It was because of this forum that I purchased this lens, so here I am 3.5 years later sharing my views on it - warts and all! Disagree with anything? Agree with anything? Please discuss!
Hope this especially helps people on the fence about this lens! (Full disclosure - I have not used the 85 f/1.8 or Sigma 85 f/1.4, but I have used the Canon 35L, 50L, 70-200 II, 200L IS)
The Canon Lens EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM (hereon in denoted as the 85L II) is a “L Series” designated short telephoto lens in Canon’s EF lens range.
Released in 2006, the 85L II was a minor upgrade incorporating the technological advances in microprocessor technology and optical coatings made since the 1989 release of its predecessor, the Canon Lens EF 85mm f/1.2L USM, a functionally identical lens.
This lens has a legendary reputation, and deservedly so. It is widely regarded as one of Canon’s signature lenses and a flagship of the EF lens range. In their EF Lens Work III publication, Canon regards this lens as their “definitive portrait lens”. Wedding portraiture and photojournalism is my primary usage for this lens.
IMAGE LINK: http://galleries.clartephoto.com/img/s1/v46/p420870383.jpg
EXIF: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 85mm, f/1.2, 1/200, ISO 400
This lens, and its predecessor, the Canon Lens EF 85mm f/1.2L USM have single handily kept many customers loyal to the Canon system, widely quoted anecdotally as a key reason why many Canon system users do not switch to Nikon.
There have been few lenses that have transformed my photography more so than this lens. If I could only own one lens, it would be this lens. I would then use a Point & Shoot for my wide angle needs. It goes without saying that this lens well and truly deserves its status as a Canon L series lens.
As a rule, all L lenses are built extremely well, and the 85L II is no exception. However, there were some less than optimal decisions (or compromises) made on the construction of this lens.
The focus ring is wobbly and loose and shifts when pressure is applied, similar to how a loose tooth would move around. Although it does not affect functionality, it does cheapen the feel of the lens and gives new users a fright about whether the lens is broken or not.
The lens itself is not internal focusing, and is of a front group focusing design (the forward group moves in and out of the lens barrel), and this, together with the loose focus ring, and where the lens mount is screwed into the body, are the primary causes of its “dust pump” characteristic. After a few weeks of usage, large particles of dust made their way inside the lens, landing on numerous internal elements. Whilst image quality is not visibly impacted, the lack of dust resistance is disappointing at this price point. Some users have performed DIY cleaning attempts on this lens, but I am not so brave.
Similarly, the lack of weather sealing on a L lens at this price point is disappointing, however potentially unavoidable given the design of the lens.
By far the most bizarre decision was to place the red lens mount/camera mount alignment dot on the rear of the lens, rather than at the side. This makes it extremely difficult to mount the lens as the red dot is not visible when trying to mount the lens. Particularly as this lens features an exposed rear element (the glass is level with the end of the lens), this bizarre placement of the red alignment dot slows down the speed at which this lens can be mounted, and increases the risk of damage to the exposed rear element due to inaccurate alignment caused by an inability to see the red alignment dot when putting the lens on. Practice improves speed, but it’s absolute hell when a novice 85L II user borrows your lens and your heart starts fluttering when they start struggling with mounting your lens, clumsily rubbing the rear element back and forth on the camera mount. Terrible.
To Canon’s credit, the rear element is quite strong and scratch resistant, despite (or because) of its exposed nature. I don’t want to test the full extent of its scratch resistance though.
The 85L II is a Focus By Wire design. That is, manual focus (MF) is achieved electronically. As the lens has no power source, this means that MF is not possible when the lens is dismounted. Remember when I said the lens had a front lens group focusing design? The trouble is, when the front group is extended, and the lens has been dismounted, you cannot retract it without remounting the lens and turning the camera back on. This can be a pain in the field when your lens suddenly can’t fit back inside the back because the front element group is extended. In the field, it’s quite difficult to remember to focus the lens to infinity before dismounting the lens. Yes, it is partially my fault, but I doubt many would miss the focus by wire feature if it was scrapped in favour of conventional manual focusing.
The lens hood is a clip on design, not a Bayonet Mount. The hood looks ugly (Like most telephoto lenses, it is of a rounded design (not petal style)) and is quite flimsy compared to the lens, as is typical of most Canon lens hoods. The lens hood is even fatter than the lens, and severely restricts the types of bag slots the lens will fit into, whether mounted or reversed.
What’s missing from the lens:
The biggest feature missing from this lens is Image Stabilisation (IS). Canon has historically struggled implementing IS on fast primes and only since 2012 has IS been implemented on a prime lens below 200mm focal length.
Some photographers are dismissive of whether IS is required in large aperture lenses such as the 85L II. Their arguments are that IS are not needed for fast lenses due to their ability to yield faster shutter speeds with their large apertures. I wish they were right, but unfortunately I have countless images ruined by camera movement induced motion blur disproving this theory.
I, and many other photographers, believe that IS would be invaluable on these lenses for the following reasons:
(a) A fast prime is designed for low light situations, and this is a usage this lens will typically find itself in, however even f/1.2 at high ISO is often not enough to get a handholdable shutter speed, and I have the photos to prove it!
(b) Even if f/1.2 and high ISO is sufficient to get a handholdable shutter speed, the implementation of IS will allow the photographer to stop down the lens or deduce the ISO, to get cleaner output and/or more depth of field (DOF)
I would gladly pay an extra $1000 for this lens for the inclusion of IS. Obviously, I’d prefer it to not cost anything extra though.
Overall Image Quality:
When this lens is being discussed, three words frequently are mentioned: “Buttery”, “Creamy” and “Bokeh”. Once you use this lens you will understand why. I will attempt to explain how the optical attributes of this lens combine together to form this effect.
IMAGE LINK: http://galleries.clartephoto.com/img/s2/v53/p96231992.jpg
EXIF: Canon EOS 5D, 85mm, f/1.2, 1/800, ISO 200
The colour response from this lens is unlike other Canon lenses I have used. The contrast delivered from this lens is more subdued, and more elegant. It definitely is a less punchier lens than a Canon Lens EF 200mm f/2L IS USM, however, I would not regard this as a bad thing. It is not worse, it is different. In my opinion, the lower contrast is suited well to portraiture work. The lower “roll off” in contrast transitions is what contributes to the “creamy” look for portraiture.
Together with the bokeh delivered by the f/1.2 aperture and the 8 rounded aperture bladed diaphragm (relevant when stopping down), this lens delivers spectacular background blur. Bokeh refers to the quality of out of focus areas, not the quantity, however there is no doubt our evaluation of bokeh is subjectively affected by the quantity of background blur. And the f/1.2 aperture delivers this in spades.
Note that due to the large aperture, out of focus highlights (out of focus bright spots in the background) are truncated by the mirror box, even on full frame cameras Often this can be to the image’s detriment, and stopping down the lens will yield a rounder highlight.
Find some great lighting, open up this lens, and you are almost guaranteed a spectacular photo.
IMAGE LINK: http://galleries.clartephoto.com/img/s2/v50/p287757135.jpg
EXIF: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 85mm, f/1.2, 1/3200, ISO 200
Chromatic Aberration (CA)
Optically, susceptibility to CA (both lateral and longitudinal) is by far the weakest attribute of this lens. This lens is most heavily afflicted by CA in the following situations:
(a) When used wide open or at large apertures (longitudinal and lateral CA)
(b) When photographing high contrast transitions particularly in bright light (e.g. white wedding dress against black tuxedo) (lateral CA)
(c) When photographing metallic objects (lateral CA)
Typically, stopping down to f/1.6 and lower substantially minimises the impact of CA. I have also found that CA is much reduced in dark environments when I use bounce flash (which is a very flat, even light source), and more prominent in harsh, natural light.
Having said that though, this is not a game stopper. Situations like the above are not as prevalent as may seem, and the susceptibility of this lens to CA has not impacted me as much as I would have thought.
Yes, it vignettes wide open. Bring it on I say. Vignette adds character and gives a very “classical” look to the image, accentuating the subject. I don’t mind vignetting at all, however if you prefer a uniform look, most Canon cameras and post processing software have vignetting correction features.
Nothing noticeable, which is not surprising for a short telephoto prime lens.
The sun in the frame or close to the edge of the frame introduces veiling flare (overall “misty” look to the photo). I have noted ghosting from the elements (coloured shapes in the photo) however these are relatively minor compared to zoom lenses and wide angle lenses.
This lens is sharp wide open. I utilise this lens wide open 95% of the time and sharpness is sufficient for all usages I have had for this lens. There is a slight improvement in contrast as it is stopped down, and a post processed sharpened photo at f/1.2 will come close to a stopped down photo.
I regard this lens has being sharper wide open than both the Canon Lens EF 35mm f/1.4L USM and the Canon Lens EF 50mm f/1.2L USM.
At times, in high contrast conditions, lens flare and CA work to reduce the apparent sharpness of this lens, and optically these result in haziness or ghosting on the image, reducing the effective sharpness of the shot.
As with all lenses, if you are concerned with the sharpness of your copy, it is critical that you use manual focus to ensure that the autofocus system is not responsible for the softness. Carefully take a photo of a flat surface containing detail, using Manual Focus, aided by 10X magnification in Live View.
From f/2 onwards, I regard this lens as reaching peak sharpness and out-resolving the current camera sensors. However, I must stress that one should not stop this lens down for sharpness reasons only, you should only need to stop down this lens to increase Depth of Field or to reduce the impact of optical defects such CA and vignetting. I use this lens wide open 95% of the time. The miniscule improvement in image quality is not enough to offset the damage to the image from losing depth of field control (resulting in reduced blurriness in the background) which I love.
The biggest limit on sharpness is imposed not by the lens resolving power, but by AF inaccuracy, motion blur, low DOF and CA. Few photographers will complain about the sharpness delivered by a tripod mounted, 10X magnification aided, manually focused laboratory test photo utilising this lens, but unfortunately life doesn’t always allow us to photograph that way. If over half or more of your photos are consistently front or back focused, I would recommend you investigate the possibility of requiring AF calibration, either using the AF Microadjust feature, or a trip back to Canon for cameras without this feature.
Depth of Field:
A f/1.2 aperture yields a very thin depth of field (DOF) at close focus ranges, however I feel that some photographers exaggerate just how thin DOF is in most field applications.
IMAGE LINK: http://galleries.clartephoto.com/img/s3/v44/p147574461.jpg
EXIF: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 85mm, f/1.2, 1/1600, ISO 100
It is true that if you are at minimum focus distance (MFD) and you photograph a person’s head turned at a 45 degree angle, only one eye will be in focus. This has led to an internet notoriety with this lens that f/1.2 is “too shallow” and “not enough DOF”. Critics of this lens use this as a platform for remarks such as “Why would you photograph at f/1.2? It’s too thin” etc.
However, with the exception of headshot photographers, it is extremely rare for most photographers to photograph all their photos at such close range. A headshot offers little in the way of context and environment. For practical applications where you include other people, or the environment, f/1.2 provides enough DOF for photos of even multiple people, let alone one person.
I frequently use this lens for photos of couples and groups, at f/1.2. Sometimes fitting everyone within the DOF will be challenging, but the following techniques will assist you :
(a) Align people on the same plane (on a line parallel to the front of your lens). Avoid people at the ends positioning themselves forward or behind of the rest of the group.
(b) Step back as far as you can, and focus on the closest person, as it is much more obvious when the person closest is out of focus, compared to the person furthest away from the camera.
(c) Take multiple exposures focusing on both the near and far people, and then merge in photoshop (this technique is called focus stacking)
(d) Stop down
IMAGE LINK: http://galleries.clartephoto.com/img/s3/v43/p21588358.jpg
EXIF: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 85mm, f/1.2, 1/1600, ISO 100
IMAGE LINK: http://galleries.clartephoto.com/img/s3/v43/p389366229.jpg
EXIF: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 85mm, f/1.2, 1/200, ISO 200
IMAGE LINK: http://galleries.clartephoto.com/img/s1/v46/p518977498-4.jpg
EXIF: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 85mm, f/1.2, 1/2000, ISO 100