All prime lenses hold a charm that is beyond their technical attributes. Somehow, being restricted by a lens’ focal length can actually increase a photographer’s creativity, forcing them to “zoom with their feet” and find new creative angles. Many, though not all, offer wider apertures, faster optics, and increased colours and contrast resulting in higher quality images than some of the best zooms. The Canon 85mm f/1.8 offers a few of these; it is a prime, and a pretty good one at that. Yet it is not an “L” series glass, the highest grade that Canon offers. It is a budget prime with a reasonably fast aperture and a surprisingly good performance, in a very portable frame.
Compact and sturdy, the Canon 85mm f/1.8 doesn't really inspire much on the design front; it's a stubby tube. Nothing at all like its uncharacteristically designed 85mm f/1.2 sibling, it is small enough to fit in a pocket and doesn't draw much attention to itself when placed on a camera. It is a plastic body with a metal mount and interior components. A 58mm lens filter ring matches that of the Canon 50mm f/1.4 as does the overall feel and design of the lens.
Non L-series Canon lenses do not come with a lens hood, but the Canon ET-65III lens hood is available for separate purchase and would serve to prevent light flare and protect the front lens element. Of course, if flare is your thing, there's nothing wrong with going without it.
The Canon 85mm f/1.8 is a very solid optical performer; it's relatively sharp wide open,thankfully, considering it's already only 1 1/3rd stop faster than the fastest zoom. Like many lenses, sharpness improves when stopped down to f/2.5 and it's hard to find any flaws past 3.2. Vignetting is very strong wide-open and also improves stopped down. With most telephoto lenses, I actually enjoy the vignetting that the lens adds to the image as it helps frame my subjects and draw the viewer’s interest into the frame.
Purple fringing and green chromatic aberration is also very visible when dealing with specular highlights and transitions from dark to light; this can be particularly problematic when working in an out-of-focus area, as the correction necessary in post-processing will leave a particularly wide area of grey or black that may draw more attention to itself than the original coloured aberration.
Who's it for?
I purposefully didn't add much to the build or image categories. As a relatively inexpensive lens, I don't think it's fair to put too critical a view on these properties as they are of relatively less to “the best” lenses, but also less relevant to the lenses' use and one's ability to afford it. While the 85mm f/1.2 produces some incredible and unique images, the 85mm f/1.8 comes in at less than 1/5th the cost and that, in itself, is worth quite a bit.
85mm is a very good portrait focal length, and anyone interested in photographing people should consider one, the 85mm f/1.8 would be particularly good for those wishing to travel light or on a budget or both. I've used the lens on a crop body, and while the ~136mm crop factor is also considered a very good portrait focal length, I find it difficult to properly frame a subject on a crop. The minimum and infinite distances on the lens remain the same, and if I were to frame a full adult on a crop sensor I'm likely to hit the point at which everything is in focus (just past 15 feet), losing any benefit of having a wider aperture to achieve a nice blurred out background. This is just a matter of my taste, but a 50mm lens on a crop body fills the roll of an 85 by comparison.
On a full-frame camera the use of an 85mm lens becomes very apparent. Perfect for shooting people’s portraits or details, it could make an ideal wedding lens. Able to work in lower light than Canon's 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II (though without the benefit of IS which could, conceivably, have you shooting sharp images between 1/6th and 1/13th of a second ), you can shoot ambient light in ever darker situations. It's light-weight and low-profile design will also mean you don't stand out when shooting people in intimate settings.
I'd also like to see one in a street photographer’s kit since it could help with some tighter details without costing too much space in the bag. Photojournalists may also appreciate the light weight of the 85mm f/1.8, though they may not wish to compromise the versatility the industry-standard 70-200 offers in return.
I've had a long and difficult time trying to place this lens. I've borrowed it, rented it, and used it on and off for almost 3 years. I want to love this lens; I want to tell myself it's a viable alternative to the 85mm f/1.2L II when that just simply isn't true. It lacks the magical “feel” of the images that the 85 1.2L II produces. Of course, “Magic” comes at quite a cost. It's more of a companion lens, something to accompany a tightly controlled prime kit. It pairs well with other lenses in its build-class like the Canon 50mm f/1.4, the 24mm f/2.8 or the 40mm f/2.8. The 1.8 aperture is not so shallow that you're going to get yourself into trouble like I tend to do at 1.2 (where you wondered if anything is in focus). It is a well-rounded lens, capable of producing great images in almost any situation and if you're looking for an affordable portrait lens with a flexible aperture range, then the 85mm f/1.8 deserves your consideration.
- Canon EF 85mm f/1.8: Adorama
- Sharp with minimal stopping down
- Wide aperture
- No included lens hood
- No red-ring prestiege and automatic entry into the “L” photo club