my images became, and the more impressed I was with it. Often relying on flash modifiers and scenes built with speedlights and strobes, I took pleasure in exploring natural light situations, and allowing focus isolate my subjects instead of contrast. I know that if it was a regular piece in my kit I would likely bring it to every job I had just to try for some of the impressive three-dimensional feeling images it creates.
- Fast aperture for low-light shooting
- Solid construction and build
- Quirky annoying focus ring
- sluggish AF